Mom frmrnyis

My mother has dementia caused by microvascular disease: blood vessels in her brain shrinking and drying up, and a series of mini strokes. My older sister’s graphic description of her MRI a few years back was that it looks like Swiss cheese.

The dark spots are places where her life used to be stored. The woman she used to be has been packing up and moving away a little bit at a time since at least 2000, and probably sooner.

I can date it with some precision because she and Dad went to visit my brother Don and his wife Lisa in Seattle for a fake millennium party December 31, 1999. (Fake, because sticklers know that the new millennium started 1-1-01, not 1-1-00. At the end of 1999 you’ve had 999 years go by, not 1000. Duh.)

After Mom and Dad arrived, said their greetings and started settling in, my mother went to the bathroom. On her way back, she just sort of stopped and stood in the short hallway. Lisa found her there with a very lost expression on her face. She clearly didn’t know where she was, and from the way she looked at Lisa, she apparently wasn’t quite sure who that young woman was either.

Lisa is wonderful. She very gently said, something like “Gladys, it’s so nice to have you here in Seattle visiting your son Don at our house, and I’m Lisa and I’m so happy to be married to him.”

Mom sort of came to and put on her hostess smile—the one that covered up any amount of misbehavior, spilled cocktails, red wine on pale carpets, burned hors d’oeuvres, or late-arriving guests with a gracious sense of welcome. “Of course!” she said brightly.

They sat down to talk, and Mom admired a pretty Christmas tree ornament. The way Don tells the story, that’s all I need to write about the next half-hour or so.

Here’s how the scene goes: She looks at the ornament, says how beautiful it is, asks where they got it, smiles and nods at the answer, and looks away briefly. They try to move the conversation on. Her eyes roam back to the ornament, she rediscovers it and says, “Oh! What a beautiful Christmas tree ornament! Where did you get it?”

Variations on this continue for some time until Don finally snaps (he’s never had small children) and takes the ornament off the tree so it ceases to exist as a cue in her visual field. Problem solved. At least, the short-term problem.

I have a huge folder of emails to and from my siblings both before and after that date. There are six of us. I lived in Coeur d’Alene at the time, about 35 miles from Mom and Dad. Jan, my older sister, lives about 90 miles south in Lewiston. Everyone else is farther away: Seattle and Friday Harbor in Washington, Twin Falls, Idaho, and Albuquerque at that time for world-traveling Jim (who subsequently went to the Philippines and now Mozambique for the State Department).

So Jan and I made up the team for a story I may tell another day: me accompanying Mom to medical appointments, discussions with Dad, Mom getting lost driving to her hairdresser of 20-plus years, negotiating and manipulating towards the decision to move to assisted living in Lewiston, finding a place, Mom’s struggles with her memory loss and ultimate surrender, packing, sorting, estate sale, move, disorientation, settling in, group meals, hoarding of desserts in various drawers, more problems, moving again to a special dementia facility where they live today.

I’ll be visiting tomorrow with my girls, who are very kind and loving with their grandparents. When we visit, the conversation takes a lot of laps around a very short track (similar to another blogger's description), often with topical cues coming from the TV that never shuts off and always plays at a volume that accommodates Dad's habit of keeping his hearing aid turned down.

Mom is very pleasant and seems happy to see us, although I’m pretty sure she can’t quite place us at first. Dad generally does a graceful job of saying, “Oh, hi there middle daughter Barbara Kaye! And here’s Kate and Laura!” He’s cuing her with names and roles. Her hostess skills must be in her bones instead of her brain, because she always rises to the occasion.

A friend of mine who helped care for her mother-in-law with Alzheimer's described it as being like an anthropologist visiting a tribe with its own customs. You observe but you don't try to bring them into your culture because that would be cruel and disruptive to their way of life. Gladys Land is a happy place, so we visit and then take our leave.

So about Mom frmrnyis, the name of this piece? That’s what happened when I got my fingers off by a key typing “dementia”. I looked at it and thought, “Well, that’s probably what it’s like in there—close, but not close enough to make sense.” So I left it.

Standing up for what’s right

The Holocaust. The Rwandan genocide. Abu Ghraib. Lynchings of Americans because they were black. Somalia. Bosnia. Everyday, ordinary people can do horrible things.

They can also be heroes. The Stanford prison experiment revealed how quickly ordinary people entered into their roles as prison guards and prisoners. Now one of the experimenters, Philip Zimbardo, and co-author Zeno Franco examine whether there is a “banality of heroism”—a seed lying within each of us that can be cultivated—as a positive corollary to the “banality of evil”.

They examine individual heroes and call for cultivation of the idea of heroism within each of us, so we can imagine ourselves acting when we must.

How can we foster a heroic imagination in ourselves and in our children to prepare them for the day when we have to stand up for what’s right, regardless of the cost?


A friend just asked me on Facebook, “Obama or McCain?”

My answer:


We can talk policy differences (which are real), or you can look at the level of judgment exhibited in their VP choices. Which one of them chose a VP who's actually qualified to serve as president, and which one chose a VP to pander to a strident subset of the electorate?

Extrapolate from that to the type of people they'll choose as Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, ambassadors....

‘Nuff said.

Kate and the tomato soup incident

“Who had the best day today?” This used to be my standard opening at dinner to get the girls talking about their day. When they were younger, their hands shot in the air and they talked eagerly about what happened at school that day: awards for most books read, leading roles in dramatic presentations featuring talking vegetables, chosen for the solo in choir, best grade on the math quiz, made a new friend, fought with a friend, broke up with a friend, made up with a friend.

Today, Kate raised her hand (actually both hands, but we got sidetracked by Laura and something about being the last to touch your nose, which makes you the one who has to do whatever was just mentioned, otherwise known as “Nose Goes”).

Kate described a day in which she finished all her homework while still in class and worked ahead, turned in assignments for her two online classes, scheduled appointments for her in-grown toenail surgery (partial avulsion with phenolization—already had this on her right big toe, now need it on her left) and her senior portrait (much more fun than podiatric surgery, if that’s even a word), had a reasonably good set of accomplishments at her after-school job at the school district headquarters—a day marred only by The Tomato Soup Incident.

I wish you could hear this story told in her voice, and see the dramatic flashing eyes, eyelid twitches denoting disdain, and emphatic gestures.

“Imagine you have not A computer, or a few computers, but a room FULL of computers, thousands of dollars worth of computers.” (“Funded by levy and bond dollars,” I interjected—a plug for the vote coming next March.)

“Yes! Funded by levy dollars! And just imagine that you are a senior who has been told not once, not twice, nay nay, told every single day NOT to bring food or drink into this room full of thousands of dollars of computer equipment. Imagine that you ignore this day after day, and that today you have left a full bowl of tomato soup on top of the scanner that it exactly matches in color.

“Now imagine that another, innocent senior, who follows these rules to the letter and never brings food or drink into the computer room, turns around suddenly, not realizing the soup is on top of the scanner where it does not belong, and she knocks it over.

“Does this do anything to the person who LEFT the soup there? Does it do more than drop three drops on her sweater? Does it instead drench the innocent senior, soak her shoes, and leave her smelling like tomato soup—which she loves, but not as much as her fruity berry body spray? Does it in fact ruin her favorite top, so she has to spend the rest of the day in her camisole and a big purple coat?”

“Which top?” ask mother and sister in unison.

“The one with the little—“ (circling gesture to indicate keyhole opening at the neckline).

“Not that one—the light blue one with the—?” (mother gestures to indicate flowing Empire waist).


“Oh no!” from mother and sister in unison. “That one was cute!”

“I know! And now it smells like tomato soup!”

This doesn’t come close to capturing the storyteller essence that is Kate.

Christmas tree bills: Good or bad?

A recent post on Shallow Cogitations about the financial bill (the “bailout” or "economic stabilization"), got me thinking.

Hank’s post highlights some of the items added to the bill to pick up votes, which he describes as costs of the bill (or “frosting on manure”, in his follow-up comment). You can read my comment at his post, so I won’t repeat it here.

The larger question is a topic on which I’ve gone back and forth in my thinking over the years: how Congress structures bill content to achieve passage.

When I served in the Idaho legislature, we couldn’t do what Congress does. The state constitution requires that all bills be on a single topic. If I voted for a bill, or against it, that vote typically had a pretty clear subject. Not always a clear meaning, mind you—I might support the underlying issue but believe the bill was poorly written and thus vote against it, or recognize that an amendment had gutted the purpose and prefer to wait for a better bill than to pretend this one actually did anything.

But when you hear that a specific candidate “supports veterans” or “opposes wasteful spending,” look at the basis for that claim. Typically it will be votes on bills that include hundreds of separate and often unrelated subjects. So one could simultaneously vote for and against veterans, for and against energy alternatives, for and against education, in any given bill. This isn’t to say that voting records are meaningless—take a look at the rankings from constituency groups at Project Vote Smart and you’ll see clear patterns.

At the state level, the budget bills are the ones where individual line items give or take away for various constituencies. In Idaho, the capital budget was the “Christmas tree” bill: hang a couple of extra shiny ornaments on it to pick up key votes from legislators who could go home and tell voters they were bringing jobs to the district because state-funded construction would go there, and the bill would pass.

Congress has 435 members in the House, 100 in the Senate. If they had to take each topic individually the way the state does, then a health care bill would be only a health care bill, an energy bill would be only an energy bill. We might see clearer delineations of philosophical and ideological differences if this were the case.

Tax and fiscal policy—and health care and energy and so forth--aren’t that simple. Every policy encourages or discourages specific behaviors, with the underlying premise that this behavior modification is a good thing for public policy. Where would we draw the line and say something did or didn’t “belong” in a single-subject bill?

An item that could be described as energy and/or health policy—providing a bike commuter tax credit (at a much lower dollar figure and overall cost than the existing tax credits for parking, vanpools and transit, by the way)—is embedded in the financial bill. That particular item was introduced as a separate bill already, by Earl Blumenauer of Oregon who is an ardent bike advocate, but had not made it all the way through the system. See Biking Bis for a discussion of the politics, and this page for a discussion of the federal commuting benefit in general.

Whether the economic stabilization bill itself is good policy or bad remains to be seen. They hung a bike ornament on it, but Blumenauer voted no. They also hung ornaments on it for other constituencies who had probably been working their issues separately and saw this as an opportunity (rightly so).

Should these disparate subjects be included in large bills as bargaining tools? Would we get better policy if everything had to be debated separately? We’d certainly get less policy, since there would be even more bills than there are already. There are so many unintended effects and policies that actually work at cross purposes—think about tax subsidies for tobacco farmers for just a minute….—that I don’t know if anyone could say whether we’d be better off, or worse.