mardi, avril 28, 2009

ambushed by really little things

"And then every now and then I get ambushed by really little things."- Joe Simpson, English mountaineer, author, and motivational speaker.
Leo and I just saw "Touching the Void," a compelling documentary based on a successful but near-fatal climb in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. The events of "Touching the Void" have now become a part of mountaineering folklore. Knowing that both of the climbers survived is nothing compared to learning how they survived. Here are the highlights of the story:
Joe Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, were undertaking the first ascent of the West Face of a peak in the Peruvian Andes, Siula Grande. On the ridge down, they encountered difficult terrain, Joe fell and broke his leg, the calf bone splitting his knee.

Simon Yates took it upon himself to lower Joe down the vast majority of the mountain. However, despite Simon's single-handed rescue attempt, a turn of events left Joe hanging over a steep overhanging ice face in the middle of a building blizzard. Yates was trying to support him from a desperate bucket belay hollowed from the snow, uncertain what exactly had happened. After hanging on for over an hour, Yates reached a point where he had to make a choice: Be pulled from the mountain into the abyss and certain death, or cut the rope. Yates cut the rope holding his partner and Joe fell into a gaping crevasse below, landing unexpectedly on a snow bridge. After cutting the rope Simon proceeded down the mountain, passing the crevasse and assessing that Joe must have died from the fall.

Despite his significant injuries, Joe lowered himself further into the crevasse and managed to find a way out. Suffering from hypothermia and dehydration, he then still faced the enormous task of crossing a glacier unroped, and with a broken leg.
The riveting documentary is an amazing portrait of the human psyche. The extras include interviews with Simpson and Yates returning to the mountain in 2002, during the filming of the documentary. Here is how Simpson characterized the déjà vu he experienced upon revisiting what should have been his final resting place:
"Do you have any idea how bad it was? I don't think you do. I don't think you have the first idea.

I died here. I lost everything I was, that I wanted to be.

And then I got it given back."
The documentary leaves me pondering how I might respond in the most desperate of circumstances and what I would do with a second chance like the one that Simpson got. I have a feeling that I'll be thinking about this for a while.

mercredi, avril 22, 2009

not all soul music comes from the church

Op-Ed Guest Columnist: It’s 2009. Do You Know Where Your Soul Is?
Published: April 18, 2009

I AM in Midtown Manhattan, where drivers still play their car horns as if they were musical instruments and shouting in restaurants is sport.

I am a long way from the warm breeze of voices I heard a week ago on Easter Sunday.

“Glorify your name,” the island women sang, as they swayed in a cut sandstone church. I was overwhelmed by a riot of color, an emotional swell that carried me to sea.

Christianity, it turns out, has a rhythm — and it crescendos this time of year. The rumba of Carnival gives way to the slow march of Lent, then to the staccato hymnals of the Easter parade. From revelry to reverie. After 40 days in the desert, sort of ...

Carnival — rock stars are good at that.

“Carne” is flesh; “Carne-val,” its goodbye party. I’ve been to many. Brazilians say they’ve done it longest; they certainly do it best. You can’t help but contract the fever. You’ve got no choice but to join the ravers as they swell up the streets bursting like the banks of a river in a flood of fun set to rhythm. This is a Joy that cannot be conjured. This is life force. This is the heart full and spilling over with gratitude. The choice is yours ...

It’s Lent I’ve always had issues with. I gave it up ... self-denial is where I come a cropper. My idea of discipline is simple — hard work — but of course that’s another indulgence.

Then comes the dying and the living that is Easter.

It’s a transcendent moment for me — a rebirth I always seem to need. Never more so than a few years ago, when my father died. I recall the embarrassment and relief of hot tears as I knelt in a chapel in a village in France and repented my prodigal nature — repented for fighting my father for so many years and wasting so many opportunities to know him better. I remember the feeling of “a peace that passes understanding” as a load lifted. Of all the Christian festivals, it is the Easter parade that demands the most faith — pushing you past reverence for creation, through bewilderment at the idea of a virgin birth, and into the far-fetched and far-reaching idea that death is not the end. The cross as crossroads. Whatever your religious or nonreligious views, the chance to begin again is a compelling idea.

Last Sunday, the choirmaster was jumping out of his skin ... stormy then still, playful then tender, on the most upright of pianos and melodies. He sang his invocations in a beautiful oaken tenor with a freckle-faced boy at his side playing conga and tambourine as if it was a full drum kit. The parish sang to the rafters songs of praise to a God that apparently surrendered His voice to ours.

I come to lowly church halls and lofty cathedrals for what purpose? I search the Scriptures to what end? To check my head? My heart? No, my soul. For me these meditations are like a plumb line dropped by a master builder — to see if the walls are straight or crooked. I check my emotional life with music, my intellectual life with writing, but religion is where I soul-search.

