Thursday, December 27, 2012

Funny Boy

There are two twelve-year-old girls in Unit One. They share the room across from Benjy's, and they both look about fifteen. They are the friendliest young things you'll ever see.

Every time one of them passes his open door she sings, "Hi, Benjy!" At bedtime they poke their heads in and wish him a good night. They are a couple of warm, kind, smiley girls. (I can't imagine why they are in the hospital -- they seem so happy!)

Today when Lars and I entered Ben's room we noticed a card on his bedside table. It read: "GET WELL BENJY!!!!!" (He has a cold.) Inside were the signatures of every patient on the unit.

Who made this card, Ben?" I asked.

"Oh, Jenna," he said. I wasn't sure which of the two is Jenna, but I knew she was one of the dynamic duo.

"How nice," said Lars.

A look of panic crossed Ben's face. "She likes me. No, LIKES me."

I tried not to smile. "How do you know?"

"She said, 'Benjy, don't tell anyone but I like you. As in, crush.'"

"Oh," I said, looking at my shoes. I caught Lars's grin out of the corner of my eye.

"It made me want to throw up."

"Oh, Ben..." said Lars.

"Not in a bad way! I just -- I don't feel ready for this!"

It was so cute I almost died.

"Don't worry, sweetheart," I said, stroking his curly head.  "You don't have to be ready. Just enjoy the fact that she's a nice, sweet girl, who wants to be friends."

"It's starting," Lars said to me as we walked to our car a few minutes later. And he squeezed my hand.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Astonishing Acts of Heartwarming Kindness

Yesterday was Christmas, and a lot of kids were in hospitals all over this country. About ten, give or take a couple, were in Benjy's psychiatric unit. They must range in age from six to fifteen. They share a few burdens: sadness, emotional dysregulation, various psychiatric diagnoses. Some of them long to take their own lives.

Sometimes I walk onto Unit One and see them dotted around the day room, sitting isolated and downcast, even though there are several of them there together. They do not often seem to connect, at least not when I'm around. Occasionally I hear a laugh. Rarely, a conversation.

There is a jumble of Christmas decorations on one wall -- and some dreydls and menorahs as well, because a couple of weeks ago I had noticed there were none and asked for them, for Benjy's sake. When I arrive on the unit most days, Ben is sitting in a chair under the jumble, looking lost.

On Christmas morning Lars and I arrived to take him home on his pass. Most of the kids who had passes were already gone. Because we do not celebrate Christmas this was going to be a regular day -- a little sadder than most, perhaps, but not a day of celebration and gifts. We had done that, as best we could, for eight days earlier in the month.

Imagine our surprise and joy when we entered Benjy's room and saw crumpled gift wrap and three presents on the floor!

Unit One had not been forgotten. Even these children, the most marginalized of sick children (because mental illness does not excite the same sort of sympathy and generosity as, say, cancer, in many people) received gifts from strangers. People who imagined the pain of being six or ten or fourteen and in the hospital for Christmas.

Not only that, but a local restaurant donated meals -- it looked like about twenty of them there on the front desk -- for the staff working on Christmas Eve.

This is the kind of stuff that makes me cry. I did. I am.

And then I read THIS. You should read it, too.

You might have thought this county was dominated by the cruel and the heartless, by guns and anger, and not gifts.

If, like me, you did, I guess you were wrong.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Dinner at the Delaunay Diner

It was broiled salmon, roasted potatoes (left over from last night, truth be told), and honeyed carrots.

Lars liked it. The Hellacious Hound thought he would too, if given half a chance. He sat and gazed upwards at Lars, eyes the most eloquent brown, with just a bit of a white ring around them.

Melting eyes.

"Give him a little salmon," I urged.

Lars looked stern. "His kind is not served here."

"On the floor, then."

Lars raised his left eyebrow. "He has a bowl full of kibble. On the floor."

Hellacious tilted his head.

"Is your heart made of stone?"


I made a furtive hand gesture at the Hound. He noticed immediately and snaked between Lars's feet, popping up beside my plate. He gave me an intense stare. All of him quivered, even his fluff-ball tail.

"Get down," warned Lars.

I pushed him off. I knew if I fed him even a morsel of that salmon I'd get a lecture. A German lecture. Which is bound to be bad news. So I ate the salmon myself, under two reproachful canine eyes.

When Lars had scraped every last dried-on piece of salmon from the serving dish (I can't tell if this is a German or an idiosyncratic madness) he allowed me to place it before His Nibs.

His Nibs got right to work on what remained -- mostly butter. When he'd finished he leaped onto the couch and did his trademark wriggle into the pillows.

"Get your buttery snout out of that pillow!" thundered Lars. Up popped a doggish head. I whipped out my iPhone to take a picture but he always flees when I do that.

I have had "buttery snout" on the brain ever since dinner, so I thought I'd blog about it. Sorry there's no photographic evidence.

The Selfish Giant

I am needing help on this gray Christmas Day. Benjy, low on Lexapro, is crashing. Depressed, irritable, anxious. And that makes me unbearably sad.

He is agitating for release from the hospital.

"I'm well!" he argues bitterly.  His mood is as dark as it gets. "There is nothing wrong with me."

Such difficulty seeing, he has.

I need help, and so I am turning to Oscar Wilde. Not the ironic, snarky Oscar. Not the too-clever-by-half chap, although I love him too (favorite line: "I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief!" -- from The Importance of Being Earnest).

No. I am turning to the Oscar Wilde who makes me cry over the potential for sheer goodness in people -- or in giants, at any rate.

I am about to read this.

(It's a good allegory for Christmas, by the way.)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Froehliche Weihnachten

That, yeah. And Merry Christmas.

This is Christmas in Tecklenburg, Germany, where Lars comes from. Christmas in Boston is beautiful, too.

Kind of makes you wish you celebrated it. But Chanukah's pretty nice, too.

Whatever you celebrate, enjoy!

Still In

It's a good thing we don't celebrate Christmas, because Benjy will spend at least part of it in the hospital. Just like he did Chanukah. We thought he'd have been sprung by now, but his dysregulation clings tenaciously to him. So every day I drive to the hospital, take him on his school pass, when there is school, and then home for a few hours before driving him back to Unit One.

These days he is home for eight hours a day but sleeps away, his cocktail of meds -- and his mental state -- still in flux.

We had no idea just how unquiet Benjy's mind is, until he burst forth at a meeting with his psychiatrist and case manager and me, and told us so. A chaos of thoughts zigging and zagging through his brain, jibs and jabs of scenes, words, parts of his day. Truncated thoughts of people he loves and people he hates. Songs and video games and notions that are dark and off-kilter.

Then there are the pictures of things. "Messed up," he calls them. A car, bent in the middle, Dali-esque. A pencil curved, not straight and true as pencils in this world are. I ask him if he imagines people in this distorted way.

Yes, he says. I do.

For how long have you? I ask with dread.


I wonder how, in his mind's eye, he pictures me. I think I will not ask.

This distorted thinking does not appear to be psychosis in the usual sense. These are not bent cars motoring down Commonwealth Avenue. They are cars recollected in tranquility, as Wordsworth said (but not about cars).

