Have You Done the “Great Thing” You Dreamed of Doing With Your Life?

[Reprint of an article I first published in January of 2011]

By Don Pelton

5:30 AM, the first day of the new year, still dark out.

I peer out the bedroom window and see a small circle of new snow glistening in the light from the motion-detector on the well house, probably set off a minute ago by a passing deer or raccoon.

I’ve waked for the last of several times in the night, a feature of aging that will probably be with me now until the end.

Nothing is pure, even the hope we feel at the beginning of a new year. There’s always a mixture of regret.

I feel that mixture of hope and regret more keenly this year because yesterday, on the eve of the new year, one of our dear friends and neighbors, someone we’ve come to love as family, suddenly died.

We grieve alone, helpless, outside the circle of her immediate family.

We know they’re strong. We know they’ll be OK.

The good we do in life, and the good we do that lives on after we’re gone is both palpable and mysterious, greater in some ways than we can imagine.

I think this morning about the Aging Conference I created and hosted on The WELL back in the late eighties, when I was in my mid forties. Feeling the first stirrings of middle age, I gave it the title, “Have You Done the ‘Great Thing’ You Dreamed of Doing With Your Life?’

I soon learned from that discussion that not everyone is burdened by an unfulfilled dream. Many fortunate people are born with the enviable ability to live their lives from day-to-day, seizing the opportunity for happiness whenever and wherever it appears.

Others have dreams of “greatness.”

I’ve forgotten much of that discussion now, but it seemed to me as though, in our culture at that time, the dream of greatness was more a male thing.

Times have changed.

If it’s true that in dreams begin responsibilities, then some of us may never have waked from the dream, but rather slept through our failure to realize it.

For ten of my preteen and teen years I studied the violin, taking lessons from a fiery Polish music teacher named (don’t try to pronounce it) Bronislaw Stempczynski. I studied hard at first only in order to avoid his wrath. But in time I came to love the instrument, playing solos in recitals each year at San Francisco State College. I also eventually learned that Mr. Stempczynski — “Barney,” as those of us in orchestra affectionately called him — loved music and loved us too, in his own way.

By the time I started college at Berkeley at age seventeen, I was determined to make a life of music. I was particularly interested in musicology, the scholarly study of music. Such ambition!

Then, in my second year at Berkeley, a small thing happened that set my life on a different course. I was sitting in a cafe on Telegraph Avenue, having lunch, when another young man from the music department sat down with me. During the conversation he told me that I had “nice hands.”

Alarms went off. Homosexual! Danger, danger!

We finished the conversation amicably, but I wanted to run away. His flirting approach to me was profoundly unsettling, and after that I began to lose interest in the music department.

There were probably many good reasons to lose my musical ambitions, but that one — if that’s what it was — was pathetic and sad.

I sleepwalked through most of that time in my young life.

Dreams aside, my life has been good and blessed. Forty-five years of marriage. [Update 1/19/19: now 54 years] Three beautiful children. Decent and satisfying work.

If there’s a key to this mystery, it’s probably hidden in plain sight, in a statement a friend made to us many years ago. We were talking to him about unfulfilled plans and dreams. He recalled that he always wanted to go to Europe.

Then he said, matter of factly, “I must have wanted to be married more, because that’s what I did.”

I was stunned by that statement, by the enormous freedom in it.

It didn’t matter what he chose. He might as well have said, “I must have wanted to go to Europe more, because that’s what I did.”

It doesn’t even matter that there’s no conflict between being married and going to Europe. Some people could have done both. He saw it as a choice, and he chose what he chose.

The point — the deep point — is that he completely affirmed all his life choices after the fact as being expressions of his deepest desires and dreams.

This life, this good life, must have been my true dream.

The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link)

I just ran across this Amazon book review I wrote back in 2001, of Katie Hafners’  The Well: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in the Seminal Online Community.

The WELL, started by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985, was one of the first online virtual communities. For a time in the late 1980s I moderated an Aging conference there. In my early forties I was just beginning to grapple with issues of aging, and the WELL felt like a community, a good place to talk about it with others who were similarly afflicted.

Was it really a community? That’s one of the issues Hafner explores.

Since the advent of social media in recent years, I might be inclined to alter some of the conclusions in my old review regarding community, but then again I might not. The “friend” function in Facebook, for instance, is a sad and pale shadow of the sort of real friendship that often seemed to be the rule in the WELL. Rereading my review today, I was surprised to notice that I’ve forgotten the affection I felt for the WELL, an affection that lingered for many years after my involvement with it.

In any case, dated as it is, here’s my 2001 review:

This is a terrific book. I appreciate that Katie Hafner understands her strength to be narrative. Limiting the focus of her narrative to the lives of a few of the core founders and early pioneers of the WELL allows her to reach the sort of depth I recall experiencing there when I was a “WELL being” for a time in the late eighties.

I mostly hung out in the Parenting conference, because I was the father of teenage children and our family seemed to reel from one crisis to another during those years. The support and love I found there was extraordinary, and I have found it nowhere else since, except within my own dear family.

Hafner succeeds remarkably in capturing the intangible essence of the WELL, the special human warmth that no one could have predicted or planned … and no one has succeeded in duplicating since.

Hafner also deals with the core issue of community, an issue central to the WELL’s success, and possibly central to it’s eventual – what? – transformation. I was about to say, “dissolution,” but an incarnation of some sort of WELL lives on at Salon.com.

The early WELL, the one I knew, was a pioneering online community, before that phrase became today’s buzzword meaning little more than a chat room. The online community was the core of a larger, real-life, flesh-and-blood community, in which people truly lived and loved and became sick and got well, and sometimes died.

