Tagged with " memory"
Oct 7, 2015 - Psychology    1 Comment

Vignette: Lost in the Shuffle

To go along with the series of posts I’ve been writing about my recent mental health hospitalization, I’m adding a few short scenes from life on the ward. Hopefully, they’re a good complement to the more traditional posts.

Pills in Cup“What are the pink ones?” I ask the nurse as he hands me my morning meds in a tiny paper cup.

“The same as yesterday: your allergy pills,” he answers, his attention on something else.

“Huh,” I reply. “I haven’t had my allergy meds since I came in here. Maybe it’ll help with this stuffiness.”

“No,” he says slowly, like he were teaching a child. “You had those yesterday.”

I frown. “No, no I didn’t.”

He sighs and reiterates, “Yes, you did get them yesterday. 30-30-30, which makes 90 milligrams, remember?”

“No,” I answer flatly. “I’m very sure I didn’t. There was no pink in my cup yesterday morning. I remember.”

His bedside manner dies a quick, cold death in the face of my resistance. His mouth tightens into a flat line for a moment before he says, “Well, I guess we’ll have to agree to have different memories, because I know I had the same conversation with you yesterday.”

“No, I didn’t!” I exclaimed. “I might be wrong about the pills; I don’t think I am, but maybe. But I’d definitely remember this conversation. This is not a replay.”

He looked at me sadly, as if my disagreement disappointed him gravely. I didn’t think you’d be the type to argue, his expression said. “I’m sorry you don’t remember,” he said.

“I remember fine,” I snapped. “I’ve got a photographic memory. I remember the cup, I remember the pills, I remember the blue and green pattern on your damn shirt. I did not get anything pink yesterday.”

He walked away, ducking his head as if to stave off any further argument. I sat back in my chair, winded with exasperation, and then it struck me like a fast car:

This is how it starts. Now I’m the lady arguing about pills in the psych ward.

I’m the one whose memory has holes in it like depression had walked through the spiderweb of my days, tearing whole sections out. This tool I rely on so heavily—these millions of flashbulb pictures I layer, sort, and store all day, every day—it’s unthinkable that it would fail me.

I can recall the yellow pattern of the wallpaper in my nursery as I lay on my back in my crib. I can recall the precise color of any piece of my clothing so I can match thread to fix a button while I’m out shopping. I can go through our house and say where we got almost every object in it. How can my memory have ejected something so recent, so memorable? What else would it suddenly toss out into the void? How long would it take me to miss it?

Is this how it is for the other people in here, the frequent flyers? When did their memories start to shuffle unexpectedly, like furniture moving itself while you’re out of the house? How many conversations did they forget before they started to doubt the solidity of the ground they were building their lives on? How do they plan a future or react to a crisis if they can’t call up a clear, certain memory of what went before?

I was swamped with confusion, but the beacon that drew me through the fog was empathy for these temporary neighbors, and all the people like them in mental health units and outpatient programs and aching solitude all over the world. In feeling the vertigo of being adrift in the sequences of everyday life, I wanted to rush around, planting signposts, affixing Post-Its to bathroom mirrors, tucking notes in lunchboxes to remind them that there is order and love and understanding out there, even if they can’t remember it.

I sat by the window most of that morning, looking out on the endless Mississippi River flowing by. I thought about how it didn’t need to remember any of the people who’ve traversed it over millennia to follow its inexorable path. I stayed with the terror of losing the reliability of my own memory, and how it might feel to learn to flow without staking out landmarks every inch of the route. It would mean letting go, the hardest thing in the world for me to do.

On my way past the nurses’ station around lunch, I heard a voice call my name. I looked over and saw the morning nurse. He had an odd look on his face, like someone who’s about to do something their parent is making them do.

He cleared his throat and said, “Um, so, funny thing. It turns out I was mixing you up with somebody else who also gets allergy meds. It was her who I talked with yesterday, not you.”

I stood silent, shocked to get this admission from anyone in authority. People in mental health units don’t have to apologize for anything, typically, not even fairly egregious mistakes or omissions.

