Age perception is like price perception: erratic


How odd. When I was 75, that felt fine.

  • 75% = a pass
  • Reaching a deadline
  • Achieving 3/4 of a century
  • Roughly 70 years old
  • A bargain
  • Nearer to 50 than to 100. (Come again?)

Now that I’m 76, that has changed. I am learning that, in my unconscious, 76 also has some more sinister characteristics.

  • 76 = old
  • closer to 80 than 70
  • closer to 100 than to 50
  • to be more specific, almost 80
  • over-priced!

The science of pricing goods for sale (as opposed to no sale) depends on certain irrational perceptions of humans when considering numbers.

  • figures on the left of a page seem low, figures on the right seem high (because we tend to think of numbers going in sequence from left to right, as written in ABC-languages)
  • figures at the bottom seem lower than figures at the top
  • $19.99 seems a better bargain than $20 (a thesis with many variations that reveal just how athletic our perception of numbers is)
  • figures in a small font size are perceived as low, in a large font size as high

I reckon that is why my perception of my own age has been suddenly warped since my birthday last week. And I’m guessing that whatever mysterious bout of mental gymnastics was triggered by the number 76, you have your own version.

But hey, 76 has other qualities and is rather beautiful

“76 is an even composite number composed of two prime numbers multiplied together” — how cool is that!

To haul myself out of price-perception folly, I shall attempt to associate myself this year with the element Osmium, 76Os… (Thanks to Pinky Agnew for this excellent idea.)




Morning thoughts

Analogy for an early morning mind

Every single morning I wake up full of thoughts. Do you?  Embarrassing confession: I find them remarkably interesting. They start in my head and gallop around until they reach a certain point of satisfaction, then flow out my feet, treating my body like a drain pipe.

Because I live alone, nobody hears my morning thoughts or gives me feedback. When I lived with the Professor, I would tell him my morning thoughts (or dreams) as soon as he woke up. In the end, he found this intolerable; he likes to wake slowly and calmly, I suppose.

If I ponder one of these thoughts in company with friends during the day, this usually interrupts the communal flow of conversation. They exist in a satisfactory way inside my own head, like hermits. If I attempt to talk about them in company, they often flap around like black crows. Their natural environment is in my brain, before I flush them out.

I don’t put them down on paper: I just put them down, as in animal euthanasia. I have no idea whether the same thoughts regenerate and circulate again and again, perhaps in a spiral. Am I repeating myself to myself?

Miracles on the fly

This question interests me because sometimes I am positively thrilled with my morning thoughts. I think, “Wow! I wonder whether anybody in the history of the human race has ever thought that thought!”

A thought will feel amazing, surprising, and above all unique when it has allowed itself to be thunk past three or even two stages. That’s the difference between a thought and an idea. No PhD theses or 24-volume novels spring up ready-to-write in the early hours; but sometimes the potential manifests itself.

Are they worth trapping?

What if I wrote down my morning thoughts every day for a year? Then I’d see how much cogitation recurs, how much goes down the drain forever, and how much develops over time, building upon itself.

One day I woke a bit too early, and started wondering whether I would think anything worthwhile or useful or interesting this morning. (Note the elitism emerging already.) And then, assuming the worst, I started wondering whether I might cheat, by recycling something I thought a day or two ago.

How daft. I thought for a moment that I would jot down a few of my pre-6 a.m. thoughts without censorship or judgement.  Yet immediately this seemed like a chore—instantly changing the essential nature of any poor little morning thoughts that might struggle past the sentries.

Thinking in Marrakech

That week I was staying in Marrakech for a family event, which doubtless generated surplus thinking time. The traffic is unpredictable. You’re walking down a narrow lane, maybe empty, maybe packed with people and stalls, when whoosh! out of nowhere, a car or motorbike or donkey-cart crashes around a corner and misses you by a whisker.

Anyway, bear with me, I’m laying the groundwork for an analogy.

I discovered that I experience danger in a different way from three of my sisters. When death misses them by a millimetre, they jump, they are momentarily scared, as anyone with half a brain should be. But apparently I’m wired badly. The situation might be genuinely dangerous, but I found it amusing, as if the world was putting on a pantomime for my benefit.

The death rate from traffic accidents in Marrakech is high, I am told.

Was that a thought?

So far, I have recounted an anecdote plus an observation. I’m not sure that deserves the grand label of “a thought.” My mind is just a toy, and I like to play with it. Morning thoughts are not right or wrong, but sometimes strange and funny—to me. They’re not brilliant or moral or enormous or inspiring or alarming. Just entertaining.

Like the traffic in Marrakech.

P.S. Self defence instincts are three, not two.

