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“When You Get to Age 91, Just Skip It”

Whenever I see the term “Alzheimer’s Disease,” I wonder how people tell the difference from, say, everyday forgetfulness and the start of senile dementia that leads to Alzheimer’s.

            Most books about Alzheimer’s address this question, but rarely have I seen a more succinct description of that “different kind of losing” that begins long before anyone — family or patient — figures out what’s really happening.

       “It started out as the kind of losing we all know well,” writes Doris Ober in The Alzheimer’s Years: A Mother and Daughter Reunion.

The Alzheimer's Years cover

The Alzheimer’s Years cover

  “You put (something) down somewhere and walk away from it and can’t remember where or when. But if you add some paranoia to the formula, it becomes a different kind of losing: You hide it for safekeeping and don’t at all remember having done so. The only possible explanation is a theft.

            “And the more it happens, the more things disappear, the cleverer and more creative you become about your hiding places. Even if you could remember your intention to hide a particular item, which you can’t, you’ve hidden it so well, you’ll never find it.”

            And so we watch as Doris searches for the things her mother Betty is convinced someone has stolen.

            “Lost mail, lost glasses, lost tin in which she kept quarters for the laundry machines,” writes Doris. “Lost hearing aids, lost dishes, lost ice cream, lost poetry.” Doris finds them in the most ingenious places, like under the toilet plunger, where, of course the “blonde thief” that Betty insists has been sneaking in all along, hid  them until the next time.

            The most valued item — a pint of ice cream — is uncovered weeks later in a pot at the bottom of a closet where it’s hardened into the consistency of Styrofoam.

            Doris is the independent book editor in Point Reyes, California, who transformed Randy Shilts’ mammoth 1000-page manuscript about AIDS, And the Band Played On, into the succinct and moving bestseller it became in 1987. (She sat by his hospital bed helping him write the last chapter of another groundbreaker, Conduct Unbecoming, about gays in the military, before he died in 1994.)

Doris Ober

Doris Ober

            Those books, among the many dozens that Doris edited, co-wrote and ghosted from her tiny office perch in the 9-story Chinese-box house built by her partner Richard (best described in her last book, The Dogtown Chronicles), gave Doris a literary lens through which to view the stormy fading of her 90-year-old mother’s mind as Alzheimer’s set in.

            “Of course (the different kind of losing) is all a metaphor for the greater loss you’re suffering,” Doris continues. “The one no one can see. The one you get intimations of, the void that’s opening up inside and seems to be enveloping you.

            “My mother was able to speak of it in cryptic phrases, dropped into conversation or into silence. ‘You have no idea, how terrible it is,’ she said. ‘I so don’t want to go into the woods.’ Once she told me, ‘Soon I’ll be completely empty.’ “

            The great hoodwink of Alzheimer’s in the early stages, we learn, is the way it moves everyone to deny what’s really happening, and to deny it for very legitimate reasons. In the midst of her many lapses, Betty practices and plays the piano (including duets with Richard), remembers her recipe for chopped liver perfectly (Doris includes it in the book) and accurately identifies and converses with the shopkeepers she meets on her (fewer and fewer) walks into Point Reyes.

            And the great learning curve for Alzheimer’s caregivers, Doris tells us, is to accept the huge contradictions of the disease (her mother could be delightfully “clownish” yet bitterly morose at the same time;), to embrace other afflictions of the aged such as Lewy Body Disease,  which causes Betty to experience terrible “night crazies” and flailing of her arms as if batting something away; to understand how deafness can be “the perfect disguise for dementia,” and to learn “how important it was,” in the midst of one painful argument after another, “for me to win.”

Betty as bag lady

Betty as bag lady

            Along the way, though, Doris’s (now trademark) light touch often  transforms the cold reality of impending death and loss. She loves to show us the humor of Betty, who at 92, after surviving several near-death experiences, announced to friends, “When you get to 91, just skip it.”  At a costume party, Betty turned her fear of becoming homeless into a joke everyone could enjoy by taping grocery bags all over her body and on her head so she could come as a “bag lady.”

            Still, you aren’t going to see the author’s insights coming all that easily. While

Doris follows the chronology of her mother’s six-year battle, sometimes in the midst of developing a theme or story, she takes an abrupt turn to discuss something else. This doesn’t make the writing superficial or clumsy. Rather it brings an immediacy and flow to the story that pulls us in as part of the  family.

