Monthly Archives: May 2012

Morris Sword Dancing

Social dancing is physical manna for your health. It gets your body moving and your neurons firing. Morris dancing takes this to another level, with the myriad foot patterns and sword movements that have to be learned in order to accurately and smoothly dance within your group of six. This is what I discovered in my capacity as an extra person for my school’s May Day dances.

Turns out that every year on May Day each grade in this K-9 school has its own dance to perform in front of the entire school, which includes parents and grandparents. Held outdoors on the field, all the students dress in their summer best, and for ninety minutes there is swirling and foot stomping, dosey-doeing and allemanding. After a school-wide Virginia Reel, the ninth grade winds up the festivities with a Morris Sword Dance.

For the dance, the students need to be grouped in sixes. This year, there were 19 students in the ninth grade, necessitating 5 faculty volunteers to help make four groups of six. Of course, I volunteered! Besides enjoying the social component, I had to learn four rounds of sword dancing, reciting on a daily basis right over left, flat on top so that I could remember to pass my sword properly, thus winding up with a locked star.

It wasn’t that the dance was difficult, but rather when we perform, it becomes a race to the music to see which group creates their star first. The adrenaline rush of trying to be the first with the star is often what causes any given group to muck up with the passing of the swords. In the end, all that really mattered was the tremendous fun everyone had dancing, coupled with marching around the rectangular field being high-fived by all the kids in the other grades!

This first set is my group practicing earlier in the day. For the actual dance, each ninth grade group dons their costumes (held secret till the actual dance), and my group became super heroes. (Wonder Woman, in case you were wondering ;-) ) Scroll down to see us in as our super selves!


Successful Aging

Oh dear, yet another large print book. I have nothing against the concept of large print, ideally this makes it easier to read for people with vision issues. However, I wish the publishers did a better job with layout and leading, the latter essentially being the spacing between lines. Lines of large type clumped on a page does not, actually, make for easier reading (for me).

John W Rose, MD, and Rober L Kahn, PhD, compiled the results of a MacArthur Foundation Study on aging and the result is the 1998 book, Successful Aging. Given that this book was published 14 years ago, there was nothing new in it that I had not already seen in some other format.

There were, however, two items that did particularly strike me. The first was the wonderful optimism the authors exude in describing both the results of the long term study and what the findings could mean for the future. While they break down the study and discuss multiple aspects of aging, I think the book’s message can be summed up quite simply. To paraphrase Carol Dweck’s findings about mindsets, those with growth mindsets will find it easier to deal with aging and, as such, will likely have a positive impact on their own aging process. Those who have a fixed mindset will find that when the going gets tough, they may be less flexible in managing repercussions, which will likely have a less positive – and perhaps negative – impact on their own aging process.

The idea of mindsets holds true, as well, for younger peoples’ perceptions of older people. As a teacher, I have always believed that students rise or fall to the level of expectations held for them. Similarly, if younger people can have a positive mindset about older people and the process of aging, this is more likely to have a beneficial impact on their interactions with older people and on their own aging process.

Due to the date of the book, 1998, I tended to question some of the statistics the authors noted, especially regarding the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in the aging population. I am reasonably confident that the numbers of people with, and expected to exhibit some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s is far greater than what they forecast back in 1998. You can read more about the Latest Alzheimer’s Statistics in the United States in this article on the Texas Alzheimer’s Research and Care Consortium site. In any case, both resources note that dementia and Alzheimer’s are not part of the normal aging process.

Similar to what I have gleaned from other books on aging, and from attendance at various Learning & the Brain conferences, Rose and Kahn note there are several factors a person can engage with to help their brains and bodies age normally. Turns out we do have  some control over how we age, it’s not all in the genes.

  • engage in physical activity – good for the body and for the brain, as exercise helps stimulate BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor
  • fertilize your social network – showing care for and an interest in others, and allowing them to do the same for you makes for a strong support system
  • believe that you can manage whatever comes your way – while this may not always be the case, having a “cup half full” approach to aging can help you handle the blips

According to research, focusing on the above three elements will help an individual age successfully. Essentially, this approach translates to preventive care, and preventive care can aid with (in the words of the authors) “avoiding disease, maintaining high cognitive and physical function, and engagement with life.” Alternatively,

Disability in older people results from three key factors: 1) the impact of disease, or more commonly, many diseases at once; 2) lifestyle factors, such as exercise and diet, which directly influence physical fitness and risk of disease; and 3) the biological changes that occur with advancing age – formally known as senescence.

For more on healthy aging, here are some of my prior posts plus an article by Elkhonon Goldberg.

Wow, it’s been 5 years.

Five years of blogging. Still interested in the brain, but I’ve expanded, not uncommon when given the freedom to follow ideas wherever they lead.

Some months I am prolific, other months rather quiet. For awhile there were some wonderful folks who were regular commenters, but I let down my end of the blogger’s bargain – I stopped commenting on other people’s blogs!

My threads have included the physiology of the brain, thoughts about schooling, professional development for faculty, human anatomy, workshops on: learning-the brain-the arts-yoga, posts for SharpBrains.com, and more recently, the aging process.

In several weeks I will begin a new tack for my teaching career. For the past 30 years I have thought of myself professionally as a computer teacher and facilitator of professional development for faculty. Beginning in June, I will take on the role of lower school STEM Integrator, focusing on the “T” – technology. (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Math.)

I am excited to switch mental gears to become part of a new community of learners, and to explore learning from a different perspective.

Yeehah! It’s been five years, and the next five are wide open for discovery! To anyone who has stopped by to read and ponder for a bit, thank you for visiting. I hope you’ve gone away with something to nourish your ideas or answer your questions.

