“Speak Memory”

Vladimir Nabokov gave us this haunting title of his autobiographical memoir. Far removed from literary classics, many Americans today appear to be fearful of losing their memory. A 2010 survey by the MetLife Foundation reported that people over 55 dread getting Alzheimer’s more than any other disease. The fact that only one in eight Americans older than 65 has Alzheimer’s does not dispel this widespread fear.

Memory lapses can occur at any age, but we tend to become more anxious when they happen as we become older. Mislaying car keys used to be chalked up to absent-mindedness. Now, forgetting a familiar name or walking into another room and not remembering the purpose are called “senior moments”. This is often acknowledged with an undercurrent of concern. Greater awareness of Alzheimer’s through movies, television programs and books has raised the level of apprehension among older Americans. Watching a drama of a woman or man deteriorating with the disease can have a powerful effect on viewers. The images linger.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a scholar at Brandeis University, is the author of “Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America”. She has written, “Many older people lose the ability to remember proper nouns but then never progress to losing any other part of speech. Most forgetfulness is not Alzheimer’s or dementia, or even necessarily a sign of cognitive impairment.” She stresses, “The mind is capacious. Much mental and emotional ability can survive mere memory loss, as do other qualities that make us human.” Research in the Harvard Women’s Health Watch reports, “When significant memory loss occurs among older people, it is not due to aging, but to organic disorders, brain injury, or neurological illness.”

Another way to view aging in what Gullette terms our “hypercognitive society” is to think of the enormous emphasis on the latest advances in technology, communication and cyberspace. If one is reluctant to leap at learning the intricacies of the computer or the newest Ipad— is that a sign of a loss of intellectual function? Or can it be that many women and men prefer reading books the time-honored way rather than changing to Kindle or Nook? They enjoy the kinesthetic pleasure of turning the pages that has been a sensory part of reading since they were children. We live in an age of fast forward to the latest hand held device with multiple applications. If older people choose to avoid the frenzy, that does not mean they lack the mental capacity to do so.

The Harvard Women’s Health Watch headlined a valuable article, “Preserving and improving memory as we age.” (February 2010) The article began with the basics, “Studies have shown that you can help prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia by maintaining good general health habits, staying physically active, getting enough sleep, not smoking, having good social connections, limiting alcohol to one drink a day, and eating a balanced diet low in saturated and trans fats.” Beyond the basics, they recommend:

* Keep learning. “Challenging your brain with mental exercise is believed to activate processes that help maintain individual brain cells, and stimulate communication among them.” Mental exercises include: playing chess or bridge, solving crossword or jigsaw puzzles, joining a book club, taking a class or course, pursuing music or art, writing a memoir of life episodes.

*Economize your brain use. “Take advantage of calendars, maps, shopping lists, file folders and address books to keep routine information accessible.” Have a place for your glasses, keys and other items you use frequently. This frees your mind to concentrate on learning and remembering new and important things in your life. Einstein is often cited as saying, “I don’t have all the mathematical formulae in my head. I need my mind to think.” That may be apocryphal, but it makes good sense.

*Repeat what you want to hold on to. When you’ve just heard, read or thought about something you want to remember, repeat it out loud or write it down. With a name you’ve just been told, use it when you speak to him or her. If you wake during the night and want to do something in the morning, have a pad and pen on the night table to note it.

*Combat absent-mindedness by planning. If you take certain medications at breakfast, put the bottles out the night before with your coffee maker. Check to see if your wallet with cash or credit cards and keys are in your handbag before you go out to shop.

*Create a mnemonic. These devices can be acronyms, like RICE to remember first-aid advice for injured limbs: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.

*Believe in yourself. “Myths about aging can contribute to a failing memory. If you believe you can improve and you translate that belief into practice, you have a better chance of keeping your mind sharp.”

Final note on memory and mental acuity: I knew a woman of 94 years who played Scrabble on her computer with college professors all over the country. She beat them on a regular basis.

ER: Italian Style

Long before the pain, the crutches and the wheelchair, we should have realized that our latest trip to Italy was going to be different. There was a distinct foreshadowing of trouble when all four pieces of our luggage were lost in the flight from New York to Rome. The carousel stopped and the crowd bustled off with their belongings; only a few other forlorn passengers waited at the airline claims counter with us.

A slow perusal of our tickets by the weary official brought a deep sigh. “There must have been a hitch in the transfer in London,” he said. “Probably at least 24 hours until we can trace them. What we need now is as close a description of your bags as possible.” With that he produced a chart that pictured every shape, size and style of suitcases except the ones you own. We did the best we could and left the airport feeling strangely light and unencumbered.

Maybe, the reception clerk at the hotel would assume we had flown in for a romantic tryst, sans clothing and other necessities. More likely, our bedraggled appearance would result in a small room overlooking an inside court.

