Thursday, April 21, 2011

Flowers for Algernon

There is a part of me that would like to retire real soon, but that's a really small part.  I've been gainfully employed, except for very brief periods of time, since I was eighteen years old, and I don't think I know how to stop.

I have to be honest with myself - at 58, I don't have the energy I had even 20 years ago, when I graduated law school.  Before law school, I had spent most of a year taking an intensive paralegal course at Long Island University, while working two jobs.  Before that, I had worked, going to both graduate school and the College of Insurance, while commuting long hours on the train.  While I was in law school, I worked full time, commuting to Manhattan from Ronkonkoma.  It is true that I was in the part time program at Touro - although at 11 1/2 credits, I was coming awfully close to full time, and then I was also an active member of the Moot Court Board.  So I look back at those days, working in Manhattan during the week, working for the caterer on the weekend, putting in sometimes as much as 80 hours not counting commuting, and I shake my head in amazement.  I don't know how I did it, and I sure couldn't do it now.

1990 - Touro's Moot Court Team took Third Place and also won for Third Best Brief in the Jerome Prince Evidence Competition.  Not too shabby for a relatively new law school.

I get tired easily, and sometimes I feel fragile, while other times I feel I could take up running.  When I can't fall asleep until 4:00 in the morning, and then have to drag myself out of bed to get the office or court, I let myself dream about the day I can skip the dragging part and just go back to sleep.  Have a leisurely cup of coffee on the back patio, knit to my heart's content, work my way through all the recipes in Maida Heatter's Book of Great Cookies.  Do more traveling, see the world, see the rest of the United States.

Except I have a fear that is far greater than my desire to return to Italy or finally see Alaska, much greater than my frustration with insomnia, or my occasional exhaustion after a grueling trial.  I am afraid, deathly afraid, of becoming senile, of developing Alzheimer's or some other age-related dementia.  I am not worried about early onset Alzheimer's, but I do come from a family of long lifers, and the longer one lives, the more likely one will become senile.  In my family, this fact was reality, as my maternal grandmother, my maternal great aunt, and my maternal great grandfather all became senile years before they passed.  Interestingly, none of my maternal great uncles, who all lived well into their eighties and nineties, were affected.  So I take heart from that.

Long before I knew about Alzheimer's or gave a second thought to senility, I realized that my mother (actually my maternal grandmother) was on the dull side.  Not intellectually impaired - on the contrary, she was a very bright woman who read a lot, kept up with politics and the news, was comfortable with financial matters, was good with numbers, and was a terrific poker and pinochle player.  But she had never worked outside the home, at least not during her entire marriage to my father, which occurred in 1947.  She was not, by nature, a social person, so without the necessity of working alongside other people, she was terribly lonely.  It was my theory, even back in high school, that she was not exercising her brain enough.  I promised myself that I would do things very differently than her, that I would get dressed every morning and not just wear a housecoat, that I would go outside the house and interact with the world.  When I got married at 21, it never occurred to me to stop working.  I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation, and the sense of self worth, and the opportunity to interact with interesting people from all walks of life.  Just as it is important to stay physically active, to walk, stretch, even lift weights, to exercise our bodies, it is, in my opinion, even more important to exercise our minds.  I felt that in some way, my mother's brain had gotten flabby, like unused muscles. 

Staying mentally active became even more important to me when I saw her decline as senile dementia robbed her of her memories and her ability to care for herself.  I can't help but think that if she had exercised her mind all those years, she might have avoided the worst of it.  Her sister, my Aunt Ceil, suffered the same fate, as did their father, my great grandpa Charles Albert.  What these three all had in common is that they were recluses, cut off from other people and from any activity that would have demanded that they use their brains.

I've never been vain about my intellectual abilities.  I know my limitations.  I simply cannot wrap my mind around higher math, and as a result, there are things I will never understand as well as I would like.  I am also not very good at foreign languages, and although I have been working on my Spanish since seventh grade, I will never be proficient.  My memory is sort of hinky ... sometimes I can recite whole sections of statutes by visualizing the page in my head, but not a day goes by that I don't forget where I put my soda bottle.  The trade-off has been my ability to comprehend and utilize the written word.  I have always been a pretty good writer, and a voracious reader.  These abilities have let me earn a living, and also enjoy my time away from the office.  If I could not longer read, if I could no longer express myself in writing, I would be devastated.   As the character Charlie Gordon, in Daniel Keye's novel Flowers for Algernon, wrote in his journal, after the experiment which increased his intelligence to genius level failed and he found himself reverting to his impaired state, "please don't let me forget how to read and write." To which I would add, please don't let me forget my family.

Well, I have no intention of going gentle into that good night.  I'm going to keep exercising this brain, keeping the old synapses sparking, and the best way for me to do that is keep working.  There is enough intellectual stimulation to keep me clear headed or at least with most of my faculties intact.  Now I'm not saying this is for everybody, and there are a lot of people who look forward to retirement and enjoy it immensely.  Talk to me in 10 or 12 years, and I may be right there with them.

Or at the very least, on a cruise ship sailing the Inner Passage of Alaska.

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