plus, beautiful brain science
See that little ❤️ button above? It’s yearning for your touch. Yearning.
I began writing this post the day I was admitted to a hospital in Tokyo for back surgery. As I sat staring at a blank document, all I could think was, One thing that can really f*ck up your face is pain. I’ll spare you all the details, but a herniated disc can either be nothing bothersome or it can be excruciating—and I was unlucky enough to experience the latter for a couple of months after landing here to see my family. Standing (or rather leaning) on the small balcony of my apartment on a warm, sunny morning, watching the street activity below, I realized I’d hardly felt like I was in Japan since I got here. I’d been spending much of my time trapped inside, able to make only a few excursions to the dollar store and pharmacy to get supplies—excursions that yielded the photos below. But I hadn’t been able to do much of the exploring that can make life in a foreign city exciting.
The medical system in Japan is astonishingly different from the system in the U.S. and highlights some of the ways our system is broken. My hospital room cost under $300/night; a room at a comparable hospital in the U.S. can be billed at $7,000/night, reports a friend treated there. I was assigned a translator, K, when I first arrived at the hospital, and she has, like the guardian angel she is, been at my side offering aid and comfort throughout the entire experience, from creating an account to explaining the doctor’s assessments of my MRI and other tests. When I arrived at my immaculate room, striped pink (knock-off) POLO pajamas awaited me on the bed (the size medium I was given would’ve fit my four-year-old granddaughter) and a stream of staff trickled in to introduce themselves and explain their different services or functions. (Hand gestures, basic English, toddler Japanese, and a translating app were used.) Because the staff’s names are difficult for me to pronounce (let alone remember), I gave them nicknames, which seemed to delight them. The surgeons, for example, became Tomo-Chan and Masa-Chan; my son explained it was like calling them Tomo and Masa, old pals.
I’d already experienced one microdiscectomy at home in a world-class hospital with world-class doctors, where I was admitted, weeping, on a crutch at noon and released pain-free seven hours later. See ya in six weeks! Here in Japan, I was admitted the day before surgery after a previous day of head-to-toe testing, and wouldn’t be released till at least four days post-op. Why? The Japanese, as one of my doctors told me as he exited my hospital room bowing profusely, really, really, really hate to make mistakes. Comforting news (though I hope all my doctors feel that way). But that also means incessant and repeated testing, which is exhausting for a patient even when it might help ensure a better outcome.
Anyway, the surgery is done and I am now able to walk without pain, which is an enormous relief. Two days post-op, I’m still feeling a bit out-of-body. But not so much that I haven’t noticed that the kind nursing staff are all young, slender, manicured, and perfectly coiffed. “What happens to all the nurses over 40?” I asked one of the more nubile ones. She said, “All nurses have to work night shifts. For people over 40, their bodies can’t keep up, so they retire.” 😲
As I sat in my hospital room, smothered in a day-after-surgery stupor, cotton-mouthed and dim, K visited. “I’m here with conversation to stimulate your thinking,” she said. (She’s an overachiever.) Then she told me grimly that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been assassinated at a campaign rally. This sickening news seemed incomprehensible in a country where it’s possible for a 71-year-old woman like me to walk alone late at night and feel sure of her safety. Gun violence is almost non-existent; attacks on political figures are rare. K reminded me that Japan has a constitution modeled after ours—and that as a democracy, it has worked pretty well. Which led me (in spite of my dimness) right to a despairing Tom Nichols in The Atlantic:
America and other democracies are falling prey to a kind of mass psychosis. At almost every turn, democracy and basic human decency are under siege because a paranoid and rage-blinded mob will shout down and sometimes go as far as threatening the rest of us. Ordinary citizens, overwhelmed and exhausted, soon turn away from public spaces.
I couldn’t—still can’t—imagine this happening in modern-day Japan. Several years ago, at the movies with my son and daughter-in-law, there was a slight commotion at the concession counter. I turned to see a dapper, good-looking guy around my age chatting with other movie-goers. “Who’s that?” I asked my daughter-in-law. It was then-Prime Minister Abe.
Japan might seem far away if you’ve never visited (and maybe even if you have). But she is a sister in democracy, and when blood spills here, it is very like our own.
