Mother’s dream had several parts. Write songs. Get somebody famous to record them. Get a recording contract. A pink Cadillac. A mink stole. Sing at Ryman Auditorium.
Most of these had come true by the time this picture was taken at Nashville’s Deejay Convention in 1959. She appeared on Wally Fowler’s All Night Singing, originating from Ryman Auditorium, broadcast on WSM, standing alongside many Southern Gospel greats. See her in the lineup in photos below. But the next part of the story was a storm of her own making.
When this picture came back from restoration, I was reminded of how much this looks like Fern’s happy ending, but indeed it was not. It was just the start of her battles with the head of her record label, legal wrangling, waiting for a single from the album to be heard on radio, and the greatest deterrent to a long tour, being away from Daddy. She was nearly paralyzed without him nearby.
I’m in the editing process of my book, now called The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life, which will be released early next year from University of Alabama Press. This is the part where old pictures are restored to go into the book while I spend the next two weeks on the final, final pass through the manuscript. When I send this version back to the Press it moves into copyedit, design, legal permissions (lots of songs quoted) and all the rest.
I’ll be right here with updates about my own dream, which includes telling family stories with a few songs attached.
A neuroscientist writes about age-related memory loss and it’s positive and encouraging and wow I hope it’s all true. This brief excerpt from his book appeared recently in the New York Times.
Everyone Knows Memory Fails as You Age. But Everyone Is Wrong.
By Daniel J. Levitin
January 10, 2020
Even 20-year-olds forget the simplest things.
I’m 62 years old as I write this. Like many of my friends, I forget names that I used to be able to conjure up effortlessly. When packing my suitcase for a trip, I walk to the hall closet and by the time I get there, I don’t remember what I came for.
And yet my long-term memories are fully intact. I remember the names of my third-grade classmates, the first record album I bought, my wedding day.
This is widely understood to be a classic problem of aging. But as a neuroscientist, I know that the problem is not necessarily age-related.
Short-term memory contains the contents of your thoughts right now, including what you intend to do in the next few seconds. It’s doing some mental arithmetic, thinking about what you’ll say next in a conversation or walking to the hall closet with the intention of getting a pair of gloves.
Short-term memory is easily disturbed or disrupted. It depends on your actively paying attention to the items that are in the “next thing to do” file in your mind. You do this by thinking about them, perhaps repeating them over and over again (“I’m going to the closet to get gloves”). But any distraction — a new thought, someone asking you a question, the telephone ringing — can disrupt short-term memory. Our ability to automatically restore the contents of the short-term memory declines slightly with every decade after 30.
But age is not the major factor so commonly assumed. I’ve been teaching undergraduates for my entire career and I can attest that even 20-year-olds make short-term memory errors — loads of them. They walk into the wrong classroom; they show up to exams without the requisite No. 2 pencil; they forget something I just said two minutes before. These are similar to the kinds of things 70-year-olds do.
The relevant difference is not age but rather how we describe these events, the stories we tell ourselves about them. Twenty-year-olds don’t think, “Oh dear, this must be early-onset Alzheimer’s.” They think, “I’ve got a lot on my plate right now” or “I really need to get more than four hours of sleep.” The 70-year-old observes these same events and worries about her brain health. This is not to say that Alzheimer’s- and dementia-related memory impairments are fiction — they are very real — but every lapse of short-term memory doesn’t necessarily indicate a biological disorder.
In the absence of brain disease, even the oldest older adults show little or no cognitive or memory decline beyond age 85 and 90, as shown in a 2018 study. Memory impairment is not inevitable.
Some aspects of memory actually get better as we age. For instance, our ability to extract patterns, regularities and to make accurate predictions improves over time because we’ve had more experience. (This is why computers need to be shown tens of thousands of pictures of traffic lights or cats in order to be able to recognize them). If you’re going to get an X-ray, you want a 70-year-old radiologist reading it, not a 30-year-old one.
So how do we account for our subjective experience that older adults seem to fumble with words and names? First, there is a generalized cognitive slowing with age — but given a little more time, older adults perform just fine.
Second, older adults have to search through more memories than do younger adults to find the fact or piece of information they’re looking for. Your brain becomes crowded with memories and information. It’s not that you can’t remember — you can — it’s just that there is so much more information to sort through. A 2014 study found that this “crowdedness” effect also shows up in computer simulations of human memory systems.
Recently, I found myself in an office elevator in which all the buttons had been pushed — even though there were only three of us in the elevator. As the elevator dutifully stopped on every floor, one of the people standing next to me said, “Looks like some kid pressed all the buttons.” We all laughed. I thought for a moment and offered, “I was that kid about 50 years ago,” and we all laughed again. And then I thought: My memories of being 10 years old are clearer than my memories of 10 days ago. Shouldn’t that seem odd?
But in the warm, familiar privacy of my own mind, it didn’t seem odd at all: I am that same person. I don’t feel 50 years older. I can see the world through the eyes of that mischievous 10-year-old. I can remember when the taste of a Butterfinger candy bar was the most delectable thing in the world. I can remember the first time I encountered the grassy smell of a spring meadow. Such things were novel and exciting back then, and my sensory receptors were tuned to make new events seem both important and vivid.
I can still eat a Butterfinger and smell spring meadows, but the sensory experience has dulled through repetition, familiarity and aging. And so I try to keep things novel and exciting. My favorite chocolatier introduces new artisanal chocolates a few times a year and I make a point to try them — and to savor them. I go to new parks and forests where I’m more likely to encounter the smells of new grasses and trees, new animal musks.
When I find them, these things I remember for months and years, because they are new. And experiencing new things is the best way to keep the mind young, pliable and growing — into our 80s, 90s and beyond.
