Two faces of dementia

I’ve been trying to catch up with the Academy Award-winning movies, but it hasn’t been easy this year. Not many of them played at the local multiplex, where “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” edged out “Wild” or “The Theory of Everything.” To see the latter, you had to either go to the mall in Middletown—and I hate the mall in Middletown—or wait for Netflix.

My friend Lisa and I did brave the mall to see “The Imitation Game” a couple of weeks ago—all hail Benedict Cumberbatch. And last weekend, we went back for “Still Alice.”

Julianne Moore certainly deserved her Oscar for best actress as a brilliant linguistics professor afflicted by early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In an interview on “The Daily Show,” Moore told Jon Stewart that to research the role she met with many Alzheimer’s victims, who proved eager to share their experiences. She modeled Alice on what they told her.

Many of us have witnessed the progression of this horrible disease from the outside in. I watched my father-in-law struggle with it, for example, saw him lose his abilities little by little over time, like a death by a thousand cuts. “Still Alice” turns the equation around and shows you what it’s like from the inside out—how it feels to lose not just your memory, but your very sense of self.

Weirdly, we may be witnessing something along these lines in our home right now. It’s hard to explain just how, but we are pretty sure our oldest and most beautiful cat, Taz, who is 17, is becoming a little bit senile. He still knows where he is and recognizes the people and other cats with whom he shares a home. He still knows how to use the litter box, thankfully.

But he’s confused. He forgets to eat and after I coax him to do so, he forgets that he’s just eaten and goes looking for something else to nosh. He’s alternately fearful and aggressive with the other cats. And, most disturbing, he’s taken to yowling at strange times. For a while, he was waking us up at 2 or 3 every morning with what sounded like an existential cry—Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

It seems to us that at these times, he suddenly doesn’t know where he is, much like Julianne Moore’s Alice, who in one heartbreaking scene goes running on the Columbia campus. This is the school where she teaches and she knows the neighborhood well. Nevertheless, at a certain point she stops dead in her tracks and looks around, befuddled. She’s lost; she doesn’t recognize the quad.

Feline senile dementia is an actual veterinary diagnosis. Who knew? I’ve never seen it in any cat before this one. The increased vocalization, confusion and behavioral changes are all symptoms.

We’ve had Taz since kittenhood and love him dearly. He’ll have a safe, stable home for the rest of his days. Whatever his cognitive deficits, as with Alice in the movie, he’s Still Taz to us.


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Soup’s on!

There’s the Zen-like pleasure of peeling and chopping the vegetables, followed by the satisfying sound—like cats hissing—when you drop them in the oil to sautee. You might add beans, greens, tomatoes; barley or rice; water or stock. And then—here’s the best part—you walk away, leaving supper to quietly cook itself.

Such are the pleasures of making soup, soon followed by the delights of eating it. A good, hearty soup is the ultimate comfort food on a frigid, snowy evening and I, for one, have been making at least a pot of it every week this winter.

Mine was not a soup family. My mother hated soup and never once made it, unless you count opening a can of Campbell’s. (Tomato was my favorite, while my brother preferred chicken noodle.)

Mom’s antipathy arose from a more specific distaste for her mother’s chicken soup, which Grandma made with a whole chicken, bones and all. My cousin Karen remembers it as the best soup ever, but like my mother, I found Grandma’s chicken soup alarming. Dotted on the surface with chicken fat, it held an ocean of unknown entities within. I remember as a small child—maybe 5 or 6—fishing a bone out of my bowl and innocently asking if I were expected to eat it along with the rest of the contents.

Like Grandma, I do boil up the carcass for stock when making chicken soup. But then I debone it. No vertebrae make it to the bowl.

Otherwise my version is mainly vegetables, with the deboned chicken thrown in almost as an afterthought. Indeed, most of my soups are heavy on vegetables, if not overtly vegetarian. Soup is a way to sneak more veggies into our meals. Parsnips, cauliflower and turnips—foods my husband thinks he doesn’t like—go incognito here.