Turning now to more promising fare…
Not dissimilar to the way being in pain can affect the physiology of your face (as I mentioned above), there’s this heartening study I found a while ago about how feeling youthful can affect the physiology of your brain. Researchers found that older people who feel younger than their age had a younger estimated brain age (meaning their brain showed fewer signs of aging) compared with those who felt their age or older. They performed MRI scans on 68 healthy people ranging from 59-84 and looked at gray matter volumes in various brain regions. The participants also completed a survey, which included questions on whether they felt older or younger than their age as well as questions assessing their cognitive abilities and perceptions of their overall health. The study found that participants who felt younger than their age were more likely to score higher on a memory test and were less likely to report depressive symptoms. Most interestingly, they also showed increased gray matter volume in key brain regions. What might account for the difference? It’s possible that people who feel younger are more likely to lead more physically and mentally active lives, which could cause improvements in brain health. This reminds me of a recent New York Times story by Paula Span about how making it easier for older people to be active and engaged through better access to vision and hearing support could help stave off dementia.
Please take a minute to ask yourself: Do you feel younger than your age? Would you share in the comments section why you think you do or don’t?
Sometimes we’re forced to make changes we might not otherwise consider and are surprisingly happy with the results. I’ve washed my face twice a day, morning and night, for my whole life. But when it became impossible to bend over a sink, I took to wiping my face with a wet cotton pad in the morning and washing my face only when showering at night. What happened? As my granddaughter says, “Nuffing.”
I like this La Roche-Posay cleanser with salicylic acid. It’s meant for acne-sufferers, but I think it gives my face a nice mild exfoliation and hasn’t felt drying. After I wash, I use CeraVe PM facial moisturizing lotion over a prescription retinoid every other night.
Oh boy. My lunch has arrived here at the hospital. Now begins the daily guessing game: What am I eating?
Update: I’ve been discharged and am gratefully home. 😌
Book Club News: New Book!
Though I’ve been a latecomer to audiobooks, once I discovered them I couldn’t get enough. I borrow them from the public library, but as I’ve mentioned before, sometimes the library snatches them back before I can finish. So I'm happy to share I'm partnering with Chirp to organize an audiobook club of biographies and memoirs called “Unfiltered Women.” Two things: It’s free to subscribe and Chirp offers great deals. Plus, you obviously get to keep the book to listen to at your leisure.
Full transparency: At this point, I’m choosing not to receive payback for sign-ups, but I do hope to get the benefit of introducing HNTFUYF to Chirp subscribers.
Here’s how it works. Every other month I’ll announce a new book club pick that we’ll listen to together. You’ll have a chance to share your thoughts on the book a few weeks later and hear what other readers thought, too. My second pick is the memoir H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. I’ve now listened to this book twice and I’m sure I could listen to it again and still get fresh insights into the author and find new poetry in her language. This is a story about how a woman deals with the sudden death of her beloved father by retreating into herself, keeping only one relationship alive: with Mabel, a goshawk she trains. Goshawks are notoriously difficult and Macdonald struggles to domesticate her. Mealtimes are especially grisly, but Macdonald seems immune to the blood and guts she often holds in her bare hands or stuffs into a pocket. She describes in minute detail the primeval, prehistoric beauty of the bird and her intelligence. The fear of abandonment is strong and Macdonald’s grief seems bottomless till she understands viscerally the healing power of human connection. Like me, you’ve probably never considered becoming a falconer—and you’ll be glad you didn’t when you’ve finished this book! But you’ll get inside the head of someone very different from you, and it’s a fascinating place to be.
To get started, go to chirpbooks.com/val and press FOLLOW to join my club. (Again, it’s free and there is NO commitment.) There, for a limited time, you can buy H Is for Hawk for only $2.99 (normally $19.95), including a 50% discount with code VAL50 if it's your first Chirp purchase.
Val Asks You
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HNTFUYF, a Payola-Free Zone
Readers, a few of you have wondered aloud to me if I get a cut from sales when I mention a product. I do not. I only mention products I’d like to buy myself, and therefore think you might like, too. I share this so you know my recommendations are offered without obligation. The only financial contributions I receive from these posts are from those of you—thank you!—who have generously subscribed. All posts and the archive are free; there’s no paywall. Please do become a paying subscriber if you can.