How old are you?

I have often noticed and sometimes remarked on how, as I age, my self-image is different from what I see in a mirror. I’m not sure if any of us ever manage to coordinate the two. We continue to see ourselves as younger than we really are. There are a plethora of quotations from the famous and not so famous about the problem.

Said E. B. White, “Old age is a special problem for me because I’ve never been able to shed the mental image I have of myself – a lad of about 19.”

Charles Olson declared, “I remember way back when I was young, 10 years ago.”

And from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Old age is fifteen years older than I am.”

My favorite of the more recent remarks I’ve read isn’t so much about old age as just aging generally. It comes from Margaret Atwood. “I believe that everyone else my age is an adult whereas I am merely in disguise.”

The most comforting statement comes from Madeleine L’Engle:  “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”


old folks002

Nostalgia in old age

fast time009


As we age, I think many of our memories grow more poignant. We know in a way we haven’t before that the people, places and times represented by them won’t be repeated. Because they have that extra dimension, they’re more powerful. More moving. And therefore more important for art.

A utilitarian view of nostalgia.

Here we are, old. Which direction will we take?

“Here I am in my mid-70s, and I am wondering: Is now the time to take a final stab at unfinished business—to accomplish at long last the remaining goals on my lifetime to-do list? Or is now the time to step back, let go of my ambitions, reflect and just live?”

So wrote Daniel Klein in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago. I suspect that it’s not usually  as clear cut as that. I do have one friend whose life is filled with activity. A poet and social activist, he’s also become a fine photographer and editor, a curator, an essayist, and more things than I can name–trying to get it all in before it’s too late.

Klein decides in favor of “friendship and reflection.” He’s happy to go to an island (many of us haven’t got the wherewithal to get there!) and contemplate life and death.

The new old age is the result of medical advances. We have time now to address our bucket lists; we can stay at our jobs and accomplish ambitions that would otherwise be lost to illness or death. Or we can let go and listen, think, wait.

I think most of us will probably do something of both.


The old and the news

Mike Wallace, June 10, 2007. Photo by Terry Ballard. Creative Commons.

Has anyone noticed lately that there seems to be a growing number of old people on television, especially in the news, and especially on CBS.  I’m reminded of that fact by the death of Mike Wallace at 93. He retired from “Sixty Minutes at 88.” Andy Rooney was well into his nineties when he left the same show. Morley Safer is in his 80s; Bob Simon is 70; Steve Kroft is 66; Charlie Rose is 69.

On the distaff side of things, Lesley Stahl is 70, and Barbara Walters, who appears mostly on ABC,  is 74.

Maybe, just maybe, the American public will get used to looking at old people doing important things on TV, even though many stations seem to have a raft of youngish women news anchors I have trouble telling apart. And I don’t mean to forget the old days and people like Walter Conkrite and Harry Reasoner.

Probably most impressive to me is Elizabeth Palmer (also CBS), who is fifty-something and who has reported from many wars in the last year or so. It’s so wonderful to see a woman reporter who looks different, who has an older woman’s voice, and who is so obviously intelligent.

As our numbers grow, some of the clichés about older people will inevitably disappear. I hope.

Remembering is so complicated, how do we do it …. ?

I’m still reading Searching for Memory:The Brain, The Mind and The Past. It’s a long book and I may be at it for some time, but never fear. That doesn’t mean that every post will be about it, especially as I’m finding it somewhat dispiriting. Most of the book is about the complexities of remembering. It’s not just that memories aren’t like the movies. They’re the product of scraps of things actually remembered, and of the hard work of reconstruction of time past—using the expectations, the imagination, the general knowledge of the self and life, and God only knows what else.  As I said, I’m still reading.

Nevertheless, Daniel Schecter, the author, does close on an uplifting note (yes, I’m one of those people who read the conclusion of a book before its middle):

On balance, however, our memory systems do a remarkably good job of preserving the general contours of our pasts and of recording correctly many of the important things that have happened to us. We could not have evolved as a species otherwise. Memory is a central part of the brain’s attempt to make sense of experience, and to tell coherent stories about it. These tales are all we have of our pasts, and so they are potent determinants of how we view ourselves and what we do. Yet our stories are built from nay different ingredients: snippets of what actually happened, thoughts about what might have happened, and beliefs that guide us as we attempt to remember. Our memories are the fragile but powerful products of what we recall from the past, believe about the present, and imagine about the future.

One more note: Schecter cites the tendency of older people to think about the past. There was a time when it was thought that “living in the past” would produce depression and despair. The attendants in nursing homes discouraged it and recommended bingo instead. Today, older people in institutional settings and without, are encouraged to tell their stories of the past.
Schecter worries that computer memory is replacing the story teller in our culture. If he were writing today instead of the 1990s he might be reassured: the many, many blogs by older writers on the internet are filled with stories of the past. The genealogy and the oral histories that it encourages are greeted enthusiastically by the culture.
Schecter argues that elderly story tellers play a major and creative role in connecting the past with the present. One of the most damaging things done to Native American societies was the discrediting of the elderly story tellers in their midst.

In today’s Time Goes By (still the premier blog for issues related to aging), Ronni Bennett talks about a New Year’s article by Oliver Sacks in the New York Times about the plasticity of the brain and how it can be rewired by most of us. He writes:

While some areas of the brain are hard-wired from birth or early childhood, other areas—especially in the cerebral cortex, which is central to higher cognitive powers like language and thought, as well as sensory and motor functions—can be, to a remarkable extent, rewired as we grow older.

