Tag Archives: old age

Old Friends

“How terribly strange to be 70… Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” Paul Simon (“Old Friends”)

The Last Perfect Summer: A Novel by Ed Prence (Windy City Publishers, $12.99, 166 pages)

Then I paused for a minute. “Harry,” I said finally, “do you remember who you were?” “I was a baseball player?”

That passage right there from page 36 of Ed Prence’s sparse 166-page novel The Last Perfect Summer is the essence of the story.

This book is for anybody who still remembers what the term “ghost runner” means. It for those who remember “fastpitch” against the wall, overhand lob with a chain-link home run fence, and whiffle ball batting your favorite team’s line up from both sides of the plate. It is for those who’ve played it as well as those who love it.

In the story, Ted Tresh visits former Little League teammate Harry Kirkland in a care facility in which Harry is essentially condemned to die. Having lived for over a decade with other patients in similar but varying states of need and/or dementia, he’s had fewer than a handful of visitors. Harry lives in his own world of despair and confusion. When childhood friend Ted shows up for an extended visit, memories of the grand old game rekindle a semblance of life in the former cocksure Little League superstar.

Last Perfect Summer

As Ted reminisces with Harry about the good times from their banner Little League season, he detects sparks of humanity within Harry’s tortured being. Ted enjoys the afternoon, and, believing he is doing some good, stays for an extended period of time. In the end, Ted leaves the once-hopeful encounter disillusioned, and, when Harry’s fate is sealed years later, Ted legitimately cannot attend the funeral. Based on how this passage is written, while distressed on the one hand, it is likely that, deep down, Ted would not, or could have not have attended even if he were able.

The structure of the book alternates episodes from the story of their childhood and championship run and Ted and Harry’s visit. The relationship between the two characters is not only central to the story but the strength of the book. While the specific tales that bind them together are necessary, there might be a better way to get at them than alternating which disrupts the flow of the most powerful aspects of the tale. There are highlights in which certain points are made to great effect, but this is not consistently true.

When I was a kid, I visited family friend and former major leaguer and minor league home run king Joe Hauser periodically to keep him company and pass some time. Several times a year I heard the stories about Walter Johnson’s fastball and how much of a “sunuvabitch” Ty Cobb was. “Unser Choe” (Our Joe) was a local hero. He told endless stories, squinting at us through his pale blue eyes while chomping on his cigar. He came over on Christmas Day, always dapper with suit and tie and his remaining hair combed perfectly. Nobody parked near him in the retirement home after his 80th birthday passed or on our entire street in front of our house on Christmas Day. It wasn’t so easy for him to navigate the old Buick anymore, you know. And the tears over his departed wife came easily. Gradually, Joe drifted off into his own world and, then, he left us.

The Last Perfect Summer may not be a great “book,” but it’s a darn good story. Give me a good story any day. Rekindle a memory any time. Where would we be without either? Remember while you can.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was received from the author. Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

The Last Perfect Summer is available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.

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Another Roundup

Quick Looks at Books

True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life by Kevin Sorbo (Da Capo Lifelong)

The overly-long title gives you some idea of what this memoir is about.   The actor who played Hercules on TV was hit with a series of puzzling strokes that disabled him for quite a long time.   The first half of this true tale is interesting, but then the reader fully expects to find out – in the second half of the telling – what caused the strokes and/or how Sorbo was cured.   Neither happens and nothing much of interest (other than Sorbo’s getting married and having children) occurs in the last 140 or so pages.

This is the type of account that, if boiled down to six or seven pages, would have made for a heck of an interesting magazine article.   Unfortunately, at 276 pages it just seemed to go on and on without resolution.

