December 28, 2012

My 4am Meditation Hour Is a Baby Step toward Iyer's "Joy of Quiet"


(I've used this photo before, but I like it and just may use it for all my posts on meditation)

Writing yesterday's post about Pico Iyer's "joy of quiet," I was reminded that for about one hour almost every day I have that joy. Lots of good things have happened in 2012, but near the top of the list is developing a meditation technique that works for me. 

It evolved slowly. Now, I engage in my version of  "mindfulness meditation" at about 4am (or whenever I get up for my middle-of-the-night bathroom visit). Typically, the meditation now lasts for about an hour. Then I go back to bed and sleep soundly until 7 or 8 o'clock.

The house and street outside are quiet at 4am. I sit in a straight-backed chair with a pillow in my lap, where I  rest my arms. Then I grasp my hands in the much joked-about "secret handshake". Here I'm meditating indoors as you'd expect this time of year.


(Please, no comments about the look-alike photos!)

December 27, 2012

My "Home Alone" Is a Far Cry from Pico Iyer's "Joy of Quiet"

I posted yesterday about my "best Christmas ever" despite spending it "home alone with no presents." I woke up this morning to this view from my living room window:


When I turned on the computer, "Weather Channel" popped up to advise me that it would be like this for the rest of the day, except the snow would change to rain. So, I decided, another day of "home alone." By lunchtime, I was feeling quite smug about how much I was enjoying another day by myself and living with solitude.

Then I realized I'd been far from alone. In the morning, I'd exchanged emails with at least half a dozen people. I'd checked out what my Facebook friends had to say about their Christmas holidays. I'd looked at a couple of YouTube videos. I'd checked the NY Times online.

Hardly home alone. The only time I'd really been "home alone" (and awake) for an extended period was during my hour-long meditation at 4am.

December 26, 2012

Home Alone with No Presents-- Probably My Best Christmas Ever


My families -- the Schappis and the Nepalis -- understand me well enough not to be offended by this... I hope! But for those who don't know me that well, the title of this post no doubt is puzzling. I'll explain.

But first by way of background, it might help to know I'm a man of many quirks and contradictions. For example:
  • I hate shopping in stores. The doors to a shopping mall are the Gates of Hell to me. 
  • I love online shopping. I buy most everything I need with one-click on Amazon.com
  • I love Thanksgiving because it's family and friends, uncorrupted by gift-giving. 
  • I don't care much for Christmas because it's been taken over with excessive spending and gift-giving. 
  • I love being with family and friends. 
  • I need lots of alone time.
My Traditional Christmas
My pal Bill Feldman and I have a lovely tradition: I join his family and friends for the Passover Seder and he joins me for the Christmas Eve service at St. John's Church in Lafayette Square. We have supper at his house before the service. So I come out ahead on this tradition -- two Feldman-prepared meals, which are always excellent.

On Christmas Day, the Schappi family -- me, daughter Ann, son Todd, granddaughters Jessie and Emily, grandson Colin, Jessie's husband Dan, and Jessie's two daughter, Kelsie (now age 6) and Kensie (age 1) -- come to my house for dinner. I'm NOT a cook. Daughter Ann is, and she prepares the meal. I do the grocery shopping and the cleanup.

In recent years, Todd, Ann, and I have tried to simplify the Christmas gift-giving by exchanging e-mails in which we each provide Christmas wish lists. Lately, we've even added internet URLs to help buyers find the items.

December 20, 2012

Not Your Typical Holiday Greeting and Video

I had planned today to post the second of my two-part year-end look at my supplements -- the three I now take (Part 1) and the embarrassingly long list of those I used to take.  But then I realized this evening begins the four-day Christmas holiday weekend.  So I decided I to come up with a way to send "Season's Greetings."

My initial thought was to search for an appropriate video on YouTube. Once again, my  4 a.m. meditation came up with a video  idea. It;s not really connected to Christmas.  But then neither am I.

Year-End Update: My OTC Supplements -- Fewer Are Better: Part 1 -- My Three Remaining Supps

Yesterday I reviewed the prescription meds I take and noted that I've found that "less is more."  For several of the meds, I've been cutting the prescribed tablet in half and have found that, as a result, the med works just about as well and often with fewer side effects  AND I cut the cost in half.