While this is no longer news, it’s  just as exciting as it was the first day it was cited. As usual, Sacks makes the subject come alive with stories of individuals who have put it to the test. But he also poses some interesting questions: “That the brain is capable of such radical adaptation raises deep questions. To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? ….”

My favorite example is that of Eliza Bussey, “a journalist in her mid-50s who now studies harp at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, who could not read a note of music a few years ago. “In a letter to me,”  says Sacks,  “she wrote about what it was like learning to play Handel’s “’Passacaille:’” ‘I have felt, for example, my brain and fingers trying to connect, to form new synapese. … I know that my brain has dramatically changed.’”

And since I’ve been trying to play the piano again in my late 60s and 70s—hoping against hope that there will be no arthritis, no stroke, not anything, to stop me… Eliza Bussey’s story is one I especially like.

Photo by Jeff Greenwood. Flickr. Creative Commons.

Anna Halprin and Breath Made Visible

I’ve always been a self-conscious person—and that’s not the same thing as a conscious one. My vision of myself is no more acute than anyone else’s, rather less so, I think. I’ve seldom been at ease dancing, and in general I feel more awkward than graceful. That probably won’t change, but I’ve learned a lot about movement and the body lately, and it’s worth recounting for those who know as little as I have.

A couple of years ago I had several sessions with a practitioner of Feldenkrais, a method of increasing bodily awareness and reducing pain. I had heard that the methodology was especially beneficial for artists (in my case, a piano-player with tendinitis). I know little more about it than I did before the experience, but I did learn one very important thing: the very slightest of movements or the most ordinary change in physical positions can make a remarkable difference.

Now, as I practice the piano, I am learning that the slightest difference in pedaling, fingering, whether a note is held long enough or phrasing taken into account, makes a difference in the sound I make, and the sound I hear.

This week, I discovered Anna Halprin. For those of you who know who she is, I can only hold my head in shame. Why hadn’t I heard of her long ago, way before she was past 90 years old. While I was still in the San Francisco Bay Area! Life is so full and we miss so much!

From Breath Made Visible

Anna Halprin is called the founder of “post modern dance” but says of that description: “I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.” Back in 1955 she started the San Francisco Dancers Workshop. Not many years later, she and her company caused a scandal when they used full nudity in a dance piece—not for the sake of showing naked persons on the stage but because she was interested in exploring the ordinary movements of everyday life as art. When men and women in black pants and white shirts began to dress and undress over and over again in slow cadence, some in the audience began yelling and throwing shoes. Halprin simply brought them into the dance too.

Early on she left the proscenium stage behind and made dance happen on city streets and meadows, and especially on the outdoor deck that she and her husband (a landscape architect) helped design in a redwood grove on the steep hillside below their Marin County home on the side of Mount Tamalpais. Her dancers (who were mostly non-dancers in the professional sense), explored “working from nature,” discovering something in the woods and working from their impressions of it.

She also became deeply involved in peace and justice movements. Hers was one of the first dance groups to explore race relations in her 1969 Ceremony of Us. More recently she and her dancers created the Planetary Dance, a dance for peace that is today still celebrated annually by hundreds of people on the hills above the Pacific Ocean and in nearly fifty other places around the world.

When I started reading about her and looking at her dancing on YouTube, I was first moved by her—she’s instantly and deeply likable. Secondly, I was attracted to a quotation: “Aging is like enlightenment at gunpoint. Before I had cancer, I lived my life for my art. After I had cancer, I lived my art for my life. I’ve always said dance is the breath made visible. That covers about everything because once you stop breathing and the breath is no longer visible, you stop moving.”

That quotation deserves long and thoughtful silence.

As a cancer survivor and dancer, Anna Halprin has worked with aides patients and cancer patients. (When she first discovered she had cancer she devised a dance for her own healing. In 2004, she did the same when her husband architect Lawrence Halprin was ill.) As she’s grown older she’s also worked with elderly people. In every case, she helps people become conscious of their own movements, take them up and embrace them, and learn from their own bodies. Watch her; it’s extraordinary.

I’ve only seen moments of it on Youtube, but someday I hope to join her, probably when she’s 100 plus, and others our age and younger in Seniors Rocking, a dance she made with some 50 participants between the ages of 65 and 100 performing in rocking chairs next to a lagoon.

From the film Seniors Rocking.

P.S. There’s a new film of Anna Halprin and her work called Breath Made Visible. I intend to run, not walk, to find it and see it. Both it and Seniors Rocking are available on DVD. Check it out!

Stop the world. I want to get off!

I’m writing this a day earlier than I normally would because my computer needs a period of rehabilitation. Professional help is so expensive, I hesitate, but the poor thing isn’t getting better and there’s been no miracle though I’ve prayed for it, God knows, I’ve prayed. So this will be a short early post that I’ll put up and schedule for tomorrow while my machine is in rehab.

Sort of.
It remains problematic.

There’s a friend who won’t cost a dime and who thinks it just needs a makeover. A take it down and start over sort of thing. She promises to help. As I say, she’s cheaper and the professional costs $80 an hour.

Multiply the professional by a few hours and what do I get? Very possibly an answer to the question: would a new computer have been cheaper?
On the other hand, my friend is an amateur. A rank amateur. Multiply that by a few hours and what might I get? A nervous rash, hysteria, and again, the same unsettling question: should I have just bought a new computer? Do I still have a choice?

I really can’t afford and don’t want a new computer.

Anyway, as I explained, this will be an out-of-order, short short post, posing one of the other conundrums I’ve thought about over the years.

Rainer Marie Rilke, who was one of my favorite writers as a college student, and who never made it to old age, wrote a sketch in his youth of a man who became aware that the earth was turning under his feet. (A warning: I’ve never run across that bit of writing again, and so the way I’m addressing the problem may be at odds with his.)