The preacher said, “What good does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” Hearing this, every one of the pilgrims gathered in the room asked, “Is it me, Lord?” In America, in Europe, people are asking, “Is it us?”

Well, yes. It is us.

Carnival is over. Commerce has been overheating markets and climates ... the sooty skies of the industrial revolution have changed scale and location, but now melt ice caps and make the seas boil in the time of technological revolution. Capitalism is on trial; globalization is, once again, in the dock. We used to say that all we wanted for the rest of the world was what we had for ourselves. Then we found out that if every living soul on the planet had a fridge and a house and an S.U.V., we would choke on our own exhaust.

Lent is upon us whether we asked for it or not. And with it, we hope, comes a chance at redemption. But redemption is not just a spiritual term, it’s an economic concept. At the turn of the millennium, the debt cancellation campaign, inspired by the Jewish concept of Jubilee, aimed to give the poorest countries a fresh start. Thirty-four million more children in Africa are now in school in large part because their governments used money freed up by debt relief. This redemption was not an end to economic slavery, but it was a more hopeful beginning for many. And to the many, not the lucky few, is surely where any soul-searching must lead us.

A few weeks ago I was in Washington when news arrived of proposed cuts to the president’s aid budget. People said that it was going to be hard to fulfill promises to those who live in dire circumstances such a long way away when there is so much hardship in the United States. And there is.

But I read recently that Americans are taking up public service in greater numbers because they are short on money to give. And, following a successful bipartisan Senate vote, word is that Congress will restore the money that had been cut from the aid budget — a refusal to abandon those who would pay such a high price for a crisis not of their making. In the roughest of times, people show who they are.

Your soul.

So much of the discussion today is about value, not values. Aid well spent can be an example of both, values and value for money. Providing AIDS medication to just under four million people, putting in place modest measures to improve maternal health, eradicating killer pests like malaria and rotoviruses — all these provide a leg up on the climb to self-sufficiency, all these can help us make friends in a world quick to enmity. It’s not alms, it’s investment. It’s not charity, it’s justice.

Strangely, as we file out of the small stone church into the cruel sun, I think of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, whose now combined fortune is dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty. Agnostics both, I believe. I think of Nelson Mandela, who has spent his life upholding the rights of others. A spiritual man — no doubt. Religious? I’m told he would not describe himself that way.

Not all soul music comes from the church.

Bono, the lead singer of the band U2 and a co-founder of the advocacy group ONE, is a contributing columnist for The Times.

mardi, avril 21, 2009

her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" never fails to give me goosebumps.

The funny thing is ... I had always assumed Jeff Buckley's 1994 cover was the original, because it was the first version I heard. A few years ago, my (then-) colleague Suzanne walked into my office as I was listening to the Buckley version. I asked "Have you heard Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley? I love this song." She smiled, said "yes," and slowly walked away. Now I'm wondering if she was being polite by not pointing out that it was a cover, or if she just assumed that I knew it was cover. (She's a huge Leonard Cohen fan.)

Anyhow, here are a few of my favorite versions of this gorgeous song... Buckley's is still my favorite -- I love the warm sounds of the guitar.

Leonard Cohen
(Coachella, 2009)

KD Lang

Rufus Wainwright

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Maybe there's a God above
And all I ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It's not a cry you can hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

lundi, avril 20, 2009

nothing else will do

Our friends Holly and Bucky included The Weepies' "Gotta Have You" on a CD they gave to all of us at their wedding a few weeks ago. The uncomplicated lyrics and lilting melody have worn themselves into my subconscious, so I suppose it's time to share the song.
Gray, quiet and tired and mean
Picking at a worried seam
I try to make you mad at me over the phone.
Red eyes and fire and signs
I'm taken by a nursery rhyme
I want to make a ray of sunshine and never leave home

No amount of coffee, no amount of crying
No amount of whiskey, no amount of wine
No, nothing else will do
I've gotta have you, I've gotta have you.

The road gets cold, there's no spring in the middle this year
I'm the new chicken clucking open hearts and ears
Oh, such a prima donna, sorry for myself
But green, it is also summer
And I won't be warm till I'm lying in your arms

I see it all through a telescope: guitar, suitcase, and a warm coat
Lying in the back of the blue boat, humming a tune...

dimanche, avril 19, 2009

tortellini, arugula, goat cheese, and roasted tomato salad

We enjoyed the seared scallops with roasted tomatoes so much that we kept the trend going for last night's dinner.

