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JENNI'S OFF-GRID NEWSLETTER, NO. 2 (JULY, 2015)

July 9, 2015

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia
A Brief Trip Back To A Past Obsession

In late June we fled our exceptionally cold NZ winter for our holiday apartment in Far North Tropical Queensland. Here in the depths of winter, days are a steady 26 to 28 degrees Centigrade, nights about 23 degrees, and the sea 25 degrees. But unusual it has been here as well, with rain every night and on many days. In past years we have had almost no rain. It is still balmy and the rain warm so it is not very hard to bear. In any case after ten days I had to fly to Sydney where they were having their coldest winter in years, with morning temperatures only six degrees (while in London people were dying as temperatures soared into the high thirties.) I was in Sydney at the invitation of the International Neuropsycholological Society (INS) who very generously awarded me their Distinguished Career Award. An honour indeed, and all the more special because the INS has been my professional home for over thirty years, and I have made many good friends there. (Scribe, Melbourne, the publisher of Trouble In Mind, is discounting the book to AUD$23.99 for July in recognition of the award, so do buy one for yourself or someone who might find it interesting! (http://scribepublications.com.au/news-events/news/jenni-ogden-recieves-distinguished-career-award/).

It was some years since I had been to an INS conference, as they are usually held in the US and Europe, and I wondered if I would find the talks less than riveting, given my career change to writing fiction. So I was both surprised and happy when I found the whole conference interesting, so much so that I barely left the hotel. Even better, I discovered that I could understand at a glance the slides summarising batteries of tests and nerdy statistics. It hasn’t changed that much in the last six years, and my memory is still keeping up.

Following four days in Sydney I flew north to the Whitsundays to join more old (and new) friends at a much more intimate international neurorehabilitation conference. Daydream Island is a very resortish type small island but lovely for three days, and this time I did take an afternoon off and took the boat further out into the Whitsundays to Whitehaven Beach, which is regularly listed in the top ten most beautiful beaches in the world (photo above). The sand is 98.9% silica, finer than salt and pure white. Also known as a great jewellery cleaner. My mother’s 80-year-old engagement ring which has never left my finger since my father gave it to me on my 21st birthday, looks like new again (not sadly, my finger). The water was crystal turquoise and caressed the skin like warm silk, and the ninety minute boat trip back was through a multihued sunset. A perfect blend of back to the past neuropsychology and my current obsession with writing fiction, given my first novel is set right here on the Great Barrier Reef. All conferences should be like this.

Now back at Trinity Beach, and a return to all the bits and pieces that go with publishing—marketing stuff, tip sheets for sales team, blurbs, headshots, and most exciting, the birth of the front cover of A Drop in the Ocean. I love it (to be revealed soon…) And all this for a novel that won’t be published until May 4th, 2016!!

Book Review

Given the neuropsychology theme of this newsletter, I thought I would continue the thread and review my favourite book so far this year. It is not a novel, but it is gives truth to the saying that fact is stranger than fiction—or if not stranger, certainly more captivating.


On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

July 9th, 2015: As I write this, Oliver Sacks is celebrating his 82nd birthday. Almost five months ago, his readers, fans, patients and friends read, with heavy hearts, his New York Times essay My Own Life: Oliver Sacks on learning he has terminal cancer. I was one of numerous thousands who felt a very personal sadness that this lovely man had not only been going through a tough time, but had more hard times ahead. Somewhat selfishly—also like thousands of others—I felt bereft as I looked at my shelf of Oliver Sacks books and realised that there would be only one more.

But what a one. Dr. Sacks’ autobiography, On The Move: A Life, published just two months after his moving tribute to life and death, is a triumph. The cover shows Marlon Brando in leathers astride a motorbike—who knows, perhaps Brando had been a patient or friend of the unconventional Dr. Sacks? No, of course it was Oliver himself in his younger years when his greatest passion was motorbikes. As a young neurology resident in Los Angeles he would take off on his bike on Friday when he had finished at the hospital and ride 500 miles in a straight line along Route 66 to the Grand Canyon, arriving with the sunrise. There he would hike in the Canyon before riding back to LA on Sunday night, arriving in time to appear “bright and fresh” for neurology rounds on Monday morning. Around the same time he was a weightlifter of some note, in the heavyweight class. He also swam enormous distances in the sea, and loved scuba diving, photography, botany, natural history, music and poetry.