Rainier Maria Rilke, 1906. Painted by Paula Modersohn Becker.

There was vertigo, of course. And a choice to be made. Should he, under the circumstances, try to keep up with it? Should he try to ignore it? Should he just sit very still and hope it stops? Or should he try to outpace it… out-turn it so to speak? Get ahead of it?

One more question: supposing someone has managed to live with this affliction into old age, is it likely to get worse or better? Might their response to it change?

Growing old slowly

The possibilities are awesome!

“Slowing down aging” was the subject of an article in this morning’s paper. From the Orange County Register, it’s mostly an interview with David Stipp, the author of “The Youth Pill,” a book that focuses on genetic science and the future of aging. The interview, however, is less about genetic mutations and more about the implications of helping people to live well longer. Stipp is optimistic: if society will commit to the necessary research, it will happen. And a healthier old population means that older people will able to work longer—and that they’ll want to. That, and cutting the high costs of health care for the elderly, will be good for everyone.

We’re in a funny place right now — we aging folks who won’t get the benefit of much of the research that’s going on, but are, nevertheless, living longer and doing it better than past generations. We’re neither here nor there, we’re on the edge, and uncertain we’ll be along for much of what’s to come.

It can be an exciting place. We’re under threat—death isn’t that far away, no matter how we choose to ignore it. Whatever we intended to do in the past and never got done, if it can be done in the present, if it’s at all possible, we’d better do it now. Now, when there’s finally time, when we’re no longer trying to edge up a career ladder towards something bigger and better—more money, more power, some nobler goal….

It would be nice if we were all like 88 year-old Ben Oretsky in yesterday’s Press Democrat. A contractor turned clockmaker, he’s made dozens of ornate clocks—carving out thin filigreed pieces of wood to make castles, cathedrals, towers, or other fanciful structures to house them. One of the largest and most complex of these incredible time pieces took nearly 1,000 hours to complete.

His intentions for his clocks are modest. He’s never sold a single one.  “How are you going to sell something that takes hundreds and hundreds of hours to make? It would be hard to put a price on them.” Although he has no intention of stopping his craft, he has thought about where the clocks should go when he’s gone. He’d like some institution or other to take them, and display a few or all of them. But he made them for the sheer joy of it. He isn’t worried about the money value of his work or its significance to posterity.

Of course we’re not all like Mr. Oretsky. Some of us are impoverished and would deeply appreciate some “gelt” for our clocks. Others of us are driven and would dearly love some assurance that our work will mean something to someone else, if not today, then later. We’re as various as our younger counterparts. But we have all come to this peculiar place in our growing old, where we have time when most of the folks who went before us didn’t.

We’re in a hiatus, and we can make of it what we will.

Going for Ice Cream

One last story—this one about a daughter and her demented mother.

They call Charlotte Malloy “Speedy” at the Home. She uses her walker as if she’s piloting a power lawn mower and has to hang on for dear life, crabbing along behind it, trying to get somewhere when there’s nowhere to go any more.

“Would you like to get some ice cream?” I ask.

“Yes. I’d like that,” she replies, glad for a future that will at least have ice cream.

Until the last two months when she turned vaguer, she’d look at the people who were trying to keep up with her and declare, “This is my daughter,” waving an airy hand in my direction.

“So you’re her mother?” another resident used to ask me. Patting my own graying hair, I’d wonder how I could look older than my 93-year-old mother, but even if the crinkled and loony resident who’d asked the question is still capable of asking it, and she probably isn’t—all the residents are deteriorating, questions go a-moldering every day—Charlotte Malloy wouldn’t hear it now any more than she did then. She scoots down the hallway, the blue walker sticky with something splotched across the plastic seat, what looks like chocolate crusting one handle bar, rosary beads dangling, old greeting cards stuffed in the basket. People call out, “Hello, Charlotte.” “Have a nice ride.” She rarely answers them. She’s concentrating.

“What a beautiful car,” she says, as if she’s never seen the red PT Cruiser before, “I get to ride in it?”

“Yes,” I reply, opening the door and at the same time trying to help her pivot into position to climb into the passenger seat.

“I get to ride in the front?” she asks happily.

“That’s right,” I say.

“Do you want me to get in here?” she asks, suddenly aware that getting in is going to be a challenge, one she can no longer strategize to meet.

“Yes,” I say. I reach out and take her hands, supporting her as she stands haltingly, swaying, but mostly I just watch her struggle while I try to tell her what to do. “Here now, sit down. Bring your leg around. First your left leg. Sit. Now your right leg. That’s right. You’ve got it. That’s good.” I’m not getting any better at giving instructions in basic motor skills. I wonder what I’ll do when it gets harder, when she’s weaker and even more baffled by the movements of her own limbs, when she can’t clamber up onto the seat any more.

Charlotte Malloy smiles her tentative maybe-grin, but it won’t be many miles before she forgets to smile, forgets she’s almost happy, just forgets.

It’s not that my mother was ever a sparkling conversationalist, but now that her eyes go empty almost as soon as the car starts, our expeditions are especially quiet, even though I do try. For the first few minutes, I talk about the traffic and the weather, then ask her if she did her morning exercises. “Yes,” she says proudly. “I always do.” She flexes a bicep; until a few months ago she bragged that she was muscular because she dug sugar beets as a child nearly nine decades ago. I tell her things, as many as I can think of, anything that might have some resonance. I don’t know how much she hears and understands. She acts as if she remembers my sister, her other daughter, when I talk about her. As if her other daughter’s husband is someone she recalls being annoyed by, but even three years ago she had to ask who that unhappy looking man at the other end of the table was. Alzheimers can take years, sometimes decades. But who’s counting?

