ALUMNI PROFILES — Fall 2009
   

 

Stefan Merrill Block’s book, The Story of Forgetting, is loosely based on his own family’s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. (Photo: Kevin Lowder)

 

Young Writer Gives Voice to Alzheimer’s
Stefan Merrill Block, AB ’04, never thought he would become a professional writer. During his high school years in Plano, Texas, he won science fairs, and while at Washington University, he spent a semester studying cognitive psychology in the memory lab of Henry L. Roediger, III, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences. The subject of his research was close to his heart, as his mother’s side of the family had been suffering from an early-striking form of Alzheimer’s disease for generations. “We worked exclusively with elderly patients,” he says, “and it was my job to talk them into participating, and to interview them.”

Block’s lab work would go on to inform the plot of his debut novel, The Story of Forgetting, which became an international bestseller and critical favorite upon its release in 2008. But it would not be his only experience at Washington University that shaped the book. Block says William Paul, professor of performing arts in Arts & Sciences, encouraged his talents as a scribe.

“Just before I graduated, Professor Paul pulled me into his office and told me that I was a writer, and that I should take it seriously, as a career,” says Block. “Broke and struggling with the book, I often thought about what he had said. Without him, there is a good chance I would be finishing up law school right about now.”

Loosely based on Block’s family’s struggles, The Story of Forgetting (Random House, 2008) concerns humpbacked loner Abel Haggard, who is hoping to reunite with his estranged daughter, and teenager Seth Waller, whose mother’s Alzheimer’s requires her to be placed in an assisted-care facility. (Seth’s awkwardness and difficulties with girls are based on Block’s own experiences.) The narrative is punctuated by descriptions of a dream world called Isidora, a place “where every need is met and every sadness is forgotten.” It serves as a metaphor for how the loved ones of an Alzheimer’s sufferer try to make peace with the disease.

“Though I wrote the rest of the book much later, I wrote the Isidora fables in my sophomore dorm room (Myers 33),” says Block. At the time he was reading Kafka, Borges, and Calvino, some for class and some at the suggestion of the late David Hadas, professor of English and religious studies in Arts & Sciences. “I had felt the need to write about my family’s history with Alzheimer’s for a long time, and there was something in the fable-like approach of those authors that seemed to open up a way in.”

Block was an unpublished and unknown writer when he submitted his manuscript to New York agent Bill Clegg in 2006, but Clegg liked the book and a bidding war ensued when he put it on the market. Block obtained a six-figure advance, the work received glowing reviews from publications including the New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly, and the book has been published in 10 languages. Last year, Block received an award for best debut novel at the Rome International Festival of Literature.

At work on his second book, Block combines fiction and nonfiction and focuses on his maternal grandfather, a manic-depressive businessman who spent years in McLean Hospital, America’s premier mental asylum. Though his family’s illnesses have given him plenty of material, they haunt him as well; he naturally worries that soon his mother will begin showing Alzheimer’s symptoms and that, down the line, he may as well. “The book feels like a positive thing, but I don’t in any way feel lucky to have that subject matter available to me,” he says. “I wish that, in my writing, I didn’t feel the need to confront such a dark thing. I know that great sadness is at the root of the most interesting stories, but I still wish that my darkest topic was my acned, awkward adolescence.”

For more information, visit www.stefanmerrillblock.com.

—Ben Westhoff, AB ’99


Cynthia Lyons (above) and Danielle Hughes (below, left) formed Baby Fish Mouth in 2007. (Photos: Rob Brown and Jennifer Weisbord, BFA ’92, respectively)

Partnership Produces Pop Culture Products
Combining their love of movies and pop culture with their experience in advertising design, Danielle (Zeitlen) Hughes and Cynthia (Martinez) Lyons, both BFA ’94, formed their company, Baby Fish Mouth, in 2007. Baby Fish Mouth (BFM) offers infant and toddler T-shirts and snapsuits that feature a “baby-centric” twist on well-known movie lines. Examples include “He made me a bottle I couldn’t refuse” (The Godfather) and “May the formula be with you” (Star Wars). All of the shirts come packaged in movie popcorn boxes, which have become BFM’s calling card.

The name Baby Fish Mouth is an homage to a scene in When Harry Met Sally. “The famous Pictionary® scene is movie-defining and gets quoted frequently in pop culture,” says Hughes. “I knew if I started a company someday, I would call it Baby Fish Mouth.”

The idea for the company came to Hughes after she viewed a program on “mompreneurs,” a term coined in the 1990s to describe entrepreneurial moms. “I went home and hatched the idea for Baby Fish Mouth that night. I called Cindy and pitched her the idea, and she was in. Two hours later, we had the whole concept fleshed out and a list of about 100 slogans for the shirts,” she says.

Both were excited that their dream of working together finally was happening. Lyons says, “It was such a simple, but unique, idea—a concept that I had never run across before as a mom and a consumer—and I knew right away that we had hit upon something big.”