A number of recipes work well for me. My friend Patricia shared one for a Moroccan red-lentil soup that attains a wonderful, creamy consistency without being put through the blender. Meanwhile, the pasta e fagioli recipe from my old Romagnolis’ cookbook is such a staple—especially during Lent—that I know it by heart and no longer need to open the book.

But mostly I wing it, taking my inspiration from whatever I find in the fridge. My husband told me the other day that he loves my soup and has never had a bad one. That’s probably not so—I’m sure I’ve missed the mark here and there. But it’s nice to know I’m cooking for an appreciative audience, especially when you consider the potential consequences of bad soup.

Just look at Lizzie Borden. She killed her father and stepmother with an ax on a long-ago day in Fall River, Mass., after eating mutton soup for breakfast. I felt a good deal more compassion for Lizzie after I learned that particular detail of her case. A smart lawyer surely could have turned mutton soup, served on a broiling-hot August morning, into the 19th-century equivalent of a Twinkie defense.

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Spending eternity on Facebook

You’ve got your will and living will in order. You’ve named a health care proxy and a power of attorney—just in case. But there’s one more executor to nominate: the person who will manage your Facebook account after you’re gone.

Facebook announced last week that you can now designate a “legacy contact” to take over your timeline after your demise, writing posts, changing profile pictures, responding to friend requests and so on. This person won’t actually log in as you or have access to your private messages. But he or she will be able to otherwise keep your site humming.

Has the graying of Facebook brought the issue of the digital afterlife to the fore? From statistics compiled at Lifehacker, it seems that 30 million Facebook users died during the first eight years of the social media site’s existence. That’s a lot of people, and if my experience is any indication, most of them are probably still up there.

I count an even dozen deceased Facebook friends, only one of whom has had his account deleted. His wife or kids must have known his password and taken down his page. Or maybe they sent proof of death to Facebook (death certificate, obituary) and asked to have it removed.

The other 11 are still on my active friends list, just as they were when they lived, breathed and walked among us. From a quick look at their pages, it appears that none of them have been formally “memorialized”—Facebook speak for a kind of limbo state where the site still exists but is semi-retired. You won’t, for example, get birthday reminders or notices of “likes” once a page has been memorialized (and is so marked by the word “Remembering” in front of the person’s name).

Since my friends are not in the memorialized state, I do get birthday reminders for them and sometimes glimpse their names among those liking particular sites—the Boston Red Sox, Kitten Associates, local restaurants. At times it’s unnerving—but it’s kind of nice, too. Why not take note of their birthdays or remember that they liked eating at Bar Louis?

All 11 pages are chock full of the outpourings that people have posted since these friends died. Indeed, Facebook seems to be functioning as a collective repository for loving memories—a digital meeting place where people can express their grief.

But once in a while, inevitably, something weird happens. I was looking at my friend Cliff’s page, reading the messages posted there after his death. As I scrolled down to a touching photo of Cliff in a big bear hug with his longtime best friend, my Chrome browser suddenly crashed. Up popped a screen showing the icon of a defunct cartoon computer above the words “He’s dead, Jim.”

Turns out that’s a catchphrase from “Star Trek,” the “Jim” being Captain James T. Kirk. But it freaked me out for one long moment, because Cliff’s best friend—the guy in the picture—is named Jim. The digital universe can be a spooky place indeed.


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Amateur bookseller

I used to date a poet who collected first editions. He was always fine-tuning his collection, reselling certain books and acquiring others in an endless back-and-forth with the booksellers. This was long before eBay, so the hunt took place in dusty little shops where the light from the windows clung to the ceiling, never penetrating the maze of shelves below.

Shopping with him made me see books as more than just something to read. They are also collectible objects, interesting in themselves—not just for content, but also for design, typography and other factors. When I found myself informing a friend that the book club edition he was happily reading had no collectible value, I knew I had crossed the line from reader to collector.

I began with a small collection of cat books to which I’ve added over the years—most recently on Saturday, when I snagged “Working Cats,” a 1979 book of photography, at the library book sale. What can I say? I like cats.

