Saturday, 10 May 2014


I was reading the New York Review of Books, and was struck by the opening of an article by Jerome Groopman on memory. Describing his waking before dawn on a Sunday to start work on the piece, he makes his way to the kitchen.

"The dark-roast coffee was retrieved from its place in the pantry, four scoops then placed in a filter. While the coffee was brewing, I picked up the New York Times at the door...I prepared an egg-white omelettte and toasted two slices of multigrain bread. After a few sips of coffee, fragments of the night's dream came to mind..."

It's not how I would write it. Note the adjectival specificity. Not 'coffee', but dark-roast coffee. Not 'the paper' or indeed 'the Globe' since Prof. Groopman teaches at Harvard, but The New York Times (it is Sunday, in mitigation). Not 'eggs' but an 'egg-white omelette' and finally not 'toast' but toasted two slices of multigrain bread. It's not brand-name specific, like a Stephen King story, but it has the feel of one of the personal ads in the back of the NYRB, all professorial good taste and healthy options.

The article itself is an interesting review of a number of books about how memory works, and stops working. But Prof. Groopman's dietary preferences come back into focus near the end, as he discusses Alzheimer's disease.

"To be sure, there is merit in seeking environmental factors that affect risk for a disorder like Alzheimer's disease...But in this search we need to be alert to wishful thinking. Identifying something simple in the environment, like junk food, as having a major impact on developing dementia is wonderful to imagine. If true, we could markedly reduce our risk by committing to a lifestyle free of soda, pizza, and French fries."

Wishful thinking indeed! Soda, pizza and French fries sounds like the sort of stuff the creative writing professor discovers in the ice-box of the trailer-park waitress with whom he's having an affair in one of those 'dirty realism' novels from the Reaganite Eighties. But would losing them really be 'wonderful to imagine'? I now feel guilty in admitting that I followed my trip to the Yale Art Gallery last week by sharing a white clam pizza and a pitcher of birch beer with a professor friend at the Modern Apizza. Obviously we undid whatever positive effect walking through Yale had on my brain cells.

It occurs to me it might be even more wonderful were we to discover that Cambridge's dark-roast coffee, egg-white omelettes, and multigrain bread turned out to increase the risk-factor of Alzheimers. And isn't it even more likely that we someday discover the brains of readers of the New York Times have chosen to shut themselves down rather than remember being subjected to the likes of Tom Friedman or David Brooks?

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