The Opposite of Envy

The Opposite of Envy

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pine.tree

There’s an old African saying: When the water hole shrinks, the animals start looking at each other funny.

As a metaphor it certainly describes my own profession of journalism. The water hole is shrinking fast. The animals are uneasy.

See, nobody wants to pay for stories anymore. Because everything’s free on the Internet. So newspapers and magazine are folding in droves. It’s desperate times for people who make their living from the written word.

I was at a party recently and a lot of my old writer pals were there, people I hadn’t seen in many years. There was a lot of commiserating about how things have changed, and how a lot of us are hanging on by our fingernails. But not all of us. A couple of us have scored. One signed a million-dollar deal for his first novel, the other has become a sought-after keynote speaker after his book nonfiction plucked the strings of the zeitgeist; he couldn’t be here tonight because he was in Florida at a lucrative gig. These two gentlemen weren’t here at the water hole because they’re not thirsty anymore. They’re set for life.

So, as these two success stories made the rounds, an emotion sort of crept up on everybody. No one needed to name it but everybody felt it. It was complicated, because these are very good guys – talented, hard-working, standup humans; nobody would say they hadn’t earned their good fortune. But still, the fact was, they had made it and the rest of us were still struggling. And the emotion we all felt was … envy.

Envy is toxic. It’s toxic but it’s understandable. Our culture offgasses it.

We say we want other people to succeed, but do we really mean it? Because when they do, it makes us feel crappy about ourselves. The lovable loser in our life stops being so lovable when he succeeds. Now we’re the loser, right? Somebody has to be. He just handed us that script.

But I’m here to tell you, there is an antidote to envy. And this antidote has a name:

Mudita.

It’s a Sanskrit word that has no direct English translation. People sometimes define it by what it isn’t. Mudita is the opposite of envy.

If envy means, “When you win, I lose,” and schadenfreude means, When you lose, I win,”

mudita means, “When you win, I win.”

Buddhists sometimes define mudita as “sympathetic joy.” It’s one of the highest emotional states anyone can aspire to. It says: We’re all in this together. When you rise, I rise. Your happiness is my happiness.

Anyone who’s a parent has experienced mudita. The small triumphs of your children spark sympathetic joy inside your own heart. (Although it’s also not unheard of for parents to be jealous of their own kids.)

But a Buddhist might say, that’s kindergarten class. It’s easy to feel mudita for your own flesh and blood. The real test is, can you cultivate mudita for everybody else? Can you enlarge the circle of mudita until not a single living person is omitted? That’s the endgame for a truly enlightened human.

I’ve never met anybody like that; surely she exists somewhere. The question is, is this a skill that the rest of us, in our warty imperfection, can get a little better at? I believe so. Here’s a very practical way I just learned about. A simple exercise. It works like this:

Start by thinking of some thing that is really flourishing. Not some person, some thing. Say, a bush in your yard that’s in flower. Or the healthy pine tree next to it. You can’t be envious of a pine tree — it’s just … a pine tree. But it makes us feel good, right? The pine tree in my yard is alive, all’s right with the world. So feel that feeling, sympathetic joy for the pine tree.

Now, very gently, take that feeling and transfer it on to a friend. Someone you like but don’t love. Except now you kind of do love them, because you’ve ginned up a little mudita. Their win is your win. Their success if your joy.

Here comes the bigger leap. The Ropes Course. Take that mudita and, very carefully, transfer it to someone you don’t like very much at all.

This could take awhile. To feel mudita for, say, Donald Trump might be a life’s work.

But one way to approach the task — and this was suggested recently by the great Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg — is to think about this person not in terms of their recent success but rather their ongoing vulnerability. They are fragile and fighting a great battle, just as you are. Their days are numbered, just as yours are.

There you go. Feel it. In their world, and in your world now, the stump of misery just put out a radiant sprig.

And that is cause for celebration.

 

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YooHoo — anybody out there?

YooHoo — anybody out there?

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derek.sivers

There’s a famous American clown named Moshe Cohen, who goes by the stage name Mr. YooHoo. In his heyday he travelled widely, plying his shtick before children and adults alike. One time Mr. YooHoo was performing before a big crowd in Chiapas, Mexico. The show seemed to be going well. At the end of it, he announced. “And now for my last trick, I’m going to make you all disappear.” And with that, he took off his glasses.

The gag had always got a laugh. But not this time. Crickets. What was going on?

Mr. YooHoo put his glasses back on and looked out at the audience. And then he understood. No one was wearing glasses. Not a single person. They were too poor to wear glasses. So they didn’t get the joke.

The acting teacher Bernie Glassman tells that story in his book The Dude and the Zen Master (Glassman had himself been a clown, and Mr. YooHoo was his mentor), and when I read it I thought: teachable moment. The lesson is, I guess, know your audience. Make sure you’re not working blue for a Christian crowd, not leaning on pop-culture references for a group of seniors, and so on.

But it occurs to me there’s a deeper way to think about the moral of this story – not as “market research,” but as an exercise in empathy. Think of the people sitting out there. Better yet, actually go out there and sit where they’re sitting. Who are they? What private battles are they fighting? Answering that will help you answer this: What can you give them?

*

I recently exchanged emails with Derek Sivers, an entrepreneur and writer who now earns his beans on the speaking circuit. He often tells the story of how he overcame his stage fright with one simple intervention.

Derek had worked for a dozen years as a circus emcee (that’s him in the picture). In the beginning, he’d wanted to put his own stamp on the role. He tried to be all hip and ironic and Letterman-esque. It never quite clicked. He amused himself, but he never really connected with the audience. This wasn’t the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow — this was a traditional circus in the Midwest.

So one day he tried something different. He decided to be the very thing he was hired to be, a circus barker — nothing less and a little bit more. He played that role and dialed it up. People loved it.

When he returned backstage the owner of the circus took him by the shoulders. “There you go!” she said. “You’ve figured it out. That’s why people go to the circus. You gave them what they wanted.”

And that’s when it clicked for Derek. He thought, ‘It’s not about me.’ What the audience wants is to receive something of value that they can take away and maybe share with their family over dinner tonight. They want their pain salved, just for a few moments, with a pleasant distraction. Memo to self, Derek thought: Just give them what they were hoping to get when they showed up here today. But to do that means at least trying to grok, at a fairly deep level, who these people are.

That’s the step that Mr. YooHoo missed. For all his experience, he failed to understand that he couldn’t just deploy a joke that worked somewhere else and have it work here, in front of these people whose needs and whose circumstances he hadn’t really considered.

Derek’s stage fright vanished the moment he realized what his actual job was: “My role is to just be kind of invisible and deliver, like a great butler.”

Mr. YooHoo had it backwards. The trick isn’t to make your audience disappear. It’s to make yourself disappear.

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The man who changed the way people talk

The man who changed the way people talk

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lincoln

Americans knew they were in for a hell of a speech that November day in 1863.

The place: a cemetery in Virginia. The occasion: twenty-five thousand soldiers, killed in a single day in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, buried right there beneath the ground where the podium had been set up. So horrible was the event that people had no words to make sense of it. They needed a great speaker to give them those words.

And up stepped Edward Everett, a popular statesman, to ease their pain, to deliver the speech of his life. He’d prepared mightily and memorized the whole thing. He spoke for two hours.

What did he say? Nobody remembers. Because the guy who came up after him on that day stole the show.

The guy who came up after him spoke for two minutes. He did in two minutes what Edward Everett couldn’t do in two hours: he captured that historic moment and put it under glass forever. The second guy’s speech didn’t blow the first guy’s speech away in spite of its brevity. It blew the first guy’s speech away because of its brevity.

The second guy was Abraham Lincoln. And his two-minute speech was the Gettysburg Address.

**

Historians have made a lot of this juxtaposition of speakers, the crazy vaudeville act of these two gentlemen who couldn’t have been more different. Their speeches, too, couldn’t have been more different.

Unlike Edward Everett, Lincoln didn’t drop a lot of allusions to the ancient Greeks. He didn’t broadcast his knowledge of every detail of the battle. He didn’t name-drop every historic figure from Adam who might have had a hand in bringing the United States to that moment in time.

He just … exhaled. Two hundred seventy words. Everett’s first sentence was fifty-three words.

Historians credit Lincoln, in that speech, with summing up not just the meaning of the war but the meaning of the country. But he did more than that. He changed the way people talk. (1)

Lincoln used simple language (short words with Anglo-Saxon and Norman roots), and in so doing, he gave people who have deliver a speech even today permission to speak … like themselves.

Since that day in Gettysburg, the way we communicate has increasingly been about hacking away the ornament that Edward Everett trowelled on so liberally. Getting rid of pretention. Finding the cleanest line between your heart and the heart you’re trying to reach.

We gas on because we think we have to. The bigger the occasion, the more we think we need to say.

But speaking isn’t about telling people all you know. It’s about telling people all they need to know. And these days, most folks don’t need to know much — at least not from you or me. They can’t manage a big stemwinder. They’re busy. They don’t have the attention. They don’t have the RAM. They can handle one big idea, a little sketch portrait done while they wait. That’s it.

To me that’s the genius of the five-to-seven minute speech format of Toastmasters — a club I think everyone who has to talk in public could benefit from. At Toastmasters, the clock starts the moment you open your mouth. A traffic-light gizmo sitting on the table lights up green, then orange, then red as you approach your time limit.

At five minutes, you’d better be putting the landing gear down. At six minutes you’re preparing your close. Beyond seven minutes you’ve gone on too long, and even a polite club will “clap you down.”

Even if you fancy yourself an aspiring keynote speaker – Hey, I need to learn how to give a long speech without notes, just as Edward Everett did — the real skill is in shaving your message to its nut. A fifty-minute keynote speech is really just a bunch of five-to-seven minutes speeches strung together.

Edward Everett would have been clapped down at Gettysburg before he’d even finished clearing his throat.

 

1) Ted Widmer, “The Other Gettysburg Address,” New York Times, Nov. 19, 2013

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Short-sighted

Short-sighted

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blurred.visionThe other day I was on a stationary bike at the gym — part of the noontime spin crowd, all of us sweating it out. The guy next to me was really bearing down. He inspired me to give the tension knob another half-turn. By the end I was knackered.

I got off the bike, patted down with a towel, put on my glasses and took a few steps.

Whoa. This did not feel right.

The room was pitching and heaving. I had trouble getting my bearings. I thought: something’s seriously wrong. A stroke? If you can put your arms overhead — all I could remember from the checklist of red flags — you can rule out a stroke, and I could put my arms overhead. My perception was wonky, so maybe a brain injury. Possibly a tumour on the visual cortex. If that’s what it was, it occurred to me, then at my age the prognosis is not that good.

Then I realized:

I had put on the glasses of the guy on the next bike.

We got it straightened out before he put on mine. (Although it would have been interesting to see if he lapsed into the same desperate Woody Allen routine.)

Two takeaways from this:

Number one: Don’t reach for a complicated explanation when there might be a simpler one.

Number two: Don’t catastrophize. It only creates anxiety and there’s absolutely no upside, because if turns out you’re wrong, you’ve been tormenting yourself needlessly, and if it turns out you’re right, you’ve been extending the suffering unnecessarily.

Feels good to be back from the brink. Near-sighted, absent-minded, but still among the quick.

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That reminds me of a story…

That reminds me of a story…

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storytelling

After my dad died, and we were sorting through his things, I found in his office a small filing cabinet. It was jammed full of index cards. And on each index card was a story — or at least an anecdote or an extended joke. He must have been collecting them for many years. Some were good, some corny, and some seemed designed to be deployed in very specific circumstances.

Dad, apparently, was developing an arsenal of stories for all occasions. He wanted, ideally, to be able to answer a question, any question, with a story. This strikes me now as pure parenting genius. It’s a surefire way to dispense wisdom lightly. You can impart a lesson without being preachy, be directive without inviting pushback. Because, hey, you’re just telling a story.

The funny thing is, I don’t remember my dad being particularly good at this skill of dialing up a story on demand. He was a surpassingly great guy, but not exactly a spellbinding raconteur. I think it was something he aspired to get good at after he retired and had more time to commit to the effort. Turned out he didn’t live long enough to see the plan through.

But I applaud the idea. I think he was absolutely on to something.  The best answer to any question is a story.

Now, some people are super-adept at this.

The business titans Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger — the Berkshire Hathaway founders and two of the greatest investors who ever lived — are textbook. Buffett was approached by a reporter after the financial meltdown of 2008. “So many people suffered terrible losses, Mr. Buffett, but not you two gentlemen so much. Do you care to comment?”

Buffett replied: “Well, you never know who’s swimming naked till the tide goes out.”

(Okay, that’s not really a story, just an aphorism; but I bet you don’t forget it anytime soon.)

For elected officials, it’s an indispensable skill. Because if your story is entertaining enough, you make everything forget that you didn’t really answer the question. (Abraham Lincoln was the master at this—at least if the movie version of his life is to be believed.)

Who else? Religious leaders. Rabbis, especially. Because answering questions with stories is part of the Jewish oral tradition.

It was a rabbi who, for me, pulled the curtain away on how this is done. So the story goes, there was once a wise old rabbi who seemed to have no end of stories that were right on point. One day a student said:

“Rabbi, I have noticed that you always answer a question with a story. How do you know so many stories? And how do you choose the stories to tell that are so perfect for the subject?”

“Your question,” the rabbi said, “reminds me of a story….

Once, long ago, a nobleman sent his son to the military academy in a nearby village to learn to shoot. Five years later, as the young man was returning home, he passed an old barn with chalk circles drawn all over its side. In the centre of every circle was a bullet hole.

He got off his horse. ‘Who is this marksman who can shoot a hundred perfect bullseyes?’ he said. ‘I must meet him!’

A young boy heard the question. ‘Oh, yes, I know that man,” the boy said. ‘He’s the town fool.’ The boy elaborated. ‘See, you think he shoots bullets in circles. But actually, he shoots first, then he draws the circle.’

“And that’s the way it is for me, the rabbi told his student. “I don’t just happen to have these perfect stories that fit the subject we’re discussing. Instead, when I find a story I  like, I steer the conversation that way so I can then introduce the story.”

That’s pretty canny. I might just give this a shot.

I think my Dad would approve.

 

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Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger

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Not long ago I had lunch with my old pal James. It had been awhile.

“So whatcha been up to?” he said.

“Let’s see,” I replied. “Read a couple of books I enjoyed. Got some good runs in. Made a spaghetti sauce I was pleased with. You?”

“Well, this and that. Oh yeah: I climbed El Cap.”

That would be El Capitan.

For those of you who aren’t climbers, let me put this in perspective. El Capitan is a vertical wall of rock. It is 3,000 feet high.

When you think about climbing El Cap,  imagine it as a sequence of steps. You put on a climbing harness. You walk up to the bottom of the thing. You step up onto the rock face. And then, sometime later, you hoist yourself over the top. By sometime, I mean days later.

In James’s case, it was three days. Eighty hours on the cliff face.

I hit him, I’m afraid, with the usual questions:

How do you go to the bathroom? (answer: adult diapers.)

How do you sleep? (answer: you either carry a portable hammock with you that you drive into the rock, or you look for a little ledge, sometimes as small in area as a casket or a toboggan. That’s what James did.

I asked him how hard it was.

He was silent for a moment. “I had prepared myself that it was going to be really, really hard,” he said. “And it was harder. Not so much physically – I’d trained for it. But psychologically. Just spending whole days with nothing underneath you. You wouldn’t think that would be so hard, but it totally gets to you. You feel undermined. I don’t know how you’d train for that except maybe being dangled below an airplane for ten or twelve hours.”

