Galzheimer's

A Spy in the House of Work

I invited three busy women friends to lunch recently, hoping to get stood up. I stage it to see if what the businesswomen of the '90s complains about is true -- that the most frustrating part of her job isn't the long hours or the glass ceiling, but the fact that she can't remember a thing. Recently I was sitting in the soon-to-be-plush office of a hip startup company in Manhattan where I was forgotten. I don't mean I was left stranded in the lobby. I was in the inner-sanctum meeting with the Grand Fromage herself and suddenly, midsentence (mine), she said, "Oh! Have I gotten you one of our T-shirts yet?"

She scurried out of the room. I sat. Her sub-cheeses, also female, sat. We waited until it became apparent that Her Fromageness wasn't coming back. One of the sub-cheeses, who, despite her two-carat diamond studs - a present to herself from herself -- and deep-green Armani suit, looked like the lead in Harriet the Spy, went in search of her boss.

"Well," Would-Be Harriet said, returning with the answer, "she forgot. She walked into another meeting."

"Not one woman I know remembers anything anymore," said the other woman, who was seven months pregnant and looking a little wilted.

They went on to compare how shot their short-term memories were. Would-Be Harriet said that every day she walked from her office to the Xerox room, only to forget why she'd come. Pregnant and Wilted was forever calling people and forgetting, first who she'd called, and then why she'd called.

"It's Galzheimer's," explains another female boss, head of public relations for an arts organization. We were supposed to meet for drinks after work one evening, but she spaced it. "It's the disease of women who do too much, who then forget what they've done, thinking they've done nothing, so they continue doing more, only to forget it. My problem is I knew I was meeting you on Tuesday, but I forgot what day it was."

Before you leap to click on Compose Mail, let me make it clear that Galzheimer's is not a synonym for ditzy. Waitresses and aspiring folksingers never get Galzheimer's. Most likely it's genetic; women who carry the Galzheimer's gene often have mothers who obsessed about the linen closet while holding down a full-time job and refusing the convenience of TV dinners.

But those mothers were busy, not overwhelmed. They had no email to check, play-dates to arrange, food labels to read. Their success didn't require being as buff as an Olympic athlete in one of the less-televised sports. There was no Martha Stewart.

To my lunch at the nameless restaurant I invited:

1. A 39-year-old engineer at a software manufacturer, married, the mother of a 4-year-old and a 14-month-old, who kayaks when she isn't restoring the house;

2. A 26-year-old human resources veep for an electronics firm, married, no children, but owner of an aging, diabetic Rhodesian Ridgeback that requires insulin shots twice daily; and

3. My gardener, a 32-year-old gay activist who owns her own landscaping service, writes the gardening column for a local paper, and regularly redesigns her own home page.

I designed the experiment like a developmental specialist testing how toddlers process complex instructions: I suggested lunch here -- or no, there -- not at 12:00 but at 12:30, or could we make it 1:30? I called back the next day and said that I'll have to make it this week, not next week, at 1:00.

It's 1:20. The only one who's here is the kayaking software manager. She arrives saying she couldn't remember -- Had I said 1:00 or 1:30?

Does she think she suffers from Galzheimer's?

"Who doesn't? It's from the multitasking -- what women are so good at. I can talk on the phone, write a memo, and listen to my son natter on about ninja whatever all at the same time."

She sips her mineral water, warming to the subject. "It's like those dumb science-fiction movies from the '50s where what kills the all-powerful alien is a common virus. The downfall of the successful woman is that she can do too much, and she does it all too well, and -- wait, what were we talking about again?"

My gardener never made it - something she remembers when she comes by my house. "Last week was hell," she says.

"I know," I say. "It's Galzheimer's."

"No!" she says. "I just forgot."

A week later I phone the HR veep.

She's all confused. Isn't it this week? I tell her I'd called to reschedule, didn't she get my voice mail?

"Mark must have taken the message, then forgotten to give it to me."

Aha! "Guyzheimer's?" I suggest.

"Nah. Testosterone poisoning."

The Spy is a novelist who lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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