Getting In Shape; Getting In Better Shape   Leave a comment

“Read read read read read read read everything you can read,

And learn learn learn learn learn learn learn everything you can learn,

For there’s no tomorrow like today,

And there’s no today like tomorrow.”

-Violent Femmes, Lack Of Knowledge

I’ve been overweight for most of my life.  But in my late 30s I realized that, with the loss of metabolism that comes in middle-age, my last chance to get in shape was rapidly passing; if I didn’t do so by age 40, I probably never would.  Never having been an athletic person, I found a tolerable—enjoyable, even—form of exercise in yoga at a great studio.  And I went from eating restaurant and packaged meals to cooking with fresh produce.  Between 2008 and 2010 I lost over 50 pounds, and my waist size shrunk to what it had been at age 15, when I was a few inches shorter.  Of all the things I had imagined I’d do by age 40, getting in decent shape was the last one in which I would have expected to succeed.  Staying in shape is a daily struggle, but at least it has become a manageable one.

And now that my 40th birthday has passed, I find myself looking towards 50 and beyond, and to the health of my mind.  Like everyone, I hope to stave off dementia, Alzheimer’s, and the general memory deterioration that affects so many people in the later years of life.  But I also hope to resist the middle-age tendencies to close the mind to new ideas, to become stuck in old habits, and to cease to innovate.  I recently heard on NPR a story of a woman in Victorian times who essentially invented the art of collage at age 72; I want to be like her.  And yet I already hear myself think the occasional judgmental thought about young people’s fashions & music.  No time to waste in building up my mental flexibility!

So here is a list of the mental exercise I hope to master within the next decade to get my brain in better shape so that I grow to be a wise, inventive, open-minded old man:

1. Learn to meditate.

This is something I’ve been trying to do for well over a decade; in the Christian tradition it’s often called centering prayer (though many would make a distinction between the two): taking one or two intervals each day to quiet the mind.  I’ve been much better recently about disciplining myself to find the time for it, but “monkey mind” is still an enormous obstacle.  The data—both anecdotal and scientific—are pretty clear that those who regularly practice some kind of meditation experience all kinds of benefits from it.  I hope to be among them soon.

2. Learn more languages.

More than the one, I should say.  Research suggests that learning multiple languages is another way to keep mind-deterioration at bay.  I took three years of French in high school, but living in California, I’ve often wished I had learned Spanish (on the other hand, I remember about three phrases in French, so it’s not clear that high school Spanish would have done me much good either).

But my brother and sister-in-law speak fluent Spanish, and they’re raising their children bilingual, so it may be wise for me to learn Spanish simply to keep up with my niece and nephew.  I’d also like to brush up my French again, if for no other reason than to watch Cocteau and Renoir movies without the subtitles on.  And I’ve always wanted to learn both Irish and Scottish Gaelic.  And Latin and Tibetan, if for no other reason than to be one more person on the planet helping to keep these dying languages alive.  I’d love to watch Kurosawa and Ozu movies without the subtitles, but to add Japanese on top of those others might be pushing it; maybe by age 60

3. Read more.

With reading comes an expansion of the mind, and digestion of new ideas (even if those ideas come from the ancient world).  I’m somewhat well-read, at least in fiction (I live in fiction, and rarely read non-fiction for pleasure).  But there are so many great books to read—and so many to read again!  I’d love to take another voyage through Moby-Dick, but there are several Melville books I haven’t read yet.  The Iliad and The Odyssey also beg re-reading, but next to them on the shelf unread is The Aeneid.  Over the past 20 years I’ve made multiple attempts at both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, each time feeling I was too busy to give it the focus required; I hope by 50 to find the time and wisdom to make it through these two Joyce puzzles.  I’m two John Irving books behind.  And that’s just the top few layers of the pile on my nightstand?

4. Watch more movies.

Many of you are saying, “MORE movies? how can he watch any more?” But there are so many I still haven’t seen—so much to learn!  And they keep making new ones…

5. Be more tolerant of those with whom I disagree.

This is especially difficult when it comes to the Tea Party and Christians who think that Jesus-hates-gays-and-scientists-but-loves-Free-Market-Capitalism.  But if I can recognize and respect, even in the heat of an argument, the emotional place from which that argument comes, and learn to speak in friendlier terms rather than aggressively attacking the other person, perhaps we can both open our minds and hear one another.  Or maybe we can simply agree to disagree and be friends anyway?

6. Be more compassionate.

Clearly, that ties into exercise 5.  But it’s more than just reaching for understanding with political opponents; it’s looking for the humanity in everyone I see, and thinking more of their needs—and of global needs—than of my own.  Getting out into the world and doing more for others, not just talking about it.

7. Play Hamlet in a film.

That’s from my list of things to do by age 30; how’d it get in here?  Now I’m thinking King Lear.

So check back with me in a decade and see how many things on this list I’ve accomplished.  Here’s hoping my response isn’t, “List?  I don’t remember any list.  Now get off my lawn, Whippersnapper!”

Posted 23 September 2011 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Uncategorized

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