Today let's look at my over-the-counter supplement,   Tomorrow I'll take up the much longer list of supps I formerly took but have stopped taking. For the sups, my catch phrase is "fewer is better."

I subscribe to several health newsletters and magazines and , since starting this blog, have followed postings on the web dealing with health issues.  And I've enjoyed researching health topics.  Needless to say I've come across numerous reports, studies and personal stories touting a variety of supplements for treating -- and often miraculously curing -- all sorts of ailments.

When it comes to supplements related to my own ailments and needs, I dismiss many  of the reports I see as clearly bogus and come to the same conclusion when I research others.  Still I'm often left with claims for supplements that appear to have some validity and that are backed by seemingly legitimate scientific studies and findings.

In the past, when it seemed a supplement might possibly help me, I frequently decided, "What the hell.  Why not give it a try?  What have I got to lose?" But, thanks to this blog and my own curiosity, I've done considerable  research and reading about dietary supplements and, as a result, I've had an almost 180-degree turn around.

A year or more ago, my bathroom and kitchen shelves were well-stocked with a variety of OTC pills. Today I'm taking only three.  I'll list them at the end of this report.  But first, here's what let to my change of attitude and action:

December 19, 2012

Year-end Update: My Medications -- Less Is More

Continuing my year-end look at the past year and where I am today, let's take a look at my prescribed  medications, where I've discovered this year that less can be  more.

Parkinson's Disease meds
 Two prescription medications are most commonly prescribed for PD and I've been taking both since my diagnosis over three years ago.  Today, I'm actually taking a smaller dosage of both than was originally prescribed. For somewhat different reasons, I'm pleased with this cutback.

  • Sinemet (generic: Carbidopa/Levodopa):   My initial prescription was to take this three times a day  plus an "extended release" (double the standard dosage) at bedtime.  Ideally this med should be taken at even intervals during the day so that the level remains about the same in the body.  The extended release is to keep the dosage up for the longer time that presumably happens overnight.  But when I started getting up at 4 to 5 a.m. for my "meditation hour," it occurred to me that this gave me the chance to take this med on a uniform six-hour schedule -- 5 a.m., 11 a.m., 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. So I suggested, and my neurologist agreed, that I didn't need the double dosage at bedtime but instead could continue the regular dosage.  So now I'm taking one less dose than initially prescribed.
This may save me a little money, but this med is not horribly expense.  The main reason I'm happy to be taking less, rather than more, is that prolonged usage of this med often results in levodopa-induced dyskinsia, the uncontrollable body movements that we see with Michael J. Fox and others with Parkinson's.
  • Rasagiline (Azilect):  This is used alone or with levodopa in treating Parkinson's. It is, by far, the most expensive med I take.  I recently paid about $500 for a 90-day supply.  My prescription calls for taking  a 1.0 mg tablet once a day.  In researching this, I noticed that the initial dosage prescribed by some doctors was 0.5 mg.  I asked my neuro if, given this and the cost of Azilect, I could cut my 1 mg. tablet in half and just take that dosage.  With his approval, I'm doing this.  I keep renewing the prescription at the 1.0 mg level, since this costs the same as 0.5 mg.  By cutting the tablet in half, I cut my costs by half.   Also taking Azilect with tyramine-rich foods, such as aged cheese, may cause a hypertensive crisis (a dangerous increase in blood pressure.  So when it comes to Azilect, less is more from the standpoint of both my love of cheese and my bank account,

December 18, 2012

Year-end Update: Aging and Me . . . and Us

Morituri Salutamus

But why, you ask me, should this tale be told
To men grown old, or who are growing old?
It is too late! Ah, nothing is too late
Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.
Cato learned Greek at eighty; Sophocles
Wrote his grand Oedipus, and Simonides
Bore off the prize of verse from his compeers,
When each had numbered more than fourscore years,
And Theophrastus, at fourscore and ten,
Had but begun his "Characters of Men."
Chaucer, at Woodstock with the nightingales,
At sixty wrote the Canterbury Tales;
Goethe at Weimar, toiling to the last,
Completed Faust when eighty years were past.
These are indeed exceptions; but they show
How far the gulf-stream of our youth may flow
Into the arctic regions of our lives,
Where little else than life itself survives.

