Saturday, March 27, 2010


With spring break on the horizon, all the students and faculty at Med U were abuzz with plans for the holiday. As usual, there is an overlap of Passover and Easter during the week break. Growing up in such a melting pot of a county, people often simply wish others a happy “break” or happy “holiday.” This year, however, I was asked more than a handful of times, “What are you doing for Passover?” I always respond the same way: smile, and say, “Well, I’m not Jewish…but I am having seder with my best friend Jo M..” In a twist of irony, I, the Catholic girl, have a German last name, which people always equate with Judaism. My best friend, meanwhile, who is Jewish, has a name “as Irish as Patty’s Pig”, as my own Irish nana would say. When I offer this information, my acquaintances assume confused expressions and then inquire about my heritage, seemingly very flustered that my name did not confirm their assumptions.

When I’m not being asked about my religion, I often get other questions about my background. Where I grew up, many of my friends were of one, or two country backgrounds, or so they thought. Usually Irish, or Italian, or some combination of the two. Now that I am in medical school, which is like a mini United Nations, I have the privilege of collaborating with people of so many diverse backgrounds. Many, if not most of my classmates are first generation Americans, if not immigrants themselves. It may be my own projections or insecurities, but when I answer that my background is diluted and muddled, and I really don’t have any cultural connection, I often feel that my classmates seem bored, or pity me for not having culture.

Inspired by a recent television series about tracing one’s ancestry, I decided to delve into my family’s tree, and try to find meaning in my heritage. While researching my ancestry for the first time, in the third grade, I discovered that I was German, Danish, Dutch, English, and Irish. What a mouthful! Later, I got another window into my ancient past when my mother got her DNA tested. As a high school science teacher, my mom takes her class annually to a world renowned research center to do experiments with DNA. One project is to use mitochondrial DNA to trace the maternal ancestral line. The information is then compared to a giant world DNA bank, and you can see where your ancestors arose. My maternal line was 98% Scandinavian, and 2% Transylvanian (cool!). But what I was to make of it? It’s not like I knew of any recent immigrants in my family. This information did not justify having St. Lucia celebrations, or lacquering my nails with Chanel Vamp; it was simply an empty fact.

I then decided to go back and check out the little report I did as an eight year old. A history of the eight great grandparents. Of the eight, only one was an immigrant—from Germany. The rest had random situations—a couple orphans, a daughter of a wealthy businessman, son of a tailor, daughter of a dressmaker, etc. (I was quite pleased to see so many fashion people in the family!) But one thing all my ancestors had in common was New York City. Piecing it together now is fascinating to me. Both my mother and father’s ancestors grew up all over my favorite parts of the city. My father was born as the seventh generation in a brownstone in what used to be a Scandinavian neighborhood in Brooklyn. Seventh generation! In the same brownstone in Brooklyn. It blew my mind. (And made me wish that house was still in the family—Park Slope is pretty nice these days!) My mother’s great grandparents were wealthy people whose family roots lay in Manhattan’s earliest beginnings. For as far back as I could trace, my family were New Yorkers, through and through.

My muddled mix of German, Danish, Dutch, English, Irish, Scandinavian, and Transylvanian, is really a reflection of the melting pot that makes up our beloved city. And I have found meaning in my heritage, and can proudly proclaim that my heritage is simply, and wonderfully, New York.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Royal Flush

The most interesting thing about vitamins to me is that British people pronounce the word vee-tamins. That’s the extent of my interest in those Easter-colored pills. To be fair, my opinion was not always this obsolete, and is just the result of two separate tries to hop on the vitamin bandwagon, both during my senior year of high school. My first go was an attempt to aid the incredible fatigue I had developed, and I assumed my lack of energy could be treated with more B 12s, Cs, calcium, and such. Swallowing one horse pill after the next did nothing except turn my pee neon yellow, and I learned from my doctor that my exhaustion was not exhaustion as much as mono. That’s senior year for you! My next try at regular vitamin intake came a few months later when I started packing on a few pounds, felt sluggish, and was ultimately asked if I was pregnant by my close friend. Desperate measures needed to be taken. Turns out, I wasn’t with child but I did have IBS, the most awkward syndrome a teenage girl, or any person for that matter, can get—irritable bowel syndrome. “Just a little backed up today. No big deal, just my bowel getting irritable again.” Awkward.

Needless to say, I was less than enthralled when my mom told me her doctor prescribed her vitamins to lower her cholesterol. “Can you believe it? Vitamins! Who prescribes vitamins before medication? Everyone I tell is amazed that a doctor would explore vitamins before jumping to Lipator! It’s really amazing. She’s so holistic! I love it.” My mom was won over and couldn’t be more thrilled to be under doctor’s orders. I, on the other hand, thought it sounded like a fairly inefficient way to manage her cholesterol and wasn’t really sure how increased doses of this nutrient and that nutrient would perform the magic the doctor promised. But who am I to squelch my mom’s boundless joy? It’s not how I roll. I ooh-ed and ahh-ed told her she was lucky to have such an open-minded internist.

