Brain Museum

2013-12-09T10:15:22-08:00Categories: arts, brain, dementia, film, human rights, travel|Tags: , , , |

Just when I thought I was done writing about the brain, there I was in Lima, Peru, standing face to face with an actual brain floating in a glass globe. I was in a small museum called “The Brain Museum.” Although I have visited many other quirky, out-of-the-way sites in Peru in the past month, I truly did not intend to visit this one. I was quite sure my Peru agenda had nothing to do with Alzheimer’s disease, my mom, her brain or brains in general. My husband and I have been in Peru working on a documentary film project that has to do with a clinic named after my great-uncle, who lived here for 25 years. But we’re also doing a few days of filming for a global health fellowship program affiliated with the University of Washington. And that’s how I found myself face to face with a floating brain, the focal point of an assemblage sculpture called “Custodia, Estudio 1,” created by artist Jose Luis Herrera Gianino. A custodia—or “monstrance” in English—is a glass container on a stand that is used in some Catholic churches to display the communion host, or wafer, representing the bread Jesus broke and shared with his disciples at the Last Supper. “This is my body, broken for you,” Jesus said. “Take, eat, in remembrance of me.” In earlier eras, a custodia was sometimes used to display relics: bits of the bone, hair or clothing of saints. Here, floating in front of me, was the most intimate relic imaginable of [...]

Peru

2013-11-06T03:42:27-08:00Categories: dementia, hiking, travel|Tags: , , |

 “I’m doing this for Mom,” I thought, half-dreaming, as our bus climbed up and up through the scarves of fog that swirled around Machu Picchu. Doing this for Mom. Why would I think that? It’s not like her heart’s desire was to visit Peru and see the Inca citadels. But the thought persisted, until my eyes were welling. It’s the altitude, I thought. It’s the 4:00 a.m. bolt out of bed. I need more coffee. I need— I need to share this with my mom. And I can’t. And yet, as the day progressed, I felt like I did. I have a necklace my Great-uncle Carl bought for my mother in Peru. It’s a simple string of alternating wooden and silver beads. I remember how perfect it looked against her tanned skin and dark hair. I imagine that Carl, or perhaps his elegant wife Ruth, enjoyed buying it, fifty or so years ago, at some lovely shop in Lima. They were nearing the end, then, of two decades here; decades in which they helped launch Peru’s thriving fishmeal industry, raised four children and became leaders in the ex-pat community. To me, as a little girl, their lives sounded unimaginably exotic. I remember Carl instructing us to say YA-ma, not LA-ma; I remember the strange words—Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Inca—rolling off his tongue. When Carl gave my mom that necklace, she had never been east of her home state, Montana, south of San Francisco, north of Vancouver, west of Westport. But she loved to daydream about the trips [...]

Alzheimer’s Walk

2013-09-19T16:19:17-07:00Categories: brain, dementia, Seattle, writing|Tags: , , |

I have written, spoken, made a film, submitted to five spinal taps. But I have never walked to end Alzheimer’s disease. It is about time I did. My first Walk to End Alzheimer’s will take place in a part of Seattle that would be unrecognizable to my mother, whether or not she had ever had dementia: South Lake Union, where the new Museum of History and Industry has taken over the old Naval Armory and a new waterfront park has taken over—what was there before? Mud, cattails, derelict docks? Then there’s Amazon, of course, which has transformed the motley, low-rise warehouse district we used to call—well, we didn’t call it anything. It was “near the Seattle Times” or “near the Mercer Mess,” or for those of us in the picture trade, “near Glazer’s and Ivey-Seright.” And it was “near Jafco,” a sort of scrappy Costco precursor in a Soviet-style, concrete bunker just south of Mercer. Rustin and I bought our wedding bands at Jafco, an act of happy frugality inspired by our desire to save up for our round-the-world, backpacking honeymoon. So as I walk this weekend, I’ll be walking my own quirky memory lane. Which also includes many, many Mercer trips from Queen Anne, where I once lived, to Madrona, where Mom once lived. Those cross-town treks date from before we knew Mom had Alzheimer’s disease. Sure, there had been some troubling memory lapses, but nothing out of the ordinary for a busy, not quite-60-year-old high school teacher with six grown kids and a growing [...]

September Berries

2013-09-05T08:36:58-07:00Categories: dementia, midlife, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , |

Late-season blackberries are like the denizens of a well-worn tavern: this one’s dry as an old raisin, that one’s pretty but dusted with mold; this one is big but refuses to mature, that one is sweet but too soft, turning to jam in your hand. Picking blackberries after Labor Day is indeed labor. And yet I find it compulsively absorbing. I wade in the shallows at the edge of Lake Washington, scanning, searching, occasionally finding. I work my way along the shoreline, a plastic bag in my sticky purple hand, my water sandals nested in mud. The sun is hot on my back. I’m concentrating so hard you’d think I was taking the Blackberry SATs. Often, I go berry picking with the goal of Thinking about something that needs thinking about: for example, should I let go of the dream of a traditional publisher for my memoir and try a different route? Or, on a more immediate note, how soon can I text my son, who is 3,000 miles away and in the throes of mono, and ask him if he’s feeling any better today? But when I step into the water and begin my hunt for the plumpest, darkest berries, I stop thinking. I go into a sort of trance state in which the only thing that matters is: where’s the next one? Is it there, on that cluster? No: they look ready, but they’re not. Or there, on the next branch? No: those ones should have been picked last week. Mold has crept over [...]