When I moved from Brooklyn to Pennsylvania, I began acquiring books on natural history and local lore, along with vintage editions of the works of favorite authors and other books with pretty covers or interesting illustrations. There were so many lovely old volumes available for next to nothing at yard sales and flea markets: Victorian books with gilt lettering on the covers; Arts & Crafts volumes with distinctive typography on thick, creamy paper; first editions of interesting titles; or simply books that I felt must have some kind of collectible value—for someone.

Soon I had too many books. So, like my old pal the poet, I began selling them. I remember my first eBay sales. I didn’t even have an account at the time, but a friend posted listings for me. The star was a 1920s etiquette book signed by Emily Post that I had picked up at a church sale. It got bid up to over $100.

I’ve sporadically sold books on eBay ever since, but it’s not as easy as that first foray had me believe. The bookseller’s world is a rarefied place with its own constraints and language. Just describing a book is an art. Is the volume good, fine or very fine? How to describe smudges, tears and foxing without making the book sound like a wreck? Is there a dust jacket and if so, in what condition? Or did a particular book never have one? What the heck is a pastedown?

I’ve divested some of the books I began my collection with. The vintage volumes on bird life and natural history did surprisingly well on eBay. So did a WPA children’s book I picked up at a thrift store.

I’ve had less luck with the literary first editions I recently bought at auction. (Will I never learn?) A signed copy of Norman Mailer’s “The Prisoner of Sex,” for example, languished on eBay for weeks. I may relist it—or maybe I will try Amazon and see if the home of the Kindle is a better sales venue.

As a last resort, I could always just read it.

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Happy birthday, Mom

It’s a shame Mom got stuck with a February birthday, since she hated winter, hated being cold. But my grandparents seemed to like having babies in February. My aunt and one uncle were born that month, too, though my other uncle arrived in September. Mom died on his birthday last year but thankfully, not on mine, which was a few days earlier.

Please, please, don’t die on my birthday, I silently begged after hearing she had suffered a devastating stroke. I didn’t want her departure from life to be paired with my arrival in it for the rest of my days.

Winter made it hard to plan big gatherings for Mom’s birthday, which was the third, the day after Groundhog Day. You just never knew about the weather. But over the years we deviated from the quiet-family-dinner tradition to mount a couple of bashes, including a combination birthday-and-retirement party the year she turned 65. Mom’s house was so packed with friends, neighbors and family that I felt confident she would be surrounded with people and activity after she stopped working.

In fact, Mom didn’t stay unemployed for long. She got bored with retirement, so she put in a year as a Vista volunteer assigned to Habitat for Humanity in a poor neighborhood of Providence, R.I. When that gig was over, she went to work for the local library, part-time.

Ten years later, we held a big 75th birthday party for her. By then she had moved to Pennsylvania and lived in the house next door to ours, after a series of small strokes made it hard for her to manage on her own in Rhode Island. The move depressed her—or maybe it was the strokes. She didn’t seem to enjoy the party. She grabbed my brother and sister-in-law and made an early exit. By her 85th birthday, she had moved into assisted living near them in Ohio.

Mom had always been scrupulous about observing everyone’s birthdays. But in the last years of her life, as the great forgetfulness settled in on her, she no longer remembered. The cards, gifts and phone calls stopped coming.

The stroke occurred on Labor Day weekend, the day before my birthday. I would be flying out to see her the day after. So I was amazed to come home from a birthday party at a friend’s to hear her faltering voice on the answering machine, wishing me a happy day.

I quickly called the nurses’ station at the neuro ICU where she was being treated. Since her admission she had spoken only monosyllables. But when a nurse mentioned the date during a routine cognitive assessment, Mom suddenly exclaimed, “That’s my daughter’s birthday!” and insisted on calling.

The nurse brought a portable phone into her room so that we could chat. She didn’t sound quite like herself—it was obvious something had happened—but she was able to speak coherently, in complete (if short) sentences. I told her I would see her the next day and she seemed to understand.

When I got to Columbus, she could barely speak, but she held my hand and I’m pretty sure she knew who I was. She died a few days later, having given me, in that final phone call, the most remarkable birthday present I ever received.


