My media adventures

2019-11-07T15:43:29-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, health & medicine, memoir|Tags: , , , |

Alzheimer's disease is so hard to talk about. Or write about, or make films about. But here's what I'm learning this summer: focusing on volunteering for Alzheimer's research is somehow easier, and if it's a way to get people to talk about this deadly illness that now affects 5.3 million people and costs our country $226 billion a year, then I'm willing to do it. And if you actually saw me on Fox News' Health Talk and you're inspired to volunteer for research, here's the Alzheimer's Association's Trial Match page. Go for it! As I wrote about earlier this summer in the Wall Street Journal, you will feel more useful than you ever have in your life. I am forever grateful to Dr. Manny Alvarez and his wonderful producer, Paula Rizzo (check out her lively website and book on productivity, Listful Thinking) for inviting me to share my experiences on Health Talk. I'm still taking in the crazy whirl of it--lights, camera, makeup--but hoping, more than anything, that a few viewers are persuaded to volunteer. I volunteer for my mom. But I also do it for myself, and my children, and their future children.  And for the millions of people, worldwide, who are living with Alzheimer's now, or will be someday soon: unless, that is, there's a research breakthrough. Which is more likely to happen if more research volunteers step up. Remember, you don't have to have Alzheimer's, or have it in your family; control subjects are always needed. Buy Her Beautiful Brain from the small or large bookstore of your [...]

Subduction Zone

2019-11-07T15:44:26-08:00Categories: faith and doubt, family, film, memoir, midlife, nature|Tags: , , , , , , |

Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, our daughter is leading a trail crew. Somewhere in New York, our son, who moved there five days ago, is looking for a job and an apartment. Meanwhile, my husband and I are on the lovely, lonely Washington coast, at the Northwestern edge of the Lower 48: in the heart of what we all now know as the Cascadia Subduction Zone, thanks to Kathryn Schulz’ July 20 New Yorker story, “The Really Big One.” We are staying in a dollhouse-sized, bright blue rental cabin, which is for sale, just as it was when we stayed here two years ago. And just as we did then, we keep fantasizing about buying the place, which we can’t afford to do, though maybe with the publication of Schulz’ much-shared story, the price will drop. If I understand correctly, one response to her reporting that might make an odd kind of sense is: why not buy a tiny wooden house, 200 yards from the breaking waves? Our Seattle home is just as imperiled, right? Here’s what’s appealing about the dollhouse: when we pulled up next to it two days ago and got out of the car, the vast view before us made me—gasp is the only word I can think of. Yes, I’ve been to the beach before, many times; I’ve been to this exact beach before. But each time, the expanse of it shocks me. Suddenly, I realize how crowded daily life can get: and I don’t mean busy sidewalks and backed-up freeways so [...]

Beyond the Trail

2019-11-07T15:46:19-08:00Categories: arts, brain, dementia, hiking, memoir, nature, reading, Seattle, writing|Tags: , , , |

  “End of Maintained Trail,” read the sign. “Travel Safely. Leave No Trace.” We had hiked the 3.1 miles up to Glacier Basin in Mt. Rainier National Park on a mid-June day that looked like late July: wildflowers everywhere, sky bluer than blue, glaciers looking decidedly underfed. I could use that “end of maintained trail” metaphor to riff about global warming, couldn’t I? But my mind is traveling in a different direction. More of a life direction. More of a… what it might feel like to get a scary diagnosis direction. For 5.3 million Americans living today, that diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, and it may as well come with a trail’s-end message attached: This is the end of the maintained trail, pal. Sorry. Travel safely. Oh, and leave no trace of your fears and feelings because frankly, the rest of us can’t handle hearing about it. For their family members, the diagnosis message is the same: your life, too, will now proceed on unmarked terrain. There will be rocks, some slippery, others sharp. There will be immoveable boulders. Crevasses of anguish. The endless putting of one foot in front of another, as you wonder what lies around the next switchback or over that looming ridge. The Alzheimer’s Association recently switched its awareness month from November—cold, barren, dark—to June: mild, lush and flooded with light. At first, I didn’t get it. November had always seemed like the perfect Alzheimer’s Awareness month to me. But I think the point is to get us all thinking about just how [...]