“So, heh, I guess you didn’t get those meds yesterday. Sorry for the confusion,” he finished, shuffling papers on his clipboard so he wouldn’t have to make eye contact with me.

I nodded and thanked him for the apology, when what I really wanted to do was pump my fists in the air, and hoot, and run a victory lap around the TV lounge. I don’t need to be right all the time. I’d even made a weird sort of peace with being wrong. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say all I felt at that moment was a rush of relief like the one when you finally see a road sign after doubting your direction for miles on end.


Oct 11, 2013 - Physical Ed, Psychology    No Comments

Written In My Bones

Last March, I stopped sleeping. I’m no stranger to insomnia, so at first I just thought I was launching into another warped cycle. I stocked up the Netflix queue and resolved to wait it out.

But it didn’t resolve. No matter how tired I got–well past the point in any normal round of sleeplessness where sheer exhaustion would keep me down all night–I woke up between 1:30 and 3:00am, and couldn’t fall asleep again until the alarm was about to go off to wake the kids for school. I couldn’t figure it out. I cut caffeine after 6pm, I stopped napping (no matter how much I needed the extra spoons that helped me steal back), I adjusted my night-time meds up a notch.

Nothing. 3am and wide awake.

And then I remembered: Exactly that time, one year earlier, I lay awake to listen for Connor’s footsteps on the kitchen floor, going for a knife to kill himself. I never heard those footsteps last March, thank the gods, and there was no such fear this March. But my body knew that anniversary better than I did, and it sent a clear message–“It’s March, and you need to keep your boy safe. You can sleep when the sun is up.”

We all have smells, sounds, textures, even lighting that bring us directly back to very specific times and places. The silky binding on a baby blanket. The smell of the cleaning fluid from that time in the hospital. The unreasonably comforting taste of Kraft Singles melted on Wonder bread. The suffocating weight of a body, even though it’s not the body, pressing down on yours. When I asked about how their bodies store memories, friends mentioned more of these than I could keep up with. There’s no doubt that sensory triggers own the key to our memory, whether we like it or not.

Those experiences don’t surprise me anymore, except sometimes in the strength and speed that they fold time neatly in half, delivering us back to a precise moment in the past. What does surprise me is how well my body remembers past events that my conscious memory has long packed away in mothballs.

This March wasn’t the first time I’ve felt the gravity of memory. For almost a decade, I’d get depressed and irritable in May, around the time of year I was sexually assaulted. And a year after my deepest dive into suicidal depression, I was so anxious and high-strung, I was absolutely intolerable with trying to make everything better than the previous August. Neither of these is surprising–many people who go through trauma of some kind experience difficulty with anniversaries of those occurrences, well beyond just realizing that significant time has passed even as it felt like the hours and days were barely creeping along since incomprehensible loss.

There are other things that can trigger buried experiences. I worked with a physical therapist who practiced myofascial release. Fascia is the connective tissue that links our musculoskeletal system; it covers every single muscle, fiber, and organ in our bodies. When our bodies sustain stress and trauma, it stretches and tightens this connective web, causing pain. And therapists practicing this technique help people unwind and loosen the places where the fascia is bunched up and causing problems.

My therapist warned me when we started that unwinding damage sometimes causes memories to rewind in equally powerful ways. He said my body remembered things I hadn’t thought about in years, maybe even things that precede what I consciously knew. He advised me to have some time free after each appointment, in case I needed time to recover emotionally. And he was so right. We unwound injuries and threats as old as I was: fear and bracing against an unpredictable alcoholic father, a rib-breaking high-speed run-in with a vaulting horse, and the car accident that most likely triggered whatever latent potential for fibromyalgia rested in my body. I cried at almost every session, and only once was it from physical pain.

Now, so soon after helping my friend through the first steps away from sexual trauma, I find that my pain levels are sky-high. I’m not eating much. Honestly, I’m drinking more, though still never to drunkenness. I feel ill at ease in my body, and I find myself devoutly wishing to change its landscape, whether with wax (don’t ask) or tattoo ink, or cloak it in clothes that aren’t heavy with past wearings.

