Spell “World” Backwards

Okay, everyone out there. You had better start practicing.  Someday in your distant, or not so distant, future, someone is going to ask you questions like this: “Spell world.”  That’s easy. “Now spell world backwards.” Don’t worry. They are just checking to see if you have dementia.

Can it be that we will live into our nineties only to be asked to spell world backwards? That’s all they want to know?lesleystahl-300x219

On a recent 60 Minutes show, “Living to 90 and Beyond,” Lesley Stahl interviewed Dr. Claudia Kawas and several of the oldest of the old. It seems that Dr. Kawas discovered a gold mine for her study on aging. In 1981, fourteen thousand people in a retirement community south of L. A., once known as Leisure World now as Laguna Woods, filled out extensive health and lifestyle questionnaires. Dr. Kawas was able to find 1,800 of these same folks, now in their nineties, still living in Laguna Woods–a perfect group of nonagenarians to study. Many also agreed to have their brains analyzed after death.

These men and women were gracious and willing to answer Lesley Stahl’s questions, as well as the standard ones for assessing the on-set of dementia. The ones without dementia laughed with her about being old.

There was a certain aren’t-they-cute-and-amazing tone to the episode–as if these people were a group of pandas or some adorable pilgrims sending messages back to those who haven’t reached the land of the old.

Ruth, my mother, in her 90s

Ruth, my mother, in her 90s

I realize that all these studies of the oldest of the old are meant to help us understand the nature of dementia, but the program seemed self-serving and somehow reductive. When complicated individuals are reduced to objects of study, the world turns backwards.


Nonagenarians’ Lament

” …and pilgrimes were they alle, /That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.”

We were children once.
Our mothers took us shopping for spring outfits,
and we showed up at church
dressed in miniature suits,
white shirts with clip-on neckties.
Our sisters wore dotted swiss dresses
and patent shoes with buckles.

We were children who played roller bat
in the street and croquet and kick the can.
The girls liked jacks and jumping rope.
We learned the alphabet and sang it too
and made words from the letters in our soup.

Our hands curved around a pencil,
and we formed A’s and L’s with big looping arcs.
The Palmer method,
remember that?

We were children who fell asleep
hearing our parents laugh at oyster roasts in the yard
and rode home without seatbelts
curled up in the back seat of the old Mercury.

We knew our geography and the capitals
of all the states and the names of rivers too.
We studied chemistry and memorized
the bones in the body.

Ruth, in her 20's

Ruth, in her 20’s

We could recite in Middle English
The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
We sang in the choir.
We fell in love.
We taught school, wired houses,
became lawyers, waited tables.

Now we practice yoga, write,
eat fish and chocolate, shovel snow,
go to concerts, nap,
play the piano, walk,
paint the sunset
and palm trees in oils.

They seem surprised.
They study us.
They ask: Who is the President?
What is today’s date?
They say: Remember three words.
How did you live so long?
What did you eat for breakfast?
Blood pressure?
Did you smoke? Drink wine?
Did you enjoy sex?
If so, for how long?

As if what mattered could be
quantified, replicated,
extended, amended,
once we are suspended.

They study us.
And after we die,
they dissect our brains.

–Vicky Lettmann


Writing Idea/Jumpstart: What do you have to say about “the oldest of the old”? Or have you heard something in the news, on television, or in a recent conversation that caused the hair on the back of your neck to stand up, or prickle, at least? If so, write it down. It’s good to put some words on paper since I doubt our ideas, stories, bits of insight will show up under the microscope when our brains are dissected.


Crow School

Kay Ryan has a way of getting right to the point. I’ve been subscribing to Poetry Foundation’s Audio-Poem-of-the-Day. So each morning I get to hear a poem read to me. It’s a good way to start my writing time.

A Draft of a Kay Ryan Poem

A Draft of a Kay Ryan Poem

This morning “Felix Crow” was in my ear. It made me think of my last post, “The Secret.” So far (it has been only a few days now), I’ve been good about looking for that moment during the day when I see something new or beautiful or amazing.

Kay Ryan’s “Felix Crow” calls attention to those things we don’t always see as beautiful, like crows. We tend to over-look certain creatures who don’t meet the standard definition of beauty. Here in Florida, we certainly ooh-and-aah when we see the roseate spoonbills or a tri-colored heron. Not so much, a crow or buzzard. imgres-1

“Felix Crow” called me up on that. So I’m opening my eyes a little wider today. Thanks to Kay Ryan.

Here’s the poem. Just click to hear the reading.


P. S. For those of you following my earlier posts on writing prompts, the poem (and crows)   made me think of another writing prompt.  Today look for something others might not think of as beautiful. Later when you return to your notebook, write for ten minutes or more about what you saw.  

Felix Crow 

Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule—
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out
his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet.
Kay Ryan
Source: Poetry (November 2004)

Write This: Mitchell and Webb

Last week I talked about the video of the C. K. Williams lecture (“On Being Old”) and promised to lighten up in future blogs. So stay with me!

I’m interested in Williams’s comments about his reaction to criticism at the age of 75. He says that he is better able now than in his younger days to distance himself from “the theatrics of criticism.”  This made me wonder how true this is for other writers over 50. How do we deal with feedback, criticism, editorial suggestions, bad reviews, or even rejection? Is it different for us now that we are older?

