Pandemic Mirror

2020-06-30T16:28:53-07:00Categories: brain, creative aging, family, featured posts, health & medicine, memoir, midlife, quiet, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , , , |

“When did my hair get so long?” I ask myself, as I look in the mirror. “And I look so  OLD!” I am 63. We are winding up Month Four of the pandemic. No. I’m not 63. I am seven, and I am winding up two weeks of being home sick with the mumps. I’m standing in front of the full-length mirror that hangs inside my parents’ bedroom closet door. When the door is open, there is plenty of light on the mirror, so it’s ideal for getting a good look at yourself, which I haven’t done in many days. One of my cheeks is puffed out like a popover. But almost more fascinating to seven-year-old me is how long my hair looks. Can it have grown so much since I last took a look at myself? I am also admiring my new pale blue, pearl-buttoned bathrobe, with its fake-fur collar. How did I, the third of six children (five at the time), acquire such a fancy robe? Was it a gift from my elegant grandmother, given to me because I had the mumps? Was I the only one of us who had the mumps? I don’t remember. What I do remember is what a novelty it was to look in the mirror and see only me: my brother and sisters were at school; my baby brother was taking a nap, or maybe he was with Grandma. And I didn’t look like me, pre-mumps. Never mind the puffy cheek: this was the second one to pop [...]

Love in the time of Chaos

2019-11-07T15:28:53-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, politics, Uncategorized, writing|Tags: , , , , , , |

What is so fascinating, in this new and disorienting era in which we’re now living, are the connections that form amidst the chaos. Last week, I was in Olympia for Alzheimer’s Advocacy Day. What a day of connections: of hearing and sharing stories; of witnessing the love that motivates families living with Alzheimer’s to go to the state capitol and talk to their representatives, even in this chaotic season when so many other causes cry out for their attention. If you—or your husband, wife, mother, father, friend—are living with Alzheimer’s, you are accustomed to a baseline level of chaos. But when there’s a sense that chaos has been unleashed in the world on a larger scale, too, life can feel very—untethered.  My mother’s Alzheimer’s disease began to rapidly accelerate in the summer and fall of 2001. She was quite unaware of the events of September 11. This may have been a blessing for her, but to us it was alarming. The country was in chaos. Our mother’s brain was in chaos. How to care for her, whether and where to move her, were the urgent questions that crowded our minds, even as we worried about war and terrorist threats. And then there was the daunting and dismaying challenge of explaining it all to our children—explaining not only what was happening in our country, but what was happening to their grandmother’s brain. Our hearts were breaking for her, and for the world, all at the same chaotic time. “Let love reign,” is the symbolic message of the [...]

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 [...]

Dining Alone

2019-11-07T15:46:51-08:00Categories: brain, midlife, quiet|Tags: , , , , , , |

     Cacio is an old central Italian word for cheese, but I didn’t know that until I looked it up later. What I wondered, as I crossed Second Avenue on a silky spring night, was whether it might mean “gift:” as in, a gift for me; the gift of a restaurant where I would have the courage to sit and dine alone on a Friday night in New York. On any night, the East Village is chock-a-block with groups of friends and tightly clinched couples. These days, the trendiest restaurants have lines out the door and deafening crowds in the bars. But Cacio e Vino was a quieter place, just around the corner from my friend Lisa’s apartment, where I was staying. Its garage-style windows were rolled up, its tables invitingly half-outdoors. I thought I could do it. I knew I needed to do it. I was hungry and thirsty and fresh out of mojo. I wanted to do it. But after 27 years of marriage, dining out, alone, is something I just never seem to do. Or maybe it’s something I have forgotten how to do.          Funny thing is, the week I’d just spent in New York had been all about female empowerment with a capital E. With the help of Lisa, who is president of the Women’s Media Group, I gave my first New York reading from Her Beautiful Brain at Book Culture on Columbus Avenue. Later in the week at Book Expo, I was on a panel of women entrepreneurs. I spent [...]

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 [...]

