Do we need brain exercises to keep mentally fit? Some of my friends think we do and work out online with programs like Luminosity. Science so far says no to games, yes to learning new things, such as a language or musical instrument.
I’ll leave more evolved answers to experts.
I’m not big on computer games or puzzles, prefer learning by reading and writing.
And just dealing with everyday challenges is often enough for me. If I don’t stay alert, I can get run over by a car or a tyrannical government.
Or have to pay for my 50th bag because single-use plastic bags are now banned in California (a ban I support) and stores are charging us for paper bags and reusable plastic ones. And because I’ve left the other 49 tossed in my kitchen or car. And forgotten that cool canvas tote and the mini-tote my kids gave me for Christmas. They are either 1) in another purse or 2) hanging with my purses in my bedroom closet.
So how to remember? I joke with all the store clerks. They don’t remember either.
I could Google for ideas. But I’m stubborn and like to learn on my own (aka the hard way). I like to imagine and analyze.
I need to keep my bags in more than one place since I shop in different ways. Sometimes I drive, sometimes I walk to a store and sometimes I stop in spontaneously while out walking.
Since I most often drive alone, it makes sense to pile some bags on the front passenger seat. They are too easy to forget in the trunk.
I have a small kitchen, so not much room there for extra bags. I already stuff baking pans in my dishwasher, which I never use. I could make room for bags, but as with the car trunk, out of sight, out of mind. My mental powers do not yet penetrate metal. Perhaps a hook for the more attractive totes? Not much wall space either.
Now that I think about it, remembering to always carry the mini-tote in my purse is probably the best solution. Always with me, like my wallet and lipstick and iPhone and keys. Then – remembering it’s in there! I’ve left stores several times now, paying for a bag and then realizing halfway home that the little tote is still inside my purse.
But I am starting to remember. Grab one before I get out of my car or yank from purse before I reach the checkout counter. A new habit, light gradually revealing a conscious image, synapses connecting. It took a year to navigate the debit/credit card chip reader scenario, to learn to be quick before the clerk flashes a new screen. (The clerks and screens are all different.) I do that pretty well now, except when the bag boy or girl interrupts to ask: Do you need a bag? Paper or plastic?
Habits take approximately 66 days to form, according the latest research.
Another month to go. And I’ll have bags, bags, bags for life.
And then be ready for the next challenge. Bring it on.
I have some extra time after getting my car serviced, so stop in at the mall across the freeway. I’ll just stroll around for a few minutes, maybe get some gift ideas, extra exercise.
It’s crowded, surprising for a week day. I crawl through the honking, swerving cars into the parking structure. Dodge clumps of people in Macy’s, my thoroughfare out to the mall. (San Diego malls are outdoor malls.)
Swoop into the tsunami of humanity. No poking along for me. As I set my sights on a far end, I realize I am charging at full speed, head bent. I am a blur in passing windows. So is everyone else, the running of the bulls, not wanting to be gored in the butt.
Then I realize we are trotting along to Christmas music! “We WISH you a Merry Christmas, we WISH you a Merry Christmas, and … ” Puff, puff, huff, huff, faster, faster, be jolly dammit …
My god, we have not even stuffed and been stuffed with our Thanksgiving turkey! Yes, Christmas decorations went up soon after the pumpkins came down, but isn’t our official first shopping day the day AFTER Thanksgiving, Black Friday? Why pipe in, force feed us, the holiday music so early?
I break away and descend the long escalator. There at the bottom luring us into his candy cane house is Santa. BIG Santa, we’re talking six foot four or more. Handsome. I swear he twinkles his eyes at me. He is probably bored, since only one cranky child lurks on the other side with a father trying so hard to be patient.
I smile at Santa and jump back into the river of merriness. The rapids circle me round and dump me off back where I started. It’s time to go home, to check where I’ve stored my holiday spirit.