            Here, for example, is Doris realizing in a letter to her brother that something remarkable is being communicated in the many thank-yous that Betty, who’s lost 45 pounds in a year and sometimes can speak only in  “Da-da-da-da-dah” sentences, repeats to her daughter.

Betty, Dory, and Hal in 1954

Betty, Dory, and Hal in 1954

            “She tells me over and over how much I mean to her, how much she loves me, how her love for me and mine for her keeps her alive. I’m sure she’s right about this and I think it’s astonishing how such a sophisticated understanding exists in a woman who knows almost nothing else.”

            We’ve only been given a glimpse of the estrangement that once separated Doris and her mother for many years, and of the protracted fights that both experienced as shattering.  So this core moment in what the subtitle calls “a mother and daughter reunion” comes almost without previous resolution. But what we miss in back story, we gain in the present, watching their trust develop anew, page by page, as partners in one  last adventure.

            So: How do people know when forgetfulness turns to dementia, then to Alzheimer’s?  This book says there is no way to tell — no logic, no bridge, no step-by-step instruction. But if dealing with the changing needs of the elderly means that we make our own roadmap, it also means we might change radically — we might learn a new kind of love — by the time we get to the other end.

A Word about purchasing The Alzheimer’s Years

             I used to believe that critics shouldn’t tell you where to buy books, but in the face of Amazon’s ATRW (Attempt to Rule the World), let’s bypass that route and spend our CRD (Concerned Readers’ Dollars) with independent bookstores.

            You can purchase the book direct from Doris (at Villca Qutu Publishers, P.0. Box 417, Point Reyes Station CA 94956), but if you go to the website of her local bookstore, Point Reyes Books you’ll fall in love with this bookseller’s sense of community and author advocacy.   There you can buy both Doris’ books as well as one of the better literary journals in the country, West Marin Review, where Doris is managing editor.

            And let’s rejoice: It’s great to pay full price to independent booksellers whose very existence keeps First Amendment options and protections safe for all of us.

            Finally, full disclosure: I’ve known and admired Doris as an editor for 30 years and am impressed by her choice as a self-publisher to change the rules (not her standards) by recording her experience exactly as she wants to.

            For example, an  Acknowledgments page exists in this book, but the author stops the narrative several times to thank friends for their help, blast a local hospital for treating her mother “shabbily” and praise another for its compassion and care.   Self-publishing is a fine old tradition in the West. It’s often eccentric and never slick, which is why I’ve always liked it, and come to love it again in the publishing of The Alzheimer’s Years.

Meet Doris Ober December 8 at Book Passage

 

A few years ago, I had a wonderful time introducing Doris at Book Passage in Corte Madera CA when her first book, The Dogtown Chronicles, came out. Before the program began, the thoughtful staff set out about 15 chairs with a nice table in the back row to make the event look well attended if only a handful of people showed up.  When, however, 20 or so arrived, the booksellers quietly set out five or six more chairs and stood back, thinking that was it as far as audience attendance was concerned.

            Well, Doris and her West Marin Review are hugely respected in Marin, so it was kind of humorous as people arrived to see the staff race to the stockroom for more chairs, and then more chairs, and still more chairs, until the crowds (about 200 total) extended far back into the children’s section and almost out the door.

             I say I had a great time introducing Doris because I got to mention that The Dogtown Chronicles may look like a modern version of that classic urban-couple-buys-a-farm story, The Egg and I, but since it’s about raising nearly extinct breeds of farm animals (goats and sheep) in 10 acres of lush untouched nature loaded with bobcats, weasels, hawks, skunks, raccoons and other predators roaming about, a lot of raw, everyday brutality is revealed. As a result, the book teaches us how it feels to grow up in a neighborhood of serial killers always waiting in the underbrush, and how death in the larger yet more personal sense is simply one of the many events about to befall us whether we’re animals chewing a blade of grass or humans forgetting where we put the car keys.

            All this to say that I think The Alzheimer’s Story might be called a sequel to The Dogtown Chronicles and that these books could be packaged together to make a nice holiday gift for an unsuspecting friend or relative who will surely be grateful for two lessons in existentialism disguised as light end-of-life reading.

            So come see Doris at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, this Sunday, December 8 at 7 p.m.  I’ll be introducing her again and will give you my seat if the place is packed.

AND THE WINNER IS…

Here at the Trying Too Hard Sweepstakes, we’re always looking for simple answers to complicated questions.