Being Fragile

2019-11-07T15:56:56-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, health & medicine, midlife, reading|Tags: , , , |

Human beings are fragile, though we prefer not to dwell on this. We prefer to celebrate our resilience, our strength, our endurance. But in the end, we are fragile, because we are mortal. Some living things—for example, the bristlecone pines of Nevada’s Great Basin—can live for a thousand years. Not us. Not a single one of us. Not ever.  Mortality is what Atul Gawande wrestles with in his book, Being Mortal. Gawande is a surgeon, and he is trained to fix broken humans so they can go back to being strong and resilient and busy. But when his own father was given a diagnosis that both father and son knew was incurable, Gawande realized how ill-prepared he and his parents—both also doctors—were to accept what medicine can’t do to fix things. And he realized he and his family weren’t alone in this. He began to look around his world, the world of surgery, oncology, all kinds of high-tech solutions to human fragility. He started asking hard questions about how and why doctors so often aggressively treat terminally ill patients—frequently causing great distress and discomfort—and why they so rarely ask questions about what their patients might actually want from life in their final years, days or months. He sought out people who were trying to do things differently, and learned from them how to ask the right questions. A piano teacher with, at most, weeks to live, told him what she most wanted was to leave the hospital, go home, and be given just enough pain relief [...]

Whole Hearted

2019-11-07T15:58:10-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, faith and doubt, family, film, reading, Uncategorized|Tags: , , , |

“The Great Heart Split,” writer Gail Godwin calls it: that moment, about 400 years ago, when our knowledge of how the physical heart works leaped forward, sending ancient beliefs about the heart as spiritual headquarters backward, to be filed under folklore and mythology. News flash: the powerful, tangible pumping of the heart is what keeps our bodies alive. The heart’s emotional value, its mystical properties? Not actually located in the center of our chests. Ever since, rational knowledge has trumped what used to be called, simply, heart. And then December comes along, and people start doing things that make no sense. We string colored lights from rooftops and balconies. We feverishly bake cookies, as if eating sweets mattered more than eating anything else. And, strangest of all, we cut trees and prop them up in basins of water in our living rooms. Even scientists and doctors do these things. And the scientists and doctors who study the brain—that mysterious organ where the intangible version of the heart has been hiding all along—they know that the protean behavior in which we indulge during this strange season called the Holidays can be both wonderful and awful for our brains, often at the very same time. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, our hearts and heads are bombarded with memories. Many are good. Some are not. If you’ve lost someone who used to be a big part of your holiday season, you’ll be feeling that pain. If you have a family member or two who ever excelled in causing [...]

Alzheimer’s + Anger

2019-11-07T16:03:16-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, writing|Tags: , , , , , , , |

I am not an angry person. I’m not. I’m sure I’m not. So why, then, am I riveted by Greg O’Brien’s rage? O’Brien is an investigative reporter who, as Maria Shriver put it, “is embedded in the mind of Alzheimer’s, which happens to be his own mind.” Five years ago, at 59, O’Brien was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s. Now, O’Brien told Shriver in an NBC interview, “60 percent of his short-term memory is gone in 30 seconds.” And it fills him with rage. When he can’t remember how to dial his cellphone. When he looks at a lawn sprinkler and can’t remember what it is. When suddenly “you don’t know where you are, who you are, or what the hell you’re doing.” When you recognize that there will never be enough research dollars directed towards Alzheimer’s until people understand that it’s not always a disease, said O’Brien, that “you get at 85 and then you die, and who gives a s*it.” O’Brien’s memoir, On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s, is coming out in October. I look forward to reading it. I know it won’t be sugar-coated. I’m glad. O’Brien was fresh in my mind when, a few days later, I read about 16-year-old Alicia Kristjanson of Edmonds, Washington. Kristjanson will be walking in the upcoming Walk to End Alzheimer’s in honor of her father Doug, who died of the disease this year at age 49. She told the Edmonds Beacon she “would never wish what I went through with my father on anyone else, not [...]