Memories from 30 years ago pop up. My year as a shopping center promotion assistant. Sandwiched in between my careers as an advertising writer and a journalist. My job was to help the marketing director, Irene, write stories about the 60-plus stores for the local paper and plan and set up promotions for the upscale center located on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. An older woman who had returned to college late in life, Irene encouraged me to finish my degree in journalism and let me work a flexible schedule. Her job as head of the merchants association was like working with 60 shrieking children, but she handled it with aplomb and humor. Allowed me to bring my sons to promotions such as Casino Night – play that roulette wheel! – and 4H Club Spring/Easter Farm Days featuring kids’ chickens, goats, pigs. One day a pig got loose from its pen. Irene and I chased it through the shopping center as it rooted its way through the flower beds. We caught him, muck up to our knees.
At Christmas, we set up the Santa house, scheduled the professional freelance Santas and hired local high school students to be the helpful elves, corral kids, take photos. More than one Santa showed up drunk. Up went the sign, “Santa will be right back,” until we could scramble up a replacement. And more often than not, the elves did not show up at all. Irene and I pulled on the elf costumes and stood inside the little house with Santa.
One busy weekend day, we looked out at a long line of parents, grandparents, children.
“Oh my god,” said Irene, under her little elf hat. “There’s my neighbor. I was just bragging to her about my great new job.”
When I left that job to work down the street for the local paper, Irene gave me a going-away present, a little ceramic pig. “This is to remember.”
The pig has come with me to every job since. Now it sits on my desk. At this time of year, the elves look on.
First morning, I wake up so sad. My mind is not moving well, under a dark cloud.
I cannot focus on my writing, do not have the heart for it.
I drive to the library neighborhood a mile away, dropping a memoir I just finished on living with heart disease into the return bin. I read it because I know the author and because I figure heart disease will get me eventually. Dad dead of heart attack, 52, uncle 54, his daughter, my only cousin, at 54. I’m interested in knowing more about the vegan diet the author adopted. The book offers some helpful information, books to read, and also confirms my suspicion I don’t want to write long memoirs about my emotional journeys.
I consider walking around the bay. It shines bright at the end of the street. Too bright, too harsh! So I stick to the still shady side of neighborhood streets, walking past old bungalows, new condos, apartment buildings.
I pass a young father wheeling a stroller. He smiles at me, a sad smile.
I pass a construction site where workers are talking, some in Spanish, some in English. I wonder how they all voted, if they did. If any are fearful, any emboldened.
Since I know I won’t work today, I drive north to a small shopping center with a post office and a bookstore. Buy 40 Forever stamps, Gifts of Friendship, cherry trees (celebrating the bond between our country and Japan) and classic Pickup Trucks. In the bookstore, I look for recommended books on heart health and find instead hundreds of books on every other disease and diet on earth.
The clerk and the woman ahead of me are discussing the election, both young women. They are not happy. So, when it’s my turn, I say something and am met with silence. Was it me, older, silver hair popping out now, or was she preoccupied? Her eyes were on the bedroll and backpack someone had left on the floor in the main area. I ask where the coloring books are and she takes me to a far corner.
“Sir,” she says to a scruffy, older man, leafing through magazines, “I have to ask you to move your belongings.” He ignores her, picks up another magazine, and I examine the coloring books, my calming hobby. Flowers, animals, mandalas? I choose “Johanna’s Christmas: A Festive Coloring Book,” by Johanna Basford, my favorite coloring book creator. Why not some red and green cheer between now and the end of the year?
While I’m looking, a young Asian guy in a chair near me starts talking. At first I think he is talking to someone, then I see he’s alone, and I think maybe he’s reading aloud with ear plugs. He’s holding a book. There are many Asian students now at nearby UCSD. But then I realize he is just talking to the air.
When I pay for my book, I ask the clerk about him. “Oh, he’s harmless. He comes in here every day. He’s homeless.” She didn’t look at me as she says, “Have a good day ma’am.”
Outside the store, I see myself reflected in the window. Silver hair flashing. Slightly bent. But moving forward, determined, not defeated.