It is the entropy in Benjy's head that makes the world too much for him. That makes school a torture, and video games an oasis (gaming is the only pursuit that seems to quiet the chaos for a while, although his doctor has told me that it may, in a heartbreaking vicious circle, also be exacerbating the problem).

So we will have to wait and see what happens. If the chaos in his head is a feature of mania, then the Lexapro he 's been maxxed out on for a couple of years is making things worse. If it's a matter of OCD, then it will get worse when the Lexapro is reduced. Right now he's down five milligrams and seems to be doing better -- he talked to me, in a lively way, when I picked him up from school on Friday.  Taught me some new stuff. That hasn't happened in eons. And he told me about Hawaii, how it was formed and how it was found. He'd learned it in school just that day. He hadn't learned anything at school for along time, but on Friday, for the first time since last spring at least, the teacher's voice found a point of entry, spoke louder than the rogue thoughts raging in his brain.

Of course, we all have brains prone to restlessness, and pone to occasional disorder. My own dreams, last night, took my breath away with their audacity.

Dogs hanging from trees, my own dream-puppy, whose name I cannot get straight -- Maeve? Maude? Gretchen? -- running away from me, always fleeing, leash trailing, leaving me behind in my desperate, seeking despair. "Come back, Maeve/Maude/Gretchen!" I scream, but she is only a diminishing point of desire, smaller, smaller, and then altogether gone.

I woke up from that one feeling wretched. But in an hour or so I will pick up Benjy; that is my consolation.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It Is Coming

Shhh! Listen. Put your ear to the ground. It's starting again.

America is reinventing itself.

This is not the first time. After inventing itself as a nation, united, America reinvented itself as a nation in which all live free. And quite a while after that it reinvented itself as a nation in which all citizens, people of every shade, both genders, and all religions, have (more or less) equal rights.

There were and are all kinds of movements here. Civil rights.  Women's rights. The anti-war and anti-nuke movements. LGBT rights. Occupy Wall Street. To name just a few.

A while back, though, I noticed that America was different. Not the place I thought I knew. Civil discourse had become less civil. Greed had blossomed. "Values" had accrued a certain meaning that was foreign to me, that was about exclusion, suppression. People valued stuff, stuff, and more stuff. Venerated wealth. Ignored suffering. They seemed to be willing to throw the most vulnerable among us under the bus.

The day a business student in my freshman English class proclaimed, "Poor people don't need heat. People lived without it in the nineteenth century; why should we worry about people who can't afford it now?" I truly thought we had hit rock bottom.

His was the face of the future, and it was not pretty.

For the past ten years or so I lamented the way our country was tilting. Sometimes I looked at real estate listings in Canada, in Germany, in Australia. I did not take these virtual forays into foreign lands lightly. I did not really want to go. I just couldn't see a place for myself in the country America was becoming.

I was not rich, I was not greedy, and I was not cruel. I was a woman who believed in the integrity of her own body, and in the bodies of all others. Who thought everyone deserved to worship freely in their own way -- or not at all -- but not in public spaces. I delighted in the love, and the romance, and the commitment we, as humans, are capable of feeling for each other. It did not matter to me the arrangement of genitalia in couples who loved each other; the love itself was enough.

The laws in my country did not always protect what I cherished. The values of those in prominent positions -- those who make and enforce laws, for example, and those who control what people earn and what is available for them to eat -- were not my values.

So I slipped into intermittent despair. The election season was an agony -- it brought the divisions here in America into stark relief. It brought out the worst in some people, and in others it brought out the best. The whole country was stressed and humming with repressed anger, with anguish and passion. From Maine to California, we were quivering.

One day I put my ear to the ground and I heard the rumbling. Voices emerging, blending, growing louder and stronger. I heard them on Facebook and Twitter and in the blogosphere. In coffee shops and magazines (the ones I read, anyway) and at dinners with friends. They were earnest voices, and urgent. And on November 6th they enunciated clearly. They are still speaking. Do you hear them?

America is reinventing itself again, and I am awash with anticipation. A majority of us are tired of this government by the few for the few. We care about the poor with no heat, about the disabled and dispossessed. We see all human beings as equal -- citizens, people without papers, children. But we do not believe that corporations are equal, of that I can assure you.

And now, after a tragedy of immense proportion, a tragedy that has rendered many of us unable to work, to think, to stop wringing our hands over what things have come to, it looks likely that America will divorce its guns. Maybe not all of them. Certainly the ones that exist solely for the purpose of wholesale slaughter.

It even looks like The Gentlemen of Congress are standing up, a few at a time. They are discovering their moral compasses. Divorcing the NRA. Not all of them, but if we are lucky, enough of them.

I am a little scared. Change is good, but does not always come easily. It is coming, though, that seems clear enough. And I am waiting with open arms.

You Will Love This

You're welcome.

Monday, December 17, 2012

What We Fear Most

After urging the Gentlemen In Congress to STAND UP earlier today, I sat around in my jammies, drinking coffee and watching the heartwrenching CNN reporting from Newtown. I ate some of Lars's Famous German Potato Salad. When time was running out before I had to pick Benjy up at school I took a belated shower.

I did not do any work on the essay I'd planned to write today. I made no medical appointments, bought no groceries, cleaned no kitchens, and walked no Hellacious Hounds. (I did take one out for a quick pee during a commercial break, but that was the extent of my dog-walkery.)

What I did was, I thought. And here is what I figured out:

When my sister was dying of breast cancer at age 36, I did not blame her for it. I was not angry that she would soon leave some young children, a husband, and a lot of other people who loved her behind. And no one else was, either. We were sad, of course, but not angry. Because everyone understood that her cells had gone haywire, that her body had betrayed her. Everyone knew she would have preferred to see her children grow up.

Even when I could not bear to look at her bald and wasted body, I did not shun her. No one did. She was helpless in the face of her body's disease and disorder.

When I encounter a person with a prosthetic limb, I do not blame that person for his or her loss. I do not feel shame for them, nor do I think they should feel shame.

A person with heart disease does not seem culpable in my eyes, nor in the eyes of most others.

It's true that when I was a young girl with Tourette's, and I had my assortment of oddball tics, I was ashamed, thought myself a lesser person, not worthy of friendship or respect, because other people seemed to think so. I don't feel that way anymore but perhaps others do. Because Tourette's is maybe a little scary. It's not necessarily recognizable, the way cancer or diabetes are, and it is also a very, very public disability.

But no one who has it chose it, that I can assure you.

Like Tourette's, mental illness is scary. It makes people uncomfortable. It makes them want to look away.

Not only that, but it is often mysterious. Where did those voices in Aunt Gertrude's head come from, anyway? Why is Jack so deeply depressed? No one in the family has ever been so depressed, at least not that we know of.

Then there is the problem of treatment. Oh, you broke your leg? The orthopedist knows just what to do, how long you will need to wear the cast, and when you will be walking normally again. If he doesn't, he can come pretty darn close.

Oh, you have gout? Here's how we treat that. Here's what you ought not to eat. If you dine like a Victorian gentleman your sore foot will get worse, of this we can be sure.

But what about the kid who sneaks off into the basement and cuts herself? Who bangs his head against the wall? What about the kid who sits with her head on her desk all day long at school? Who cannot stray more than a block beyond his house?

Sure, there are medications for these things. There is therapy and psychiatry. Often they work, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes mental ailments go away and come back again. And this is hard to understand, especially for a nation of people who like quick fixes. Who do not do well in the gray areas of life.

