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Archive for the month “November, 2012”

Holiday Dementia

 It’s winter. A butterfly just fluttered past my window. Or so I thought, for one illogical instant, until I realized it was a yellow leaf. Just a little moment of delightful poetry—or creeping dementia. That’s the kind of gallows humor that goes through my mind on any given morning. And I know I’m not alone. A recent poll showed that two thirds of the population of the United States has some personal connection—via a family member, friend or workmate—with Alzheimer’s disease or other memory loss problems. Alzheimer’s is, and has been for many years, our most feared disease, and rightly so. And this time of year, as many of us see family members we haven’t seen in a while, that fear runs high.

Maybe you were one of the millions of Americans who noticed, this Thanksgiving Day, that your grandmother or your mother was off her game. Forgot to time the turkey; put salt in the pumpkin pie. Maybe you’d been warned, before you got home, that your beloved uncle wasn’t quite himself anymore. That his wife, your aunt, was tense and tired. Maybe you’re currently rethinking your commitment to see them all again at Christmas or Hanukah. Maybe, like me, you’re missing the one who’s already gone: in my case, my mother, who died before her time of an illness I once thought only very old people got.

Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can cast a long shadow over the holidays. I believe it’s natural and healthy to feel all kinds of ways about it: surprised, sad, angry, uncomfortable. Many people find themselves fighting (or giving in) to the urge to flee. Disbelief is common too: “Mom is fine, she’s just stressed out!”

One of the toughest truths about Alzheimer’s is that, whether it’s short and steep or long and gradual, it is an inexorable, unstoppable downward path. We Americans like to fix things. We have a very hard time accepting that the best we can do, medically, for a person with Alzheimer’s is offer a pill that might—key word, might—slow the progression of the illness.

But there are many things we can do to make it more bearable: for ourselves and for the person we love who is living with this illness.

First, and this is really my best and only holiday advice: find joy in the moment, however unmoored from reality that moment seems to be. Do not ask a person with Alzheimer’s to “try” to remember what day it is, why he’s there, whose house it is, whose kids these are and why it’s not time to go home yet. Do not correct or scold or worry or be embarrassed. Encourage the telling and retelling of old family stories: what better time to dwell in the past than during the holidays? Get out the oldest photo albums. Put on music from many decades ago. Serve old-fashioned, familiar foods, but only the ones everyone actually likes.

Second, after it’s over: you’re home now, you’re busy, you feel utterly helpless about your loved one’s dementia. What can you do? Here’s what: volunteer for research. Alzheimer’s studies need control subjects too. They need people with healthy brains who are willing to take memory tests, be scanned, give blood and cerebrospinal fluid for the cause. A few hours out of your life, a tablespoon or two of fluid extracted, and with one spinal tap you could be contributing to as many as 50 different studies.

You can also advocate for the cause. President Obama signed into law the National Alzheimer’s Project Act in 2010. Now we need to get it funded. We need to persuade lawmakers that as baby boomers age, the cost of NOT finding ways to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease will be crushing.

When someone you care about is suffering, doing something is the best way to treat your own symptoms: your anger, frustration, fear. It won’t be a cure-all, but it’ll help. Trust me. I’ve been there. Contact the Alzheimer’s Association: they’ll get you started.

I loved teaching Intro to Memoir Writing so much I’m teaching it again this winter at SCCC. Starts Jan 2. Six Wednesday nights. 

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

The Invisible War

The other night, I walked out of the SIFF Cinema Uptown smoldering. I had just seen a film called The Invisible War, and I was angry.

I was not alone. Everyone who walked out of that Women’s Funding Alliance-sponsored screening had what you might call a smolder-y look. Because what we’d just watched bore vivid witness to one of those facts that are meaningless until you start attaching names and faces to them. In this case, the fact is this: one in five women in the United States military have reported being raped. And no one’s willing to guess how many more have been raped but have not reported it, out of legitimate fear, as we saw depicted in this film, of what it would do to their careers.

As long as “rape victims” are referred to collectively and anonymously, they are not human beings that we need to personally worry about. But once you’ve seen a woman tell her story on camera, you can’t go back to how you felt before you saw her. Phrases like, I screamed and screamed and no one came; I woke up and he was on top of me; He threw me so hard he permanently damaged my spine have a way of lodging in your brain.

These were women who wanted to serve their country. Young idealists. Soldiers as fit and fearless as the men with whom they served. They reported being raped because they believed justice would be done. In nearly every case, “justice” turned out to be protection for the perpetrator and the end of a career for the victim. One was even told that rape is an “occupational hazard” of military service—meaning, apparently, that a good soldier tolerates it without complaining.

I believe the women in The Invisible War spoke to filmmaker Kirby Dick because they know that telling their stories, out loud and on screen, is now their best remaining option for moving people to action.  And painful though their stories are, these soldiers are crystal-clear about what happened to them.