Hard-wired for Green

2013-04-09T11:58:14-07:00Categories: arts, brain, dementia, education, nature, writing|Tags: , , , |

We are hard-wired for green. It’s a phrase I heard for the first time this week, and it is lodged in my brain at the moment like an advertising jingle I secretly like. Hard-wired for green: meaning, you can strip away everything you’ve learned since birth and you will still primally, viscerally, respond like a seedling in the sun to the sight of new green growth. You will feel reassured by this evidence that the planet, or at least one bit of it, is still alive and well. You will feel energized—if these plants can grow, then I can too. You might think I heard this in some sort of eco-oriented setting, and you’d be right, if you stretched your notion of ecology to include the complex landscape of the brain. It was the keynote speaker at the regional Alzheimer’s conference who planted the “hard-wired for green” seed in my head. Sociologist and author John Zeisel was talking about what people with Alzheimer’s don’t lose as the disease goes about its inexorable business. What they don’t lose is what is “hard-wired;” so deeply embedded that we’re born with it. Positive feelings about green, especially trees, were at the top of his list, which also included: universal facial expressions—smiles, frowns and the look of disgust; response to touch, especially anything resembling a mother’s touch; the learning and use of landmarks; and, finally, creative expression: art, poetry, music and dance. Zeisel is a tireless advocate for the “personhood” of the person with dementia, as reflected in the title [...]

Generation Squeeze

2013-02-12T16:57:03-08:00Categories: dementia, economics, midlife, politics|Tags: , , , , , |

This just in from The New York Times: the “sandwich generation” is now also the “squeezed generation.” Visualizing this is making me feel very claustrophobic. But boy, do I get it. The “sandwich generation” years started early for me. Just as I began having babies, my mother began losing bits of herself. Bits of memory, judgment, common sense, intuition, drive, mojo; all her legendary coping skills, honed through three marriages, six children, a decade of widowhood—all of them began to peel away like old paint. Now, it’s easy to look back and see it was the disorienting (for all of us, not just for her) beginning of her long Alzheimer’s-induced crumbling. Then, I was deep in the trees and had no way to see the forest with any clarity. I only knew I was sandwiched between the needs of young children and of my mother, who wasn’t even old—early sixties, that’s not old-old! And my own parental coping skills were forming in what felt like a funhouse mirror: no day ever the same, what with Mom’s escapades—losing the car, locking herself out—mixed in with the usual preschool zaniness: why can’t I wear my tutu to school in this snowstorm? So: I know, I am, the sandwich-generation. I’m just not in the thick of it right now like so many of my 50-something friends are. Mom is gone. My dad and step-mom, still in their late 70s, are doing generally well. Ditto my mother-in-law, who’s 82. Meanwhile, baby boomers have been awarded a new moniker—the “Squeezed Generation”--that [...]

Restless Brain Syndrome

2012-12-04T15:30:29-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, film, midlife, politics|Tags: , , , , , , |

Restless Brain Syndrome: I’ve had it bad lately. Typical onset: about five a.m. Starts with: review of dreams, none of which ever make much sense, but all of which seem to crescendo up to some cliff-hanger moment that wakes me up. I can’t keep swimming this river: there’s no more water! And wait: why am I wearing a slip? Who even wears slips anymore? From these traumas, my brain moves restlessly towards the saving light of consciousness, only to find a whole new casserole of dilemmas. My husband is right: we’ve got to get rid of that storage unit. It is ridiculous to have a storage unit. Speaking of Rustin, his latest film review ends with him saying he doesn’t think he’ll want to see Lincoln again. I couldn’t agree less.  Speaking of presidents trying to work with congresses, what about that fiscal cliff? Speaking of fiscal cliffs, I fear our checking account may be approaching one… After enduring this for a while, I start bargaining with my brain. OK, Brain, you’re awake: so let’s stop tossing more leftovers into the casserole and address these food groups one at a time. How about we start by clearing the table of the stuff you can’t personally solve, like the fiscal cliff? In this phase, my restless brain tacks back and forth between wanting to get up and make a to-do list and wanting to cocoon deep into the pillow and see if I could somehow find another five minutes of sleep. While this Restless Brain syndrome is [...]