As the barometer foretells the storm
While still the skies are clear, the weather warm
So something in us, as old age draws near,
Betrays the pressure of the atmosphere.
The nimble mercury, ere we are aware,
Descends the elastic ladder of the air;
The telltale blood in artery and vein
Sinks from its higher levels in the brain;
Whatever poet, orator, or sage
May say of it, old age is still old age.
It is the waning, not the crescent moon;
The dusk of evening, not the blaze of noon;
It is not strength, but weakness; not desire,
But its surcease; not the fierce heat of fire,
The burning and consuming element,
But that of ashes and of embers spent,
In which some living sparks we still discern,
Enough to warm, but not enough to burn.

What then? Shall we sit idly down and say
The night hath come; it is no longer day?
The night hath not yet come; we are not quite
Cut off from labor by the failing light;
Something remains for us to do or dare;
Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear;
Not Oedipus Coloneus, or Greek Ode,
Or tales of pilgrims that one morning rode
Out of the gateway of the Tabard Inn,
But other something, would we but begin;
For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
[These are the final stanzas in a poem written and delivered by Longfellow on the occasion of  the 50th reunion of his 1825 class at Bowdoin College.  The title refers to the popular myth that the Roman gladiators, facing death in the arena, cried "O Ceasar, we who are about to die, salute you."]

December 17, 2012

Year-end Update: Parkinson's and Negligent Me

A Parkinson's pal  confronted me last week, saying "the title of your blog is 'Aging  and Parkinson's and Me.'  You write a lot about aging and, certainly, a lot about you.  But I haven't heard anything in a long time on how you're doing with Parkinson's."

That called me up short and reminded me that the reason I've neglected to write about my Parkinson Disease is that I've neglected to do what I should be doing about my PD.  The car crash a year ago August and the resultant cracked vertebrae  and ongoing lower back pain has given me an excuse to stop doing my BIG exercises for Parkinson's and to overlook clear signs that some of my Parkinson's symptoms are worsening.

So it's time both to write about it and do something about it.

Recap
I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease (PD) in September 2009 at age 80.  I'm sure I would have been diagnosed earlier if I'd had the tremors that usually accompany Parkinson's.   But I didn't then and still don't now, over three years later.

My early warning signs were a loss of the sense of smell three or four years prior to my diagnosis.  Then a couple of years later family members pointed out that my right arm wasn't swinging much when I walked, another early sign of Parkinson's.   Finally I began having lots of problems with my balance.  This led me to get checked out by a neurologist with the resultant  PD diagnosis.

Since balance was my main issue, my neurologist recommended I take the BIG exercise program designed specifically for people with Parkinson's. He wrote a prescription (the needed passport for getting my sessions covered by Medicare) for the Georgetown Hospital's program.

December 14, 2012

Home Alone with No Presents -- Possibly My Best Christmas Ever!

My families -- the Schappi's and the Nepali's -- understand me well enough not to be offended by this -- I  hope!  But for those how don't know me that well, the title of this post no doubt is puzzling. I'll explain.

But first, it might help, by way of background, to know that I'm a man of many quirks and contradictions.  For example:
  • I hate store shopping.  The doors to a shopping mall are the Gates of Hell to me.
  • I love online shopping. I buy most everything I need with a one-click on Amazon.com.
  • I love Thanksgiving because it's family and friends uncorrupted by gift-giving.
  • I don't care much for Christmas because it's been taken over with excessive spending and gift-giving.
  • I love being with family and friends.
  • I need lots of alone time.
My Traditional Christmas
My pal Bill Feldman and I have a lovely tradition-- I join his family and friends for the Passover Seder and he joins me for the Christmas Eve service at St. John's Church, Lafayette Square.  We have supper at his house before the service. So I come out ahead on this tradition -- two Feldman-prepared meals, which are always excellent. 

