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Archive for the month “March, 2014”

Happy Birthday, Gloria Steinem

UnknownHappy Birthday, Gloria Steinem. If you are what eighty looks like, then there is hope in this world. And it is high time I thanked you for a few things.

First: Six years ago, for two weeks of my life, you gave me courage to get out of bed. It was April 2008. A cold April: frost every day, even a few snow flurries. Every morning, I huddled under the covers in my cottage at Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island retreat for women writers, reading your brilliant book of essays, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

You have to understand, Gloria: I did not deserve to be at Hedgebrook, because I was not a real writer. Documentary filmmaker, occasional journalist, effective public affairs bloviator—you could call me all of the above. But writer? What was Hedgebrook thinking, giving me a cottage for two weeks on the basis of a script I’d written for a doc film about Alzheimer’s disease?

It was you who gave me courage to get over myself, get out of bed and start writing. Your honesty—about being a Playboy bunny, about your mother’s mental illness, about being a woman—inspired me to write honestly. Your voice—frank, funny, humble, confident—inspired me to try out my own.

I was writing about my mother, too. Or trying to. Her birthday is also March 25th. She would have been 83 today, had Alzheimer’s not marked her and claimed her far too young: at 74, after nearly two decades of relentless assault.

Even though my mother was just a few years older than you, Gloria, her life could not have been more different than yours. Six children. Divorced twice, widowed once. But the work you did in the sixties and seventies? Gloria, you changed my mother’s life. You gave her courage.

She may not have openly acknowledged the debt. She may have thought that it was all about her own pluck and stamina. But after my parents divorced and my mother went back to college at 38, what she was doing was taking charge of her life in a way that you and your colleagues in the women’s movement had made possible. Who knows? A few years earlier, she might have accepted alimony or gone back to work as a secretary. Instead, she fulfilled her long-deferred dream of studying English and becoming a teacher. Instead, she exemplified for her impressionable daughters the women’s movement—your movement—in action. Feminist rhetoric was reality, not theory, at our house.

So I thank you, Gloria, for being who you were at the end of the 1960s. And I thank you for being who you were, to me, as I lapped up your book at Hedgebrook on those frosty mornings in 2008. I knew you too had spent time at Hedgebrook (and would continue to come for several summers). Which meant that you too knew the power of a cottage and privacy all day followed by good food and conversation in the evenings.

And now, on this your 80th birthday, which is also my mother’s birthday, it gives me great joy to tell you that the memoir I started scribbling at Hedgebrook, inspired by you, is going to be published in September by She Writes Press. It’s called Her Beautiful Brain. Her_Beautiful_Brain

And here’s a remarkable thought: in your lifetime, Gloria, we have gone from a world where it was quite acceptable to believe that all women’s brains were actually inferior to men’s to a world in which we women know our brains are beautiful. You helped us get there. You helped me get there. So did my beautiful, brainy mom. Happy Birthday to both of you.

Arlene and 6 kids

Only  a few spots left in my non-credit, no stress Memoir Writer’s Workshop at Seattle Central Community College. This is a new class for writers who feel ready to write 5-7 pages a week. Six Monday nights, starting April 7.

The Restless Nest is on the radio every Tuesday morning at 7:45 a.m. on; 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.



Brain on Fire

DSC00865“What does this mean—‘brain on fire?’”  Munira pointed to the words on the page.

We were reading a passage about Helen Keller in her fourth-grade homework packet. The author was describing how Keller’s brain was suddenly “on fire” after the legendary breakthrough moment when she spelled the word “water” in her teacher Anne Sullivan’s hand; how Helen ran from object to object, demanding names, learning at least 30 words that very day.

I did my best to explain “brain on fire,” but found myself reaching for equally odd English sayings, about lightbulbs turning on or “Aha!” moments or “getting it.” Munira got it, and we read on. Like many of the Somali students I tutor in the after-school program in my neighborhood, her English is fluent but youthful and conversational. Phrases that date back a few decades, or several, stick out like a—well, like a sore thumb. I remember one afternoon last year when I had to explain the title of a reading passage called “America’s Favorite Pastime” to a student even younger than Munira: let’s just say, I’m no Anne Sullivan.

