You Never Forget How to Ride a Bike?

You never forget how to ride a bike.

It’s called a procedural memory, a knowledge learned at a young age that becomes so ingrained, you don’t have to consciously think (how to walk or swim, how to write or tie your shoes, not to touch a hot stove). This information is stored in a specific area of the brain, and is always accessible, but here is a secret:

You can forget how to ride a bike.

If something happens to the brain, that information can be lost. Thankfully, aside from traumatic brain injury or early onset dementia, you don’t have to worry about losing those little gems, but as you get older, the guarantee expires.

The other night, my dad (aged 92) tried to pull a casserole out without an oven mitt. I swatted his arm away, avoiding a visit to the ER, but he seemed confused by my interference. He said it never occurred to him that the dish would be hot.

Dad struggles with word retrieval. He forgets to eat lunch. He can’t remember how to make the microwave or the television set work, and like the hot casserole dish, I’m caught off guard as each of these procedural memories expires.

My dad taught me to ride a bike. I never imagined that one day, he wouldn’t be able to ride one.

I thought convincing him to stop driving was the biggest challenge, until I had to stop him from ordering random things off the internet. I allow him as much independence as possible, exercising patience when he pushes back, but he is getting close to the point where sleeping is the only thing he is allowed to do without supervision. With each adjustment, I’m careful not to blame his limitations. Instead, I repeat that we are facing these changes together, and the new rules are not meant to punish or control him, but instead to make things easier on me.

As his world shrinks, my compassion grows. Who will pull a casserole out of the oven for me when I’m older? Will I know when it’s no longer safe to drive?  How will I react the day I hop on my bike and can’t make it go?

Middle age is like standing at the pivot point of a seesaw trying to balance memories of boundless youth against the limits of aging. Until, one day, it’s time to get down and let someone guide you home.

Stumbling Toward Enlightenment

I attending a wedding a few weeks ago, and ended up cloistered at a table with other singles: all divorced or widowed, and at least 25 years older than me. I was able to make polite conversation, but often glanced around at the other tables full of my contemporaries. They were all coupled up.

My friend, the groom was beaming. After searching for a wife (including two engagements that never made it to the altar), he finally achieved his goal by getting married at age 44.

The newlyweds union was born from online dating. They seemed like a really good match. Not the same, and not without flaws, but two hearts that compliment each other well.

As the band played and I watched all the couples dance, I reflected on my own uncoupled conundrum.

My fatal flaw is obvious-I’m a sucker for a pretty face. Anytime a cute guy smiles at me, I let him sell me the Brooklyn Bridge, and I pay top dollar, too.  It doesn’t matter how many times this illusion has been proven completely, and utterly false, I dismiss my own history and believe THIS one is different.

On the drive back to the airport, I stopped to fuel up both the car and myself. The cashier tried to help me select something to eat, but I was distracted by the black, blue, and purple balloon where her left eye should have been. The fist that broke her face had struck not too many hours beforehand, but here she was hard at work. It looked painful, but she did not complain, a true physical abuse veteran.

I drove off wondering why anyone would stay with a man who speaks with his fists, but I quickly dropped my judgement. Who am I to point a finger? The emotional abuse I’ve suffered at the whim of narcissist companions doesn’t show outwardly, but it does leave a mark. Yet, I walked away only half of the time, and only after a long debate with myself. The other half of the time, I was left behind with my heart ripped to shreds.

Why do we tell ourselves we are not worthy?

I’d argue that I do believe in myself, but my reality tells a very different story. I want to blame the guy. I need to believe he doesn’t understand me, or he just wasn’t the right one, but the truth is I lack a clear understanding of my value in this world.

Since Ann Landers says I can’t accept my dog’s admiration of me as conclusive evidence that I’m wonderful, I’d better set my sights on looking within.

“He who knows others is wise, he who knows himself is enlightened.” -Lao Tzu

Smoking Gun

Until the 1990’s in America, smoking was an accepted social vice. My grandparents smoked. My parents smoked. Their friends smoked. My siblings and most of my friends smoked. Despite the habit being smelly, unattractive, and unhealthy, no amount of federally mandated warning labels discouraged people from lighting up.

Change came suddenly in the form of a social movement ignited by the media’s unveiling of ways tobacco companies lured in and poisoned the population for their own financial gain. As Americans, we might fight for the right to poison ourselves, but conspiring to make us look the fool? Turning us into patsies for profit? That blow to the ego demands retribution. Like a tidal wave, the momentum of popular opinion crashed effortlessly through previously insurmountable obstacles.

Almost overnight smoking was out. The backlash was so complete that venues in all 50 states banned smoking. Anyone unable to overcome the addiction has been ushered to a “designated smoking area” as the rest of us walk by and shake our heads. There is a big difference between being told what to do (government regulation) and finding out someone has been secretly screwing you over for years. Both scenarios invoke a “put up your dukes” mentality. We won’t stand for it, and true gun reform in America will need to come to light in the same way.

I don’t consider the right “to bear arms” in the constitution as intended for individual ownership. It is manipulative marketing, not unlike Joe Cool of Camel cigarettes convincing people to smoke. At the time the constitution was written, guns were kept in local armories and used only against large scale enemy attacks. Individuals riddling fellow citizens with bullets was unheard of and would certainly confound our forefathers. The article by Jill Lepore appearing in the New Yorker on April 19, 2012 entitled, “The Birth of the Modern Gun Debate” explained how the NRA evolved from a group of hunting and sport enthusiasts to the behemoth political lobbying effort that insists members would rather die than give up their guns.