This is a modification of something I had at Bristol Farms for lunch last week. The Bristol Farms version used moistened sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese-filled ravioli. We didn't have goat cheese ravioli, so the seven cheese tortellini was the next best option. (I still prefer small ravioli to the tortellini, due to a better cheese-to-pasta ratio.) Although we had julienned sun-dried tomatoes in our pantry, we opted for the roasted grape tomatoes. (Roasting the tomatoes intensifies their sweetness with minimal effort.)

1 lb fresh cheese ravioli (small) or tortellini
1 cup fresh grape tomatoes, roasted OR 1/3 cup moistened sun-dried tomatoes, julienned
2 cups arugula, washed and spun dry
4 TBSP chevre, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
6 TBSP extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 1/2 TBSP vinegar (we used white balsamic)

  1. Preheat broiler.
  2. Make the vinaigrette in a small jar or bottle. Combine 4 TBSP olive oil, 1 1/2 TBSP vinegar, 1/4 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp black pepper. Shake vigorously.
  3. Arrange tomatoes in a single layer in a shallow roasting pan; lightly coat tomatoes with 2 TBSP olive oil. Sprinkle tomatoes with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; toss well to coat. Broil 10 minutes or until tomatoes begin to brown, stirring occasionally.
  4. Cook the pasta al dente in lightly salted water. Drain and rinse with cool water.
  5. In a large bowl, combine the still-warm pasta, arugula, and tomatoes. (Be sure to use a spatula to get every ounce of the olive oil, tomato juices, and spices from the roasting pan into the bowl.) Shake the vinaigrette vigorously and confirm that the salt has dissolved. Pour over pasta, arugula, and tomatoes. Sprinkle with chevre. Serve immediately.

seared scallops with roasted tomatoes

Leo and I made this for dinner on Friday and it blew us away. Roasting the tomatoes intensifies their sweetness with minimal effort. The cast-iron skillet creates a brown crust on the scallops that can't be achieved in a non-stick pan.
Yield: 4 servings
(serving size: about 4 1/2 ounces scallops, about 1/3 cup tomatoes, and 1 1/2 teaspoons basil)

3 cups grape tomatoes
Cooking spray* (we used 2 TBSP extra virgin olive oil)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 pounds sea scallops
2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil

  1. Preheat broiler.
  2. Arrange tomatoes in a single layer in a shallow roasting pan; lightly coat tomatoes with cooking spray or 2 TBSP extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle tomatoes with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; toss well to coat. Broil 10 minutes or until tomatoes begin to brown, stirring occasionally.
  3. While tomatoes cook, heat oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Pat scallops dry; sprinkle both sides of scallops with remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Add scallops to skillet; cook 2 minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness. Add pasta to skillet, toss with tomatoes and scallops; sprinkle with basil.
Nutritional Information: Calories: 204, Fat: 5.1g (sat 0.7g,mono 2.6g,poly 1g), Protein: 29.6g, Carbohydrate: 9.4g, Fiber: 1.4g, Cholesterol: 56mg, Iron: 1.1mg, Sodium: 519mg, Calcium: 49mg. (Note: Does not include nutritional information for the pasta.)
Via: Maria Everly, Cooking Light, APRIL 2009

vendredi, avril 17, 2009

national pet month

I just entered these photos of Ruby in the National Pet Month contest at work, along with the following information. I hope we win!
Ruby is a 5-year-old Flat-Coated Retriever. We got her on Craigslist when her owner had to move. We're training her as a therapy dog due to her high intelligence and sweet disposition.

  • Missing her top right front tooth (she looks like a hockey player when she smiles).
  • Grins with her mouth closed, but her lips pulled back (so that you can see all of her teeth) when you get home.
  • Wiggles when she walks because she’s a little bit pigeon-toed.
  • “Editorializes” – she loudly punctuates our conversations with Scarlett O'Hara-esque sighs.
  • Gets excited when she hears the word “work” – she goes to work with my partner a few days a week.
  • Is afraid of most cats.
  • People
  • Bacon
  • Watermelon
  • Walks
  • The beach
  • Squirrels
  • “Watching” TV with us on the couch
  • Waiting for walks
  • Having to work for food

