Sunday, May 30, 2010

Where the Heck did I Put my...?

Has anyone seen my glasses, my cell phone, my wallet, my keys?”

These questions can be heard in many households around the globe. Especially in households containing people over the age of fifty. Make that forty!

Thanks to ‘middle-aged’ brain syndrome (my own terminology), once we hit that particular stage, our lives and minds are never quite the same.

This week, when shopping at Costco, I filled my cart with the usual staples and then added several impulse purchases. Pressed for time, I got to the cash register with few minutes to spare before picking up my son at school. After scanning all my items, the cashier passed me the contraption to scan my debit card. To my shock and horror, I couldn’t remember my password.

“Do you have cash?” she asked.

I checked my wallet. $25 would definitely not cover the contents in my cart. “No,” I said. “Let me think for a second.” Well aware of the long line behind me, I racked my brain, practically causing a hemorrhage.

“We have an ATM over there,” the woman said.

I smiled. “That’s not going to help if I can’t remember my password.” I closed my eyes and thought some more. How could I forget? I’d been using this card for years, albeit not that frequently. “Do you take Visa?” I knew they didn’t but thought I’d inquire for good measure.

The only way I could explain this memory lapse to myself was that since Visa recently began requiring passwords, the place in my brain where I stored my debit card code had been taken over by my new four digit code. Not to mention all the other passwords floating around my brain competing for storage space.

The cashier had to reverse all but $25 worth of my purchases and another employee had to put everything back on the store shelves. I was so mortified that I couldn’t look at the people waiting in the line.

As I headed to my car, annoyed and frustrated, the forgotten password popped into my head. What a nasty trick!

Since I haven’t even reached the age of fifty, this is disturbing. And how many times have I walked into a room and forgotten what I was going there for? How often have I struggled for a person’s name when introducing them to someone? Such senior moments are not supposed to happen to me. Not yet.

I read, write, do crosswords, play scrabble and bridge, and even tackle Sudoku from time to time. Aren’t these activities supposed to keep our brains alert? Sure I have a million things going on in my life, including helping manage the lives of my kids and husband, but don’t we all?

Several years ago I read a Margaret Wente (Globe & Mail) article about her own struggles with forgetfulness. After removing her debit card and receipt from an ATM machine, she left without taking the cash she’d just withdrawn. Funny that I’d remember that story, which I’m sure I read more than five years ago.

Recently, I heard an interview on NPR (National Public Radio) about the aging brain: The Surprising Strengths of the Middle-Aged Brain. I have to admit, I fall right into the profile. Barbara Strauch, the health and medical science editor at The New York Times, writes about this very topic in her new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain.

According to Staunch, the bad news is “Our brains do decline as we age” (no surprise), but "What [scientists are] starting to do is sort out what is normal aging [and] what is pathology and leading toward dementia — and they now know that dementia is not inevitable, and that basically this 'normal forgetting' is part of normal aging. And in many ways we can — if we keep ourselves healthy — actually improve our brains. We can live out the rest of our lives with pretty sharp brains if we're lucky."

The good news is this: “not all is lost in middle age. There are certain cognitive functions that improve as a brain grows older. Strauch points to studies that indicate that a sense of well-being peaks — across all occupations and ethnicities — as people reach middle age. In addition, she says, certain studies show that an older brain can solve problems better than a younger brain.”

Last night my husband and I went out for dinner. When he handed over his Visa to pay for the meal, and was given that little machine asking for his security code, guess what? He couldn’t remember it. Good thing I had my Visa card with me and I knew my password. Problem solved.

I guess if you put two aging brains together, the chances of someone remembering something are much improved!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

High School Reunion Revisited

This weekend I attended my high school’s 60th Anniversary reunion in St. Lambert, Quebec. As opposed to my years’ 25th, this gathering included multiple generations. I applaud the organizers of such events for their devoted efforts and hard work—a job that is surely under-appreciated or, at the very least, under-acknowledged.

Our reunion weekend included golf tournaments, soft ball games, walking tours, meet & greets, dinners, barbeques and dances. Some graduating years organized special activities like go-carting and watching the semi-final NHL hockey game at a downtown bar (a depressing outcome for Habs’ fans).

Regardless of age or graduating year, each person arrived with their own package of pre-conceptions, expectations, and personal experiences. My brother, who graduated two years before me, looked forward to re-connecting with his high school buddies, many of whom he’d known since early childhood. As the kid sister, I knew them all in varying degrees. Tagging along with my brother, we started our weekend visiting with this group at the childhood home of one of ‘the boys.’

