Learning later in life

I am away next week, on an intensive French course in Québec City, so the next post will be April 4.
This is a thinly-disgised girlfriend getaway; I am going with my friend Alyson, and we intend to be good students not only of our second language, but of the culinary delights of this scenic old city.

So, I should not say "thinly! But we hope that walking back and forth to class will mitigate a few teatimes with macarons and a celebratory big dinner at Le Pied Bleu.

I am not worried about my waist, but I am worried about my brain, and therefore my ability to get the most out of the course. As I age, my thirst to learn is mitigated by noticeable and highly frustrating memory erosion. Oh, it goes in, and comprehension is fine—but retention is not what it once was.

When I read on Kindle, the pages do not show a header—so I responded to a recent inquiry about what I was reading by saying, "I have no idea but it is by Annie Proulx. " ("Barkskins"; I had to look at the title page.)

I get the 'click' I have always felt when a concept or pattern settles into my brain, except in several days, without continual repetition, my new nugget of grammar or vocabulary goes the way of the geometry theorems I learned in 8th grade: familiar, but not retrievable.

Alyson's wife does Brain Gym exercises to continue mental stimulation, and takes Great Books courses. I admire that; you have to do something, and just like physical exercise, if it's an activity you enjoy, you'll stick to it.

My current brain stimulation comes from those year-round classes, the choice of "harder books", and my annual July-August vacation from the Internet. During that time I make a particular effort to dig into long essays, explore genres and forms outside my usual, and spend more time in nature, usually on foot.

I already count the weeks toward my unplugging because I suspect the blurry barrage doesn't help my retention. Ross Douthat, in his op-ed piece, "Resist the Internet" says, "The internet is not the opioid crisis; it is not likely to kill you... But it requires you to focus intensely, furiously, and constantly on the ephemera that fills a tiny little screen, and experience the traditional graces of existence—your spouse and friends and children, the natural world, good food and great art—in a state of perpetual distraction."

Nor is the Internet a sterling way to learn, because it places a low demand on cognition, delivering the vast majority of its material as small, declarative chunks that require a low level of mental processing.

This spring and summer, I want to select some new stimulation. I am curious about what you do to use your brain, especially its abilities of recall.

I have found anxiety about retention of new information makes my memory even worse, and, like anyone who saw "Still Alice", wonder if this is the beginning of dementia. Sometimes I can laugh, such as the time when I stood before a salesperson searching for the word for the coat I wanted. I'd used it most of my life, but it had tiptoed off just over...there. (Duffle).

Here's a joke:

Three women meet for coffee. The first says, "I think I'm losing my memory. I was standing in my kitchen with a jar of peanut butter in my hand, and I couldn't for the life of me remember what I was going to do with it."

The second woman says, "Oh, me too! I was on my landing, looking out the window for just a few seconds, and then I couldn't recall if I had been going up or down."

The third says, "Well, nothing like that has happened to me yet, touch wood."

She raps her knuckles on the table, then says "Oh! There's the door! I'll get it."

See you on April 4; I won't forget!

The kindness question

Continuing choleric Facebook posts in my feed are countered by requests for kindness and respect. I also am exhorted on most blogs written by women to "be kind", over and over. But when I think of real persons, not the pseudonym-protected snipers online, I see much kindness, or at least civility, in everyday life.

So why, I wonder, am I so often importuned to be kind? Perhaps because its opposite, meanness, is disruptive, painful, and when escalated, violent.

Kindness is a fragrant bough that sweeps away the pebbles on the path of life. Alain de Botton's site The School of Life calls kindness an art, and provides a primer, "Mastering the Art of Kindness". 

I am glad to find this free book, because I need help these days, what with those Facebook feuds and my suspicion that when some of those parties tell those who see it differently to "be kind" , they may be trying to stifle protest, to duck the hard and complicated questions.  "You're not nice!" is calling someone a "nasty woman" with sugar on top.

Somewhere, I realize, is a balance point as tenuously glued together as President Trump's hair. (Yes, I am being mean. Sometimes snark, which is diet-lite meanness, is fun.)

What's missing in these pleas for kindness is an examination of why we continually request caring and consideration. We need it. Kindness helps us muster on, because it contributes to our safety and security.

Whether one adopts Maslow's hierarchy of needswhich places physical and emotional safety just after the physiological needs like air, water, and food—or other models, humans can govern themselves better when they are not in a continual fight or flight mode.