That’s just like my mom though, to jump on the Titanic faster than she can notice or ask, “Why are people throwing life preservers overboard?” It’s that loose grip she keeps on her own opinions that makes her easily swayed by others but that also allows her to take risks, entertain different points of view, and enjoy the ride. Being around her is a treat, and so there was nowhere I wanted to be more than with her last weekend while Curtis was at a fishing club dinner.

My mom and I went on our regular date—Target for mindless strolling, a drink at a local wine bar, and then a movie to finish off the evening. The wine bar suited our moods and allowed us to fritter away some time trying new wines and doing nothing but catch up about her trip to Rome, my search for a co-op, and our excitement that I was sleeping over. Curtis’ dinner was an all night affair, and so my mom and I knew we’d pick him up somewhere in the wee hours of morning and why not try to stretch out the mommy and me date.

Yes, Curtis could have taken a cab home from town to my mom’s house, but what fun would that be? My mom raised my sister and me with the idea that midnight adventures are a necessary part of a life well lived. Growing up, we three would venture out to go food shopping or simply get ice cream as the clock neared twelve. Our midnight adventures, taken while the rest of the world seemed to be fast asleep, were stolen moments that I’ll always treasure. And I thought last Saturday would be no different. From wine bar to film night, the evening was going as planned, and we were both incredibly content to bundle up, crank up the heat, and pass out on the L shaped couch and miss the movie. Pretty standard.

A few heat induced comas later, Curtis called to alert the troops and tell us he was all ready to be rounded up and taken home—the night was young but he is not so much anymore. My mom stirred from her slumber in a stupor and I said, “Mom, you really don’t need to come with me. Stay here, it’s fine!”

“No, no. I’m coming. Ugh, I’m so warm though! I’m roasting! Are you warm? Is it hot in here?”

And just when I was about to ignore her complaints, I looked at her and said, “Whoa, mom, you’re burning up! That’s what you get for swaddling yourself in a quilt and burrowing yourself into the couch! You marinated and then cooked yourself!” As per usual, we both laughed, thought a midnight adventure would do her good, and then scuttled into the car.

On the way downtown, my mom cracked her window to let in the biting winter cold, and started fanning her face. “Mom, are you alright?” I asked, growing slightly concerned that my mother, who collects Social Security, was experiencing a hot flash.

“I’m fine. Just a little hot. Is it hot in here? Are you warm at all?” she asked while tugging at her turtleneck.

“No, I’m fine, mom. I’m not the one who cooked myself at 350 degrees for sixty minutes!”

We couldn’t stop laughing, probably due to delirium from being out in the middle of the night and sweating off the Greek wine we drank earlier that day. In any case, Curtis was pleased to see us drive up and eagerly ducked into the backseat, ready to go home and collapse. A night of hibachi, beer, and fishing talk will due that to a guy!

On the way home, my mom rolled down her window even more, letting in pools of frigid air. “What’s going on in here?” Curtis asked.

“Oh nothing. Mom’s just overheating! She cooked herself a little too long,” I said, laughing, with mom chuckling next to me. But then I turned my gaze from the road and saw that she had rolled her pants up to her knees and sweater up to her elbows.

“I’m burning up! I don’t know what’s going on!” she said with a laugh, although I could tell she was growing more concerned with each increasing degree. By the time we pulled into the driveway she was desperately tugging at her clothes, as if being suffocated by her wooly knits. She ran up the walkway and up to the shower, swearing that she’d be fine once she took a chilly shower.

Curtis, intoxicated and tired, did not intend to come home to a mother-in-law on fire. “Are you sure she’s okay?” he worried. Truthfully, I wasn’t too sure of the answer.

“Jo?! Can you come up here for a sec? I’m really… red.” Curtis and I exchanged nervous looks and I scurried upstairs. Nothing could prepare me for what I saw next. I’m not even sure how to explain it. My mom stood in front of her mirror in only her shiny white bra and cotton underpants. She was agape, as was I, at the shade of red her body had turned. Her very fair skin doesn’t extend beyond the hues of ghostly pale in the winter and moderately freckled in the summer, so this sunburned red that extended over her entire body, ears to toes, radiated all the more against her white undergarments.

“Mom! You’re red! What happened?” I stammered.

She shook her head and said, “It must be sleeping on the couch in the blanket, but I don’t really know! I’m burning!” She started scratching at her limbs and said, “Ow! It’s like fire ants are crawling over my body!”

Upon hearing this, Curtis yelled up to us, “It’s an allergic reaction! It must be! Do you have any Benadryl? Did you eat anything out of the ordinary?”

“The wine!” she and I said in tandem. “It has to be.” The wine. Nice try.

After some more examination and amazement at her deep tomato red skin, she finally got into the shower and yelled out, “I feel better! The shower’s helping! I think I’m fine!” Yet, moments after drying off and slipping into cotton pajamas, the fire ants were back and her skin was once again flaming.

Unable to understand her sudden seemingly allergic reaction, I did a quick search on Google for “full body flush.” I was temped to search for "my mom is on fire," but knew that would be in vain. A stream of results popped up, and as my eyes scanned the screen, my focus settled on the phrase, “Niacin body flush.”

“MOM! What vitamins did the doctor prescribe you? Aren’t you on Niacin?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Because apparently it gives you something called the ‘Niacin flush.’ They actually have a name for this! And not only that, but people can apparently have reactions that last three hours and make them feel like they’re on fire! This site also says that people usually experience this flush a few days after starting Niacin.”