(First post: April 4, 2007 – Calendar)

On Music, Dopamine, and Making Sense of Sound

Last week SharpBrains published part one of my two posts about Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music, and now part two is posted! On Music, Dopamine, and Making Sense of Sound explores how music impacts people who have Parkinson’s, dementia or Alzheimer’s.

If you know anyone with Parkinson’s, dementia or Alzheimer’s, and if they currently do not have music in their lives, I hope you will share my two posts with them and with their families. Thank you, on their behalf!

Music as Therapy: Music, Movement, Cognition!

A number of my posts have dealt with my foray into teaching yoga and facilitating movement for folks who are dealing with movement limitations, the normal process of aging, or changes in cognitive functioning due to dementia or Alzheimer’s. I have also mentioned Daniel Levitin, the author of This Is Your Brain On Music, related posts being available here.

I am delighted to share that yesterday part 1 of two posts furthering the above conversations has been posted on the SharpBrains blog. My post is Music as Therapy: Music, Movement, Cognition! I hope you’ll pop over to read it, and if you have any feedback, please feel free to share, especially if you have related experiences that we can all learn from. Thanks!

More from Mortimer

John Mortimer may have started his career as a barrister in England, but he is equally, if not better known for his literary career, topped off by a memoir in three parts. The last part, The Summer of a Dormouse, Mortimer wrote while making the most of his mid-70s, almost a decade before he died.

While life has its inconveniences for him, Mortimer certainly gives the impression of living life to the fullest while he has any say in the matter. That’s not to say he doesn’t think about death and dying. Towards the end of his book is a chapter that begins:

I that in heill was and gladnèss
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infirmitie:
Timor Mortis conturbat me.

That last line, written by William Dunbar, Scottish poet, is Latin and translates to “fear of death disturbs me” or “the fear of death confounds me”. Mortimer notes how “Dunbar was especially worried by the fact that death seemed to have it in for writers” and lists stanzas from a Dunbar poem wherein each stanza had a rhyme about an author or two coming to an end, the stanzas ending with “Timor Mortis conturbat me.”

Here is Mortimer on Dunbar:

For me Dunbar, the good-time monk, got it right when he thought of death not as a mysterious love object but as a vague, unexplained anxiety. Timor mortis, like arthritis and failing eyesight, sets in around seventy and becomes acute after seventy-five. There are, however, if not cures, at least painkillers, placebos and periods of remission.

Love, the opening of a bottle of champagne or the act of writing sentences to fill a long sheet of ruled paper can banish timor at least temporarily. The cure is to be found among the living, not dwelling with those good fellows, Rowll of Aberdeen and Rowll of Corstorphine, reduced to an asterisk by death and the editor of an anthology.

[The Rowlls were authors, and in a reprint of Dunbar's poem, an editor deleted their names and replaced them with an asterisk!]

Humor was certainly Mortimer’s method of understanding life. And in his final sentences, having embarked on an annual picnic, wheel chair among his companions, he leaves us with what I hope guided him through his next decade.

I feel neither old nor in any way incapacitated. Everything is perfectly all right.

The Summer of a Dormouse

In early April I shared my recent foray into literature about aging, as seen through the eyes of those older than I. The Summer of a Dormouse is book number two, and I have just made a discovery that, although entirely fitting, has me somewhat indignant. But first, some background.

Turns out that my local library only had access to one version of this book, the large print version. Having never seen a large print book, I was curious to know if it would make reading easier. What I discovered is that the text overwhelmed the pages. A bit more white space or leading between lines would have made a positive difference; better yet, access to a standard print size would have been greatly appreciated.

John Mortimer is the author, and he already had one claim to fame with me as the writer of Rumpole of the Bailey, a PBS series about an English barrister, lovingly portrayed by Leo McKern. In The Summer of a Dormouse, Mortimer entertains while sharing reflections on a year of his life in his seventh decade.

Now for the indignant portion, of which there are two! Only this morning, in checking out various amazon.com versions of the book, did I discover that The Summer of a Dormouse is “the third installment” of Mortimer’s memoirs. Am wondering why that isn’t noted anywhere on the book’s back cover blurb. But here is the stronger reason for indignancy – the title is off! In the concluding paragraph of the New York Times obituary (yes, alas, John Mortimer died in January, 2009 at the ripe age of 85, and here is The Guardian’s obituary), Mortimer is quoted from this book – The Summer of a Dormouse: A Year of Growing Old Disgracefully. Why is it that the second part of the title was left off of the large print version?

Well, disgraceful as it may be to switch titles on different publications of a book, Mortimer’s memoir is anything but disgraceful. Mortimer reminisces on politics, writing, socializing, family, building a theatre, and finding a statue to sit on an empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, among other topics. In his humor and seriousness, he shares a healthy approach to aging, seizing it for all it is worth and making the most of his time. What especially struck me was Mortimer’s statement on old age.

The real trouble with old age is that it lasts for such a short time.

He goes on to say:

All worthwhile projects are investments in the future. … After you’re seventy, it’s probably too late to establish another career, create a mature garden, or discover a new way of writing. The old, grabbing time by the forelock, have to go for immediate results.

Worst of all, there’s not time to see a child grow up.  [Mortimer is talking about his youngest child, a daughter who was born when he was 62.] … For me life becomes insupportable, and inoperable pomposity is liable to set in, unless there’s a fairly young child about the place. Having such a child makes it essential not to die until it’s absolutely necessary.

Barbara Arrowsmith

In January 2008 I wrote a post about Barbara Arrowsmith entitled Plasticity and Education. I first heard about Barbara through reading Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself. To quote my piece from 2008, Barbara was born with an asymmetrical brain, which means that one side of her brain functioned astonishingly well and the other side functioned retardedly. Her experiences growing up led to her opening a school that made use of strategies she learned through experience and research. Here she is in her own words, talking about the book she has just written, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation.