Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Home is where the...well, where is it exactly?

I’m back in La-La Land, both in the Los Angeles sense of the term, and in the sense of living with the craziness of Alzheimer’s disease.

My parents live in Pacific Palisades, a coastal suburb of LA name-checked by the Beach Boys in “Surfin USA” (though more for the scansion than the waves). They moved here before I was born and they still live in the same house. In 1967, the town was welcoming to the modest means of a new assistant professor. Now, in the language of the moment, the average resident of the Palisades is closer to being “the 1%” than part of “the 99%”. With my every visit, the town I knew is further buried under hyper-architectonic mansions crammed onto the lots formerly occupied by bungalows. Upscale boutiques occupy storefronts that used to sell useful stuff.

The population of the town has changed too, both with generational turnover and with the influx of new money. I’ll admit it makes for good people-watching. Some sightings from the last week:

--three very, very white teenagers filming themselves doing a rap video with some very, very expensive camera equipment

--a guy bringing his ‘cello and music stand down to the beach to play, perhaps for the amusement of the fishes

--a rather ample man and woman doing a wedding photo shoot down at the beach, right next to a woman taking photos of her daughter all bundled up for Christmas cards. After they left, a crew came in and filmed a TV commercial.

--a terribly elegant woman jogging with her two terribly elegant afghan hounds; everything was progressing elegantly until the dogs spotted a squirrel…

--a guy who walks his pug every morning, moving very slowly and never once looking up from his texting

--tides of students to and from the high school across the street (Alma mater!), illustrating the toxic combination of teenage peer pressure, teenage lack of judgment, and too much parental money

--a vegan activist who adopts two turkeys before every Thanksgiving, and gives them the run of her front yard until after Christmas, when they go to an animal rescue farm.

Also, since this is Los Angeles and who you are is what you drive, the car-watching is also great. It’s difficult to drive in West LA without encountering automotive ostentation. Two weeks ago, while I was walking to the grocery store, I was almost hit by a car that (seriously!) cost more than my house. The driver certainly had money, but was apparently void of driving skill. At the store, there was a perfectly-restored 1950's Messerschmitt "bubble car" in the lot:

The Palisades offers an endless variety of such cars, expressing a wide range of character traits: no brains and lots of money, an abundance of ego and money, masculine insecurity and money, a love of antiques and money, eccentricity and money, too much testosterone and money, and so on. [update 1 Dec; a desire for eco-chic and money--while on a walk last night, I saw a Chevy Volt, and this is where I saw my first Tesla.]

This town, Pacific Palisades is—in one sense of the word—home. I grew up with a positively un-American level of stability: we never moved, and my parents have avoided divorce for more than 50 years. This house with its termite-riddled roof and Edenic garden--the walk down the canyon to Will Rogers State Beach--the walk up the canyon into the Santa Monica Mountains: these have all been a rock to me and my family. I was walking on the beach during an hour off of my parent-sitting duties, when I was struck by the sobering thought that in a year’s time, if everything goes as I hope it will, this rock will be gone.

The day-to-day task of providing care for my father (and mother) has really made their health the focus of my thinking about them. From this narrow point of view, I really want them to move out of their house. I feel that my father needs more specialized care than can be provided at home, and that my mother would do well to be closer to me or one of my brothers. So, I’ve been hoping that I can persuade them to move to Roseburg. In focusing so hard on this issue, I’d practically ignored—until that walk on the beach—that this would mean erasing “home.”

Well, as has been noted, you can’t go home again, and has also been noted, attachment to the material world only leads to grief. I’m pretty sure the Santa Monica Mountains will outlast Los Angeles, and despite its charms, Will Rogers State Beach can’t hold a candle to the Oregon shore. I dislike Los Angeles proper. This house is not really good for an older couple—it’s got a severe termite problem, the balcony overlooking the canyon is listing, and it’s nearly impossible to keep warm. The only real tie I have to this place is a work of art that is literally rooted to the spot—my mother’s garden, which (as has also been noted) is better than yours. While it’s not as bad as the historic eviction from Eden, saying goodbye to this garden is the only thing that would sadden me about saying goodbye to this “home.” Without it, I find myself wondering if I’ll ever bother to visit Los Angeles.


It's with wistfulness that we note the passing of Vasily Alexeyev, "the strongest man in the world." Alexeyev was a Soviet-era Russian weightlifter, and handily won gold medals in the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games. He could pick up and put down a staggering amount of weight.
In 1972 I was five years old, and I thought it was the best thing in the world that a guy with a name like Alex was on TV, being celebrated as the champion of strength and power. Apparently, though I don't remember it well, I'd go around the house hoisting objects above my head and claiming to be Alexeyev, champion of the world.

