Wednesday, July 19, 2023


This morning I visited my 108-year-old friend at her nursing home. (To guard her privacy, I’ll call her Fran). I think it’s safe to say that, during each of my twice-weekly visits over the past year—as we’ve chatted, as I’ve read the newspaper to her or played her favorite music—she’s never once remained awake for more than ten minutes at a time.

Today was very different. She likes going outdoors, but between days too cool or hot and those with air quality alerts, we haven’t had many chances to do so. Today’s nearly perfect, so I wheeled her down five floors and out into the residence’s beautiful inner garden courtyard.

Her favorite place to stop and sit is right in front of the first of the gardens’ three waterfalls. That spot was in full, early-July sun, so I was concerned she might get too warm, but she said it felt good.

Fran’s hearing relies on one temperamental hearing aid, and she has trouble speaking clearly, but today she could hear both the waterfall and me, and we fell into an easy conversation.

We started talking about water, about seeing it as if for the very first time. Its stunning clarity, the way it feels on one’s skin, and, as Fran put it, the music it makes as it trips and tottles its way over rocks.

         "I’m so glad you brought me out here!”
           Her eyes welled up with tears.

She noticed some purple liatris whose spikes of sunlit color managed to penetrate the veil of her failing eyesight. A monarch butterfly kept circling us, fluttering ever-closer. It declined my invitation to alight on Fran’s hand, but just kept flying back and forth right in front of her…until she saw it.

At one point, after a brief silence. Fran turned to me and said haltingly, “I just love this; I’m so glad you brought me out here!” Her eyes welled up with tears as she said it, and I realized what a gift this little outing must have been for one whose day-in, day-out confinement starves her of Nature’s wonders.

In the U.S and many other cultures of the developed world, childhood brings us as close to Nature as we’ll ever get. Then we grow up, tie ourselves to our education, careers and homes, and many of us forget what it was like to be one with the natural world.

I’ve always felt that the end of a human being’s life should be more like a mirror image of its beginning. Specifically, wouldn’t it make sense that Nature play as big a role in our health and happiness when we’re old as when we were young?

This is one of the reasons I originally signed up for visiting Fran and other old folks in nursing homes. I imagined myself in those well-worn shoes and how diminished mobility and the realities of institutional living can lead to one’s estrangement from Nature. I thought I could change that.

This morning Fran more than affirmed that hope.

         The most important implement I can
         bring is the turning of a door handle.

I always bring with me to my visits with Fran my “tool kit” of things to read, pictures to look at, music to listen to, perhaps a few games to play. So, whatever diversion she’s in the mood for, I’ll have what we need.

But the most important activity I can bring, as Fran has reminded me, is the turning of a door handle. For it is only outdoors where all of one’s senses are brought to life at the same time, where a person whose horizon draws near is assured of not just an escape from their four walls with bad art, but a sense of essential belonging—today, tomorrow, forever.

I hope with all my heart that this will be the case for me. That when I’ve lost my precious abilities to walk and climb and paddle…and see, someone will be kind enough to lend me those capacities. Take me outdoors with the animals and plants, the moving air and singing water, and let Nature replenish my soul with her perfect, timeless beauty and wisdom.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

MY BRAIN ON DRUGS (REDUX) – A Little More Fun With "Pharmanyms"

This is an update of one of my most popular posts, originally published in 2015. Whole new list of drug names, both real and made up.

IMAGE: Sunovion Pharmaceuticals Inc.

If you’re one of the few folks still watching original, seen-when-aired TV—as opposed to streamed or some on-demand stuff where you can skip the commercials — then you’ve seen these incessant commercials for drugs. You can’t watch for ten minutes without seeing one.

Advertisers of everything from hair growers to testosterone boosters to toenail fungus fighters try to convince you, despite the long, speed-read list of sometimes dire side effects, to demand their potion from your doctor.

For starters, the insidiously oblique tactic of getting you to ask for something your doc may not know much more about than what the culprits themselves have told her seems like it should be illegal.

And, even if you’re not as cynical as I am, you’ve got to agree there’s something else that's just patently ludicrous about many of these ads: the brand names.

      I challenge you to tell me which are real 
      brands and which are the impostors.

PHOTO: NY Zoological Society
Does anyone else think, as I do, that you could sit a chimp down in front of a two- or three-column list of random syllables, train it to pick one from each column, and come up with a better name for an arthritis drug than Xeljanz?* C’mon!

Now, lest you think I’m just ranting—perhaps resentful that some branding hot shots out there are making a small fortune dreaming up these absurd monikers—here’s a little test.