I can’t afford any of that, though. So I just sit here, with this body that remembers too much.

Aug 12, 2013 - Game Theory, Psychology    2 Comments

Gamerography, Vol. 3: Wired to Play Differently

There’s finally a decent volume of literature out there about how women experience games–especially RPGs and video games–different than men. It helps all of us who’ve struggled to put words to the perspectives that we bring to the gaming table, many of which result in very different interactions with the rules, the stories, and the other gamers. And it provides writers and designers with insights that have changed the way games are written, so they allow more kinds of gamers to contribute to the collective interaction.

So I’d like to attempt to do something similar with another piece of myself that I bring to the gaming table. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a difference in brain-wiring that places me on the autism spectrum. This part of myself is a relatively new discovery, but it’s undeniable and incredibly enlightening about things I could never otherwise explain. Many of these features affect how I experience creativity, social interaction, and collaborative work, three central pieces of the act of tabletop gaming.

The most important factor for me is my visual memory. I’ve written about my odd filing system before, but until the HBO movie about the life of Temple Grandin, I’d never seen my memory process outside my head. Because I have that visual catalog in my mind, I get incredibly vivid pictures from a multiplicity of contexts whenever someone invokes a place, a person, a costume, and a piece of equipment.

Practically speaking, this manifests for me in gaming in a number of ways. I have virtual battlemats in my head, and I can examine them from any vantage point, without needing minis or land/cityscapes (though I do enjoy the physical objects very much, too, for different reasons). I have pictures of characters and settings in my head that I literally inhabit. I know the size of my character’s bodies, how various features affect the way they move and sound. I assign them sensory features as well as hair and eye color, so I know how they smell and the close-up feel of their skin and clothing. They’re live, vivid people in real, textured places.

Another factor is my tendency to seek out patterns. It’s not compulsive, like someone with OCD might be; it is, though, automatic. For many autistic gamers, this allows them to understand RPG systems and make them do fantastic tricks, like a lion tamer making a beast jump through hoops. They see game systems as just another coding language that can be manipulated to perform the desired action.

Sadly, this is not me. I cannot grok systems unless the rules are so basically logical and self-evident, with a minimum of math, that they’re labeled “Ages 7 and up.” (No, I can’t explain this at all. I can at least read 10 different languages, so systems aren’t the problem, but math and I have a beef going back to 7th Grade.) As a consequence, character generation is agony unless it’s basically a single-step process, and I almost never play magic users. I vastly prefer cinematic, story-driven systems in which dice are only employed to give an edge of chance to the action I propose.

My pattern recognition talent gives me a different edge. First, I’m hell on carefully planned mysteries and adventures. One friend calls me the “storybreaker”–you can practically see the tire tracks where I went offroad, revealing options that never occurred to the author, in the ones that were eventually published. I don’t mean to circumvent plot devices; it’s a function of my autistic tendency to rapidly play through consequences to the Nth degree, thus eliminating options which I know will end in failure and generating other possibilities from that birds-eye view.

Second, I love pregens, even in systems that are entirely new to me. The words and numbers assemble themselves into 3D constructions in my mind. The closest I can come to a visual representation of this experience comes with the virtual reality models Tony Stark uses in the Iron Man movies to analyze maps, machinery plans, and crime scenes. (Here’s an example.)  The alchemical process of “blowing up” a character sheet combines with my sensory memory to conceive a fully formed person almost instantaneously. I really wish you could see what this looks like–it’s pretty amazing from the inside.

The final factor I’ll mention in this post is my relationship with words. I’m hyperlexic (in short, far too many words for any and all things that pass through my head or mouth) and I’m a terrible show-off. Just as words form lifelike people and places in my mind, I love to craft my own contributions to the game with descriptions and dialogue, as vividly rendered as I can manage. Back in my days of MUSHing, the whole game was nothing but words on a screen, but I have scenes lodged in my memory that are so thoroughly illustrated and acted that I have difficulty remembering whether I saw them in a movie. And when I’m at the table, I can use the additional tools of vocal inflection, accents, gestures, and expressions, so my love of acting, connected to that vivid character in my head, can lead me to overplay my parts to a degree that might make other players uncomfortable. At least I don’t insist on staying in character while we take pizza breaks.

