John Thorndike | The Last of His Mind |

Archive for March, 2010


Monday, March 22nd, 2010

In two days I drive out to Colorado for a pair of readings at two of the best independent book stores in the country:

The Boulder Book Store (March 29th at 7:30), and The Tattered Cover on Colfax (March 31st at 7:30).

Then I head down to Santa Fe and read at the great Collected Works Bookstore (April 1st at 6 PM).

Three readings, all with different audiences—but I don’t like to give the same reading two nights in a row. Or ever, really. I’ve mapped out two entirely different presentations for the Colorado readings, and in Santa Fe, where I’m apt to know most of the people in the audience, I’m going to indulge myself with some passages I haven’t yet read to any group.

One of them is about the day a pulmonologist suggested that my father was probably suffering from congestive heart failure, and asked me to take him to the hospital to get an x-ray of his lungs. That led to a story I always knew I was going to tell somewhere in the book. It goes like this:

The hospital is just down the street from Pliss’s office, and Radiology takes us right away. I sit on a bench as a pretty young nurse walks my father down the corridor to the x-ray machine, giving me a glimpse of how he must appear to others: a bent old man with rundown shoulders and unruly white hair, shuffling along with six-inch steps. My father, of course, is polite to this woman, and she is friendly to him. But I doubt that she can see the young man in him. When watching other old people, I can’t do it myself. What would lead me to imagine that this old woman loved to dance the rumba, or that old man once ran the high hurdles, or that some stiff old couple once trekked through Nepal together? The older they are—and no one in the hospital looks older than my father—the harder it is to think of them as having once been young and supple and audacious.

I want to tell the young nurse about the summer day in 1955 when Marilyn Monroe showed up at our house to go waterskiing.


1955 was a big year for Marilyn. The Seven Year Itch, her twenty-fourth movie, had just been released, along with the iconic photo of her skirt blowing up above a sidewalk vent. What legs on that dazzling blonde, and what a smile.

My father had long been friends with Milton Greene, who was both photographer and friend to Marilyn, as well as an occasional business partner. Marilyn was spending the weekend in Connecticut with Milton and his wife, and mentioned to them that she wanted to try out the new sport of waterskiing. So Milton called my dad. We lived on Long Island Sound and had a little boat, though the motor was barely strong enough to pull a skinny twelve-year-old out of the water. I was twelve and, disastrously, had gone off with a friend for the day. But Dad knew someone with a bigger boat. Charlie Goit leapt at the chance, and Milton, Marilyn and a small retinue drove over to our place.

I wish I knew, or Dad could remember, what she wore and what she said, and every little detail. All I really know is that someone had to get into the chest-deep water with Marilyn and help her with her skis and keep her from tipping over until the line drew taut. And that was my father.

Up she surged, then crashed. Charlie circled around, Dad held Marilyn, and off she went again. On the third try she skied for a hundred yards, and Charlie got to haul her into the boat. But when I came home that evening the detail I heard from friends, neighbors and family, over and over, was how Charlie had to drive while my father stood in the water with his arms around Marilyn Monroe. I think everyone liked the irony of that, because Charlie was kind of lascivious, and my father more of a gentleman

Fifty years later, walking down a hospital corridor with a pretty girl, my father has become a very old man. But he has some stories

And tonight, over dinner, I ask Dad what he remembers of that summer day in 1955. Though he can’t come up with many details, his version of the waterskiing seems pretty close to my own. He isn’t sure about the bathing suit, but yes, most likely a two-piece. I admit to leading him some. And yes, he had his arms around her. “Around her waist,” he says.

After that I can’t help teasing him. “So someone had to get in the water and help out?”

“That’s right.”

“And that person wound up being you.”

“Well, Charlie had to run the boat.”

“And before you knew it, your arms were around her waist.”

Deadpan, with only the faintest twitch of his eyebrows, “No alternative, really.”

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Rising to the Occasion

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

After a reading I did with the Alzheimer’s Association in Columbus, a woman in the audience told us the story of a friend of hers, not yet sixty, who suffers from dementia. It has progressed enough that she’s living in a nursing home, from which she rarely escapes. In fact, she doesn’t want to escape. She doesn’t want to go out and deal with the world outside.

Her friend visits her, hoping to keep her connected to life: to other people, to the world going on outside the home. But her friend, the Alzheimer’s patient, is perfectly clear: she doesn’t want to get dressed and go out on any kind of expedition. She wants to stay where she is. She’s comfortable there. She has given up, any of us might say. But it’s no surrender to her. She’s simply more at ease in the home with her routines, with the familiarity of it. She doesn’t want to be connected to the world.

As I had read that day from the book: “My father seems to have given up—but maybe that’s what he has wanted all along. And if he wants to give up, doesn’t he have the right to? …It’s true that his mind is going, but who’s to say how he should spend his days? Who’s to say he shouldn’t sit in a chair and do nothing? Who’s to say, even, that he ought to do things that will make him happy?

“Night falls and wind rattles the windows. I worry about my father, but I also think about something Joe said when he was here, that Alzheimer’s patients sometimes need to crash. They need to give up for a while, and stop rising to the occasion.”

That’s our expectation for seniors, the same as for children: we want them to keep rising to the occasion. But should we be forcing them to do this, when they clearly do not want to?

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Quotes from Mignon McLaughlin

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

“People keep telling us about their love affairs, when what we really want to know is how much money they make and how they manage on it.”

I came across this quote by Mignon McLaughlin in the latest Sun magazine. (McLaughlin was an editor and writer, born the same year as my father and married to an editor at Time, a guy my father surely knew.) It comes from decades ago, but how exact it is to this day. Perhaps especially in these days, when people will describe their sexual escapades down to the last inch of skin, but stay thoroughly coy about their finances.

Mignon McLaughlin

Mignon McLaughlin

It was in reaction to this fact that I explained, in The Last of His Mind, exactly how much I was paid from my father’s bank account to look after him during the year I spent at his house. Suffice it to say that no reviewer has commented in any detail about the sexual revelations in the book, but quite a number remark on the fact that I was paid, and how much (a thousand a week, plus expenses).

I’d say we’ve come quite a distance in getting over our general shame about sex—but we’ve barely started when it comes to money.

It’s a wonderful world, really, in which one of the guys I play tennis with can tell the rest of us, in easy good humor, how his wife was giving him a blow job one morning when abruptly he was overcome by vertigo, so bad they had to call an ambulance. “I was giving him a blow job,” she explained to the squad—perhaps a relevant medical fact. In the Emergency Room, more explanations, quite loud. “By now,” he told us, “I’m sure the whole town knows.” Of course, it was a promising sexual story, not a disastrous one, and I’m glad to report that the vertigo has not returned.

It was years ago that Michelle Ajamian alerted me to what she saw as an imbalance in sexual and financial revelations. When some new boyfriend of hers wanted to hear all about her sexual past, replete with details, she’d tell him, “Okay. I’ll tell you all about that if you’ll tell me all about your money.” None of them ever did. Money, apparently, was too intimate, too delicate, too revealing.

In closing, another pair of Mignon McLaughlin quotes:

“Many who would not take the last cookie would take the last lifeboat.”

And: “People are like birds: on the wing, all beautiful; up close, all beady little eyes.”

Wish I’d known her!

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