We appreciate meetings were differences are discussed without ad hominum attacks, we're grateful when a friend readily forgives us for forgetting a date, we enjoy even the passing generosity of a held door. Kindness serves life.

My friend Marianne is an intelligent, compassionate, warm woman. Seven years ago, she worked for a practiced bully who systematically undermined her work, despite her efforts to appease, problem-solve, and even confront his tactics. Because of her beliefs and her nature, she never fought fire with fire. Eventually he succeeded in having her fired; she spent from 2009 until last year struggling to get back on her feet.

During that time, Marianne lost her life savings and was often depressed, but received many kind acts. One of her friends moved her into her empty basement apartment in her home. Other friends provided low-key kindnesses: including her in social events that cost nothing, taking her out occasionally, giving her good clothes so she could go on interviews, and just keeping an eye on her. Even her bank was kind, helping her hang on to a family property that provided a tiny income from its occasional rental.

It's easy to be kind to a person like Marianne, and much harder to be kind to someone acting like a jerk, including ourselves. Sometimes the best we manage is a clenched civility.

In me, the milk of human kindness dilutes down to skim on a bad day. I prize the virtue, and wish to be thoughtful, generous, tolerant. Lately despair about the state of the world and our vulnerability can erode my stores. Then I hoover down a slab of endangered fish (when Le Duc is not around) and snap at someone I love. (I am hardly ever mean to strangers, but being kind to some persons whom I know well has taken deep effort, and I've often fallen short.)

When I attend the services of various faith communities, the promotion of everyday kindness is a universal topic—but, presently on leave from such affiliation, I'm hoping the School of Life provides guidance.

The beginning of the treatise quotes findings from a survey attributed to DoubleTree by Hilton, and I wondered, What is a hotel chain doing exploring kindness? But there is money to be made in delivering a nice plump bed, a kindness that earns customers' loyalty. A good hotel or restaurant (not necessarily a luxury one) cossets you; hospitality is really institutionalized kindness.

There's more to say, but what about you, friend? Is kindness important to you? How do you top up your capacity?

Note: Post removed, but will return!

I mistakenly published a post on a reader's pearls before it was complete. The subject of the post, Carolyn, is sending me a better photo.

Some of you will have this post in your readers now; it will reappear in early April, with the new photo.

And since I've popped by to say that,  here is a freeform Tahitian baroque stretch bracelet for a remarkable price, from Pearl Paradise:

Buying jewellery: A gift from Aunt Emilie

A year ago, on her 55th birthday, Annie's 84-year-old aunt sent a card and a cheque for $10,000. Aunt Emilie wrote, "Buy yourself something nice, dear." (Her twin brother Bruce received the same amount and immediately bought a share in a horse.)

Annie has held off touching the gift, determined to make the perfect choice. Aunt Emilie has inquired several times, only to be told, "I'm looking,"

Annie has not so much looked as fretted. She can buy a sofa in less time than it takes me to choose a melon, but is absolutely paralyzed in this sphere. Though she has no debt or pressing expenses, there are always practical things to do with a windfall; at the same time, she does not want to disappoint her aunt, and has long dreamed of a special piece of jewellery.

She asked me, "What do you think about when you are making a choice like this?" I told her that a purchase of fine jewellery is always going to involve a reconciliation between what captivates you and what you are willing to spend, but that you absolutely should not settle. If nothing speaks to you, keep your money in the bank.

I suggested four guidelines:

1. Can you see yourself in the piece at least several days a week? Does it complement what you already have?
3. Is it comfortable?
4. Is the piece beautiful and interesting to you?
5. Is it good value?

I have not put "Will it date?" on the list. About 80% of all jewellery eventually looks dated, just like your clothes. Buy something you will wear often, and enjoy it. You can recycle the precious metal or gems should the piece no longer suit you.

If you absolutely want to avoid the "dated" issue, buy well-designed antique jewellery.

Enough of the lecture,  let's go shopping! Annie had at least narrowed the field, and told me, "I like the classics: pearls, diamonds and gold." (All prices in dollars  are in $US.)

Luxe and rare

"What could I get if I spent it all?", she asked, thinking of Bruce's filly.

