Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. paperback, 243 pps., incl. biography.

Dear Oliver Sacks,

You are the person I would most like to have tea with on a calm uncluttered California afternoon sitting on your veranda sharing the silence that embraces both of us. You are my hero. You remind me intensely of my humanity-- my intense unwavering humanity-- in the midst of dealing with the professional robots who would rather work to reduce me to deficits and lapses that they can pigeon-hole into stereotypes. I suppose that dealing with the authentic self that is me and more than me is riskier. I am not at all gracious nor grateful for their "help." I have lived quite well over the past six and a half years without their "insight, wisdom, knowledge." For like you, I have learned and relearned that the clinical without the human being is dead, empty stuff. I am weary of these professional robots who cannot hear me when I tell them that my brain damage did not kill off my memory. My memory ranked in the 99th percentile when tested at the rehab hospital six months after my motor vehicle accident. My ability to multi-task has bit the dust, my vision and perception are somewhat skewed, and I've been told that I am now highly distractible. But my memory is intact and I do not need the professional robots to extoll the virtues of writing things down nor of following a written checklist.

Oliver, if I can be so brazen as to refer to you by your first name in this blog post, you declared to the world in this book that the oft-cited axiom that the brain-damaged have only the concrete at their [our] disposal simply is not true. I needed the concrete during the first several months of living with my rearranged brain. I had to teach myself to write in sentences again-- I did this through the internet-- and when I was able to read, I turned to factual books rather than the fantasies that I previously had enjoyed. But brains do heal somewhat and after a time I was able to revel in the abstract once again. You have taught me to focus and build on my strengths rather than to batter away at my difficulties which in fact may not be ameliorable. Oliver, I am so sick of people blindly repeating the phrase, "The brain re-wires itself!" They don't really know what they are talking about, do they? Some of my wires re-connected but not to where they were originally. Dirt roads replaced freeways. Others grew but didn't connect anywhere, thus my central nervous system tremor is one of the prices of recovery. I have named my post-head injury brain Briella. Briella-- still brilliant but a bit sideways. Now I can describe who I used to be in halting unsure words. For a time, I could not even do that. I had to learn my self over again. You remind me not to leave my self behind. For indeed, we are more than our pathologies, labels, problems, diagnoses. So much more!

When I re-read this book, I found again a reunion with friends. I could love Rebecca and Mr. MacGregor and the others. I touched them through your pages. I held my breath as I witnessed Madeleine J. reaching for a bagel. I watched transfigured as she sketched and then made models of what she perceived through her treasured hands, once thought of as "lumps." I was there in your office as you helped Dr. P. put on his shoe. How fortunate your patients are to have had you! I recognized bits of my own difficulties in some of their stories.

Thank you, Oliver Sacks for writing about your patients in such a humane accessible way. My world is a brighter, kinder place with you in it. I take my tea with a bit of lemon sometimes, but no milk or sugar or honey. I'll be up sometime after lunch. Looking forward to it!

sapphoq reviews books n more

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. New York: Mariner Books, 2008. large paperback, 496 pps.

I've been engaged in reading as much Paul Theroux as I can get my hands on over the last several months and am now just pausing long enough to write the reviews. Ghost Train is the repeat of a trip which Theroux took as a younger man in The Great Railway Bazaar. He left from London (now on a second wife) and trained his way through to India (this time with a detour around Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan), The Far East, Japan, and back via Russia. He also had to take an occasional bus and a couple of plane flights. Along the way, Theroux mixes with the local folks, stays in hostels and hotels, and reads. As in his other accounts of his travels, Theroux has a gift of mixing history of a place with literary works and stories told by people he meets along the way.

Theroux is quick to point out what has changed and what hasn't. Several Indian cities have become meccas for IT, manufacturing, and call centers. The call centers themselves I found interesting. The Indians who work there take on American sounding names and are tutored extensively so that they "sound" like native speakers rather than like Indians. Often it is a college graduate making less than 4000 U.S.D. a year providing customer/tech support India relies on cheap labour in order to be competitive. In India, Theroux comes across many people who dislike Bush 43 especially in relation to the war over in the Middle East. There is abject poverty in India also which he describes without romance or rancor. There are bits also about Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. There are riots and bombing in Ceylon. Over in Thailand, there is a movement among fundamentalist Moslems to establish their own country in the south. Everyone certainly seems to be fighting these days, that is for sure.

Theroux also recounts bits of history while he is visiting Myanmer (Burma), Cambodia, and Vietnam. The behind-the-scenes decisions of politicians (Bush 43, Nixon in particular) were a fascinating glimpse into some of the background behind military actions. He describes in detail his tour of the killing fields, the genocide commited upon the orders of Pol Pot and exactly who helped that corrupt murderer to attain and stay in power. India, China, and Russia all continue to support Pol Pot (each for their own reasons). Theroux also talks about Vietnam and how the Viennese are faring these days. Although he leaves out the prison terms being bantered around for such offenses as e-mailing a relative in the U.S.A. from an internet cafe, he does address the war in Vietnam quite well.

There are throngs of people in the larger cities in Japan. Theroux takes some time there to go cross country skiing in the less populated north and to enjoy the use of two bathhouses before setting off for a final train trek through Siberia and China back through Poland and Germany to England. On the trains themselves, berths (sleeping compartments) are almost always shared and food bought at train stations from the locals is usually safer than what is offered in the dining cars. There is a bit of reflection in this book not present in his earlier journey across Asia. I enjoyed in particular Theroux's musings on invisibility and ageing.

sapphoq reviews says: This book comes highly recommended to the armchair traveler who likes a true sense of place along with an interweaving of history and a sprinkling of literature.