On Christmas Day, the Schappi family -- me, daughter Ann, son Todd, granddaughters Jessie and Emily, grandson Colin, Jessie's husband Dan, and Jessie's two daughter, Kelsie (now age 6) and Kensie (age 1) -- come to my house for dinner.  I'm NOT a cook. Daughter Ann is and she prepares the meal. I do the grocery shopping and the cleanup. 

In recent years, Todd, Ann, and I have tried to simplify the\ Christmas gift-giving by exchanging e-mails in which we each provide a Christmas wish list of gifts we might like.  Lately we've even added internet URLs on where the gifts could be found and purchased, 

Help Resolve the Fiscal Crisis: "Sock It to Me"

Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.
-- Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr
.
And I am not paying my fair share.

The AARP and other lobbyists have convinced our politicians that all seniors are greedy old geezers who will vote them out of office if they dare touch our Social Security and Medicare benefits or increase our taxes. People over 65 vote at much higher rates than younger people and, as a result, we have become a protected political class.

I agree that low and lower-middle income seniors should not have their benefits reduced or their taxes raised. But upper income seniors, like me, should be paying more and getting less. 

For at least 25 years, seniors have been doing much better economically than younger workers. The median net worth of households headed by adults 65 or older rose 42 percent in real terms between 1984 and 2009. During the same period, the median net worth of a household headed by adults younger than 35 shrank 68 percent, according to the Pew Charitable Trust. 

From the beginning, it's been axiomatic that each American generation should live more comfortably than the last. For the first time in our history, that's no longer true. Today's economy and our tax-and-benefit structure make it increasingly difficult for my children and grandchildren to enjoy the standard of living attained by my generation. 

I've called my generation "The Lucky Generation". Newsweek  recently referred to today's Millennials as "the screwed generation."

December 13, 2012

Alzheimer's: New Brain Scans Advance Diagnoses, While Real Treatment Remains Unavailable

For six months now, a new brain scan technology has been available which clearly detects the presence of beta amyloid plaques in the brain. These accumulations of protein – and the dementia that develops – are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

Here’s the rub: the burgeoning science of detection is speeding ahead of our ability to treat the disease in any meaningful way. Does it really help to know that Aunt Clara is on the inexorable slide into dementia, when there’s not a thing anybody can do to help her?

So far, more than 300 hospitals and imaging centers in America already offer the scan, according to Eli Lilly, which sells the tracer substance doctors use to detect the plaques.

In a November 15 New York Times article titled Alzheimer's Detection Advances Outpace Treatment Options, writer Gina Kolata outlines several unusual issues with this new brain scan technology:
  • Diagnostic scans typically don’t require special certification for doctors. Concerned about the implications of flawed interpretation – and certainly aware of the unavailability of meaningful treatment for AD – the FDA requires doctors to pass a test before they can use this new equipment. By mid November, about 700 doctors had passed the test. 
  • The scans are expensive – several thousand dollars. Most insurance providers, including Medicare, do not cover the cost. 
  • Insurers (and employers) are prevented by law from using results of genetic tests to discriminate. The same legal protection does not apply to scans. If a patient’s scan shows amyloid build-up, she can be denied insurance for long-term care. 
  • Radiologists typically use patient information as part of their image interpretations. Not here. Concerned that radiologists’ analyses might echo doctors’ comments, the FDA requires that technicians know nothing in advance about the patients whose brains they’re scanning. 

December 12, 2012

Music Therapy for Alzheimer's

Decades ago, before I had started doing any research about the brain, I knew there was some special connection between music and memory. My friends and I remembered music lyrics long after we’d forgotten other information from the same era. As he slipped further into dementia, a beloved neighbor could still sing after he’d lost the ability to speak.

I’m never surprised when I read promising stories about music therapy for people with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Music affects some deep part of us, in a region of our brains where synapses apparently keep firing, even when they’ve shut down in other zones. It can do things that are particularly useful to people with dementia, like elevate mood, bring relaxation, suppress agitation. Mothers have known music’s special power since the beginning of time; it’s no coincidence that lullabies are sung, not spoken.