Holiday Dementia

2012-11-27T14:16:20-08:00Categories: brain, dementia|Tags: , , |

 It’s winter. A butterfly just fluttered past my window. Or so I thought, for one illogical instant, until I realized it was a yellow leaf. Just a little moment of delightful poetry—or creeping dementia. That’s the kind of gallows humor that goes through my mind on any given morning. And I know I’m not alone. A recent poll showed that two thirds of the population of the United States has some personal connection—via a family member, friend or workmate—with Alzheimer’s disease or other memory loss problems. Alzheimer’s is, and has been for many years, our most feared disease, and rightly so. And this time of year, as many of us see family members we haven’t seen in a while, that fear runs high. Maybe you were one of the millions of Americans who noticed, this Thanksgiving Day, that your grandmother or your mother was off her game. Forgot to time the turkey; put salt in the pumpkin pie. Maybe you’d been warned, before you got home, that your beloved uncle wasn’t quite himself anymore. That his wife, your aunt, was tense and tired. Maybe you’re currently rethinking your commitment to see them all again at Christmas or Hanukah. Maybe, like me, you’re missing the one who’s already gone: in my case, my mother, who died before her time of an illness I once thought only very old people got. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can cast a long shadow over the holidays. I believe it’s natural and healthy to feel all kinds of ways about [...]

Grown-up Brain

2012-07-12T12:12:33-07:00Categories: brain, dementia, fitness, midlife|Tags: , , |

Sitting in my email inbox is a message with this subject line: “Five memory-killing foods you should NEVER eat!” But does this email tell me what they are? No, of course not, because the spammer who sent it wants me to click on their hack-trap  link. The email is from someone named “Alzheimer Cure,” whose address is gaynell at brendy dot lookharbor dot info. Hmmmm. Clearly, Gaynell, you have not heard the good news about the middle-aged brain. Turns out I am not a), so dumb and desperate I’m going to open your email or b), on some grim downward slide that started around 25, when my brain peaked, and will continue until I keel over. Clearly, Mr. or Ms. Gaynell at Brendy dot Lookharbor, you have not read the book I just read: The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, by New York Times science editor Barbara Strauch. This is a book is packed with good news: the kind of news that tends to slip under the radar because it is so counter-cultural and confusing to our youth-worshipping media world. Strauch’s mission is to bring us up to date on the brain research of the past few decades, nearly all of which refutes the prevailing cultural brain myth of our time: namely, that young brains work better. She does not deny the specific ways in which youthful brains have it over middle-aged or older brains, which mostly have to do with speed and short-term recall. But she paints a fascinating picture of the ways in [...]

Are We Old Yet?

2011-12-14T11:20:11-08:00Categories: dementia, midlife, Uncategorized|Tags: , , |

It’s kind of touching, isn’t it, the way we fifty-somethings insist on calling ourselves “middle-aged.”  As if.  People: I read in the paper this morning: the average life span in America is still 78.  Half of 78 is still 39, no matter how you slice and dice it. I remember being 39.  I do, really.  I remember thinking people in their fifties who couldn’t say the word “old” were kind of sad. At 39, I had a seven-year-old, a four-year-old, a novel I so hoped would find a publisher and a freelance career I had allowed to dwindle.  My 65-year-old mother’s disturbing memory lapses were soon to be given the dreaded label that would define her final descent: Alzheimer’s disease.  At 39, the statistical middle of an American life, I did not feel young, middle-aged or old; I felt seasick. I had jettisoned the ballast of a secure job. I believed motherhood, marriage, writing and my mom’s desire to be a hands-on grandma would be my anchors for the next decade or so. Looking back, I see my younger self as touchingly naïve.  Surely not at any sort of mid-point, any sort of stable axis. But are we ever? And isn’t that what’s so ridiculous, really, about the whole notion of a “middle age”?  Because of course we don’t know whether we’re going to get 78 years, or 98, or maybe only 28 or 58.  So when exactly should we call ourselves “middle-aged?” What we do learn, as we churn through the decades, is that whatever [...]

Desert Rain

2011-11-30T08:24:46-08:00Categories: dementia, hiking, midlife, Uncategorized|Tags: , , |

It was pouring as I drove my tin-can rental car up the hill outside Tucson.  This is crazy, I thought.  Crazy that it’s raining in the desert, and crazy that I haven’t turned back yet. I listened to the news as I splashed along.  An 85-year-old man, known to have dementia, was missing: went to the supermarket, never returned home. I pulled into the Tucson Mountain lot.  The rain suddenly stopped.  So I grabbed my knapsack and began to follow the first trail I saw. A hundred yards from the car, I hesitated, confused.  The trail had disappeared.  Or rather, there were suddenly half a dozen trails: all formed in the past hour, by rivulets of rain.  Whatever footprints might have once marked the real trail had been washed away.  There was no one else around. This must be what dementia feels like, I thought. I turned around and spotted a stone shelter just above the parking lot.  My beacon: When I turned around, I would head straight for it. I knew I was in no danger, not really, yet I felt queasy: do scorpions come out after a rain in the desert?  Rattlesnakes?  I had no idea.  Could the clouds gather again so quickly and rain hard enough to cause a flash flood?  Probably. I felt small and humble and not very smart.  But I pressed on, thirsty for a little fresh air and exercise.  Twenty minutes, then I’d turn around. 40 minutes later, I made it back to where I started, dry and unbitten [...]

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