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Reykjavik or bust

It’s not that I didn’t know snow. I grew up in New England, after all. But when I first moved to Pennsylvania 25 years ago, winter would flatten me. I’d look out my window and see nothing but white. I used to joke that it was like living in an Ingmar Bergman movie—one of the bleaker ones.

My seasonal affective disorder improved over time, and now snow season has become something to endure, not to dread. I’m not a skier, I no longer skate and I don’t go ice fishing. What’s more, I’ve had a couple of bad spills on icy streets. So I spend a lot of time indoors.

I should probably head to Miami. Instead, I’m going to Reykjavik.

“A little birdie told me you’re going to ICELAND,” my friend Rita teased in an e-mail. “Isn’t Milford cold enough?”

Indeed, looking out at the snow on the ground here in northeast Pennsylvania, I’m wondering if I was nuts to have picked Iceland for a winter vacation. Who wants to see more of the white stuff?

But here we are thinking about what to pack and looking forward to seeing all manner of geological marvels in this northernmost outpost of Europe. There are geysers, volcanoes and hot springs; glaciers, tundra and crashing waterfalls. And oh yes, the northern lights. It was the northern lights that drew us.

I never gave Iceland more than a passing thought until last December, when I happened to see a Groupon ad for a northern lights tour. Northern lights—the aurora borealis. What a show! Somehow the idea burrowed into my imagination and took hold.

My husband and I began talking about it—idly, at first. We did a little research and learned that by all accounts, Iceland is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Soon enough, the idea of going there took on a life of its own. And when I heard my husband say he would wear a new pair of warm wool trousers “when we’re in Iceland,” I knew we had to do it. So last week we took a deep breath, got out the plastic and booked.

I’ve been to Europe a half dozen times, but not for many years. I was younger and bolder then. My husband’s experience with foreign travel consisted of a government-paid trip to a small country in Southeast Asia 45 years ago. Our one excursion as a couple outside of U.S. borders was a road trip to Quebec City. We don’t even have passports. Let’s hope the ones we applied for just after New Year’s arrive soon.

It turns out a number of acquaintances—friends, or friends of friends—have been to Iceland and loved it. One friend honeymooned there and in a sense, that’s what we will be doing. We never took a real honeymoon. We got tapped out just paying for the wedding. But here we are, 16 years later, looking forward to spending our anniversary in Reykjavik.


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The naked truth about aging

In a weird way, the tsk-tsking over a pair of high-fashion ad campaigns featuring Joni Mitchell and Joan Didion reminds me of the flap over a pregnant Demi Moore posing naked for Vanity Fair in 1991.

I remember talking about the Moore cover at the time with a colleague who admitted to being a little bit shocked. Not at seeing a nude woman—we see nude women all the time in movies, magazines and art. It was the fact that she was so very pregnant that he found disturbing.

A nude pregnant woman isn’t an aesthetic object or figure of fantasy in the same way a Playboy model or Goya’s “Naked Maja” might be. She’s a real person (albeit a gorgeous movie star) with baby onboard.

Joan and Joni didn’t have to take it all off for Celine and YSL, respectively, to cause the same kind of stir. All they needed to do was to show their aging faces in moody, black-and-white fashion shots without (it seems) much makeup or retouching. Each looks unapologetically old—Didion is 80 and Mitchell, 71—and completely at ease with themselves. I guess those naked faces are a different type of nudity.

Ultimately, time catches up with us all; there’s no way around it. We won’t look youthful forever. Stopgaps like Botox, lasers and surgery have their limits. People who have work done look—well, they look like people who have had work done. Who’s more attractive, Joan Didion or Joan Rivers?

It’s our reaction to those faces—not to mention the ones we see in the bathroom mirror—that’s the problem. We like to look at pretty people, and that’s what Madison Avenue and Hollywood dish up 99% of the time. When they give us something different, what are we to think?

I, for one, had mixed feelings about the Mitchell ad in particular. Joni is a boomer icon. I’ve long followed her career and still love her music. She was so striking and unconventionally pretty back in the day; I found it disconcerting to see her as she is now.

Am I brainwashed by the beauty culture? Or spooked at the reminder that I’m aging right along with her, and have my own wrinkles and sags to contend with?