mercredi, avril 15, 2009

kooks, demagogues, and right-wingers on tax day

The next time your whackjob cousin/ sibling/ neighbor/ in-law mouths off about taxes, share this wisdom from Robert Reich.
A Short Citizen's Guide to Kooks, Demagogues, and Right-Wingers On Tax Day, by Robert Reich: No one likes to pay taxes, so tax day typically attracts a range of right-wing Republicans, kooks, and demagogues, all of whom tell us how awful we have it. Herewith a short ... guide ... responding to the predictable charges:
  1. "Americans pay too much in taxes." Wrong: The United States has the lowest taxes of all developed nations.
  2. "The rich pay too much! The top ten percent of income earners pay over 72 percent of all income taxes!" Misleading: The main reason the rich pay such a large percent is they've become so much richer ... in recent years. If you look at what they pay as individuals ... you'll see a steady decline over the years. ...
  3. "The bottom 60 percent pay only 3.3 percent of the taxes!" Misleading again. Most Americans are paying more in sales taxes than they ever have. Property taxes have also been rising at a steady clip. And Social Security taxes have also risen (thanks to the Greenspan Commission), while earnings over about $100,000 aren't subject to Social Security taxes. So-called "sin" taxes (mostly beer and cigarettes) have also skyrocketed. All of these taxes take a bigger bite out of the paychecks of people with lower incomes than they do people with higher incomes.
  4. "Obama is raising your taxes!" Wrong. Obama is cutting taxes for 95 percent of Americans, by about $400 per person a year... Only the top 2 percent will have a tax increase, but even this tax increase is modest. Basically, they go back to the rates they were paying under Bill Clinton... And they won't start paying this until 2011 anyway.
  5. "The huge debts we're wracking up will cause your taxes to rise!" Wrong again. When it comes to the national debt, as I've said before, the relevant statistic is the ratio of debt to the gross domestic product. The only sure way to bring that debt down and make it manageable in future years is to get the economy growing again -- which requires that, in the short term, the government spend a lot of money... In the long term, the biggest source of concern is rising health-care costs. And that's something Obama and Congress are aiming to tackle.
  6. "We have a patriotic duty to stand up against Washington taxes!" Just the opposite. We have a patriotic duty to pay taxes. ... President Teddy Roosevelt made the case in 1906 when he argued in favor of continuing the inheritance tax. "The man of great wealth owes a particular obligation to the state because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government."
An acquaintance from law school, now a partner in one of Washington's biggest and wealthiest law firms, explained to me one day over lunch how he and his partners use tax rules to create offsetting taxable gains and losses, and then allocate the gains to the firm's foreign partners who don't pay taxes in the United States. That way, they keep the losses here and shelter their income abroad. I noticed he had an American flag lapel pin. "You're supporting our troops," I said, referring to his pin. "Yup," he replied, entirely missing my point.

True patriotism isn't cheap. It's about taking on a fair share of the burden of keeping America going.
Via Jeremiah

jeudi, avril 09, 2009


I took my first yoga class in 1998. I distinctly remember coming home and seeing my Golden Retriever, Casey, stretching and understanding why the position is called "downward-facing dog." I watched him move through a series of stretches and smiled, thinking about how cool it is that humans took inspiration from the natural world in order to improve focus, gain strength, and relax.

Flash forward eleven years -- I've got Ruby, a willful Flat-Coated Retriever who thinks she's Leo's girlfriend and that I'm a contractual obligation. Don't get me wrong -- she loves me. She just loves Leo more.

We love her, too. We love the way she "editorializes," loudly punctuating our conversations with Scarlett O'Hara-esque sighs. We smile when she comes over and licks our hands if we're hugging -- it's one part "break it up," one part "love me, too." And we invariably laugh if she walks out of the room when things get physical between Leo and I.

I'm not sure that she'd be up for doga with me. With Leo, well ... that's another story.
Physical Culture: Bonding With Their Downward-Facing Humans

Published: April 8, 2009

IN Chicago, Kristyn Caliendo does forward-bends with a Jack Russell terrier draped around her neck. In Manhattan, Grace Yang strikes a warrior pose while balancing a Shih Tzu on her thigh. And in Seattle, Chantale Stiller-Anderson practices an asana that requires side-stretching across a 52-pound vizsla.

Call it a yogic twist: Downward-facing dog is no longer just for humans.

Ludicrous? Possibly. Grist for anyone who thinks that dog-owners have taken yoga too far? Perhaps. But nationwide, classes of doga — yoga with dogs, as it is called — are increasing in number and popularity. Since Ms. Caliendo, a certified yoga instructor in Chicago, began to teach doga less than one year ago, her classes have doubled in size.

Not everyone in the yoga community is comfortable with this.

“Doga runs the risk of trivializing yoga by turning a 2,500-year-old practice into a fad,” said Julie Lawrence, 60, a yoga instructor and studio owner in Portland, Ore. “To live in harmony with all beings, including dogs, is a truly yogic principle. But yoga class may not be the most appropriate way to express this.”

Appropriate or not, this is how it works: Doga combines massage and meditation with gentle stretching for dogs and their human partners. In chaturanga, dogs sit with their front paws in the air while their human partners provide support. In an “upward-paw pose,” or sun salutation, owners lift dogs onto their hind legs. In a resting pose, the person reclines, with legs slightly bent over the dog’s torso, bolster-style, to relieve pressure on the spine.