“Oh my god! You’re right! How did you realize that?!” my mom, a lady who makes few connections, called as she ran downstairs.

“You haven’t stopped telling me about these vitamins you’re on, and how amazing it is that your doctor prescribed them.”

She laughed, “Huh, you’re right! Wow, I’m so glad you guys are here! I don’t know what I would have done if I were alone. I probably would have gone up in smoke!”

She might not have gone up in smoke but I hope she learned her lesson about doctors who try to blow smoke up her you-know-what. Sometimes there’s nothing like a good ol’, FDA approved cholesterol busting pill to do the job. A vitamin might be more holistic but I think it’s a whole lot of crap. And after that night, my mom, Burning Woman, might agree. Well, until she hears about the next new snake oil product on the market.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Remember me?

            People cradled my face and said things like, “You look just like him. Look at those eyes,” and, “Really, he lives on in you and your sister.” Those are lovely sentiments, but I couldn’t fathom how to appreciate them, so instead I would smile vacantly, nod, and think, “No, he’s dead. There’s no more living on for him.”
            At his funeral, while teeming with self-consciousness, I remember pulling at the clingy, black outfit from Loehmann’s I had found in the Junior’s department and worn to Rosh Hashanah services earlier that year. At eleven years old, I had one foot firmly placed in the comfy confines of childhood, and the other foot precariously positioned in the world of tweendom. I had planned to use my tween years to test out make-up and slightly trendier clothes, all in pursuit of becoming instantly cool a la She’s Out of Control – the 90s movie in which the geeky girl turns into a gorgeous teen whom all the boys fawn over. But my sixth grade year did no go as planned and in lieu of consumption by way of boys and parties and what lunch table I’d sit at, my dad developed stomachaches. His pain grew so suddenly intense that on our family road trip, he drank an entire bulk case of Maalox. The eternal optimist he was, and clutching to a gross misdiagnosis of ulcers, he kept his worst fears and the severity of his agony hidden from us the best he could. He assured us he was fine, despite wearing the unspoken truth on his taught, strained face. Be we soon realized he was slipping out of our grasp, as if a thin yet impenetrable membrane had formed over his handsome, charming, Irish self.
            His stomachaches quickly turned into cancer and cancer turned into a funeral four months later. During his illness he remained upright because the cancer had coiled in and around his spine. Unable to recline, he sat up through the duration of his battle, writhing in a leather chair in our living room, captive to his own rapidly deteriorating body. My parents spent entire days at the library poring over journals and books that espoused recent breakthroughs in cancer research. Since his cancer had advanced beyond the aid of chemotherapy, and radiation eroded his organs worse than the tumor, his only options were natural remedies. My parents soaked Maitake mushrooms in the basement, ordered capsules of Cat’s Claw and Shark Cartilage, and began contacting anyone who had found success using alternative regimens. One day I accompanied my mom to visit a local woman who contributed her recovery to all the supplements my dad had begun taking religiously. The youthful forty-something woman possessed the glow of survival and she convinced us that we too could one day find our way to remission. It was moments such as those where I thought, “It’s not too late. The doctors are wrong. He can make it.” But, then I would return home from school only to see him writhing in the living room, exactly how I had left him—his withered frame bent over, gray beard attempting to fill in the cavities of his gaunt face. And just like that, remission seemed as made-up a place as Oz. Six-months after learning that cancer had invaded his spine and stomach, there I was, receiving people’s tears, words, and attempts at comfort. But what could they say to the daughters and wife who survived this beloved man? Nothing could bring him back, and that was the fact that I held onto.
            The seasons have turned, years have elapsed, and we have somehow managed to turn our broken pieces into a collage of normalcy. More entangled in each other’s lives now than ever, we remaining three talk on the phone so often that upon starting my freshman year of college, a fellow frosh asked, “How often do you call home?” I replied, in earnest, “Today?”
            My husband knows my dad through stories, I remember my dad through yellowed photo albums, and my mom, sister and I still yearn for one more moment with the man whose absence and presence have had equal impressions on our lives. Unlike many friends of mine whose parents got divorced and soon remarried another, my mom has never dated anyone. She says she found her one true love and that, in her words, she’s “perfectly content.” She travels through Europe, has a season’s pass to the local theater house, and frequents the independent cinema in town. She has never been one to accept idle life. My mom jokes that visitors to our house probably assume my dad has just briefly stepped out since we tell stories of him so effortlessly and often. However, sometimes our longing to hug him glows so strong that it is not uncommon for any one of us to dream that he has come back, forcing said dreamer mid-reverie to awkwardly explain to everyone he was just “on vacation.” We have our lives as they are now, and we have our lives as they were then. Yet, the slightest whiff of Stetson or faintest melody of a Willie Nelson song, and the past fourteen years collapse like an accordion and I’m back to remembering he’s gone.
            One recent morning, while walking to work, I called my mom to ask about a birthday party she attended the night before. She said, “Oh you know, it was like Mary Tyler Moore goes to a party.” I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, but took it to imply, “Strong, fabulous lady goes to social event solo, carrying conversation, witty banter, and glasses of wine all at once.” Then she said, “Oh my, do I have a story for you!”
            She went on to say, “I was just futzing around the house yesterday, tired from the party, when I heard the bell ring. I assumed it was Steve from across the street coming to see about painting the side of the house, but there was some guy standing at the front door. He asked me if I recognized him. And as you know, ‘Do you recognize me,’ are my least favorite words next to, ‘Mom, watch me.’ Anyway, of course I said, ‘Oh, no, I’m sorry but I don’t know you. What’s your name?’ And this guy said his name is Ray, and then said, ‘Don’t you remember? I worked in Julius’s? The deli in town? I used to help Billy out on little odds-and-ends jobs, and we’d all hang out on your boat?’ Then, it all came flooding back to me! I knew exactly who it was! Ray was this guy who we knew from town, and he and Dad were friends, but this was years ago! He was one of our first friends when we moved here. Ray lives in Florida, and has for a long time, and was just up visiting a few friends on Long Island and thought he’d swing by. Anyway, so then, here’s the kicker, we were still standing at the front door when he asked, ‘Is Billy home?’”
            I drew in my breath as if gasping for air and stopped short on the sidewalk. My mom continued on with her story, recounting how she explained to Ray that my dad passed away fourteen years ago. Apparently, Ray almost fell over. He couldn’t believe or understand it. He kept saying, “He was so healthy! Cancer? I’m so sorry. Wow…” He reiterated how my dad was truly the nicest person he had ever met and how my parents remain some of the most welcoming and generous people he’s ever known. During the impromptu reunion, Ray said he was pleased to hear that my parents decided to have kids as he cooed over the gallery of wall and table space devoted to plaster imprints of our once small hands, finger-painted pictures “To Mom,” and photos of us across the years, at Colonial Williamsburg, The Eiffel Tower, my wedding, all testimony to childhoods salvaged and savored.
            The last time Ray saw my parents was thirty years. In that time he has moved away, carrying his friends with him in memories. He has led a good life, and assumed his old friends did the same. In Ray’s version of how things unfolded, my dad remained as friendly and fit as ever—restoring old furniture in the garage, and watching the sunset with my mom on their little house boat, which they bought for $1,000 in 1976. He assumed my parents had gone on to raise kids, and if they did, they were sure to be the parents everyone wanted—camping, wearing high-tops, going on midnight adventures to Carvel for sundaes with extra gummy bears. Even though cancer punctuated our happy foursome, shifting the course of our lives away from our original destination of picket-fence perfection, we have journeyed on a nourishing route. Nonetheless, we have gone on, us three. Hearing my mom’s story, however, instantly made me feel like my dad died all over again. And this time, instead of mourning the life he actually left behind, I mourned the life Ray authored for him—complete with adventures with the grown daughters, the strong wife, and the changing times. The life that was just beyond his grasp. That morning, Ray brought my dad back, and not just for the moment that my mom, sister and I always longed for, but he wrote him into the past thirty years, and he gave him the life he would have wanted.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I prefer Rufus to Doris. You?