And I’m not. I am not setting brains on fire on a regular basis. But I keep showing up, because I have this naïve belief in the power of reading. Once a child is able to open a book and read, all on her own, it’s as if she possesses a magic power, a golden key to everything, that no one can take away. But just as Anne Sullivan could not persuade Helen Keller that her funny finger exercises meant anything until Keller’s brain fired up that day at the water pump, no one can make a child read. What you can do is sit next to them and do your best to keep them focused, one word at a time, until that little spark lights. Munira’s a good reader. She’s been at it for a few years now. Her brow is not knitting (oh, that’s a good one!) over the act of reading itself but over a word or phrase she doesn’t know. Her brain is on fire, in a steady, crackling, productive way.

It’s the younger ones I lose sleep over: the 7 and 8 year olds who are falling a bit behind because they haven’t had that “on-fire” breakthrough yet. I know it will happen, but for their sake, I want it to happen now.

Late in her life, Anne Sullivan’s eyesight failed altogether and Helen Keller became her teacher, trying to revive Sullivan’s once-fluent ability to read and write in Braille. But Sullivan was convinced it was too late. She, one of the most famously patient teachers in the history of teaching, could not extend that patience to herself. She had lost confidence in her own brain’s ability to ignite.  I learned this from Sullivan’s 1936 New York Times obituary, which quoted its own editorial of a few years earlier about how Keller and Sullivan were now bringing a whole new meaning to yet another old saying, “the blind leading the blind.” But it was not to be, and Sullivan blamed herself, saying she had no patience for Braille, because she couldn’t read fast enough.

Fast forward to 2014. Is it harder to teach reading in a world where everything moves so fast? Imagine: you’re seven years old, in a room full of children, noise, distraction. You’re trying to sound out one word at a time but it’s so dull and slow. And yet: there is a part of you that knows that once you get this, you too will be able to whip out a phone and text your friends like the middle school girls over in their corner. Or look things up online. Reading is about so much more than books these days. The whole world is on fire with words, words, words: and maybe getting that is what it will take to turn kids into readers, before they get too old and impatient.

 Registration is now open for my non-credit, no stress Memoir Writer’s Workshop at Seattle Central Community College. This is a new class for writers who feel ready to write 5-7 pages a week. Six Monday nights, starting April 7. 

 The Restless Nest is on the radio every Tuesday morning at 7:45 a.m.; 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available. 



Local Heroes

DSC00865This is a local-hero story, about a pair of heroes you probably have never heard of. Their secret world headquarters is an unglamorous maze of cubicles in the sprawling Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care headquarters on Seattle’s Beacon Hill. They look like they could be Clark Kent’s father and Lois Lane’s mother. But for twenty years, they’ve been doggedly researching two illnesses most of us would rather not think about: post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD—and Alzheimer’s disease. As one of them likes to quip, they specialize in “people who can’t remember and people who can’t forget.”

I first met Doctors Murray Raskind and Elaine Peskind ten years ago, when I began work on a documentary film about Alzheimer’s disease. After I interviewed them, I wound up becoming one of their control research subjects. Dr. Peskind is known for her expertly gentle touch in administering lumbar punctures—better known as spinal taps. She has tapped me five times to extract samples of cerebro-spinal fluid for use in Alzheimer’s research. All I have to do is lie curled up and still for several minutes: a pretty modest contribution to the cause of finding out what might cause, or cure, an illness that currently affects five and a half million Americans.

Raskind and Peskind’s PTSD research happened almost by accident. Because the University of Washington’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center is physically located at the VA, Dr. Raskind, a psychiatrist, was asked, about twenty years ago, to advise a support group for African-American Vietnam veterans. Of the many issues members of the group were facing, one of the most troubling was that they couldn’t sleep. Every night, like clockwork, PTSD triggered such vivid, adrenaline-soaked nightmares they were bolted from bed into not merely wakefulness but a combat-ready, hyper-vigilant state, as if they were literally reliving their war experiences.

Dr. Raskind had a hunch about a drug he thought might help them, a generic medication called prazosin that was prescribed for high blood pressure. It worked by blocking brain receptors for norepinephrine, a sort of partner to adrenaline. Could this calm the nighttime adrenaline storms the vets described?

It did. But it took nearly two decades for Raskind and Peskind to prove it, with the help of many veterans and active-duty soldiers, all suffering from PTSD nightmares, who were willing to endure double-blind studies, even if it meant they might have to take a placebo for months. They were “doing this for their buddies,” a psychiatrist on base said. You can read more about it in an article I wrote for the March 2014 issue of Seattle Met magazine.

Writing that story and hearing about what it really means for a scientist to have a hunch, follow it, find funding, recruit volunteers, set up and carry out longitudinal studies—I realized what a simple, short-attention-span kind of existence I lead. Here, in a hometown chock-full of local heroes like Raskind and Peskind.

