I have Norton Juster to thank for a smidgeon of inspiration for today’s post because it’s in his landmark book, The Phantom Tollbooth, where our hero Miles encounters The Doldrums.
Beware the Terrible Trivium
If you haven’t read this masterpiece (or recently re-read your dog-eared copy), I highly recommend it. It’s a kid’s book–or YA as it might be categorized today–but really it’s full of metaphors, so think of it like a more approachable Pilgrim’s Progress. Miles takes a series of journeys through an odd country, encountering strange allegorical creatures like the Spelling Bee and the Humbug. He becomes embroiled in a war between letters and numbers, King Azaz and the Mathemagician, and must battle monsters to rescue the princesses, Rhyme and Reason. I found the Terrible Trivium demon, the dapper man with no face, who sets Miles to tasks like draining a lake with an eye-dropper, to be particularly disturbing.
The biggest excitement in my life for the past week has been hearing the Bulky Trash people pick up my pile of Things. Last Monday, at 7:02 am, after the morning compost truck had banged its way along our suburban street, I heard the sound of backing up. I was, in fact, waiting for it; had, in fact, already gone out to examine the pile we had sneaked out there after dark on Sunday night to see if it was still humbly awaiting pick-up. (It was.)
Oh beautiful Bulky Trash truck, I was never so glad to see you! I heard the discussions outside in between sounds of metal scraping on concrete; I heard dragging; I heard crunching. Then, the Doppler effect of that engine driving away, and I dared to peek. All gone! All gone! I spent the rest of the day humming to myself and doing a little ceremony and dance, Bulky Trash! Bulky Trash! Everybody do the Bulk-y TRASH! Do you think me simple for getting so excited about trash? Definitely. To paraphrase Jango Fett, I am a simple person just trying to make my way through the universe.
Our Education Regarding Trash
We have come a long way just in my lifetime dealing with the Things we acquire and then jettison. Sesame Street many moons ago had a video with a little song, What about garbage? Where’s it go?Where’s it go-o-o-o? as they showed smiling men putting the trash in the trucks, and the trucks putting it on the barges, and off the barges sailed into the sunset….. Well… not exactly, right?
We learned when we got older and put away childish things that the trash got dumped in the ocean. Or landfills which filled up, begatting new landfills and more and more, until we realized we were going to run out of land for landfills. Voila! Earth Day and the 1970s and recycling, first a few hippies dragging trash bags full of beer cans, then a whole industry, and finally a regulatory imperative. Fast cut to 2020 where we have tri-partite trash, multi-colored cans, and 79% of our county trash avoids landfills.
But it’s not so easy, is it? Even though the Bay Area has some of the highest recycling rates in the country, even San Francisco has had to extend its Zero Waste goal another ten years, stuck at 89% because of leather, rubber, flame retardants. Or, as I found out, because nobody wants a 20-year-old metal bunk bed. We already separate out all the organics, cans, bottles, foil, paper, cardboard, egg crates, hard-molded plastic, yet there’s still cellophane. There are still Cheetos bags. (Don’t judge.)
It’s the second week of January, so a traditional time to sip on a steaming cup of self-recrimination while you finish putting away holiday decorations. Why’d you eat so many of Aunt Marnie’s cookies? Why that extra bottle of wine? So many parties with melted Brie…so little time.
Resolutions get made, then broken or ignored. Exercise machines are purchased, then used as clothes hangers. January can be a dangerous time because–and I’m going to get northern California new agey here–so much negative energy is generated from remorse after all the positive warm and fuzzies from December celebrations now decisively over. You have to clean up after the party, not just the house, but your body and your emotions, knowing that it’s a long time to the next fun and games.
Still, January can be useful. Let’s talk about how.
I bought myself a new computer (Merry Christmas to me) because the old one was doing those things they do when they get old: taking five minutes to boot up, hopping off the internet frequently for no particular reason, or just refusing to cooperate. Not quite the Blue Screen of Death, but it was coming, I was sure. I suppose I could have just wiped the hard drive, but I convinced myself a new one was needed because there were a few new bells and whistles that I wanted.
So I have spent my transitioning into 2019 with Della, the Shiny New Thing, who is frequently reminding me of how painful a process this is. Microsoft is so intrusive and buggy; Support Forums are full of bad advice or suggestions that lead nowhere. I figured out how to port over all the email history I wanted–oh, the cleverness of me! — but I broke the email on my phone, tablet, and old machine in the process and had to remove and reload, over and over.
Of course my keys are in the laundry basket. Of course my wallet fell out of the pouch I forgot to zip. My middle-aged brain forgets the name I looked up only two minutes ago, how to fix that thing that WordPress always does, and what you just said. Last week, my wife came out of the garage with a piece of paper. “Honey, did you need this list of CDs?” Such relief! “I was frothing at the mouth looking for that! Where did you find it!” On top of the frozen bagels.
At middle-age, we lose episodic memory. More on that later, if I make myself a note not to forget to write that part. As we age, we do lose cognitive function, and we incur an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. But our Over-40 brains also have a lot going for them, as I learned from Barbara Strauch’s fascinating book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind.
Debunking the Brain Myths: Smarter than a 25-year-old
Believe it or not, we are smarter than we were and, in some ways, demonstrably smarter than a 25-year-old. Strauch cites a number of studies that have had me crowing with pride for the last week. For example, psychologist Sherry Willis of Pennsylvania State University ran a forty-year longitudinal study on the mental prowess of 6,000 participants. This Seattle Study, which covered people of multiple genders, ages, and occupations, found that they performed better on cognitive tests between age forty and sixty than at any other time in their life. Continue reading “Middle-Aged Brains are Smarter Even Though We Tend to Put our Keys in the Refrigerator”