Five months after that initial conversation, Lyons and Hughes officially launched their business and Web site. Even though they live on opposite coasts—Lyons in Los Angeles and Hughes in New York—they make it work. Lyons designs the shirts, handles the finances, and maintains the Web site, while Hughes handles public relations and marketing, writes the copy for the Web site, and provides customer service.

The makings of this partnership began at the University when the two met in a photography class and majored in advertising design at the College of Art in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. Although both initially wanted to be art directors, Hughes eventually became a freelance writer, and Lyons ended up working in magazine production.

Both women credit the advertising design program for shaping their careers. “My professors and classes at the University paved the way for me,” says Lyons. “My years there also fostered my own independence, which laid the groundwork for my taking the leap in becoming a small-business owner.” Hughes says the program’s dual focus on writing, as well as designing, helped her develop writing skills and realize her true calling.

University alums also played a role in making Baby Fish Mouth a reality. Lyons says that several people were “absolutely invaluable in getting Baby Fish Mouth up and running,” including her husband, Andrew Lyons, AB ’94, who has helped and supported the business since the very beginning. Suellen (Winick) Bergman, AB ’93, AB ’93, and Jonathan Lyons (Lyons’ brother-in-law), AB ’98, provided legal advice for BFM. Both Hughes and Lyons also credit their families for spreading the word about Baby Fish Mouth.

Since its inception, BFM has been featured in Redbook, Chicago Baby, and Earnshaw’s magazines; CNBC’s The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch; the syndicated program, Daytime; and dozens of blogs and online outlets.

Visit the Baby Fish Mouth Web site at www.bfmwear.com for more information or to purchase merchandise.

—Blaire Leible Garwitz


Jim Lanier, a retired pathologist, completed his 13th Iditarod international sled dog race in 2009.

Alum Musher in Command at 13th Iditarod

In March 2009, Jim Lanier, MD ’66, completed the Iditarod international sled dog race for the 13th time. Lanier says that the long hours and sleepless nights at the School of Medicine prepared him well for the Iditarod.

This year, his team of 16 huskies charged across 1,130 miles of mountains, tundra, forest, frozen rivers, and coast, finishing under the burled arch in just over 12½ days.

At 68, Lanier was the oldest musher in the field for the second year running.

After living in Alaska for 10 years, Lanier met two Iditarod mushers in 1977 who inspired him to try the sport. After giving his children a Siberian husky one Christmas, Lanier soon had it pulling him on a bicycle. “That was thrilling,” he says. “Soon I graduated to a team of three pulling me on a bicycle—that was terrifying.” He quickly switched to a sled and two years later completed his first Iditarod.

Since 1979, Lanier has run at least one Iditarod during every decade of the race’s history. “It’s very addicting,” he says. “I’ve never finished very high—18th was the highest—but I’ve also never scratched.”

During his first attempt, it took him 24 days to get to Nome. He still considers that his most difficult race. One of the Iditarod’s biggest challenges involves traversing the Alaska Range. The stretch between the Finger Lake and Nikolai checkpoints poses fast downhills on slanted, icy trails studded with rocks, exposed stumps, and, frequently, no snow. “You’ll often break sleds there,” he says.

Bones shatter, too. The retired pathologist once fractured his ankle, although he didn’t know it until weeks later. Lanier has sustained other injuries, as well: broken ribs, a separated shoulder, a lacerated groin, and amputations (one toe and two fingers). Last March, he donned full hockey regalia under his parka. “The Iditarod is definitely a contact sport and should be approached that way,” says Lanier.

This year, two females, May and Lobo, and a male, October, took turns leading Lanier’s team, although he later regretted racing with both females in heat. “When you have a female in heat, the males will be more excited and run faster,” he says. That can backfire. A helicopter captured footage of one of three entanglements that cost him five hours.

When the weather rises above zero and it’s sunny and warm, mushers rest their teams during the heat of the day, from around 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. During that time, Lanier beds the dogs down, melts snow to heat their food, feeds them, inspects their feet, rubs them down, treats any injuries, and repairs broken equipment. He then catches an hour’s sleep.

He only manages about 15 total hours of sleep during the whole race, and the deprivation makes it difficult to make sound decisions. Mix in bad weather, and trouble can brew. In 2009, the weather turned brutal during the second half of the race, with a wind-chill of minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit along the Yukon River and near zero visibility.

Lanier plans to race as long as health and finances allow, but the annual expenses— feeding and training the dogs, purchasing and maintaining equipment, plus race fees—add up to approximately $50,000. “On a retirement income, that’s becoming increasingly difficult,” he says.

In the little free time he has, Lanier sings professionally with his wife and son. During the Iditarod, he always composes a song along the trail. When he reached Nome this year, he and his son performed it together.

To contact Lanier, e-mail him at annaiditarod@alaska.com.

—Sheila Callahan