ALL IN

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less.” Marie Curie (1867-1934)

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10 years ago, I was so terrified of dogs that I rarely visited friends who had them. Then this little one came home. Skylar weighed less than a pound. She’d been taken from her mother too soon so I had to feed her with a dropper around the clock. We had high hopes that she would be a companion for our children who begged us to get her. Within a few weeks, however, she became my sole responsibility.

Having never owned a dog, I didn’t relish the task. My ignorance was boundless but she was patient with me. The first time I took her for a walk, I put an old cat leash around her neck and almost strangled her. When I dropped a sock out of the laundry basket and she brought it back to me, I thought she had super powers. “Look what my puppy did!” I bragged on Facebook. “It’s called fetch,” my friends replied. Apparently every dog could do it.

Skylar watched my hair turn from brown to gray. She transformed from a rascal who chewed up shoes into an obedient pup who thought sunflower sprouts were a treat. She was there through high school then college graduations, followed us into three, different homes in three, different states and hovered at my side through two, major surgeries. She made me laugh over little things like the face she always made when I brushed her teeth. When I played the piano, she howled along as if we were in it together and we were. At night, if I tossed and turned then sighed, astonishingly, she did the same. Yes, she barked at most everything from falling leaves to FedEx trucks. However, after she alerted me to a midnight prowler, I came to respect her every growl.

I often marvel how I ever managed to live so long before finding such a grand companion. Few humans are as unabashed in both their affections and distresses. Skylar was ALL IN for everything and everyone was a potential friend. For several thousand days, I have held her close against my heart and then, last week, as she took her final breath. The house is pin drop quiet now. Our long running conversation has ended but I will never forget how wonderful it was to have.

 

 

 

100 STEPS

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Since lockdown started, I’ve been walking a three-mile loop in my neighborhood. In the middle of the walk, there’s a very, steep hill. My iphone says it’s 5 stories high but it feels more like 10. The first time I tackled it, the temperature was 90 something, my heart was pounding and my legs felt weak. I thought I’d never get to the top and kept looking up to see how much further I had to go. The second time, I tried not to look up but curiosity got the better of me and every step became agony. The third time, I forced myself to look down and counted each step instead. It came to exactly 100 left-right steps! Not looking ahead and just focusing on my feet made the ascent much easier. Now that hill doesn’t seem so steep anymore.

I’m using this same strategy for our present pandemic. I say ‘present’ because this, too, will pass. Wjust don’t know when that will be or what life will look like when it does. Living in this masked and distanced universe is enough to send anyone over the edge. A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered a more than 1,000 percent increase in April compared with the same time last year. Nearly half of Americans recently polled say they are experiencing mental health issues.

There is a bell curve to anxiety. At the top of it, we are motivated, focused and energized. We wash our hands, wear our masks and keep a proper distance from others. On the right-hand tail of the curve, however, we become overwhelmed and paranoid which actually weakens our immune system. We obsess over cleanliness, are terrified to go out in public and fill our heads with negative news and grim statistics. Look around. If someone is driving all alone wearing a mask, the protection they need is likely from themselves.

Eckhart Tolle encourages us to appreciate the, “power of now.” The Bible cautions, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.” So, here is to realizing that the constraints we find ourselves in will eventually lead to something better. As Victor Hugo wrote over 100 years ago, “The pupil dilates in darkness and in the end finds light, just as the soul dilates in misfortune and in the end finds God.” It is only a few steps away. Count them with me.

 

STOP….LOOK…LOOK AGAIN

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 On my walk today, I happened upon this sight. It seems a perfect metaphor to our present situation. We’ve been stopped where we are but as we pause, let’s notice the beauty around us. Life will never return to the way it was before. Ultimately that may prove to be a good thing.

 I’m not just referring to the fact that crime has gone down world wide or that the bear population in Yosemite has quadrupled. It’s wonderful that residents in Punjab, India can finally see the Himalayas again after 30 years of obscurity behind air pollution. My real hope for our new future comes from the transformative way my neighbors, fellow citizens, scientists and world leaders have embraced this crisis and are carrying on.

 Health care workers are on the job despite lack of proper equipment and inordinate stress. Scientists are working globally on vaccines and cures. Educators have moved their teaching programs online. Our goods and services are being delivered and everyone is taking disinfection seriously. No longer will my guests roll their eyes when I ask them to take their shoes off at the door. All this creative restructuring may be our salvation.  

 Consider the future of a visit to the doctor. Last week, I ‘saw’ mine on my telephone from the privacy of my bedroom. He called me at the exact agreed on time and I had his undivided attention. After examining me via my handheld iPhone, he sent a prescription to my pharmacy, which was delivered to my mailbox.