The first book of his that I read was The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and I suspect that this is still the best known of his many books. I had recently completed my PhD in clinical neuropsychology, and had already decided that what I wanted to do more than any other sort of research was to seek out and study single cases, so reading this when it was first published in 1985 was a wonderful confirmation of my decision—especially as large group studies were (and still are) considered more respectable and “scientific”. In fact Sacks’ first book was Migraine, which he wrote in a period of days in 1967 and then struggled to publish, primarily because of the efforts to prevent it being published by the jealous head of the Migraine Clinic Sacks had been working in.

This is just one of the stories that populate On The Move which is written almost as separate stories, where one tale flows naturally into another, yet where there is a feeling of time passing from his years as a young man, to middle age and finally to old age. In this sense it is almost as if he is observing himself as he does his patients. There has often been an autobiographical thread through his books; in one of my favourites, The Mind’s Eye, he is one of the cases—he describes his own lifelong problem with recognising faces, and later his terrible loss of depth vision when he loses the sight in one eye. Then of course there is A Leg To Stand On, which draws on his own hallucinatory experiences after an accident when the muscles of his leg were badly damaged; Hallucinations, inspired by his own hallucinatory drug-fuelled experiences; and his memoir of his childhood, Uncle Tungsten. In On The Move he comments: “It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing”, and this certainly encapsulates what he achieves in his books . Yet he has never revealed the private Sacks until now, in On The Move. Perhaps it is only as he stands (on both legs) looking back and reviews his long and eventful-rich life that he sees these deeply personal and vivid memories as core to this final story.

In his eighties he has no qualms about shocking his readers with his straight-forward honesty as he tells us about his sexual baptism in Amsterdam in 1955, and his introduction to the gay lifestyle. Candid observations of his drug addiction, sultry love affairs and unrequited desires for beautiful young men at one end of the spectrum, and 50 years of psychoanalysis with the same therapist at the other, are all here. His close relationships with his doctor parents, his aunts and uncles, and his disabled brother, each of whom contributed to the gentle, curious, shy, eccentric, deeply thoughtful man he became; his friendships with many famous people including W.H. Auden, Francis Crick, Stephen Jay Gould, and Carol Burnett—none because they were famous but all because their minds and personalities clicked with his—; his reliance on Kate Edgar, the amazing woman who for 30 years has been his personal assistant, editor, collaborator and friend; the enduring doctor-patient relationships he formed with his patients; the stories behind his books and the Awakenings movie: all are captured in this engaging story of his life.

There is a wry sense of humour throughout and many poignant moments; the most poignant, perhaps, that about finding love. Halfway through the book he tells us about a wild week of drug-fuelled sex he had with a delicious young stud he met on his 40th birthday—“the perfect birthday present….parting without pain or promises when our week was up.” But then he notes “It was just as well that I had no foreknowledge of the future, for after that sweet birthday fling I was to have no sex for the next thirty-five years.”

Not until the end of the book do we learn that in 2008 when he was 75 he met Billy Hayes, also a writer, and two years later they discovered they were deeply in love. He observes “It has sometimes seemed to me that I have lived at a certain distance from life. This changed when Billy and I fell in love… now (for God’s sake!) I was in my seventy-seventh year.”

As I closed the book I was left with the feeling that in these final months—many more I hope—Oliver Sacks has reached a truly happy place. And from this reader, what more is there to say than thank you Dr. Sacks.

Articles of Possible Interest

1. My most recent Psychology Today post: Creative Rehabilitation: Part 2, Severe Head Injury (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/trouble-in-mind-0)

2. Here is the link to Oliver Sacks’ New York Times essay My Own Life: Oliver Sacks on Learning he has terminal cancer. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/opinion/oliver-sacks-on-learning-he-has-terminal-cancer.html?_r=0

3. Check this out for a stunning picture in the Australian Geographic of Whitehaven Beach; named the world’s most eco-friendly beach. http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/news/2010/07/queensland-beach-named-worlds-best/

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