Left: She could go all in for a stunning Tiffany South Sea pearl and diamond ring. which includes both rose-cut and brilliant-cut diamonds. I bow before its opulence and discreet luxury. Annie could wear it for the next thirty years with pleasure, and for such purchases that is how one should think: long term.

Price, $8, 000. So that is about $3,300 per year in today's dollars and might be worth it.

Right: I wanted her to consider the resale market. At Beladora, I found an Edwardian ring with a .55ct Old European cut diamond and a natural pearl, set in platinum and 14k gold—I was crazy about that natural pearl (made only by the oyster, no human intervention)—and Annie was impressed by the price tag, $3, 250.  That's only about 30% of the gift, and it still would get her a special piece.

Mid-priced and pleasing

Sometimes jitters are nature's way of telling you that you are spending too much money. Several weeks after I sent her examples from $3,000 to nearly $10,000, Annie decided to dedicate only 15% of the gift to her ring, so our budget dropped to $1,500.

Left: Arts and Craft amethyst and blister pearl ring from Isadora's Fine Jewellery; price $1, 400.

Right: Diamonds, pearls and high-karat gold are still within reach. Edwardian 18k gold, pearl and diamond  ring from FineAntiqueJewellery; price about $850.

Relaxed Real: Under $500

For those of us who lack a bequest, there's still pleasing jewellery out there. I showed Annie some of these more modest pieces, partly to position the other examples in the value proposition. If you don't know what you can buy for $500 or less, you don't make good choices at higher price points.

Here, we say goodbye to gold and diamonds, but can still find genuine pearls set in silver. I love this level of jewellery because it evokes jewellers' inventiveness, and when you find an exceptional piece, you get terrific value.

Left: Tahitian pearl and silver ring by Dublin jeweller Eva Dorney; price, €195.

Right: Ring of pearl with inset aquamarine by Marc Gounard of Sausalito, California; price, about $190 . Other stones available by request.

Annie has not yet made her choice, but is leaning towards the Edwardian pearl and diamonds or something similar. Her aunt awaits her choice, but whenever Annie chooses, the memento will reflect the last line on her aunt's note: "I love you all."

Style: When you're the oldest woman in the bistro

The winner of the draw for the iBook, "How to Get Fit Watching TV" is Doreen!
Doreen, please contact me with an e-mail address that Debbie Rahman can use to send the gift link for your book.  (My address is under my photo in the right sidebar.)

Everyone else: Thank you for entering, your intention to be fitter is terrific. I encourage you to splash out for the book!

We tried a hip new restaurant the other evening, with our neighbours Lou and Jean-Yves. The median age at our table was a solid sixty; a round corner banquette was all the better for conversation. (Another friend insists that restaurant tables have gotten bigger and that is why she can't hear someone across from her.)

Next to us a couple read the menu; he was a skinny man of about thirty, all elbows and horn-rimmed glasses, in a Harris tweed jacket. She wore a stretchy black and red dress with a deeply scooped back, the simplicity of the cut revealed her graceful spine. Everything rested on that sole detail.

I said to Lou, "Look at that girl, the cut of her dress is so beautiful." Lou replied, "Do you realize we are the oldest people in this place?"

Though I sound-check, (and have asked for another table if I'm about to be seated next to someone on a phone), I don't age-check. We all wear more or less the same things, anyway: trousers, shirts, dresses or skirts. But a visit to a hot new restaurant is an occasion to dress up a little, which takes some thought.

Below, two versions: the not-so-current and the happening. Often is is not the garment per se, but how it's worn.

1. Wide-legged trousers
Always a good idea for a restaurant, relaxed and easy to sit in—but at left, the fringed top clutters the line. Not one woman under fifty in that restaurant wore stiletto-heeled shoes or boots with her trousers.

At right, clean lines, no clutter, and thick-soled sneakers. At the bistro, I saw only that kind of sneaker, or brogues with trousers, and block-heeled pumps on my neighbour in that dress. Not one woman in stilettos.

When the streets are clear of snow, a supple coat looks fresher than a heavy fur, fake or real.

2. Printed scarves
Printed scarves from Hermès to Joe Fresh are much-loved here, and while at the bar for the first course, I noticed a woman who wore one conservatively, in the triangle fold anchored by a scarf ring.

Across the room a redhead in a simple shirt wore her patterned silk tucked inside the neckline. You did not see as much of the pattern but the effect was more modern.