If you are not accustomed to seeing a person with waxing psychosis you are probably going to want to walk the other way, fast. You will not want to look too closely at that person.

But here's the thing: we HAVE to look. We have to begin to understand.

If you are not ashamed of your mitral valve prolapse, your slight hearing loss, your endometriosis, then why should I be ashamed of my Tourette's? And why should anyone be ashamed of -- or blamed for -- their mental illness?

It's because most of us don't understand it that mental illness is stigmatized, underfunded. That the (probably large) segment of our population who suffers from some sort of mental health disorder is underserved.

This much I know is true: Benjy is as much to blame for his depression/anxiety/mood swings/etc. as my sister was for her cancer. Which is to say, not at all.

A discussion has begun. I see it taking root on the internet. In blogs and on Twitter and Facebook. People are beginning to speak out about mental health. Some of those people are angry about what seems like a lot of mentally ill men with machine guns. I am angry about that, too. Not about the mental illness, but about the guns and the fact that these young men have slipped through some very big cracks.

Let the conversation continue! And for god's sake, DON'T TURN AWAY.

Stand Up, Gentlemen

I wrote and rewrote this post in my head on my way home from taking Benjy to school on a six-hour school pass today. He is close to being discharged from his fourth psychiatric hospitalization in three years. He is in many ways a broken boy. His wiring can be faulty. He is sometimes sick and sometimes well. He is a beloved, and a loving boy. Empathetic. Generous. Kind. And when he is dysregulated, despairing and self-loathing. Full of darkness.

I love him as much as any of you love your children. He is my sun and my moon. So is Saskia. I truly feel I won the kid lottery.

And yet. What happened on Friday in Connecticut is tearing me up inside. Not only because too many beautiful, way-too-young people came to a violent end. Not only because a young man who must have been suffering in ways that Benjy may have sometimes suffered committed an atrocity.

Those things are unbearable. But so are some other things.

The assumptions flying around -- for example, that people with autism (because the shooter is thought by some to have had Asperger's) are likely to do such things. (Not so!)

Our country's woefully inadequate approach to supporting, and even acknowledging, issues of mental health.

Our inattention.

Did you know that my own family is now fearful about Benjy, about the video games he plays, about his maladjustments, his diagnoses, which seem suddenly extremely threatening? I love my family -- they are the best -- but right now I am angry and hurt by their assumptions.

They forget that Benjy is the boy who burst into tears in a medical waiting room because he was thinking about the families of fallen soldiers and the losses they must bear. Out of the blue, he started sobbing. The boy who worries about other kids when they are not doing well. Who spent some of his own birthday money to buy a gift for a boy at his school who has autism, and whom Benjy perceived as not having many friends. He said, "Can we buy something for A-- that he would like, a book or a calendar with nice pictures? I want to make him happy."

This is not a person who is likely to get his hands on an AK-47 and shoot up a school.

Here's another thought: Adam Lanza's parents were not paying attention. Not the way I pay attention to Benjy, the way so many other parents pay attention to their kids. If they were, there would not have been an arsenal of weapons in that house.

I will not ever apologize for making that statement. If it sounds like I'm blaming the mother, who was also a victim of her son's rampage, I am.

I know within moments if Benjy is breaking down. I hear it in his voice. Read it in his face, his body. And then I get him help. I have sacrificed a career and relative financial stability for him. I drive him all the hell around the Boston area, every week, to get him the help he needs. I have advocated for him and hired others to do so when I could not. Not because I'm a martyr or a hero.

But because I am paying attention.

And here is another thing: We are ALL Benjy's and Lanza's and Lochner's and Holmes's parents. I am and you are and so is that guy and so is that woman. We all have a responsibility to not turn away. To advocate for our fellow citizens who need mental health resources. We should insist that some of our tax dollars go to mental health research and services. At the same time, we should not make assumptions about people with psychiatric disorders. We all know someone with one -- I guarantee it. You may not know you do, but you do.


And here is the last thing I am going to say:


It is not enough to address the problems of mental health disorders in this country. Some of the people who commit these mass shootings may not even be mentally ill.

In fact, you know what the common denominator really is?

White males. Think about it.

Speaking of white males, a lot of the white males who still dominate our government have no moral courage. They are in this game for self-gain. The safety of six-year-old children, like those who were murdered on Friday, means less to them than the safety of their own jobs.

Why else would they fail  to stand up to the gun lobby's bullying?


Why would they keep insisting that ALL guns be readily available to anyone who wants them?


Why would they believe that it is a matter of right that one be able to legally own and carry a weapon whose SOLE PURPOSE is to kill as many people as possible, as quickly as possible?


A lot of these gun proponents are men who campaign on "moral" issues. This is not the time to debate their other moral failures. The issue at hand is GUNS.

STAND UP, GENTLEMEN. Like the women at Sandy Hook who gave their lives -- their LIVES -- to protect the children you refuse to protect because you may lose your job.



Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hellacious Nail-Biter

I thought you might enjoy a snapshot of the Hellacious Hound biting his nails.

Happy Thursday.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Violation of My Own Credo

It's funny how our moods can change. If we have relatively good mental health those mood changes may swing gently and only occasionally -- happy in the morning, slightly melancholy in the evening, no big deal -- but however they manifest they are patently human.

Last night I was feeling pretty good. Goofing on Lars, writing a little, feeling the afterglow of Benjy's (brief) presence in the house. This morning I'm feeling lonely and sad.

I think the problem is that I have violated my own credo. If you've been reading this blog since its inception you might remember it: One Day At a Time. Sometimes, One Hour At a Time. When you have a kid as wonderful and as impaired as mine, you cannot think too deeply about the future if you want to sleep at night and function during the day.

The phone call from Ben at 8 this morning got me wondering what's to come.

He asked me to get him and bring him home for his four-hour pass right after dropping Saskia off at school. I suspect the anticipation of my saying yes was what got him out of bed so early.

I told him no, and it did not go over well.

The reason I said no was because daytime hours at the hospital are for "school" (such as it is, a classroom for a motley collection of struggling kids -- pretty lightweight stuff) and group therapy. At 3:30 that's all done, and that was when I was planning to pick him up.

I told him that if he does not show the doctor he can handle school and groups the doctor will not find him ready to be released.

He told me he wanted more time in the afternoon with his hospital friends. I wasn't buying it.

"Oh, mom," Benjy said, his voice quavering, "Please. Just this once. I am SO stressed. Just please."

This broke my heart. I told him I would consult with his case manager when she finished with rounds at 11, but I am determined to hold firm.

And here's what troubles me. How on earth is he going to manage ANYTHING in life if he cannot manage the lowest-pressure stuff that is not simply sitting on the couch playing video games? His home pass yesterday was the first pass he could complete, because he got to be in his comfort zone -- on the living room couch. (His other comfort zone is his bed.)

The times we have taken him on 3-hour community passes he's lasted an hour and a half tops before wanting to go back to the hospital. He simply cannot handle being out in the world, even with me.

When he's out and about he yearns for the hospital. When he's at the hospital he years for home. When he's home he is restless and dissatisfied with what he has available to him. He is always seeking some other plane of existence, some more and better stuff to do, animals to own, food to eat.