 Imagine education if online schooling becomes the norm. Our over-priced colleges may well have to rethink their usefulness. Will students really want to suffer the enormities of overwhelming debt when they can get the same degrees for a fraction of the cost? Might congressmen stay in the districts they represent instead of commuting to Washington?  Can we foresee a time when we value our farmers more than our politicians?

 Although we are now wary of our neighbors we also realize just how much we need them. Experts warn that the coming recession will pale against the impending wave of depression and mental health issues that are likely to follow. As unemployment soars, so will the divorce rate. Maybe that’s a good thing. This has forced us to truly examine those we’ve chosen to share our lives with. Kindness will be king, (along with cleanliness of course). The loss of any life is hard.  The losses now are brutal and devastating.  For now, let’s just put one foot in front of the other and look for beauty anywhere we can find it.        

 

 

 

 

PEACE OUT!!

PEACE OUT

As someone who’s often made her living entertaining others, this isolationism has been torturous. Yesterday, while standing outside Trader Joe’s in a long line, loud music began pumping in the parking lot. Prince’s, “When Doves Cry” came on and I instinctively began to dance. Now, this is not unusual behavior for me but simply how I’m wired. Even in the dentist’s chair if a song with a good beat comes on, I cannot sit still. (I imagine it’s why I was always on a first name basis with my school principals).

 As I grooved to the music, I became aware that both the person in front of and behind me were visibly wincing. Although they were each six feet away, they acted as though I might somehow splash the virus on them with my outstretched arms. So, I abruptly stopped. Moments later, a van unloaded several people in the parking lot. They looked around at all of us as if trying to decide what was going on. “Don’t worry,” I called out. “You’re in the right place. This IS the audition line for the Rockettes!” Finally. . . laughter.

 Ours is an unprecedented time. We haven’t quite figured out how to handle this invisible terror that blows through our streets. We are told to stay home and then bombarded on the TV by constantly updated death statistics. How healthy is that? Where are the Lassie re-runs? As I walk in my neighborhood now, other walkers actually cross the street to avoid coming too close to me. If I smile and wave, some respond but a few actually put their heads down and seem to hold their breath.

 I have immense empathy for the young people among us who must shut down their energetic, vibrant lives. At their age, I’d likely be building a backyard trapeze and teaching myself to juggle. Yes, this is a tragic pandemic but we must not lose our joy! Let’s help each other get more creative in finding it and count our blessings.

 Here are some of mine:

 1.  My hearing has improved! I can actually hear a sneeze or cough from about 20 yards away.

2.  My house sparkles—even under the washer & dryer.

3.  If I nap, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.

In the above picture, please note that I have turned my back to you. This is for your protection.

 

WHAT, ME WORRY??

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I hope no one in my town has to pee. There’s not a store for miles with a roll of toilet paper. I just watched several, young women load up their carts with hundreds of rolls of the stuff at Wal-Mart. Some even backed their pickups up to the front door and carted off entire flats of it, along with rolls of paper towels and tubs of antibacterial wipes. Who knew that Covid-19 caused issues with THAT end?

 This sudden hysteria makes me anxious so I head to Trader Joes. I’m shocked to find the aisles jammed with people pushing baskets packed high with loaves of bread, cartons of eggs, cereal, rice, beans, peanut butter and massive amounts of frozen food. I feel as if I’m in an old episode of, “Supermarket Sweep.” I’m so terrified that someone might smack into my brand new knee that I walk gingerly with my elbows arced out wide. In this manner, I ‘hurry’ to the vegetables. Only green beans remain but as it happens, they are my favorite! At the checkout counter, I watch astonished as one woman purchases an entire shelf of chocolate bars.

 Now, I feel like a dog that has just picked up the scent of a fox. I must race against both time and my fellow citizens. Off I go to the health food store. There is not a single potato left in the bins! A young man with three bags of them in his cart, actually smacks right into the back of me and keeps going. Fortunately, I’m stopped and he hits me where I’m padded. Desperation is palpable in the very air.

 And then this happens: I lift the top of the nut bin to scoop some pistachios into a bag. However, the top will not stay open and keeps closing on my hand. I’m about to give up when an older gentleman appears at my side, takes hold of the top and says, “Go ahead. I’ve got it.” Now on a normal day, I might well have hugged him. Instead, I mumble my thanks while trying not to breathe on him.

 Remarkably, I suddenly feel as light as a slip fluttering on a clothesline. His thoughtful gesture has erased my anxiety completely. Only now do I realize it is glorious outside! I will walk in the sunshine. Kindness is clearly the ‘peace that passeth understanding.’

