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“Still Alice:” Book Review

FIRST: This is a positive review of a well-plotted and paced novel which reads addictively. It reminded me in some ways of Agatha Christie immersed in a lab and not a country house…and with the most difficult problem…I chose this title because it is “set in a university”… Alice is about the most brilliant person in the world and has a jet-setting academic life–the kind where you get a grant to read a “paper” at a conference in Venice, New Orleans, London, the Biltmore. Alice’s life is a whirl of sabbaticals in Scotland; speeches in Sweden; meetings in Monaco; conventions in Colorado ski resorts. I can attest to this: this is the lifestyle of the American professor you want to subsidize in many ways. I’ve seen it in several places.This is an odd review of a book—going off on a rant—but it’s oddly consistent with STILL ALICE by Lisa Genova.

The books pricks in many places. The haunting specters of cognitive losses is panic inducing and why does your character have to be the most brilliant professor at Harvard? Why can’t she be a waitress in Kentucky and matter as much? So I approach this book in a combative mood. But I was with Alice from the start. And Genova gives her brilliance so that Alice will know, will tell us what she knows because she’s a specialist in the languages and patterns of neural transmitters and each little portion of the brain with its functions. So this strategy of Alice being able to know—until she doesn’t—why and how her decline is going–the very specific map—down to street names—allows Genova to explain the of nuances of dementia gracefully and readably. She shows us the details of the descent: from having a couple of little “blips” to public and private humiliations and awareness of it.The upshot is that she is still Alice–the person she was as a child. And don’t we all still identify with and remember the children we were? And isn’t it true that we have not changed in our essence? Alzheimer’s will bite away at that essence to the final crumb.And what about the people in your life? Who will embrace you? Who will flee? And are you entitled to make friends if you know you are not dealing with a full deck? You know you have “moderate” decline. Do you dare to call a friend? Won’t the friend run away? Genova reveals the panic and self-doubt of the stigmatized.

My Celebrities

I notice when people die. I remember the shock waves that went through my life when little Alfalfa from “Our Gang” died. I remember next the sickness of losing JFK, MLK, RFK. People born in the same generation as my parents; my parents no longer immune to death. Marilyn Monroe! The names were big.

Then we entered a period when Robert Frost, Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Elvis, TS Eliot, Pearl Bailey, Jack Benny, John Lennon were gone. I sometimes wonder how many of these names are known to those under 50. John Lennon of course. Elvis too. But Jack Benny? Pearl Bailey? Duke Ellington? Will TS Eliot remain in any format other than CATS? I feel a kind of grief that the people who amused me when I was younger may fall into oblivion. As the people who appreciated them get old and die they will be one more step away from eternal obscurity. Greta Garbo?

This year more and more of my “people” are parting: Henry Aaron, Cloris Leechman, Hal Holbrook, Christopher Plummer–people I remember in the vibrancy of their youth. People just a little bit older than me.

As an old woman, I also know that there are people I know as young: Brad Pitt. LeVar Burton. Zadie Smith. George Clooney. Dana Gioia. Mary Jo Salter. Nicole Kidman. Johnny Depp. –these people are possibly the “old” people to millenials. Are they certifiably young? And who judges or gives the certificates.

And then stretching far into the future are those famous people I know almost nothing about and cannot name. Perhaps Miley Cyrus is one of the oldest of them.

I am a person who remembers music before the Beatles became famous; the person who sees Glenn Gould, Van Cliburn, Richard Wilbur, Maxine Kuman, Renatta Scotto as the up and comers: freshly minted celebrities. Vicki Hearn will be a celebrity professor. Elizabeth Taylor will always be young, nubile, and “Maggie the Cat” in my memory; Teddy Kennedy is fresh-faced.

How many of us can recall Teddy Kennedy as fresh-faced?

Each generation or each person born in a little space of time–3 or 4 years maybe–watches their young celebrities age. I am much closer to Christopher Plummer’s generation than I am to anyone born around or after 1970. Age is relative but also very specific: how many of us staggered out of classrooms when JFK was assassinated spilling our weeping youth onto the streets trying to find our way home in the midst of the unthinkable.

January Jottings

I used to bemoan my mother’s habit of wandering around supermarkets in the USA and then she would start a fugue–or was it a cry for attention?–she would wander as if blind and bump into people and displays and then bang on her forehead and say: “Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça ?” “Are we in France?” She never thought we were in France when we were “en famille”. I thought it was the “LOOK AT ME” cry of the narcissist. My mother was a narcissist but not a malignant one. She wanted to be noticed; she did not want to steal or cheat.

I wonder now if I was too harsh on her: perhaps she did have some cognitive decline that was under more pressure when she was out in public? When she was not in her space, she was a bit confused.

And so do have I sailed the ships of all possibilities and come to the conclusion that I am in early or mid dementia. I can’t remember much of the past 20 years. I used to think that all my stress derived from SCOTUS awarding the presidency to Dubya Bush.