The Longest Day

2019-11-11T09:24:40-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, health & medicine|Tags: , , , , |

On the longest day of the year, the Alzheimer’s Association wants you to think. Use your precious and, God-willing, still-intact brain and think. Spend five of those one thousand glorious minutes of summer solstice daylight thinking about the people you know who are dealing with dementia and what the words “longest day” might mean to them. The Alzheimer’s Association is betting you do know someone whose spouse, parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, friend or neighbor is living with Alzheimer’s disease. Someone who knows the loneliness of caring for a person who once had so much to say and now says nothing at all, all day long. Or maybe she says the same thing over and over again. Or maybe he speaks, but it makes no sense. Maybe she or he is sundowning—there’s a good “longest-day” word—but in the dementia world, sundowning is not so pretty. It means getting agitated and cranky and sometimes even scary right when the rest of the world is getting ready for bed. The longest day. Where my ancestors came from, it was and is a day of celebration. Of joyous gratitude for summer light and warmth. And many of the people who are in the early stage of Alzheimer’s are going to be able to enjoy the longest day of the year just as much, if not more, than the rest of us, because no one is better at living in the moment than people who can’t remember. If you can no longer follow a book or a movie, then why not [...]

Bookstore Love

2019-11-14T12:01:48-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, reading, Seattle, writing|Tags: , , , , |

Restless Brain Syndrome strikes again. Early this morning, my mind was like a pinball machine that had me reaching for a Post-it and scribbling inscrutable phrases in half-asleep handwriting: follow up on A, send an email about B, and for God’s sake, don’t forget about Z. But the thought that made me sit straight up was this: Ann! Why haven’t you told everyone you know to save The Date? That date would be September 7, 2014 at 3pm: the book launch for my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, at the Elliott Bay Book Company. To you, Seattle may be the fastest-growing city in the United States, an epicenter of technology, global health, outdoor sports and online shopping. To me, Seattle is the big small town I grew up in. The town that taught me to love books. And bookstores. As a very young child, the library was my first temple of book love. Then, just about the time I was allowed to go without a grownup to the University Village Shopping Center, a bookstore about as big as my bedroom opened across the breezeway from Lamont’s Department Store. It was called Kay’s Bookmark. Rarely could I afford to buy an actual book, but Kay didn’t seem to mind. Maybe she understood that kid-browsers like me—the ones who were more comfortable in her store than they were in Lamont’s—might be her future customers. A handful of years later, about the time I was in the teen-angst-reducing habit of taking long bike or bus rides to more interesting parts [...]

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 [...]

Local Heroes

2019-11-13T16:39:22-08:00Categories: brain, dementia, health & medicine|Tags: , , , , , , , |

This is a local-hero story, about a pair of heroes you probably have never heard of. Their secret world headquarters is an unglamorous maze of cubicles in the sprawling Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care headquarters on Seattle’s Beacon Hill. They look like they could be Clark Kent’s father and Lois Lane’s mother. But for twenty years, they’ve been doggedly researching two illnesses most of us would rather not think about: post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD—and Alzheimer’s disease. As one of them likes to quip, they specialize in “people who can’t remember and people who can’t forget.” I first met Doctors Murray Raskind and Elaine Peskind ten years ago, when I began work on a documentary film about Alzheimer’s disease. After I interviewed them, I wound up becoming one of their control research subjects. Dr. Peskind is known for her expertly gentle touch in administering lumbar punctures—better known as spinal taps. She has tapped me five times to extract samples of cerebro-spinal fluid for use in Alzheimer’s research. All I have to do is lie curled up and still for several minutes: a pretty modest contribution to the cause of finding out what might cause, or cure, an illness that currently affects five and a half million Americans. Raskind and Peskind’s PTSD research happened almost by accident. Because the University of Washington’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center is physically located at the VA, Dr. Raskind, a psychiatrist, was asked, about twenty years ago, to advise a support group for African-American Vietnam veterans. Of the many issues members of the [...]

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 [...]