Still, nations such as Britain and Australia have overcome their dependence on personal firearms. I have faith that America can, too. No one wants the government to infringe upon their freedom. The threat of legislation to control arms is a gift to the pro-gun lobby. With the media as their accomplice, gun enthusiasts push the button on the primordial fear response to bolster gun sales. But what if the issue of gun rights was reframed? What if it turns out the NRA is perpetuating a conspiracy? What if their real motivation is to encourage undesirable in the population to kill themselves off with all those guns? Far fetched, perhaps, but surely there is a conceivable angle to turn gun ownership into a stigma. Ideas once in fashion eventually fall away like the ash from a burning cigarette. We just need a perspective shift on guns.


Staring Stan

Have you ever been seriously stared at before? I’m not talking about catching someone looking just before he turns quickly away. I mean someone who is fixated, eyes locked, seemingly unashamed…staring. If the guy was a stranger, label him a creepy stalker, and get on with life (hopefully never seeing the wierdo again). But my Staring Stan is someone I know. He is someone I’ve known for a long time. Should I ask why he is staring at me? What if he denies it? Seriously, I SAW you! Maybe he claims he was just spacing out? He wasn’t. Staring is staring. It happened repeatedly and intensely enough that it occurred to me to make sure I was fully clothed.

In high school, staring made sense. Teenage boys stare at teenaged girls, but high school was over twenty five years ago. I’m not a circus freak. Stop staring!

Really, I should be staring at him. What happened ? He used to be fun. He used to know how to relax. He used to have a personality, but we chose different paths: He recreated the “Leave it to Beaver” household with his perfect wife and two beautiful children. I did not select a spouse or give birth. I also didn’t become a completely different person. Maybe he is staring because he recognizes that I’m still me. I haven’t changed. Somehow I missed the chapter about growing up where everyone casts off their younger selves and becomes middle aged stereotypes who follow around behind their spouse saying “yes, dear”.

He is exactly the kind of guy HE used to make fun of.

Ironically, he now looks at me the way I looked at him twenty years ago. The expression is of mixed awe and disbelief, as if the object of attention is so amazing, it seems unreal. Does he wonder how his life might have turned out if he didn’t become someone else’s husband? Is he trying to recapture a sliver of a life he no longer lives? If so, then what he sees truly is unreal, but I know the feeling. It’s the moment, on the cusp of waking from a really good dream that you force your eyes shut tighter to hold on, but at that point, it’s already too late.

Evolving or Moulting?

What do Princess Diana, Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, Walt Disney, Sir Richard Branson, Charles Dickens, and Elton John all have in common? Each one of them dropped out before finishing high school, but none of them needed support from Nutrisystem, Tony Robbins, or Garmin to figure out what direction to go in life. How did they evolve into the leagues of the world renowned? People write books, lead lectures, and create reality television shows about the secrets of success, but the real secret is that each path is different.

People change. At least, I believe they are supposed to change as the years slip by. My favorite things to eat as a kid were bacon double cheeseburgers, ice cream sundaes, and donuts. As a teen, I added cheap beer and tequila shots to the list. I played sports through high school, but in college, nothing interrupted my social (drinking) schedule. I developed a temper and felt awful most of the time. Twenty years later, I’m a vegetarian. I don’t drink, and I’ve run three marathons. People find out that I don’t smoke or ingest alcohol or eat meat, but I do run 26 miles for fun and they conjure images of me as a baby knawing on brocolli stalks and running laps around the crib refusing to believe that I wasn’t always this way.

In my case, transformation began as an experiment. By senior year in college, I was actively searching for ways to feel less like crap. To quit staying out until 3am at the bar every night would have been too much to ask, so I gave up fast food. It was amazing how much one small adjustment helped. That step became permanent and the process continued until I subsisted almost entirely on plant matter.

Other issues were handled in a similar fashion:

Problem: 8 hour desk job = extra pounds.

Solution: Tried the gym, didn’t like it. I had friends who jogged, so…after a few weeks, I could shuffle along (I wouldn’t call it running) for three miles, and the pounds started coming off. My sister suggested we run a marathon. I thought she was crazy, but signed on anyway. A year later, I ran across the finish line of my first 26.2 mile race ready to sign up for another. I took to running like I took to eating vegetables. Both did a lot of good with little downside.

My motivation to succeed came from a desire to unearth a better version of myself. But was I evolving or moulting? Did my changes come about because I was expanding into a better version of myself? Or had I begun to shed old layers of crud?

At certain age, we all find ourselves lacking (too ugly, too dumb, too clumsy) and start trying to cover up the bad with clothes or make up, by drinking or smoking, with over eating or under eating, or by trying on identities like Halloween costumes (I’m a jock, I’m a brain, I’m a diva) only to reach a point in life when the costumes don’t fit anymore. Whatever we’ve used to hide our true selves needs to be cast off to find the person we rejected so many years before.

Not everyone gives up fast food and ends up vegetarian. Not everyone starts exercising and becomes a marathoner, and not everyone can be Walt Disney, but everyone has a true self, a better version of you inside that needs to be visited, checked in on, touched base with, tweeted, or IM’d once in a while because that person holds the secrets to success.