As it turned out, the concierge was most sympathetic. Our room was comfortable and we embarked immediately in search of necessary items to tide us over until our bags were found and returned. Most of the day was spent walking as was the next, until our errant set of matched luggage finally arrived at dinner time. Walking was always at the heart of our travels, and looking back we couldn’t remember any extra miles or particular incidents along the way.

The next morning, my husband did not suit up for his usual four or five mile jog. In fact, he could barely hop to the bathroom. His left foot, ominously red and puffy looked awful and apparently felt worse. We decided, foolishly or courageously that his foot might improve and arranged for the rental car to be brought to the hotel after breakfast. He insisted his right foot was fine for a car with automatic transmission. Our plan was to drive to Siena and we were determined to push on.

After a picturesque drive through the hill towns of Umbria, we reached the hotel in Siena in the late afternoon. By then, we realized the swollen, throbbing foot needed medical attention as soon as possible. Our first objective was to find a pair of crutches so he could be mobile. It was late Sunday, not the best time to rent medical equipment even at home in the States. We were not optimistic when we approached the concierge with our problem. He, on the other hand, smiled and assured us he could be of immediate assistance.

He made several phone calls and then summoned a taxi that whizzed us from the verdant hills of Siena into the inner old city through a labyrinth of twisting narrow streets. At our destination, we were met by a man who greeted us warmly in Italian and led me into a dark courtyard across slippery cobble stones. We reached a locked wooden door which he opened to reveal stacks of wheelchairs, canes and crutches. I pointed to the crutches and he waved magnanimously to take whatever we needed. There was no request for money or identification. Just a smile and a hand shake. Our first foray was a success.

Early next morning, we embarked again with our trusty taxi driver who turned out to be a cousin of the concierge. We were bound for Nuevo Ospedale ( New Hospital ) a 1,500 bed facility with nuclear medicine! I clutched a piece of paper with the word “Radiologica” printed in bold letters. We had decided the first step was to have an x-ray. Our driver dropped us at the “Pronto Soccorso” sign and we entered a large and crowded waiting room. It was unlike any hospital emergency room we had ever seen. Chairs lined the walls but most people stood around in clusters. There did not appear to be a formal registration desk or orderly system. It was very noisy since every one was speaking Italian — rapidly and loudly.

An elegant woman had fashioned a sling for her arm from a silk Hermes scarf. She wielded a long ivory cigarette holder in her free hand which she used for emphasis in her conversation with an equally sleek companion. Other patients crisscrossed back and forth. Voices were raised and excitement was palpable. There was much arm waving and gesticulation. A gnarled woman of about 80 years rose from her chair and motioned for my husband to sit. She insisted he do this. I went in search of an official.

Branching off from the main room were small cubicles with patients on narrow beds. Doctors moved in and out of the rooms. A set of double doors were on the left. I observed that certain patients entered these doors as if in response to a secret signal. I headed for the doors. It seemed like a good idea. Suddenly, a mature woman in a white uniform pushed through the doors. “Scusa signora,” I began and waved my magic “Radiologica” paper. As I pointed to my husband, she stopped and gave us both a long once-over. Then she signaled that we should wait right there. I guess she knew tourists when she saw them.

Within two minutes, she reappeared with a wheelchair and propelled my husband right through the mob scene and the double doors. I waited and trusted I would see him again. About ten minutes later, an orderly emerged pushing the wheelchair rapidly down an adjacent hall. I brought up the rear carrying the crutches and asking questions as we proceeded. He had been examined by a doctor who had spent three years in Chicago and spoke English far better than we spoke Italian. We were on our way to Radiologica.

After the x-rays were taken, we were given a sheaf of papers and directed to the next station for analysis and prescription. The diagnostician spoke no English, but someone was found to tell us there were no broken bones. “Molto bene,” I said. And what next? We were to go back to the pronto soccorso. By now, it was eleven a.m. and the number of people and the decibel level had swelled. We guessed that he needed to go back into the inner sanctum for further diagnosis. Our luck was holding as I spied the woman in white across the room. I pushed my way through the throng and waved the papers in her direction.

Once more, the wheelchair was moved through the double doors. This time, the Chicago internist brought him out himself, and they went in search of a free cubicle. No such luck. Would the men’s lavatory be acceptable for the injection he was prepared to administer? Of course. Thus, the shot was completed and the patient also received pills to last a week. The final diagnosis was a stress fracture which the x-ray had not revealed. Treatment was to stay off the foot as much as possible, take the medication as directed, imbibe no alcohol (visions of Orvieto Classico faded) and continue on your trip.