  1. Flight.
  2. Fight.
  3. Write.

THIS POST was written in October 2014 and transferred from a non-Wordpress blog. Comments were as follows:

Mike Wilkinson:

Good to read your post Rachel. I wake up early in the morning and ponder on thoughts. I find early morning the most creative time for me. Some thoughts I add to which sometimes translate into action, while other thoughts sit on the drawing board waiting for another time.

Deborah Dennis:

Amazing that u wake up full of thoughts…I usually think I want to sleep more…I think u should write them down for a year and then look back on them

Rachel McAlpine

Why don’t you do the same thing too? You might be surprised. Or not!

The rhythm of idea-generation is something that interests me too. If it peaks at a certain time of day, is that because of your own circadian rhythms, or just because that’s a quiet time for you?


Mountain Rescue: when good days go wrong in the mountains

Mountain Rescue by Phillip Melchior
Mountain Rescue by Phillip Melchior

With long experience as journalist, mountaineer, and alpine rescuer, Phillip Melchior is perfectly equipped to take us behind the news reports of life and death in the Southern Alps. He steps us through eleven dramatic and highly personal tales of alpine search and rescue, one decision at a time.

“Make sure you fall in love with a man who you know will survive in the bush,” wrote Jenny Bornholdt. “This way, when he is three nights overdue from his trip and the search and rescue team is out looking for him …”

When Capital Choir was rehearsing Felicia Edgecombe’s song based on Bornholdt’s poem, I had just read Mountain Rescue. We sang “Make Sure” as a staunch declaration of confidence in a missing hiker or climber, and laughter bubbled just below the surface. Yet sometimes I found myself in tears, because every happy mountaineer is just one stroke of bad luck or bad judgement away from disaster.

I was awed by the meticulous planning, the passion, and the courage of the Land Search and Rescue teams shown in action by Melchior. These down-to-earth men and women tell us not to call them heroes. Well, too bad, they look like heroes, they walk like heroes, they talk like heroes, and so they are heroes, dammit.

The photographs in Mountain Rescue are breathtaking. Profits go to LandSAR Wanaka.

Paperback from Random House Books

And so begins my boot camp for the bonus years


Below is the first post of my boot camp for the bonus years, in which I decided to bully myself into making 12 lifestyle changes in a single year, hoping to increase my health and happiness in old age and reduce my chances of getting dementia. This was my attempt to prepare for the bonus years that we never expected or desired—bluntly, the years of visible aging and then old age.

In 2015 the blog was posted on another site which never got any traffic, so I have republished all the posts here on Read on, dear friend! And tell me, was I nuts or what? You be the judge.

bootcamp2015-small 2

In February of 2015, I turned 75.

In itself, that’s no big deal. I’m healthy, happy, busy and brainy. Young for my age, blah blah blah. Now what?

Life is long!

My official life expectancy is 98 or 99, so I have probably completed about 75% of my allotted span. Maybe in 10 or 20 years time I will accept the label of old age—that stage of life so dreaded, and so mysteriously maligned, mocked, defied and denied.

In January I began to think seriously about the remainder of my life. I noted the strange conflicting attitudes of other people and myself towards old age and old people. I looked at the current tsunami of scientific studies around the topics of old age and especially dementia.

We used to think of dementia, including Alzheimers, as something out of our control. We were told in our youth that brain cells die and cannot be revived, that no new brain cells would spring up in their place, end of story. I believed that 99% of my delightful life style was due to sheer luck—I had lucky genes, lucky time and place of birth, lucky family circumstances.

New research into the brain shows luck has less influence

Since then, a revolution in brain science has turned those old beliefs upside down. The brain is plastic, capable of reshuffling tasks and healing itself in ingenious ways. It’s now clear that we have far more control over whether we get dementia in old age than we ever imagined. And by now, we know pretty much what we should do to achieve maximum physical and mental health and strength well into old age.

Add to this the message that a greying population is already pushing the cost of health care to frightening levels, and a 75th birthday took on a weighty significance. As a result, I had a modest epiphany.

A good moment to audit the lifestyle

I determined to use my 75th year to take stock of my own health and life choices, study the evidence, and make a to-do list—actions and commitments that would maximise my chances of living well and happily into my almost inevitable old-old age. Then I would tick off one goal every month.

So began my year of preparation for old age. I would make this year a personal boot camp for old age.

Because I’m a writer, I can’t help writing about this. We’re almost half-way through the year, I’ve worked through one goal per month as planned, and my notes are in chaos. (This is not my day job.) Fleeting thoughts and terrible videos and  random articles are scattered all over the house and the internet. Now I shall try to catch up with myself and focus. Wish me luck!

Image: Elise Serafin Luftmann, strongwoman from a German-speaking region of Bohemia, she performed all over central Europe. Luftmann was famous for her ability to lift heavy weights and to juggle cannonballs. This illustration dates c. 1830. Public domain.