For a very long time, I didn’t think it was Alzheimers that addled my mother. No one, including the doctor, ever said the word. Years into the disease and nearly as many after a diagnosis was made, I saw his note about it, but my aunt reported that he wasn’t much of a doctor and since she was a retired nurse, I believed her and doubted everything he’d ever scribbled. Besides, my aunt lived near my mother in California; she knew things. I was thousands of miles away in Vermont. It wasn’t until my aunt began to be afraid of the responsibility of watching over her and I began to feel guilty for having left her to her own diminishing devices, that I came to California to be near her.

For me, but surely not for my mother, the dementia began a decade ago on the telephone when she repeated herself once, twice, even three times a call. Since she’d never been very interesting, I assumed it was the same chitchat admixed with old age. After a few years, she began to do peculiar things, for example, wandering into the garage at her condo in the middle of the night and falling face first onto the concrete floor. She was pleased with the attention that brought her, describing how she exhibited her black eyes and purple cheeks at coffee hour after church. It wasn’t until Charlotte Malloy went out driving at 3 a.m. and rammed her ’87 Pontiac into her neighbor’s closed garage, that she and everyone else began planning for her residence in an institution for “assisted living.” Someone, perhaps her inadequate doctor, called what she was doing “sundowning.” Whatever it was, the acting out seemed to happen after the sun had gone down, and I thought I understood it better when I discovered on a visit that the loud, brutal sounds of all-night television rent the bedroom from dusk to dawn. She apparently didn’t want to be alone at night, and televised mayhem kept her close to the world beyond her condo. It wasn’t, most of it, a world she had much to do with anymore. She could feel it being torn from her grasp.

Glancing over at the shrunken gray woman next to me, checking her seatbelt, I drive out into the neighborhood. As always, I head for the places I’ve found for her-places to spark her flagging interest. We drive past Lombardi’s and she reads the sign aloud: “Barbecued Oysters.” She’s still literate, though she’s never been a big reader of anything but the Reader’s Digest and the morning newspaper. Not advertising. She never liked being told what to do. She still fights the aides at the Home when they try to give her showers, and she threw her false teeth across the room at one poor woman just last week.

“Do you really think you’d like some?” I ask about the oysters, doubting that a woman who’s spent a lifetime eating American cheese on white bread would. “Yes, I think so,” she replies, but forgets the conversation in the next moment.

We drive the same road we’ve driven countless times, I, dutifully noting the roses, the sheep, the horses, and finally, the emu. My mother doesn’t really relate to the big bird anymore. She used to be amused watching me feed 12-grain bread to the creature who grabbed at my fingers with its big bill, almost catching them, almost gobbling them down, one more treat stuffed down its long willowy throat. The emu has been missing a partner for months and I wish aloud, as I do every time we’re here, that the owners, whoever they are, would buy it a mate. I wish my mother cared about its loneliness. But the fact is, she may not have cared ten, twenty-five, even seventy years ago. The emu would have struck her as just silly, and she was never that until now when Alzheimers has made her off and on dotty, and about many more things than emus.

For a while sheep were important. When she was six years old, Charlotte, whose last name then was Eckhart, lived in a Colorado town called Hillrose, where her Pop took care of sheep. She remembered them. Even I remembered them, or remembered how my grandfather remembered them as we sat in the back yard together, and he described trying to push and pull the bawling creatures into the barn in a snowstorm. How they stood there stiffly like wet wooly statues, content to freeze to death. Dumb sheep. His pale blue eyes teared with laughter. Then he went back into the house, and fell asleep in front of the test pattern on the TV. But the sheep mattered then, and they still matter, they still live in my memory, though much less now in hers.

Over the last year, my mother rehearsed again and again a memory of the white horse she rode with her brother, Clarence, to the school bus. He was a good big brother, she said. That was all she had to say about Clarence, and I had never known her to be interested in horses, not her father’s workhorses when I was a kid, not the Kentucky Derby winners she never placed a bet on, and certainly not the horses that graze in pastures on our afternoon drives through the countryside. But now, because of Clarence and that decades-ago dead horse, she talks about climbing aboard the white carousel horse at the local Applebees Restaurant. She laughs about it but I can’t tell if that’s because the idea is patently ridiculous—there’s no room for her on this horse and nowhere to ride. Maybe it’s just horses on the brain. When I play a Mozart CD for us both, to calm us, to focus us, to make a light where there is none—she announces that Cecilia Bartoli just sang “Stop the horses! Stop the horses!” Odd, of the memories left to her, that a white horse should be so important. Not much else from the farm-apparently no recollections of her mother, my grandma, nor of the things that I remember—the Ladies Aid piecing a quilt around the dining room table, bathing on Saturday nights in a tin tub in the kitchen, the smell of wet feathers when my grandmother plucked chickens at the base of the churning windmill-and lately, not even of the most dramatic event of her young life—being shot at the age of four years.

The shooting was more prominent in her mind six months ago, prompted perhaps by the rediscovery of a newspaper article she’d scrapbooked years before about two babysitting teenagers dragging a loaded shotgun through the screen door one evening at the farm. She was wounded, her three-year-old brother was killed. “I’m afraid of guns,” she declared. When, at about the same time a urinary tract infection sent her to the hospital for a brief stay, she not only refused to eat—her usual recourse when every other weapon had been taken from her—she informed anyone who would listen that she could shoot them. Would shoot them. Nevertheless, what she about the actual event was mostly the attention she got afterwards. It was the long train ride to a Denver hospital, the being special, that stayed with her. But now that may be gone too. So many things gone.