3. Off the shoulder
Young people show what they please, because it all looks pretty good. Off the shoulder shows that alluring sweep from neck to clavicle, but if the last upper-body workout you did was to a Jane Fonda VHS, you might be chary.

The young ones wear them tight, often also cropped or just to the waist, like the BooHoo ruffled top on the left. But those of us prone to chill, or not quite so daring, might choose the Getsuz off-shoulder sweater, snuggly and not too clingy, and let only one upper shoulder peek out.

These images are courtesy of Asos, where I was delighted to see this trend offered in many plus-sized pieces.

4. Long cardigans
As the evening ended, the young woman in the scoop-back reached for her long charcoal-grey cardigan, nearly heavy as a coat—and it may well be her coat, once spring is here.

At left, a long waterfall cardigan (by Betty Barclay), a style that hit big a decade ago and still is around the shops.  I no longer have one; I like scarves and felt like a flapping tent with all that moving fabric, so gave it to a friend.

At right, the coatigan I'm eyeing: the sublimely strict "Melanie" by ça va de soi. Shown in framboise, suprisingly harmonious with black, navy, grey, brown, olive.

Much is written about "dressing your age". I'd rather not approach choice from age, but from the fact that styles do change, so inevitably the time comes to alter or replace a certain item.

I'm just back from a trip to the donation box, three pieces out (two skirts, one pair of too-tight trousers) and perhaps that coatigan's coming in.

What might you "spring" for?


I walked through the market yesterday, savouring a spring-like day (not spring, it is only early March, and Montréal); the pavement dry, the sky blue. A woman just ahead still wore a heavy black parka, but with...pink shoes. I knew her mind was on spring.

The shadows lengthened, but I was reluctant to leave the sunshine so turned home slowly and en route, passed my favourite indy boutique, FripeFabrique. Michelle Hutchinson had just dressed her window with a picnic spread and pastel vases holding sprigs: spring whimsy beckoned every passer-by. 

Details from the window: At right, a stack of vintage sweaters; below, a pair of pink patterned socks.

Inside (how could I not go in?) more pink! I can't wear all the hues or a solid-pink dress, for example, but a shot of pink always lifts my spirits. Pink with navy, grey, taupe, red, black; ta-da fuchsia, tart cyclamen, and that pink smudged with a hint of orange, not quite coral. 

Even someone who avoided its frillier expressions during her younger adult years, once she finds her pink, will be the better for it. Call it tourmaline, watermelon, or blush, she will smile when she wears it, even if it's a tiny dot in a scarf.

Scarves: Michelle always has a collection of pristine vintage beauties; excellent buys at $12 each:

Pink, vintage version: A kimono jacket in black and pink; a pearl-snap pink gingham Western shirt (small).

Michelle carries gorgeous lingerie by two wonderful Montréal designers. Left, Barbe Rose velvet-panel bra; right, Ellesmere panty. I am fascinated by young designers who make lingerie; if could roll the clock back, I would take the training. 

Alexis, one of FFs rightfully proud staff, mentioned a bra specialist who teaches workshops in Hamilton Ontario, and, wanting to know more, I found a list of courses (including hers) in many locales around the world, here

In a few days, the time will change, and the light encourages more colour everywhere. People smile more, and small children do that wonderful sideways skip. 

Spring, like pink, makes us feel good.

Progress report: "How to Watch TV and Get Fit"

Winner of  a copy of "Ice Mountain"by Dave Bonta: Patsy!
Patsy, please contact me to provide a postal address to which you would like your book shipped, and I will contact the publisher. My address is under my photo in the right sidebar.

In early February, I began to exercise using with Debbie Rahman and Linda Killian's book, "How to Watch TV and Get Fit, Three Minutes at a Time".  

I added this to my usual routine of walking or biking for an hour several days a week and a pinch of weight work, because that winter cushion which I like to think is caused by my longjohns—but is not—has not been helped by sitting.

There were times, oh, there were a number of times, when I was tempted to skip a day, but knew I had to report to you, even if you'd forgotten about it.

Bottom line, pun intended: My waist and hip measurements are down one and nearly two inches respectively; my thigh measurement and weight stayed the same.

I improved in every section of the fitness test except the devil of a sit-on-floor-and-get-up-without using-hands-or-knees one. I remain an 7 out of 8 in that, despite consulting YouTube for tips. (Some spry British seniors bounce upright like Tommee Tippee cups.)