In 2016 I was entrapped by my own paranoia about what the success of that merciless fraudster would mean for the world. I walked around telling people that Trump would win and a lot of people would die.

So I am not attempting to cast myself as Cassandra, but I am asking myself: can true political stress, tension, and seeing people I care about getting shot, killed, incarcerated, executed, caged as a norm cause my dementia?

It’s possible. It is very possible that I was headed to a gentile decline but that Drumpf shoved me down the precipice of unknowing.

It is my dementia or the sameness of daily danger that has caused me to confuse whatever date month hour it might be? Is it the fact that my “games” are very counterproductive: i.e. to measure how long I can go without putting on a pair of shoes; to try to write a letter without a misspelling or a complaint?

I also have moments when I enjoy things more than I ever thought I could. Things that date me: the singing of Maria Callas and Titto Gobbi. The Robert Hass translations of Issa, the fantasy about how ants or moles or cats would dictate their lives if they were composing an autobiography: “Autobiography of a Mouse,” or “Autobiography of a House Cat”. And as I recall, those were the stories I tried to write down when I was about 8 years old. The older I get the more stubbornly I return to the person I was 65 years ago. Shy, introverted, in love with the imagination and poetry and opera. I did not grow up with a television and had decades of thinking I was culturally deprived because I knew not the characters on Gilligan’s Island or the subtle differences between the Dr; Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare.

But those years: I bonded with WH Auden, operas, Beethoven, and good literature. TS Eliot’s poems on cats and Sherlock Holmes occupy the niche where “Leave It To Beaver” should be.

Shuffling Along the Final Footpath

I am  dying slowly in the same sense that I believe the only definition of life that seems consistent is that life is the ability to die.  Each week somebody I know dies.  It’s partly our time with its frenetic frenzy of anger, bewilderment, and too much testosterone run amok.  I’ve come to the conclusion that the most toxic substance is too much testosterone.   I’ve never been bothered by it.  Estrogen is the baby sister that is more intelligent, more empathetic, more caring, and also mostly ignored.  Testosterone is the cause of wars; the cause of much greed, the cause of too many shootings and too much domestic violence.  Testosterone combined with power and little intelligence, as we find in the White House, can be fatal for a nation.

I hesitate to tell people that I am gradually becoming detached from my life and that one thing I’ve done recently is limit the 24/7 news cycle that keeps me angry, bewilder, mortified, and insane.   But mostly it leaves me educated.  I always thought I believed that black lives matter, but more and more I learn new shattering things.

BLACK LIVES MATTER!

FEMALE BLACK LIVES MATTER!

FEMALE LIVES MATTER!

I want a female president, but will not see one in my lifetime.  I want a black president who is not obstructed every minute as Obama was.  I want our country–at the national, state, and local levels–to acknowledge the sickness of claiming some lives are more precious than others.   I want the Greed is Good contingent drummed out of Washington.

I am busy mourning the life we never had here in the USA (and also in other countries).  In October of 2016 I knew that Trump would kill me (and many others).  In my case he is certainly abetted by my heart failure.  My hypoxia continues to get worse.  I’ve taken up jigsaw puzzles because of the calming repetition and the very low stakes.  I can no longer trust my memory.  I don’t have much to do with other people:  I was born an introvert and have become much more so.

I mourn people.  So many things!  The nod of the head, a sidelong glance, an expressive eye roll, or a special stance andthe muttered imprecations; the little ways that distinguish ourselves from one another.  I mourn the fact that at my age and my level of energy I can do little to help.  I don’t have the strength to protest.  I mourn the lack of empathy.  I am appalled at what the videos show me–white people assaulting black people casually (I’m looking at you, Amy Cooper, and you, Lisa Alexander and Robert Larkins.  But mostly I’m looking at the culture of male supremacy and how the police have been trained to assault and kill.

Bullies always want to take away things that matter to others–whether it is land, flesh, or personal safety–

When I was in 8th grade 4 boys took a girl into a basement.  She did not want to go but they overpowered her.  They had their way with her and guess who was kicked out of school for having a “bad character”?

I tried to make sense of it.  Is there a magical way for a 13 year old girl to get away from 4 bulky boys who want to have their way with her?  Not then and probably not now.

In a sane country nobody would have voted for Drumpf.  Everyone would have seen his narcissism, his sociopathy, his clear lack of literacy and fundamental knowledge.

How many people have been killed by toxic white testosterone?  How many people have been assaulted or raped?  Why do we think that women are problems with their hormones–so emotional and sensitive?  When are we going to realize that behind almost every crime is a heaping dose of toxic white masculinity?

 

 

It’s too covefe by far

My generation is slipping away like mad lemmings carried off by various bugs, buggers, buggerers.  Things I once did and people I had once known of are slipping off the landscape.  It’s a (newish) century and I’ve been foundering in it for the past 20 years.