He lives in a constant state of restless desire. This breaks my heart.

His doctor thinks this is mania, and that the mania is caused by his meds, which are currently being tweaked.

I think I've seen this stuff before, that we may be adding yet another diagnosis to the many he already owns. And when I think about what is to come I want to cry. I don't know if he will ever find a comfortable place in life beyond our living room couch (and even that does not fill his void). I want so much more for him -- and for the rest of us. I am searching too, always searching for the thing that will make Benjy whole. This has become my vocation, my quest.

And right now it has become my sorrow. It's a lonely endeavor, ever-searching and coming up dry. Benjy must know all about that loneliness. How sad I am for him.

Somebody please remind my of my credo. One. Day. At. A. Time.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Gotta Love Lars

One of my favorite pastimes is making fun of Lars. I mean, the guy is eminently teasable. He wears socks n' Birkenstocks three seasons of the year. He's sitting in front of some football game or other wearing them as we speak, while pretending to do some work on his laptop. And I am about to laugh at him.

What?? Laughing is good for you. Didn't you see that Robin Williams movie about the clown-doctor? If red noses and big shoes can cure childhood diseases, then a pair of white socks and Birkenstocks, or a T-shirt worn inside out -- in public -- because Lars is not feeling kindly disposed toward the logo on said T-shirt, can probably heal leprosy.

I'm all for it, Larsie.

Anyway, tonight Lars returned from dropping Benjy back at the hospital -- yes, he had a four-hour home pass, and we got to eat dinner together!! -- feeling very smug. Very smug indeed. Saskia was trying to show me the trailer for the new Les Miz movie (and swooning over some actor dude she's in love with) and Lars just lifted his finger in the air with great pompousness and said:

"Turn that off. I have an important announcement to make."

"Oh, Geez," said Saskia. "What do YOU have to say?"

"Turn if off."

I nudged her. "Do what your father says," I told her, sounding very much like a 1950s housewife, and not liking it much.

She stopped the video. We looked at Lars expectantly and waited.

After a dramatic pause he said, "Anna, I just heard something VERY IMPORTANT on On Point [the NPR radio show]. And I think you need to hear about it."

"Okay, shoot."

"The World's Wisest Man is talking about Old Wives' Tales. Remember, this is the smartest man in the world."

This sounded suspicious to me but I pretended to believe him.

"Apart from you," I said.

"BETTER than me."


"And this guy said that there is TRUTH to what I always tell you. That getting wet feet gives you a cold." He said this with such self-satisfaction I was reluctant -- at first -- to laugh at him. I got over that reluctance fast. I hooted.

"And can wet feet also give you a bladder infection? Y' know, like you always say? And a cool breeze over your lower back, can that give you a kidney infection? Because, you know, you gotta protect those kidneys."

I laughed some more. Because if there is one thing you need to know about me it's that I do not think highly of German ideas about illness.

My skepticism dates from the time we were in Germany with ten-month-old Saskia and she got tonsillitis. The family doctor we took her to told me in all seriousness that he was not surprised she'd come down with it because "red-haired children are more prone to tonsillitis." (Actually, they use the same word for tonsils  and almonds in German so he may have been telling me that redheads are prone to sick almonds.)

Look, I LOVE Germans. I'm married to one. My bestie is German. My mother's family were German Jews, but that is something else. They were NORMAL. The German Germans I know are all lovely people but BARKING MAD.

So Lars is all proud of himself because his nutty ideas about wet feet have been confirmed by the Smartest Guy on Earth.

When I finished laughing I told him I still don't believe it.

"My cousins are doctors. My father's a dentist. I asked them. They said no."

"Then they are WRONG!" Lars crowed. He was feelin' good.

He totally cracks me up. He is simply too cute for words.

I love being married to a German. All that laughter is keeping me super healthy.

**Note to my German friends and Readers:

I really DO love you guys. And I will take any Ugly American comments you hurl back at me with good humor. I know I deserve it.  Kuss u. Gruss, A--

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Happy Hanukkah

This was the closest I could get to a menorah in the hospital. Benjy had fun putting it up on the window of his room. Tonight, Lars, Saskia, Benjy and I are going to our favorite delicatessen, Zaftig's, to celebrate Hanukkah and a performance Saskia is giving at the conservatory (unfortunately just for her classmates and faculty, not parents). Benjy has a three-hour pass to the outside world and we are going to make the most of it.

This year Hanukkah will be a little bit sad. But we are grateful that our family is intact, even if slightly scattered at the moment.

Happy Hanukkah to those of my Readers and friends who celebrate it!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


You know what's interesting? The way the conditions of your life can alter your perspective.

Ten years ago, if you'd told me my child would be in and out of psychiatric hospitals I'd had been appalled and aghast and scared as all get-out. I would have wept and prayed for something else, a different hand of cards -- and I am not a praying woman.

Now that it's happened that way, I'm just glad the hospital and its wonderful, caring staff exist. I'm glad when the next crisis arrives, Benjy will have a safe place to go, a place where he can heal. I am a bit sad that he won't be home for Hanukkah this year -- OK, very sad. And perplexed about what I can bring him (the electronic hang-man game I brought yesterday did not go over well. "Uh, we don't really like hang-man around here," the young woman who sits at the front desk told me).


I did a bit of shopping the other day and picked up a 3-D puzzle of the Empire State Building for him. Cool, huh? But just now I noticed it's got a long point on the top. I don't know what it's made of but they'll NEVER let that thing on the unit. Lego kits work as long as they don't include little Lego guns.

You know what he really wants? I am not making this up. He really wants a bow and arrows.

Like that'll happen.

Even Benjy has an unusual perspective on the hospital. "You know," he told me at lunch today. "I may be coming back here. I don't know when, but it could happen."

"And how does that make you feel?" I asked him.

"I feel okay about it," he said. "Sometimes you just need a break, you know?"

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Another Encounter With My Glorious 47-Percenter

I saw her yesterday, at the hospital. I know now that her her name probably starts with an M. Benjy told me that, and he also told me she's very, very nice. "Isn't Mustang a wonderful name?" he said. "Like a car that is a thing of beauty."

I was walking down the corridor of Unit One with Ben and she emerged from the bathroom, mop in hand. She seemed suspended in another universe, dreamy, thinking about some delicious food or happy interlude. It was a moment before she saw us.

I smiled broadly and said hello. She smiled back. Her smile was warm and her lips a sort of sunny red. She wears make-up, I thought with surprise, and that small fact made her seem strong in my eyes. A Camilla among janitresses. She wears make-up and she cleans up after a posse of broken children, some of whom scream and try to kick down doors and some of whom make various sorts of unpleasant messes. The make-up tells me that she finds this a job worth doing, worth dressing up a little for -- and that she is brave enough to undertake it. I don't know if I would be so brave. Or that I would be able to maintain my dignity, as she does, in spite of the dirty toilets.

I did not see shadows lurking in her face, shades of the death and struggle and sadness I know are part of her life.

When she noticed Benjy she did a little dance with her mop. Waltzed it in a wide circle.

"You're back!" she said, as if this was something to celebrate -- not the illness but the presence of this young boy.

He nodded, held out his hand. She clasped it, drew it to her lips, and kissed it.