The polite salutations were soon followed by sketches of youthful misdemeanours and wild escapades, including playing pranks on students and teachers. I’m sure the tales were tempered for the sake of the three women in the audience, including the host’s mother. As a mother of two young teenage boys, I brace myself as our sons launch into their own high school experiences. But I am reassured by the fact that my brother and his friends have all grown into accomplished, good-mannered and genial middle-aged men.

For my part, the highlight was seeing my oldest childhood friend and her four siblings. They came from many directions, including Switzerland, to attend the CCHS reunion. We grew up four doors down from each other and the three eldest of the brood used to baby-sit my brother, sister, and me in the sixties.

Such sibling gatherings are rare and since this clan is like family to me, I was thrilled to partake in their own reunion. As we sat in Alison and her husband Jimmy’s dining room having brunch, I pictured their father at the head of the table, carving the roast as he had done many a Sunday dinner. The Bruce kids' deep sibling bond is a testament to their wonderful parents, who raised five very fine people.

At the school functions, only about twelve from my graduating class attended, which wasn’t too surprising given the fact that we’d had our own reunion in 2004. Re-connecting with friends from the other grades was a bonus, and we had the opportunity to make new acquaintances. A few teachers showed up too; when I called Mr. Praw by another teacher’s name, he was not impressed. “Mr Howe is dead,” he said, “and I don’t look anything like him!” Oops.

Walking along those infamous Chambly County HS corridors, we found them unchanged except for fresh-painted walls, new floors, and updated lockers. A state-of-the art gym had been built on one end of the school in addition to a renovated industrial-type kitchen and a new cafeteria. Still a relatively small school with 500 or so students, the intimate space suggested a positive learning environment—as was the case ‘back in the day.’

Speaking to some of my old classmates, I learned of a few recent divorces (including our high school sweethearts) and I felt bad for them all. But sometimes change breathes new life into unanticipated situations, and hopefully these folks will find renewed happiness along their separate paths. A few people spoke of early retirement, having done well in their careers, and others talked of mid-life career changes. Several of my classmates’ parents are deceased, a few after having barely retired. I’m grateful that my own parents are still full of verve and in relatively good health despite their senior years and minor ailments.

Before heading back to Toronto, my brother and I drove back to our old house and took a stroll through the neighbourhood. Looking at the past through a new lens, we both commented on how small the houses seemed and how short the distances had become. We snuck into our backyard and were pleased to see my mother’s forget-me-nots in full bloom.

High school reunions are not for everyone. One woman told a classmate that she had no interest in coming because she hated those years; why would she want to relive them? As for me, I didn’t love my high school years, nor did I deplore them. But they were five years of my life that were influenced by the people and culture around me and they contributed to the formation of my worldview. I guess I’ll always feel a little nostalgic for the people and experiences from my youth that played a part in my own life story.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

High School Recall

In 2004 I attended my high school graduating class's 25-year reunion. I come from a quintessential middle-class, homogeneous, Wonderbread enclave in Montreal, where not much has changed over the years. I graduated from Chambly County High in 1979 when I was seventeen, and moved to Toronto after university in 1985, returning occasionally for visits.

When I’d first received notice about the reunion I was ambivalent. What was so great about those years anyway? We were just a bunch of teenagers awkwardly weaving our way through our youth struggling to fit in, hanging out, pushing the boundaries, and dealing with insecurities and volatile hormones. My years were filled with sports, parties, and lots of babysitting.

I wish I could say I was greatly inspired by a particular teacher or that I discovered my true calling through some life-altering teenage experience, but nothing about high school left much of an impact on me. The good news is that I passed through my teen years unscathed, an accomplishment in the eyes of some parents.

Despite my apathy about the reunion, I began to feel a sense of nostalgia. With a relatively small graduating class (about ninety-five students) the names and faces are hard to forget. What had become of them? Had they left Quebec like me to pursue a career in a more hospitable environment? Or did they choose to make the beautiful city of Montreal their life-long home?

After completing my degree at McGill, I couldn’t wait to escape the political tension and the separatist angst. With a boyfriend in Toronto and a good job offer in hand, I didn’t think twice. As is often the case, hindsight creates history, and from time-to-time I’d think back on the old days, missing Montreal and wondering how my classmates had fared.

Still, I was reluctant to attend the reunion. The reviews of others who’d attended their high school reunions tended toward the negative:

“The big shots are still full of themselves and the jerks are still jerks.”

“No big surprises except for the men. They’ve really gone downhill with middle age. The women aren’t so bad.”

“Beware of the drastically transformed. A tiger doesn’t change its stripes.”

After trading emails with a few old friends, I decided to go, regardless of the bad press. Why not? I’d consider it an adventure into the past.