Yet on another level, it’s inspiring to see the unvarnished photos of real older women who seem comfortable in their own skins. Mitchell and Didion challenge us to look beneath the surface and rethink our definition of beauty. “Will you take me as I am?” Mitchell sings in “California.” It could be her refrain now.

“We (women) don’t really have any idea of how we ought to look anymore, just how we’re told we ought to want to look,” says Anna Quindlen in her book on aging, “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.” Mitchell and Didion, of course, have the help of chic design houses in figuring it out. But perhaps their radical self-acceptance can be a lesson of sorts for the rest of us.


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TV hits and misses

The theme from “M*A*S*H” is playing over and over in my head, all because of our new cable channel, MeTV. The network isn’t named for the “Me” Generation (the acronym stands for “Memorable Entertainment Television”), but it might as well be. All its shows are reruns spanning the formative years for the baby boomers, the 1950s through 1980s.

We don’t watch Nick at Nite or TV Land, the other two channels specializing in “classic TV.” But for some reason, MeTV has become a favorite in our household. If nothing else is on, an old episode of “The Rockford Files” or “Taxi” will do.

For my husband, MeTV is déjà vu all over again. He grew up with TV and knows all the actors and shows. But for me, much of it is terra incognita. I remember the programs from the 1950s and ‘60s, when I still lived at home with my parents. But I missed what television had to offer in the ‘70s, since we had no TV during my first marriage. My first husband didn’t believe in it. He was an Amherst man, a bit older and something of an intellectual. I think he took all those warnings about the “vast wasteland” seriously.

I must have agreed with him, because I don’t remember TV non-ownership being an issue between us. Nevertheless, once we divorced I promptly got my first TV—an old black-and-white set that friends were giving away. Even then, the only thing I remember watching on a regular basis was “Dallas,” assuming I didn’t have anything better to do on a Friday night.

My abysmal lack of knowledge about TV was ironic given that during some of this period, I worked at Us Magazine (now called Us Weekly). I fell into a job as a copy editor there soon after moving to New York in the late 1970s, when celebrity journalism was still new. It was a fun place to work, if you didn’t mind deadlines. Coming from a daily newspaper background, I didn’t.

Through my job, I knew of Farrah Fawcett, John Travolta and other TV stars. I knew all about “CHiPs” and “M*A*S*H” and the typographical peculiarities of their titles. But I never saw the shows.

All these years later, I’m catching up on at least some of this programming via MeTV. There are so many gaps in my knowledge. Who knew Doris Day once had a sitcom? I only found out when MeTV aired a Christmas episode. “Black Sheep Squadron”? “Emergency!”? Never heard of them.

And oh, the commercials. They all seem to be touting laxatives, support hose or lawsuits over failed hip replacements. Clearly, the advertisers are well aware of the MeTV demographic. It’s a little frightening to find myself a part of it.

“M*A*S*H” I like; “Cheers” too. But many of the shows from the so-called golden age of television are pretty lame. If I never see “Gilligan’s Island” again, it will be too soon.

TV is better now, in the 21st century. And when it’s not, there’s Netflix.

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Maybe it really is ‘all in your head’

I’ve always been a reader. It’s nothing for me to consume a book in a day or two, if it’s something that really grabs me. So it was a matter of some concern when suddenly, last fall, I stopped reading. I would pick up a book, read a few pages and put it down. The genre didn’t matter—fiction, nonfiction, lightweight, literary. Nothing held my interest.

Was I spending too much time on the Internet? Perhaps darting from site to site and playing Candy Crush Saga in between had ruined my powers of concentration. But then it dawned on me. I stopped reading in September, right after my mother died. It might have been a form of mourning.

Thankfully, my reading life has resumed. I started the new year at the Friends of the Library sale room, where I bought several books. I read one of them—Cathy Crimmins’ “Where Is the Mango Princess?”—in two days. Just like old times.

This is a genre I like—a memoir by a gifted writer of an unusual, transformative event. In this case, it was the traumatic brain injury (TBI) that befell Crimmins’ husband while the family was vacationing in Canada. Alan was struck by a speedboat. Talk about freak accidents.