Below is a list of 20 drug brands. (I’ve left out ones so pervasive, like Cialis or Prednisone, that they’ve muscled their way into the vernacular, and I've spared those which at least try to suggest what they do—like Flonase. )

Ten of the names are real—the result, one would assume, of exhaustive research, brainstorming and focus group testing.

The other ten are pure gibberish; I created them in about five minutes using the chimp method—randomly combining nonsense syllables from three columns. I challenge you to tell me which are real brands and which are the impostors. (Answers below)

  1. Delozca
  2. Lybalvi
  3. Steruvia
  4. Qulypta
  5. Ektravos
  6. Vabysmo
  7. Cydirna
  8. Farxiga
  9. Zufuima
10. Verzenio
11. Tarjavic
12. Xyfaxan
13. Quibala
14. Leqvio
15. Semplavid
16. Sotyktu
17. Belsuvu
18. Quviviq
19. Cymtavic
20. Ubrelvy

Absolutely insane, right? But then what would you expect from folks who think you’re dumb enough to want something called Revatio?** How about Dumrite? Ufelferit?

 * Xeljanz is a JAK inhibitor, claimed to disrupt the nerve pathways that lead to the inflammation
    associated with RA.
** Revatio, from Pfizer, is the same drug as Viagra, but marketed to treat hypertension (high blood

ANSWERS: Starting with number 2, every other brand is real. Starting with number 1, every other brand is fake.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

BRAIN STRAINER – To Push or Pardon My Porous Memory

At a recent meeting of my men’s group I got this rude awakening about my memory.

We’d gone around the circle and each done our “check-in,” where we briefly report on our ups and downs during the last two weeks. I thought everyone had taken his turn to do so, except Dick. So I prompted him. “How ‘bout you, Dick?” I asked. He responded with a look of surprise and everyone reminded me that he’d been the first to check in. 

How embarrassing. Not only had I forgotten the few updates Dick had shared; I forgot that he’d even shared them. I babbled some kind of excuse, but then he added that I’d done this about something else barely a week before.

           My dad had a term for folks like this:
           He has a mind like a steel trap.

I like to think of myself as a good listener. I make a real effort to hear what people say. I follow up with a question or two and remember enough of it to perhaps ask about it the next time we get together.

So what’s going on with me and Dick? Or maybe I should say with me and my memory? Do its lapses mean I don't care?

I raised the question at our next men’s group meeting, where I at least got the consolation of hearing that a couple of the other guys share the problem.

That discussion also supported my assertion that my leaky memory is not—as are many of the maladies we share now that we’re all in our seventies—simply a factor of age. I was this way even in my twenties.

(I should note that, of all the people I’ve ever called friends, Dick stands out as the one with the best memory. You can tell him several things you’re doing, how your relatives are and even a couple of happenings you just read about, and the next time you speak with him he asks you about every one of them.)

My dad had a term for folks like this: His mind’s like a steel trap. That’s Dick. So my memory shortcomings seem all the worse by comparison.

                My memory, I now realize, is
                a rather large-holed colander.

I’ve always had trouble with things most people seem to remember, like the plot elements—or even the title—of the movie I just watched last week. Or what my wife’s plans are for the day…oh, and don’t get me going on people’s names.

What does stick with me, it seems, are far more subtle, often sensory, details—like how much Dick's wife loves waterfalls; the way another friend wrings his hands while he talks; or the sense that great pain lurks just beneath one acquaintance's cheery fa├žade.

IMAGE: New York Times


So, is my brain just wired differently? And if that’s the case, should I just accept it? Maybe rationalize that memory’s a zero-sum game and my brain's simply decided to excel at some other task?

I wonder if there isn't a better metaphor for memory than a steel trap. Maybe a strainer. A very few people—like my friend Dick—have filters, which grab and hold the smallest details. Others have sieves. They miss a few details, but latch
onto most.

My memory, I now realize, is a rather large-holed colander. I remember the important stuff, like “How’s your recovery from that heart attack coming?” “When do you get back from Uzbekistan?” Or “How’s prison life treating you.” I forget the stuff like the skinned knee, the day trip to Zumbrota or a friend of a friend’s divorce.

I suppose I could fight it. I could drive myself to listen to those I love as if there’ll be a pop quiz. I could take notes. (Actually, I’ve been trying this with some success.)

But I’ve also listened to the advice of another men’s group friend, Ken, who told me I’m being too hard on myself. We’re all different. Lighten up.

What do you think? Should I keep twisting my memory’s arm? Is remembering details essential for a real friendship? If so, do you have any tips on how to do so?

Or should I just forgive myself and move on? What would you do?