Lost & Found Mom

2019-11-07T15:47:21-08:00Categories: brain, faith and doubt, family, memoir, midlife, parenting|Tags: , , |

When I saw that dirt-colored linoleum, I knew I had to act. Fast. Thanks to my mom, I knew how. Yellow pages: rugs. Phone. Directions. “Vicky,” I said to my brand-new college roommate, “will you go in with me on a rug? It’ll cost us 40 dollars.” She said yes. And so off I went, via bus and subway, into a Boston neighborhood not normally frequented by Wellesley College freshmen from faraway states. I bought the rug: short nap, sky blue. I truly can’t remember how I got it back to the dorm. What caught me by surprise was how impressed my roommate and hallmates were. To me, this was a logical reaction to a crisis of ugliness. To them, it was all about me being a plucky Western girl, an Annie Oakley who got stuff done. But I knew the truth, which was that I had simply channeled my inner Arlene: my mom, that is, and the example she had always set of moving right past hand-wringing and right into making things better. I always wince when I use the words “lost” and “mom” in the same sentence. Because she’s not lost. She’s right here, inside me. I am sure my brother and sisters feel the same way. She was and is far too powerful a beacon to be “lost.” Gone, yes, and too young: Alzheimer’s started stealing bits of her when she was my age and kept at it for quite a long time. She died in 2006, at 74, after many years during [...]

Watching Still Alice

2019-11-07T15:50:44-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, film, memoir|Tags: , , , |

“I wish I had cancer,” 50-year-old Alice Howland says to her husband, not long after learning she has younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. With cancer, she explains, come pink ribbons and talk of empowerment and courage. With Alzheimer’s, she sees only shame and isolation ahead. The end of her career. The distaste and inevitable distancing from friends and family. And she is right. Though the Alzheimer’s Association and many other advocates are doing everything possible to change our perceptions about the disease, we still have a long way to go towards the compassion and empathy with which we now view nearly all other illnesses.           Alice Howland is a fictional character, but in the movie Still Alice, Julianne Moore brings her to life with shattering clarity. A professor of linguistics at the top of her game, Alice is an almost unbelievable paragon of ordered, focused achievement. When she and her on-screen family are introduced, it’s hard to like them, they’re all so successful and so—chilly. It’s as if they live in a walk-in fridge, where everything is in its place and nothing is warm or sensual. But like a power outage in mid-summer, Alzheimer’s quickly breaks that down. We watch Moore melt in the middle of a presentation. We watch her forget that she just met her son’s new girlfriend. We see her panic because she can’t find the bathroom in her own home. Meanwhile, her husband and three grown children respond as they are able, or not. Turns out it’s the youngest daughter Lydia, played by Kristen [...]

Immigrant America

2019-11-07T15:58:37-08:00Categories: human rights, memoir|Tags: , , , , |

Her name was pinned to her coat, because she didn’t speak a word of English. But Lydia Westerback made it from Ellis Island to Hanna, Wyoming, where her future husband was waiting for her. He’d been waiting for nine years. It took that long for Lydia’s heart to heal after the death of her first fiancé, back in Finland. Nine years for her heart to stop hurting enough to see what Viktor Warila was offering her: not just love and marriage but a whole new world. She was 31. Her choice was stark: impoverished spinsterhood in Finland, under the rule of the Russian Czar? Or marriage, and America, with a friendly man whose letters she enjoyed but who she had not seen in nearly a decade? Lydia and Viktor were my great-grandparents. Like all my forebears, they came here with little money and lots of hope. This might be your story too, or a part of your story. Whether it was nearly five centuries ago in Pilgrim New England, whether it was one or two centuries ago in the great immigrant waves that gave us Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus’ beautiful poem—you remember, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Whether it was 30 years ago or three years ago, we were all poor travelers at the table. Or as President Obama put it in his announcement last week of major executive action on immigration, “we know the heart of a stranger—we were strangers once [...]