We thanked the doctor profusely for the swift and skilled attention, and he was very gracious. We asked where we should go next to pay our bill, and he delivered the most amazing conclusion to our entire experience there. He said, “There is no charge for medical service at the pronto soccorso.” No charge for the x-ray, the diagnosis by a doctor, the injection and the pills. Such were the wonders of socialized medicine at Nuova Ospedale in Siena.

Political Paranoia in Texas

Remember when Governor Rick Perry was firing up tea party rallies in Texas in 2009 against President Obama’s $786 billion federal economic stimulus package? He was running for reelection, answering reporters questions, when he suggested that Texans might get so fed up they might want to secede from the union. “We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know who knows might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re pretty independent to boot.”

It is now May, 2015 and Greg Abbott ,Governor of Texas, has issued a directive to the Texas State Guard commander to monitor “Jade Helm 15“, an 8 week Pentagon training exercise to take place in Texas, New Mexico, California and other Southwestern states. Abbott wrote that it was “important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed.” A comprehensive and forceful statement. Here’s the background of events that led up to Governor Abbott sending his directive to Major General Gerald Betty.

Jade Helm was announced in March by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, saying that while a multi-state training operation was not unique, “the size and scope of Jade Helm sets this one apart.” Army officials said Jade Helm was a giant war game across the Southwest, with Green Berets and other elite personnel honing their skills in terrain they might find overseas. It would take place in remote areas on “private and public land with permission from private landowners and from state and local authorities.” They added that the most noticeable effect on local communities will be “an increase in vehicle and military air traffic and its associated noise.”

In the months that followed the announcement in March, conservative commentators and right-wing bloggers in Texas have inundated social media with conspiracy theories and “black helicopters” descending on Texans. They charge that Jade Helm is part of a secret plan to impose martial law, take away people’s guns and arrest political activists. The overall theme is that Jade Helm is an Obama led hostile takeover of red-state Republican Texas.

Reactions to Governor Abbott’s directive ranged from condemnation to support. Some warned that he had given conspiracy-minded activists an “air of respectability”. U.S. Congressman Louis Gohmert, Republican, a strong supporter, called for changes in the war-simulation map that labeled Texas, Utah and part of Southern California as “hostile”. He said, that because the Obama administration believed “that major threats to the country include those who support the Constitution, are military veterans or even ’cling to guns or religion,’ patriotic Americans have reason to be concerned.”

In contrast, Todd A. Smith, a Republican former state legislator and lawyer, said in an interview, “I have been an eyewitness to the sort of radicalization of Republican primary politics in Texas, but this was a shocking extension of this fanaticism.” He added, “I was really shocked to read that a governor was issuing press releases employing the Texas State Guard at taxpayer expense to protect us from the U.S. Military. In a letter to the governor’s office, he criticized Abbott for “pandering to idiots.”

Senator Ted Cruz, Texas Republican running for President, was interviewed by Bloomberg News. He said he understood the concerns of citizens about Jade Helm since the federal government for six years (Obama terms) has been “disrespecting the liberty of its citizens. When you see a federal government that is attacking our free speech rights, our religious liberty rights, our Second Amendment rights, that produces distrust as to government.” David Dewhurst, a former lieutenant governor and Republican praised Governor Abbott on CNN and said, “ I think you’ve got some paranoia, which is based upon legitimate concerns by my fellow Texans, by myself and a lot of Americans about the trustworthiness and the competence of President Obama, but let’s not project that on to our military.”

Walmart, executives felt compelled to respond to the conspiracy advocates –in the opposite direction. They dismissed rumors that tunnels were being built by the military beneath closed stores, including one in Midland, Texas, as part of a Pentagon-led takeover. The Texas Democratic Party called on the governor to apologize to military personnel. House of Representative Joaquin Castro, a Democrat, said some fellow members of Congress told him they were appalled that the governor would order a state body to watch the United States Military. “It’s dangerously irresponsible for a governor to fan the flames of conspiracy and paranoia against our military and government,” he added.

In Bastrop County outside Austin, County Judge Paul Pape said military leaders had made a presentation to county officials about Jade Helm 15 and were given permission to conduct the training exercise in the area. When news of this circulated on social media, county leaders asked military officials to return for a meeting with the public. On April 27, a meeting was held that drew about 200 people. Judge Pape commented after the meeting, “The people who came with an open mind I think got some useful information. The ones that came with their minds made up probably left with their minds made up.”

Gail Collins summed up the right-wing fueled ruckus in Texas succinctly in her New York Times Op Ed, “The Alamo And Walmart” on May 8, “It’s hard not to be enthralled when Walmart denies that tunnels are being built under its stores to ferry troops into Texas where they will tear up the Constitution and confiscate everybody’s guns. Hey, no laughing matter in Texas.”