Doga instructors are not required to complete certification, though teacher training seminars do exist, like ones taught by Brenda Bryan, 43, a yoga and doga instructor in Seattle who has just written a book on the subject. In general, instructors learn informally by sharing techniques. Guiding these techniques is an agreed-upon, though not officially stated, philosophy: Because dogs are pack animals, they are a natural match for yoga’s emphasis on union and connection with other beings.

Ms. Yang, 39, a financial analyst in Manhattan, has gone to doga classes for more than a year. Though she says that her 10-pound Shih Tzu, Sophie, has helped deepen her stretches by providing extra weight, the main reason she goes is to bond with her dog. “I always leave with a smile,” she said.

Such post-doga smiles run about $15 to $25 a class. Whether this is a bargain or overpriced depends on how — and why — the class is taught. Paula Apro, 40, of Eastford, Conn., owner of an online yoga retail store, tried a class near her home last summer.

“A stuffed animal — but not even a dog-shaped stuffed animal — was used by the instructor,” she said. Owners struggled to get their very real dogs to replicate the stuffed-animal poses, she said, and bags of treats were used to get the dogs to change positions. “It was lunacy,” Ms. Apro recalled. “Peanuts, my retired racer greyhound, didn’t participate at all. Instead, I did downward-facing dog while he ate the most treats he’s ever had in a 60-minute period.”

Ms. Caliendo said such tales are the exception. She offers her class in conjunction with the Royal Treatment Veterinary Spa in Chicago, which specializes in holistic animal care. “In no way is doga for teaching dogs silly tricks,” she said. “The dogs are never manipulated into any type of pose.”

Ms. Caliendo’s classes focus on poses and massage for dogs aimed at improving digestion and heart function, and poses for people that emphasize stress reduction and feeling well.

Ms. Bryan, the author in Seattle, said: “It’s a new field so there can be confusion about what doga is and isn’t.” Her classes are loosely structured and filled with humor. “Who cares if everybody’s facing the same direction and doing exactly the same thing?” she said. “Besides, laughing is spiritual.”

Ms. Bryan said some of her earliest classes were a challenge. “I was brand new to this, and in one class, this dog just wouldn’t stop barking,” she said. “There I was, trying desperately to look tranquil and calm, but inside I was, like, ‘Shut up!’ That was the turning point for me. I mean, this was a dog. Plus, he was having the best time of his life.”

Kari Harendorf, 38, teaches doga in Manhattan. “Jobs are disappearing,” she said. “Mortgage payments are looming. Change is everywhere, but your dog remains steadfast. So, why not spend time together?”

Ms. Harendorf links yoga to reductions in stress hormones, like cortisol, and blood pressure. “People always ask me, ‘Do dogs need yoga?’ ” she said. “I say, ‘No, you need yoga. But your dog needs your attention, and bonding with your pet is good for your health.’ ”

She is saying something many dog owners already know: Were it not for their pets, many people would never take daily walks in the park. By extension, it’s easy to see how taking your dog to doga may be a surefire way to make certain you do yoga yourself.

mardi, avril 07, 2009

modern love: a memory magically interrupted

I've given up on my fantasy of having a normal (adult, mutually respectful, healthy) relationship with my mother.

She's a complicated narcissist (I mean that in a clinical sense, not a flippant one) who stokes the embers of bitterness about perceived wrongs, ridiculous betrayals, and imagined duplicity because she is unhappy about the choices she has made in life. She has fanned the flames of anger, jealousy, and control with every relationship around her until each one (except -- inexplicably -- her marriage to my father) is destroyed and then she's had the gall to complain about the mess left by the ashes.

Over the years, I've moved through many stages with her, being a pleaser child, a resentful (but safely rebellious) teenager, a liberated undergrad, a frustrated twenty-something, a codependent wife, a disappointed cancer patient, a self-realized divorcée, a reconciliation-seeking thirty-something, and an approval-craving woman. In three decades, I've stopped speaking with her for years at a time, vowed never to set foot in her home again, mourned a relationship that never will be what I need it to be, and calmly but resolutely tried to stop giving her so much power over me.

I've spent more hours than I can count unravelling the knots in my psyche with the help of amazing therapists, patient significant others, and understanding friends. I've tried to learn how to move through life without craving approval and acceptance from authority figures and loved ones. I've even fantasized about what life would be like if my parents ever got divorced. I know every word to Ani DiFranco's "Angry Anymore" and really thought I wasn't until I learned that my mother gave what can only be described as a shitload of money to the Yes on Prop 8 bigots last year.