This is not a situation well tolerated by a five-year-old's elder brothers. It won't do for the youngest to be the champ. For the two elder brothers, it's far better to have the youngest to be the loser, in third place, and even better for him to have a funny name. In this photo from '72, the guy on the right is the bronze medalist, the East German Gerd Bonk.
Every time I Alexeyev-ed, I was Bonk-ed with greater vigor. This went on till Bonk became my nickname, and I still answer to it. So, today I am obliged to pick something heavy up and grunt as I hold it over my head in honor of my late, almost namesake. As for Gerd, he's still alive, though apparently not doing well. His body is a wreck, debris from the East German penchant for chemically-enhanced athleticism.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The alea est even more jacta

Escrow has closed, and papers have been filed. The Real Doctor and I have bought the farm!

In other news, the Real Doctor has signed us up to get a half-dozen Nigerian Dwarf goats in spring of 2012.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Monday Musical Offering Grad School Flashback Edition

Not by me, but about me almost 20 years ago. Of course, when I was in grad school we had to do PCR on horrible machines, and developed our westerns by sloshing X-ray film in tanks of developer in a darkroom. And with one significant exception, there were no cute chicks singing my praises.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

alea jacta est

While we appear to be in Roseburg, we are actually in the magical land of Escrow. Thursday we saw the movement of a shockingly large amount of money. Friday, instead of watching the Veterans' Day parade, we entertained a parade of engineers, surveyors, architects, electricians, painters, and other contractors. The whole time I had a vision in my head of the numbers on an old-fashioned gas pump spiraling ever upward, and that lovely ding, ding, ding they made. Yesterday we drove up to Eugene to look at appliances (ding! ding!).

The state of shock that we are in is not unexpected, nor is it un-hoped-for. We made our first moves on this property in April, when we waved a large pile of cash at the bank involved. It's nice to finally be in escrow, and get started on this project.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Back Home, for now.

I am back at home, after a sojourn in the bizarre land of Alzheimer’s disease. My visit there was intended to be short, but grew longer and longer. It was only curtailed by some rather urgent home business, and even now I am thinking that I’ll need to go back sooner rather than later.

During that month, it struck me how normal things became. Anything, no matter how demented, can become normal, if it just lasts long enough and excludes all else, and that is the way of Alzheimer’s dementia. It becomes normal to wake up every night at midnight, and 2:00, and 4:00, and maybe at 5:30 as well to respond to whatever loudly expressed needs arise. It becomes normal to have to remind a man who used to have a too-hearty appetite what to do with toast and coffee. It becomes normal to have to reassure a man who used to be a professor that the people in the TV set aren’t in the next room and won’t be needing a place to stay for the night. Normal also includes attempting to shave one’s sweater, using a toothbrush on a bar of soap, and waking up in bed wearing one’s shoes.

Living with such a definition of normal is exhausting, and it’s well beyond the abilities of a single person to provide care for such an individual for an extended period of time. (I predicted I wouldn’t last a month. I did, but the Real Doctor says I look like heck.) However, the problem is that the definition of normal changes so incrementally and imperceptibly—especially if one’s senses are dulled by a lack of sleep. Because the metaphor lacks a factual basis, I hesitate to bring up the image of a frog in a steadily warming pot of water, but it fits here.

A major point of my visit to the parental homestead was to convince my mother, who is acting as my father’s sole caregiver, that the “normal” she was experiencing was (like boiling water for a frog) detrimental to her health. I did not succeed in this. I think I may have brought it to her attention that the water was unusually warm, a fact of which she was previously unaware. However, the current trajectory, one that has been followed by all too many families in the same situation, is a self-reinforcing decline. The patient suffers because the caregiver can’t keep up, and so he becomes even more taxing; the caregiver, faced with ever more work, tires all the more, and fails to provide adequate care—and so on to an ugly end. Through it all, my mother insists that everything is normal.

Several million people have Alzheimer’s disease. Many more millions of family members have their lives warped by it. There’s nothing that I can add, either in terms of data or eloquence, that hasn’t been covered before. But, a tragedy is a tragedy no matter how many times it is played.


Just now, as I finished that last paragraph, I got a desperate phone call from my Mom—my Dad behaving oddly, and she in a panic because she can’t find his wallet and she’s convinced somebody stole it. I will have to return, sooner than I’d planned. My hope is that she will realize how things are—that the water has gotten too damn hot, and she needs to get out now.


I feel obligated to note that the original point of this blog--to talk about stuff like microbiology and music and gardening and such--remains. However, for the last month I have been consumed by being a caregiver essentially 24 hours a day. I think I played the piano for a total of two hours, and the small amount of reading I did was not focused enough to digest a journal article. Things will remain this way for at least a couple more weeks. I hope that we'll be able to return to the usual menu of Monday Musical Offerings and Friday Flora and interesting microbiology in the not-too-distant future.