“Can I ask you something? Can I ask you something serious,” Christopher said seriously.

“Sure,” I reply.

“So you don’t mind if I ask you something? You don’t mind, no?”

“No, I don’t mind. You can ask.”

“So I can ask you something?”


“OK, let me ask you something serious. Do you wear contacts? Do you?” he asks.

He licks the marinara sauce off his fingers, scattering his stare around the pizzeria, waiting intently for my response to his urgent question.

“You know already. You know,” I say, aware that I am about to enter into a game of compulsivity.

“But do you? Do you wear contacts?”

“You know, Christopher. What do you think I do?”

“You don’t wear contacts, right? You don’t, do you?” He straightens his plate and seven crumpled napkins, then starts to shake his head as if shaking out his discomfort.

He follows up by asking, “So you have perfect vision? You were born as a baby with perfect vision?”

“Yes, I was born with perfect vision I guess,” I say. “So how is your work going at Home Depot?”

“You have perfect vision. So you don’t wear glasses then? Do you wear glasses? No, right? Because you have perfect vision so you don’t wear glasses. Right?”

“Are you enjoying your time at Home Depot? Are you taking the bus by yourself?” I asks in an effort to steer our conversation, or what some would call a round of obsessive-compulsive questioning, away from topics that feed Christopher’s fascinations. Christopher has autism. My husband used to work with him once upon a time, and he and I have taken a real liking to each other. We still get together every now and again, for pizza and catching up.

“I asked you a question if you wear glasses and you ignored me. You ignored my question.”

At age twenty, Christopher twitches around in the Formica booth, wiping his hands and face, looking to me for his next fix. Not answering his questions, especially those related to his favorite topics, stirs up an uneasiness in him that swells through his body and cannot be tamed. I know if I answer his line of questioning he’ll instantly feel satiated. He is doing his best to engage me in this process, but the temporary satisfaction will quickly be replaced with more anxiety and agitation.

“I did ignore you because we shouldn’t be talking about this. You know I don’t wear glasses—“

“You don’t wear glasses? I knew you didn’t.”