Mar 13, 2013 - Physical Ed, Psychology    1 Comment

Darkness, My Old Friend

The house is so quiet, the ticking clock sounds like drumbeats. Darling Husband is blessed with sleep when and where he wants it. The boys are sleeping again after a mumbled request for help getting the blankets resituated. Even the cat is asleep peacefully in the lining of my motorcycle jacket.

But I’m awake. This is the third night in a row I’ve failed to sleep past 3:00 a.m..

I wish it were unusual.

Sleep and I have a complicated relationship. I remember being insomniac as young as nine years old, so there’s something very deeply rooted in me that conflicts with sleep. In terms of basic biology, my fibromyalgia both requires more sleep to prevent pain and provides pain which prevents me from getting more sleep. The less sleep I get, the more I hurt–it’s as simple as that. I’ve also had a sleep study done, and was told I have the worst sleep architecture the tech had ever seen. At various points, I averaged only 20 minutes a night in REM sleep, which is where restoration takes place. It feels like a well that never refills.

I have a feeling my sleep architecture looks something like the top one.

No fewer than two dozen doctors have told me how important “sleep hygiene” is to beating insomnia. I’ve looked at them with flat eyes and nodded grimly. They don’t understand this at all. I have a bedtime routine, mostly built around a few minutes reading a trashy romance. The easy-to-understand story and comforting predictability help me downshift from my brain’s day speed to one where I can finally fall asleep. I need dark, the white noise of a fan, covers (no matter how hot it is, I can’t sleep without the pressure of at least a sheet or afghan), and luck. None of this is uncommon to autistics, as I understand.

I’m faced with the oceanic expanse of unfilled hours more frequently than I’d like. As many before me have joked, the one thing we really need are more hours of the day to consider all the choices we’ve made in our lives. But I’m fairly happy with the choices I’ve made, so it’s memories that play in my head when the world has put its many stimuli to sleep for the night. I fill that space with books and documentaries. Sometimes I write, or stitch, or crochet, or visit with friends who are also awake. I trying to teach myself not to fear I’ll wake up even more fully. Some theories even say a broken night’s sleep is historically A Thing.

At the root of my problem with sleep and the dark, still hours is this: I listen. Constantly. Hypervigilance is real, and very difficult to control. I listen for children’s cries–even those of babies long since grown. I listen for creaks and shudders, and the hollow sound of a door or window sliding open, even though I know they’re firmly locked. I listen for the crackle of fire, or the sudden crash of disaster, always ready to spring into action. I listen for the faint whine of the TV that tells me Connor’s awake in the night too, perpetuating the cycle of insomnia for another generation. I listen for the phone, and count the souls in peril–physical or mental–and ward against a fateful call.

Right now, I can’t sleep because it’s been exactly one year since Connor was actively suicidal. I lived the months of February and March last year constantly waiting, listening, and wondering this: “Could I get to him fast enough to save him?” This weekend will mark the one-year anniversary of his entry into the partial hospitalization program that saved his life. He’s been at the highest behavior level at school for 21 straight school days. Things couldn’t be more different this March than they were last March.

But my body doesn’t know that. My body remembers that, when the last snows come and go, and the ground and air are saturated with moisture and possibility, I must remain alert. I can’t afford to sleep, the memories embedded in my bones say. This is the time you need to watch, listen, wait. Fear. Hope. Pray. I have other memories seated deeply in my body too, ones that make me tense in May more than 20 years after my sexual assault, or the tension that rides me on and off in the summer, when the heat triggers memories of my helpless, hopeless season a few years back. My mind can fold things away, but my bones and flesh remember.