The Me Generation by Me: Growing Up in the ’60s by Ken Levine (Ken Levine)

Levine writes about much of the growing up male territory covered so well previously by Bob Greene.   Levine, however, grew up in the greater Los Angeles area rather than in the Midwest.   While there are a lot of funny bits in this memoir, a good amount of the (Jewish-American) humor seems forced – more Woody Allen, if you will, than Jerry Seinfeld.   Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Victoria Sweet (Riverhead Books)God's Hotel (B&N)

This medical memoir is best summed up in the quote, “The secret in the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.”   Dr. Sweet, who has practiced medicine for more than two decades at the Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, is a doctor who truly cares for the most indigent of patients; and she cares for the human-paced hospital which barely survived a closure scare.   At a time when some still wish to debate the benefits of a national health care system, Sweet explains why we should “still believe and act as if taking care of the sick poor is something that a society should do.”

Sweet goes on to explain how a physician can learn lessons from patients, such as the fact that “medicine no longer (needs to seem) so complicated.”   A hospital should still be just that rather than a dreaded modern “health care facility.”   Sweet also details how literally dangerous it can be for a budget-cutting hospital administrator to meet and get to know the patients – actual human beings and not just “residents” – for whose lives he’s ultimately responsible.

Most readers will find themselves wishing that Dr. Sweet could be their own personal M.D., providing medical care that’s less technology and more about instinct, feeling and a sense of bonding.   Oliver Sacks said this book “should be required reading.”   Indeed.   Well recommended.

How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old by Marc E. Agronin, M.D. (Da Capo Lifelong)

HowWeAge_358“…the burden of illness and the proximity of death force a special bond (between a health care professional and) patient and family.”

Marc Agronin, a psychiatrist for the Miami Jewish Health Systems is another caring doctor who has written about his relationships with elderly patients in How We Age.   Agronin makes clear that he’s also learned much from them:  “…no matter how many years I’ve practiced, I still find myself a student to the life lessons offered by these (patients).”   He specifically learns that his patients, no matter what their illness or psychological state, generally die with dignity and prior to their expiration, they acquire “the crowning glory of old age” (Cicero) – namely wisdom.   “Wisdom serves to calm (the) maelstrom (of decay), providing a way of thinking, feeling, and experiencing that brings order, harmony, and, for many, a great measure of happiness.”

To his credit, Dr. Agronin also – like Dr. Sweet – rejects the notion that the business of medicine has evolved into nothing more than “a business transaction between strangers.”   In his view, a doctor or psychiatrist and patient should be no less than truly friends, if not more.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers or authors.

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Turn Back the Clock

The Memory Palace: A Memoir by Mira Bartok (Free Press, $15.00, 302 pages)

When she turned seventy-nine she wrote to tell me that although she was now legally blind she had decided to study medicine:  “I am thinking of going to nursing school…   That way, if I ever get sick or lose my sight completely, I’ll know what to do.”   I found a set of her teeth inside an old eyeglass case.

In The Memory Palace, Mira Bartok writes of a world that, sadly, too many of us will come to experience.   This is the world of the adult child whose parent is not only rapidly aging, but entering the throes of dementia or full-fledged insanity.   Whether caused by disease or mental illness, the results are the same – a parent terrified of having bad things happen to him or her brings those very results about through his or her own irrational behavior.   Bartok’s mother, Norma, was terrified of becoming homeless but became so after stabbing her own mother – who suffered from dementia – six times.

When her two daughters were young girls, Norma was diagnosed as having severe schizophrenia, and it cost her both a husband and a home.   Aside from the illness, Norma was a highly talented classical pianist who might have become a household name.   But it was not to be and Mira and her sister grew up in a hellish home with a mother who heard voices in her head, voices that caused her to lose touch with reality and normalcy.

As anyone who has lived through it knows, once a parent begins acting irrationally, their behavior will inevitably continue to deteriorate.   We no longer seem to have systems in place for properly dealing with the problems of the aged with mental illness.   They may be medicated or locked up for various periods of time (from hours to weeks or months), but they simply do not “get better.”