Back to the library, now open. I find the book I want by Dr. Neal Barnard, “21-day Weight Loss Kickstart: Boost Metabolism, Lower Cholesterol, and Dramatically Improve Your Health.” The title is really a hyped-up hook for adopting a plant-based diet. It is sensible and well-written, not a front for selling vitamins or alternative cures. I sign up to receive information from his organization, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
I dive into the book. This is my next challenge, in addition to keeping my sanity. I’ve made several attempts to give up meat and dairy since reading “Diet for a Small Planet” 40 years ago and hearing Dr. Dean Ornish speak 20 years ago. I fall back into old ways. I’m ready to move forward again. That determination. My heart has been broken many times, but I want it to keep beating for more years, more writing.
Second day, it’s yoga. Everyone is very quiet and leaves without talking.
I want to write. Some of my friends are writing beautiful mini-essays in emails and Facebook posts. I cannot summon the will. I can barely read the analysis. Everyone has an opinion on who did what wrong. And what will be right or wrong in the years to come. And how we should let love overcome, blah, blah.
Writing group, our leader is sad. No politics in here, she says. We will write about our feelings but we don’t have to share. Or about overcoming a challenge, which we can share. One woman’s reads a long, colorful description of her marriage falling apart. I love it, but the leader doesn’t. Let’s write about a memorable Thanksgiving, she suggests. There are many funny stories and the mood lifts remembering kinder days.
After group, shared calming chamomile tea and conversation at a local Irish bakery with a writing friend, like me a former journalist.
Third day, yoga again. I am so tired. The young, 30-something teacher has us do twists for the second day in a row. She is a good teacher but clueless about what 60-something bodies can do. In the spirit of yoga, I do what I can and accept where I am.
We are non-political in the studio, but one woman, also named Linda, lingers after class to spout off. The young teacher joins in and we commiserate. I can barely summon feelings, because I am numb, in shock.
Little flares of anger are spiking up. I “Like” some insights on Facebook but refrain from disliking “the new President deserves respect” or “shut, up whiny Liberals.” I read my heart healthy book, shop for good food, and mull over how to best use my talents to make some kind of difference. I will not change minds, that I know, but perhaps I can inspire courage, reason, tolerance.
Fourth day, I am angry. Another yoga teacher, another class. Supposedly gentler, but more damn twists! Plus instructions to run our thumb down from the big toe to alleviate anger. Chi walking and talking. This just makes me more angry. Not many agree with me, and I try to be tolerant, but this type of irrational thinking, belief systems without evidence, is what leads humanity to make bad decisions. To demonize individuals and groups without facts. To ignore facts and reality.
I go to the local mall to walk around and escape. It’s crazy. Like we’ve all been let out of the nuthouse and are eager to jump into Christmas. The Body Shop has re-opened after remodeling and the gay man clerk with the earring and the spiked hair helps me find my grapefruit scented lotion. A woman in a hijab smiles at me. I feel like crying.
I prune down my Facebook followings. So far, I have not unfriended anyone, but I have blocked those who spew hatred.
Fifth day, I feel better. Perhaps it is the new diet. I feel resolve to stand up for what I think is right and to live as well as I can in my remaining years. I post an article by Gloria Steinem on Facebook. A man I know comments with a long, misogynistic rant, “there was no misogyny in this election.”
The UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff explains the disparate views of the world well. Conservatives see a world that requires hierarchy and authoritarianism. The strong leader, the good father. People are more bad and need to be kept in line. Liberals see a world that benefits from people working together, equals. People are more good than bad and need to help each other. Once people have developed a certain view, or frame as he calls it, it is hard for them to shift. To reach one another, we have to find common values. Areas where the views overlap.
In some areas, such as the future of the planet, we don’t have time to dally here. It won’t matter if a climate change denier is looking backward or forward or sideways if he or she is underwater or cannot breathe or eat. The planet has a plan of its own.
I get the results from my 23andme ancestry search. My sister and I both decided to do this and sent in our samples within days of each other – unknown to each other! We joked that we mailed our sample kits at the same time we mailed our ballots.
We share our results. About 74 percent British and Irish for me, 72 percent for her. (Our father was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and our mother in Montreal, as were we, of English and Scottish background.) Four percent French and German (slightly more for me). That must come from our one great-grandmother who was American, from St. Louis. About 16 percent Northern European for me, 23 percent for her. A small amount of Southern European and North African, more for me.
