Reheated Thanksgiving leftovers on lightly toasted Pugliese joined me for a KQED pledge break. In all of my years I cannot recall catching a live drive, previously disappointed by the notification that this was a re-broadcast offer whenever some well-meaning corporation would offer to double your donation, so it was a particularly exciting viewing experience.
Head beggar for the event was joined by a doctor from UCSF who helped to produce the documentary being shown, Brain Fitness 2, which examines the effects of aging on the senses and considers possible methods, through scientific and technological examination, of toning the brain and revitalizing our ability to perceive and react to the world around us. The term plasticity was thrown around repeatedly by every neuroscientist on screen. Peripheral vision was the torch– maintaining the ability to see beyond the scope of focus is paramount to a youthful mind. Unless you’re at a cocktail party trying to focus on a conversation in a noisy room, because then you want to close off everything around you.
Watching people in driving simulators, eye-examinations and computer generated images of the brain propelled me toward an advanced state of paranoia. Over the years I’ve been in the habit of growing older and recently my ability to recall certain things has fallen from an admirable to deplorable state. Sitting outside a bar with Keith a couple weeks back we were interrupted by a staggering drunk who introduced himself a couple times before we were able to politely worm away. “Stay away from girls whose pussies smell like squirrel”, he cautioned as we bid him farewell, to which I responded, “If the ladies were squirrels, with the big bushy tails, we’d fill up our shotguns, with rock-salt and nails.” The drunk (whose name escapes me) was greatly impressed by the couplet but once safely inside I attempted to explain the source of this age-old wisdom to Keith. It’s a duet Waylon Jennings did with… eh… uh…, that fucking producer, you know? The guy who taught Phil Spector how to work a sound board back in Arizona, who recorded Sanford Clark, that song with that dame about walking boots… Finally Lee Hazelwood popped into my mind but only after some serious soul-searching and embarrassment.
These brain farts happen on a regular basis. Song lyrics are disappearing through the frayed crevices of my mind, people’s names have become disassociated from their faces and, unholy of all sins, I now routinely commit repeating senseless and mundane personal anecdotes to people who’ve suffered through them before. Now I’m staring at the television being told I have to be able to focus on everything in my peripheral vision while simultaneously being able to cut out all distortion and noise when having a quiet conversation in the midst of a raging kegger. My eyes ached with the effort, began to cross, floated in different directions entirely. I couldn’t concentrate on what was being said, I couldn’t drown the voice of my roommate’s running commentary and off-topic nitpicking to concentrate on what the pledge host (whatever the fuck his name is, even tho he says it every five minutes) was saying during the breaks.
It was my friend’s birthday and I had intended on going to her party until I found myself seated with a plate of heated Thanksgiving leftovers hoping it would quell the growing pressure between my eyes, disturbed by my future as a deaf, dumb and blind drain on the public coffers. The prospect of attending the party was tempered by experience but I had been adamant I would make an appearance, late, and apologize for not having anything for the potluck. Instead I became completely engrossed in my growing feeling of decay while synapses sizzled and fried inside my skull.
Parties are not something I normally attend, even when someone’s celebrating the worthy cause of having been born some years ago and ignoring the fact that the person who really deserves credit is their mom who they don’t call often enough. In this particular instance, for this particular friend, this would have been the first birthday party I have been to. Previously I had been to her two going away events, one anti-Valentines soiree, and innumerable movie showings and most have left a bad taste in my mouth. Her friends are overwhelmingly not keen on me, and this after my making an effort to be friendly and nice and engaging instead of drinking too much and going around being an asshole. I can’t explain the bad chemistry and it’s been documented by third parties so it’s not just some persecution/ego issue.