On her Brain Blogger site on December 7, writer Amy Wong described a small study that yielded interesting, if not surprising, results. Twelve people with AD, and 17 healthy people as a control group, were shown simple song lyrics on a computer screen. In some cases, viewers saw the words and also heard them being sung. In other cases, the lyrics were shown and spoken (by the same person who sang them). A third scenario had the lyrics appearing silently on the screen.

December 11, 2012

Iceland: Climate, Culture, Vikings, Hotdogs!


After writing the post that follows, I found the above video which combines two of my loves -- the new one for Iceland and the old one for crazy Brits. Now back to my original post:

I knew very little about Iceland and had no particular interest in seeing it until the idea of a family trip popped up during one of my early morning meditations. Go figure.

The idea occurred to me in late October; a month later, we were there. What we saw in our week of travels was fantastic. But learning more about Iceland was fascinating as well. Here's a rundown of Iceland factoids:

Climate: I packed for Antarctica. What I found was a climate not much colder than Washington DC's,  although late November in Iceland was perhaps more like January here.

December 10, 2012

Iceland's Recent Economic History: As Fascinating As Its Scenery

I started to write a report on some of the interesting facts I've learned about this intriguing country: its climate, history, the Northern Lights.... Then I came to "Iceland's Economy." I knew its boom and bust during 2008's global recession had been bigger than most. As my research continued, I thought, "Wow! This story shouldn't be buried in the middle of a general report on Iceland. It deserves featured billing."

See what you think.

The 2008 Meltdown
In 2007, the U.N. named Iceland the best country in the world to live in, based on life expectancy, education levels, medical care, income, and other criteria.

October 2008 saw the global recession take hold, stranding Iceland in an ocean of debt. Within three weeks, major banks were declared insolvent, the krona plummeted, and the interest rates for car and home loans doubled. By early 2009, it was clear that almost 90 percent of Iceland's businesses, including some of the largest, should have declared bankruptcy. The central bank estimated that this assessment was true for about 30 percent of households, too.

Unlike what has happened in the U.S. and Europe, the Icelandic government, financial sector, and federation of businesses agreed on a comprehensive debt-relief program for households and small to medium-sized firms. The program has seen many legal challenges, some still unresolved, but so far 12 percent of Iceland's household debt has been written off.

In terms of total debt collection, this approach has left the financial sector with as good a result as possible, avoiding the pain of sending most firms and many families into bankruptcy, unemployment and dispossession.

Thanks to this tempered approach to debt write-down, Iceland's economy is now growing faster than most in Europe, and unemployment is less that 5 percent, after hitting 9.3 in early 2010.

Street Protests Bring in the World's First Openly Gay Prime Minister
Icelanders took to the streets after the 2008 economic crash, and in 2009 voted into office a new coalition led by Social Democrat Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir. As a result, Iceland has the world's first openly gay prime minister. In July 2010, when laws were passed allowing gay couples to marry, she tied the knot with her long-time partner.

The new government is now investigating most of the main protagonists of the banking crisis. Parliament is still deciding whether to press ahead with an indictment brought in September 2009 of the former prime minister for his role in the crisis.

Iceland's special prosecutor has said the country may indict as many as 90 people, while more than 200 -- including the former chief executives at the three biggest banks -- face criminal charges.

The former CEO of what once was Iceland's second largest bank was indicted last December for making illegal loans and is now awaiting trial. The former head of another major bank has undergone stints of solitary confinement as his criminal investigation continues.

Iceland's response stands in stark contrast to our own. Here, no senior bank executives have even faced criminal prosecution in the sub-prime mortgage meltdown that crippled our economy.

For this political junkie, Iceland's handling of the 2008 recession is -- in its way -- as spectacularly beautiful as the sight of the Svínafellsjökull glacier that brought me to tears.

December 7, 2012

Iceland and Four Generations of Schappis



Shown here are three of the four generations of my family that ventured to Iceland the week after Thanksgiving. At left we see Jessie, then her father (and my son) Todd, and her brother Colin. Cuddled in the middle is six-year-old Kaylee. Those not shown are Kensie (Jessie's one-year-old daughter and my other great-grandaughter), Jessie's husband Dan, Todd's companion Jill, and yours truly. My daughter Ann and my granddaughter Emily weren't able to join us.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the idea for the trip suddenly popped up during one of my early morning mindfulness meditation sessions in late October. The eight of us arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland's capital, on Sunday morning, November 25. 