For months she expected us to run into Uncle Fred on our excursions into the countryside. Despite myself, I began to look for him too, perhaps walking towards us on the side of the highway, ambling along with nothing special in mind, until Charlotte Malloy would call out, “Stop the car. That’s him. There he is, Uncle Fred,” As we spin to a stop, the chubby old man, his worsted trousers held up by suspenders, would laugh with delight. “Charlie, sweetie pie,” he says. “How pretty you look.” Only he says it in German: “Schnuckiputzi! Du bist sehr shon,” and smiles in a droll, good-natured way as he walks over to stand next to the passenger’s window I’ve rolled down so that they can have a good talk, since they haven’t seen each other for nearly a century. His eyes twinkle, his breath smells of warm beer, he reaches up to his ear and pulls out a nickel and she laughs with pleasure.

“Have you come to take me home?” my mother asks, hoping that he will and that, once there, he’ll stay a while and play his accordion.

“You go with your daughter now,” he answers, wary of making promises he can’t keep. “I’ll try to come later, liebchen.”

How extraordinary to be missing almost everything from early childhood to age 93, to have to try to knit together your most distant past and your present, with almost nothing left for in-between. On second thought, I don’t really know how much is left of her middle life. At that same hospital, when an orderly-in-training told us that he’d been in the Coast Guard, she rose up from her bed in the ER almost angrily, and declared, “My husband was in the Navy.” That’s all. Not much to hang the whole life—between on, but more than I’d thought.

Still, most of that in-between time does seem to be missing. If her daughters have gray hair, and if she knows she’s very old but feels very young because the memory she can still touch is about a horse she used to ride to school with her brother, how does she make sense of anything? I suppose she may no longer have the facility to try. Understanding is probably a high function and mostly what my mother has left are low ones: hunger, the taste of coffee, bowel movements, the briefest caress of cool air on her cheek, a glimpse of clouds scuttling across the sky, a few seconds’ pride because her nails are painted red and her hair has been curled.

I drive to the chickens next, a front yard of pretty banties with feathery pantaloons and odd hairdos. “Can you see the white ones shuffling, the brown rooster spreading his wings?” She nods and smiles the smile she always smiles now-it’s pretty much the only way she has of making a connection with me. It’s not at all clear that she really sees the chickens, or that she sees much of anything any more. Her eyes don’t focus on most of the visual delights I’ve collected for her fancy. Oliver Sacks says that the present is always a remembered present, chickens are informed by our past experience of chickens. What she sees must be very flat by now, dimensionless. A few weeks ago she remembered that she’d been afraid of chickens when she was a child. Afraid when they pecked at her bare legs, when they flew up into her face when she tried to feed them. Now the chickens are too dull to focus on.

“Country or city?” I ask. “Which would you like today?”

“I don’t care,” she says. I pull out onto the road; Cecilia Bartoli sings; my mother begins to nod off.

I drive as I always have, doing what I want to do, no matter my mother. At the junction where the road divides, kids waiting for their ride to school in the morning or executives waiting for a car pool have piled up eccentric stone sculptures-or so I suppose since they’re there, rock totems, randomly arranged. Reading the rocks, I choose to turn right, towards the country. The road climbs through an avenue of eucalyptus, noble of aspect but careless, limbs splayed and leaves papering the ground, their scent thick, clotting. Up the hill is a herd of Holsteins, the cows—I say aloud as I always do and despite the fact that my mother’s eyes are closed now, her head bobbing, her breathing superficial but measured—with the best view of any in Petaluma. When the car reaches the very top of the hill Cecilia takes a flying leap up the scale and the hills spread out, the farm ponds sparkle, while the chicken factory, coming up on the right, stinks as usual. There’s nothing to be seen except the chicken houses; the chickens suffer inside, I assume, but as long as the suffering is hidden it can be tolerated.

At the horse ranch below, flocks of starlings chatter all at once but never in unison, and the Shetland ponies ignore me and my lightly snoring mother. Why, I wonder aloud, again and as I do every time I drive by, would anyone want one? They look sturdy but no one but the smallest child could ride on them, and where would she go? The ponies’ coats are shaggy like dried out kitchen mops, and I can’t imagine hugging one. Perhaps they’re collectibles. Perhaps rich men make collections of them for their rich children, lively substitutes for stuffed animals, suitable for hugging once they’ve been given baths and curried with stiff-bristled brushes. Hugging, it seems to me, is problematic anyway, although I have friends who do it all the time. And there are people in my mother’s institution who make a practice of hugging my mother. It’s something I can’t imagine doing. I can’t remember, even as a child, hugging Charlotte Eckhart Malloy. Or, for that matter, being hugged by her.

Charlotte Eckhart grew up a shy uncomfortable farm girl in a German immigrant family where people didn’t generally hug other people—or perhaps they did, some of them, despite her apologies for the influence of her cold family on her own disposition. Charlotte’s cousin, her sister, her sister-in-law…. I could make quite a list of hugging relatives. Nevertheless, it’s also true that Charlotte Eckhart grew up without much of a sense of self-worth, even though she was a valedictorian and cute as a button. Quite what any of this has to do with my reluctance to hug her I can’t say. I can’t fathom how it happened, and why I don’t have a mother I can make myself want to touch, especially now that she’s tiny and helpless and, some of the time, even sweet natured. I look over at her—her head is bowed nearly into her lap—and turn onto a road I haven’t tried before, heading towards the ocean but not really intending to go there. The notion of my mother sleeping through the magnificent rumble and heave of the Pacific is not an inspiring one.