5 a.m. Idea Factory

2019-11-11T09:17:49-08:00Categories: arts, brain, health & medicine, memoir, midlife, writing|Tags: , |

On a good day, I call it the 5 a.m. Idea Factory; on a bad day, it’s the “pre-dawn stew.” I have also dubbed it “Restless Brain Syndrome,” which became the title of one of the most frequently browsed posts on this humble blog. Guess I’m not alone here on the insomnia journey. But lately, I’ve been leaning positive. I’m trying to embrace my version of insomnia rather than fight it. Hence, the 5 a.m. Idea Factory. (Sometimes, it’s 3 or 4 a.m. Which is a little harder to embrace. But let’s not dwell on that.) First: hats off to those of you who get up every day at five, either because you have to or because you want to. Seriously. I have spent a lot of time asking myself why, since I so often wake up at five, I so adamantly do not want to get up at five. In these self-to-self conversations, I have tried to employ logic (you’re awake! It makes sense!), ambition (think of all the writing you could get done!), selfishness (do it for you. Give yourself that time!) and selflessness (think how much better your husband will sleep if you get your restless self out of bed!) But no: my 5 a.m. brain may be on high alert, but my 5 a.m. body refuses all orders to throw back the covers and face the world. One day, I listened as a woman a few decades older than I am described how she loves lingering in that time between sleep and [...]

Dignity is an Illusion

2019-11-07T15:59:16-08:00Categories: education, faith and doubt, family, memoir, midlife|Tags: , , , , |

            “Dignity is an illusion,” I took to saying during a particularly rough year of my life. I don’t know where it came from, or when exactly I first said it, but it made me laugh. Which helped. Dignity was in short supply that year. Rejection was the theme of the hour. Publishers were rejecting my first book (a novel, which remains unpublished.) My husband was rejecting our marriage (a miserable phase for both of us, which thankfully ended and now seems so long ago now I sometimes can’t believe it ever happened.) I was applying for full-time jobs for the first time in quite a while, and getting a lot of “sorrys,” which I took to mean I was too old (40) and professionally out-of-shape (true). Meanwhile, I watched helplessly as my mother experienced the worst rejection of all: she was diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s. Her dignity was in the shredder. Dignity is an illusion. These four words became my gallows-humor motto that year, and they have stayed with me ever since. If a phrase can be a teacher, this one has been mine. And here’s what it’s taught me: Cling to dignity and you’ll be left with nothing, including your dignity. Acknowledge that dignity is nothing but a pleasant illusion and you will be empowered. Those kids in the office where you finally land a job who think you’re old? Who cares! Show them how little you value dignity and they will judge you differently: perhaps even on the [...]

Optimism is Possible

2019-11-07T16:00:00-08:00Categories: hiking, memoir, midlife, politics, travel|Tags: , , , , |

It’s Election Day. Whatever your persuasions, you know and I know the news will not all be good. So: based on my just-concluded road trip—aka four weeks and 4500 miles of unscientific research—I am here to spread a little optimism. My husband and I left Seattle on the last Monday in September and returned on the last Monday in October. Our destination was Salida, Colorado, where our daughter just finished a five-month season with the Southwest Conservation Corps. Reason for Optimism Number One: did you know there are more than 100 Conservation Corps all over the country, employing strong young people to take care of our wilderness areas in all kinds of ways? All summer long, they build and repair trails and camps in national parks and forests. Most are paid an Americorps stipend: barely enough to get by on. So as you gnash you teeth waiting for election news, be thankful for the more than 26 thousand young adults who serve our country in this invisible way. We took our time getting to and from Colorado. One of the things we wanted to do was explore a bit via bicycle—not in any mega-mile way, like the supertough riders we saw out on Highway 101, cycling through the California Redwoods in a driving rainstorm—but in more modest jaunts around towns we didn’t know well. Which brings me to Reason for Optimism Number Two: good, long, well-marked bike paths can now be found in places you might never have expected. Like Laramie, Wyoming. Who knew how great [...]

