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Two ‘upper-middle-aged’ Twin Cities folks show that learning something new enriches your life

July 10, 2018

I have started taking music lessons for the first time in my life. On the accordion.

My beginner music books have cartoon illustrations obviously meant to appeal to kids, which made me think that I’m about 50 years late to try this. At this point in my life (which I call upper middle age), I doubt that I’ll live long enough to master the accordion.

But then I remember Lou Chouinard.

I first met Lou about 10 years ago when I was doing the City of Lakes Loppet cross-country ski race in Minneapolis. I had broken a ski pole, and Lou, who was watching the race, lent me one of his. A proficient cross-country ski racer, he has skied the 50-kilometer American Birkebeiner — 20 times.

Our paths crossed again a few years later when I was doing a story about biathlons. There was Lou, competing in the demanding sport that combines skiing and rifle target shooting.

A couple of years after that, I was writing about the Classical Mandolin Society of America convention being held in the Twin Cities and I discovered that Lou not only plays with the Minnesota Mandolin Orchestra, but was president of the organization.

I even ran into him at the 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis. I was having a beer. He was there for a tap dance jam session because he does that, too. He also does Lindy hop swing dancing. And plays ice hockey. And rows racing shells. Oh, and he recently took up gliding.

As a reporter, I’ve been exposed to a lot of people who do unusual things for fun: Abraham Lincoln impersonators, homemade submarine builders, people who play lacrosse on horseback. But I’ve never seen so many diverse hobbies practiced by one guy until I met Lou.

Even more impressive: Lou, a 64-year-old Minneapolis resident, picked up these skills well after childhood — learning how to play the mandolin, to tap dance, to fly — when he was middle-aged, even upper-middle-aged.

“There’s no question that I get a kick out of learning,” he said. “It keeps me from stagnating.”

We should all be like Lou.

Novelty feeds the brain

Studies have shown that “sustained engagement” — learning how to do something new and challenging — can have cognitive benefits for older adults. In fact, a 2014 University of Texas experiment concluded that memory function for older adults might be helped by engaging in “cognitively demanding, novel activities.”

In other words, it’s not enough just to be active. It’s the mental effort and challenge of learning new things that seem to be good for your brain.

Boredom, in contrast, isn’t just boring. It can also be a health risk. Studies have shown that boredom during leisure time is linked to greater drug use, drinking, eating, smoking and “self-induced vomiting.”

“In aging, you have to guard against taking the easy way out,” said Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging. “Aging need not be a passive process.”

Lou is anything but passive. He’s a model of someone who’s constantly, enthusiastically challenging himself.

When he took up tap dancing, he jumped in with both feet, initially going to classes five days a week at two or three different dance studios. When he took up gliding, he “dedicated the summer of 2012 to living at the airport.”

“I actually bought my own glider before I soloed,” he said. “I became a complete and total addict.”

Chouinard said his latest hobby, which requires him to find rising air to keep the aircraft flying for hours at time without a motor, is “a license to continue learning for the rest of your life.”

Active vs. excellent

There’s no doubt that he’s competitive.

Chouinard, who is retired from a career in finance and accounting, won medals in international biathlon and rowing competitions. But in other hobbies, he’s “proven my mediocrity,” he said. “As a skier, I’m very average.”

“There are people who become better tap dancers in two months than I’m ever going to be,” he said. “I go more for the experience than the results.”

Clareyse Nelson would agree.

“Mastery isn’t necessary,” said the 79-year-old lifetime learner from Minneapolis. “It’s just kind of interesting to keep on learning.”

Clareyse’s goal is to “do something or be somewhere or have an experience that I’ve never had before,” every day.

The retired medical laboratory scientist also tries to travel to a different country at least once every two years. She’s been birding in Costa Rica and trekking in Nepal. In fact, she’s been to so many countries — Morocco, Tanzania, New Zealand, Japan, Iceland, Greenland — that she can’t remember them all.

But to her, “life is full of all these things I haven’t tried yet.”

She took up recreational biking after going on a 100-kilometer bike tour in 1980.

“I didn’t wear a helmet. I wore blue jeans and I was smoking cigarettes and complaining all the way,” she said.

Now she leads social bike rides for the Twin Cities Bicycling Club.

She went to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the first time when she was in her 40s, an experience she now describes as “six days of mosquito bites and rain.”

“I said, “Why haven’t I started this earlier?’ ”

She downhill skis in Colorado every winter. She’s taken voice lessons at the MacPhail Center for Music, even though “I just sing in my backyard and to my cat.”

Now she’s taking a class at the American Swedish Institute to learn how to carve wooden spoons.

“I’m not going to be an expert woodcarver,” she said. “I’m going to see what it’s like to carve. I want to try to make something with my hands.”

Clareyse doesn’t worry about how much time she has left to master a new skill.

“As long as I can do it now, I’m going to do it,” she said.

At 58, I’ve decided to do my best to keep up with Lou and Clareyse.

I recently tried contra dancing and took a knot-tying class at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais (even though I’m not sure what I’m going to do with all the monkey fists I’ve made).

I also realized it’s been a while since I’ve gotten a new stamp in my passport. So I’ve got a trip booked to the Alsace region of France, and will find out if I can learn French using a smartphone app.

And I’m still playing the accordion, badly.

Richard Chin • 612-673-1775

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