It’s entirely possible that Charlotte Eckhart Malloy once hugged her children. Hard to say. I remember the evening, I was probably eight years old, when I made the pronouncement: I was too old to say the word “mommy’ and from now on would use only “mother.” I was too grown up to kiss or hug anyone goodnight, so that too would end. If there had been warm embraces before then, I can’t remember them. Certainly, from then on, my rare hugs with my mother were straight-armed. Nor were there any warm embraces from her, not ever. The prohibition became so much a part of us both that, even now, when she’s no longer quite herself but someone else, it’s immutable.

She stirs, opens her eyes, and smiles at me. Again, that smile that demands a smile in return, that links us for a moment, and then disappears utterly. Cecilia is singing Alma grande e nobil core, an aria I don’t know from an opera I know even less. “I’ve got us lost,” I tell her. She looks around, I guess, to see what lost looks like, but it isn’t all that much different from anywhere else. “She said ‘get out of here and don’t come back,’” she says, translating from Cecilia again.

“We’ll do that,” I say, smiling back at my mother, taking the instruction to heart. “As soon as I figure out how.”

I take a turn onto still another road. I’m heading west to the sea. What the hell, it’s good to be looking forward to the landscape opening up, the Pacific rising up at the end of it, silver and glinting; very, very big; enlightening. Charlotte Malloy starts to sing along with Cecilia in a small high voice. An indifferent alto until a month ago, now she’s an off-key soprano and entirely pleased by it. I’m not; my mother’s wayward squeak hurts, but then again it doesn’t really matter because Cecilia Bartoli’s trill still dominates the car. It wasn’t that long ago that Charlotte Eckard Malloy turned to me and asked, “Mozart?” Even now, she pipes along softly, not wanting, I think, to interrupt the music too badly. No one listening to her who hadn’t known her before would ever dream that she’d been musical, that she’d played the piano for eighty years, that she’d practiced for hours every evening for most of those years, that she’d accompanied countless weddings, funerals and Sunday morning worship services. She’d never played by ear, but one day, having lost the ability to transfer the music on the page to her hands on the keys, she tried playing without the sheet music I’d brought her, and between remembering “Shine On, Harvest Moon” and “How Great Thou Art” and having a feeling for chords and melody she’d forgotten she had, she managed to play a whole raft of songs. Not well, never well. Never Chopin again. But most people couldn’t hear how bad it sounded and if they could, what did it matter, it was amazing that a 93-year-old woman in the throes of dementia could play at all. Unfailingly, they applauded.

We’re heading due north now, and I still don’t know where we are or where we’ll end up. Pasture unrolls in every direction, and there’s fog off on the western horizon. Sheep are congregating in informal clusters; on a far hillside, black Angus amble in a long loose line toward a barn and an early dinner. A white pickup truck passes us—a guy in a baseball hat who’s working a job, a guy who knows where he is and where he’s going, passing two elderly women rambling down the road in a PT Cruiser, wondering vaguely why we’re out here when there’s work to be done on a weekday afternoon. I take another left and go west again.

A flying cloud dims the sun and the world turns soft and dun. Suddenly there are more cars heading to I don’t know where because I’ve just come from there and there didn’t seem to be much, but it must mean we’re close to the highway to Bodega Bay, and at the next junction I turn left again and I know where we are. Soon the water will appear, just a bay, but an ocean bay with gulls, pelicans and sea lions. Charlotte Eckhart is asleep again. Cecilia is singing the last aria on this CD. I brace myself for the changeover. When my mother wakes up again, Frank Sinatra will be crooning Cole Porter. His is a voice you could lie down in, but only if you wanted to be ravished by a man. I don’t, but I’m not so sure about my mother. I’d never heard her say a word about sex until she turned demented and eighty-nine and fell in love with Harold who, I thought, looked like a frog. That was when I was still in Vermont. “He doesn’t want to get married,” my mother said on the phone, “he wants to ‘shack up,’ but I just wasn’t raised that way.” Every night, after several martinis each, they lay on his bed and necked. I was startled; I’d thought the woman was asexual, and here she was almost doing it. Sadly, the poor man died after a few months of martinis and heavy breathing and she’s long since forgotten him. A photograph of them together sits on her bedside table, but she doesn’t remember and as far as she’s concerned he’s the same man she married, the man who was in the Navy, even if he looks different in that picture. Apparently, her husband sometimes looked like a frog.

“I don’t trust that man,” Charlotte says. She’s awake again.

“Frank?” I ask. “But do you like his singing?”

“It turns my stomach upside down,” she says.

She’s become a sexual being at the same time as she’s become a little girl. She comments when a waiter is good-looking and makes a face when a man is bald. I smile and nod about Frank Sinatra. I came out to my mother sexually years ago, and after some drama, we made a tacit agreement to keep quiet about the subject. She accepted my partners, or at least she behaved pleasantly around them. She even pinched Jean’s cheeks. She never pinches mine. Now, I think, is not the time to come out to my mother again.

“There’s the ocean,” I say. She strains to see it, and does, but has no comment. She likes the ocean, or at least she did a few months ago. “Blue skies, smiling at me, Nothing but blue skies do I see,” Charlotte and Frank Sinatra sing together. I drive by The Tides where Charlotte doesn’t remember celebrating two birthdays, but seems interested in hearing about it. “We’ll get some ice cream and sit and watch the waves for a while,” I tell her. “I’d like some ice cream,” she says.