As I move toward parenthood, I spend time thinking about the kind of mother I want to be and the relationships I hope to have with my children. In the end, I wish my own mother no harm and know that it would take a miracle for us to have a civil relationship. Perhaps there will be a silver lining if I wait long enough for it to appear.
Modern Love: A Memory Magically Interrupted
Published: March 20, 2009

“YOUR grandmother has Alzheimer’s, right?” the doctor asked me, scrawling notes into a floppy manila folder.

I hadn’t expected to discuss my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s with him. I was hoping to hear some explanation as to why, apart from her memory, my grandmother’s overall health seemed so mysteriously improved. Her lupus, for instance, had all but disappeared from her blood work.

“Yes, but ...” I began.

“Well, there is a theory,” he said, interrupting, “that people with Alzheimer’s heal themselves of their diseases. Because they forget they have them.”

I glanced across the room at my beautiful grandmother, smiling vaguely in her lipstick-pink trench coat. “But you don’t really believe that?” I asked.

The doctor shrugged with an implicit “Who knows?” which I found irritating because I hadn’t flown all the way from Manhattan to Nashville to discuss fanciful theories. I wanted solid answers about JoAnn’s health, and he’d thrown me with his talk of miracle cures.

But by that evening, after I’d driven my grandparents home, I realized that the real reason this doctor had startled me was that for the first time I’d heard someone confirm my experience of my grandmother’s disease. Alzheimer’s has, in a sense, healed my grandmother, and our family.

Despite my family role of bulldog journalist, responsible for sniffing out facts, I’ve always preferred fairy tales to literal truth. And I wonder if that isn’t a better way (in my family’s case, anyway) to approach Alzheimer’s, a malady that for us has had a decided fairy tale ring to it, one of those stories where a beautiful lady is cast under a wicked spell that makes her lose her whole life — only to get it back again, better than ever, by the closing paragraph.

Five years ago, when JoAnn’s Alzheimer’s was first diagnosed, I couldn’t imagine anything less fair. At the time, I composed a mental list of all the people I knew who could lose their minds without anybody noticing, scores of people whom I’d never heard say one original thing. While my grandmother, on the other hand, was the genius of the cocktail party, a brunette version of our fellow Texan Ann Richards, who always seemed poised with a staggering, stiletto quip.

As a young artist in New York, I’d spent years trying to find my voice. When I did, it was my grandmother’s. To this day, I’ve never liked anything I’ve created that didn’t somehow remind me of her. So the fact that my clumsy development and slow self-discovery was occurring just as her decline began felt like a tragic bargain. I was finding my voice just as she was losing hers.

The only certainty about Alzheimer’s is that it’s characterized by uncertainty: There is no definitive test, no definitive diagnosis. But in July several years ago, after undergoing a gruesome but unserious operation, my grandmother began to exhibit signs of the disease. It was as if her anesthesia never lifted.

I now believe she suffered a mini-stroke mid-operation — an event that frequently “ignites” incipient Alzheimer’s — but by the time I formed this suspicion, it was too late to test. So throughout that year, as my grandfather and I accompanied her to a legion of new doctors, each of whom mentioned the possibility of Alzheimer’s, my grandmother grew ever more foggy, sometimes hilariously so.

“The wonderful thing about Alzheimer’s,” she would say, unfurling her arm like Bette Davis, “is that you always live in the moment.”

Like many Southern women of her generation, my grandmother had been a stifled lady prone to fits of drape-drawn depression, medicated with Champagne and Streisand.

“Sad lives make funny people,” she told me when I was 16.

At the time, this remark had just sounded like one more zinger. But eventually I came to consider it the distillation of her philosophy. Humor was the way she had coped with every unpleasant thing in her life, from her long estrangement from my mother, her only child, to the onset of a crippling disease.

But while my grandmother was able to laugh at her decline, her husband couldn’t. He didn’t find anything funny about watching her forget their life together. I think all my grandfather ever wanted was to be left alone with his wife — a goal he’d finally accomplished after more than 40 years of marriage, when they retired from Houston to his family’s Tennessee home.

In this way my grandparents reminded me of the Reagans, one of those couples who are so gaga for each other that there is no room for the kids. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just that perfect couples rarely have happy families. They have to have children, because they love each other too much not to make something of it. But then, the honeymoon never ends, and who brings their children on a honeymoon? It’s like they always say: two’s company, and three’s an angry kid like Patti Davis, desperate for attention, with a complex about being shoved outside the magic circle.

Except that in our case, Patti Davis was my mother — a Scarlett O’Hara for the silicon age, with a chest as big as her mouth and hair. Between these two genteel Southern ladies, our family became an Old West town: It just wasn’t big enough for both of them.

Which meant that my grandfather, Alfred, adoring JoAnn as he did, not only stopped speaking to his daughter, he even stopped speaking about her, at least with me. Until the day when we were finally forced to accept the fact of JoAnn’s Alzheimer’s and its awful progression.

