Monday July 15, 2013

I can’t remember turning 50, but I can recall the mild jitter I felt when I first heard from AARP. Now I open the magazine to find out that Kathy Lee is just bursting with life at 59. Elsewhere in the issue, we find "fifty ways to have the happiest summer ever." You can stack firewood, for example; maybe take a train to Fort Ticonderoga; or, with a bigger bank account, "following Darwin’s footsteps" to the Galapagos Islands. This is all well and good, I guess, but then there it was, the obligatory article on memory. Was her memory "normal," the author asked.

Where that question led her was to a brain clinic, where they quizzed her, made her ride a bike, and, after pronouncing her memory normal, sent her home with a to-do list. She was fine, after all. Whew!

We have all seen this to-do list, or versions of it, many times: learn something, eat right, exercise, challenge yourself, and so on. Usually such a list includes puzzle playing, language learning, or reading something tough or very different. Make the old noggin work, they all say. Why?

The answer goes back to the 1980s when the Argentinean scientist, Fernando Nottebohm, announced to a stunned scientific community that his canaries added new brain cells when they sang new songs. The considered response? Complete ridicule. No vertebrate adds brains cells after the given allotment at birth. We just kill them in a bunch of ways as we age. You should double check your results, Dr. Nottebohm.

A decade later, everyone was on board, and so we humans, being vertebrates too, are supposed to do things that add brain cells (because, yes, we do lose them as we age). So sure, learn a new song. Do crosswords. Read Kafka’s "Metamorphosis." Or you could ride a motorbike at high speed in foreign countries.

I just did that. I’m not sure that I think my bulb is any brighter, but it sure was a bar-gripping hoot. There is little in my game book any more challenging than playing a potentially life-threatening video game just after breakfast. That’s just the way I felt about leaving the Croatian resort town of Opatija and heading through the industrial city of Rijeka to get to a calmer, quieter existence on some Mediterranean islands with names like Krk and Rab.

They make ships in Rijeka. It’s busy. There are hundreds of lights and roundabouts, side-street traffic, scooters, bikes, pedestrians, and all manner of "incoming." My brain, at least, was on full scan. No words were familiar, and what is their problem with vowels? But, a red light is a red light, so that’s easy; and roundabouts are roundabouts (except that these people drive them well). But what really filled the radar screen were herds of bikes and scooters. The other brain-challenging variable, was that we were seven motorbikes and we were tightly clumped to increase our chances of getting through stoplights together. It was the only time we clumped up, and keeping the stagger together when avoiding the other components of the video game took every bit of what’s left of my cognitive power. Sudoku? Fine, but add riding in busy global cities to the list. Especially for an old guy from the sleepy Vermont hills.

In a sense, the tiny mountain hill roads weren’t a lot better. The smallest had gravel on the corners, and, worse, the very occasional log truck. Not just a truck, actually, but a truck with a big trailer. There is simply no way they can stay on their side of the "road" on tighter corners - so they don’t. Anyone else on the road just dealt.

A few seconds after leaving a tiny, quiet village I swung wide for the tight corner, only to see the grill of a big truck. Since I enter a left turn as far to the right as possible, I was able to swerve around this little challenge. I had five or six feet. Behind me, Diane didn’t. I glanced in the mirror and saw the red Ducati shoot off the road. This is not supposed to happen, my newly refurbished mind observed. I found a wide spot, turned around, and hurried back. The couple behind Diane were there with flashers on and were pulling her out of the weeds. She was moving on her own. She and the bike had found a big, soft wad of wildflowers, and both were more-or-less OK. She had been badly shaken; the bike lost a directional signal. For the next hour, we calmed her, bandaged the bike, and managed the traffic (one car). Then we were on our way, just a little slower. A lot more loose gravel, which for a motorbike is like showing a horse a rattlesnake, but all went well, and by seven we were in Plitvice National Park sitting on beds in what had been a Serbian army barracks. Turns out the Yugoslav civil war of just a few years ago had started right outside those barracks.

So, as I consult the latest advice on how to keep one’s mind bright and cheery, I find I did it all on this trip. "Challenge yourself." Check. See above. "Learn a foreign language." Check. A "slap" is a waterfall and I saw a lot of them. "Socialize." Check. I spent an intense week with 12 complete strangers. "Eat right." Um, well that was harder, though I did get a few decent salads, and one pretty good Grcki Sendwic (Greek sandwich). Here’s to a Mediterranean diet and a few more brain cells.

Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife and cat.