My older sister was one of the smartest people I ever knew. She was so good at solving certain puzzles that for many years it was rumored that a representative of a 3-letter government intelligence agency once came around to inquire whether she might be interested in going to work there. Much later in life she debunked this rumor, explaining to me that multiple representatives of this agency had tried to recruit her over a period of several months.
Yet, despite her high intelligence and the added advantage of having two smart and technologically savvy sons who stood ready and able to teach her, throughout her life my older sister claimed she did not understand how to operate her own cell phone. As if to prove this point, on dozens of occasions she stubbornly failed to answer her phone to take my calls.
While the timeworn phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” goes back at least to the sixteenth century, the ancient wisdom appears to be untrue — at least as applied to real dogs. Indeed, to the contrary, “Animal experts say it really is possible to teach an old dog new tricks – and it is important to do so in order to keep them mentally stimulated as they reach old age.” (See “Pet owners should teach old dogs new tricks to keep them mentally stimulated, experts say,” published online in The Mirror (4/23/23), https://www.mirror.co.uk/lifestyle/elderly-dogs-pets-animal-care-29760843.)
In modern usage, however, the phrase generally refers to people, typically old ones, who are either too settled in their ways or lack the interest to learn new things. My older sister apparently being a case in point.
As for me, the thought of stagnation during my old age is terrifying. So today, going on three years since I voluntarily stopped my day-to-day professional activities following Lee’s death, I try to maintain a busy schedule that includes time for continuing education and self-improvement activities, lest my mind, memory and physical abilities suddenly or rapidly dissipate.
Fortunately, I remain an avid reader, who flips between works of fiction and works of nonfiction. Researchers and academics agree that reading enhances human memory. This fact alone ought to inspire seniors to read more. Moreover, there is consensus that, as between works of fiction and works of nonfiction, fiction provides readers with numerous additional benefits, including as relevant to today’s discussion, reduced stress, better sleep, improved relationships, increased happiness, even perhaps longer life.
Like reading activities, writing in old age provides similar types of health benefits. As a lawyer, I always considered myself a professional writer of sorts. However, I recall that even as a kid I enjoyed creating a story or writing a play on my secondhand Royal. Writing is a serious endeavor, a mental exercise that demands regular practice to improve. I can say that preparing these weekly musings is personally satisfying but can be extremely challenging.
Not surprisingly, playing music, or even just listening to music, can provide brain exercise. After all, music requires your brain to work hard to make sense of music’s structures and mathematics. Of course, apart from any other perceived health benefit, music is capable of making people of any age feel happier.
By way of background, I have played guitar for decades, and still take lessons. While I am a serious student of music and consider myself to be a competent guitarist, I am strictly an amateur player. However, when the music requires me to perform an extended solo, it exposes the serious holes that exist in my overall game. Creative extended improvisation is a longstanding problem for me, which I have been trying to fix for years without very much success. Then, during a lesson just this past Monday, I experienced one of those rare and satisfying moments where the light bulb came on, illuminating parts of the mystery.
Finally, despite my age-related and rapidly diminishing athletic skills, I refuse to give up the ghosts of past glories. Therefore, this past winter, while wintering in Tucson, I took up the increasingly popular sport of pickleball. People who live in warm weather places enjoy a great advantage, naturally, since they can practice and play year all year. Since returning, I have discovered they also enjoy more numerous, and better, facilities than we have here. Nonetheless, I plan to dedicate the next several months to becoming a better player, so that when winter returns, and Lola and I again head off for Tucson, I will be able to compete at a higher level.
The question persists: Can this old dog still master a new trick or two? Although I don’t yet have any hard answers, the one thing of which I feel certain is that that I am neither so settled in my ways nor so lacking in interest that I would refuse even to try.