There were many times when he didn’t think he and his climbing partner would make it, he said. They hung in there. They made it.

But that wasn’t even the inspirational part.

They had aimed to finish the morning of the third day, but the climb took longer than expected and they didn’t finish till dusk. The car was parked pretty far away. There was a path. They decided to go for it. Turned out the path didn’t go to the car but snaked over into the next valley. Soon it was dark, and they were lost.

That’s when one turned to the other and said:

“Look at where we are right now. If you just dropped us into these circumstances – lost in the wilderness in a foreign country in the middle of the night, hungry and exhausted, we’d be terrified. But because of what we just accomplished, this is nothing. This is not stressful. The sun’ll be up soon and we’ll get our bearings and we’ll be fine.”

If ever there were a case for making a habit of nosing out of your comfort zone, this is it. The more you do, the more you can do. Whenever you do the more difficult thing instead of the easy thing, you’re making tomorrow more interesting. Make a habit of this and you’re liable to become dangerously impressive, like James.

He and I said goodbye to each other.

And then I went home to make a really dangerous spaghetti sauce

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Why everyone needs an Old friend

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Show of hands: who has an old friend?

 

I don’t just mean a friend from middle-school whom you’re still in touch with. I mean an old friend – a friend who’s thirty, forty, fifty years older than you. And who’s not a blood relative.

 

Not many. And that’s a shame. Because the old have something incredibly rare, and perishable, and irreplaceable to offer: actual, firsthand knowledge of the world.

 

There’s a gripping memoir I read recently by a gentleman named Harry Bernstein. It’s his first book. He published it at age 96.

 

But here’s what’s kind of amazing. When the book became a hit, a New York Times reporter asked Bernstein how it came about. This is what he replied:

 

“If I had not lived until I was ninety, I would not have been able to write this book. It could not have been done even ten years earlier. I wasn’t ready.”

And then he leaned forward and said:

“God knows what potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive till well into their Nineties.”

 

Now that’s a radical idea. That old people could still have potential. That they’re still, in some sense, ripening. Life experience works like compound interest, delivering a rich back-end payoff in wisdom and insight. That ought to make really old people the most sought-after dinner companions in the world.

 

But it doesn’t. Maybe in Japan in does, but not here.

 

Here’s what most people under 25 think about most people over 75: nothing. They have no idea what old people have to offer because they don’t know any old people. Outside grandparents and uncles and aunts – who you have to visit at Christmastime – theirs is a seniors-free world. Old folks aren’t much walking the streets; they aren’t represented in the mass media. They’re ghosts. We warehouse them, out of sight, out of mind.

 

That’s a really worrisome development on a lot of levels. Not just because all that firsthand knowledge is dying on the vine.

 

What old people do for us, one of the many things, is they remind us of where we’re headed. Without old people in our lives, there can so easily be a disconnect between our present selves and our future selves. And that affects the way we live, the choices we make. It creates the conditions for ruinously short-term thinking.

 

Some ingenious studies have revealed how this works. Turns out that if we’re shown photos of ourselves digitally aged, it’s a jolting wake-up call. We change our behavior. We save more for retirement, we eat a healthier diet, we behave less recklessly. The same thing happens if we’re asked to sit down and write a letter to our “future self.” Our mortality snaps into focus. It is a Jacob Marley moment. We go, holy crap, that’s going to be me.

 

If you visit the Aging Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and you put on the leg braces, and the big cumbersome gloves, and the vision-impairing goggles that simulate glaucoma, you get a hint of what frailty feels like. And it changes you. Now the wall between you and the old guy in line at the grocery store crumbles. You see him differently. That is, you see him. His trembling hand putting a can of beans down on the counter. He looks old to you, but the picture he has of himself, from the inside, is quite different. He’s probably astonished to look in the mirror and see that wrinkled face looking back. He’s thinking: how did this happen? Old age came for him like a thief in the night, and it’s coming for us, too.

 

Now, I was lucky enough to have a staggeringly great old friend. When we met, Olga Kotelko was enjoying this fantastic, unlikely career as a master’s track-and-field star. She was like Harry Bernstein; she was cashing in the potentials lurking inside of her because something had kept her alive into her Nineties. I didn’t have to write a letter to my future self, because I had Olga. She was what the high road looks like.

 

But one of the differences between us, I noticed, is that she burned hotter. By which I mean, she knew she had less time. And so she lived differently. She was gorging on life. She knew what things are important and what aren’t, and so she didn’t squander even a minute on stuff that’s merely urgent, or worse, trivial. She used the whole day, and dropped off to sleep every night with gratitude. Olga suffered way more sadness and hardship than I have, which sharpened her appreciation for what was right in front of her. She was alive to a degree that put me to shame.

 

I started out writing a science book about her –what physiologists are learning from her crazy, age-defying ways. It ended up being about what I have learned from her.

 

May you all have an Olga in your life.

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Hollywood called. They want to turn your book into a movie.

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Imagining the movie that Hollywood’s going to make of your book feels a bit karmically dangerous – a “counting your chickens before they’ve hatched” dodge for the modern creative class.

But what the hell. Every writer does it. It’s fun to dream. It’s especially fun to imagine yourself as the casting director, armed with an unlimited budget and access to all the world’s acting talent. Who would play your protagonist? Your villain?

Marshal Zeringue terrific blog My Book, The Movie scratches just this itch. Marshal, an American screenwriter and champion of literary efforts high and low, asks writers to “dreamcast” their book.

You’d think writers would be the best people to consult on this – they cooked up the characters, after all. But for some reason their opinions are not warmly received – or even solicited – by film producers. Elmore Leonard, whose novels are so dialogue-driven and cinematic they routinely make their way to the screen, doesn’t even bother offering candidates anymore. The first few times, “They would ask me what actors I saw in the roles,” Leonard says, in Marshal’s blog. “I would tell them and they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’”

It’s a bit of a Walter Mitty exercise, imagining you’d ever have the power to shape a big-budget movie. It’s pleasing to be asked questions that make you feel important. ‘In the movie of your life, who would play you?’ ‘What novel would you assign to the Prime Minister to read?’ Who would you invited to your literary dream dinner party?’ When you dreamcast, no one ever says no to your entreaties, even dead folks. “You might speculate what, say, Cary Grant or Grace Kelly would have done with the role,” says Marshal.

Most of the posts on his site are for works of fiction, but there are some great non-fiction ones, too.

My own stab at dreamcasting What Makes Olga Run? can be found here.

 

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Squaring the Curve

Squaring the Curve

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Folk_dancesAs many of you now know, Olga died suddenly in the early morning of June 24. She got up to use the bathroom and a blood vessel feeding her brain burst. Doctors say she likely went unconscious in about a second – like the flip of a light switch.

I’ve spent a lot of time since then thinking about what it means that she died. “I thought she was going to live forever!” people said, only half-joking. A couple of weeks before her death she taped a segment for the Dr. Oz show. The episode was called, “How to Live to 100.” It aired a few days after she died. “I guess it was too late to pull her spot,” a friend said.

Too late to pull her spot. As if her death had shattered the magic, and sort of undermined the example of her life.

I don’t see it that way. On the contrary.

I think Olga dying when she did, the way she did, reframes the conversation around her. Her story’s no longer just about longevity, but also quality of life.

In a lot of ways, crazy as it sounds, she was peaking. She’d just smashed the world records in eight events at the world outdoor championships in Budapest. She came home to be love-bombed by her friends, and congratulated on the new memoir she’d just published. Then for good measure she set seven new outdoor world records. Then she tackled the garden.