            For example, a big problem among critics is a tendency to crowd too many descriptive words into a limited space. When in doubt, the experts say, get rid of ALL ADVERBS, but this is easier said than done.

            Take this sentence from a New York Times caption about a play on Broadway:

            “The script is neither a dramatically shapely piece of writing nor a deeply probing character study.”

            Blub, blub, blub, goodness. Now here is a Trying Too Hard cautionary tale. The unnecessary adverbs (“dramatically,” “deeply”) give the sentence a stuffed-to-the-gills feel and yet deleting them makes the sentence slightly deflated: “The script is neither a shapely piece of writing nor a probing character study.” But it’s cleaner that way, and besides, if you don’t take ‘em out, nobody will read it.

Janet Maslin

Janet Maslin

            Glib cocktail-party words are always surprising in a serious review.  Janet Maslin has a beaut when she refers to  “something funnily incongruous” in Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Interestings.

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HOLD YOUR TONGUE, LARRY

 Big cocky corporate book distributors who think publishing is so easy they can’t possibly botch it — but do — are a fine old tradition in the book trade.

         Back in the ’80s, Harry Hoffman of Waldenbooks wanted to shovel the blandest of house-published genre books at customers but discovered that readers actually noticed and refused to buy them.  In 2002, Barnes & Noble purchased cheapo artbook house Sterling Publishing in an attempt to undercut mainstream publishers, realized the experiment was too costly by 2012, tried to unload it (no buyers) and took it off the market “for the time being,” unsure how a chain bookstore can or should compete with its own suppliers.

         And now what a surprise to hear that former Time Warner publisher and literary agent Laurence Kirschbaum, hired by Amazon two and a half years ago to create a big cocky publishing division, not only stumbled badly (the six-figure advance for Penny Marshall’s disastrous memoir was one indication) but also took another flier allegedly into the lap and down the throat of ex-lover/colleague Teresa McCoy, who’s suing him for sexual harassment.

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TOUGHER THAN IT LOOKS

I’ve heard that many of my old codger sisters from the ’60s are avoiding  Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

            For a long time, I did, too. The title is meek, the photo is Gloria Steinem Lite and the message lacks the boldness of, you know, Our Day, when tens of thousands protested in the streets, wrote our manifestos and opened our PRO-CHOICE SIGNUP tables in every downtown in America, or so it seemed.

Lean In book cover

Lean In book cover

            True, we can’t claim huge victories four decades later — the ERA never passed, the military is practically a rape culture, abortion is even more despised and why we accept a Senate and House without 50% women is beyond me.

            But some things did change, thanks to antidiscrimination and anti-harassment laws that still make a difference. The glass ceiling is breaking  (thank you, Sheryl), and while many girls and women wouldn’t be caught dead calling themselves feminists, there are good reasons for that, as Sheryl points out (see below).

            Now here’s Sandberg encouraging women to make ourselves heard, but not in a massive way, mind you, not in a historic way, nor heaven knows an impolite way. Her much-praised advice is for each of us to “lean in” to whatever conversation is taking place and quietly, softly, say exactly what we mean.  That’s it.

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Sexualized Dress Revisited

Like Meryl Streep (see below), I could have sworn that one-time celebrities Arlene Francis and Dorothy Kilgallen wore women’s suits on the 1950s TV quiz show, What’s My LIne?

That’s why in the last post, I blithely (without checking) quoted Streep’s concern about societal pressures on today’s women to dress in sexually alluring clothes, even on a hard-news political program like Meet the Press. Streep’s point was that in a previous era, TV shows (and the media in general) allowed women greater modesty, as recalled from watching What’s My Line?

Yikes, was that wrong, and thank you, reader Ed Dravecky of Allen, Texas, for spotting the error:

“Meryl Streep lives in an interesting alternate timeline,” Dravecky writes. “Suits? On this Earth’s What’s My Line, the women on the panel wore dresses and the men wore suits in the early seasons, and formal evening wear (including tuxedos for the men) in the later ones. Just do a Google Image search for ‘What’s My Line Panelists’ and you’ll turn up dozens of images like this one from the New York Times.”

Picture of What's My Line panel

Dorothy Kilgallen, Steve Allen, Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf wear eye masks as they question the mystery guest on What’s My Line?

