A Rosé by any other name…

Uhmm, am I grasping at straws here, or is there really a Bacchus? Or, for that matter –not wishing to offend anybody- a Dionysus? http://vinepair.com/booze-news/sommelier-brain/?xid=soc_socialflow_facebook_fw  -is a rather superficial summary of an article published in Frontiers in Neuroscience from the Cleveland Clinic suggesting that smelling wine may make you resistant to Alzheimer’s disease. The very thought that my guilt may have been misplaced all these years is redemptive. And yet… Why does it all seem so counterintuitive? Why does it splash in the face of what I was taught to believe was beyond question? Indisputable? The prohibitions around alcohol in my youth were akin to a religion whose apostasism spelled painful parental sanctions and, of course, the dreaded brain death.

But, the older I get, the more I realize that I am able to shed, penalty free, some of the family shibboleths that I assumed were societal wisdom, not tribal folklore otherwise unknown beyond the kitchen table. That oak trees were the preferred cradle for ticks –an ancestral favourite- I was able to discard one year at summer camp when, dangling my toes in a pond near an oak, I escaped unticked. Not unleeched, however, thus making me wonder if my mother had actually tapped into something more atavistic than she realized. Or am I just making excuses for her because, well, she’s my mother after all?

Of course parents do that –they set impossibly vicarious limits on their children, and glue mores to them like post-it notes. There would be no guilt without parents. Maybe no religion, either. Far be it for me to suggest that both seem to have their roots in an uncritical acceptance of source material, but there you have it. I want to believe that smelling wine would be good for my neurons, and also the extrapolated corollary that therefore drinking it must be even better. Apparently the authors of the summary were also extrapolists –as Shakespeare said, ‘Let every eye negotiate for itself…’

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc? Perhaps, but I thought I’d run it by Brien, anyway. He’s always been a reliable advocator for beer, although I doubt that he smells it much. And I’m not sure whether, even though beer and wine both contain alcohol, the conclusions of that study would still apply. Mind you, I read somewhere that the perceptual loss of certain smells –peanut butter is the only one I remember- had something to do with Alzheimer’s, so maybe strengthening your nose is important somehow…

I found Brien sitting on his porch staring at his cedar tree as usual. I asked him about that once, and he just shrugged and admitted in a whisper that he liked to see the branches dancing in the wind. He made me look at them, I remember, and I kind of enjoyed the show; it was like watching the conductor of a silent woodland orchestra, but I never admitted it. You have to be careful about agreeing with Brien because then he figures you owe him something.

So when I saw him this time, I thought I’d try to put him in my debt for a change. “Hey Brien,” I said calling to him from the sidewalk and waving.

He slowly summoned his eyes from the tree and let them walk over to me. “Hey,” he said when they had climbed up my legs and roosted a little shakily on my face. It wasn’t a particularly auspicious greeting, but I saw a can of beer in his hand and another one lying prostrate on the wooden floor beside his chair.

“I thought I’d come over and see how you were doing,” I said, playing the dutiful friend card.

He shrugged. “Not much wind today,” he answered and tugged his eyes back home. “We may have to stare at something else.” He sounded disappointed. Brien was a creature of habit. He had probably planned on an afternoon of tree and beer; he hated improvisation. Uncertainty wasn’t what he’d expected out of Retirement he once told me.

“I read a really interesting article, Brien…”

He glanced at the tree and then offered me a beer from an ice chest he kept hidden from passersby on the sidewalk. “What is it this time?” he said, shaking his head slowly. “Not more of that stuff on exercise I hope…” Brien is a large man, and as such, largely exerphobic –his neologism.

I shook my head, trying not to look too eager –that always makes him suspicious. “It’s about smelling wine…”

His eyes poked me rudely on the cheek. “I only drink beer.”

“I know that!” I said it rather forcefully, I have to admit -I had to keep his attention. “But I think it may work for beer, too…”

He lowered his head and looked at me as if he were a professor staring over the top of his glasses at an annoying student. “Did you say smelling wine, or smelling of wine?” He allowed himself a chuckle.

I decided not to take it as a rebuff and smiled. I felt a little like a Jehovah’s Witness bearing the Good News to his porch. “The article suggested that people who smell wine for a living…”

“You mean drink wine, don’t you?” he interrupted -a little irritably, I thought.

“No. I mean sommeliers –the ones who can tell the terroir from the smell… Wine experts,” I added for some much needed clarity, judging by his expression.

“They have smelliers for beer, too,” he said defensively. “I just don’t know any…”

Anyway…!” It was my turn to interrupt. “The point is that learning to differentiate smells, may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.” I saw disbelief beginning to creep over his forehead. “They both affect the same area of the brain, I think the article said. So it may mean that practicing smelling could be a way of strengthening the neurons in there.” His expression changed. “Makes them more resistant, I guess,” I added to shore up my argument. “… At least it works with wine…” I figured I should issue a disclaimer in case it went to court.

“You mean it’s an exercise I can do right here on the porch?” He was smiling now.

I nodded, not sure where this was going.