If you think of life as a poker game – and figure that the currency isn’t money, it’s health and energy and purpose — then by those terms, over 90 years Olga amassed just about the biggest pile of chips anybody ever has. And then she walked away from the table. On this incredible winning streak she bowed out.

Now it could be she’d have kept on winning, in this poker game, for months or years or a decade or more. But the odds are against it. Beyond a certain point there are trade-offs in length of life vs. quality of life – for everybody. So for Olga, was that tipping point a year away? A day away? All I know is, she thought of her life as a miracle. It was beyond her wildest imagining.

Gerontologists have a term: “squaring the curve.” It just means, if you think of your physical and mental health plotted as a line on a graph, what you want is for that line not to be one slow long decline. You want it to stay high for as long as possible, until it plunges sharply at the very end of your life, as illness or something else takes you out quickly.

Olga squared the curve with a ruler. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect example. You blaze for 95 years and then die instantaneously with no pain and no regrets no burden on anybody else. I think this is what we all aspire to – to live right up to that tipping-point moment. Whether it comes at age 75 or 85 or 95. I think that’s a way better goal than living as long as humanly possible. We make a fetish out of this quest for super-longevity; we try to concoct ways to “solve” aging, as if it’s a disease. But squaring the curve: that’s what we should be thinking about.

In some ways our whole culture and economy depends on us embracing that idea – that it’s the “life in your years,” as Olga liked to say, rather than the “years in your life.” Because otherwise the so-called grey tsunami is going to be real, and it’s going to swamp us. Most people cost the health-care system as much in the last six weeks of their life as they do in the entire rest of their life. It’s the decline into decrepitude that does us in. Gotta square the curve. Live well and live long enough and then kick the bucket – boom.

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Olgas Among Us – Part 3: Sven the Frontiersman

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A guest post by SID TAFLER

 

There are two important things to know about meeting Sven Johansson.

The first is, don’t shake his hand. At 90, he still has an iron grip, so my advice is, avoid the pain and offer a fist pump.

The second is, if you ask him how he’s doing, he’ll invariably say in his high-pitched Swedish lilt, “Never had a bad day yet.”

With the glint in his ice-blue eyes and an impish smile, you have to take him at his word, even though he’s known many dark days living in a tent with ice-cracking temperatures in Canada’s far north. And more recently, many days trying to break through the barriers facing a struggling new arts company.

His denial of the downside of life is long-living proof that healthy longevity is as much about attitude as it is about genes and lifestyle.

“If you want to preserve meat you put it in the freezer,” he chuckles. “I lived in the Arctic in 40 below, 50, 60 to 72 below for 25 years–frozen solid. So the meat never went bad.”

Sven is a solidly built, compact man who immigrated to Canada in 1962 and spent much of his life herding reindeer (he won an Order of Canada in 1994 for reviving Canada’s herd) and sailing his ship the North Star in the Beaufort Sea for the Geological Survey of Canada. Then in his 60s, he developed a new form of aerial dance, moved to Victoria and established the Discovery Dance Society, reigniting his life-long interest in the arts.

With proper lighting, Sven’s dancers appear to fly in the air, suspended on a boom, with the performer at one end above the stage and an operator on the floor at the other, the two working as a team to defy gravity and delight the audience.

Sven calls his technique ES (for Excedere Saltatio, or exceeding the limits). He says it releases dancers from the limits of their own bodies as well as the force of gravity and encourages new forms of choreography and performance.

Even disabled people confined to wheelchairs have experienced the thrill of dancing in air, strapped into his crane-like device which he calls a dance instrument.

Sven has presented more than 20 of his own dance productions, including one at the closing ceremonies for the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria. His work has been featured in six films and is showcased at the summer Shakespeare by the Sea festival in Victoria and at performances in Winnipeg, Vancouver and other centres.

In his tenth decade, he says his ever-active mind is as sharp and agile as it was in his 20s. His hearing has weakened, but he still lives on his own and walks without a cane with occasional rest stops.

In his book-lined bachelor apartment in downtown Victoria, he works on upcoming dance performances and his ever-expanding autobiography. He has no plans to retire for another ten years, but knowing Sven, he’ll probably find the motivation to keep going into his 100s.

There’s a lot to accomplish. Despite some successes and awards, ES Dance hasn’t achieved the recognition he believes it deserves, perennially rejected for funding by the Canada Council and the BC Arts Council and given short shrift by the local news media and “the very archaic dance community.”

He’s not the first outlier to be slighted in his own lifetime. He mentions Emily Carr, considered in her day as “just a funny old lady with a monkey in a baby carriage–not the great Canadian artist she in fact was.”

Looking ahead, Sven is searching for a young person “talented in all the arts” to lead Discovery Dance to new heights in the next 30 years.

“It often takes two generations for innovative artists to be recognized. By 2044, the second generation of ES Dancers may do it.”

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Can you judge a book by Page 99?

Can you judge a book by Page 99?

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The 19th century novelist Ford Madox Ford, beloved of literary types for his perfect gem of a novel The Good Soldier, has lately seen his name appear more widely, attached to this quote:

 

“Open a book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”

 

Ford never explained why he picked that particular page at the litmus, but his “Page 99 Test” is quickly becoming better known than Ford himself — thanks partly to an American playwright and screenwriter named Marshal Zeringue, who founded a blog devoted to the idea. Since starting it in 2007, Marshal has run more than a thousand of these mini-reviews, which together serve as both an informal test of Ford’s theory and welcome press for the authors of deserving books that are underexposed because they don’t, you know, involve vampires.

My own stab at the Page 99 Test can be found here.

The Page 99 Test is an idea for our age. Everybody’s falling-down-busy and desperate for cheats and life hacks that will let them do stuff and learn stuff in a fraction of the time, in the cracks and margins. The only thing that scares us more than vampires is wasting time. Having a sneaky way to assess in 90 seconds whether a book is worth the effort? Priceless.

Unless there’s some sort of Masonic significance to the double-9s, it’s probably an arbitrary number. But it makes sense to pick a page around there, in the early middle. For sure it’s better than judging a book by page 1. Every author spends inordinate time shining up those first few paragraphs to lure you in, and often as not there follows a dropoff in quality. (Because, hey, you’ve already bought the book!) By page 99, the scene is set, the characters are established, the narrative engine is starting to rev. The story is going somewhere — or not. Philip Larkin once famously claimed that British novels are generally made up of “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.” Most books are. Middles are hard; sustaining momentum is a feat of magic.

Something else page 99 has going for it? It’s a perfect place for the author to step back and reveal the whole landscape. Sometimes you will find the whole book in microcosm on page 99 or thereabouts. Sometimes there exactly. In Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, page 99 “takes place at exactly the moment Waverly has started winning chess championships and the community is rallying around her,” one critic found. In Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, page 99 is the moment the hero’s dual identity is revealed. I flipped to page 99 of Fifty Shades of Gray the other day while waiting in the grocery line. (I didn’t pull my own dog-eared copy from under the mattress, honest.) It was a bit shocking. That page so perfectly aces the Page 99 test that you almost suspect the author knew that browsers would be kicking the tires there, and so built the page to contain the nut of the story, plus a tantalizing hint of what’s to come. Even the writing wasn’t terrible. I almost jettisoned my avocados to buy the book. At the very least, it made me think of other uses for avocados.

Marshal runs his Page 99 Test blog out of a mothership called the Campaign for the American Reader, “an independent initiative to encourage more people to read more books.” Marshal himself is a bit of a man of mystery. He appears to be among those rare folk who are genuinely here to help. He has created this great vehicle for other writers to advertise themselves, but he is himself “internet-shy.” This of course makes you want to know more about him. He trained to be a political scientist (at Tulane and UVA) but stopped just short of getting his Ph.D. to pursue the creative-writing dodge. You can see the depth/breadth of his tastes in his book selection. There are a lot of smart and worthwhile titles here you’ve never heard of – just as you’ve never heard of Marshal.

“I suppose getting out front and pimping my blog would be good PR,” he said in an email, “but I feel like the work I do on the site already sucks up too much of my reading, writing & movie-viewing time, and have resisted (the relatively few) invitations to promote my sites.”

The other site of Marshal’s worth noting – and I won’t note it at length cause I plan to do another whole blog post on it – is called My Book, The Movie.

I think of Marshal as a kind of literary superhero, moving incognito among us. Maybe someone should write a book, or make a movie, about him.

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Olgas Among Us – Part 2

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While working on the Olga book, framing up Olga as a model of someone living the Exemplary Life, I sometimes wondered: why am I privileging physical health over mental health? Don’t get me wrong: she was sharp and funny and wise, a puzzler and a careful reader. But she wasn’t an intellectual. Hers was a life of the body much more than it was a life of the mind.

Surely there are some old souls out there whose lifelong devotion to intellectual pursuits rival Olga’s to devotion to staying fit and in motion; people who remain, even as they approach 100 years old, Olympians of the neocortex?

Look no farther than Eric Koch.

A longtime producer and executive at the CBC (Canada’s national broadcaster), Eric also taught social science at York University in Toronto. I learned this from his blog, called “Sketches,” which he began five years ago, at the age of 90.

If you want to read Eric’s archive of posts, prepare to set aside a week. There are close to fifteen hundred of them. (Honestly, I lost count). A daily-newspaper columnist who managed that kind of output would be in a good position to ask for a pay raise. Together, Eric’s posts — or “feuilletons,” as he calls them — display the breadth of his interests, and the acuity of his mind. Some are links to provocative articles found elsewhere, and some are original musings. The canvas is wide: world affairs, history, economics, literature, Hitlerology, soccer, philosophy, politics, music, language, bees. He also has links to short videos he created and posted on YouTube, in which he sits musing in front of a webcam in his home – like John Green, but with less hair and more gravitas. If you read all of his entries and watched all of those films, you’d get a good picture of Eric, and fine snapshot of Canada, and a decent liberal-arts education. This is all the product of a ferocious curiosity indulged with the time and will to roam, for decade upon decade.

The legendary New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell, a fabulous prose stylist still at 93, told a reporter recently that he churns out personal blog entries partly to keep his mind sharp. There’s good evidence that a habit of writing — letters, blogs, diary entries, novels, whatever —is a bulwark against dementia. I’d assumed that writing was actually a better bulwark against dementia than even reading, because writing is for most people a more active process than reading. But there’s no good data to support that. Writing’s good, reading’s good, learning other languages is good, doing puzzles is good.

A new study out of the Mayo Clinic, however, seems to speak directly to the earned cognitive horsepower of people like Eric Koch. As Pacific Standard Magazine summarized the findings: “The best medicine, for brain health, is living a life of the mind.” (I would actually quibble with the word “best,” here, since we now know that nothing, but nothing, promotes overall brain health like vigorous exercise.)

“Lifetime intellectual enrichment might delay the onset of cognitive impairment,” notes the scientist who led the research team. How much? Three to six years, on average. For people born with the APOE4 gene variant, which carries a high risk for dementia, the difference is even bigger. For such unlucky folks, a lifetime habit of ongoing intellectual enrichment delayed cognitive impairment “by more than eight and one-half years, on average.” So there it is. “Lifelong learning,” so often touted as a better alternative than sinking into the barcalounger with a beer for your post-retirement decades, emerges as a prescription for the impending dementia epidemic. You can almost see the wheels turning in the mind of policy-makers. Make university courses free for seniors. Subsidize travel for them. Forgive their library fines.

Here’s the funny part. Eric tells me he doesn’t write his blog to “stay sharp.” (Also: “I leave solving puzzles to my wife.”) “I do it because I want to be loved,” he says. “And to prevent boredom. And to cheer me up.”

The blog entries, he says, are a good “counterbalance” to his real work: writing books. He has authored thirteen books of fiction and five of nonfiction. “The blog posts are quick and easy, which books are not.”

This week, instead of banging out an original piece, Eric linked to an article, from Slate magazine, about the hemlock plant and the poisoning of Socrates. He has bigger fish to fry.

“I am working on a murder mystery and have to find out who did it.”

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Using Your Whole Life

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I’ve been enjoying Harry Bernstein’s memoir, the Invisible Wall, which crackles with details of life, and religious prejudices, in the hardscrabble mill town of his youth in Northern England. In a weird way, almost more impressive to me than the book itself are the circumstances of its existence.

Bernstein finished it when he was 93. He published it when he was 96.

“If I had not lived until I was ninety, I would not have been able to write this book,” the author told a New York Times reporter after the book hit the bestseller lists. It could not have been done even ten years earlier. I wasn’t ready.” And then he added this kicker: “God knows what potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive till well into their Nineties.”

Now that is a radical idea in this culture: that really old people still have untapped potential. That not only are they not sitting around decaying, they’re still ripening. It’s not a radical an idea to me, though. Because my pal Olga Kotelko has convinced me it’s true.

Olga turned 95 in March. Like Bernstein, she had a rich and tricky upbringing, from weathering the Depression on a Saskatchewan farm to raising two daughters as a single mom to teaching elementary school for three decades in British Columbia. But it was only post-“retirement” that Olga’s life really got cooking. At age 77 she took up track and field. Competing in 11 events, she re-wrote the “masters track” record books. This spring she graduated to a new category – women aged 95 to 99  — and promptly bagged nine new world records at the world indoor championships in Budapest, bringing her total up over 40. She’s currently experimenting with a new high-jump technique.

People like Harry Bernstein and Olga Kotelko serve a valuable function in the lives of the rest of us. They show us what using a whole life looks like. Their stories exist as a kind of counterpoint to the dire warnings of demographers of how the population is aging at an accelerated rate, which means (we’re told) that a train wreck awaits in our lifetimes.

Last month the US Census Bureau announced that by 2050 fully one-fifth of Americans will be 65 or older. That’s double the proportion of seniors in 1970, when the baby boomers were still young and massing under cover in the TV rooms of suburban households, their eventual needs — their burden — still beyond imagining. Longevity is up; birth rates are down. Those two conditions are quickening the pace of the greying of America. (And hey: if you think these numbers are scary, just be glad you’re not Japanese. By only 2030 the proportion of their population aged 65 and older will be one third.)

The oldsters are going into the liability column. We have a hard time thinking of them as individuals, obsessing instead about the collective dent they’re going to make. When we can puncture the denial and imagine becoming old ourselves, it’s very often fear that floods in — fear and a kind of advance mourning. We are saying goodbye to our life well before it’s actually over. Because those are what the statistics suggest too. We’ll likely become fragile and unsteady, as sarcopenia robs us of muscle mass and osteoporosis makes us vulnerable to shattering if we slip up even once. It’s a coin toss whether we’ll lose our marbles.

But that’s the story the average numbers tell. As individuals, there are things we can do – lifestyle changes involving diet and exercise and risk exposure even cognitive strategies (the stories we tell about ourselves influence what we think and do) – that tip the odds in our favor.

We may never pull off a Third Act as brilliant as Harry’s, or Olga’s. They likely have some genetic protection that we don’t yet fully understand — not to mention the rare ferocious desire to realize those potentials lurking within. But for sure we can be more Harry-like, more Olga-like, if the will is there in us. We can “square the curve” of our decline, as the gerontologists say, so that our final years are productive in whatever way we choose to make them so. Thus do old people become assets and not liabilities – which was their customary place of course, most everywhere but in the contemporary West.

I’m almost embarrassed now about how gloomy I was about aging before I met Olga — before she and I began researching a science book on why she is the way she is — five years ago. I felt acutely what the Germans call torschlusspanik – a fear of gates closing, horizons narrowing to a pinpoint. Clearly my best thoughts, feelings and 10k times were so far behind me even the memories of them were hazy. Soon my options would be limited to whatever the care facility was offering that day. I was not yet fifty.