“—and this isn’t a good use of our time. I just wanted to see you on your lunch break and see how you’re doing, and we’re talking about glasses. How are you?” I push.

“Well,” he says, taking a big sip of his soda, “there is a new girl at work, Ashley. She is there at work with me. Do you like that name, Ashley?” he asks, almost innocently.

“It’s OK, although I’m not a huge fan,” I say, knowing where this conversation is going. I don’t mind the name game, and find myself strangely entertained by it. I live with my own set of obsessive behaviors—including my propensity count things in eights, and to trace shapes (like the outline of the TV) with my teeth in a repetitive manner. On the very low end of obsessive-compulsive behavior my life is only mildly controlled by these tendencies, whereas hearing a name he greatly dislikes, such as Doris, sets the tone of Christopher’s day.

“What about the name Rupert?” I ask with a smile and rise of my eyebrows. I suspect I know the answer.

“Yes, I like the name Rupert. Rupert. Do you like that name?” He starts jutting his head like a whirligig and jumping up in his seat, rocking the booth back and forth. He’s happy with our new dialogue.

“Yea, I like that name, a lot actually. I like the -oop sound, you know?” I know he does because we are almost always in sync with our particular choices in names and the reasons as well.

“Yes, I like that sound and it’s like Rufus, which I also like. Do you like Rufus? Not Rupert, even though they sound alike, but Rufus. Do you like that name?”

“I do! OK, let’s stop talking about names. We’ve talked about names for long enough. Do you like your pizza?” I ask.

“Why don’t you want to talk about names anymore? Is it bad to talk about names? We shouldn’t talk about names? No, we shouldn’t? Or yes, we should?” He looks sterner upon asking this question.

“Let’s talk about the bus. How is the bus working out? Do you still take it on your own to work?”

“You don’t want to talk about names? Why don’t you?”

He is trying in earnest to rope me back in. I know I should stay strong. Lingering in topics like names and vision problems do nothing but cripple him socially and show him it’s appropriate to discuss these subjects with others. Yet while I’m talking with him like this it seems completely fine, no worse than talking with Cece about my clothing options for Saturday night or talking with my mom about the Wednesday night line-up on TV. But it is different, I know.

“That pizza was delicious! And the soda was perfecto! Did you like your pizza, Christopher?” I ask.

“Yes, it was good. I usually get this though. May I ask you something, Jo? You won’t be mad if I ask you something, right? You won’t get mad at me if I ask you something? You wouldn’t get mad.”

“I won’t get mad, but I might not want to talk about it. I won’t get mad, I promise,” I assure him.

“What is your favorite kind of food?”

Good. I think this is a fairly healthy path. “Well, I like everything, really. But not meat because I’m a vegetarian, but you knew that. Umm, I guess I like chocolate the best!” I say, probably due to my need to finish off any meal with a little sweet.

He squeals with laughter and claps his hands once, rocking back and forth. “Me too! But do you like other things like that? Would you eat candy that’s not chocolate? Would you? You don’t mind if I ask you right? This is OK to talk about, right?”

“Sure, it’s fine to ask that. Let me think… Umm, I really like Skittles actually. Do you like Skittles?”

“Yes! Oh yes! I love Skittles. You like Skittles? What about ice cream? Do you like ice cream? “

“Of course! I love ice cream.”

“You do? Do you like vanilla or chocolate ice cream? Because you said you like chocolate but do you like chocolate ice cream? You must like it. Do you?” He is very excited about our tête-à-tête.

“I like vanilla more than chocolate ice cream. Skittles and vanilla ice cream,” I say, summing up my preferences, hungrier than ever for a little sugar.

“Skittles and vanilla ice cream!” he echoes.

Curtis, who was very amused by this lunch and remained silent throughout the duration, speaks up and says, “OK, Christopher. If you’re going to get to work on time then you should start walking to the bus stop. What do you need to take the bus?”

“Well, let’s see, I need 75 cents, which is three quarters.”

“Do you have three quarters?”

“Yes, I have my three quarters, Curtis. Do you like the name Curtis, Jo?” he asks, and I realize Christopher is prolonging our time together and ignoring Curtis’s request to start walking to the bus stop. I’m sad too.

“You have your money? So we can go?” Curtis asks.

“I had it when we got here. But now I can’t find my quarters!”

He looks anxious and starts walking between the table where we ate and the front door of the pizzeria. “I can’t ride the bus if I don’t have three quarters!”

I run to our car parked out front and search the change compartment. I grab a handful of coins and start poking through the pile with my index finger for some arrant quarters. Christopher’s bus is arriving in four minutes, and I’ve found two quarters when I see Curtis and Christopher standing by the front door of the restaurant. Christopher’s head is looking down and he seems to be tearing up. Then he bursts through the front door and Curtis just looks at me with a cockeyed smile and shrugs.

No sooner do I start to climb out of the car, Christopher walks back outside, holding his fist up in the air looking victorious. He opens his palm for Curtis to see and they both wave me on, signaling his discovery of the 75 cents.

I’m frightened by episodes of nervousness such as this and reminded of the randomness of life. Why is my OCD manageable whereas Christopher’s is frustratingly present and overwhelming? I am tired from our thirty-minute lunch, tired from cyclical conversations and tangible angst, and I wonder how Christopher lives through each day—or even worse, though moments of greater crisis than misplacing bus fare.