The Cover

2019-11-13T16:45:31-08:00Categories: arts, brain, dementia, family, midlife, women's rights, writing|Tags: , , , , |

The first cover I saw was gorgeous, but I knew immediately it was not right for my book. And that certainty made my heart sink, because this is my very first book and this was the first and most important step in the design process and right out of the gate, I was going to have to be the bad guy. My book is called Her Beautiful Brain. It’s a memoir about my mom and her younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease and how it changed our lives: hers, mine, everyone’s in my big, loving extended family. It’s a sandwich generation story, about raising young children while my mother started to crumble: first slowly, then very fast. It’s a late-20th-century story, about a miner’s daughter from Butte, Montana who weathered divorces and widowhood, went back to college and back to work, raised six children and was the strongest woman I ever knew. It is not about a woman who ever had much time or inclination to knit. So when I saw that first elegant cover design, which showed a black silhouette of a woman’s head, in profile, with a bright pink ball of yarn inside it, one long strand of yarn unraveling out of her head and down the center of the frame, I thought: no. I don’t want a ball of yarn anywhere near this cover. Too literal? Maybe so. But I also didn’t like the notion of Alzheimer’s disease as an unraveling, because let me tell you, it is not. A brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease is [...]

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 [...]

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 [...]

The Next Big Thing

2013-02-19T15:07:52-08:00Categories: Uncategorized|Tags: , , |

Book reviewer extraordinaire and writer of elegant prose Isla McKetta tagged me in an online writer's blog series called The Next Big Thing. Isla is a copywriter by day, novelist by night, Richard Hugo House board member and indefatigable cheerleader of her writer friends. You can read Isla's responses to to the ten Next Big Thing Questions here.  And here are mine: 1. What is your working title of your book? Her Beautiful Brain 2. Where did the idea come from for the book? When my mother was in her late fifties, she began to forget. A lot. She began to repeat herself. A lot. Renowned since high school for her beautiful brain, my mother was losing her mind to Alzheimer’s disease, bit by bit, just as I became a mother myself. I began writing Her Beautiful Brain because I wanted to tell her story. But as I wrote, I realized it was my story too: of motherhood in the age of Alzheimer’s. For nearly two decades, her slow erasure shaped our family life. As my children grew, my mother shrank: slowly, for a while, but  then rapidly, weirdly, every which way. 3. What genre does your book fall under? Memoir 4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? Ah, the fun question! Mom at 60: Debra Winger? Me at 35: Rosemary DeWitt? 5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? It’s about what it was like to become a mom just as my own mother—twice divorced, once widowed, mother [...]

Layered Days

2012-12-27T09:10:04-08:00Categories: midlife, Seattle|Tags: , , , |

Memory is like layers and layers of scarves on a cold day, I thought as I walked through the Pike Place Market a few days before Christmas. You wrap yourself up, you revel in the warmth that comes from decades of turning the same corners at the same time of year. But then you feel a chilly blast, a spatter of December-in-Seattle raindrops just this side of ice and you remember: oh, right. Along with all these warm layers of Happy inevitably come the cold, damp sprays of Sad. At no time of year is this more true than right now. And the older you get, the more layers there are, happy/sad happy/sad, happy/happy sad/sad, until you think you might drown in all the layers, you might just go under altogether, especially if you are walking through a known memory minefield like the Pike Place Market. You’re sure your head and heart might explode at any moment. You wonder why no one can tell. The nervous, branch-thin cheese cutter at De Laurenti’s: clearly, she’s a seasonal hire, unlike the more seasoned gang at Sosio’s Fruit and Produce, who sense immediately your need for triage. Four of them spring into action, filling a box, encouraging you to focus your exploding mind on the concrete, present-moment compresses of carrots, spinach, lettuce, pretty little tomatoes called “strawberries,” chanterelle mushrooms crowded in a box like ballerinas waiting backstage. The Sosio Brothers, and sisters, are old enough to know. They don’t know your personal details, but they viscerally know you didn’t [...]

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 [...]