“I can already do two or three,” he said. His smile had grown so large he had trouble framing his lips around the words. Then he sat back in the chair and stared at the can he was holding. “You know, I guess my mother was right all along…”

I watched him curiously for a moment. He’d never mentioned his family before. “Mothers always seem to know things…” It seemed like the right thing for me to say.

He nodded pleasantly. “They sure do… She always told me I’d end up forgetting my own name if I just kept drinking beer…”

Who knew, eh?











The New Age String Theory

Retirement is a two-edged sword: there’s more time available, but less time left to use it. And yet, age wears perspective on its cuffs and dresses in knowledge if we are lucky. And even from its recently shrunken pedestal, it still offers a unique view of the variegated panoply of progress. We can observe the problems in which we were once enmeshed, but from a safer distance; and we can grasp that although they are different, they are really the same. It is feeble comfort, perhaps, but it is Wisdom.

And yet there is a catch: for Wisdom to flower, for enlightenment to blossom, for Pattern to emerge, there must be the weft and warp of things past. Aye, there’s the rub: having survived to experience Retirement, what shadows lurk in still, dark corners? Is crippling mental decline the comfortable chair beckoning from across the room? Or, as with Othello, are we already so declined into the vale of years, we head towards it for relief?

One of the few perquisites of Age, is the permission to wander short distances from the heavily trodden road under the guise of hindsight. It is, however, a balancing act: stray too far, and it’s dementia; tiptoe only circumspectly, and it is a forgettable idiosyncrasy. But, after travelling all this distance through the years as an eccentric and then arriving unscathed at the nether end, am I only to be tolerated –or worse, institutionalized? It is not the epitaph I had in mind. Rather, I wish it to be acknowledged that, unlike many, I was able to floss to the very end -although I’m not sure how that would look on a tombstone.

Perhaps I should explain. Flossing –for those of you not old enough to remember- was a meditation technique reputedly invented in 1819 by a dentist in New Orleans, but I think the practice has been around for a lot longer than that -as long as we’ve had hair, anyway. In fact, I remember seeing it in action by some women on a bus in Bolivia years ago. Hair was merely a dross waiting for a need –waiting for evolution.

Of course, flossing is something that requires a fair amount of coordination and ontogenesis; it can be done without an opposable thumb, I suppose, although it’s hard to tear off the string from the little container without one. Thus it is rarely observed in rats or beavers despite the need, and I’m given to understand that chimpanzees will not do it while they are being watched, so we don’t know about them. Neither will I, for that matter.

Flossing underwent a bit of a decline during the war years, probably because all available string was shipped overseas for the war effort. It made a spectacular resurgence in the affluent 1950ies, however, when actually keeping an intact set of teeth became a distinct possibility. Who can forget that black and white TV commercial sung by my mother’s favourite -Doris Day: ‘Floss your teeth today, in your Chevrolet’? Oh, the memories! Maybe it’s still on YouTube…

Nowadays, flossing has become so important, it’s almost New Age in the intensity with which its spirituality has been espoused -although not quite so hokeyWe flossing aficionados have long been aware of the underground data linking filthy gums to health risks. Flossers, it was hinted, lived longer, more productive lives than those who just watched TV before they went to bed –String Theory it’s called in some circles, although they may have borrowed the term. At any rate, I am pleased to report that my retired sources think they remember reading that there is new evidence that flossing may help stave off the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Or maybe it was arthritis -they weren’t sure.

A little background. Most of us by now are steeped in the preventative lore of Sudoku, crossword puzzles, dietary strategies, and even exercise to ward off cognitive decline. We have become sifters through health promises, traders of articles -Googlemasters. All for that elusive lottery of memory -for what are we, really, without memory? It is what knits the ravelled sleeve of who we are. That I wake up each day convinced I am the same person who went to sleep, and that I recognize as friends those faces which appear before me, is what validates a life. I take no comfort in Nietzsche’s jibe that ‘The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.’ That is the urbane rationalization of one who thinks the exact opposite… Of one who thinks.

I suspect the root of the problem of cognitive decline is that Science is still unable to pinpoint a cause or -at the level of neurons and their increasingly dysfunctional connections with age- a way of preventing the degeneration. Of course it makes sense to provide adequate and appropriate nourishment to them (dietary management); make sure they stay well oxygenated (exercise); and with the increasing awareness of the plasticity of the brain for laying down fresh neural pathways, to continually challenge it with new material (socialization, games, etc.). But why this is more necessary as we age, is problematic. There have been various theories throughout the years as to the effects of such things as arterial narrowing and inflammatory processes in the cerebral blood vessels, but the issue of whether or not it is inevitable still remains.

So, is there anything more we can we do about it? String Theory may offer some hope. Suppose that flossing does get rid of the plaque that inflames gums which otherwise, ISIS-like, would have sent terrorists far and wide to wreak havoc? Suppose that, in the end, it all comes down to clean gums? Maybe I can die with a good memory, recognizing who I am until the very last syllable of my recorded time.

And yet, and yet… I am still haunted. Do I really want to be bright and clear until that last breath, aware that I’m about to tumble off the edge? Maybe there’s a reason for pre-terminal forgetfulness -a numbness that we tamper with at our peril… Maybe we shouldn’t be flossing too close to our dies mortis

Are you allowed to fake stuff on your epitaph?