These results surprised me, because the routine is fairly gentle.  I'd planned to stay at Level One for the initial six weeks to see if even the beginner routine would yield results, but after a month became curious about Two (not all that different, but some exercises add weight by using cans of peas or whatever you have.)

Of course the results for each person will vary, depending on your fitness level when you begin and whether you can be pried away from Facebook notifications and adorable animal videos.

If so, you can insert a roughly 40-minute workout that combines strength, balance and agility into your day, in small increments. No travel, no changing clothes (but loose pants help), no disheartening comparison to the yogi next to you who can put her leg behind her head.

You have done a workout with hardly realizing it.

The downside is that you have to do them; as my friend in AA says, "It works if you work it." But I enjoyed taking a break from my desk and knocking off two or three sequences, a total of 10 or 12 minutes at a shot, more satisfying for me than doing a single sequence at a time—the method you'd use if you spent each TV commercial break during a couple hours of TV doing the micro-workout.

The videos in which Linda Killian demonstrates each exercise are concise and show both front and side views. Linda is supremely buff; don't let it deter you.

In Level Two,  one sequence involves floor exercises, but the view of dust bunnies demotivated me, so I did them standing.

I purposely kept my eating the same, retaining a moderate intake of treats for the sake of more accurate research, and because Le Duc made this absolutely delicious Orange Savarin.

Minor quibbles:
1. The sound (without supplemental speakers) will be low for anyone who is hearing-impaired.
2. The Excel spreadsheet:  I could not input the data for the second evaluation, but I am not a crack Excel user. I built my own chart.

The fun factor is subtle. Many forms of exercise are more engaging, but TV Fitness gets it done, and besides, you will still have energy for riding your bike or walking the dog; this is not CrossFit Bold.

So that's pretty good, isn't it?  The iBook cost $US 10, a bargain for more breathing room in my jeans, and improved strength and balance.

I'm into it now, buoyed by the results—and besides, I want to get up off the floor without using hands or knees. Can you?

And: another draw! Debbie Rahman has graciously offered one copy of "How to Watch TV and Get Fit" to a reader.

This is an iBook, so you will need an iTunes account (free), and one of the following:
1. An iPad with iBooks 2 or later and IOS 5 or later
2. An iPhone with IOS 8.4 or later, or
3. A Mac with OSX 10.9 or later.

I will ask the winner to send me an e-mail address, which I will forward to Debbie, and she will use the "Gift" feature on iTunes to e-mail the link for your book.

If you could like to be in the draw, say so in a comment (by March 10, please). I will announce the winner on Tuesday, March 14.

March: "Ice Mountain" by Dave Bonta

"...get a bowl of snow
not to eat but just to admire
like a bowl of cut flowers."
-  from "Ice Mountain" by Dave Bonta

March heralds spring in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, but not here in Québec, where it is still a winter month, even when the snow thaws to slush and on a specially warm day, we feel the sun's warmth on our faces.

"Not so fast", March says in my adopted city, Montréal. If you left your hat behind and the sun has set, you'll be cast backward to January's freeze. Still, we make a stab at spring: the markets fill with maple syrup and its offspring. la tire, boiled and reduced maple syrup poured over a mound of snow.

As the the days lengthen and the clock "springs forward", Northern people say, "We're out of the woods; we made it through another winter." We scan the sky for returning birds; the air begins to carry organic smells again. Markets sell forced forsythia and pots of tulips but we're wary: Don't pack your boots away, we tell one another.

I'm hosting a draw for one free print copy of a just-released book of poetry which includes an exploration of the inner and outer markers of this ephemeral, elegant season, when nothing quite happens on a timetable.

"Ice Mountain: An Elegy", is poet and naturalist Dave Bonta's most recent work; you can read the publisher's review here.  The setting in the northern mountaintops of Pennsylvania, USA, is illustrated by Elizaeth Adams, whose linocuts are in themselves a gift.

If you would like to enter the draw, please leave a comment saying you would like to participate by midnight (EST) March 5; I will publish the name drawn from a toque, and announce it on the blog on March 7. I will ask the winner to e-mail me with an address for postal delivery.

Digital editions are also available, but I still love to hold a beautiful book in my hands and thought you would, too.