 

    

 

 

 

WARMING UP

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Last week, my 94 year-old, friend left me this voicemail: “Helen, would you please write my obituary? And could you come over today?” Since I’ve never written one before, I looked up a few before heading to her house. Reading them made me wish I’d known the people themselves:

 “Walt was preceded in death by his tonsils and adenoids in 1936, a spinal disc in 1974, his thyroid gland in 1988 and his prostate on March 27th, 2000. His loving wife of 57 years will now be able to purchase the mink coat which he had always refused her because he believed only minks should wear mink.” –Walt Bruhl

 “Let a dog (or two or three) share your bed. Say the rosary while you walk them. Go to a nursing home and kiss everyone. Invite new friends to Thanksgiving dinner.”—-Mary Mullaney

 “He despised phonies, know-it-all Yankees and Southerners who used the word “veranda.” He particularly hated Day Light Saving Time, which he referred to as The Devil’s Time. It is not lost on his family that he died the very day that he would have had to spring his clock forward. This can only be viewed as his final protest. –Harry Stamps

 Joe Heller told his family, “Just dig a hole in the backyard and roll me in.”  His daughter, however, wrote him a funny send off, detailing things like, “He left his family a house full of crap and 300 pounds of birdseed.” She recalled that his doctor approached her towards the end of his life and informed her that he was, “a very sick man.” “You have no idea,” she countered.

 “I was given the gift of life and now I have to give it back. This is hard but I was a lucky woman and for that I am grateful. And on that upbeat note, I take my mortal leave of this rollicking, revolving world—this sun, that moon and the memory of a child’s hand in mine.” –Jane Lotter  

I would not need any of these for inspiration, for when I arrived at her house, she was not up to the task. Days later she was in hospice. Then in a breath, gone. Words said after the fact can’t take the place of those spoken while we are still here. Tonight, warming by the fire, I remember this: she made me laugh.

 

 

 

 

 

ARE YOU YEARS YOUNG….OR OLD??

 

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I met this lovely gal at Trader Joe’s this morning. She was such a knockout in all blue that I asked her to, “Stand right where you are because I MUST take your picture!” She had just finished her 2 ½ mile daily walk, was grabbing some groceries then headed off to one of her two part-time jobs. Her gait was lively, her smile quick and her enthusiasm for life, palpable. Lani is a force and I was inspired not just because of her person but her chronological age. Can you guess it?

One of the best things about aging is that we’ve had years to learn that not only can you not judge a book by its’ cover, you can’t count on the cover to even give you a book. We make a lot of assumptions about others that are wrong and it can affect both our health and psyche negatively. Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Talking to Strangers,” gets at the heart of our prejudices and presuppositions about others. He writes, “When it comes to judgments about our own character and behavior, we are willing to entertain all manner of complexity but when it comes to making those same judgments about others, we are depressingly simplistic.”

Such is the case for Olympic athletes. One would assume that all three medalists would be equally ecstatic. It turns out that silver medalists are the most depressed ones on the podium. They have just missed the gold and their disappointment is much greater than the bronze winner who is thrilled to have medaled at all. Researchers have even shown higher rates of depression among silver medalists. It seems that most of us are victims of ‘counterfactual thinking.’ That is, instead of rejoicing in “what actually is,” we compare our objective achievements to what, “might have been.”

That, of course, is the toughest thing about aging: accepting what is and letting go of what was. Scientists know that what truly ages us is the eventual breakdown of our cells and their ability to repair themselves and divide. Recently researchers from the U of A have discovered that by altering the sleep patterns of cells they may be able to slow down the aging process. For now, though, that aging process is zipping by for most of us. The important thing is to shine in the moment—like Lani, who is 81 years young!!

 

IT’S A NO BRAINER

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Almost two-thirds of the 6 million American’s with Alzheimer’s are women. It was once thought that our longevity was the reason we developed Alzheimer’s more often than men. That belief is now being challenged by scientists who say that we are genetically more disposed to dementias because our brains have more “bridging regions.” Makes sense.  We’re connectors.  However, this puts us at greater risk for the widespread plaques and tangles of amyloid beta, which cause Alzheimer’s.

Brain difference is not the only thing increasing our risk. Hormone replacement therapy may also be adding a new set of dangers.  Several of my girlfriends swear by it.  However, there is growing evidence that it may contribute to dementia and increase our propensity for other female cancers.

What to do?

1. Eat LOTS of fruits and vegetables. According to a study in Sweden, those who eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily live longer than those who don’t.

2.  Lessen exposure to wireless radiation. Even the FCC suggests putting calls on speakerphone to increase the distance between your phone and your head.

3.  Avoid fried foods. A 24-year study at the University of Iowa shows that women, ages 50- to 65-years have a higher chance of dying from stroke and heart problems if they do.

4.  Eat more fish or take omega-3 fatty acid supplements, especially if your triglyceride levels are high or you suffer from depression or osteoporosis. During a 16-year study, involving more than 180,000 women, researchers found that those who ate fish at least three times a week or took supplements were 35 percent less likely to die of cognitive decline and heart problems.