Daniel J. Levitin is a neuroscientist and the author of “Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives,” from which this essay is adapted. He is a cognitive psychologist, bestselling author. He is Founding Dean of Arts & Humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI in San Francisco, and Professor Emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University. He is the author of This Is Your Brain on Music, The World in Six Songs, The Organized Mind, and A Field Guide to Lies. He divides his time between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.
These aren’t my dogs. They belong to my daughter, Cathleen and granddaughter, Caedan Ray, and I’m babysitting them.
They’re both rescues. I believe Charlie’s some kind of terrier mixed with other stuff. Benny’s chihuahua and something else. I can testify that Benny is mostly mouth. You look at this tiny body and wonder where does that big sound come from?
Charlie Brown came from a shelter years ago. She was named by four-year-old Caedan at Christmas time. Benny came later and Cath insisted it was her turn to choose the name. If you know how much Cath loves Benecio del Toro, there’s where you’ll find the answer.
I’m a writer working in an office in the far corner of the house. I don’t speak dog as well as Cath and Caedan do. Here’s a glimpse of my average work day. This is not an exaggeration. Don’t even ask about the day the garbage trucks come, three different trucks for three different bins.
Every time you see the word “Benny” below, please know these are very loud barks. Charlie has a small woof, but is equally insistent about pawing the leg of the person in the desk chair.
Benny – MAIL!
I get up and check the mailbox. Nope.
Benny: I MEANT MAIL TRUCK IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER AND MIGHT BE HERE SOON!
Charlie: Paw paw paw on the knee.
Me: What? Do you need outside? I open the door. Nobody goes out.
Benny: WOMAN WITH A STROLLER OUTSIDE!
Me. Benny, please be quiet.
Charlie: Paw Paw Paw
Me: Do you need outside? Up again and open the door. Nope, she was asking for a friend. It’s Benny who needs out and gets Charlie to ask me. Benny goes out and immediately runs back in to say,
Benny: BOY ON A SKATEBOARD!
Me: Please be quiet.
Benny: DOG WALKING BY! WAIT! IT’S TWO DOGS AND A PERSON!
Me. Benny, stop.
Charlie: Paw paw paw on the knee
Me: You don’t need out. Benny doesn’t need out. The mailman isn’t here. It’s okay for other people to walk around the neighborhood. WHAT?
Charlie: Skips out to the kitchen. Woofs by the fridge. Translation: Do we have any more of those tiny carrots in the veggie crisper?
Me: Here ya go, Charles. Here ya go, Ben. Good doggies.
Even Pinocchio would be impressed by the number of whoppers people tell their dogs.
When we named this website a long time ago, I’ll bet we thought we’d write more about aging than we actually do. It turns out Dave and I are both fortunate to still be busy doing stuff, but we’re also aware this aging thing is happening, even when we’re not writing about it.
When I was young, aging was an abstract notion. Nothing to do with me. I knew old people. I liked them. They reminded me I’d be old someday. If I had given it more thought, I’d probably have hoped to look more like Helen Mirren.
Aging and how it’s represented in the world is a crucial issue to me now. It comes with a set of complications I’m not sure we really experience until it happens to us, to someone in our family, to friends whose lives are changed forever by what they can’t do.
Along comes my book club – first one I’ve joined in decades. My turn to host is coming up. I choose The Leisure Seeker, by Michael Zadoorian, and not just because it was turned into a movie with Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland. The movie’s good. The book continues to percolate around in my head and heart.
It’s about this couple who find themselves old and with no choices. But they make a choice anyway and we’re off with them doing what they decided to do about it. Road trip. Route 66 plays a big role, and that resonates for me. I spent years of my childhood on that road. These two aren’t pretending they’re young. They’re just taking one last shot at deciding for themselves how they’ll be old.
I read up on Michael Zadoorian. He’s a writer who loves radio, works in advertising, and has driven every bit of Route 66 that still exists. He writes with compassion and elegance and truth. I’ll be reading his other books now.
We’re not supposed to judge, but of course we judge. Sometimes it’s to set standards for ourselves, even if we don’t declare it that way. Sometimes it’s simply based on a feeling we get around certain people.
Aren’t we always forming judgments? Don’t we have to, in order to establish values? And if we stick to ours, sometimes we can’t stick with a relationship. When I leave you, if I feel slightly soiled because of the things you said or the way you treated people or just the way you are in the world, that begins to feel like a reflection on me and my choices.
Some people work hard to make us feel good about ourselves because it’s good for business. I have no quarrel with that. Professional niceness goes a long way. I’m always going to prefer to sit in the section of the coffee shop where the server smiles and seems glad to see me.
A few years back, a close friend had stopped driving so I took him on his errands. He insisted on doing business in person with people who knew his name. If they weren’t working when we stopped by, he asked about their schedules and said he’d return when they were there. If they were busy with someone else, he’d wait.
He wanted only to be with people who made him feel good, who greeted him, remembered him. We drove around so he could hand them his bank deposit, pay his bills in person, wait in the line at Safeway for his favorite checker.
The people who make me feel good about myself don’t have to do it with flattery. That only works some of the time. If it always worked, we’d never learn any other approach to interactions. If that worked, every stranger with a sales pitch would be our new best friend.
I like to listen to how people treat others. Some people do it so well they create behavior that actually leaves behind calm and positive feelings. It’s aspirational on my part. I want to be more like that more often, so I need to be around it.
When I leave wondering why I’ve spent time with you, it diminishes my opinion of my own values and eventually I’ll need to eject myself from the relationship. I can’t always get away from the source of the discomfort, but I can limit my exposure by raising an emotional barrier.
Maybe it’s not just you. Maybe it’s not just me. But it’s definitely me with you that has to change.