books, interweb, people, science

Remembering Oliver Sacks

Though I was only peripherally and more pop-culturally familiar with his work, neurologist and prolific writer¬†Oliver Sacks’ was hard to miss these past days, as the creative community began¬†publishing beautiful tribute and remembrance pieces in the wake of his death from cancer at age 82.

Sabine Heinlein’s lovely¬†Swimming with Oliver Sacks,¬†recalls¬†her encounter with a bathing-cap-clad Sacks at a writer’s retreat in the Adirondacks in 2012.

RadioLab aired an extremely touching sit down¬†between Robert Krulwich and Sacks, who had been a dear friend and constant inspiration to¬†the program since its inception. The episode touches on some of Sacks’ most painful memories of love, loss, and loneliness. It’s a tear-jerker.

Starlee Kine reposted a piece she wrote in 2013, remembering the kindness Sacks displayed one summer in the late 90s, when he responded to a letter she thought he would never read.

I’ve begun digging into the archives of Sacks’ writing. To say there is a lot is an understatement. He wrote right¬†up until the end of his life, and a¬†note on his personal site says the latest pieces will be released¬†posthumously in the coming¬†weeks.¬†Face-Blind, published in The New Yorker in 2010, is a fascinating story¬†about Sacks’¬†lifetime of dealing with face blindness, or the inability to recognize familiar faces, sometimes even his own reflection. What was¬†often mistaken for social ineptitude, rudeness, or even Asperger’s by acquaintances, was in fact just a misinterpretation of his difficulty recognizing faces.

Next on my list is his¬†book,¬†The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales,¬†in which he recounts case histories of various bizarre and fantastical neurological disorders. Sacks was an amazing storyteller, and though he’s gone I’m much looking forward to spending some more time with him.

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movies, people

Joan Rivers Tribute Post

“I don’t want to retire. I don’t want to sit in the sun. I don’t want to learn to garden. I paint. Who gives a shit.”

Last night¬†to honor¬†the passing of Joan Rivers, I re-watched the touching¬†2010 documentary about her life and career,¬†Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Given the context of the viewing, it was even more heartbreaking the second time around. For a woman who had gone ‘under the knife’ so often, it seemed particularly tragic and sad that she¬†had died, seemingly still full of vim and vigor, from such a relatively simple medical procedure.

I think most people of my generation and the generations after only associate Rivers with the later half of her career, when her caustic fashion-policing and grating turns on reality TV shows like Celebrity Apprentice positioned her as this kind of manic, slightly freakish, aging, and desperate comedian.

That’s why this movie is so enlightening, it gives you a¬†glimpse of her golden years and shines a light on the darker insecurities that fueled her¬†style of humor and relentless work ethic.¬†Before¬†she was on the red carpet, or winning over Donald Trump, or headlining shows at depressing Midwest¬†casinos, Rivers truly was a game-changer. When she emerged on the scene in the mid-60s, in appearances on The Tonight Show with brand new host Johnny Carson, she joked frankly and freely about sex and abortion, topics people still get squeamish about to this day. Carson loved her style and nurtured her career ‚Äď she became his¬†permanent guest host¬†in the early 80s.

But for all the early love and admiration, her career seemed destined for tragedy and pain. When she accepted an offer to host her own late night talk show on then newcomer FOX’s network, Carson was furious.¬†He had her blacklisted from Late Night and never spoke to her again, for the rest of his life. Rattled by the loss of her mentor, Rivers lost her confidence and the show foundered.¬†FOX asked her to fire her producer, her own husband Edgar Rosenberg. She refused, was fired herself, and the show was cancelled. Rosenberg¬†committed suicide shortly after because he was allegedly so distraught over the whole episode. (Clinical depression didn’t help matters.)

The thing you take away from the movie is that Rivers has been fighting her entire life. Against critics and¬†sexists, against the mainstream, and¬†her own negative self-image, against¬†people who said she should just stop working already and learn to garden. But she can’t. She needs to work, to entertain. The thought of giving it up¬†is never an option. Driven by passion, by compulsion, you know at the end of the film that she’ll never, ever stop.

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