The West: A Love Story

2019-11-07T16:00:34-08:00Categories: family, hiking, memoir, midlife, nature, parenting, travel|Tags: , |

“A mountain lion sounds like a screaming woman,” said the ranger at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. This bothered me. Until I was standing outside a locked door in Castle Valley, Utah, listening to what sounded like a chorus of screaming women. “Mountain lions,” I thought, as mournful coyotes sang harmony. My husband and I are on a road trip around the West. We have stayed with relatives, camped, enjoyed a few budget motels and a sweet suite at a hostel. The graciously lent Utah home of a friend, outside of which we were now standing and listening to wildlife, was by far the most luxurious stop on our trip. For the first time in two weeks, we cooked: pasta with veggies from the Salida, Colorado Farmer’s Market; a bottle of red wine. Aahh. After dinner we stepped out on the patio to admire the stars and the moon over the red rock castles of this storied valley. Rustin was in socks. I was in slippers. The door closed and locked behind us. What followed was one of the longest half hours of our lives. For a few minutes, we swore and moaned along with the coyotes and lions. Then Rus began systematically checking windows. I tried jimmying the lock with my tiny cross necklace, succeeding only in twisting the cross—a metaphor I may use in a future Restless Nest, but not this one. Then I racked my brain: what else could I find and use, without a flashlight? My bicycle key and the [...]

The Restless Report, Part Two

2019-11-07T16:01:38-08:00Categories: brain, family, memoir, midlife, parenting, travel|Tags: , , |

artist: Kim Goff-Harrington When our children were younger, my husband and I used to joke about our great fear that they might “rebel” against the creative, financially precarious example we have set by becoming stockbrokers or bankers. Didn’t happen! And so far, it doesn’t like it’s going to. This is good news, regarding all of us having a lot in common and plenty to talk about around the dinner table. Not so good, re our collective financial futures. But once you make the decision—or, more accurately, once you realize you’ve made the decision without noticing you made it—to value your time on the planet more than your money, it’s hard to go back. Three years ago, I wrote a Restless Nest about this called, “Oops, I forgot to get rich.” It cheered me up to write it in the midst of the recession, as we and our nonprofit clients struggled to stay afloat while the big bankers got their big bailout. But the central tenet of that piece—that time is worth so much more than money—holds up. Back to the kids, who aren’t kids anymore: they’re 22 and 25, and as I reported last week, they’re currently in Eastern Europe and Colorado, doing their own restless adventuring. Neither of them is sure what will come next. My own experience and my instincts about them tell me they’re doing exactly what they should be doing. But it’s also in my job description, as a mom, to worry. Just a tiny bit. Imagine my relief when [...]

The Restless Report

2019-11-07T16:02:14-08:00Categories: brain, memoir, midlife, parenting, women's rights, writing|Tags: , , , , |

Four years ago, a word came to me: restless. That’s me, I thought. That’s what I am: restless. And then I saw how well it went with the word “nest.” Restless Nest. Suddenly, I had a retort, a comeback, to the tiresome questions about how I was coping with our newly empty nest. “It’s not empty,” I would say. “It’s restless.” I liked saying it, because it instantly defused a whole Molotov-cocktail shaker full of flammable issues behind the words “empty nest.” There was the implied sexism—“I’m sure your husband’s fine but you must be a mess!”—and ageism: “wow, life’s pretty bleak and empty at your age, isn’t it?” And then there were my own incendiary issues: I hated the thought of my college-age children judging me and thinking my life was now empty and dull. I resented the mixed messages from well-meaning friends, which I somehow heard as: if you’re a good and loving mother, of course you are going to feel bereft when your children leave. On the other hand, if you do feel bereft, that must mean you defined yourself through your children, and didn’t we all vow thirty years ago we wouldn’t do that? Four years later, thinking about what I was thinking then makes my head spin. Because here’s one thing I’ve learned: I am not the only restless one in this nest, and I’m not just talking about my husband. Although he’s a good place to start. “Read this,” he said on Sunday, pointing to a New York Times Opinion [...]