The experience overrode my negative expectations. The men were handsome in their suits and ties and the women were radiant. Beyond appearances, I found the group to be affable, charming and fun. Conversation was mature and intelligent and I connected with people I’d barely spoken to during those years. I chatted with the guy I’d had an undisclosed crush on in grade eight, and laughed at myself for having avoided him that entire year.

Were these the same people with whom I shared five years of classrooms, lunchrooms and infamous dances in the gym? As I sipped my wine in that very same gym, my mind wandered to the days when "Stairway to Heaven," the last slow dance of the night, often clinched the deal between newly formed couples.

About 50% of the class had stayed in Quebec, a much higher proportion than I’d expected. The rest were scattered across the continent, many having settled in Ontario, but few in Toronto. A few had married their high school sweethearts and were still together, despite the negative odds (Quebec has the highest divorce rate in the country).

There were no brain surgeons, nuclear physicists or CEOs of large corporations. But there were accountants, engineers, salespeople, small business owners, teachers, and stay-at-home mothers and fathers. No criminals or derelicts, as far as I could tell. I listened to stories of family challenges, unpleasant divorces, and circuitous life journeys. I was impressed by those who showed up despite lousy life circumstances. One man, whom I’d remembered as a gregarious type, explained that his gaunt appearance was the result of his current “divorce diet.”

I’d expected some divorces, second marriages and blended families; and I’d expected a few wrinkles and grey hair, and a wayward character or two; but the high percentage of people suffering from serious health issues shocked me.

Yet there they were, cheerful, courageous, and uncomplaining. The camaraderie, the positive energy and the caring amongst the crowd were truly inspiring. A man in his last stages of colon cancer was friendly, conversational, upbeat and outgoing—the antithesis of his frail and sallow appearance. I hope he felt the compassion and admiration of his peers. Sadly, he passed away soon after.

Who would have thought that by age forty so many from our class of ‘79 would be dealing with such challenges as cancer, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis? As members of the sandwich generation, caring for young children in addition to aging parents, who can afford to get sick? One of the take away lessons for me that weekend was never to take good health for granted, or let a day pass without appreciating the gift of wellbeing.

My classmates and I were all born around the same year, grew up in the same community, and were educated under the same roof, all with dreams of copious amounts of joy and adventure gracing our futures. For some those hopes were dashed too soon. Illness, death, divorce, unemployment, disabilities and depression played havoc with their dreams. But the spirit fights hard and life plods on; we do the best we can, hope for the best, and wish the best for others.

This coming weekend I’ll be back for another reunion, encompassing all graduating years since the school’s founding sixty years ago. I’m bracing myself for some sad news, but I also look forward to hearing some happy news replete with new beginnings and second chances. I don’t know if I’ll return with any revelations, but I look forward to another snapshot into the past and a renewed glimpse of the present.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Hot Shot on Wheels

On a balmy Sunday evening not long ago, my husband and I took our dog for a walk in our neighbourhood. We did the usual loop—through the park, across the junior school grounds and back home along the residential streets. It was 8:00 in the evening and there were many people still out, enjoying the last few hours of the pleasant weekend.

As we walked along Princess Anne Cres., a beautiful tree-lined street that borders the school, a grey Porsche raced by at about 100 km/hr. The engine roared and as the car barrelled past, I held out my arm gesturing to the driver to stop. He waved in arrogant defiance. Then he whipped around the corner, screeching his wheels, with obvious disregard for his surroundings.

If we’d had a chance, my husband and I would have taken down the licence number and called the police. The guy was either drunk or crazy, or both. A few blocks ahead, just as we were walking by a yard where a group of people were congregating for what seemed a family gathering, the same car pulled to the curb on the other side of the street. The driver, in his early thirties, got out of the car and strutted past us with an air of haughtiness.

“Hey,” he said, peering through cool shades. “Didn’t mean to scare you. Are you all right?” He spoke in a condescending tone.

“Lucky you didn’t kill someone,” I said. “This is a residential neighbourhood, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. I grew up here.”

“Incredible,” I said.

My husband walked to the other side of the street to get his licence plate number.

“Look, my cousin is visiting from B.C. and I haven’t seen him for twenty years,” the guy said.

“And that makes it all right to tear through this neighbourhood like a maniac?”

“You’re all right, aren’t you?”

This exchange happened in front of his family and friends on the front lawn of a charming bungalow; I had to wonder how the audience perceived the encounter. Were they impressed by this cool Porsche driving dude burning rubber in a school zone?

“I wasn’t worried for us,” I said, “we were on the sidewalk. I was worried for the cyclists and children that you could have hit.” More like murdered, I thought.

He made a rude gesture and joined the crowd on the lawn.