There is so much research going on in Seattle it’s hard to quantify. But here’s one statistic: the University of Washington School of Medicine is first in the nation among public medical schools in federal funding for research. Areas of study include: infections diseases, genotyping and global health, with projects in more than 90 countries.

We are also home to major research institutes such as Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center; the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Benaroya, whose emphasis is auto-immune disorders and Seattle Bio-med, focusing on infectious diseases. Our hospitals—Swedish, Virginia Mason, Seattle Children’s and many others—conduct research of their own. Then there are the funders—the Gates Foundation may be the largest, but there are many, many more.

The best thing about volunteering for medical research: the opportunity to meet a few of these local heroes. They’re very serious about changing the world. How exciting to be able to lend them a hand.

This Sunday, March 16 at 3pm, in celebration of the publication of  Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s (edited by Collin Tong), I’ll be reading, along with some of the other authors, at Elliott Bay Bookstore.

Registration is now open for my non-credit, no stress Memoir Writer’s Workshop at Seattle Central Community College. This is a new class for writers who feel ready to write 5-7 pages a week. Six Monday nights, starting April 7. 
The Restless Nest is on the radio every Tuesday morning at 7:45 a.m.; 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available. 


Falling off the map

DSC00865Once upon a time, it was easy to fall off the map. You saved your money. You bought a ticket. You told your parents you’d be checking in, gave them a hug, and off you went. A few weeks later, you scribbled a postcard if you remembered. If you were feeling verbose, you bought a tissue-thin aerogram and wrote a letter in your tiniest handwriting. If weeks turned into months, you went to an underlit, Dickensian place full of grimy booths called a telephone center and sat down for a brief, expensive, shouted phone call to the folks back home. But at no point did you feel compelled or obliged to let anyone know where you were all the time, or even most of the time.

I started writing this piece on a cross-country flight a few weeks ago. We are still generally unreachable when in mid-air, although 1) this may change and/or is already changing and 2) your nearest and dearest tend to know where you are when you’re on that plane, even if you can’t text, email or actually call one another.

I wrote a bit more when I was on a Megabus trip from New York City to Syracuse. The wi-fi worked pretty well, with the occasional slow patch as we skirted the Catskills. Most of the other passengers appeared to be college students, heading back upstate after a weekend in the city. Most of them wore ear buds connected to smartphones; tethered even as they slept to music, to friends, to news. That’s not all bad. I get it. I’m happy to knock off some emails and read a few headlines on a five hour bus trip. If I’d remembered my ear buds, I would have listened to music too.

But I think we parents have to own up to the fact that we are the ones who, by encouraging (or even ordering) our kids to check in all the time, are not allowing them to do what we got to do at their age, which was fall off the map. We want to know where they are because we believe that knowing where they are is the same thing as knowing they are safe, which it is not. At all. Sometimes, one could argue, it’s more distressing to know than not to know.

But really this is about more than just the old “ooh-baby it’s a wired world” refrain. Really, it’s about actually encouraging our over-programmed and super-plugged-in young adults to take a break from knowing where they themselves are. It’s about encouraging them to take a leap off the map.

After a whole lifetime of being so thickly scheduled you can’t help but fall into an exhausted doze on the Megabus, it can be frightening to look at the calendar and see blank pages. To not know where you’ll be tomorrow or the next day, week or month. Whether you just graduated from college or you just quit or got laid off from your first job; whether you’ve been saving money to travel and now it’s time to do it, or whether you haven’t saved money and you’re panicking about what the next job might be—these are the moments when fear can become fuel for a leap off the map.

And who knows where such a leap might lead you? What it might feel like to be somewhere in the world you’ve never been, or doing a job you never thought you’d do? You might make some colossal mistakes. But isn’t making new mistakes so much more educational than making the same old ones? Parents, remember this: if you let your grown-up children leap, chances are they will tell you all—OK, not all but some, the best bits—about it. Later.

Calendar Note: On March 16 at 3pm, in celebration of the publication of  Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s (edited by Collin Tong), I’ll be reading along with some of the other authors, including poet and memoirist Esther Altshul Helfgott, at Elliott Bay Bookstore.

Writers: Now’s the time to sign up for the non-credit, no stress Memoir Writer’s Workshop at Seattle Central Community College. This is a new class for writers who feel ready to write 5-7 pages a week. Six Monday nights, starting April 7.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.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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