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Archive for January, 2014

old woman & shadow of ladyI had carefully chosen the movie to take my mother to last weekend. I figured that a foreign film would mean subtitles, thus getting around the possibility that she wouldn’t be able to hear. I also figured, based on the reviews, that “Like Father, Like Son” would be gentle, easy-to-follow, and probably thought-provoking. An added plus: it was playing at our local movie theatre at 11 am on a Sunday.

The film is about a young Japanese couple with a six-year-old son they adore, who are suddenly told that this boy had been given to them mistakenly at the hospital, which had switched two newborn babies at birth. What to do, then — keep the boy they had grown to love for the past six years, or switch him for the one that was biologically theirs? I figured the plot would raise the kind of topics Ur-Momma has always loved to talk about — nature versus nurture, what makes us who we are, the perfectability of the human heart.

She was good company, even if at 89 she took her time getting in and out of the car or up and down the escalator; she seemed pretty excited to be out at the movies, and to be out with iDaddy and me. But when the lights came up at the end of the film — a film which, by the way, was quite affecting, beautifully acted, and elegantly told — she turned to me and said, “I was lost; I couldn’t follow it at all.”

This is a woman who, feeling hemmed-in by her ordinary working-class immigrant family in Brooklyn, devoured the public library’s copies of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Thomas Wolfe through her teens and twenties; who read the New Yorker cover to cover for as long as I can remember; who always knew what had been in the New York Times that day, and always had a strong opinion about it; who was happiest when she was at an art museum, a Broadway play, or, on a few occasions in her life, traveling with my father in Europe. Now she couldn’t follow the simple chronology of a very simple film.

What worries her the most about aging, she’s always told my brother Avuncular and me, is the prospect of losing “my head.” That’s what worries me, too. “If you don’t have your head, who are you?” she occasionally asks. That’s it, exactly. If you don’t have a lively interior life, and a recollection of all the escapades that made it amount to something, what DO you have?

Today an article in the New York Times seemed to suggest that the cognitive losses of aging might not be as big a deal as we once thought — that they might actually be the result of having accumulated so much information that retrieving it is just a little slower. Maybe because it came on the heels of my movie escapade with Ur-Momma, it seemed to me that the article was straining a little too hard to find something upbeat to say.

The article described a study that used Big Data to simulate the over-large vocabulary of a typical educated oldster, compared to the smaller vocabulary of a typical educated twentysomething. Grabbing a word from the bigger database took a longer time than grabbing one from the smaller database. It was kind of self-evident, and basically a computer model of something people have suspected for a while: that while an old person’s fluid intelligence (speed, analytic reasoning, short-term memory) might decline, his or her crystallized intelligence (knowledge, vocabulary, expertise) actually grew. And it suggested something else: that the increase in crystallized intelligence might actually CAUSE the decline in fluid intelligence. (To know whether this really applies to humans, of course, it will have to be tested in humans, and not just run on a database.)

But fluid intelligence isn’t exactly what I’m worried about in Ur-Momma’s case anyway. What happened at the movies wasn’t a delay in simple word retrieval, which is annoying but benign. It was not even, really, a matter of a broader, scarier kind of forgetfulness. What happened was loss of the ability to think coherently, to follow a narrative, to hold a thought and add another thought to it, and then another. This is the stuff of an intellectual life, which has always been so important to Ur-Momma. If she can’t read a novel or carry on an interesting conversation, if she can’t follow even the most basic movie plot, she’ll be losing some of the few elements of her life that, for as long as I’ve known her, have made it worth living.

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tumblr_mzita5pAb01sn7wjto1_1280Last night iDaddy and I watched “20 Feet From Stardom,” a wonderful documentary about backup singers (or, as they called themselves, background singers) for pop stars like Sting, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and the Rolling Stones. The women in the film were amazing singers, and a couple of them wanted to break out from the background and become solo successes. They made some recordings, gave some concerts, appeared on some TV shows — and then, almost to a woman, they flamed out. (The exception was Darlene Love, who, after a series of bad breaks and setbacks in her youth, finally made it big, and a couple of years ago even entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Why weren’t these background singers bigger successes? They had the voices, and the yearning, and the willingness to put in the time and to work hard. The film suggested some explanations for why some made it while others didn’t: Luck. Pluck. Looking right. Sounding right. Hitting the right market niche. Getting the right record producer, the right manager, the right moment in the sun. Following up a first success with a second one; following up quickly enough.