Bartok is to be commended for writing frankly about an adult daughter’s reaction to this, and it is mixed.   One third of her escaped by thinking back to the times when her mother was seemingly normal – a time before this parent’s rapid descent into madness.   One third of her lived in denial, literally trying to escape by hiding from her mother in Europe and elsewhere.   And the last third consisted of the daughter who sometimes had to take harsh actions against her mother – such as attempting to get a court to declare her incompetent – knowing deep down that the situation would only be resolved (made peaceful) with her mother’s death.

In this account it becomes clear to the reader that although Bartok lived a very difficult life due to their mother’s mental instability, she very much loved her mother and has wrestled with feelings of guilt (“I abandoned my mother to the streets.”).   As a young woman, Bartok was involved in an automobile accident that injured her brain and led to memory problems.   This provided her with a measure of insight into her mother’s faded connections with the world.

“…I go to the church and light a candle for my mother.   Not that I believe it will do any good; it’s just to remind myself that she is still lost in the world.”

By writing this blunt and painstakingly honest account of her mother’s troubled life, Bartok has performed an act of penance.   It is an act of humble penance in which she seeks to forgive her mother for literally losing herself.   It is an act of contrition in which she asks the world to forgive both herself and her mother for leading damaged lives.

This brilliantly written work reminds us that self-examination and self-forgiveness precede forgiving others for their real or imagined wrongs.   It’s a harsh world – a dark ocean – out there and we sometimes need assistance in navigating our way through it.   This memoir tells us that lighthouses exist.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

“If memory is a palace, let me live there, forever with her, somewhere in the place between sleep and morning.”

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Memory Palace was released in trade paper form on August 9, 2011.   “This is an extraordinary book.”   Audrey Niffenegger

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Simple Survival

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey: A Novel by Walter Mosley (Riverhead Hardcover, $25.95, 288 pages)

“Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take/To find dignity…”   Bob Dylan

When Robyn, a young woman of seventeen, rekindles in ninety-one year old Ptolemy Grey, either consciously or subconsciously, the will to actively engage in life, the phrase, “Be careful what you ask for,” comes to mind.

Ptolemy’s brain is a jumbled mess of neurons, and the fuzziness of his inner mind is adeptly reflected in Walter Mosley’s prose.   There are no chapters or definitive breaks in the storyline.   Rather, the book is 277-pages of a third person account of Ptolemy – an African-American man – trying to connect episodes of his past and present in a way that actually makes sense of them.

Ptolemy lives in squalor in a Los Angeles neighborhood where local characters threaten the old man in search of his pension checks.   The initial pages invite the reader to like, root for, and sympathize with Ptolemy, but as the story unfolds, the warts of all of the characters involved are revealed.   The moral high ground is a mass of gray in this violent world in which survival is the only reality that matters.

Reggie is Ptolemy’s caretaker.   He helps him cash his checks, buy groceries, and run errands.   When he doesn’t show up for a matter of weeks, the reader eventually learns that he has been murdered.   Through circumstance Ptolemy and Robyn forge a relationship.   She takes him to see Dr. Ruben, whom Ptolemy refers to as the Devil.   Ptolemy agrees to treatment with an experimental drug that will temporarily restore his clarity but ensure a rapid death.

In the weeks he has left, Ptolemy sets out on a quest to make sense of losses he endured throughout the various stages of his life:  his loves – successful, unsuccessful, and unrequited; and, as he becomes more cogent, seeks to put his finances in order to take care of those he considers deserving of a mysterious and surprisingly significant estate.

But defying Father Time comes at a cost.   Whatever the benefits for those that remain after Ptolemy departs, the reader is left at the end to wonder if the man who must inevitably slip back to his previous state is any better off than he was before and, for those inclined to consider such things, what might await him next.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Mosley’s depiction of the indignities of old age is heartbreaking, and Ptolemy’s grace and decency make for a wonderful character and a moving novel.”   Publisher’s Weekly

“Simple survival is the greatest victory.”   Bob Dylan

Note:   Some readers with a long memory will see some parallels between this story and the film Charly based on the novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

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