One difference is that I am two percent Scandinavian and she 0.7 percent. Maybe that’s why I got the liberal gene and she the conservative? A far-reaching attempt at humor. Of course, back when our ancestors were frolicking with our future DNA, kings and chieftains ruled and many Viking settlements perished because they refused to hunt fish like the Inuit and spent money and supplies on churches rather than crops.
My sister and I don’t carry markers for any major diseases. (Heart disease specifically or broken hearts are not included in our reports.) The one gene variant we share is for deafness. So we both could go deaf. Actually, I think I am losing my hearing. And to tell you the truth, I only partly care.
My daughter-in-law believes that globes of light appearing in photographs are caused by the supernatural. Spirit orbs. Ghosts of loved ones (or maybe hated ones) from the past returning to hover and glow between the heads and trees we capture today.
No matter that one of her Facebook friends – and they are both photo experts, professionals – explains the phenomenon in scientific terms. It’s light bouncing off a particle of dust or pollen, a drop of rain. It’s a speck of foreign material in the camera lens. Real, explainable in this world. Not from another world, a parallel universe.
She is not buying it, prefers to explore other layers, levels of meaning, possibilities.
“Look at this,” she says handing over a recent family photo. A group of us crowding together and smiling. Were we in a foreign land? Possibly. Behind us, a white ball, not a sun or a moon, just hanging, nebulous and yet unmistakably there.
“Who could this be?” She is convinced it is either my mother or my former husband’s mother, my sons’ grandmothers, who died a few months apart, just before this picture was taken.
So why would either woman want to be with us? Are they just hanging out? Are they envious? Do they have an uplifting message? Final words of wisdom?
As a skeptic, there is no way I am going to leap into the spirit world. But I can leap from what is reflected in the photo into my own reflections. The way I used to with Tarot cards. No, I the Hanged Man does not mean I am literally hanging from a tree upside down with a rope around my foot. He represents transitions, being suspended between decisions.
So for the recent trip photo, I am imagining these two women I admired being with us every step of the way, having enough energy, even as their gauges wavered at 90, to enjoy themselves and our company. To feel a part of us, as they often didn’t as they aged.
Next best scenario, they love hearing about the trip when we return, looking at every photo in our slideshows or photo books. Who else would do that? Perhaps they are envious, but not to the point of glaring from their little orbits. Nor are they offering advice, at least not day-to-day nagging, more like should you disagree and drive each other crazy sometimes, learn to forgive, expect less and give more. Be kind on Facebook.
Looking at old-old photos, I wish the granny globs of light could talk to me. Do not waste your time with this group of people; they are not looking or listening. Marry the Sea Scout who takes you sailing with his mother. Yes, you will be a widow at 60, but you will be happy and left with some youthful good looks and lots of money.
Watch out for that wizard at the company Halloween party, standing beside you in the witch costume beside the pumpkin orb. He charms everyone with his smile and is so happy, happy to be your assistant. Not really. He plans to carve you down to size.
Bypass the cowboy swinging his lasso on another hallowed eve. He is too much for your gentle Tahitian, even with the flower in the back of your hair, meaning you are looking. Heed your own first impression, “What an ass.” Run from the golden ropes.
Of course there was no such message from the spirit world and you unwisely tie the knot until it unravels. There are rays of light beaming in one of the wedding photos. My two mothers, too kind to say I told you so.
“I used to think old age was catching.” – Someone I Know
Reading two articles this morning on ageism got me thinking. Have I been ageist? Have I been on the receiving end of ageism?
As a kid, young adult, I didn’t seek out old people, but I didn’t avoid them either. I adored my Scottish grandparents. My grandfather was the life of many parties he threw, singing, playing the piano, banjo, ukulele. My grandmother was sometimes crabby and moody (menopause, my mother speculated), but she more than made up for it with generous piano lessons and lunch treats when my sister and I stopped in from our school just down the street.