Crimmins’ account of his recovery and post-TBI personality changes helped me understand my mother a little bit better, retrospectively. Mom suffered a brain injury too—a series of small strokes in the summer of 1999. Although she looked the same afterward and did not show any visible deficits—no paralysis, for example—she was a different person in important ways.

As with Crimmins’ husband, the damage to the frontal lobes caused a degree of disinhibition, which in Mom’s case took the form of rather colorful cursing that seemed weird coming from a little old lady. It wasn’t extreme or constant, but it was enough so that our dentist, when offering condolences on her death, joked about what she might be saying to Saint Peter.

Another issue was suggestibility. Mom was an easy mark for telephone solicitors, TV ads and magazine salesmen. I had to make many a phone call to disenroll her from miracle eye cream subscriptions and bogus credit-card protection services.

This wasn’t Mom—not really. It was her TBI, a physical injury.

Indeed, reading Crimmins’ book has made me question whether other behaviors I see around me could be organic rather than neurotic in origin. People in my cohort are at that dangerous age when changes in the brain are beginning to happen, whether from silent strokes, hardening of the arteries or incipient diseases too scary to name. Could brain malfunction explain why a friend’s wife tells those long, tedious stories, or another friend blurts out casual insults and seems to lack a verbal gatekeeper?

My next book up is a memoir of autism, another source of unusual behaviors. These books remind me to be charitable in how I view people’s actions. You don’t know what someone’s situation is. Sometimes they really can’t help it.


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The upside and downside of memories

There’s something artificial about the “year in review” roundups you see in newspapers and on TV in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Life doesn’t tie up so easily into a neat, 12-month package. The borderlines are porous, or perhaps nonexistent. Jan. 1 winds up looking suspiciously like Dec. 31.

Facebook too has been offering a look back at 2014, a brief pictorial review that gathers a few of your more important posts of the year into a little presentation, under the headline “It’s been a great year. Thanks for being a part of it.” I saw a couple of these on friends’ timelines. But when Facebook showed me the one it had created for me, I came face-to-face with my mother’s obituary and a post about the death of a beloved cat. I decided not to hit “share.”

“Everybody had a hard year, everybody had a good time,” says John Lennon on “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and that’s as good a summation as any for New Year’s Eve. It’s true—the year was a hard one in some ways. And yet, didn’t we have a good time too? No doubt it will be the same in 2015. That’s just the way life is.

This year, instead of making New Year’s resolutions that I am unlikely or unable to keep, I am formulating a simpler goal: to be mindful of memories. Memories are precious, of course. But they cut both ways. You’d be amazed at the number of people who told me how much they dreaded Christmas because the holiday was not what it used to be in memory. The kids were grown, people had died, families had drifted apart. Memories of Christmases past made it impossible to enjoy Christmas present.

My own attempt to recapture certain particular memories was a complete flop. When I was in my mid-20s, I spent a couple of afternoons recording my grandmother speaking about her life. Grandma was a natural storyteller and she gave me some great material about working in New England textile mills as a child and raising four children during the Depression.

I transcribed the interview and some years ago, made clean copies for family members. But recently, my cousin Karen asked me to duplicate the tape itself so that she could hear Grandma’s voice again. I decided to give it to her as a Christmas present.

I found the tape, popped it into the machine and began recording, only to realize I had begun on side 2. I hit Stop, reversed and fast-forwarded a couple of times, then turned the tape over and pressed Record.

Nothing happened. The tape was old and fragile; the overzealous activity had snapped it. My husband, who can fix anything, couldn’t fix it. Neither could the professional audio guy I consulted.

Disappointed, I tossed the partially unspooled tape on my desk and there it lay until one day, my Maine coon cat, Bob, jumped up there. Soon I heard a funny noise. It sounded as if Bobcat were eating something. Indeed, he was ingesting Grandma’s stories.

I ran over, opened his mouth and began gently pulling. Out came a couple of feet of 40-year-old audiotape.

The cat was OK. No harm done. But the message was clear. It’s dangerous to try to hold on to the past. You really can’t go home again.

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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines and book publishing. She currently edits Xcell Journal, a technical ... Read Full
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