So sleep and I are more sparring partners than friends, but I’m okay with that. I don’t get much solitude in my life, and insomnia certainly provides that in abundance. And maybe the lesson is that it’s not worth fighting with stubbornness and medication and “sleep hygiene.” This is me, and I don’t sleep like normal people. What do I get for it? Memories long buried, the surety that everyone I love is safe for tonight, and the intimate knowledge of the heart-deep chambers of night’s darkness.

Witchin’ in the Kitchen

I wrote this essay almost 15 years ago, deeper in the dark of winter than I am right now. But at a friend’s request, and because every word of it still rings as true today as it did when I wrote it. The only thing that’s changed in all this time is that I’m a better, more inspired cook than I was when I was just starting out. I’ve delved into ethnic cuisines, and I’ve learned to trust my senses and my reading skill when combining ingredients. That’s another kind of magic: the confidence that comes with age and practice. But that’s a different blog post.


The time for ritual is at hand. I stand in the place of my power, tools of the magic I will work laid out before me– silver, wood, and steel. Fire and water are at my command, earth and air held back by my will. In this time, I will draw on the forces of creation, shaping elements. Here, I am an alchemist, a hand of the goddess herself.

For I am a kitchen witch.

I embrace this title proudly, despite lingering associations with the silly wizened dolls on brooms available at most craft fairs. As a name, it covers it all–my faith, my pleasure, the locus of my greatest power. No hallowed circle, no standing stones could imbue me with more strength or more possibilities. One friend firmly maintains that, when it comes to the Craft, if I can’t do it with Morton’s salt and a wooden spoon, it can’t be done.

While I am not so bold as to commit to such a statement myself, the power of the kitchen, and what it summons and creates, is not to be denied. Though I began down the path of Wicca in solitude, I learned the magic of cooking as all good magics are best learned : at the elbow of a wise and laughing grandmother. The rules were simple. Wash your hands. Clean as you go. Read the whole recipe before you start. Measure with care. And, most importantly, share the joy as often as possible–that’s why there are always enough beaters and spatulas and bowls for everyone. If you abide by that last rule, no spills or scorches can spell failure. Just vacuum up the oatmeal, wash the egg out of your hair, and laugh about the fun you had.

I know, it doesn’t sound much like the holy tenets of any faith, or even much of a New Age philosophy. But the results simply could not be missed. Even as a child, I recognized the phenomenal power of what we created in that tidy sanctuary of counters and appliances. We’re talking full sensory miracles here, folks. The smell hits you when you walk in the door, enveloping you in a warm blanket of knowledge that, here, you will not go hungry. Someone cares enough to spend time and energy to refresh and nourish you. That simple understanding, at the most primal level, cuts loose the weight of the world, letting your spirit rise. The sight of flushed skin and flour smudges brings light and laughter, and sneaky little dips into aromatic steam and unfinished delights allow you to keep a greedy secret that heightens anticipation. All these things seal the feeling of community as you finally join in the simple pleasure of sharing tastes, sensations, and satisfaction, even if only with one other person. No wonder “communion” takes place with food in so many religions.

But I have to be honest about something, and it’ll probably blow the lid right off any sort of “kitchen witch mystique” I may have managed to build. I am no gourmet. I’ve never taken a cooking class. Those brownies which my friends and co-workers steadfastly maintain are the best they’ve ever tasted? Betty Crocker, Fudge Supreme, $2.49 with coupon. That chili whose aroma wafts out like tickling fingers when I open the door on a cold winter night, drawing my husband in all the quicker? Packet of spices, canned beans and tomatoes. Simmer on low for 20 minutes. That’s it. And I’ve never made a secret of it.