You can choose that outcome, Olga said — but just be honest that it’s a choice.

And then she laughed. It’s fun to be Olga, right now.

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Meet the “Warrior Mensch”

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No more than twenty minutes after we first met, I was struck by the Second Mystery of Olga.

The First Mystery of Olga was, Why is she aging more slowly than other people?

The Second Mystery of Olga concerned her temperament. I simply could not reconcile this sweet, grandmotherly woman who was inviting me in and offering me tea with the athlete so ferociously competitive on the track that she gets tunnel vision before meets? How can those two people live in the same body?

Certain personality traits incline us to certain lines of work, and certain levels of success within those lines of work. Turns out, there is a ‘performance personality’ and a ‘longevity personality’ and perhaps also a ‘happiness personality’. And at the junction of all three axes sits Olga.  Think of that zone as the place where Performance and Staying Power and Life Satisfaction meet. It’s a rare place to live, but Olga’s not quite alone there. Mariano Rivera is there beside her.

Rivera is the New York Yankees pitcher, the best closer in baseball history, who retired recently at age 43. Rivera is obviously nowhere near Olga’s age bracket, but 43 is paleolithically old for an active professional baseball pitcher, especially one who relied on heat instead of canny knuckleball movement. Rivera not only played into his mid-forties, he dominated. Not long ago, New York Times books columnist Michiko Kakutani was inspired to weigh in on Rivera. She memorably summed up his personality in three words:

“Gentleman, Warrior, Mensch.”

Rivera was every bit as universally loved, off the mound, as he was feared by batters while on it. He was thoughtful and gracious and well-spoken and did heroic work in the community. Some other force seemed to be giving him energy, extending his warranty, stretching his years of high performance and giving him the ability to turn his ferociousness off and on like a light switch.

For Rivera – and for Olga too — that force, I believe, is faith.

Many elite older athletes profess deep faith—the subject came up again and again in my discussions with masters tracksters. Now, this is partly a generational story: most older North Americans were raised in a faith, which means if you’re without belief at Olga’s age you probably had to actively give it up at some point. But there are other ways in which the overlap between belief and high-level sports might not be coincidental.

Athletes get better by pushing themselves to their “ultimate limits.” They emerge stronger than they would have been without that test, just as the repentant sinner is often said to be “closer to God” than the righteous soul who always stared straight ahead, and so never glimpsed the temptation that was shadowing him in his blind spot. Adaptation is a physiological fact, but it’s also a spiritual notion.

Whatever your position on faith, there’s no denying it gets results. The faithful are on to something, in that they live longer and apparently happier lives, moment to moment. There’s evidence that they use their time better and are better long-term planners.

Athletes running with the tailwind of faith have an almost unfair advantage, it seems to me: spiritual doping. “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure, said Chariots of Fire’s Eric Liddell, in one of Olga’s favorite lines from the movies. When you believe you’re running for a higher purpose like that, there’s almost a duty to marshall all the competitiveness that is in you.

This explains the ferociousness of the Warrior Mensch — the Warrior part. The “Mensch” part comes from the obligation to help other people similarly tap everything that is in them, not just on the track but in their lives. You don’t have to be religious to have a high degree of menschness – but you do have to have lots of humility, and a healthy appreciation that it’s not all about you.

 

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Olgas Among Us — Part 1

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I was having lunch with my friend Michele one day recently when the other shoe dropped. There are stealth Olgas among us, and I was looking at one.

Michele is from the Italian island of Sardinia. If you’re into longevity research, you’ll recognize Sardinia as one of the “Blue Zones” – those incubators of centenarians scattered here and there across the globe.

Actuarially speaking, the perfect profession might be a Sardinian shepherd. It ticks all of the longevity boxes. It’s rugged and serene and exhausting and joyful. You sweat buckets in the fresh air and sunshine, trudging up and down those mountainsides, but there’s about zero stress, and you come home to a healthful meal rich in life-extending nutrients (the tannens in the wine, the anti-inflammatories in the goat’s milk) and the loving embrace of your family. Many if not most Sardinian men enjoy the added benefit of a mutation on the Y-chromosome that offers protection from much chronic disease.

That’s the hothouse Michele grew up in. He is closer to ninety than eighty. He looks sixty. He has a lot in common with Olga. I don’t think I realized just how much until Michele started talking about the life of his body.

As a boy he rode his bicycle 60 or 70 kilometres a day — mostly because there wasn’t much else to do. The exercise became a form of meditation; over the gentle hills to the sea, he let his mind wander. Later, after moving to Canada, in the late-1950s, he found it frustrating to cycle in the city — too many starts and stops.

So he took up running. He ran long distances. Nobody ran long distances at that time. So Michele was ridiculed, which he didn’t mind and actually rather liked. He never timed himself or set goals: he just floated along, that dreamy Sardinian boy again. Then came the jogging craze. When he noticed other people out there in their sweats and their headbands, that’s when he stopped. He lost the heart for doing something that other people seemed to do because they thought it was good for them. “If there is a motive behind something,” he laughs, “I’m immediately suspicious.”

(It’s not that all rules and laws must be prima facie rejected – only the ones that don’t make sense. There’s actually quite a ferocious level of discipline involved in figuring out the difference. At every turn he asks himself, is his position “beneficial”? And he doesn’t mean physically beneficial, he means spiritually beneficial.)

With his aerobic base, and his habits, and his genes, Michele could easily be another Olga, racking up world records, submitting to muscle biopsies, peeing in a cup, and just generally serving as another data point in our quest to understand what it means to age well. But to be in that game you have to join it. And Michele is not a joiner. Which is actually one of the things I like best about him.

“I suppose I am an anarchist in my heart,” he allowed. “But at the same time I’m part of a community.” Michele had arrived late to lunch because he’s on the board at the local Italian cultural centre, and he had some last-minute business he needed to sew up there. “We do the things that are inborn in us to do to benefit someone — our community – not just ourselves.”

Michele had done yeomen translation work for What Makes Olga Run?, and at a certain point, in a café, over bean soup, I passed him an envelope with some small compensation in it. His expression changed. A heaviness came over him. “It has been my great pleasure to help you with this,” he said. “But now you have taken the poetry out of it.”

 

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A Positive Choice

A Positive Choice

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Olga’s often asked how big a part attitude plays in the story of her crazily youthful vigor. Her answer is always the same: it’s huge. HUGE. Staying relentlessly focused on the positive keeps any doubts or criticisms from pulling her down.

On one hand, her faith in positive thinking is unsurprising. Plenty of research – including Yale psychologist Becca Levy’s work on aging stereotypes —suggests that optimism correlates strongly with health and longevity.

But I have sometimes heard grumbling from skeptics that the Don’t Worry Be Happy rule for living is too pat, too simplistic, and too specifically tailored to the lucky and the blessed.

“I’d be optimistic too if I were in Olga’s shoes!” goes the refrain. It’s easy to look on the bright side when you have no real aches and pains or health issues, you’re not radioactively lonely, not depressed, not burdened by money woes. The luxury of optimism, by this way of thinking, falls to those who have led charmed lives.

But here’s the thing: Olga’s life has been anything but charmed. She grew up on the hardscrabble Saskatchewan prairie and her early years were full of struggle (she fled a terrifying marriage and raised two daughters as a single mom; one of those daughters she lost to cancer.) She earned a teaching degree at night school while working days. She spent a lot of time trudging into a headwind. Clearly, optimism isn’t some default position she arrived at because she realized, like Dr. Pangloss, that “everything is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.” Optimism, for Olga, is a choice.