Far above the rolling, rollicking waves, the crashing of surf, the laughter of young people running from the cold sea as it moves in for high tide, a dog barking, we sit on the edge of the world, eating Dove bars. I’ve turned off the music so that the only sounds are those going on in real life. Two men walk by in wet suits, and my mother eyes them, incredulous at their skin-tight black rubber covering. Their bulging groins. I try to explain but she loses interest way before I’ve finished the description: “warm and dry in wet suits, surfing, riding the waves, the higher the better, strong young men on shiny boards.”

Next to us, a years-old green Chevy is parked, and a black woman younger than either of us, sits and contemplates the sea. Her lips are moving. I can just hear her. She’s praying: “God, Lord Jesus, Holy Spirit, forgive me, forgive us all….” How long has she been here, looking out, pleading with God? But it’s an appropriate place to pray, it seems to me. If there is a God and God hears prayers, surely this is where it will happen. My mother doesn’t seem to see her even after I’ve pointed her out twice. It’s enough to take in the scene in front of us and eat ice cream at the same time. No one should have to do more than that.

The question is, what does Charlotte see when she looks out at that broad expanse of water? After all, there may be no oceans left in her memory bank-she grew up on the Colorado plains and that’s what she remembers best. “Where the deer and the antelope play.” Probably her first notion, her little girl notion of the sea, was “By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea….” No compelling description in that song, no thundering surf, no hints of immortality.

“I can’t go on this way, Lord. Help me, Lord,” says the woman in the next car.

What’s been remembered in songs is what my mother remembers best. She still knows all the words to “Georgie, Georgie, puddin’ and pie, Kissed the girls and made them cry.” Her cousin, George used to dance and sing with her in the basement when they were both teenagers. While the separator cranked out cream and rows of canned fruit clinked softly together, they danced around the floor like people in the movies even though the movies were still mostly silent then and the tunes were played on a piano or, in this case, in the basement on a ukulele. My question is how much has the song become the scaffolding for that memory when most of what else there was to know about George has withered away? Of course, she’ll get worse, and the rest of George will disappear, probably including the song that helped to frame him.

“There has to be a way. Help me, Lord,” says the woman.

And if you think about it, so will I. There’s not much of me left where my mother is concerned now, perhaps almost none. It no longer matters that I never gave her grandchildren, and that I scared her with my lesbian defiance. Now all that’s left of me is some scraps of memory clinging to the bare bones of her past. She never paid much attention to who I was before. Just as much as was morally necessary. Soon, even that will be gone. No me. Just someone who drives a red car and buys her ice cream, someone she can keep at bay with a confiding smile.

She’s half child, half old woman, and her middle years, the years of my life, are mostly gone. I’m no longer an essential part of her identity, and yet, even in her absence, she’s still part of mine. I miss her. I miss the woman I wanted to be proud of me, who, despite all, was a touching point in my life, who helped to form its geography. She’s almost gone and part of me is gone with her.

“Help me, oh Lord,” says the woman next to us, her voice rising above the splash of the surf.

My mother has almost finished her Dove bar. I point out where some chocolate has dropped to the blue skirt she’s wearing, and she dutifully rubs it off. She smiles at me again. “She’s still praying,” I say, nodding towards the other car. Charlotte looks out the window at the black woman-not someone who takes care of her, not a memory, she’s hard to identify. We both look at her now, and she looks back at us, but not really, because she’s looking through us at the long shining shoreline, the birds lifting on the wind, the dancing water. She raises something black to her mouth, maybe she’s on lunch break and it’s a sandwich on dark rye. Maybe she’s going to put on lipstick before she sets off again on her troubled life.

“I don’t like guns,” Charlotte Eckhart wails. “I don’t like them.”

I see a gun, or what could be a gun. I think that’s what I see.

Then there’s a shot. And I know, at least, that there’s no rascally gunman on the horizon shooting at gulls. The sound’s not like that. But it could be a shot muffled in the woman’s mouth. I don’t see it, but what if the woman’s skull has exploded inside the green Chevy? She’s no longer visible. Where is she?

Tears are coursing down Charlotte’s cheeks. “No guns.”

“No, of course not,” I say, reaching out and touching her carefully, at the same time looking frantically around for someone, anyone who might have seen what just happened—if something did. “I’ll be right back,” I say. “I have to tell someone.”

The men in the wet suits look at me, a wild-looking old woman with tearing eyes. They’d heard something too, but what?

“Please, my mother’s hysterical. I can’t leave her. I think the woman in the green car has shot herself. Please help.”

Reluctantly, they follow me to the green car. I can hear them behind me mumbling about old ladies with addled minds. They peer into the green car; they knock on the door. I get back into our car and lock the doors. Charlotte’s trembling now, and I put my arms around her clumsily. But maybe she’s not the one who’s shaking. Maybe it’s me. I feel a bad case of claustrophobia coming on.

“No guns. I don’t like them. Let’s get away from the guns,” she says.

“We were witnesses. We have to stay,” I say dully. There are too many people around us now, blocking my view of the green car. I can’t tell if the driver and prayer of prayers is still there, and alive. I don’t want to stay; I don’t want to hug Charlotte any more. But she’s still crying, and repeating “No guns” as if it were a mantra. And so I stroke the coarse thinning hair and act like a loving daughter, all the time feeling so strange, so awkward, waiting as people gather in small murmuring groups around us, waiting for the emergency trucks, the police. Like a movie, only in movies they cut from action to action and no one has to wait.

