Chemo brain

chemo brain

One of my cancer-survivor friends used the expression “chemo brain” in conversation to me very casually a few months ago. “I came back to work one day,” she said, “and I sat through a meeting, but I had chemo brain something fierce, so I just went back to my office and addressed envelopes.”



Now I know what she was talking about.



Kids, it’s not so bad. It’s like a mild harmless form of dementia. It takes my current charming state of forgetfulness and turns it into a comedy routine.



Example: I take a pill and then stare into my hand, wondering if I took the pill or not.



Example: I go blank in the middle of stirring something, come to, and wonder how long I’ve been stirring.



Example: I bought some kosher salt the other day, used it, put it away, and then spent ten minutes looking for it again. It was adorable, like watching your dog (or your grandfather) spin around in the middle of the room, hopelessly confused. I searched the same shelf four times! I even took everything out of a cupboard and put it back together again! (The next morning I suddenly realized that the salt was in the pantry closet, right where it belonged. Smart mommy after all!)



Ah, the sweet bafflement of the elderly, and those of us under chemical control.



Enjoy our antics, kids.



Someday it’ll be you.


Studying calculus at an advanced age


A friend of mine on Facebook mentioned Coursera recently. I respect his opinions, so I went to check it out.

It’s for real. It’s a website where you can find college-level courses offered for free. Really.

Okay. So I never took calculus in high school or college, and I saw that that Coursera was offering “Calculus 101.”

What could it hurt? It’s an online course. It must be very gentle, right?

Brother, was I wrong.

This is a complete thorough-going college-level course in calculus, with lectures, and homework, and quizzes, and a textbook (all free).

I’m barely through with the first week, and I’m already terrified.

I haven’t felt this way since high school.

Calculus turns out to be demanding and difficult, which is not good for my ossifying over-fifty brain.

Every evening I resolve to quit the course, and every evening I try again.

Now: can someone tell me: how do you multiply square roots? I’ve forgotten.

And I need to know by next Friday’s quiz.

My memorandum book

little black memorandum book

I’ve tried all kinds of memory aides. But now I’m just writing things down.

I have a nice little memorandum book in my pocket, in which I write everything down: things I have to do at work, random thoughts, ideas for a blog, things to send to people, Christmas gifts.

I used to rely on my memory. Such a nice big powerful six-cylinder memory it was!

But now it’s gone. Between age and alcohol and blows to the head, it’s gone.

So I’ve come to rely on surrogates, like my little memorandum book.

My little memorandum book is great, so long as I remember to carry it with me. And a pen. (I still have to remind myself to keep those two things with me.)

The system’s not perfect yet, but it’s working. I’m remembering things.

But I ask myself: what happens on the days when I forget my memorandum book?

Apocalypse. Disaster. The universe itself may cease to exist.

Pray for me, children.

In memoriam: Cosmo “Gus” Allegretti

cosmo allegretti

You’ve seen me write about dead relatives, and the passing of friends, and even the passing of celebrities.



Well, a celebrity passed away a few weeks ago, though many of his fans didn’t even know his real name.



He was a puppeteer / actor / dancer named Cosmo Allegretti, known to his friends as Gus. He was a regular on the “Captain Kangaroo” program that ran from the 1950s into the 1980s. But you seldom saw him – during the first ten or fifteen years, anyway. He was always in disguise.



Sometimes he was Dancing Bear, who never spoke, but who communicated through clever little softshoe routines:





Sometimes he was fussy old Grandfather Clock, who had to be awakened very gently, and who told stories and recited poems:



grandfather clock

Later in the show’s history, he was Dennis the Apprentice, always dressed in a painter’s whites, big and earnest and clumsy (though at least he didn’t have to hide his face anymore):





Best of all, he was Mister Moose and Bunny Rabbit. Bob Keeshan, writing about the show, said that “these two were surrogates for children, demonstrating their playful power over adults.” I loved them both: they were sneaky and dishonest without being really bad. The Captain was often frustrated with both of them, but you could tell that he loved them too, and they seemed to love him too.



Mister Moose was a practical joker. He was always tricking the Captain into saying things like “Let ‘er rip!”, at which point a couple hundred ping-pong balls would fall from the ceiling all over the Captain’s head. And then Mister Moose would go into raptures. (Personal note: whenever I do a puppet voice, it’s Mister Moose’s reedy falsetto. Why not?)



Bunny Rabbit was silent, like Dancing Bear. He was small and wore glasses. He’d get the Captain’s attention by rapping on the tabletop, and he always ended up stealing all of the Captain’s delicious carrots.



Here they are together, bamboozling the Captain one more time:





So many good memories.



Rest in peace, Gus.


The pleasures of the elderly

pleasures of the elderly

“Did you see ‘Scaramouche’ on Turner Classic the other night?” I asked Apollonia the other day.

“What? Yeah, I think I switched past it,” she said. “Who was that? Rory Calhoun?”

“Nah,” I said. “Stewart Granger.”

We both laughed. “Same thing,” she said.

“I’ll say,” I said. “I think they were the same person. Maybe he was Rory Calhoun on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, and Stewart Granger on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.”

Now we were both laughing like idiots.

Off in the corner there was a table of younger staff members, listening to us. They stared at us as if we were patients in an asylum. We were aware of them. But we kept laughing. No, more than that: we laughed even harder because they were staring at us.