It was a neighborhood where young and old walked around, said hello, gathered together in back yards, if in separate corners.
One of my girlfriend’s grandmother, French Canadian, worked as an undercover detective for Eaton’s Department store in downtown Montreal. She was plain clothed, but her special area was luxury fur coats. My friends and I were Nancy Drew fans, so we loved hearing this plump grandmother tell stories of how she apprehended suspects stuffing furs into bloomers and bags.
When my parents moved to a beach city in L.A., they rented the top floor of an old Spanish duplex on an alley, or “Place” as it was called. I often walked past an old lady who sat in her tiny patio on the alley. She waited for us kids so she could talk and carefully count out change. Would we please bring her back a roll of Reeds cinnamon candy? I must have told her I had taken piano lessons (left behind with my grandmother’s piano), because she gave me and old music book. Insisted I have it. Even though I didn’t take piano lessons again for 40 years, I held onto that tattered and yellowed book until recently.
Only one of my mother’s friends struck me as old, someone to avoid. She was conservative and rigid. Her husband left her. I dreaded her visits and felt guilty because she was nice to me – always wanted to know what I was doing, but somehow it felt like an intrusion, like an invasion from another planet inhabited by shriveled spirits.
I got along well with my in-laws, even after their son and I divorced. They were active and actively involved grandparents to my two sons. I especially enjoyed an older friend of theirs, a widow pushing 80, who joined us every Christmas Eve for the traditional Swedish smorgasbord. She was fun to talk with, full of curiosity and humor. One Christmas she was not there. Where is Alice? I asked my mother-in-law. “Oh, she met a man in her square-dancing club and got married!”
Now that Alice, my mother-in-law and mother are all gone, I would give almost anything to have them back in my life, if only for an afternoon. And I wouldn’t care how slowly they walked or how they drove. (My mother-in-law drove with both feet on the gas pedal and my mother with both feet on the brakes, which she pushed down every 30 seconds.)
As for being seen as “too old,” I know it has affected me, but not as much as it has others.
I have always looked younger than my age and had friends (and boyfriends) of all ages, including a husband seven years younger.
I entered the work world in my late twenties, after six years as a housewife and part-time student. In the advertising world, I worked with those 10-20 years older and those 10 years younger.
I finished my degree in print journalism at 41 and worked with crusty old editors and fresh-from-college, still-living-with-parents young reporters. What counted was how hard we worked, not how old we were, although there were a couple of exceptions. One publisher who didn’t like me gave my editing job to an older man from the sales department. Another older publisher told me he didn’t like women over 42. Why that exact cut-off age, I never knew, but since I was 43, I suspected I was on borrowed time with him. Sure enough, when I asked him not to grope the younger reporters, he fired me and gave my job to a 28-year-old newly divorced woman with no experience (except living off men).
Then, later in my 40s, I fell into technical writing, as did many others tired of poverty wages or booted out of banking or teaching. Again, I worked with writers and engineers of all ages. It helped that my father and step-father were both engineers and my older son was in college studying to become a software engineer. We all learned together as desktop publishing and the Internet took off. Yes, I occasionally encountered arrogance from the engineers, both young and old. It wasn’t based so much on ageism or sexism as it was on elitism. One old engineer accused me of being “a schoolmarm with a red pencil.” But he didn’t say old schoolmarm.
If some of the young engineers thought I was too old, they didn’t show it to me directly. I once overheard a group of them calling my boss “an old fart” – and he was 15 years younger than I.
My Qualcomm manager (who had a hostile attitude toward the engineers) assured us writers and editors that all the engineers thought we were “old biddies” (even the guys).
There were some job interviews where I knew I wasn’t going to get the job. Game developers, for example, with blue hair and eyebrow rings. Thirty to forty-year-old fast tracking, multi taskers who were more intimidated than impressed with my experience, and unwilling to pay for it. Fortunately I was usually able to fit in somewhere, even if it took a few weeks. I realize not everyone, especially older, well-paid engineers, are as lucky. It is a real problem. Qualcomm is a progressive company, but relies on young engineers with work visas from Korea, China and India, paying them much less than they would American engineers.