But as the General Petraeus sex scandal continues to unfold like a season of Dallas, what’s disturbing to ponder is the number of women who feel they can’t talk about what happened to them in the military because maybe it’s not so crystal-clear. They’ve heard Republican politicians trying to parse phrases like “forcible rape,” as if there was some other kind, so they know how far they’d get with a story of what they felt they had to do to keep from being raped; a story of how deployment turned out to be a moral trip through the looking glass into a wonderland where marriage and family and ties to home meant nothing and if you didn’t play along, well, then your fellow soldiers might not have your back.

One of the military’s anti-rape PR campaigns features the slogan, “Ask her when she’s sober.” What if she says no when she’s sober? Then what?

And now we profess shock, shock! That General Petraeus, the man at the very top, the role model of all role models, married for 38 years, was embroiled in an affair. How ironic that one of the charges leveled at many of the women in The Invisible War was adultery: not because they were married, because in most cases, they weren’t, but because their attacker was. Married. So… the victim was charged with adultery.  Now we really are deeply through the looking glass.

Tolerance of rape as an occupational hazard in the U.S. Military must end. But so must tolerance of an alternate moral universe, in which female soldiers are pressured to play along—when they’re sober, of course—because if they don’t, who knows? they could be raped. And then accused of adultery.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

I loved teaching Intro to Memoir Writing so much I’m teaching it again this winter at SCCC. Starts Jan 2. Six Wednesday nights. Spread the word!

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.








After Election Day

On Election Day 2012, I woke up in Baker City, Oregon, reached for my phone and read these words: “Make me a grave where’er you will, In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill, Make it among earth’s humblest graves, But not in a land where men are slaves.” It’s the first stanza of a poem by a daughter of freed slaves who died a century ago, Frances Harper. I had never heard of Harper. I had never before read her poem, titled “Bury Me in a Free Land.” But there I was, on the morning of the presidential election, instantly connected by Harper’s words to the historic hugeness of the day.

True nerd confession: I like to start my mornings by reading a psalm and a poem. I have the Book of Psalms and a few poetry anthologies loaded on my phone now, so I can stick to my ritual on the road. I’ve been reading poetry all my life, but I grew up a white girl who went to mostly-white schools and either we didn’t have Frances Harper in our anthologies back then or we never turned to that page. So I was honored to make her acquaintance, on the morning I woke up wondering whether we would re-elect our first black president to a second term.

It seemed a good omen, somehow, that Harper’s poem was the one that happened to be waiting for me. I’m working my way through an American anthology and I’d just finished a few days of Walt Whitman, who was excellent company on our road trip through the West, with his rousing anthems like “I Hear America Singing,” an exuberant poem that reads a bit like a candidate’s stump speech, with its odes to mechanics and masons, carpenters and mothers.

Harper’s poem was a stark contrast, a reminder of the cruelty embedded in our history. Of how divided we were then and still are now.

Whatever would she think of this election day? Of our president, son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother; of his wife and children, descended, like Harper, from slaves?

As my husband and I drove home to Seattle, I liked feeling like Frances Harper was with me. Listening, with me, to stories on the radio of long lines in polling places—lines that included Americans of every origin, every one of them determined to exercise their constitutional right. Lines that included women, who still didn’t have the vote when Harper died.

That night, as we watched the results roll in, I felt such relief on her behalf and on my own: relief, that the trajectory of her work, as a poet and fervent abolitionist, was continuing, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, to bend its long arc toward justice. And I felt relief for myself that I would never have the sad task of explaining to my future grandchildren what went wrong on November 6, 2012.

President Obama is not perfect. He has made mistakes. For example, he could have been a lot more vocal on climate change. But despite what you may have heard during election season, Obama has gotten a LOT done—the Affordable Care Act, the auto industry bailout, the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, just to name a few greatest hits—and he is poised to do even more in his campaign-free second term. By RE-electing him, we have ensured that his presidency cannot be viewed as some fluke, some aberration, some pause for diversity in the long history of white male control.  That is a big deal. Frances Harper would be stunned and proud. And we did it. On November 6, 2012, we did it.

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street; 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Ambivalent Politics: Guest Post

Readers: I am honored to share with you this Election Week guest post by novelist, book critic and wise friend Isla McKetta:

Why I’m Afraid to Talk Politics in a Free Society

Election season 2012 is nearly over. Do you have any Facebook friends left? Regardless of where you live, I’ll bet there is a contentious race that is causing heated debate and if you haven’t unfriended someone for their beliefs (or been unfriended for yours), you know someone who has. Suddenly I’m afraid to share my political beliefs with my friends.

Is this what democracy looks like?

We hold these truths to be self-evident

“…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As a child in the US, I learned these words from The Declaration of Independence and to be proud of the men who stood up against tyranny to endow our nation with the freedoms of a democratic government. Hearing those words recited by teachers and parents, my young ears thought the world was a wonderful and free place.

And then I moved to Chile. I was seven and Pinochet was in power. I learned that people can be rounded up and killed for their beliefs. As Americans, my family and I were safe during the year we lived there, but every American history lesson thereafter reminded me how privileged I was.