Welcome to Seattle

2019-11-07T16:02:45-08:00Categories: arts, hiking, memoir, midlife, travel, urban life|Tags: , , , |

Here’s a sad, sad thought: your cherished friend is visiting Seattle from across the country and you find out she’s drinking bad hotel coffee at her downtown hotel. You know the stuff: those packets that you stick in the toddler-sized coffeemaker, because you can’t bear to spend ten dollars on a cup from room service OR throw a coat over your pajamas and venture out for a to-go cup from the nearest café. When I heard the news, I felt personally embarrassed on behalf of my hometown. Vicky and I met forty years ago this month, when Wellesley College assigned us to live in the same room. She was from Ohio. I was from Seattle. We were both 17, on financial aid and not from New York or New England, which must be why Wellesley College matched us up. Vicky remembers that I drew little cartoon evergreen trees on the whiteboard outside our dorm room because I was so homesick. She remembers that I brewed my own coffee, purchased at the gourmet store in town. I remember that no one knew anything about Seattle, except for what they’d seen on Here Come the Brides, the TV show responsible for the song, “The Bluest Skies You’ve Ever Seen.” (“—are in Seattle?” Who wrote that?) Over the many years since college, Vicky has been in Seattle briefly a few times. But on this visit, she finally had the leisure to look around a bit, while her husband attended a conference. I know Vicky to be an intrepid walker, [...]

Happy Mother’s Day

2019-11-13T16:18:03-08:00Categories: dementia, family, memoir, midlife, parenting, urban life|Tags: , , |

 Once upon a time in Seattle, a little girl went downtown with her mother and baby sister and had a grand adventure. They may have shopped at Frederick & Nelson. They could have sipped milkshakes in the Paul Bunyan Room. But the excitement meter started spinning like crazy when the car broke down. I was that little girl. What I remember is this: the pale green Pontiac thudded to a halt. Mom twisted the keys and the steering wheel. The car wheezed weakly—and then went silent. Mom sighed, got out, opened the back door, scooped up baby Lisa from her car bed and motioned for me to slide across the vast back seat. “What are we doing?” I asked, as I scrambled down to the sidewalk. “Are we going to visit this castle?” We were standing in front of a brick building with a grassy courtyard and white columns flanking the oversized front door. Mom laughed. “That’s not a castle, honey. That’s an apartment building. And look—here’s a bus stop right in front of it! Are you ready for your very first bus ride?” Was I ever. This was a trip downtown I would never forget! And I didn’t. As I wrote in my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, “In my three-year-old mind, it was the ideal moment: the complete safety of Mom; the thrilling adventure of the bus. Our mother was the opposite of fear, the opposite of worry, the handler of everything.” It’s that castle-like apartment building that kept this scrap of memory alive for me. [...]

Blue Dress, Red Dress

2019-11-13T16:35:11-08:00Categories: arts, film, memoir, midlife, women's rights|Tags: , , , , , |

I’m thinking again about Anita Hill’s blue dress. I wrote about it, and her, and Freida Mock’s engrossing documentary film, titled simply Anita, last year when the film played at the Seattle International Film Festival. Now, Anita is in theaters, including Seattle’s Sundance Cinema. Go see it. Time-travel back to October 1991, when we weren’t yet accustomed to having a man accused of sexual harassment on the Supreme Court. But back to the dress. No matter how hard we all try to be less attached to the things of our lives, objects do have power. Anita Hill knew what her pale blue dress said, and so did we: Professional. Tasteful. Modest. When I remember my mother, I often picture her in a dress that couldn’t be more different than the one Hill wore to that infamous Senate hearing. My mom’s dress was Tabasco-red. It was fitted with a flared skirt. Spaghetti-strapped. A print of tiny white racehorses galloped across it. That dress was shorthand for who she was then: a youthful, single, 49-year-old woman with a great eye for the right outfit, one that pushed the edge of daring without going over it. A red dress says: Here I am. The star of Peter Brook’s stage adaptation of a South African story called The Suit, Nonhlanhla Kheswa, was resplendent in a red dress that was a ringer for my mother’s, only without the racehorses. When she stepped to the front of the stage and sang Miriam Makeba’s haunting “Malaika,” it was as if the red dress [...]