I left Qualcomm to become a freelancer and encountered this ageist/Scrooge mentality with some clients. Why pay an experienced writer when we can hire: 1) a free intern, 2) a part-time family friend, or 3) a twit who likes to tweet.
My newspaper articles didn’t pay well either, but that has more do with the struggling nature of print journalism today than my age. For two years I edited the California Hemlock News (now Compassion & Choices), working with right-to-die activists in their 70s and 80s.
Now I’m floating around in the online world, ageless and weightless. Some of the kids I send marketing copy to have no idea how old I am. When I mentioned to one that I used to work on the same street as her company, she said, oh my father worked there 15 years ago and brought me in, take your daughter to work day. She was eight.
I’m exploring the blogosphere and literary journal world – bumping into many young writers, mommy and fashion bloggers, travelers, MFA students. Some are sounding off like they invented feminism or motherhood or sex or depression. A lot of discombobulated heads and ideas. Am I being ageist now? Perhaps. Maybe I would have benefitted from having these online friends when my kids were young, who knows. Maybe I’ll luck out and connect with a few like myself. By definition, we oddballs defy categories, including age.
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” – Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
I’ve been practicing yoga for 17 years and love it. I hope I can continue for the rest of my life.
The only thing I don’t like is the woo-woo fog that follows some teachers around and settles into the spider web corners of the room along with the Hindu god statues.
By woo woo, I don’t mean the spiritual practice from which yoga originates. This is by definition not of the body, ephemeral, left for each of us to interpret and practice. I am not religious myself, or spiritual, but I respect everyone’s right to believe what they want, as long as they are not forcing it on anyone or hurting anyone.
As a writer and always-trying-to-be-kind human being, I deeply appreciate the yoga saying, “Namaste – the light in me acknowledges the light in you.” And if practicing yoga can help me see beyond the limitations of my own ego into a bigger picture, I’m glad to learn. Just try not to go on about it too long.
What I mean by woo woo is the flat-out unscientific statements teachers make about the body and how it works. For example, that we have chi, or energy running through our body and little wheels of energy, or chakras, each a different color and representing a different part of our being. Oh, and we have meridians connecting various parts too. Acupuncturists stick needles into these. “energy healers” use their hands to hover over us and direct good and bad chi traffic. Certain poses, usually hip openers, can release emotions that have collected. And don’t get me started on reflexology, little body maps on the feet, rubbing the big toe helps clear the mind, relax the neck, blah, blah. Any teacher who believes that should go to medical school for 20 years and have her big toe (head) examined.
Many of these beliefs, ironically called ancient wisdom, are actually based on ancient ignorance. Ignorance of how the body works, before we had the ability to prevent infections and disease, before we understood that there was more to us than the Four Humors Hippocrates described around 400 BC.
To my knowledge, someone with a stomach pain wouldn’t go to a doctor who specializes in yellow chakra disease. Well they might (foolishly) visit a naturopath, but if the pain didn’t go away, they’d hightail it to the nearest MRI machine. Same with a brain tumor, or serious mental illness. The purple chakra hocus pocus won’t help as much as a brain surgeon or psychiatrist. Nor do doctors turn to chi banks when their patients run low.
Another example of the pseudoscience some yoga teachers promote is how breathing and doing certain poses will get rid of toxins. Toxins, toxins, everywhere! Twist away and squeeze them out. This idea that we are full of toxins is completely bogus. I swear it is the modern-day equivalent of Original Sin. Unless we drink a full bottle of Drano, our body does a fine job of cleaning itself. With these real body parts called the liver and the kidneys.
Recently I was browsing the website of a new local yoga studio. Selling lava stone necklaces to soak up essential oils and “enhance our vibrations.” And wooden combs “that balance the electromagnetic field of our aura and create a steady, neutral headspace.” (But we must comb our hair backward for it to work.) And a new class with a series of poses, breathing and meditation “to reset our glandular system.”
Asimov was right. Our gathering of wisdom is far behind our gathering of scientific knowledge. And he wrote that more than 25 years ago!