Susan Bono’s  Tiny Lights

Not long ago, Susan Bono sent this short video of the British comedy duo, Mitchell and Webb, in her Sparks e-newsletter. (Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative www.tiny-lights.com).  Take a look for a fresh, funny look at “the theatrics of criticism.”  (See, I promised you I would lighten up.)

(Click below to see video.)


British Comedy Duo: Mitchell and Webb


In this sketch, the writer (Mitchell) sits meekly while the critic (Webb) begins a barrage of suggestions about his novel.  Webb tries to be supportive (“It’s all great.”) But it’s clear that his random jabs aren’t well thought out. He knows that something needs to be done to improve the writing, but he isn’t sure exactly what. “What if Sarah falls in love with…not that, but something like that,” he says to the writer, Mitchell. “You’re the author,” he says. But Webb is actually making himself the author as he tries to re-write the opening of the novel; and Mitchell, as the writer, is completely confused.

Does this bring back any memories of your own experience giving and receiving feedback on your writing? Have you changed over the years? If you’re just beginning to write or to return to writing, how do you feel about this topic?  We’d love to hear from you.

In my next blog, we’ll continue this conversation.



The List

Arlene MacDonald
Guest Author

I made a list of things to do tomorrow
before I went to bed,

so all those tasks I need to do
wouldn’t leave my head.

I woke to brilliant sun,
happy that the day had just begun.

I reached onto my nightstand
to fetch my glasses,

to read my list of things to do
before the morning passes.

I searched and searched, but to my despair
my trusty glasses did not reappear.

Try as I might,
I couldn’t restore my sight.

Without my eyes
to lead me to my list,

the things I need to do
no longer exist.

Does this mean I have license to play;
do whatever I want and enjoy the day?

What a great turn of events,
I realize with glee.

Losing the list must mean
I’m free, I’m free, I’m free!


About Arlene MacDonald:  “I am a retired Computer Aided Drafting teacher. Oddly enough, I taught at Johnson County Community College, where guest author Martha Varzaly is currently teaching Composition. We don’t know each other, but it certainly illustrates how small the world is. I am a novice in the writing department, but I have always loved words and the feelings they evoke. I was inspired to try my hand at the craft  by my dear friend who is the author of this blog. She is a teacher who is quick to praise and to encourage all of her students on Sanibel Island, and  I’m lucky enough to have her as my personal muse.”

The Lost Umbrellas

Martha Varzaly
Guest Author

It was pouring raining when I came home from school, and neither Truman, my pug/cairn, nor I cared to walk.  It was still raining in the morning, but Truman’s urgent bark sounds like “Up!”  I’m not sure where he learned that sound but it surely wakes me up.  This time I knew that going out was essential.

Truman with Martha’s Umbrella

I pulled on yesterday’s dirty clothes and reached for the flowered umbrella that wasn’t in the umbrella stand.  It wasn’t in the hall closet.  It wasn’t in the garage.  Nor was it in the car.  How can one lose a wet umbrella in a condo?  Surely other umbrellas were in the back of the hall closet . . . the big black one that can cover three people, another flowered one that I bought in Target during a thunderstorm, a red one that I’ve had for years, and a sky blue one that collapses. All the while Truman demanded that we go naked in the rain   By the time we’d chased the water down the street gutters, waited for Truman to sniff every bush and peed on most of them.  Eventually we meandered home, and I dried him off before he shook the water on the carpet.  Exchanging my soaking clothes and grabbing a cup of hot coffee helped my mood.

Losing umbrellas is not the only lost thing in my life. My life seems confused like my condo . . . junk mail has spilled from the file cabinet to floor.  One day, I’ll write an article about the unwanted stuff that fills my mail box.  The clock over my desk needs a battery.  I got it off the wall, but haven’t gotten the kitchen stool so I can put it back nor can I find a battery. I must have at least half-dozen pairs of cheap reading glasses, yet there’s never a pair to be found when I’m in a hurry. There are always dishes in the sink; although, I’m sure I cleaned the kitchen last night.

It’s even worse.  I can never remember whom I have told someone something.  It may be just a joke or something important.  My children give me that look that says, “Mom, you’ve told me that already.”  Isolation and silence seems the best since I can’t upset others by repetition. I help shuttle the grandchildren to and from all sorts of activities, and my daughter sends me a weekly calendar.  For her calendar, I am grateful.  Otherwise I never know where and when I am supposed to be.

A year ago when I went to the doctor looking for a solution to my losing memory, I saw my primary care physician and a neurologist.  I took all their tests and nothing showed up – or at least nothing bad showed up.  There was no indication of memory lost, but I couldn’t remember things. Last semester I had trouble remembering my students’ name. Now walking into classroom is frightening.  The doctors will most likely blame my confusion because my husband died this spring.

But this year, I’ve done my homework. I will fight to awaken my brain and find those umbrellas!


About Martha Varzaly: “I teach Composition at Johnson County Community College, am a prose editor for Kansas City Voices, and have recently found a new voice for me – writing with a chuckle about serious things such as cataract surgery, encounter with a skunk, and memory loss. I wrote as stringer for the Lynchburg News in Virginia (and I got paid by the inch) when I was 16; and 50 years later, I’m having a ball. Just call me ‘Grandma Martha.'”