The rave reviews continue, with every potluck dish and party treat. Is it because I always stir clockwise, letting goodwill flow into the smooth batters and sauces? Most likely not. And I’d feel terribly silly if I sprinkled water and invocations over my electric oven to ward off burnt bottoms or mushy middles. My power as a kitchen witch, so far as I can tell, comes solely the enjoyment I take in doing something simple that will produce happiness in others. As I skim my finger down the well-worn page of my favourite cookbook, I’m already thinking of the smiles and hums of pleasure that my “magic potion” will summon into existence. As I clean shortbread dough from my utensils and fingernails, I can already hear the surprised exclamations of delight ringing in the doorway as visitors first hit that gorgeous wall of aroma. And hours later, after the cupboards are closed and the counters are clean, I can still smell the lingering scent of crushed herbs and sweet essences on my fingers, and I fold them beneath my nose and breathe prayers of thanksgiving for the chance to bring joy to those I’ve fed.

So I may not always remember all the poetic invocations when I call the Watchtowers in a Circle, but I remember the favourite food for every loved one in my life, and most of the recipes. And so I might be dreadful at keeping a proper herbal grimoire stocked–my spice racks are the envy of all who survey. I consider myself well on the road to the Lord and Lady’s wisdom, because I know the seat and value of a generous, abundant power within myself, one of the greatest signposts on everyone’s spiritual journey. And when I get there, I’ll be sure to have a dish to pass.

Jun 3, 2012 - Psychology    1 Comment

My Own Worst Enemy: Reverb Broads Summer #2

Summer Broads 2012, Prompt #2: What gives you nightmares? (by Kassie at Bravely Obey)

I don’t have a dream life–my dreams have a me life.

I have incredibly vivid dreams, many of which I remember the next day. They’re always in color, sometimes in French, and though I’ve heard that it’s impossible to read in a dream, I regularly do. People from every period of my life crop up, usually in logical groupings, though occasionally we get the sweeps-week, special-guest-star episode where they mix in interesting ways. A lot of this probably comes from the very vivid visual style of thinking and remembering that’s not uncommon among autistics.

Sometimes, I dream things that happen. I won’t say they’re “psychic” dreams, but they’re not quite deja vu either. There’s actually a tradition of this on my maternal side, going all the way back to my great-grandmother. Sadly for everyone else, I almost never dream something helpful in advance. It’s mostly just situations, fragments of conversation, or groupings of people interacting. I’m sure it sounds loony, but there it is.

Nightmares, though…nightmares are something else entirely. Sure, I had bad dreams when I was a kid. My grandparents took me with them to see The Elephant Man in the theater while they were waiting for their car to be serviced, and I still can’t see a picture of John Merrick or hear the voice from that movie without it triggering a mountain of anxiety. I also had my share of bad dreams from the second half of Gremlins–don’t let the cute fuzzy mogwai fool you, it’s a horror film!

But I don’t actually have nightmares–I have night terrors. I can’t wake up from them unless someone does it for me. I never do the sit-bolt-upright-and-scream thing; that would be a lovely change of pace. Instead, I’m just stuck until the dream decides to wind itself down. Most commonly, they’re violent as hell, and I’m just trying to stay alive.

I also have recurring nightmares. The worst stretch of those was the summer after I graduated from high school. The dream began with me waking up in my bed, looking down over the footboard at the shade-covered window. Every night, I saw the shadow of a man cast against the shade, then watched his silhouetted form duck under the windowframe, and enter my room. After that, it was different every time. Sometimes he came over and choked or stabbed the life out of me in my bed. Even worse were the nights he walked past me, and I heard him kill my family, one by one. Sometimes I fought, sometimes I froze, but I could never stop him.

And when I finally woke, my first sight was the shade-covered window across from the foot of my bed.

I had that dream every single night, unless I went to bed after 3.30 am. If I had it, obviously, I was done sleeping for the night. I spent a great deal of time that summer running away from that dream. When I went off to college, it ended, and it never revisited when I came home after that.

Finally, someone who thinks as visually and has a vivid imagination that never takes a day off is bound to have waking nightmares, and I’m no stranger to those either. Mostly, I just chase down a full thread of a passing horrible thought, without meaning to, like fast-forwarding through a video. They’re mercifully short, but they can derail my day just as surely as a sleeping nightmare. My kids getting hurt, our fragile home economy collapsing under catastrophe, or just the black hand of depression holding me down by the throat again. Life can be pretty dark, even before you turn out the lights and close your eyes.