What follows is basically a photo journal of our week in Iceland. Next week, I'll describe our discoveries in this beautiful and interesting country.

December 6, 2012

Everyone "Seems in a Hurry To Get Nowhere"

That quote leapt off the page yesterday as I read a Washington Post story about the lack of respect drivers today show funeral motorcades on area roadways. Hearse drivers bemoaned how impatient and rude people have become with funeral convoys, cutting into the lines of procession cars, blocking their way, even leaning on their horns.

A funeral driver remembered how the somber passage of a funeral procession caused other drivers to slow down and -- he liked to think -- ponder their own mortality. Today, people routinely ignore the "Funeral" signs on each motorcade car, the blinking emergency flashers, the line of headlights. They show no interest in making way for the passage of the dead.

Now, he said, everyone "seems in a hurry to get nowhere."

I thought "Wow! That sums up our culture today."

Our Hurry To Get Nowhere
I brooded about this quote off and on during the day.

December 5, 2012

Insomnia and Jet Lag and "Meditation"

First, a confession: I planned to write this report on Monday and post it on Tuesday. But on Monday the temperature in D.C. soared to a December 3 record of 71 degrees: a delight after Iceland! And on Monday night the Redskins played (AND BEAT!) the New York Giants.

So I "worked" in the yard that afternoon. The "work" consisted mainly of watering my newly planted trees and shrubs, then sitting on the back porch. And I needn't tell you what I did Monday night. Hail to the Redskins!

I'm glad I stumbled upon the very moving Alzheimer's video for Tuesday's post.

Second, an explanation: Monday's piece about my back was mostly written before the Iceland trip and easily tweaked on jet-lag Sunday. But I quickly got an e-mail from a dear friend who said, "I don't give a damn about your bad back. I want to hear about Iceland!"

I'm putting off that report for a few days, since I was using a new camera that proved old dogs have trouble learning new tricks. My photos didn't do justice to the amazing landscape or my amazing family. So I've solicited their photos. I also want to gather my thoughts about Iceland and the trip.

Now on to the subject for today.

Jet Lag and Insomnia
I'm a lifelong traveler. For years, jet lag and insomnia inevitably accompanied the start and end of every trip, particularly during the past decade's travels to Nepal and SE Asia. I've used -- and abused -- Tylenol PM and Ambien to deal with the travel trauma.

December 4, 2012

"From His Window" -- A Moving Video about Alzheimer's

From His Window is a touching music video about Alzheimer's. Produced by the Moore Center -- in partnership with Musicians for a Cause -- it focuses attention on issues families face as they care for loved ones with AD. The Moore Center offers support for people affected by Alzheimer's through its "Moore Options for Seniors" program: http://www.moorecenter.org.

The video needs no further comment from me.

December 3, 2012

My Aching Back and My Home Office Ergonomics

Forget my Parkinson's and my prostate cancer. What's been troubling me most for over a year is lower back pain. After trying acupuncture, reiki, chiropractic, and a variety of other treatments, I'm finally experiencing some progress.

Identifying what's really helping is difficult because, as usual, I've been trying several different things. But I'm convinced the work I've just begun with the physical therapy department at Georgetown University Hospital is already helping, and promises to be a major factor in future progress.

When I was first diagnosed with Parkinson's, my neurologist recommended I take the BIG exercise program designed specifically for people with PD. He wrote a prescription for the Georgetown Hospital's program.

I worked with Lisa Ebb, one of their physical therapists, and found the BIG program helped my balance and improved my shuffling, stooped gait. I was unusually faithful in keeping up with the program until the August 2011 car crash that triggered the back pain . . . and gave me an excuse for slacking off. I need to start doing the exercises again, since the balance problems have resurfaced.

A month ago, my neurologist prescribed a BIG refresher course, and I asked to be scheduled with Lisa again. At our initial consultation, Lisa decided that rather than resume work on BIG -- which I know how to do and just need to do it -- we should see what could be done about the aching back.

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