"Thank you," said Ben, who is polite even when taken aback. Although I don't think he was taken aback; I think he just went with it. For a child in a locked unit, anything is possible and much is impossible. You have to roll with the punches.

She looked at me. "So tall he is now," she said admiringly. "So big boy."

I agreed. "I didn't think we'd be back so soon," I said sadly.

"But I am glad to see my friend," she told us, and before I could answer she waved and turned away. There were more bathrooms to clean. More broken children who needed her smile.

What I do not ever see inscribed on Mustang's face, or hear in the tone of her voice, is bitterness. I think she expects nothing more than the chance to work, to make ends meet. To help her family with money, and with love. She is not afraid of hard work. Even though she is neither my sister nor my friend, I am so proud of that.

You can read the story of her family here, in my original post about the woman Ben calls Mustang.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Messy Lives

I am reading Katie Roiphe's In Praise of Messy Lives. I thought I didn't like her. Now I think I do.

I know the way lives, like kitchens and bedrooms and hair and makeup, can get messed up.

(Not the Delaunay kitchen. Ours is messier. And no marble -- not even faux -- anywhere.)

If any of you Readers has a life more messed up than mine I will give you a high five and maybe a gig as guest blogger here at The Nickel. Just let me know.

A Rare and Ongoing Case of Speechlessness

Anyone who knows me knows I can talk. Oh, boy. When I have something to say, you're going to get an earful. Which is why I've been frustrated by my inability to post anything here for quite some time.

The problem is not that there's nothing to say. The problem is that I have all these words and emotions and fears and details swirling around my head and I can't tame them enough to set them down in print. I've sat down to blog a few times and given up because I haven't known how to start.

I think, finally, I've figured it out. The solution is:

Bullet points.
Because any other way is going to hurt too damned much.
So, here goes (deep breath):
  • Benjy's back in the hospital.
  • It's two months after the last three-week stay
  • I was scared for his safety and mine
  • His grief was as vast and full as the ocean
  • So was his rage
  • He wanted a bird
  • He has been obsessed with birds for a year
  • He thinks a bird will make him happy and whole. I disagree.
  • He hates me
  • He loves me with a wild intensity
  • He cannot function in this world right now
  • I miss him more than I can speak or write
  • He swings from despondent to joyous to flat in a day's time
  • He may leave the hospital with yet another diagnosis (he has already, what, four? Five?)
And here, under a different heading, is something more:

  • We live 1/4 mile from a TV tower and within 4 miles of many more
  • A friend told me to do some reading
  • We moved here in 2008
  • Benjy has been hospitalized four times since 2009
  • A perfectly healthy Saskia became quite sick in 2010, with some symptoms still unexplained and several diagnoses
  • Some studies report that proximity to radio frequency waves can cause mental health disturbances as well as headaches, fatigue and malaise, immune system issues, and sleep disturbances
  • We have all of these on the junior varsity team
  • You could find other reasons for all of these illnesses (including "illnesses happen," and in Benjy's case, some of that stuff existed before we lived here, albeit in less intense forms)
  • Ben's first psychiatric hospitalization was in 2009
  • Saskia became sick in 2010
  • In June of 2009, television signals in American were converted from analog to digital
All of this scares the bejesus out of me. I want to slide under my down comforter and take a looong (three month?) nap, but I have to get to work figuring stuff out. If anyone has any thoughts or information I would love to hear about it, either in the comments or via email.

And now I'm off to the hospital. I'll try to bring happier news very soon, Dear Readers.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy, Happy Day

A wish that everyone has enough food, warmth, and love today -- and always.


Monday, November 19, 2012

A Hero's Life

Well, I heard something on the radio today that made me cry -- in a good way. On our local NPR station here in Boston, I heard an interview with Benjamin Zander. Maestro Zander is a major presence in the Boston music scene (and also somewhat notorious after a lapse in judgment cost him his job leading the youth orchestra at the New England Conservatory). I don't think I'd ever heard him speak until today.

He was talking about his new venture, the Boston Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. These kids are the creme de la creme of young instrumentalists, and they gather together in the South End to make music with Zander. On the radio today he was taking them through Richard Strauss's tone poem "Ein Heldenleben," also known as “A Hero’s Life” (it's about a warrior on the battlefield). And before he let them play, Mr. Zander talked to these kids about, well, Life.

What he said was this (I'm paraphrasing): No matter how great a warrior you are, you cannot make it in life alone. We were put here with other people because we NEED each other, and together we can do great things.

That is a message I wholly believe in, and I have written about it on this blog before. No man is an island, you know?

But here's what made me cry. Zander talked about his father, a refugee from Nazi Germany. He, like so many others (my grandparents included) lost everything in that darkness: family, friends, home, homeland, identity, language, and hope.

So, after the war Zander's father went to England with his wife, and his Dad ended up in a DP camp (I believe they had separate camps fr men and women).  This camp was full of men who had also lost everything, and they did nothing all day but gaze dully at the barbed wire that contained them and the world beyond it.

But Zander's father wanted to Live, and one day he said to the others, "Let's start a university. Here, in this barb-wired camp." They had no classrooms, no textbooks, paper, pencils. They had nothing you'd need to start a university, except for one thing: a collection of learned people. It's no secret that Germany bled itself of much of its intellectual and artistic elite in the 30s and 40s. And here were a bunch of them. Defeated? Maybe, for the time being. Hollow? Probably. But they were still full of possibility if they could recover the will to thrive. And if they could work together instead of standing around, isolated and depressed, each man alone.

The elder Zander must have been as inspiring as his son, because without the physical tools of learning, they all went (or went back) to university. They simply talked about ideas. There were a bunch of "courses" running at any given time, and these men were students and professors. This was something they could only do together, and I have no doubt it kept them alive -- intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. This was a humble thing and a grand thing, all rolled into one.

When Maestro Zander told that story about his father and his fellow travelers I thought of my grandfather with the sad eyes, how he started over with nothing, a doorman in Manhattan. My grandmother working as a nanny to two little girls while relatives looked after her own little girls -- and later, sewing in a factory. They had been crushed in Germany but to a large extent they recovered -- because in New York they found a community of people who shared their goals, and who wanted each other to succeed. These people had each others' backs.

So when I heard Benjamin Zander talking about that very thing today, I shivered.

It was that beautiful.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

O Yeah!

Many readers of this blog know that I am a writer. Yesterday I sold my first piece to a multi-million circulation magazine. This is cause for celebration -- not simply because many more people will encounter my work (which of course makes me very happy), but also because it gives me a tremendous boost after a long period of feeling like I'm treading water.

It is also a very well-paying venue and that's a new experience for me. The most I've ever gotten for a short piece (story, essay) is around 50 bucks and a dollop of prestige. My Dickens book, which was published by one of the top two or three university presses in the world, probably earned me about $500 in royalties over the past 14 years. This one, short essay will earn me more than six times that. That's a credit card paid off. Or two semesters of conservatory tuition for Saskia.

Woo hoo!

The piece will be published in O, The Oprah Magazine. I don't yet know when, but I'm hoping pretty soon. I'll let you know (this may require blowing my cover -- I am still trying to make a decision on that one).