She chooses it for a lot of reasons. Because it’s how her parents raised her. Because gratitude sits better with her strong faith than grumbling does. Because it’s more fun. And, maybe mostly, because it works. Optimism helps us take a wide perspective and feel connected to others (as the University of North Carolina psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has noted.) There’s plenty of evidence now that where our minds go, our bodies tend to follow. And since Olga intends to keep competing at a high level until age 100 or beyond, she figures she might as well run the software that will help, not hinder, her movement along that trajectory.

This week she’s in Budapest competing in the world outdoor championships in a new category: women 95-99. She has already bagged a new world record in the high jump and it would surprise no one if she walked away with eleven new entries in the record books. “Why not?” she says.

THIS BLOG POST ALSO APPEARS HERE:

http://www.ageismore.com/Ageismore/Blogs/2014/March/Optimistic-Like-Olga-.aspx

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The Best Habit of All: Self-Correction

The Best Habit of All: Self-Correction

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THE MARGINS of Olga’s Sudoku digests are studded with little notes to herself, in tiny perfect penmanship. “Careless errors!” she might have rebuked herself. Or “Getting better — or are they getting easier?” Very little that Olga does escapes her own immediate and systematic appraisal. In the private moments of her own life she is her own coach, doling out approval or gentle criticism and making immediate tweaks to the process. In her bowling league, “When I get a strike, I take note of where I was standing and how hard did I throw it,” she says, “and then try to duplicate those conditions.”

Call it the Olga recipe for perpetual improvement.

Turns out, Nature has an app for that. On chromosome 11 sits a gene called DRD2 that is linked to the brain’s “reward” circuitry, and partly governs how we learn. Some people have a variant of this gene called RS 1800497, and those people tend to be good at learning from their mistakes. They are highly motivated to turn wrong answers into right ones, faulty lines of thinking into sound ones, lousy habits into good ones. Such self-renovation makes these people happy.

Olga was born with this gene variant. (And I, for what it’s worth, wasn’t.)

So that’s pretty cool, but also a little dangerous – because it not only undersells the work ethic of those who have that polymorphism, but it gets the rest of us off the hook.

The truth is, we can all learn to learn from our mistakes. And we must if we hope to appreciably improve.
Maybe you’ve heard of this fellow from Portland named Dan McLaughlin who’s trying to become a pro golfer starting from absolute zero. Until recently – he’s now in his late twenties – he was a commercial photographer. He’d never picked up a club before April 2010. He’s starting slowly and methodically; he’s only been using a full set up clubs since January of 2012. McLaughlin hopes to enjoy a kind of accelerated development through super-efficient practice — -time feedback and immediate review and adjustment and repetition. He has calculated, based on Anders Ericsson’s rule-of-thumb that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to become an expert at something, that he should theoretically be good enough to enter Q school by October of 2016.

Not all practice is created equal. Elite swimmers practice better than merely good ones. Ditto elite backgammon and poker players.

It’s qualitative, not quantitative, practice that matters. “A qualitative change involves modifying what is actually being done, not simply doing more of it,” noted sociologist Dan Chambliss in an academic paper called “The Mundanity of Excellence.” Elite swimmers don’t necessarily practice more than merely good swimmers, Chambliss noted, but they sure do practice better.

If the golfer Dan McLaughlin is motivated to practice better because he’s getting a late start, that goes triple for Olga.

Thinking about all of this made me remember Bruce Pandolfini, whom I spoke to a few years ago while working on a cover story for Psychology Today about the virtues of failing. Pandolfini is a chess teacher. In the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, about a chess prodigy named Josh Waitskin, the kid’s master teacher, played by Ben Kingsley, is based on Pandolfini.

I dug out my transcript of my interview with Bruce. (If you want to really learn from people, tape the conversation and review it!) A revelation! There was in there all kinds of cool stuff I’d forgotten, just about all of it relevant to Olga and her self-correction strategy.

Losing is always more valuable than winning, Pandolfini told me – especially for younger players. Because it’s an opportunity for learning: a weakness was very specifically exposed, and now you can fix it. Whereas winning prompts all sorts of lazy habits. “Often students don’t realize how lucky they were to win. And because they won they didn’t think they had to change anything about their play. Then next time they played a superior opponent, and they played this same way, they’d get crushed.”

Great chess players are like two people in one — the person playing and the person analyzing the person playing. They develop the discipline of asking themselves a series of questions not just after every game but after every move. “Does this threaten me? How many possible ways can I deal with the threat? How well did my opponent deal with my previous move?” This forensic analysis happens at a higher speed than Olga – or most other mortals – can manage, but the principle of systematic review is the same.

All that review helps chess players develop spectacular memories for past moves in past games, good and bad – the better to apply those lessons in future.

Bruce remembered coming up against a strong opponent in a best-of-three series. In the first game he found himself in a tight spot that seemed vaguely familiar. He was, he realized, in the exact position he’d been in twenty years earlier, and back then he had escaped by deploying a trap he’d learned from Russian playbooks from the 1960s.

“And then I realized, as I looked up, I was facing the same player I’d played twenty years earlier.”

I guessed where this was going. Presumably a player of his opponent’s calibre would also have remembered being in this position, and remember the sting of losing, and this time would avoid that ignominy by making adjustments against Pandolfini’s ploy.

“Nope,” Bruce said. “He fell for it again.”

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Time is a Hunter

Time is a Hunter

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SOME PEOPLE, after hearing about Olga for the first time, go to YouTube clips expecting to see her tearing down the track like Flo-Jo. She doesn’t.

Let’s put this in perspective: Olga is one of the fastest 94-year-olds who ever lived. But she is 94 — and there are certain things that happen to the human body that are simply inevitable and non-negotiable. Time is an unforgiving hunter. Beyond age 75 or so, the performance curves crater for everybody, no exceptions. Age steals away fast-twitch muscle, and then it steals away slow-twitch muscle. It changes the way we look when we move. The process usually happens too gradually to see — unless a vivid demonstration like this one is cooked up.

On the last day of the world outdoor masters athletics championships in Lahti in 2010, organizers staged a crowd-pleasing contest called a “unique handicap race.” All of world-record setters in the 100-metre dash gathered on the track. Six women lined up, youngest (35) to oldest (90). The youngest, Czech Stepanka Gottvaldova, began at the starting line and everyone else was given a progressively bigger head start. Olga’s starting block was a good thirty metres downfield.

Here’s what happens:

At the snap of the gun. Olga is off. But she’s soon caught by New Zealander Margaret Peters, 75. Then the rest of the field reels her in. The 50, 70, 60, and then 80-year-old champions overtake her. By the 80-metre mark Olga is dead last. If you keep pushing the pause button on the video, reducing the race to a set of stills, the sense is overwhelmingly of a kind of time-lapse depiction of the aging process. In the older runners the stride length shortens, the posture changes. It looks like those hominid-from-ape evolutionary charts, but in reverse.

To me, a few things jump out from those results. (Apart from the fact that the race wasn’t quite handicapped properly. If it were, all the runners would have finished in roughly the same time.)

The big difference between the runners is not the turnover rate, the actual number of steps each athlete is taking; the difference is power. The dropoff in muscular force isn’t something you necessary notice in the longer distances, but it’s obvious in the sprints. The sheer electric force of the younger runners is just not there in the older ones. It has to do with the rapid loss of muscle mass beyond age 75 or so, and other factors, such as the loss in number and quality of mitochondria in that muscle. Scientists such as Tanja Taivassalo and Russ Hepple are investigating what else might be involved, and why certain people (like Olga) seem naturally better protected from the ravages of time than others.

But to me, that clip evokes something much bigger than sport. It strikes me as a metaphor for what aging must feel like, in those upper registers. The old are getting reeled in by the young. They are simply getting overtaken by the trappings of youth culture – the pace of media, technology, data movement, processing speed; the primacy of sex appeal and immediately gratified appetites. You have to be a pretty strong person, comfortable in your own skin, to stay in the race under those conditions. To keep pressing, without letting up in discouragement, right to the tape.