I understand why people want to cling to belief systems that don’t really make sense. We have excellent doctors and treatments, but a healthcare delivery system that is broken, impersonal and expensive. Feeling ill is frightening and so it’s easy to turn to some practice that seems more personal, hopeful. These alternative treatments are not inexpensive, however. Nor are they safe, especially if they delay more effective treatment.
Being a yogi, I tune out much of the blather. But I wish that those who are helping us with our bodies, and even our spirits, had a better understanding of how they work.
As Dr. Steven Novella, an American clinical neurologist and Yale professor, writes about yoga woo on the website, Science-Based Medicine:
“… all of the mystical and pseudoscientific woo that often accompanies yoga is counterproductive. It may be useful for marketing to the gullible, but it taints the entire practice with pseudoscience. I would also find it difficult to trust in the competence of an instructor who thinks a yoga pose will squeeze toxins out of my liver.
It would be nice, but perhaps too much to hope for, to have a science-based yoga movement – yoga-based exercises minus the woo, and evidence-based to maximize safety and effectiveness.”
I love trees and have always wanted to live in a tree house – with certain amenities like a bathroom, microwave and Internet. I’d be fine with the light of my computer, iPhone and lanterns.
In fact, I’d make a good forest ranger, living in the mountains, keeping fire watch, ever on the alert for pyromaniacs and lightning strikes, big bears and wild cats. This profession especially appealed to me while working in crowded and cutthroat cubicle land.
When I played in trees and tree houses as a kid, watching for fires was the last thing on my 10-year-old mind. Playing with fire was more like it. My girlfriends and I disappeared into the woods after school and climbed up the big oak tree to the shack it held in its branches. The tree and its wooden treasure were on the property belonging to three brothers who went to our school. They were close in age, half French and half English as were many of my friends and neighbors in Montreal. The oldest of the three brothers was a bully, the next was a friendly clown and the youngest, our age, was a heart-breaker.
We were most afraid of the bully, so after we removed the “No Girls” sign covering the miniature door and stepped in, at least one of us kept nervous watch. We only stayed long enough to paw through a pile in the corner and find what we needed – strike a big-bulbed match, light a cigarette, take a few woozy drags, and rifle through magazines hoping to find naked people, having grown bored with National Geographic. We were disappointed. Cars and sports. We were never caught, but a big part of the excitement was anticipating the possibility. Who would chase us around, who would joke, and who would try to kiss us?
One afternoon we heard voices below and looked out to survey. It was our younger sisters! All four of them threatening to tell if we didn’t let them come up. We didn’t.
We always scurried down and left quickly but lingered in our minds, wishing we had our own tree house. I think we asked our fathers and were told it was dangerous or illegal. Funny how they had this mono vision photo in their minds of “women’s place,” aprons, frilly dresses and manners and girls being protected and there we were outside in all our free hours, wandering for miles, finding hobo camps, crawling out over ponds on massive tree branches, hijacking rowboats, outrunning the security guards and police and weirdo who waved his wiener. “Keep them safe” was the motto, but the reality was don’t think of them at all. While we may not have been directed to the soccer field and cheered on, we were left to define ourselves.
We tried more than once to erect our own forts, sticking to ground level, pulling bushes around us, but they were never as, well, uplifting or exciting as elevated hideaways with views. And they were easy to smash down as we’d soon discover. In those days, dogs ran all around the neighborhood and a few East Coast hurricanes traveled up the St. Lawrence lashing their tail ends over Montreal, which is an island in the river.
Today when I see little tree houses in back or front yards, I wonder who plays in them. Boys and girls, sure, but what kind of adventures do they have? Pre-fabricated like the tiny wood houses? Do they bring in their cell phones and computers? Do the parents stake out nearby? Keep careful watch from across the yard? From their tree-level windows?
Keep careful Neighborhood Watch on us all as we walk and drive by? Are they watching me snap these photos of their tree house? Don’t worry, I mean no harm, I’m not a wild dog or howling wind. Just a quiet observer. Listening for the lost voices.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).