Happy Birthday, Gloria Steinem

2019-11-13T16:36:10-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, memoir, midlife, politics, writing|Tags: , , , , |

Happy Birthday, Gloria Steinem. If you are what eighty looks like, then there is hope in this world. And it is high time I thanked you for a few things. First: Six years ago, for two weeks of my life, you gave me courage to get out of bed. It was April 2008. A cold April: frost every day, even a few snow flurries. Every morning, I huddled under the covers in my cottage at Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island retreat for women writers, reading your brilliant book of essays, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. You have to understand, Gloria: I did not deserve to be at Hedgebrook, because I was not a real writer. Documentary filmmaker, occasional journalist, effective public affairs bloviator—you could call me all of the above. But writer? What was Hedgebrook thinking, giving me a cottage for two weeks on the basis of a script I’d written for a doc film about Alzheimer’s disease? It was you who gave me courage to get over myself, get out of bed and start writing. Your honesty—about being a Playboy bunny, about your mother’s mental illness, about being a woman—inspired me to write honestly. Your voice—frank, funny, humble, confident—inspired me to try out my own. I was writing about my mother, too. Or trying to. Her birthday is also March 25th. She would have been 83 today, had Alzheimer’s not marked her and claimed her far too young: at 74, after nearly two decades of relentless assault. Even though my mother was just a few years [...]

Falling off the map

2014-03-04T13:50:56-08:00Categories: family, memoir, midlife, parenting, travel|Tags: , , |

Once upon a time, it was easy to fall off the map. You saved your money. You bought a ticket. You told your parents you’d be checking in, gave them a hug, and off you went. A few weeks later, you scribbled a postcard if you remembered. If you were feeling verbose, you bought a tissue-thin aerogram and wrote a letter in your tiniest handwriting. If weeks turned into months, you went to an underlit, Dickensian place full of grimy booths called a telephone center and sat down for a brief, expensive, shouted phone call to the folks back home. But at no point did you feel compelled or obliged to let anyone know where you were all the time, or even most of the time. I started writing this piece on a cross-country flight a few weeks ago. We are still generally unreachable when in mid-air, although 1) this may change and/or is already changing and 2) your nearest and dearest tend to know where you are when you’re on that plane, even if you can’t text, email or actually call one another. I wrote a bit more when I was on a Megabus trip from New York City to Syracuse. The wi-fi worked pretty well, with the occasional slow patch as we skirted the Catskills. Most of the other passengers appeared to be college students, heading back upstate after a weekend in the city. Most of them wore ear buds connected to smartphones; tethered even as they slept to music, to friends, to news. [...]

The Writers Are Coming

2014-02-25T13:20:00-08:00Categories: arts, brain, dementia, memoir, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

    When I opened this week’s Sunday Seattle Times, the first thing I saw was a big color ad for commemorative Super Bowl 48 bookends. Fully sculpted, cold-cast bronze, showing “Seahawks players in action!” Not available in stores! And only $49.99, payable in two easy installments! I looked up “cold-cast bronze” so you won’t have to. It means the sculpture is made from a resin mixed with powdered bronze, which gives it a surface, quote, “similar to traditionally cast bronze, at a fraction of the cost.” Just FYI. But what struck me about the ad was this: why bookends? In what way do books relate to football? Why not just make a Seahawks Super Bowl cold-cast bronze statue to place on the coffee table in front of the flat-screen TV, so you can see it every time you fire up ESPN? Maybe the Bradford Exchange Collectibles people heard about one of Seattle’s other claims to fame, which is that we are one of the most literate cities in the country. The second, after Washington DC, for the fourth year in a row. The Central Connecticut State University study tracks six factors: number of bookstores, educational attainment, Internet resources, library resources, periodical publishing resources, and newspaper circulation. Or maybe the cold-cast bronze makers got wind of Seattle author Ryan Boudinot’s campaign to get the United Nations to declare Seattle an official UNESCO City of Literature. A part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities program, such a designation would not only acknowledge what we all know—Seattleites love books—but help [...]