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Sunday in the Museum with Olga

Sunday in the Museum with Olga

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OLGA WAS SCHEDULED for a battery of cognitive tests at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana. But the flights in and out of there were tricky, so we built in a buffer day in Chicago. Before leaving we had a pow-wow of what she might like to do there.

I encouraged her not to edit herself. It was wide open. A full day in one of the world’s great cities, a place bursting with peak experiences waiting to be had. Her choice, I reckoned, would tell me something about her strategies for squeezing maximum life out of this life. What was begging to be fed inside of her: body? Mind? Soul? Which of the three mortality-beating virtues – empathy, mindfulness, and gratitude – would she bring into play?

I threw a few options on the table.

There was a morning service at St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukranian Catholic Church – one of the most striking churches in the world and right up her street, theologically. She was lukewarm. She felt no need to get her attendance in; she’s in pretty good standing with her God.

The Botanical Garden? Well, there are pretty great gardens in her own town. Thanks.
The Field Museum, with its famous, fabulous T-Rex skeleton? Maybe if we had more time.
Okay, I said. You love your food. What about a transcendent meal at Modo, the experimental restaurant where the fare is like art and you eat the menus? She was intrigued. But she admitted she wouldn’t really be happy eating there. At some level it could never square with the prairie frugalness still in her. Her enjoyment, she said, would always be diluted by the little voice of conscience saying: “Is it really worth it?”
She was keen seeing a Cubs game, but the team was scheduled to be on the road that day.
So we pressed pause, agreeing to scout conditions and make the call on the fly.

And come Monday morning, as the city heated up like a griddle, we ended up at the stone steps of the city’s great cultural jewel, the Art Institute of Chicago.

Olga is a self-taught painter. As a girl she liked to park herself in the corner and quietly draw her family. (She once sketched her maternal grandfather, Michaylo, on a cold winter day with his feet up in the oven to keep them warm.) A number of her landscapes dot the walls of her granny-suite back in Vancouver. But she hadn’t painted in a long time. She hadn’t even set foot in a museum in years.

The big showpiece exhibit was a Roy Lichtenstein retrospective: walls and walls of those one-panel cartoons, which left her cool. We skipped contemporary art altogether, moving briskly through ancient Eastern art, and modern sculpture. Even the art I felt sure would appeal to her — heroic religious paintings, folk art, the Renaissance masters – didn’t, particularly.

Then we hit the Impressionists. And here, in the Monet room, Olga came alive.

Monet invented “series” landscape art – the same subject captured over and over, on different days, in different seasons. In his river scenes, and in the famous water lilies in his backyard pond in Giverny, you can sense the furious intensity with which Monet tried to bag this moment, and then the next, and then the next. The master trying to catch time even as it slips through his paint-stained fingers.

On the back wall were several of Monet’s wheatstacks. Olga stood transfixed before them. What was so arresting her? The glorious pastel colours of the changing sky?

Partly. The part of her brain beyond words was soaking this up; and her eyes actually flashed a bit of annoyance when I kept yakking, breaking the spell. But at the same time she was working something out. It was the … architecture of that pile of wheat.

She herself had stacked wheat, back in the day, on the Saskatchewan farm. And as she gazed at the paintings it all came flooding back: how the “binding” machine would leave a row of grain sheaves as thick as barrels; and how she’d carry one under each arm. She’d stack them upright against each other, on end. The idea was to made a little cone of them, like firewood, no more than six to eight to a bundle, and leave them like that to dry so they’d be ready for the thresher. And back then you knew they would dry. The weather was more regular then. Global warming, Olga mused, has messed with a lot of things you used to be able to count on.
But Olga’s wheatstacks never looked like these. “How is that possible?” she mused. “How are they holding together?”

“Maybe it’s not accurate,” I tried. By this stage of his career Monet, after all, had terrible vision; his world was clouded by cataracts. “Maybe he was seeing what he wanted to see.”

Olga nodded.” These look like muffins,” she said.

Here’s what is tonic about spending the day with Olga. There is zero guile. There’s never any attempt to appear better, or other, than she actually is. It’s refreshing to spend days with someone who is not subtly trying to score status points. The arms race of cool is not part of her world.

No one has yet tested how well “comfort in our own skin” correlates with longevity. But it probably does, if we can figure out how to measure it.

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This is the Face of Optimal Health

This is the Face of Optimal Health

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People hear about Olga, before they’ve seen her, and understand her to be a kind of superhero – which she is. And they expect her to look like Betty White.

I’m sorry: even Betty White doesn’t look like Betty White. People wrinkle.

Olga has some wrinkles. But she’s still incredibly youthful looking. Look at her face. Look at it. It’s not wrinkle-free. But as close to wrinkle-free as a 95-year-old who has spent much of her life outside is ever going to be.

Truly, when you think about it, someone who grew up on a farm and spent a big chunk of that century in the sunshine should look like Spanish Banks at low tide. She should be positively fissured. That she looks the way she does – like a 65-year-old or so — I find amazing. I mean, I’ve got more frown lines than Olga does. My kids try to calculate my age by my wrinkles, like counting the rings of a tree.

I think we wear our outlook to life on our faces. You can tell the kind of person Olga is, the delight she takes in life, the way she leans into experiences that leave their mark on her inside and out, it’s all there on her face.

Olga is aging like Clint Eastwood. Instead of fighting the years, she’s tapping aging itself as a source of drama. The drama is the difference between the potential old people still have and the limits they think they have.

When people see Olga run, they’re sometimes surprised, by the way I and others have built her up, that she’s not faster.

Look: she’s 94. The fact is, she runs. No “chicken steps” here, as she puts it. She runs. She runs without stiffness and without pain. When you can do that at 94, you are, mechanically, in a class of your own.

Add to that her energy levels, and how strong she is emotionally, spiritually, and I think we have something here that you want to document and send into deep space as a snapshot of this species at its best.

That’s why she’s so fascinating. It’s not the sporting medals: it’s the whole package. This is what optimal health looks like.

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If Tomorrow Comes

If Tomorrow Comes

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HANGING AROUND with someone in her nineties, you can’t help thinking a lot about mortality. You wonder how much time they have left, and then, inevitably, how much time you have. I always kinda knew my odds of reaching Olga’s age are low. But I didn’t know how low until I took a peek at the actuarial tables.

Simple versions of these are available on-line. You plug in age, gender and some pertinent lifestyle habits, and then you sit back, holding your breath, as the computer comes up with a number. A sobering one.
The odds that I will live to Olga’s age are . . . around three percent. Where she is, I will very likely never go.

There’s another number you can calculate that’s in some sense even more interesting. Actuaries have an expression they call “the force of mortality.” What it means is “the fraction of people who will not reach their next birthday.”

Better news here: the odds that I will not be here in a year’s time are only about one half of one percent. The odds that Olga will not be here in a year are somewhere around 20 percent.

Of course, it’s likely to be significantly lower than that, since it’s based on a typical 94-year-old woman, and Olga is anything but typical. I’d be surprised if, for Olga, the actual odds are even ten percent. Let’s say they’re five percent.

Even at that, I have ten times as much chance as Olga does of not having my birthday-dinner reservation cancelled because I died. My sword of Damocles is hanging by a string; hers is hanging by a thread. I wonder: does knowing these numbers change the way we live? Does it help us, you know, enjoy every sandwich?
Life is precious and evanescent: I think we know that without crunching any numbers.

In an old joke, a priest, a minister and a rabbi are discussing what they’d like people to say after they die and their bodies are on display in open caskets.
The priest says, “I’d like someone to say, ‘He was rightous, honest and generous.”
The minister says, “I’d like someone to say, He was kind and fair, and he was good to his parishioners.”
The rabbi says, “I’d want someone to say, Look, he’s moving.’

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