Things I remember that probably will not be recognizable to younger people:  Collecting for the March of Dimes; Trick-or-Treat for Unicef; memorizing all state and international capitals.  Pearl Bailey.  Tony Dow.  Anthony Hecht.  The Duchess of Windsor.  Duke Ellington.  Sacco and Vanzetti.  Lou Hoover.  Samuel Gompers.  Harry Hopkins.  Aimee Semple McPherson. Harold Ickes.  Father Coughlin.  W.C. Fields.  Paul Robeson.   When I was young, I could count on people knowing these names.  The New Deal.  Daily train trips to NYC for psychoanalysis.  The CCC.  Dodger Stadium.  Eleanor Roosevelt standing back and insisting that JFK walk before her.   The crazy love for Grandma Moses and Swedish trolls.  Steiff animals.

My frame of reference is all covfefe when I watch Jeopardy! (College Edition).  Do I really know nothing of popular music?  Yes, I do.  Do I still think of Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower as youngsters?  Yes, I do.  I remember Luci Baines Johnson (or was it Lynda Bird Johnson) dating George Hamilton.

When we are young, we can sop up information and we don’t have the skills (or not yet) to evaluate the relative importance of Princess Margaret and Bess Truman.  “The Kid” is Jackie Coogan.  There’s Billy Bitzer, Busby Berkeley, and Benjamin Britten.  Our shared cultural knowledge streams off into different tributaries.

Also, of course, I stopped learning new things when I had a sharp focus on my career.  Some things I stopped learning:  I don’t know about any “boy bands” after 1970 or so.  I don’t know the television landscape very well.  I don’t know who’s who in _Gray’s Anatomy_ although I think everyone else might.  The youngest member of the cast on “The Today Show” will remain Barbara Walters in my head.  For me, Jacques Brel is alive and well.  For me, there’s no Harry Potter and no concept of a “YA” book.  I used to know the name of every cabinet member but refused to drag interest into the 21st century.   For me it remains recent news that Al Gore’s campaign was sabotaged.  Hans Blix still looms large in my imagination.  Things that were impressed there once, remain and new things get impressed only very faintly or not at all.

It’s no wonder at all that the world of the elderly seems so archaic to younger people.  While WWII was still throbbing on my pulse, I lived to hear students complain that teachers ruin potentially superior learning opportunities by “not getting over” the War.   It seems as alive to them as the Punic Wars did to me when I was young.  I’m not particularly patriotic, but I remember going to a couple of parades a year when I was young.  The soldiers were the best part and they did not complete with frothy floats.  First, there were a couple limping who had served in the Civil War.  Then there were precisely nobody who had been in the white power grabs of the Native Americans.   After the Civil War veterans, were quite a few veterans of the Spanish American War.    Then there were masses and masses of WWI vets, along with nurses and other women who served.  WWII boasted hundreds and hundreds of marchers.  Many fewer had been to Korea.

And now the people–almost all of them younger than I am—are in a baffling and deadly war where the enemy knows no boundaries or borders.  It’s the war of the medical workers, the cashiers, the food delivery people, the post office, the “essential workers” who are putting their lives on the line for a stipend that the Walton, Bezos, and Gates family cannot comprehend.

 

No Spice Allowed

I don’t plan to get sympathy here.  I do reflect on how something that happened almost 50 years ago made me check my own self-opinion.  I always thought that I was “good” at parties insofar as I always would bring wine or beer and drink only water.  I liked to be on the periphery and typically would start talking to the people who looked lonely/isolated/as wallflowery as me.

My husband was a graduate student at the time and I was a very young recent graduate.  He was invited to a party and took me.   They decided to make the party a permanent weekend feature and the next week I went with him.  There was a large sign affixed to the front door that read

NO SPICE ALLOWED!

The sign was meant for me; I had been the solitary “spouse/spice” at the previous party.   The party was simply a beer/wine/cheese/schmooze affair.  Nobody was speaking about great thoughts or theories.   That’s when I learned that all of the liberal left-wing professoriate professing to treat everyone equally have the potential for casual cruelty and crassness.  

While I can say that my contempt for them (having seen the sign) was at least as strong as their contempt for me, I would never knowingly exclude anyone in such a way.  I’ve never posted signs against any class of people.

I carry NO SPICE ALLOWED with me almost 5 decades later.  It’s not because I feel unwanted and superfluous.  It’s because I never want to be that person who thinks it’s a great pun and great fun to post signs excluding people.  For me it was a misogynistic classist signal that was in the direct line from “No Irish need apply.”  It privileged people who were mostly male and white graduate students.   It privileged female graduate students by implicitly contrasting them with the “spice”.  

I saw people laughingly read the sign and enter the party and my husband drove me home.