Everyone who hungers for community – and that means everyone awake to the grief of modern life – should read this book. Most of us understand true community by its absence. My most vivid and unexpected realization about the meaning of community occurred many years ago, when our children were still little.

We lived for a time in an Eichler suburb in Mountain View, California. Each house on our block was surrounded by a high fence. After some months of living there, we hadn’t met a single neighbor. I was out mowing the lawn one sunny Saturday morning, with no one in sight, and I suddenly understood in a way I never had before that our commercial culture has a vested interest in the destruction of community.

Without community, each of us becomes a consuming atom, each with our own lawnmower, each with our own set of tools, each with our own copy of every trinket. In a true community we would be sharing tools and sharing labor. GNP is maximized by eroding community. Our commercial culture has a vested interest in the destruction of community. And conversely, true community subverts this culture.

It’s because of this paradoxical dynamic that the WELL – to the extent that it *was* a true community – could not retain its character while evolving as a commercial enterprise. This is part of the story.

Read this book. Let it provoke you to examine the role of community in your own life.

The WELL lives on here:  

Giving the Gift of the Magi Every Day

Don Pelton

It occurred to me recently, as I was cutting a couple of pieces of watermelon for my dear wife and me (giving her the larger piece) that in a long marriage (we’re at 52 years and counting) we exchange the “Gift of the Magi” more or less everyday. In a thousand small acts: offering the best piece of melon to the other, keeping the broken toast for oneself, doing some of the other’s chores just for the chance to show gratitude … without calling attention to any of it. I thought I understood O’Henry’s story decades ago, but a long life sometimes brings new revelations about familiar words and acts, exposing the inner light that it sometimes takes a lifetime to see.


How to reduce the risk of cognitive decline with age

File 20170825 28531 1jzrcc9
Jne Valokuvaus/Shutterstock

by Hayley Wright, Coventry University
Originally published in The Conversation, August 25, 2017

Research into how we can keep our brains healthy as we age has gained momentum in recent years. There is now an increased focus on the changes that we can makes to our health and lifestyle, which may prevent dementia. Here are some things that research has shown reduce a person’s risk of cognitive decline with age.


Our latest study shows that having more sex is associated with better cognitive function.

We recruited 28 men and 45 women, aged between 50 and 83, to take part in our study. We found that those who had sex weekly scored on average 2% higher on some cognitive tests than those who had sex monthly, and 4% higher than those who never had sex. These results were shown on tests of verbal fluency (such as naming as many animals as possible in one minute) and visuo-spatial abilities (drawing familiar objects from memory or copying complex pictures).

The association could be the result of the heightened levels of intimacy and companionship inherent in sexual relationships (that is, an increase in social contact), or there could be a purely biological explanation – where regular surges in arousal and release of sex-related hormones (such as oxytocin and dopamine) could be affecting brain function. Of course, as with the age-old nature/nurture debate, our answer could lie in a combination of the social and biological impact of sexual activity.

Could it be sex hormones that keep our brains young?


Many studies show that getting enough sleep is important for preventing cognitive decline. A study of cognitively healthy people aged 65 and over showed that daytime napping is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline at two-year and ten-year follow-ups. Conversely, excessive daytime sleepiness and getting less than six-and-a-half hours of sleep at night are associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline at ten-year follow-up.

A more recent study showed that longer sleep duration and poorer sleep quality are both associated with poorer memory in men and women aged 65 and older. These studies all support the advice that we should be getting around eight hours of sleep a night. Sleep disturbance in early adulthood is associated with poorer cognitive function in later life, which just goes to shows how sleep can affect our brain health across the lifespan.

Active leisure

New studies show that increased participation in social, mental and physical activities is linked to a slower rate of cognitive decline in older adults. This research shows a “dose-response” relationship, where the more activities we do, the slower the rate of decline becomes.

The following activities are good examples of the types of mental, social and physical leisure activities that are good for your brain:

● Mental: puzzles, games and quizzes, reading or even adding up your shopping bill in your head as you go around the supermarket.

● Social: visiting friends and family, regular phone or email conversations with people, going to the cinema or doing some volunteer work.

● Physical: gardening, housework, walking for around 30 minutes a day, or doing chair-based or sitting exercises.

The more you do, the slower the decline.

Gender equality

Studies have found that women may be at reduced risk of cognitive decline, simply because of the activities they choose. There is little that we can do to change our gender, without drastic surgery of course – but we can be aware of the gender stereotypes and expectations that are all around us, which can affect the activities we engage in.

In a study of Australian older adults, there were notable gender differences in the leisure activities that people took part in. For example, women were more likely to engage in social activities, reading and volunteer work, all of which are known to slow cognitive decline. The way that cultures or societies perceive gender roles can affect people’s expectations of themselves and others. If this changes the lifestyle and leisure activities that men and women engage in, then it could well have an effect on cognitive abilities in later life.

Get an early (in life) start

When it comes to doing things to prevent cognitive decline, it’s never too early to start. Some studies show that interventions in older adults have little effect – but that could be because the participants are already suffering from cognitive decline. Studies mapping the rate of cognitive decline in older participants who do not yet have dementia or cognitive impairment, however, show promising results.

The ConversationWe all experience cognitive decline as we age. This is a natural process and occurs at different rates for everybody, much like declines in physical abilities with age. But it’s time we started addressing this much earlier in life, rather than waiting till middle age or older. It’s time for us to take a lifelong approach to keeping our brains healthy as we age.

Hayley Wright, Research Fellow, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.