Attending this birthday wouldn’t even grant me much access to my friend as she would be mobbed by admirers, so I envisioned an evening wherein I would take the underground downtown with a quart of Anchor Steam, walk to her house, say hello, stand somewhere out of the way and drink my beer, say goodbye. If fate smiled upon me and the extraordinary effort I had exacted in traveling to this party there might be one of the couple of people who I knew through her who have seemed to work out a system wherein they would alternate who would come talk to me after I stood alone and silent holding up a wall somewhere. Even if we could only stretch a “some weather we’re having” conversation into half an hour, the gesture has always been nice.
Instead I was lounging awkwardly on the horrible couch, Thanksgiving leftovers amassed in a brick of mild-nausea, considering the future of forgetting to put pants on in the morning and wandering the streets in a blind daze overwhelmed by the sounds of traffic. That’s frightening, but each pledge break invited me, the viewer, to donate chunks of money to support my community public television and in return I would receive a CD-ROM program designed to keep my brain sharp through a battery of exercises created by the brightest minds of neuroscience. People who have a spare $400 floating around can preserve their senses’ ability to communicate with their brains and the rest of the population can fuck off and die.
However, they give you a little taste, a four-point plan of generals everyone should follow to keep their senior years clear of getting lost in the house and asking where your glasses are after you’ve put them on your head. The first step is to keep healthy, which is not something I excel at; the second step is to stay socially active, which probably means not spending the evening skipping birthday parties for being frightened and gorging on Thanksgiving leftovers on the couch; the third is to aggressively engage the world around you, but this advice was married to a woman smelling flowers in a garden so I’m not sure what aggressively entails; the fourth I missed because I was already failing the test and it didn’t matter if I aced the last point.
Stay socially active. This has been a long-standing difficulty for me. I don’t like going to bars, I don’t like going to parties, I don’t always feel able to handle going to a show. Often times, when I ignore my impulse to avoid, my suspicions that I will have a miserable time are confirmed but on occasion I’m pleasantly surprised. There are fluctuations in my desire/tolerance index for joining in on these and other group oriented activities which depend on what my doctor would consider my state of mental health if I bothered going to see my doctor. My first encounter (rather, that which I remember more clearly because the years of doctors and therapists and everyone trying to figure out what’s wrong with me took place before I was 12) with the concept of mental health came when I was getting my throat swabbed for strep. The nurse, after complimenting me on my gag reflex, was concerned that my fucked up teeth were indication that I had been vomiting frequently; a conversation that skipped over various years of various drugs but somehow wandered into the suggestion that I should seek psychiatric help immediately. I left the sick room with a business card for a behavioral therapist and my throat culture-infused q-tip in a plastic bag to be deposited at the lab.
My wanting to go to my friend’s party wasn’t strictly to wish her well and have cake, there’s currently something throbbing in my head that is warning me of isolation and pushing me into having to interact with people outside of my typical daily existence. The act of going would be something of an exercise, to force me into a situation I did not want to be and see if I could loosen up enough, or lobotomize myself enough, to have a good time. Perhaps I would meet someone with whom I would find common ground which might in turn extend beyond the confines of the birthday party into an ill-defined and ultimately unfortunate series of neurotic episodes, shameful behavior and agonizing distress. I was close, I had spent all day convincing myself I would go and I had every intention of following through until I realized that if I did take a couple Tums, take a couple shots, take a couple asprin and pick-up a shot of espresso along the way I was already doomed by bad thoughts to repeat every unpleasant social engagement I have been through.
The next evening I was sitting in my room with a friend. She brought french fries, I had a couple beers, we played catch-up:
“What if you meet someone that’s totally amazing, and just when you start falling in love with them they tell you they have AIDS?” she asked. “Wouldn’t that suck? I mean, you’d have to decide if you’re willing to go through all of that for them.”
“Yeah, I’ve thought of that.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
“Not really. I don’t think it’ll be a problem for me.”
“Oh yeah, your problem is meeting people.”
We laughed, but french fries and beer probably do not constitute aggressive engagement.
Images of a brain and all things brain looking are lifted from Sharp Brains, who seem to be in league with Brain Fitness.