May 2, 2012 - Psychology    11 Comments

First Contact

I feel like I’m living my life as an autistic in reverse. I was aware of Autism Spectrum Disorders and Asperger’s Syndrome generally, but quite frankly, I never applied myself to really learning anything substantial about them. I had trained as a crisis counselor while I was doing my undergrad at the University of Kansas; Headquarters is the oldest, continuously operating phone and walk-in crisis center in the nation. In the ’90s, their training didn’t include anything specific about how to talk to autistics, but their Rogerian approach and general attitude of acceptance provided me with a good footing for dealing with all sorts of neurodiverse folks.

Then,  my eldest son was diagnosed in 2008. That diagnosis was a blessing, to be perfectly honest. Until the school showed us how all the strange, inexplicable things about him actually formed a pattern that belonged to Asperger’s, the leading theory for what was wrong with Connor was crap parenting. When presented with a new situation, my primary coping method is to build a fortress of books on the subject, then read my way out, like you would escape a marshmallow dungeon if you were handcuffed by eating a hole to crawl through. (Hey, don’t mock–it works for me.)

The more I read, the more I recognized of myself. It came as a complete shock, how well the Asperger’s pattern explained pieces of my life that I’d never been able to make fit. The spotlight of memory swiveled back to all the times I’d been called “intellectually advanced but socially backward” in my childhood. My fixations on weird trivia, the First Ladies, native costumes around the world, Sherlock Holmes (so much like an autistic, himself), foreign languages, and others. How much like learning those languages was like learning to “read” people. All my weird sensory issues with fabrics and foods. My strong visual memory and how I see everything play out in my head as I read. My sensitivity to sounds, both good (perfect relative pitch) and bad (loud sudden noises are my only migraine trigger). A million little things, none forgotten, but suddenly in focus.

And while my primary preoccupation has been on using my own understanding of the autistic experience to help unlock doors for my son, the corrective lens of identity and memory also sharpens things that stayed in the background so long, I’d almost lost sight of them.

Like Clarence Treutel.

When I was nine, my mom remarried and we moved to Whitewater, WI, where my new stepdad was a professor of music education at the state university. It’s a gorgeous little town full of Victorian homes and stately elms. The university, with about 10,000 students, somehow manages to be insulated from everyday life, both for those on-campus and those off. Its presence made itself known in funny, mostly advantageous little ways. We had a disproportionate amount of cultural resources–world-class concerts, technology, a great public library. The people of color were most often Indian, African, or Asian, as opposed to Latino or African-American (this has changed a lot in the years since I moved away, thanks to a large influx of Hispanic workers for the big farms all around town).

Clarence was probably in his 50s when I met him, a perpetually smiling man with Mad Men-styled glasses and a salt-and-pepper buzzcut. He had an old bicycle that he rode sometimes, but mostly just walked along the sidewalks around town. He’d known my dad for a long time; my dad was very kind to him, and it didn’t occur for our family to treat him otherwise. He offered to walk my brother, sister, and me to and from our new school, a little less than a mile each way.

As we walked and talked, we got on well with him. His sense of humor and world outlook was that of a sixth-grade boy, generally, except for when it came to his interests. On town history, radio shows, old movies and TV, and professional wrestling, he could hold court. He was the only person I’d ever met who remembered as many facts, as clearly, as I did, and we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. I didn’t know what autism was, then, and he wouldn’t have known either, even if his mom and he hadn’t been Christian Scientists, which kept them from ever getting a diagnosis. But he was my first contact with a mind like mine.

Only when the school year got fully underway did I start getting questions about why I was spending time with Clarence. “He’s so weird,” my classmates would say. “Did he ask you to sign his bike seat? Don’t do it. My brother did, and he, like, talked to him for years! Like they were friends.” I noticed how the older kids would abuse him as we went past the junior high; they danced around him, chanting stupid taunts, accusing him of unspeakable things, occasionally daring to take a swipe at his body or bike. He would scowl and wave them off, trying to come back with clever retorts, sometimes. But mostly, he just held his chin firm, sadness in his grey eyes. I learned how to chase that look away by asking him about his favorite things.