It's called "Falsies." I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Upstairs, Downstairs

I’ve been feeling nostalgic for our old house in Boston. This was a three-story, two-family, beige-clapboard-and-white-gingerbread house, tucked away on a tiny private way off a fairly busy street. Even though the house was in the city of Boston it butted up against a high, wooded slope, and we saw lots of interesting critters there, all the time. (Except, when we saw that dead rat in our dungeon basement? That was not interesting.) Wonderful snails with beige and brown and burgundy whorled shells, raccoon eyes glittering in trees at night, skunks, hummingbirds, tons of bats. Those animals couldn’t care less that they were living within the city limits. Our lot was a hospitable one. I liked that.
(NOT the actual Delaunay Manse.)

Our tenants were my brother and sister-in-law, R-- and J--. (Longtime readers of this blog might remember that we could not agree on their blog-names. Rick?? Jackie?? REALLY? they howled. So they have become, in the grandest 18th-century literary tradition, R—and J--.) R—and J—lived on the first floor, and Lars, baby Saskia, later Baby Benjy, and I lived on floors two and three.

That was an interesting house. I blogged here about the triangular cut-out at the top of the stairs, and Benjy’s first real pronouncement to the world, uttered while peering through it. Other interesting features were the stairs themselves, which I (okay, J--, because I am basically domestic-project-impaired) painted in awesome alternating colors – peach, sage green, and yellow, as I recall.  It was like walking up the stairs at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory or something; I kept expecting they’d sing out notes with each footfall.

 (Musical stairs are an actual phenomenon at Children’s Hospital in Boston. One or the other of my kids and I race down those melodious stairs at least once a month, and we love them.)

Anyway, by far the most interesting things about that house were the male inhabitants of it. Namely, Lars and R--.  Now, if you include my Dad, you have the trifecta of my favorite men in the wide world. These are good peoples. But R—and Lars – and maybe Dad, too – are, uh, a little eccentric.

R—will dispute this to the death, but Lars and Dad will grinningly admit it.

All three of them are nuts. But because R—thinks he's NOT, Lars’s nuttiness seems amplified to him. He just shakes his head at Lars’s antics and says, “Geez, Anna.”

For example. As a German, Lars has a Green Gene tucked away in his DNA. They all do. (No offense, German Friends. This is a GOOD THING.) He is OBSESSED with things like recycling, composting, cleaning litter up off the street (he always comes home from dog-walks around the neighborhood clutching dripping beer cans and chip packets and stuff like that. He picks up after the neighbors.)

So in the interest of conserving water at the old house, Lars decided he might rig up a system, involving a garden hose, a skylight, and gravity, that would drain the water from our bathtub into the backyard garden, such as it was.

 “The water is soapy,” I argued.

“This is no problem,” he answered. “The plants are hardy.”

“Okay, but it’s weird,” I told him. “What will the neighbors think?”

He looked at me pityingly and went about his business.

Where this gets really funny is the part when I tell R—and J—about it. We’re hanging out at their place, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze, and I mention that Lars has had another crazy, crazy idea.

“What is it?” they ask with a smirk. They know it’s going to be a howler.

I roll my eyes. “He’s going to drain our bathwater into the garden. To water the flowers.”

J-- shrieks with laughter.  R—looks stricken. STRICKEN.  “But,” he says when he recovers, “I WALK out there. Barefoot, sometimes.”

“Yeah?” I say.

“Well,” he says delicately, “you guys have a Jacuzzi tub. Would I be wrong in assuming you, ah, get in there together sometimes?”

I see where this is headed. “We have on occasion,” I say in as blasé a manner as possible. “We just wash, though. And talk. About life.”

R— looks pained. He’s not buying it. “That,” he says sternly, “Is GROSS. Not the joint bath but the issue from that bath IN OUR BACKYARD. I can never go out there again. J--?? Don’t let the dog out there. We might have to move.”

J— says, “C’mon, Muvvy.” (That’s her nickname for R--. She nicknames everything, and the nicknames change regularly. She’s cute.) “It’s not a big deal.”

Muvvy looks like he’s about to throw up. Did I mention he’s crazy?

“Okay, look,” I say. “There’s a VERY good chance that this will never happen. You know Lars. He rarely gets around to anything.”

This seems to work. R— takes a cautious sip of his coffee. He does not throw up.

Dear Readers, I will save for another time the story about the basement flood and Lars lying on his stomach in the muddy driveway sucking water out of a hose. (Yes, hoses seem to be a recurring theme at the old manse, don’t they?)

My husband really is one of a kind.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Visit From My Good Fairy

So, a lovely thing happened today. A wonderful thing.

A letter came in the mail, and tucked in the letter, a gift. These things came from a couple who mean the world to me. Old and treasured family friends, contemporaries of my parents. I've known them since, what, ninth grade? And they are Good Folks.

How many Thanksgivings have our families celebrated together, over the years? I couldn't begin to count. My brother and I grew up with their kids. We swam in their pool. I admired them for their compassion and their civic-mindedness. I once, drowning in teenage anguish, crashed my car gently into the tree in front of their house. I wanted to die, but not really. So that was a safe tree, in case I got a little hurt. People who cared about me lived there.

I was fine, physically. My parents' car wasn't. Not sure about the poor tree but I think it's still standing.

This letter and the generous gift tucked inside make me feel a lot of feelings. Gratitude and love, most of all.

Here's the best part of all: "I have been reading your blog postings and am amazed at what you have gone through and yet there is a smile in your writing. You are (there's that word again) an amazing woman."

Thank you, my Dear DB!! I don't think I am amazing at all. I'm simply making the best of the cards we've been dealt and trying to remember that compared to a lot of other people's hands they are not too bad. A pair of deuces, maybe, or fives. Not close to a royal flush but much better than a random assortment of number cards that don't add up. Absolutely.

The Delaunay Hand

Not The Delaunay Hand

The way these friends reached out today does raise a question in my mind, which I've struggled with before: how much should I reveal in this blog? When is it just -- as Saskia and Ben would say -- TMI? I have blogged about being broke many times over the past year (and triumphed in some ingenious frugalities I've engaged in), but when people start sending checks I have to consider whether it's the right thing. Because the LAST thing I want is for anyone to read a plea in any of these revelations. I don't know anyone, really -- well, maybe just one or two people -- who are doing so well they can just cavalierly write a check to help out a friend.

But I am sure of one thing: the gift we received today was sent out of love.

Anyway, I write about our impecuniousness and other problems for a few reasons, none of which have to do with hoping for a handout:

  • Writing about my challenges is therapeutic.
  • Writing about adversity helps me locate my sense of humor about things (usually!).
  • People need to know about the costs, to families, of disability.
  • I think it helps others going through similar difficulties to see they are not alone.
  • I love it -- LOVE IT -- when folks I don't know (and those I do) connect with me via this blog.
  • And finally, as Mr. Sleary, the circus ringmaster, says so eloquently in Dickens's Hard Times, "The people mutht be entertained, Thquire!" If this blog is helping anyone procrastinate at work or at home, and maybe eliciting some smiles, then my job here is done.
So I guess I'll keep it up.

I had a visit from my good fairy today, and it made me very, very happy.

I love you, D and H!!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Larsapalooza Take II

Okay, can I just say I am married to a great guy?



Lars has been out there knocking on doors to help get out the vote for about seven hours now, with an hour lunch break. We started together but I pooped out after two hours. (Truth be told I had a tutoring client to torture into completing some boring work, but really, I'd have pooped out after two hours anyway.)