  • Does any of the above make any sense to you?
  • Do you know who Rory Calhoun was, or Stewart Granger?
  • Does “Turner Classic” mean anything to you?

It’s a habit of the elderly to mumble and cackle over the past. But this is a game we elderly people like to play: making reference to things that happened long before the other people in the room were born. It’s a way of getting even with those young people, with their music and their slang and their television programs that we’ve never heard of, and their texting jargon that we still haven’t quite figured out.

This is one of the great pleasures of the elderly: to make younger people uncomfortable.

Gay marriage in Rhode Island

gay marriage

Wonderful news! The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations has become the tenth state of the Union to legalize gay marriage!

It’s a great day. It’s not a universally great day, of course; the federal government still doesn’t recognize gay marriage, which means we’re still in the turbulent state-by-state era in which interracial couples used to live. (Imagine: it used to be illegal for black people to marry white people, and states – well, hmm, Southern states – could still forbid it. Imagine!)

Will Partner and I marry? I don’t know. Largely it will depend on whether the pros outweigh the cons. Will it have tax advantages? Maybe yes, maybe no. Will it guarantee us the right to visit one another in the hospital when we’re sick? Almost certainly yes. (This is a big plus, because we’re both getting older.) What about the rights to inheritance, and to determine what happens when either of us passes away? (Another big plus, and I don’t need to remind you once that we’re getting older.) And, if gay marriage isn’t confirmed on the Federal level, the whole thing can still be thrown out the window.

But don’t worry. If we decide to get married, I’ll be sure to announce it well in advance.

And I warn you that I expect very lavish wedding gifts.

The face of winter

old man winter

Springtime is back in Providence, and – I don’t know – it never cheers me up. When spring comes, I almost always feel tired and lethargic. There’s a feeling of: Here we go again. And a feeling of: How many times do we have to do this?



Anyway, I have been a little fatigued lately, and it has affected my usual good looks. I took a glance into the mirror at the office the other day, and I gasped: I looked awful. My graying hair was standing up in all directions, and my complexion was pale, and I was hunched over like an invalid. My god, I thought. I’m Old Man Winter.



It’s awful, because I know inside that my spirit is still young. And then I look into the mirror and see a crouching horrible gargoyle looking back at me.



I just passed the age of fifty-five last year, and it made me thoughtful. Partner and I still have a few years together, I hope, before my bones begin to crumble into sawdust, or before the next asteroid hits.



We will stumble on together for a while, at least, in happiness. Every day together is a blessing.



I only hope Partner can endure seeing the face of Old Man Winter first thing every morning for a few years more.


The aging brain

aging brain

I used to love my brain. It was very dependable. It had tremendous capacity, and a very quick response time.

But all that has changed.

I began to notice it about two years ago, at the advanced age of fifty-three. Proper names were suddenly less easy to remember. Simple facts – Who starred in which movie? What do you call that thing you use to eat ice cream with? – were eluding me.

The pace of the decline has quickened. I was introducing two people to one another not long ago – people I knew very well – and I suddenly couldn’t remember one of their names. I tried to cover for myself, fumblingly. I admitted it to one friend later, and he just grinned. “I noticed,” he said. “You forgot my name!”


Thank god he thought it was funny.

I told my doctor about it, sure that he would say it was more-or-less-early-onset Alzheimer’s. He shrugged. “It’s the aging brain,” he said.

The aging brain.


It progresses. The other day, I looked at a regular analog clock with hour hand on two and minute hand on six. One voice in my head said: “Two-thirty.” And another voice, achier and feebler, said: “What in the hell is that thing?”

Time ticks by, and I get dimmer and dimmer, and more and more feeble.

It’s only a matter of time.

What were we talking about?

Getting old: a very brief anecdote


I overheard this conversation in a restaurant a while back. It is very brief, and pretty much perfect the way it is.

I was finishing my mixed-green salad with balsamic dressing when I overheard the waiter speaking to some older people at the next table. “I don’t need to write the orders down,” he said. “They just sort of soak into my head. I go over to the register, and they all come back to me like magic.”

“Good for you,” one of the women said. “Wait until you get older. Sometimes I walk into the kitchen and can’t remember what I wanted to do.”

“Big deal!” the man next to her said. “Sometimes I walk into the bathroom and can’t remember what I wanted to do.”


Never, never, never, never, never


I made contact with an old friend recently, and she informed me that she intends to climb Kilimanjaro in 2013. Imagine!



My first thought was: I’d love to do that.



My second thought was: I’ll never do that.



And, for the first time in my life, the word “never” suddenly took on a new and terrible meaning.

I will never use up those stupid greeting cards I bought six years ago.



I will never see Timbuktu (though I certainly had the chance a long time ago), or Nepal, or Kazakhstan.




I will never conduct a real symphony orchestra, or win a Nobel Prize, or even a Pulitzer Prize.





Never, never, never.






That’s from “King Lear,” isn’t it? The lines that Lear speaks, holding the dead Cordelia in his arms:



Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,

And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never.



I will never return to the house I grew up in; it’s been sold and belongs to strangers now, who have almost certainly changed it beyond recognition.



I can never revisit my old elementary school; it  burned down a few years ago.





I will never speak to my late mother or father again, nor to my late sister Darlene from whom I was estranged at the time of her death, nor to my late sister Susan of whom I was very fond.




Never, never, never, never, never.



When we’re young, we are full of hope.



Later, we come to terrible realizations.

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