By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

I’ve been reading several articles about how to keep your brain engaged as you age.  Apparently playing endless games of Candy Crush aren’t doing anything to fire up my brain cells.  Knitting is good, as I have to use mathematics, but not often enough to make a difference.  So, I set out to find a way to stave off “mush brain” and quite happily discovered the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).  OLLI is a branch of The Bernard Osher Foundation, an organization that makes grants and endowment gifts to colleges, universities, and other non-profit organizations in four areas, among them lifelong learning institutes for seasoned adults.  Almost makes us sound like a rack of ribs. Nevertheless, I began to look into their programs.  First, I learned that OLLI is found on the campuses of 125 colleges and universities throughout the U.S. The class offerings are wide-ranging and are specifically developed for adults aged 50 or older who are interested in learning for the joy of learning. As a bonus, there are no tests and no grades.  Luckily for me there is a branch of OLLI at Arizona State University, so I signed up for the summer session.  Unfortunately, “summer” was defined as the month of June.  Well, who can blame them?  No one wants to be here in July and August.  Due to the brief length of the term, the classes are one-shot seminars, each lasting 90 minutes.  Some are in person, but most are on Zoom.  Zoom can be perilous – but more on that in a moment.

Will Ferrell, if he’d taken quantum physics

Since I was only committing 90 minutes of my life at a time, I decided I would sign up for some classes that are outside my wheelhouse.  First on the list – quantum physics.  The professor was an amazing young woman, who had a wonderful sense of humor and knew that she had a challenging – or challenged – audience.  After the first 30 minutes I was glad we were on a Zoom call, as my attention began to lapse, and I found myself drifting into thoughts of what I’d have for lunch.  I was not the only one – several people at the end volunteered that maybe they weren’t cut out for a career in quantum physics.  Still, it was interesting, and I only invested 90 minutes to learn that I need to stick to the social sciences.  I took an in-person class from a retired physics professor (can’t seem to avoid physics) who lectured on the history of Stonehenge.  He was fabulous – 90 years old and a testament to lifelong learning.  I participated in a Zoom class conducted by an ex-newspaper reporter who followed the Rolling Stones on their very first US tour back in the 60’s.  He had some wonderful insights and opinions about the music of the time and how it changed the recording and radio industries.

Next, I took a Zoom class on the life and works of George Gershwin.  This is where things got interesting.  At the beginning of the class the ASU administrator cautioned us that we must put our computers on mute, and that if we planned to walk around, eat, or do anything else that might be distracting, we needed to cut our video feed as well.  Almost everyone chose to cut the video, so that only our names appeared in the box.  About a minute after her cautions ended, a new person joined the call.  Her audio was silenced but her video feed was on.  She was clearly in her bathroom, with her closet in the background.  All we could see was her head, which was wrapped in a towel.  I thought maybe she was running late and had just ducked out of the shower.  That was confirmed a couple of minutes later when she stood up, revealing that she only had a towel wrapped around her.  What could possibly go wrong?  A few minutes later she went off-screen, only to return walking across the screen – NAKED.  She casually walked into her closet, obviously trying to decide what to wear, all the while showing us her assets.  Literally.  She then turned around and proceeded to put on her undergarments.  Finally, she donned a blouse, much to our collective relief.  She then sat down and proceeded to blow dry her hair.  I guess that was the gesture that sent the administrator over the edge, as she sent a private message to this woman to let her know her video was on.  In the group chat the woman replied, “Oh no.  Sorry!”  Well, it was too late for sorry.  I will never unsee what I saw.  To her credit, the woman blacked out her video, but she stayed on the call. I would have immediately packed my bags for Argentina.

I have five more seminars to attend this month, on subjects ranging from a Vietnam retrospective to Woodstock to the establishment of the 13, 14 and 15th amendments.  Luckily for me, OLLI at ASU added a true summer session, each class lasting six weeks in July and August.  I’m taking two classes: one on the great films from the 1920’s to the ’60’s and one on the automobile’s impact on society.  I highly encourage you to check out OLLI – the classes are wonderful, you might gain a brain cell, and it’s fun to learn with other people who are “seasoned”. But I must say the most important lesson learned so far: cut the video feed on a Zoom call.