So there he goes, trudging through some VERY high-rent districts in Newton, his feet chilly in those Birkenstocks he MUST wear year-round -- especially as he happens also to be wearing socks that encourage his big toes to peep out  (look, it's true, I'm living with a hobo).

He actually finished the first round of canvassing around forty-five minutes ago. I urged him to come home for hot cider. He said, "I will. Unless they need me some more."

I replied, "Really, Lars. You have done enough."

He said, "But if they go down on their knees and beg?"

"In that case," I told him, "I'll think it over."

Of course, he just called and said he was doing another round. I reminded him we were supposed to be at an election party, like, twenty minutes ago. He said, "That can wait. This is important, voting is important. I'm making the only contribution I can today."

He said that because he is what I like to refer to as our "resident alien." He's a German citizen, not an American -- yet.

The best moment we shared today while canvassing together was when a guy came out of a gardening truck -- no one in the pricey Boston burbs seems to do their own lawn work -- and smiled broadly at us. He knew what we were up to, and for which candidates we were braving the cold.

"I voted today," he called out happily, in thickly accented English. "My first time!"

I knew what he meant. "Are you a new citizen?" I asked him, and he nodded emphatically.

"Congratulations!" we said. "Good for you!"

"I voted for Warren, and for Obama," he said. "And voting was wonderful. It meant I count."

I gave him two thumbs up. What a great moment that was! I wish we all felt that sense of counting, and being counted, at election time.

And Lars is out there still, reudging through the dark, making sure it happens for everyone.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Art of Focus

I have utterly lost my focus.

In the days leading up to Benjy's first hospitalization I was a wreck, but fairly on-task. I was still teaching college English, and once or twice a week in the month preceding his crash Ben would accompany me to class, because his school had figuratively and sometimes literally let him go, unable to handle his pervasive panic and acts of self-harm. Pale and off-kilter, with wild, curling hair, long untouched and a startling contrast to his wasted body, Ben sat in the front of my class, trying to hide his bloody fingertips from my students and playing Club Penguin.

His very palpable presence was not a great distraction to me. I covered his ears in a jokey way when the class  discussion veered toward things sexual or transgressive -- blame the text, Readers, not me!  -- and otherwise carried on. I was pained, in those days, but fairly focused.

When he went off to Westwood Lodge, his first psychiatric hospital, for a single week, something changed. I suddenly had a hard time prepping my classes. I kept thinking about Benjy instead of the readings, or my students' writing. I was also thinking about money and insurance and my devastated parents and Saskia and Lars and how the hell I was going to make my boy better. Those days I walked about campus in a trance, looking right through my students when we crossed paths (then again, they did the same to me). I was simply absent.

And I was exhausted.

After that first hospitalization, when things seemed better (but of course that was not to last) I dug back in and finished the semester in pretty good form. Got my usual excellent evaluations. My next semester's courses filled up with repeat customers. (I was either a really good teacher or an easy grader. Possibly both.)

I had not yet lost my groove.

The problem is that two more hospitalizations followed over the next two years. One lasted almost a month; I started this blog when Ben was halfway through that one. The third, which ended just a few weeks ago, lasted almost three weeks. And I never really recovered from either of them.

Over the past two years I became unable to work. I mean, between calls from the school to pick him up and a zillion medical and therapy appointments, and the two or three days a week when he could not get out of bed to face the world, I lost the ability to be an employee. Even a mediocre one. When I did make it to class I could not bring myself to give a crap about thesis statements or short stories or the art of persuasion. Because my kid was going down, and I was going down with him. And not even my beloved literature could trump that.

Even when things are going relatively well -- on days like today, when Benjy goes off willingly to school and seems alert and not depressed and has actually eaten food of some sort (though not necessarily GOOD food) -- I don't seem to get anything done.

I write a bounty of lists. Check any flat surface in my house and you will find a few of them. Most have only one or two items out of ten or so checked off. Because I find myself drawn to rest and silence. I sit on my couch and stare. I listen to music sometimes, and sometimes I watch TV. I clean my kitchen a few times a day (funny how once is never enough), and I TRY -- I really, really do -- to pay bills. I have been promising the same growing stack of medical bills for weeks now that I'd get them sorted out. But the problem with those hospital bills is they keep coming in. And I am losing my mind over them. Not only because they are bleeding us DRY -- and believe me, we were dry to begin with -- but because I have lost track of what's been paid and what hasn't. Is this a NEW $500 charge from Children's or a second (or third) reminder about an old $500 charge? Didn't I already pay for that battery of blood tests? Or was that the battery from a few months ago?

I am so damn battered from these batteries of blood tests I could scream. Since September 2010 I have had two sick children, as long-term readers of this blog will know (for newcomers, my daughter Saskia is developing lupus), and the costs are dragging us under. All I've got to do is sort through the rapidly multiplying bills (yes, the cancer metaphor was deliberate) and pay what needs to be paid. It shouldn't be that hard, apart from the empty bank account, which is a bit of an impediment.

But I have lost my focus.

When feeling kindly disposed toward myself I think, Anna, you have been in the trenches of disability and illness for ten years. Some of those years you have held down a full-time job AND the full-time jobs of running a household and serving as primary parent. (Lars is a great Dad but most of the kid stuff lands on my plate.) You are simply EXHAUSTED.

But mostly I just feel like the ultimate slacker mom. The lame Hausfrau.

Somehow, I have got to get my groove back. Beyond lots of strong coffee I have no idea what it's going to take but I'm working on it.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

What Happens When We Read Novels (World, I'm Talking to You)

Here's a pop quiz for a chilly Thursday morning: why should we read books, and especially novels? There was a time when novels – as far as the Brits were concerned, French novels in particular – were thought to be bad for you because they were all about frivolity. The act of reading them was frivolous and so was their content (sex, anyone?).  In the 19th century novels took over; everyone was gobbling them up. And in this century and the last, they have enjoyed a special status in Western culture.

This is a good thing.

Why? Hold on a bit. Because this is really a larger question about the world in which we live. Not just our American world, although yes, I am talking about Americans in this election season. But ALL of us.

Have you noticed that we don’t see each other as people anymore? I’m not referring to our mothers or our friends or co-workers or bosses (okay, maybe our bosses), but THE PEOPLE ON THE OTHER SIDE. Of the political spectrum. Of the tracks. Of the earth. The folks who speak differently or eat different foods than we do. (However, I WILL draw the line at understanding folks who eat fried tarantulas. I’m sorry, I just CANNOT fathom that.)

Here in America we have become so polarized – and I’m not excluding myself – that we cannot hear each other talk. We cannot converse. We can't look at each other’s faces without revulsion, or at least dismay. We are symbols to each other, and that’s about it. Symbols of that “type” who believes X. That “race” who does Y.

This, Readers, is a danger to us all. I am as guilty of it, in the political sphere, as anyone else. And it has got to stop.

You know, those folks on the Other Side (whatever side that might be) feel shivery when they are close to the person they desire, just like you and I do. They get hungry. Sometimes they are kind, and sometimes not, just like us. They have parents (if they are lucky) and kids (ditto). Maybe they love cats, or ferrets, or goldfish, or dogs. Maybe they don’t. Some of them live gentle lives, some of them do not. Just like us.