Nanny’s Lost Cookie Recipe

My mother, Miriam Marcus Sloan, was born in New York City in l900. A graduate of tuition-free Hunter College— before her l8th birthday— she always said in later life, “I owe everything to New York City!” She was a woman of diverse talents and accomplishments with a formidable intellect and knowledge of eight languages. She began teaching and earned a Master’s Degree from Columbia University in 1921.

After a major coronary attack in l954 forced her to retire from teaching at an all-boys vocational high school in Harlem, she was determined to continue doing “something worthwhile” every day of her life. She read of a braille class at Ridgewood High School and took a taxi there, only to discover the course was being given on the third floor. Still recovering, she was forbidden to walk up stairs. Her solution was to crawl up the three flights — pushing her coat ahead — step by step. Descending the flights was easier — bumping down each stair while wearing her coat. She did this for the fifteen weeks of the course. Determination was one of her salient qualities.

When she moved to Ventnor New Jersey, the next year, she joined Beth Judah synagogue and soon volunteered to teach braille transcription to interested members who would come to her apartment once a week for lessons around her dining room table. She was a superb teacher and they each learned the very challenging process of writing braille— by punching the words in dot form manually into sheets of oak tag paper. In later years, she and they bought Braillers from the Perkins Institute for the Blind and transcribed the books on the machines. The books, when completed and proof read, were then sent to the Library of Congress. It should be noted that every page had to be perfect! And my mother proof read every page of every book that went out — her own and those of her pupils. She taught these classes on a volunteer basis for twenty years, and was presented with The White Cane award by The Lions Clubs of New Jersey in October, 1973.

Miriam Sloan learned and transcribed Hebrew Braille as well, and was awarded a “Citation for Distinguished Service to the Jewish Blind” by the Jewish Blind Institute of America. It is framed and hanging on the wall of our study. I also have the letter written to her by the father of a blind boy for whom my mother transcribed his portion of the Torah — so that he could go up to the Bema and become a bar mitzvah.

Lest you think of her only as a woman of intellect and serious purpose, she was also known to her family and friends as the baker of Nanny’s delicious and distinctive cookies. She started baking them, using her own recipe and an aged bottle of scotch whiskey that had resided unopened in her dining room server for decades. In later years, she substituted rum for scotch in the recipe. She often asked her grandchildren ,Steven, David and Faith, to come over one at a time and help her with the baking — and the eating after the cookies cooled. They loved this culinary experience to be followed by playing their favorite card games with their Nanny — which they usually won.

After her death in l974, we discovered that no one had the recipe for her cookies. People would ask my sister or me if we had it. They wanted to bake the cookies and were aghast at our response. “What, you don’t have the recipe!” “How can you not have the recipe!” Since neither of us baked, we had never asked for the recipe. The cookies just arrived, were enjoyed by all and the recipe remained a mystery. My mother was a highly organized woman and we tried to find the recipe among her papers. No success. We decided that perhaps, she didn’t want the recipe passed down. And the cookies faded into memory over many years.

That is how it remained until I learned at a Beth Judah Bazaar that someone did indeed have my mother’s cookie recipe. It was not lost after all. While talking with a friend, the subject of my mother’s cookies arose and she smiled and said , “ I have the recipe. Your mother gave it to me once when I asked her for it.” Hallelujah!

For those of you who have wanted to taste those cookies again — and for others who have never tasted them — here is Nanny’s Cookie Recipe as she wrote it. It’s a surprise gift for all of us.

2 full measuring cups of Gold Medal all purpose flour
2 eggs
2 tablespoons real vanilla, not vanilla flavoring
2 tablespoons good rum
1 measuring cup sugar
1- 3 and 1/2 half oz. package of shredded coconut
7/8 measuring cup of Mazola oil. (A little more if you need it)
2 heaping tablespoons of plain wheat germ
Choice of : chocolate non-pareils, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, cracked nuts. Nestle’s 3 half oz pkg of semi-sweet chocolate morsels.

Stove at 310 degrees. (Depends on your oven)
Grease pans lightly with Mazola
Mix all dry ingredients in a bowl. If you choose chocolate chips or butterscotch chips or cracked nuts, mix most of the chips or nuts with the other dry ingredients.
Crack eggs in another bowl; add vanilla and rum. Stir.
Add eggs, rum, vanilla and Mazola oil to dry ingredients.
Mix well until all dry mixture is absorbed
Make cookies and place on greased pans.
Sprinkle tops of cookies with extra chips or nuts.
Put in hot stove. Test your stove with a few to find the correct temperature. Watch the chocolate ones especially. They scorch easily.
Bake for 10 to 15 minutes.
Drain off on paper towels. Cool. Keep in a tin can lined with paper towels to catch any excess oil. The cookies will last indefinitely. They never spoil. This amount makes the equivalent of a pound size of graham crackers — a little more.

Eat! Enjoy!