LJ Idol: Week 11.
Topic: Recency Bias
. Recency bias is a psychological testing term that was coined initially to describe the tendency of test subjects to remember the beginnings and endings of series better than they remember the middle.
Our kids Robin and Sidney were best friends at the Butterfly House. That’s how Jeannie and I met.
One day Robin tried to drown Sidney’s stuffed panda Irving in the toilet. Dianna, the preschool administrator, managed to retrieve the toy before Robin carried through his announced intention of peeing upon it, so no harm was done. Nonetheless, Dianna thought it prudent to convene a summit of the appropriate third-party adults.
Across Dianna’s kitchen table, Jeannie and I beamed at each other.
“Frankly, I’ve always wanted to off Irving the Panda myself,” said Jeannie. “He’s disgusting. Let us just say his recent near miss with a golden shower was not Irving the Panda’s first experience with bodily fluids. Sid’s been carting that damn thing around with her since she started walking. The only reason he’s survived this long is because she throws such hideous tantrums when I try to grab him.”
“You could try bribing her,” I said.
“With what? Nothing in the world is as precious as Irving the Panda.”
“Well, that’s what Robin said,” Dianna told us. “He marched up to Sidney and announced, ‘You’re too old for a stuffer.’ Then he grabbed it and marched into the bathroom. Sidney started screaming, but by the time I got there, she’d stopped. Robin had dunked the thing in the toilet and was pulling down his pants, but he was prattling away. ‘Do you know why you have eyelashes?’ he was asking, and Sidney was standing on her tiptoes trying to see into the mirror over the sink so she could count her eyelashes –“
“Cute,” said Jeannie.
“Well. Except for the urinary waterboarding part,” I said.
Jeannie and I laughed hysterically. Dianna looked perplexed. ###
Kids get friendship. Adults, not so much.
The day Robin and Sydney were both ejected from Circle Time – Sydney for threatening to cut off Dean Mercutio’s flowing locks with a scissors she’d smuggled from the crafts table; Robin for telling Giovanni DiJusto he was “a detestable shithead” – Sydney turned to Robin and asked, “Wanna be best friends?”
Both kids understood instinctively that friendship has nothing to do with shared tastes in movies or music. Friendship is all about someone who will have your back when you’ve been expelled from Circle Time.
“Don’t know where Robin would have picked up a term like ‘shithead,’” I remarked to Jeannie as we were leaving after yet another summit meeting hastily organized by Dianna. “Around my house, we use the term ‘detestable douchebag.’”
“We’re not so big on alliteration,” said Jeannie. “At Casa DeTomaso, we just call them ‘fucking dicks.’”
We laughed hysterically. Then Jeannie began to talk to me about Elizabeth, her mother.###
“What’s your favorite fantasy?” someone will ask me from time to time. Usually on an Internet dating site.
I’m ashamed to answer because, of course, they’re talking about sex.
But my favorite fantasy has nothing to do with sex.
My favorite fantasy begins on a day when the random bullshit concentration approaches 500 parts to 1,000. On a typical
day, in other words. Maybe my incredibly dilapidated car’s front passenger tire has just gone flat, and it’s a hundred degrees out, and I’ve just had to hike two miles to the nearest auto supply store to get some of that foam tire-blower-up stuff.
And when I kneel in front of the tire and unscrew the valve of the can, it’s a broken valve so the tire-blower-up stuff shoots out of the can but fails to find its way into the tire.
And now it’s a hundred and five degrees out.
This is not an insurmountable problem, of course. Its solution only requires another trek back to the store.
But I don’t want to go back to the store. I want to do is sit on that sidewalk and sob hysterically. If humans only came conveniently equipped with an “OFF” button, I think, I’d push mine.
Then the fantasy kickstarts.
at me. Somebody really
sees me. Somebody kneels down beside me and says, “You’re a brave
soul. You’re a gallant
soul. You’re wading upstream through a river of bullshit and that takes guts, resilience, grace
. I see the effort you are making to stay the course.”