Finally, a policeman arrives, and the crowd turns to watch as he leans into the green car. All I can see are the rear ends of people in shorts, chubby and in assorted colors, a tee-shirt advertising peace and another the NRA, a San Francisco Giants cap, a sun-burned back. Charlotte doesn’t seem to get tired of her recitation, not even when the cop comes over to us at last and stands by the car, notebook at the ready. I turn the ignition key in the lock to open the car window:

“I have to get my mother back to her residence. What we, what I, saw can be summed up in a few sentences,” I say. Charlotte looks at the policeman and smiles her disingenuous smile.

“I need statements from each of you, your name, your phone number. Won’t take but a few minutes.”

“She’s not quite right,” I say softly. “Alzheimers.”
The cop nods sagely.

I tell him what I’ve seen. The prayer, the gun, the shot. My address and phone number. “Is she okay? The woman in the green car?” I ask.

“She’ll be okay,” he shrugs. “Don’t you worry yourself about her.” He walks around to the other side of the car. “Mrs. Malloy? Can I ask you a few questions?”


“Did you see what happened? Did you see someone shoot themselves?”

“I hate guns. I was shot once.” She smiles at him again, confiding, almost flirting.

“Yes,” he says, turning condescending, “I understand. You’re upset. Did you see the woman in that car try to shoot herself?”

“I could shoot you, you know. I could do it.”

I heave a great sigh. “Mother, you don’t want to shoot the policeman. Just answer his question.”

She rears back in her seat and glares at me. “I could shoot you too,” she says.

“I’m afraid the gun has made an impression on her that the woman hasn’t,” I say, hoping he’ll understand and send us on our way.

“Is she telling the truth? She really has been shot?”

“Ninety years ago, yes.”

He smiles. “Thank you ma’am.”

“We can go?”

“Yes. Go home now, ladies. Everything’s fine. Everything’s all right.”

I pull the car out of the parking lot slowly, through the still gathering crowd. People look at us curiously, the two old women who started the pandemonium. Some of them, I can tell, are envious. They think we know something they don’t. They want to ask questions: did the woman in the green car really shoot a gun? Did she look at you when she did? Did you think she might shoot you first? Was she crying? Did her skull explode—where did all the pieces go?

Or, are they laughing at us? Two old ladies and nothing working quite right except for their imaginations?

My face is burning. Did she shoot herself? Or did I just make a fool of myself?

I drive quickly, seriously, not looking at my mother at all until we’re heading inland again. “Are you okay?” I finally ask.

“Yes,” she says, smiling broadly. I hand her a piece of kleenex. She blows her nose, then turns a minute to look out the window before her eyes turn flat and dull. The rest of the way home she sleeps.

Roman circuses and serious writers

What should writers of literature do when the world prefers Roman circuses?

I think I’ve mentioned reality TV on this blog before but I haven’t really tried to deal with it. Because it’s not just television that I want to talk about; it’s the Roman circus that so many of our lives have become – on TV, on the web, everywhere.

Nancy Bentley, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recently published a book with the wonderful title, Frantic Panoramas: American Literature and Mass Culture, 1870-1920. It’s all about the emergence of novelty and sensation in popular culture, and the reaction of literary culture to it. Bentley opens with what seemed then like a new kind of public entertainment, when, in 1896, the public was invited to the staged head-on collision of two steam locomotives in Waco, Texas. Three spectators were killed by flying chunks of metal. 40,000 people attended, far more than would ever go to concert halls, libraries and museums. I don’t know if the author speculates further about the number, but it’s probably proportionately the same as would attend the infamous encounters of Christian martyrs and lions in the Roman coliseum, the burnings of martyrs in the course of the Inquisition, the hanging of  murderers in England or beheadings of revolutionaries in France, or, also proportionately, the mayhem and murder thrillers that regularly appear in our contemporary movie theaters.

I always wondered what these kids were watching. I'll bet the trains were about to collide.

I don’t think I’m wrong to find a similarity between these events and those of reality TV when an expert provided by Dr. Phil gives a lie detector exam to the wayward husband of a disappeared woman and her relatives plead with Phil, after the husband fails the test: “Is she dead then?”- and all of this, plus the tears and screams of the suffering family, all for our delectation, on national (or international?) television. I guess celebrities have been baring all on radio, in magazines and on TV for some time, but today, more and more “ordinary people” are telling all – their lies, infidelities, drug use, yes, and more and more, their violence against their nearest and dearest.

Says Bentley about the early 20th century, “Mass culture seemed to offer only novelty and sensation rather than reflection. It valued profit over refinement or learning. And the American population was far more interested in these new kinds of mass entertainment than in serious literature.” In response, she says, “highbrow writers like Henry James, Edith Wharton and W.E.B. DuBois started to incorporate images such as Wild West shows, disasters and train wrecks into their works…. They discovered that mass culture might actually offer clues and insights about modern society that literary culture had not yet detected.”

Well, maybe. I don’t know. What about today, when the disasters are just as often the personal lives of you and me broadcast to a public of millions, as they are train wrecks for 40,000? What are highbrow writers to learn about their craft from these other disasters, disasters that used to be stories whispered behind closed doors, murmured confessions of poor souls on psychiatrist’s couches, confidences between close friends, or maybe even fictionalized accounts of life that tried to figure out what it all meant?

Facts: 1) most successful novels today include many instances of violence and at least one murder (even though, in my 70 years of life I don’t think I’ve ever met a murderer or the victim of a murder); 2) more and more best sellers are memoirs, not novels, as if people want more than a good story – they want one whose protagonists make claims for its literal truth.

In other words, people want true stories about violence and murder. They want “frantic personal panoramas,”  Roman circuses whose victims are real people. They want reality TV and thrillers.

And how should writers respond? If they should. I truly don’t know, but maybe if I worry about it in my next post, maybe I’ll come up with something.