The more JoAnn forgot, the more often Alfred asked me to visit. And at the end of one of these Tennessee weekends, as my grandfather wound his Buick through the dark hills on the way to the airport, he suddenly blurted, “Sonny, I think it’s time your mother came home for a visit.”

I was too surprised to say anything. Then he repeated, “I think it’s time your mother came home.”

“I’ll make it happen,” I mumbled.

“Good,” he said, tapping the wheel. “It’s time.”

Of course, I had no idea how I would make it happen. Fortunately, my mother — who, for many years, had been no stranger to a Bloody Mary — was newly sober, and I took advantage of that narrow window of Alcoholics Anonymous time before making amends becomes a crashing bore. All that summer, I begged her long distance. I swore that if she would only visit her parents one more time, everything would be different. Finally I played my ace: I asked her to visit them in Tennessee for my birthday in September.

“Damn it,” she screeched. “So now if I don’t go, I’ll be ruining your birthday? Fine. I’ll do it. But prepare yourself for disaster.”

“There won’t be any disaster,” I said.

“Oh, really? Give me one good reason why things will be different this time.”

“Alzheimer’s,” I answered.

For my grandfather and me, having to witness JoAnn’s Alzheimer’s had been agonizing — like watching “The Miracle Worker” backward. Every day seemed accompanied by a new limitation. But for my grandmother, the disease had seemed liberating. For the first time in all the years I’d known her, she seemed truly happy.

Imagine: to be freed from your memory, to have every awful thing that ever happened to you wiped away — and not just your past, but your worries about the future, too. Because with no sense of time or memory, past and future cease to exist, along with all sense of loss and regret. Not to mention grudges and hurt feelings, arguments and embarrassments.

And that’s the fantasy, isn’t it? To have your record cleared. To be able not to merely forget, but to expunge your unhappy childhood, or unrequited love, or rocky marriage from your memory. To start over again.

There had always been an element of existential fury to my grandmother’s barbed wit, concerning her lost time and missed chances. But as her Alzheimer’s advanced, she forgot to be angry. And she seemed healthier, too: her pace quickened, her complexion brightened, her hair thickened. And with my help and her husband’s credit card, even her wardrobe improved. Her transformation was magical and unmistakable.

It was certainly unmistakable to my mother on that bracing September day when my grandparents and I picked her up at the Nashville airport. “Look, JoAnn,” Alfred said, “it’s Jessica.”

“Isn’t that funny,” said JoAnn, before embracing my mother. “That’s my daughter’s name, too.”

My mother forced a smile and shot me a wary look that abruptly softened once we got to the Buick and my grandmother reached for her hand. “Tell me all about yourself, darling,” she said. “I want to know everything about you.”

All through my birthday dinner that evening, JoAnn positively doted on her daughter — beaming sweetly and patting her hand. This behavior unsettled my mother, who afterward made a theatrical production of rooting through the closet in her bedroom.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Looking for space pods,” she said. “Who are those people, Robert? And what have they done with my mother? I keep thinking I must be in a blackout. That I must be drunk in a ditch somewhere, and when I wake up I’ll have the hangover of a lifetime. Because believe me, if that nice old lady had been my mother, I’d never have left home.”

DURING the following week, the starchy blue autumn skies remained clear, and so did the irony. Now that my grandmother had, in a way, disappeared, she was fully present to my mother for perhaps the first time in their relationship. Now that she was all but unreachable, she was finally available. Each evening, as JoAnn scooted close at dinner, my mother found the nearness less nerve-racking.

On the last day, as we were leaving for the airport, my grandfather kissed us goodbye. Soft black cows strode serenely on the hillside. Suddenly JoAnn grabbed onto the lapels of my mother’s jacket, as if she were about to shake her.

My mother looked rattled, but then JoAnn said: “Thank you for coming, Jessica. I want you to know how much it means to me. I want you to know that I know we’ve never been close. And I know that’s been mostly my fault. I’m not sure how much time I’ve got. But more than anything, I want to have a shot at spending it with you. It’s so important. I mean, after all, Jessica, we’re sisters.”

I groaned, then looked over to see my tough mother crying.

“Close enough, Mama,” she said.

Robert Leleux, who lives in New York, is the author of “The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy” (St. Martin’s Press).


This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness. - The Dalai Lama , b. 1935, Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader [b. Tenzin Gyatso]

dna test for cervical cancer

I'd love to take this test instead of getting into the stirrups.
DNA Test Outperforms Pap Smear
April 7, 2009

A new DNA test for the virus that causes cervical cancer does so much better than current methods that some gynecologists hope it will eventually replace the Pap smear in wealthy countries and cruder tests in poor ones.