I need the reminder, just like you probably do.

The people on the Other Side don’t share our opinions. We don’t like theirs. But for Pete’s sake, if we can’t TALK to them about it instead of screaming at our TVs we are all sunk. If we can’t hear each other and – here it is, folks – EMPATHIZE with The Other, our nation and our world is going to die a painful moral death. (I use “moral” in its most liberal sense of justice and kindness and respect to all people.) And that will be ugly.

It already is ugly. Benjy knows this. And he is freaked out by the news. I listen to the relatively quiet voice of NPR in the car and even that is too much.

Ben: Turn it off! It scares me!

Me: But Ben, it’s politics. An election is happening. It’s important.

Ben: It stresses me out. PLEASE turn it off.

Me, sighing (because I am OBSESSED with this election): Oh-kay.

I find it ironic that all those shooting games he plays don’t stress him out but Nina Totenberg does. And yet, I get it. I do.  He hears the way we are yelling at each other without listening. He notices that our world does not seem to practice empathy -- at least, not so much in the public sphere. And that is a scary thing for a boy whose emotional universe is always off-kilter. Whose life is ruled by anxiety and depression at the best of times.

So, you ask. What about books?

Well, here’s what I think. I think every CEO in this world should be required to read Dickens’s Hard Times, and then read it again. And every hedge fund manager should have to read Dickens’s Little Dorrit.

And the rest of us should read, read, read, too. Because novels help us to walk in other people’s shoes. They teach us EMPATHY.

So, Readers, what books do you think we should be reading? And what should be required reading for the President, whoever he ends up being, and Congress? Comment!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Six Ways You Can Tell If Your Kid's Not Brushing His Teeth

1.       There are only three toothbrushes in the family toothbrush holder but four people in the family. (However, this phenomenon can also be explained if you have a spouse with OCD tendencies, who uses toothbrushes to clean mildew on bathtub grout while sitting on the can. Lars, I may or may not be talking about you.)

2.       When you send him up to bed, say don’t forget to brush! and go up there twenty second later to  check, his lights are out and he’s already snoring.

3.       The dentist's disclosing tablets make him look like he just bolted one of Aunt Ida's blueberry pies. Every. Single. Tooth.

4.       His breath smells like your hundred-year-old grandmother’s does.

5.       He does not look you in the eye when he assures you he did the deed (this becomes a bit less reliable if he’s on the autism spectrum).

6.       He asks for the meaning of “tooth sweaters.”

Dr. Watson, I think we can deduce that Benjy has not been brushing.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Surviving a Storm, Irreverently

Last night we, our extended family, and our friends all weathered a mega-storm with little more than inconvenience. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

What did we do while waiting for the lights to go out? We sat down to my awesome chicken and white bean chili, defrosted in a microwave that still worked just fine. Serenaded by chilling and discordant winds, we watched the trees do their Bacchanalian dances. Lovely and scary, all at once. We strove to keep Benjy seated at the table. And we worried aloud about what the night would bring for millions of our fellow Northeasterners.

Then I did it. I just couldn't help it. It came from nowhere. "Lars," I said with a grin. "You are Eurotrash. Going out to the hotel pool at six a.m. with all the other Germans, laying your towel on the best pool chair before Brits wake up and get down there."

Lars looked startled, and then he laughed. He knew what game I was playing.

"Anna, you Ugly American," he retorted. "Always complaining to the waiter that the coffee's not strong enough, like it is at home in the States."

We practically hit the floor laughing. Our kids look mystified. (Neither of us has ever lived up to the stereotype, so they had no idea what we were talking about.)

Saskia, always with an opinion, said, "The two of you are an embarrassment to the species."

Benjy agreed. "Yeah, what she said."

Then we left all the dishes on the table and sat down to watch some irreverent TV (South Park, anyone?). And we laughed some more.

You know, we had a tragic storm here in the northeast. Our family survived. So did the Hellacious Hound, and the Rockin' Hermit Crabs. (The fishies didn't, but their sad demise preceded Sandy.)

Many families were not so lucky. We talked about those families today. The folks perched on top of their trailers all night in a New Jersey trailer park while the waters rose about them. How utterly terrifying. The family whose child, the husband whose wife, the kids whose grandparent, were crushed by falling trees, or who drowned. Queens -- Queens! -- was burning this morning. A conflagration of scores of apartment buildings. I told that to Benjy and he said, "In 1660, London burned down." And I replied, "Benjy, this is here and now. This is close to us."

Our hearts break for those people, even as we feel gratitude that not even one shingle blew off our roof.

We were lucky that last night we could be silly. Eurotrash, Ugly American, South Park, are nothing to those people who have to rebuild their lives. How fortunate we were that they meant something to us in the middle of Sandy's fury.

Life can be so damn good, even in the face of others' pain. I'm still wrapping my mind around that one. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Larsapalooza

Tonight, Lars, Benjy and I saw "Hotel Transylvania" at a local multiplex. We had a blast. The parts I didn't sleep through were truly adorable (I've been known to sleep through all genres of movies, including thrillers and horror flicks, as well as World Series and Super Bowl slugfests. I am an equal opportunity sleeper).

Anyway, the movie was a hoot but the funniest moment was on the ride home. You see, there is an "homage" to (read: satire of) "Twilight" in the movie. Benjy was appropriately eye-rolly at the reference to his least favorite franchise.

"Geez, 'Twilight' is a worse love story than watching some guy pooping," he said.

"Ew," I said, and laughed.

Lars took his eyes off the road for one of those frighteningly long moments he likes (the kind of long moment he used to terrify me with while driving in Europe) and said, "What is this 'Twilight'? Is it on television?"

Snorts from the back seat.

"Watch the road," I said sternly. "And, REALLY?"

"Well, what is it? And what is it about?"



"And you NEVER heard of Twilight?"

"No. What's it about?"

"Lars. Do you live in a GODDAMN BUBBLE?"

"Language, Mom," said Benjy from the back, enjoying himself immensely.

"I try to insulate myself from that stuff," Lars replied coolly.

"Well," I snapped. "Let me just tell you that the "Twilight Franchise" is the brainchild of a woman who had an icky dream and woke up and wrote it all down, kind of like Coleridge -- remember Kubla Khan, and the messenger from Porlock? [Sorry, folks, a little English-nerd indulgence here.] Well, this was EXACTLY NOT LIKE THAT. And then Stephanie Meyer became ultra rich and lived happily ever after."

"So this Twilight is not something I would like?"

"You'd love it. I'll buy it for you tomorrow."

"Thank you," he said, without a trace of irony.

I looked back at Benjy but it was too dark to read his face. We got home and Lars disappeared upstairs.

I can't wait to tell Saskia this one. She'll say, "Why am I not surprised? The guy wears Birkenstocks with white socks, year round." She and I will share a laugh. Then I will go hunt Lars down and and give him a fierce hug.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

More Funny Google Search Terms

Here's how people searched for me -- or found me by accident -- this week:

the striped nickel

striped nickel blog

body sock

cod piece

nickel and anxiety


sensory body sock

dog in sofa

heartbreaking blogs

I'm sorry to be breaking hearts!
The list is not as funny as in times past, but still interesting.
Have a great Sunday!