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If You're Already Thinking About a Nap, Chances Are You're a Grown-Up

May 21, 2000|JOEL ACHENBACH | WASHINGTON POST

We get older but wiser. That's the official concept. The sagacity and serenity that come with maturity are supposed to compensate for the degeneration of the corporeal self. We might get slow and fat, we might have failing eyesight and a dimming memory and strange hairs growing out of our ears and a total inability to understand the appeal of popular music, but over time we also . . . we also . . . I can't remember what I was going to say.

Oh, yes, we also get smarter. That's the theory. And yet look at what grown-ups are reading in droves: Self-help books. Books on how to eat. Books on how to think. Books on how to sleep, love, exercise. There are books that tell you the proper way to get angry. There are books on breathing! When you finish "The Art of Breathing," you can read "The Breathing Book" and then, finally, "Ways to Better Breathing."

The truth is that, as people become "grown-up," they forget how to live. They forget the very basics of daily existence. If you see two 45-year-olds whispering in the corner at a party, chances are good that they are discussing something like how, when and where to take a nap.

Self-help books typically feature a childlike title with one-syllable words, such as "How We Choose to Be Happy" and "How to Want What You Have" and "If Life Is a Game, These Are the Rules." From the simple words and diction, you know that these are books intended for people who are at least 20 years past high school.

I recently came across a book called "Wherever You Go, There You Are," by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Here is how it begins:

"Guess what? When it comes right down to it, wherever you go, there you are. Whatever you wind up doing, that's what you've wound up doing. Whatever you are thinking, that's what's on your mind."

This is how you have to talk to grown-ups these days. You have to start with the most obvious rules of life and then simplify them. If someone wrote a book called "How to Put One Foot in Front of the Other," it would be a boomer bestseller.

The other day I picked up a pamphlet on managing stress, and it was written in a childlike way, with simple line drawings--cartoons really--of people stressing out, spilling their coffee, yelling, fussing, and the wisdom was incredibly simplistic, along the lines of "stress can make you unhappy," and as I read it I thought, "How true!" and "Abso-posi-lutely!" and immediately wanted to track down the genius who put this thing together.

You grow up and you forget everything.

Recently I bought "Keep Your Brain Alive," by Lawrence C. Katz and Manning Rubin, one of the many new books that focus on the long-lost art of thinking. This new book features 83 "neurobic" exercises. Here's one: "Brush your teeth with your nondominant hand (including opening the tube and applying toothpaste)." Another idea: "Take a completely new route to work."

Here's a radical idea: "If a bagel and coffee is your daily fare, try something else like hot oatmeal and herbal tea."

This is a really good book. This is the best book I've read since "As I Lay Dying." There are some daffy suggestions, like "Learn Braille," but others--like "Turn pictures of your family, your desk clock, or an illustrated calendar upside down," and "Collect small objects like paper clips, fasteners, nails, or screws in a cup and during a break or while on the phone, identify them strictly by touch"--are exactly what I need to do to ensure that my bosses stage an intervention and give me a long paid vacation.

There's nothing preventing an 18-year-old from buying one of these books on how to eat, breathe or think. But I don't think that's what 18-year-olds are interested in. I think they're interested in the colorful Versace scarf that Jennifer Lopez wore instead of clothing at the Grammys.

It's hard to know when, exactly, youth gives way to maturity, but I believe the key factor is the degree of mental calculation in everyday life. The young are instinctive. The old are calculating. The young have a natural ferocity, a life-zest, that in the old must be nurtured and cultivated and kept alive with tricks and schemes and lots of vitamins.

The young don't feel any great need to wait for the walk sign before they cross the street. They feel invulnerable. Over time, you better appreciate the consequences of each action. You see people get burned, you see friends fall apart, you go to a few heartbreaking funerals. You begin to realize that survival requires cunning, and as a hedge, as part of a long-term strategy for improving your odds, you wait on the corner until you get the signal to walk.

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