As I drive my car past the bus stop about fifty feet away, Christopher and Curtis stand under the plastic alcove, and I notice Christopher white-knuckling the coins. Onlookers would not suspect that there is anything wrong with Christopher if they saw these two men waiting for the bus. No one would realize right away that one is a psychologist and the other a man who copes with autism. You would have to talk to them first to realize the differences that cleave them apart.

I wave to them, and Christopher jumps up and gives me a feverish wave back. He’s smiling. He yells something at me, but I’m too far away to hear him. Curtis blows me a kiss and then I drive away, watching them shrink away through the rear view mirror, waiting for the bus.

Later that afternoon I pick up Curtis from town. He is standing in front of a local bookshop, grinning from ear to ear, happy to see me. I know we are lucky. We are lucky that picking out the perfect piece of pizza is not an ordeal or that hearing the name Doris does not fling us into overpowering worry.

“Did you hear what Christopher said to you before?” Curtis asked.

“No! I didn’t!” I frown, “What did he say?”

“He yelled, ‘Skittles and vanilla ice cream.’”

Skittles and vanilla ice cream. I know exactly what he means.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Let's talk about sects.

They’re growing up right before my eyes. Literally. I’m watching them. My students are crossing the divide from neutrons to romantically charged particles. They seem to have felt the sting of Cupid’s arrow and don’t know what to do with themselves. Valentine’s day is around the corner, but so is the 100th day of school. In past years, my students were always giddier about collecting 100 M&Ms or exercising for 100 seconds than distributing Valentines and swooning over each other. In elementary school, the 100th day of school is a milestone that students and teachers alike value, just for different reasons. Students love any day that comes with themed activities and teachers love the fact that year is more than halfway through. Teachers nationwide wake up on that morning singing, Hooray! We’re all still alive and actually doing well! Students wake up on that morning singing, Hooray! We get to eat candy, play games, and sing songs!

But this year is a little different. There are new kids on the block. A few weeks ago I projected a large world map onto the overhead and began teaching my class about the bodies of water. I got to the Pacific Ocean and said, “This is the Pacific Ocean. It borders the west coast of the United States. See it right here? The Pacific Ocean.” Then instead of seeing a gaggle of nodding heads, I heard one boy lean into his friend’s ear and whisper, “Pa-sexy Ocean.” Nice. Happy they’re taking it all in.

Which takes us to math. Recently we began our geometry unit—the study of shapes. Angles, sides, vertices… What could go wrong? Well, apparently, geometry isn’t as vanilla as I had always thought, and is in fact just as easy to corrupt as is geography. (Is it the common prefix? I am not sure.) I started by saying, “These aren’t just regular sides on the rhombus. These are parallel sides! They are like train tracks and will never run into each other. But these sides,” I said, pointing to two adjacent ones, “these are also special. They intersect. This one intersects that one; they run into each other at one specific point. When a line intersects another line, they are not parallel.” And as I was delivering this little lecture, I noticed my slight lisp on S-sounds mix dangerously with the –cts ending on the word intersects. And then there was laughter. Just a little bubble of giggling, but it was all I needed to raise my eyebrows in a telltale the-crazy-teacher-is-coming-out manner. “Off the rug. Please get up, and write me letter explaining what it is that is so funny about this lesson.” (I couldn’t have sounded more like an old-school teacher or mother if I tried. Now being a teacher myself, one of the many lessons I have learned is that teachers and parents only inflict such “adult-isms” when they’re experiencing a sudden loss of power and surge of vulnerability.) I knew the boys were snickering at me, and I had an inkling as to why, but it wasn’t until I received their letters of apology a few minutes later that my suspicions were blown out of the water. One letter read as follows:

When you said intersects I laughed because you said intersects. When you said intersects it sounded like intersects, like when two people have sects.

Like when two people have sects. Obviously, my first instinct was to laugh out loud, which I did. And the letter has proved to be the gift that keeps on giving, as I’ll spontaneously chuckle each time I think about my student’s way with words.

Then, just as I began to chalk up these incidences of immaturity to just that, I picked my class up from recess yesterday. One of the boys was extremely frustrated and couldn’t wait to tell me all about how Brian had betrayed him. If there is anything I am loath to do everyday, it’s pick up the kids and hear the laundry list of complaints that crop up from the time I drop them off at lunch and gather them up in the yard. But this time seemed different, there was a sincere urgency to Andy’s request and I was rather curious about what had come to pass between them. When we returned to the classroom and the students settled in, I pulled Brian and Andy aside.

“I told Brian a very deep secret of mine and he told Ms. Holly’s class! He told all of them my deep secret! I trusted him and he told everyone!”

“I didn’t! I didn’t tell Ms. Holly’s class!” Brian retorted.

“Ok, let’s say you didn’t tell Ms. Holly’s class. Do you know why Brian would think that?” I asked.

“Well, I turned toward them when I said it, but I didn’t mean to tell them. I just said it out loud.”

“You yelled it! You yelled it at them,” Andy protested.

“Take a deep breath, you two. Andy, would you mind telling me your secret, so I know what we’re dealing with here?”