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SMALL REVELATIONS

A few things I think I’ll always remember from recent books:

The Hills are Alive … with the Sound of Nazis

Christopher Plummer The Sound of Music

Christopher Plummer

If the von Trapp family had continued in the direction they were headed at the end of The Sound of Music, they would have “inadvertently landed in the hornet’s nest” of Nazi strongholds, recalls Christopher Plummer in his memoir, In Spite of Myself  (Vintage; 656 pages; $17.95). Hiking toward Germany rather than Switzerland was the more picturesque escape route for the movie, he recalls.

     This detail-packed charmer of a book gives us many a delicious glimpse behind the scenes. For example, Plummer writes that he and Julie Andrews had to shoot the famous gazebo scene more than 30 times because whenever they started to kiss, an off-camera device sounded like someone emitting gas. This threw them into such fits of laughter that the director finally gave up and filmed their faces only in silhouette.

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NARCOPOLIS: LOVE HIM, HATE (THE ABSENCE OF) HER

I admire almost everything about Narcopolis, a strange and intriguingly offensive novel about opium addiction in India.  It was short-listed last year for the Mann Booker Prize and its author, Jeet Thayil is the first Indian writer to win the coveted ($50,000) DSC Prize for South Asian Literature .

         The first sentence alone runs for 7 mesmerizing pages that in lesser hands would have been a gimmicky imitation of William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch, Junky) or Thomas de Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater).

         But here the beautifully poetic Prologue flows off the page like the smoke from an opium pipe. Soon we don’t read Narcopolis – we inhale it, get hooked on it, are haunted by its unsettling, dreamlike blur. The opiate-addicted characters may have “fallen” in society’s eyes, but there is no guilt in Narcopolis,  only the allure, the freedom, the obsession and the artistry of induced elation. Closing the book, we feel it’s been seeping into our pores.

Narcopolis

Narcopolis

    Narcopolis follows a half-dozen opium addicts across a span of 40 years, during which a luxuriously slow-moving Bombay morphs into the fast-paced, corporatized and increasingly violent Mumbai.

         Soon opium itself is transformed into a more marketable version of heroin called “The Chemical,” a drug so filled with rat poison that it blows your brains out while giving you a stupendous high.

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Random House Penguin and Amazon: Too Big and Too Fast

Every time I see that condescending actor from AT&T pretending to have fun with kids on TV, I want to strangle Random House — or no, Amazon — for pushing Bigness, Speed and MORE, MORE, MORE as the American ideal in the first place.

I know some people think the AT&T guy is cute and congenial with children, but most of the time he encourages kids to act out, then makes fun of them.

actor from A T & T with kids

actor from A T & T with kids

“It’s not complicated!” comes the steroidal AT&T announcer, and the awful message is clear: Be bigger, faster, and more hyperactive — you’ll go nuts a lot sooner than your parents. Continue reading

That Sexist Mister Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling

You know why The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith wasn’t widely reviewed when it first came out?

Here’s my thought:

On page 15, Robin Ellacott, a “tall and curvacious” young secretary, is about to enter the office of a world-weary private investigator named Cormoran Strike for the first time. At that moment, Cormoran, a big guy around 210 pounds, rushes out the door and crashes into her.

Robin falls backward, dangerously close to the open stairwell behind her, but Cormoran “seize(s) a fistful of cloth and flesh” and, “with a wrench and a tussle,”  pulls her toward him to safety.

But wait. What is it he gets hold of to save her — an arm? a coat? a belt? No, “he saved her by grabbing a substantial part of her left breast.”

Oh. He — um, wait. He reaches out, grabs her breast through a few layers of clothes and hauls her in like a marlin? Robin must weigh over 100 pounds, right? Yet he saves her from falling into the stairwell only by his grip on her … Well, I don’t think that’s possible. His hand just couldn’t get enough purchase to …

Come, Mr. Galbraith: Do your homework. Do you think breasts so literally fit the term  ”knockers” that one simply grabs and pulls, as though closing a door by its doorknob? Continue reading

HIS FIRST MISTAKE

If you own a newspaper, try not to tell the staff you’re “committed to preserving quality journalism” and then say, “Don’t be boring.”

That’s what Jeff Bezos did at the Washington Post yesterday. I bet the 20 “hard-bitten” reporters in the room laughed (and groaned) inwardly at his amateur remark.

Jeff Bezos             Point: A journalist writing a story on, say,  changes in the tax code should never be burdened with an order like “Don’t be boring.” Continue reading