Turning the Page

Gee, I might just live forever.

No, I haven’t been listening to the theme from “Fame” again. (“I’m going to learn how to fly – high!”) But I have been getting some encouragement from Smithsonian lately. According to an article there by Erin Blakemore, reading books lengthens your life – and the more you read, the better it gets.

This is an exceptionally good thing for us for two reasons. Number one, our home is practically overflowing with evidence of immortality … which is a nice way of saying that there are books shelved, stacked and scattered in every single room, including the garage. And number two, both Heather and I possess a mighty tsundoku —  a useful Japanese word referring to the “reading pile” that has yet to be whittled down. At the rate we accumulate volumes, we might just need the extra lifespan to imbibe them all.

The details? The article cites a study from Social Science and Medicine that looked at 3,635 adults who were 50 or older. After controlling for other factors, those who read books lived almost two years longer on average than those who didn’t. Those who read more than 3.5 hours a week saw the best effects. And books produced better results than either newspapers (apologies to my former co-workers) or magazines.

It’s not solid proof. But it’s a good suggestion that, like so many other aspects of life, what we emphasize becomes powerful. Push your body and you strengthen your body, as we’ve seen in so many Olympic athletes this week. So why shouldn’t pushing your brain make it stronger, too?

Of course, there’s a corollary to all that, too. If a person builds what they focus on, then we need to be careful what we focus on.

We haven’t done such a great job of that lately.

We live in a social environment that has become increasingly toxic. One where people listen less and argue more – if “argue” is even the right word, as opposed to “overlapping shouting.” One that encourages people to look at differences instead of commonalities, to close out instead of bring in, to form up factions rather than attempt the hard work of compromise.

In a world that reasons by volume, the biggest bullies and shouters look like leaders. Not because they’re right, but because they refuse to let anyone else occupy the stage. And the more that people buy into it, focus on it, imitate it, the stronger they become.

And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Change the focus and you can change the reality.

Kindness and empathy haven’t died. Hope and consideration aren’t extinct. Courage hasn’t gone the way of the VCR and the floppy disc. They may not get the 6 o’clock news, but they’re still there. And if those “muscles” get exercised — if we refuse to be bound by fear, if we push back against hate, if we actively reach out to each other at every opportunity – then they, too, become strong.

Curiously enough, reading can be powerful there, too. After all, books are captured memory. They remind us that this is not the first time hate and fear have run rampant. And they remind us that those forces have been overcome before, and can be again. That the fight may be never-ending, but it’s far from hopeless.

And if we’ve been willing to touch a multitude of minds on the page, live a hundred lives that were never ours – then just maybe, it might train us to be aware of the minds and lives of others in the “real world,” too.

It’s all in where you put your time and attention.

The choice may well speak volumes.

Hearing the Pain

Missy took a spill the other day.

Not a serious one. Just a hard landing on bathroom tile, the kind that leaves your arm sore for a while afterward. No breaks. No bruises.

It still makes you wince, though. Or should. It’s part of being a guardian, a parent, an adult. When you care for someone, you don’t want to see them hurt.

I only wish every adult felt the same way.

My mind’s been on the topic lately thanks to Stuart Chaifetz. You’ve probably heard the story. Like me and my wife, Chaifetz has someone who needs special care – for us, a developmentally disabled adult, for him, his autistic 10-year-old son, Akian.

Chaifetz got worried when Akian started lashing out in school, even hitting a teacher and his aide. Six months of meetings failed to uncover why. Chaifetz knew he needed to know what was happening at school, but Akian lacked the ability to tell him.

So he put a wire on his son. Secretly tape-recorded his school day.

The result horrified him. Adults yelling at the students, mocking the students, humiliating and threatening the students. One told Akian “you are a bastard” and warned him “Go ahead and scream, because guess what? You’re going to get nothing …until your mouth is shut.”

“What I heard on that audio was so disgusting, vile, and just an absolute disrespect and bullying of my son, that happened not by other children, but by his teacher, and the aides — the people who were supposed to protect him,” Chaifetz said in a video that has shot across the Internet.”They were literally making my son’s life a living hell.”

It’s an anger I can feel echo inside my own soul.

I hate bullies. Old, young, in between. I endured too much of it myself as a kid to ever want to see it in another. It’s a pain that makes days something to be feared instead of anticipated, a trial you don’t dare talk about until you have to.

And when the victim literally can’t talk about it, that is the lowest of the low.

Heather and I have cared for Missy the Wonderful for about a year now. I know that if we ever sniffed the slightest hint of mistreatment by someone else, we’d be on it like a shot, doing what we had to to pin it down and turn it off.

When you care for someone, you don’t want to see them hurt.

But how do you know?

How do you ever know?

It’s a simple answer and a hard one at the same time. To quote a character from Missy’s Harry Potter books, it takes “Constant vigilance!” Granted, you don’t need the paranoia of Mad-Eye Moody … but it all starts with watchfulness.

Whoever you care for, be it a child or a charge, nobody knows them like you. How can they? You’ve lived with them. You love them. You’ve seen them at their best and their worst.

And you know – or can know – when something seems wrong. Even without words. It can be a change in mood or behavior like Akian’s. Or maybe a wariness around a particular person. Or anything that silently screams to you “This is not normal behavior. Something is going on.”

Maybe you’ll be wrong sometimes. But better to be careful without need, than to need care and not show it. A sad truth, perhaps, but real.

If you heard a crash and an “Ouch!” in the bathroom, you’d check it out. This isn’t any different.

When you care for someone, you don’t want to see them hurt.

And let’s face it. There’s going to be enough painful falls in life as it is.

Nobody needs to be pushed.