Andy, a boy who acts fairly tough, is on the older end of the class, and has a slight strut to his step, looked up at me with widened eyes and got up on his toes. I was sure that I was about to learn some family secret, a new dirty song he made up, or how he bullies kids in the bathroom. I hesitantly leaned down, already wincing, and he whispered into my ear, “I love Jane.”

He loves Jane! That’s all! I wanted to scoop him up and jump for joy. I opted to keep my cool and nod politely. Brian got the speech and consequences he knew were coming and Andy, heart slightly bruised, returned to his seat, past Jane, looking at his feet as he walked by. I later explained to Andy that even though Jane might not feel the same way (and in fact Jane then rushed up to me and said, "Andy likes me and I really don't like him." Oh girl, you're in for a long haul!), she would be lucky to be his Valentine. He didn't seem to care. I don't blame him.

And thus, in third grade, our fuzzy understanding of love and sex begins, and I am now wondering, does it ever really clear up? As adults we often still find sex (or sects as the kids are calling it) funny and amusing, confusing and awkward. Our hearts can still be spontaneously set aflame as we realize a close friend is more than a friend—and the love can also be extinguished just as quickly when the love goes unrequited. Just as the kids in my class, some of us adults go after sects, while others go out in pursuit of love, while still others are basically just perverts when you get right down to it. At the end of the day, however, we’re all in search of something—be it sexiness, sects, or the sting of Cupid’s arrow. And all we can hope for is that we find what we’re looking for. I’m just praying all this romantic energy is snuffed out over February break with the aid of some cold showers.

Happy Valentine’s Day indeed.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The rabbit is loose!

I wrongly assumed a case of lice would be the worst of our day. A few times a year, my school invites white coated nurses into our school to carefully comb through every student’s hair—braided, curly, buzzed, or knotty, no coif avoids the nit-picking sessions. The kids love the process, and drool a little as the women comb through their hair inch by inch. Yesterday, upon hearing from a parent volunteer that the Licenders were speedier than usual, my class squeezed into an earlier time slot and I was hopeful that we could quickly filter in, filter out, unscathed by eggs, nits, or creepy-crawlers.

The kids who had been checked and cleared stood along the wall, chatting noisily with each other while I made small talk with some of the parents. I knew their volume was rising and that I should probably dampen the racket with a threat of no choice time, when all of a sudden two teachers burst through their classroom doors. Oh boy, I’m in trouble, I thought, assuming my animated, loud third graders had disrupted the teaching going on around us.

“Bring all the students in here. Now! Get them all into my room!” one of the teachers exclaimed. “The rabbit is out of its cage. Get all the students inside! The rabbit is out of its cage.”

I started looking around my feet and down the hallway. “Did one of them lose their class pet,” I wondered. Not having much time to think clearly, I herded my kids standing against the wall and those in the middle of being checked for lice, and corralled them inside the teacher’s classroom. Luckily her own students were in music at the time so the small room accommodated all of us just fine--the kids, nurse, parents, and nearby teachers. You know, just the normal reaction to a free wielding animal! My kids encircled me, asking whose pet escaped, what color rabbit it was, and why we had to lock ourselves in Ms. Thompson’s classroom if it was just a little rabbit. Good points all around!

“Don’t worry, the school just takes this type of thing very seriously. We’re fine, we’re fine. Think of this as a little, unexpected free time. Enjoy yourselves!” I didn’t know what else to say, since I was just as confused by the drastic measures being taken to protect us from a furry friend. But I shrugged and smiled, doing my best to remain somewhat in control during this lice-gone-wrong moment.

I turned to Ms. Thompson and asked, “What’s going on? How did you know a rabbit got loose?”

“The assistant principal got on the loudspeaker and said, ‘Attention teachers and students: The rabbit is loose. I repeat, the rabbit is loose.’ You know what that means, right?”

“That there’s a rabbit loose?”

“No! It’s our school code for ‘a dangerous person is in our school!’ An unidentified person in the building and could be dangerous. You’re so funny! You thought there was an actual rabbit?”

Yes, obviously I did. Call me literal. “Oh, wow! So someone is loose? Are we safe in here?” I worried.

“I hope so!” she said.

I gazed at my innocent, playful children skipping around the room, hovering around picture books, and whispering secrets in each other’s ears. The weight of my responsibility to protect and care for these children blanketed my own anxiety about the ‘loose rabbit’ and I knew that whatever happened, I was there for them. However, why our school has such a bizarre code for such a serious crisis was beyond me.

“Let’s sit in a circle and play a game,” I said, congregating the twenty-five eight year olds. “Let’s play Follow the Leader.” Shrieks of joy rang through the room, and they squeezed into the tight ring of bodies, hoping to find a spot next to their current BFF. As soon as the game was about to start, a voice boomed through the loudspeaker on the wall.

“Attention teachers and students. Sorry for this second interruption, but I’m happy to announce that the rabbit is safely tucked inside its cozy little cage. I repeat, the rabbit is back in its cage. Thank you for your patience.”

My students let out an audible, collective sigh, relieved the class pet was out of harm’s way but disappointed their impromptu fun time was now over. They arranged themselves in two neat rows, Ms. Thompson unlocked the door, and we thanked her for letting us wait in her room while the search and rescue commenced outside. “I’m so happy the bunny’s alright,” one of my little friends confessed.