Swimming

2014-02-06T10:06:56-08:00Categories: human rights, memoir, parenting, urban life|Tags: , , , , , |

I swam and swam, longer and further than I thought I would, turning my face to the sun each time I flipped over for some backstroke. Then I sat in a hot tub and worked the jets over my tight calves, shoulders, back, feet. From there I repaired to the sauna, lay back and went from pleasantly warm to luxuriously hot. It was the tail end of January. Noon on a Friday. I wasn’t on vacation. I was at the sparkling new Rainier Beach pool in the middle of southeast Seattle. For five dollars and 25 cents, I swam, soaked and sweated away my cares and woes, along with a rainbow coalition of fellow south Seattleites. When I arrived, the locker room was swarming with toddlers and moms who had just finishing swim lessons. When I left, the seniors were on their way in, slow and graceful, like tortoises who’ve lived for decades on a beach the rest of us just discovered. “You just turned 68? You’re a baby. I’m 87!” one of them said to another. “87?” said the 68-year-old. “That’s a blessing, to be 87. That’s a blessing!” “It sure is,” said the 87-year-old, as she moved, one step at a time, behind her walker. “It sure is.” I had not been to the Rainier Beach Pool for many years, not since long before it was torn down and rebuilt. I remember one summer, taking my children there for swimming lessons; walking in was like entering a steamy, mildewed concrete bunker. What a transformation! [...]

At the movies

2014-01-29T17:09:12-08:00Categories: arts, faith and doubt, film, memoir, midlife, writing|Tags: , , , , |

Three human beings are haunting me. One is a homophobic, bull-riding Texan who has AIDS. One is a Danish kindergarten teacher, wrongly accused of sexually molesting a student. One is a celebrated Roman novelist who still hasn’t started his second novel, forty years after the first one was published. All are characters I saw on screen last week, and about whom I am still thinking this week. Though I am not the official movie reviewer in this family, I see a lot of movies. The ones that stick with me are what I think of as “meaning of life” stories. Stories in which a character, famous or heroic or, more likely, not either, must ask him-or-herself: what is the meaning of a life? One life. My life. When he is told he probably has 30 days to live, Ron Woodruff’s meaning-of-life meter goes crazy in Dallas Buyers’ Club. It was painful to watch the first phase of this—call it denial, or call it “I’m gonna go out in a blaze of glory”—and even more painful to watch his transition to the next one: actually, I do want to live, thinks Ron, and I’m gonna get the drugs I need. But Ron’s story transforms from painful to powerful as his fight for what he needs to stay alive becomes more than just his fight. Sure, he’s making money, but he’s also giving his life a meaning it never had, because it’s no longer all about him. Matthew McConaughey plays Ron as a human lightning rod: thin, dangerous and [...]

Tallchief

2019-11-13T16:48:58-08:00Categories: arts, family, memoir, writing|Tags: , , , , , |

  Ballerina Maria Tallchief. Undated photo. She “made us move bigger than we actually were, with a courage and physical confidence we didn’t yet possess,” wrote Jennifer Homans in a recent tribute to the great ballerina Maria Tallchief, who died in 2013. Maria Tallchief: what a graceful name for the daughter of an Osage chief who grew into a dancer known all over the world for her long-limbed, dazzling, powerful presence. My own memory of Maria Tallchief is not of her on stage—I was never so lucky—but of the sound of her name as spoken by my mom. She said it gratefully, joyfully and with wonder: as in, can you imagine how thrilling it was for me to see Maria Tallchief on stage in Butte, Montana? How lucky I felt? I think she saw Tallchief in Swan Lake. It must have been the late 1940s, when my mother was in high school. Butte, her hometown, was in a pretty happy mood then: World War II had brought Butte’s copper mines—a vast honeycomb underneath what had been known before the Depression as the “richest hill on earth”—back to life. My grandparents bought their first house, a tiny bungalow down on the flats with a stamp of a yard where you could coax a little grass and a few trees to grow: paradise, after a dozen years in the treeless tenements uptown. The Depression had been very hard on Butte, and on my mother’s family. And so this ballerina, whose talent was to be bold, strong, [...]

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