It all sounded painfully familiar to me, a perenially midlist author forever striving for the bestseller list. Is this what happens to writers, too? Does success in publishing also depend on a series of incalculable lucky breaks? Are talent and desire never enough?

And is it time for me, at the fading end of my professional life, to start redefining what success even means?

The film was great fun to watch, especially the concert scenes, but in the end it was quite sad. It was all about fame and not-fame, about making it just when you wanted it most, and especially about deciding whether the goal is to become famous or simply to become as good as you can be. The women who tried and failed to go solo seemed happy, because they said that when it came down to it, all they really wanted to do was sing.

Now that I’m 60 — an age that, frankly, I still can’t wrap my mind around — I’m starting to think that it might be time for me to gradually, and graciously, begin handing the reins of success over to the next generation. In my case, my professional next generation includes my own literal next generation, my two daughters. In a way this complicates things; in a way it makes things easier.

I was glad that I was, by coincidence, watching the film on the very day I had gone back to posting on this blog. If the background singers can decide that all they really want to do is sing, no matter who’s listening, maybe through this revitalized blog I can see whether, in the end, all I really want to do is write, even if there’s no one there.

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BeRdbx9IcAALhTFMore than three years have passed since my last Momma Loshen post. I can tell how long ago that was by looking at the posts themselves from pre-2010; in those days, I was still typing two spaces after every period, the way I’d been taught to back in junior high. That was before I read the article by Farhad Manjoo in Slate (who since has moved from Slate, first to WSJ and then to the New York Times, another indication of how long three years can be) that told me that double spacing between sentences was totally last-century.

A lot else has happened in those three years, not just to Farhad Manjoo but to me. Most of it has been good. iDaddy and I celebrated our 40th anniversary with a lovely party at our apartment, attended by some of our dearest friends from out of town (two friends from college and their spouses, one wonderful couple from the earliest years of our marriage) and a handful of new friends from around here (a bunch of people from various book clubs,  a few of our favorites from our building), as well as my brother and our girls. Nutmeg, who’s 29 now, has a terrific job in journalism and started dating a lovely guy. Meta, now 33, got tired of being married to Wilco, so about a year ago she took the dog and moved to Brooklyn — where, as far as I can tell, she’s been very very happy living alone, working from home and doing some amazing writing of her own. I turned 60.

Professionally, things have been a mixed bag. I did end up co-authoring a book with Nutmeg, which was a really rewarding experience for me. It led to a very cool book party, mention of the book in a couple of national magazines, and the chance to do a storytelling event with Nutmeg at a bar on the Lower East Side — and then, zip. The book was  a bust in terms of notice or sales, so I’m glad all that really mattered to me was the chance to work with Nutmeg. In the year-plus since the book came out I’ve written a couple of long magazine articles, one of which was killed for no apparent reason by an idiosyncratic editor (who’s since been fired), another of which was published and got its share of accolades, most of them on Twitter. And while I once said, only half-joking, that I’d know I was a professional success if I never had to write another article for a women’s magazine as long as I lived, something must have changed, because recently I’ve been accepting assignments from women’s magazines. At the moment, they’re the only outlets that have come calling.

So for now I reside in the Valley of the Stupid, where I can’t find a good story or book idea to save my life. It’s snowing today, and my drinks date for later this evening has already cancelled, so I’ll stay indoors to read and write and think. Among my tasks will be trying to find things to write about  on this blog — this anonymous, slightly quirky, virtually invisible blog. That  seems like one way to write myself out of this “what-do-I-do-now” quandary. We shall see.

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