Not only could the new test for human papillomavirus, or HPV, save lives; scientists say that women over 30 could drop annual Pap smears and instead have the DNA test just once every 3, 5 or even 10 years, depending on which expert is asked.

Their optimism is based on an eight-year study of 130,000 women in India financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine. It is the first to show that a single screening with the DNA test beats all other methods at preventing advanced cancer and death.

The study is “another nail in the coffin” for Pap smears, which will “soon be of mainly historical interest,” said Dr. Paul D. Blumenthal, a professor of gynecology at Stanford medical school who has tested screening techniques in Africa and Asia and was not involved in the study.

But whether the new test is adopted will depend on many factors, including hesitation by gynecologists to abandon Pap smears, which have been remarkably effective. Cervical cancer was a leading cause of death for American women in the 1950s; it now kills fewer than 4,000 a year.

In poor and middle-income countries, where the cancer kills more than 250,000 women a year, cost is a factor, but the test’s maker, Qiagen, with financing from the Gates Foundation, has developed a $5 version and the price could go lower with enough orders, the company said.

“The implications of the findings of this trial are immediate and global,” Dr. Mark Schiffman of the National Cancer Institute wrote in an editorial accompanying the study. “International experts in cervical cancer prevention should now adopt HPV testing.”

At the moment, there are huge gaps in how rich and poor countries screen.

In the West, women get smears named for their inventor, Dr. Georgios Papanikolaou. Cells are scraped from the cervix and sent to a laboratory, where they are stained and inspected under a microscope by a pathologist looking for abnormalities. Results may take several days.

The DNA screen also needs a cervical scraping, but it is mixed with re-agents and read by a machine.

In poor countries, most women get no routine screening. Pain sends them to a hospital, by which time it is often too late.

But in some countries, women get “visualization,” pioneered in the last decade, also with Gates Foundation support: a health worker looks at the cervix with a flashlight and swabs it with vinegar. Spots that turn white may be precancerous lesions, and are immediately frozen off. Diagnosis and treatment take only one visit.

Pap smears fail in the third world because there are too few trained pathologists and because women told to return often cannot.

The Indian study, begun in 1999, divided 131,746 healthy women ages 30 to 59 from 497 villages into four groups. One group, the control, got typical rural clinic care: advice to go to a hospital if they wanted screening. The second got Pap smears, the third got flashlight-vinegar visualization, and the fourth got a DNA test, then made by Digene, which is now owned by Qiagen. The company did not pay for or donate to the study, its authors said.

After eight years, the visualization group had about the same rates of advanced cancer and death as the control group. The Pap-smear group had about three-fourths the rates, and the DNA test had about half.

Significantly, none of the women who were negative on their DNA test died of cervical cancer. “So if you have a negative test, you’re good to go for several years,” Dr. Blumenthal said.

The study’s chief author, Dr. Rengaswamy Sankaranarayanan of the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, said, “With this test, you could start screening women at 30 and do it once every 10 years.”

Asked whether that advice would apply in the United States, Debbie Saslow, director of gynecologic cancer for the American Cancer Society, replied, “Absolutely no.”

“A negative test would mean a woman’s chances of developing cancer are small, but not zero,” she added. “But if he’d said five years, I wouldn’t have a strong reaction.”

Since 1987, she said, the cancer society and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have recommended Pap smears only every three years after initial negative ones. In 2002, they recommended the HPV test too, and evidence is mounting that the Pap smear can be dropped.

“But we haven’t been able to get doctors to go along,” Dr. Saslow said. “The average gynecologist, especially the older ones, says, ‘Women come in for their Pap smear, and that’s how we get them in here to get other care.’ We’re totally overscreening, but when you’ve been telling everyone for 40 years to get an annual Pap smear, it’s hard to change.”

Dr. Sankaranarayanan said most European countries screen every three to five years, and many do not start before age 30.

Cervical cancer is caused by a few of the 150 strains of the human papillomavirus. Women pick strains up as soon as they start having intercourse, but more than 90 percent of cases clear up spontaneously within two years. Early DNA tests would find these, but lead to useless overtreatment. So in women ages 20 to 30, doctors often order repeat Pap tests, which is expensive but may catch the tiny minority of cancers that develop in less than 15 years.

“The U.S. has high resources and low risk-tolerance,” Dr. Schiffman explained, while countries like India have little money and are forced to tolerate risk.

Dr. Jan Agosti, the Gates Foundation officer overseeing its third world screening, said Qiagen’s new $5 test — which proved itself in a two-year study in China — runs on batteries without water or refrigeration, and takes less than three hours. In countries where women are “shyer about pelvic exams,” she added, it even works “acceptably well” on vaginal swabs they can take themselves.