For many years, Jeannie was the other person in that fantasy.###
Jeannie’s mother Elizabeth was a singularly egoless person even before the Alzheimer’s. I guess you could call her a religious fanatic. Jeannie’s father had been a preacher with an itinerant Pentecostal sect called the Children of God. The Children of God didn’t believe in private property, and the only time Elizabeth ever defied her husband was when she bought the tiny Pacific Grove cottage three blocks away from the equally shabby cottage where John Steinbeck had written the first draft of The Grapes of Wrath
45 years before.
Elizabeth had bought the cottage for $28,000 in 1963, but at 21st century market values, the place was probably valued somewhere in the range of a million and a half.
The preacher died when Jeannie was only six years old. Elizabeth brought Jeannie up alone. She supported the two of them making that God-awful driftwood art, which was the staple of Monterey's many tourist shops for 30 years. And somehow managed to keep the house.
Whenever Jeannie complained to me about money – Tony, her husband, was having problems finding a job -- I would tell her, “Look. I know you love your mother. But
– and I’m just saying! But… When she passes, you’re gonna be a woman of substance. “
Jeannie sighed. “When I was a little girl, you know, I would wake up sometimes in the middle of the night and hear her gibbering in the living room! Yowling! Speaking in tongues. It scared
“When I’d ask her, ‘What
are you doing?’, she’d say, ‘I am talking to God
“And weren’t you ever curious
what she and God were talking about?” I asked.
Jeannie shook her head. “From the way she was always screaming
, I figured I didn’t want to know.”###
For several years, Elizabeth continued to live alone in her tiny cottage. Jeannie lived less that a mile away with Sydney, her other daughter Torrey, and her scientist husband Tony. Tony was ten years younger than Jeannie, and his two great tragedies in life were that he was a white male PhD looking for a university faculty position at a time when academic hiring policies were solely based attempts to diversify the white male faculty mix and that he’d been born too late to ride along on Ken Kesey’s magic bus.
“Wow! So you were at Woodstock
!” he’d say.
“Well, no. Not Woodstock. Altamont
. The bad
hippie rock festival. The festival where the Hell’s Angels stabbed that guy.”
“And you got to see the Rolling Stones
“Well, no. Not see
. There were hundreds of thousands of people there. But maybe, you know, some stray carbon dioxide molecule that Mick exhaled found its way into my lungs.”
Tony was fond of Elizabeth, but he took a pragmatic view of the situation. “You know, she really can’t go on living by herself,” he’d tell Jeannie. “It’s dangerous
. She lets strangers
into the house ‘cause she thinks they’re God’s messengers. She forgets to turn off burners on the stove. She could burn that place down!”
Jeannie would look strained. It wasn’t a matter of disagreeing necessarily with Tony. It was more a matter that Jeannie believed that Elizabeth and her tiny cottage had what one might describe as a symbiotic relationship. That the minute Elizabeth moved away from it, it was quite obvious that Elizabeth would die
And she didn't want to murder her mother.
“But, I mean, that’s not really true,” I said to Jeannie. “There are some perfectly nice Alzheimer’s facilities on the Monterey peninsula. In Pacific Grove even! I mean, Jeannie! You can’t
be with her 24 hours a day. You have a life. You have a husband
. What if she falls in the middle of the night while she’s having one of her conversations with God, breaks her hip, lies there for 12 hours till you get time to check on her the next day?”
“She doesn’t know I’m her daughter,” said Jeannie. “When I visit her now. She thinks I’m her mother.”###
Jeannie was my friend, so I did what I could to help her with Elizabeth. In breaks in my own schedule, I would go to the tiny Pacific Grove cottage to hang out with Elizabeth when Jeannie couldn’t make it. I would watch Elizabeth eat, supervise the taking of her many medications – Jeannie organized them like squirrel nuts inside a blue plastic box marked with the days of the week.
Elizabeth’s artwork was everywhere inside the house. Hideous driftwood lighthouses. Incredibly ugly sunsets in splashes of white and blue and orange paint.
In the back of the overgrown garden sat a shingled one-room shack.
“Is that your studio?” I asked Elizabeth.
“Yes. But I don’t go there anymore.”
“It seems like so much trouble.”
“You know, when I was a little girl,” I chattered nervously, “more than anything else in the world, I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to draw
. But I can’t
draw at all. So I write instead. It’s a poor substitute. What is it, I wonder? Some kind of hand-eye coordination? What I see, what I imagine
is so clear in my brain –“
“I know what you mean,” said Elizabeth. "I used to hold my arm like this -- " She demonstrated " -- so the pictures would run down it from my head into my hand."