5.  Don’t eat late at night. The body’s circadian rhythms are coordinated in the hypothalamus, which is the mother lode of stem cells that control how fast we age. According to UCLA researchers, eating late at night also disrupts the daily rhythm of the hippocampus – the brain’s memory center.

6.  Exercise daily! This keeps harmful immune cells out of your brain and diminishes the presence of inflammatory microglia in your hypothalamus. Your body knows— and it shows– if you don’t.

7.  Eat dark chocolate!!! Researchers at Loma Linda University say that consuming chocolate high in cacao (over 70%) causes an increase in the frequency of gamma waves. These reduce stress, improve mood, enhance neuroplasticity and improve cerebral blood flow.  My new motto?  “A square a day keeps dementia away.”  It’s a no brainer.

 

 

 

PICK A PECK OF POMEGRANATES!

 

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In the average human gut, we carry a thousand different species of bacteria, literally trillions of cells that weigh about three pounds. Believe it or not, this ‘microbiome’ inside of us actually plays a role in autism, anxiety, depression and many other disorders. To prove that theory, scientists have actually given ‘calm’ mice gut microbes from ‘anxious’ ones and sent them straight into overdrive.

 What does this mean for us? Well, it means that we really are what we eat. In another study done at UCLA, researchers gave healthy women brain scans to test their emotional responses to visual stimuli.  They then fed half the women yogurt (which is a probiotic) twice a day, while the others received none. After 12 weeks, they re-administered the scans. The yogurt eaters reacted far more calmly to the images than the other group and showed markedly measurable differences in their stress levels. They believe that the yogurt changed the makeup of the subjects’ gut microbes, which then led to the production of compounds that ultimately modified their brain chemistry.

 Our gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and GABA all of which play a key role in mood. They also generate other neuroactive chemicals that reduce anxiety and depression. In fact, your microbiome can activate the vagus nerve, which is the main line of communication between the gut and the brain.  So, if you have a ‘gut instinct’ about something, you’re probably right.  Since 80% of your immune tissue is in your digestive tract, which by itself influences both mood and behavior, you need to protect it. 

 What does all this mean?   That inside of us we already have ‘natural’ anti depressants IF we keep ourselves healthy! Someday, scientists say that we will even be able to use our own bodies as healing mechanisms instead of prescription pills. Until then, keep your insides well fed. You might consider starting with pomegranates.  They may well be the perfect stocking stuffer for your loved ones.  Here are just some of their benefits:

  1. nutrient dense (contain vitamin C & K, folate & potassium)
  2. powerful antioxidant
  3. anti inflammatory
  4. may help fight both prostate and breast cancer
  5. lowers blood pressure
  6. can relieve arthritis and joint pain
  7. significantly lowers triglycerides
  8. fights bacterial & fungal infections
  9. improves both memory and exercise performance
  10. develops patience— it takes time to retrieve those 613 fruity arils! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

INSIDE OUT

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Last week, the Inside Out art project came to my town. Their truck rolled up in front of the library and we, local residents let them take 4’ by 3’, black and white photos of us. These were then pasted on the walkways in front of the library. I was amazed at the diversity of faces. Our art statement didn’t last long as it rained the following day and all became a gray mush. It was a great reminder, though, of the brevity of our lives. That is why it is so important to shine while our light still flickers!

Recently, I spoke to a group on Alzheimer’s. Since all had been (or were), caregivers, I assumed they would ask questions about the disease and its’ progression. Instead, I faced a room full of people terrified that it might happen to them! In fact, one perfectly, healthy woman was actually taking an Alzheimer’s medication in hopes of preventing it before it started!

Considering that 1 million people will have dementia in some form by 2025, their concerns are valid. So, here’s what we know so far: there is NO cure or drug that can really help yet. No. Nothing–so don’t fall for those TV commercials. However, here are a few things we DO know that will give you the best prevention possible:

  1. Smoking increases your dementia risk 30-50%.
  2. Drinking one Coke a day ups your risk by 30%.
  3. Although few of my readers likely play football–watch for blows to the head—they cause inflammation to the nervous system and increase the tau proteins that cause Alzheimer’s.
  4. Keep your blood pressure low.
  5. Playing a musical instrument lowers your risk by 36%. Taking up the harmonica can’t hurt.
  6. Yeah get off your butt—stub out your butt—and no more ifs ands or buts. THIS is the MOST important one!  

 Here’s the mystery of life: the things we plan for rarely happen and the ones we don’t expect often smack us right between the eyes. Considering that 24% of boys born today and 35% of girls will eventually develop dementia, starting healthy behaviors now will have a more beneficial effect than any medical treatment or preventative procedure. Plus, if you wanna see your face plastered up real big, track down the Inside Out Project! Smiling increases longevity and makes you feel good inside and out!