“Me too!” I said, and I gave her a little hug. The kids instantly divided and assembled themselves into their pre-checked, being-checked, and post-checked groups. Many of them shared how relieved they were that the tiny pet was resting comfortably in its cage, and I was relieved that my tiny peeps were comfortably at ease back in the hallways of our questionably safe building.

As soon as the nurses and kiddies and parents were back into the smooth swing of licending, Ms. Thompson tugged at my arm and pulled me aside. “Guess what I just heard? Turns out the rabbit was a Mystery Reader!"


"He was in the boy’s bathroom, wearing a cape and a mask, when a boy came into the bathroom and screamed, ran down to the main office, and yelled that a strange man in a mask was using the bathroom! Can you believe it? A parent,” she shook her head and laughed. “Better safe than sorry, I guess.”

So, our unidentified and dangerous stranger was a parent in disguise. Bad move using the boy’s bathroom, and an even worse move telling the boy not to say anything! But apparently, even the most well-intentioned masked avenger can shut an entire elementary school down for half an hour.

When all was combed and done, the children were deloused and only mildly distressed. What started as a quick trip to the first floor nurse’s station, turned into a would-be terror threat. I learned our school code for ‘Save yourselves!’ and I think the kids learned a lot, too—the next time they hear a wooly bunny has escaped from its cage, the best thing to do is lock themselves in the nearest room, stay calm, and wait until the coast is clear. That shouldn’t require too much therapy!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Girl With the Pearl Earring

Already late for work, I decided I had time for a small coffee and egg white veggie flatbread from Dunkin’ Donuts. I couldn’t quite hear the clerk when she asked me if I cared for sugar, and so I yanked off my earmuffs to have a better listen. Moments after taking my first sip of my morning Joe, I felt that odd sensation of the backing to my earring fall against my neck into my collar. It was as strange a feeling as when I lose a tooth in a nightmare, which is a common theme in my dreams that I know has something to do with a felt loss of power. And that’s exactly what was so strikingly odd about sensing my gold fastener tumble down—something so securely fastened isn’t supposed to come off or fall out!

I dropped my head to my shoulder in an attempt to catch the fallen bauble, and grabbed at my ear, feeling around for a back-less pearl. There was nothing there! Just a naked ear! At that point I clutched my breakfast sandwich for dear life (since dropping that too would really cause the morning to go to shit) and began hunching over while walking in slow circles around the register.

“Can I help you, miss?” the confused employee asked.

“I’ve lost my earring! It’s a pearl. I don’t see it though,” I replied, and then began disrobing in front of the cranky commuters. I knew it had to be in my jacket or purse or glove or even in one of my clogs! At least I hoped it was, because if I couldn’t find it there, I had no time to retrace my steps. The subway rumbled underground and reminded me I needed to cut this morning escapade short.

“If we find it we’ll hold onto it for you. Call back later, miss.”

“Thank you! Thank you so much! I will!” I said, even though I knew I wouldn’t. I have worn those pearl earrings everyday for the past few maybe five or six years. I sleep in them, shower in them, and go out in them. I even forget they’re there! Except when they’re not…

I knew that it was a lost cause. Suddenly, I recalled all the various nooks and crannies in the form of grates and potholes I encounter on my walk from the apartment to the station. The earring was gone, and I was bummed. But I was also seriously late for work.

Later that day I began searching online for a new set of studs, and was shocked to learn just how inexpensive they actually are! Relieved and feeling at ease, I then began to wonder why pearl earrings have such an uptight, elitist reputation? Why hate on such cheap little cuties? While on my Internet navigation, I also remembered feeling teased (note: I cannot remember who actually accosted me but I know it happened) by people in college for wearing pearl earrings everyday—and that was way before my current cardigan paired with pearl earrings uniform, which I do see as being a bit preppy. But again, why hate on such a cheap little cutie?

A little research later, and I recalled the reason for the pearl’s snobby rep. In their early days of popularity, pearls had to be made the old fashioned way—one grain of sand and one day at a time. Yet now, real pearls are made instantly and very inexpensively, diluting the market with millions of perfect, iridescent orbs. Almost anyone can access a pair of earrings for a good cost, and she needn’t be Cleopatra or Queen Elizabeth. So, the pearl’s reputation hasn’t changed with modern times and despite advances in mass production, the pearl earring is still an elusive item.

I then thought about why I have stuck to the rounded gems all these years, why I hadn’t mixed up my ear jewelry on a more regular basis. Truth is, pearl earrings to me are the new black. They go with everything by blending seamlessly into the wearer’s ensemble. I like how they delicately dot my ears and don’t hurt the sides of my head when I’m sleeping.

My research and reflections haven’t led to anything awe-inspiring or revolutionary, but losing my earring did force me to take a moment’s pause. Maybe I lost my earring for a reason—maybe the universe is hinting that I could use dose of mystery, like Vermeer’s girl with the lone pearl. So if you see me walking down the street with one pearl in, one pearl out, don’t worry… I’m just trying out my new look: Intrigue (with a dash of crazy.)