In the guy’s mind, his desire to show off for his cousin justified his actions; and the fact that he’d grown up in the area and knew the demographic was obviously inconsequential. Sadly, this attitude of entitlement seems rampant these days. The media is full of stories demonstrating an increasingly pervasive lack of values and judgement.

I don't have anything against Porsches or the people who drive them, but when I see a privileged and educated grown man behave in such a manner, it’s difficult not to feel enraged. When this kind of attitude of self-importance is so blatantly displayed, one has to question where society is headed, and what can be done to stop the madness.

I don’t know the answer. Do you?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Purging Paper is Harder than it Sounds

Yesterday was recycle pick-up day in our neighbourhood. We have the extra-large blue bin, which the city empties every two weeks. Usually it’s full, a sign that we must be over-consuming. But we are a family of four and our growing boys eat a fair amount, much of which comes with some form of packaging: water bottles, pizza boxes, cereal boxes, milk and juice cartons, jars of all sizes, soda cans etc. We could probably do a better job compacting the boxes and I could buy milk bags rather than cartons (although the plastic is worse for the environment), but generally I’m a fairly environmentally conscious shopper.

Same goes for garbage. Every two weeks our extra-large bin is full to the brim. If I were really diligent and ambitious about reducing our output, I’d go through the entire bin with my family and discuss each piece of debris (like they did on Oprah on a recent episode).

The boys learn about recycling and garbage facts at school and we try to reinforce the teachings at home. We have a container in the kitchen for recyclable glass and plastics, a box in the utility cupboard for boxes and papers, and a green bin for biodegradable waste. Everything goes in its proper place. The problem is, we have too much of everything.

Technology should help somewhat. Now that we can read newspapers and magazines online, we should be able to reduce at least some of our paper product consumption (the Sunday New York Times must weigh about ten pounds). Which brings me to my main point. Yesterday, our bin wasn’t as full as usual so I thought it would be a good opportunity to get rid of some of the magazines I’ve kept over the years.

I love magazines. I love the glossy photos, the variety of articles, and the current perspectives. I could read magazine articles all day long. Every year the kids participate in a magazine drive to raise money for their school. This is when I renew my subscriptions and sometimes tack on a new one. My husband buys them too. We justify the expense because it helps the schools and also because a subscription is more economical than buying a magazine at the newsstand.

Unfortunately, we don’t have enough time to read them all. As a result, we save them for future reading. But before we know it, the next issue has arrived, especially the weekly publications like MacLean’s and the Economist. The magazines pile up in the living room, our bedroom, and the family room. Same with the newspaper. I read the headlines and then put the paper aside for later on in the day. Predictably, I don’t end up having time because there is always something pressing to attend to outside of the work day: emails, phone calls, volunteer obligations, appointments, kids’ needs, pets’ needs, domestic chores, and now that spring is here—the garden. Who has time to read anything? (I must thank my followers for taking the time to read this blog!)

At night I either work on my new novel, my editing, or try to keep up with my book club reading. So the magazines accumulate and assimilate into our decor. They end up on bookshelves, on coffee tables, in wicker baskets, and in the basement. I have decorating magazines from years ago that I am loath to dispose of because they contain beautiful, creative ideas that I might use some day. Given the fact that we moved seven times in twelve years, I never know if another move may be around the corner. And then there’s the gorgeous LCBO magazines filled with mouth-watering photos of delectable dishes accompanied by recipes that I must try, eventually.

Yesterday was a day of reckoning. I dumped about two hundred magazines into the recycle bin. Was it hard? Absolutely. Just about every publication screamed at me to keep it a little longer, for the day would surely come when I’d be laid up or bored, and would finally have time to read what I missed.

Sorting through the magazines was a challenge. I couldn’t be ruthless. There was too much important information in those pages.

Headlining titles popped off the covers: Summer’s coming: Put the kids to work; Science Says: Happiness Really is Contagious; Why Boomers Hijacked Facebook; A Step-by-step guide to finding (and fulfilling) your life’s purpose; and Saving Energy: it starts at home. How could I throw these out? And then there’s Time Magazine’s glossy Year in Review: The Events That Counted, The People that Mattered, The Stories we’ll Remember…from 2005. I never did get to that, but perhaps I will—one day.

I recently cancelled my subscriptions and now I do most of my current magazine reading online, but I can’t help being drawn to a magazine stand at an airport or the grocery store and then breakdown and buy one or two, which I inevitably add to my “must read” collection at home.

As a writer, who must compete for those coveted magazine and newspaper spaces, I should be promoting the trade and singing the virtues of that physical feeling of paper between the fingers. But with computers and eBooks and now the iPad, it’s difficult to make the argument, especially when the environment stands to be the biggest casualty of all.