I believe all men (and women) are created equal. Our two-party system does polarize us and I can understand why every year many of us are more afraid that our freedoms will be taken away from us. But we cannot protect our freedoms by taking away the freedom of others.

Congress shall make no law

“…respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Congress is not allowed to infringe on our freedom of speech, but as citizens we are not held to the same standard. We have the right to banish people from our Facebook walls if we don’t like what they say. Where does that get us? Being exposed to a different point of view should make our understanding of the world richer, not poorer. By censoring our friends and friendships, we make our minds narrower.

I spent a year in Poland after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I met people whom I had been taught were my enemies and the enemies of freedom. But they were just humans, and even under fear of being sent away to a gulag, my new friends had actively fought off the tyranny of the Soviet Union. Our governments held us apart just as today in the US our political parties hold us apart. My life is fuller because I was exposed to these people I did not think I would agree with.

We the People of the United States

“…in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

One of the things I love most about the Preamble to the Constitution is those words, “We the People.” We Americans are a diverse people with a wide variety of viewpoints, but we share this country, this constitution, and (I hope) this commitment to forming a more perfect union.

Reading the Preamble now, I see the words “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” I bless the liberty that you have to say things that make my skin crawl. I hope you will bless my liberty too. Your vote carries equal weight to mine and we are both doing what we think is best for this country.

How to talk to your friends about politics

Endowing ourselves with the authority to tell someone else they are wrong is getting us nowhere. The America I believe in is a place where we have the freedom to speak our myriad truths and to disagree. There are no stadium roundups and we will not be sent to a gulag.

Throw off the tyranny of peer pressure. When you see someone post a viewpoint you cannot abide, try asking them about it instead of harassing them. Really listen to where their beliefs come from. You will both grow from the experience. When we have multifaceted conversations about issues, we can create new ways of understanding and maybe even solving the issues. We can become one people of these United States and we might even find out we have more in common than we thought.

I voted for Obama four years ago because I believed in his ability to have these complex conversations and to find new ground for compromise. I am angry with the Republican Party for holding hostage President Obama’s attempts to create that middle ground. I am disappointed in Obama for not having a superhuman ability to transcend the system.

Unfriend me if you want, but I believe in the right to choose and the right to bear arms. I will vote for Obama this year because I believe in the necessity of always trying to have the important conversation, no matter what.

Now tell me about your beliefs. I am listening and I want to learn from you.

Isla McKetta, MFA is a novelist with socialist tendencies. She reviews books at A Geography of Reading.

Beyond Binders

This fall, I have had the good fortune to meet many memorable women. I met a physicist and computer science expert from the National Institutes of Health. I met an artist who transforms scientific data into stunning, wall-sized murals. I met a teacher librarian who has turned a cramped high school library in Yakima into the busy, beating heart of the building.  I met a professor of Fine Arts and Engineering who has started an Art and Ecology program at her university. And a young woman who moved from Texas to Seattle with two suitcases to her name and is now a successful copywriter by day and writer of fiction and memoir by night. And a Somali immigrant, who brings her oldest daughter, a kindergartener, into our neighborhood tutoring center because she wants her to succeed.

I am lucky to have the kind of life in which these kinds of encounters are possible.  I wish more men did. I wish it wasn’t so hard for guys like Mitt Romney to get out of their mostly-male bubble and meet the dynamic women that are everywhere.

I want to tread carefully here, because I realize I’m entering a minefield of stereotypes just waiting for me to take a wrong step.  So maybe I’ll try the most positive route through this hazardous terrain: the route of utopian vision. Of “What if?”

What if we lived in a world where everyone, regardless of gender, had time in their work week to volunteer for two hours? Tutoring the mostly African immigrant children I help with homework at the neighborhood center is often the most challenging, rewarding, stereotype-busting two hours of my week. I’m lucky to have the flexibility to do it. I wish more people did.

What if we lived in world where the STEM disciplines—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—were as highly valued as they should be, but NOT at the expense of, or segregation from, the arts and humanities, from which they have so much to gain? I recently got to be part of a panel of artists at a conference on scientific visualization. I thought it would be way outside my comfort zone. But I was thrilled to hear about collaborations taking place across the great divide between art and science and I was humbled to meet the men and women who are breaking these new trails.

What if all our schools could keep their libraries open into the evening, with staff and volunteers present to help students learn how to navigate the new world of Internet-based research?  Think of the future scientists, writers and artists we could nurture.

What if we lived in a world where the love of learning, thinking and creativity was valued more greatly, or even as greatly, as money, power, prestige? In what different ways might children flourish in such a world?

It just might be a world in which we don’t have to offer Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” for consideration for government appointments. A world where we’ve moved beyond binders. Beyond the strict boundaries that keep us from knowing each other.

If scientists can work with artists, if libraries and tutoring centers can stay open, if young men and women believe they can create lives that blend making a living and making art—then surely such a world beyond binders is possible.

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.



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