It's so odd, the invisibility that creeps up on you with old age. And I wanted to ask Elizabeth: Do you feel old? Or like me, do you still feel 20, the exact same configuration of mind and affinity, only packaged differently, packaged wrongly — maybe all I need to do is consult a branding identification specialist and redesign the packaging. And what does it feel like to be so invisible? To know that you've outlived your own visibility?
“Would you like to see my secret garden?" Elizabeth asked, and we walked together to the back of the shingled shack where a row of sturdy-looking tomato plants, chest-high, were just starting to fruit.
"My neighbors put these in for me," said Elizabeth. "They told me they were extras but I knew they were being kind."
And I thought to myself, if she can remember that, she should be able to remember the faces of the people who come to visit her and the fact that Jeannie is not her mother but her daughter.
But maybe she just doesn't want to remember.###
Elizabeth had liked to read, Jeannie told me. So sometimes when I visited her, I brought her books.
of books does she like to read?” I’d asked.
And Jeannie had shaken her head. “It really doesn’t matter.”
One time, I brought Elizabeth an Anita Shreve novel, and I watched her read the same two pages 18 times.
I actually counted.
Elizabeth read with her finger scanning paragraphs and words. She would smile and she would chuckle at different places in the successive readings. She would get to the end of the second of the two back-to-back pages and a slight look of panic would appear on her face. She couldn't remember reading the book, so of course she didn't know whether she was supposed to turn the page.
"Why don't you read your book, Elizabeth?" I would suggest in exactly the same tone of voice Angela Lansbury used when she asked Laurence Harvey, “Why don't you play a game of Solitaire?” in one of my all time favorite movies, The Manchurian Candidate
Mean of me, I know.
Because Elizabeth would immediately pick up the book and begin reading the same two pages again.
Alzheimer's was the epitome, somehow, of that old hippie mantra, Be Here Now. Elizabeth existed in the absolute present with no infiltration from past or future tenses. And that absolute present was getting smaller and smaller and smaller. That present was defined by an ever contracting recency bias.###
Elizabeth lived three weeks after Jeannie finally moved her from the Pacific Grove Cottage.
The facility Jeannie found for her was actually very pleasant, not institutional at all, a row of small white cottages that had been built in the early 20th century and that were not dissimilar in appearance from Elizabeth’s own tiny home.
Towards the end, Tony told me, Elizabeth didn’t recognize Jeannie at all.
“She’d just lay there stoking Jeannie’s arm,” Tony said. “And Jeannie would ask her, ‘Do you know who I am
?’ And Elizabeth would say, ‘No, but I know I love you.’”
“Demented old woman or Buddha saint?” I asked facetiously. “You
be the judge. How much did the cottage end up selling for?”
“”It was appraised at 2.1 million. But Jeannie’s not going to sell. She can borrow against just as effectively.”
“So now you’re rich!” I said. “Jeannie won’t talk to me at all. Did I do
something? Because honestly, if I did, I don’t know what it was.“
“You didn’t do anything,” Tony said.
“I thought we were friends,” I said. “I mean, I know I can be a jerk. I talk too loudly, I'm really tactless at times. I've consistently made all the wrong choices throughout my entire life. But I like to think I mean well. That there's something about me that's worthwhile. That I'm lovable
. That if someone were to see the shit I go through on a daily basis that they’d forgive me my numerous trespasses. That they’d have my back –“
“Trust me,” Tony said. “It's not you. It's her
. Jeannie thinks she killed her mother."
"And that I
told her to?" I asked.
Tony shrugged. "Well, I did too. I keep hoping it's time limited. Because living with her is a real drag
I never talked to Jeannie again after Elizabeth’s funeral.
Sydney and Robin are all grown up now. They recently reconnected on Facebook. He’s at Syracuse University; she’s at Bennington.
Fifteen years have passed.
“Sidney’s dad finally got to be a professor!” Robin reported to me. “In Santa Barbara!”
“Wow!” I said. “And how does Jeannie like Santa Barbara?”
“Oh, they got divorced.”