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Friday, June 7, 2019

Strange Land on the Horizon


As a young woman, say, back in my twenties and beyond, I tried to hide my impatience when old people expressed astonishment at being old. How could they be surprised? Hadn’t they looked around since childhood and realized that anyone who didn’t die young became old in time? Aging hardly made a newsworthy story: “Woman Lives On and Becomes Old!” Really, why the astonishment?

And then people die. My grandparents went first. (Actually, two of that generation known to me were step-grandparents, as my father’s mother had died when my father was still a boy, long before I was born, while my mother’s biological father was someone our family never knew except for tantalizing story fragments.) For grandparents to go first was not surprising. My only senior cousin’s death, however, came out of season, years before aunts and uncles started dropping off the family tree. Then years after that, and after my father and his older brother and a younger aunt by marriage were pruned from the living family tree, my mother remained the last of her generation. Now she is gone. And now I, the oldest remaining cousin on both sides, am #1 lemming at cliff’s edge, staring into the abyss, the generations gone before me having vanished from sight, the crush from behind increasing every year.

And I tell you, it is astonishing. Not only being the oldest but the whole business of being old

The year I had my first vegetable garden out at the farm, before we had moved from Leland to the old farmhouse we’ve now occupied for almost two decades (is that really possible?), summer was a season of drought and the new well we needed before we could live there yet in the future. My solution was to carry buckets, two at a time for balance and efficiency, repeatedly downhill to the little willow-bordered, no-name stream and back up to the garden. I was learning my home ground back then, and water-carrying during the drought taught me that the little stream, while it never went completely dry, sometimes ducked underground for long stretches, so that fetching water could sometimes mean searching for it first. Downhill, uphill, over and over, not counting the trips. The job did not feel easy, even back then: my realization today is that it was then possible

One afternoon following a tremendous thunderstorm the little no-name stream became a raging torrent, its usually soft, burbling voice the thunder of a cataract. Amazed and intrigued, we followed its course upstream, against the current, and into the edge of the woods, where a waterfall had appeared to cascade into a deep, dark pool. All that noise, depth, and energy! All temporary….

“Everything is temporary!” a character in one of my favorite movies memorably exclaims — a truth that did not remain for the 20th century (now past!) to discover. Socrates believed in eternal, unchanging essences he called Forms, but Heraclitus before him saw a world of continuous change. Many of the enormous old willows have lost large branches in storms or even fallen to ground themselves, pushed down by winds off nearby Lake Michigan. There is no path remaining downhill to the stream, and the accumulation of obstacles would put old ankle, knee, and leg bones at risk, were I to attempt to repeat that old apr├Ęs-storm exploration or even my former daily water-carrying expeditions.

And how can certain dear friends be dead and gone forever? Grandparents, yes, but how is it possible that contemporaries can have vanished, when they are so present to our thoughts on a daily basis? The unfairness of it, the unreality, is staggering! As if the stream were one day to disappear completely. But no, it is more as if the neglected garden were to go back, as it has done, to grass and violets, only rhubarb at one end and giant herbs at the other remaining as witnesses to the past.

In reality, youth and vigor, like the raging high waters following the storm, are the aspects of life most strikingly and obviously temporary. — And yet, strangely, it is the insults of age that we experience as if they should be transient. In our hearts and minds, we remain young — if not sixteen, then at most fifty — and surely this aching creakiness upon rising in the morning will pass eventually, will it not? Like a bad case of the flu? All these conversations focused on illness, weakness, surgeries, and medications are not really about us, are they? Isn’t this all no more than a patch of rough weather we just have to get through with good grace and humor? Go away for half the year, and when you come back you see that friends have aged perceptibly. Then catch sight of your reflection when you aren’t expecting it, and you see yourself as those friends see you and realize that your appearance too has changed. Year by year, you are growing older, and then one year you realize you are old. Astonishing!

Along comes another crop of high school graduates, another flood of college graduates, wave after wave of weddings and babies (and weren’t we just yesterday in the midst of all that?), and the crowd behind us gains increasing magnitude, while ahead of us the group thins out until we are — that is, I am — looking over the edge, into the abyss, knowing our, my, turn to be pushed off the cliff will come next. 

Here we are, old. Astonishing! Well, now I get it!


Postscript after receiving a comment on Facebook (from a younger person in the family) to the effect that "nobody is pushing anyone off a cliff." I should have made it clear that the "pushing" isn't personal -- I didn't mean that at all. It's just Time hustling each generation in turn off the stage to make way for the next.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

“We Want Tick Shots! We Want Tick Shots!”

Mine is no scientific hypothesis. I’m not a scientist. Maybe it’s nothing but a hare-brained notion? Bear with me. (Or don’t.)

Start with what seems to be a rising incidence of Alzheimer and Alzheimer-like dementia in the U.S. Add the fact that ticks are at work enlarging their continental territory. Now turn to an article on ticks and tick-borne diseases in the July 2018 issue of Consumer Reports, where we see that symptoms of Lyme disease can include mental confusion and memory problems. 

“Most of the time,” the article notes, “Lyme symptoms resolve after a short course of antibiotics.” 

Often, however, the tick victim is unaware of the bite — or perhaps aware of being bitten, but then no rash appears — and in either case, Lyme disease may occur but not be diagnosed, let alone treated. 

Now you see where I’m going with this. 

The article concludes with the terrifying statement that “we still haven’t even begun to grasp the extent of the [tick[ problem” (given that the tick’s ability to spread allergy has only recently been discovered). Far-from-simple-or-inexpensive measures may offer hope in the future by reducing deer and mouse populations, editing tick genes, etc. What made me exclaim out loud in disbelief and frustration, however, was this parenthetical (can you believe it?) paragraph: 

(A previous vaccine was discontinued because of a lack of demand and reports of side effects such as arthritis, though research showed that arthritis wasn’t in fact more common in people who had been vaccinated.) 

Did you read that paragraph carefully? You might, possibly, have developed arthritis after having had this vaccine, but you would have been just as likely to develop arthritis without the vaccine! Was it reports of arthritis that led to “lack of demand” (as specious claims linking autism to childhood immunizations kicked off a wave of childhood vaccination-avoidance among impressionable parents), or did the Lyme vaccine simply come out before the spread of disease-bearing ticks (and accompanying tick anxiety) reached levels high enough to generate demand? Because I ask you, who would not want a vaccine against Lyme disease?

I realize I’ve strayed from my original idea about a possible connection between ticks and dementia. Forgive me. Tick-phobia makes me a little crazy here in the “Upper Midwest,” one of the regions noted for spreading tick-borne diseases. But can we start a movement now? 

“We want tick shots! We want tick shots!” 

Let me through, please, to the head of the line!