Just like I do now for my son, when the world makes him so unbearably sad.

His mother died around the time I graduated from high school, leaving him alone; his father and brother had died quite some time earlier. My parents became his Powers of Attorney, and they continued to treat him with care, patience, and affection until they moved away in 1995. Another family took over his care. I heard that Clarence died in 2002, but it turns out he’s still around–a good friend back home corrected my misinformation, much to my happiness.

Don’t bother looking for him on the Internet. I did. He’s not there. There’s a 2002 Walworth County tax record for the property where he lived. That’s all. No pictures, no mention anywhere. Like he doesn’t exist. Like he hasn’t walked so many generations of kids to school, their self-elected protector. Like he hasn’t learned to stop across the street, so the parents can’t complain that he was a pedophile, and the bullies can’t be heard so loudly. I wish I had a picture, so you could see his kindness. But that absence tells an important story, too.

I’m so afraid, when I think of all the autistic kids who are aging out of the schools and social services, adults as alone as Clarence, always outside looking in. How many of them will find families and friends to give them help and love? How many of them don’t know how to ask for it? How many of us will see them and judge the surface, never taking the time to find out what chases away the sadness in their eyes?

My Grandpa’s Century

We spent most of Saturday in the park. I know, it’s not very glamorous, but you see, we were celebrating an anniversary.

Now, some of my friends no doubt spent this remarkable centenary in the dark of the theater. And at least two I know celebrated it in truly lavish style, dressing like their counterparts a century ago and eating the very foods on which they dined that historic day.

But our anniversary didn’t celebrate a shocking tragedy that cost scores of lives. We were marking the 100th anniversary of my grandpa John’s birth. The fact that he was born on the exact day that the Titanic met with that fateful iceberg only made it easier for me to remember that historic event. I only ever saw one of those things as worth celebrating. [Note: my mom just corrected me about something rather embarrassing. My grandpa’s birthday was actually April 5, not April 15. April 5 is the date the Titanic launched, which was the source of my confusion. The sentiments that follow remain true, but for future reference, I am A Bad Granddaughter.]

The Kresser brothers: Fritz, Rudy, John, and Augie

Let me tell you a bit about John Kresser. He was the first child of his family born in America–his parents and older siblings moved to Wisconsin from southern Germany (technically part of Austro-Hungarian territory) a few years earlier. He was one of ten children who lived to adulthood, five boys and five girls. They were too poor to keep the milk their cow produced, so rickets gave him bowed legs like a cowboy forty years in the saddle. He went to work after he finished fourth grade. When the Depression hit, he went into the Civilian Conservation Corps in upstate Wisconsin.

John met my grandma, Nell (of whom I’ve written before), and they dated briefly before marrying in 1935. During the courtship, he would take her out on Friday nights. He offered to buy her ice cream; she suggested that they should go out for a beer. It wasn’t until after they’d married and she started turning down beer when offered that he thought to ask why she’d always suggested it for their dates. Her answer: she figured that, as a German, he’d much rather have a beer after a hard day’s work. His answer: no way, I’d have much rather had the ice cream! 62 years together wasn’t nearly enough.

He worked at Ladish Company for 40 years, pulling seamless rings of burning steel from beneath the four-story pneumatic hammer that pounded them flat. Even on the hottest day of the year, he had to cover every inch of his skin in at least two layers, to prevent burns. These were the days before OSHA regulations, and he suffered significant nerve deafness from the constant percussion of the hammer. His fingers were gnarled and crippled like jagged bolts of lightning. But those hands were capable of great skill and delicacy. He tied his own fishing jigs and lures, and crafted wooden fittings and furniture.

My grandpa, holding one of his salmon next to my brother Tim

Quite simply, nature was his domain. He fished for coho salmon on Lake Michigan in his 15-foot aluminum canoe, and the ones he brought back often overhung the cooler on both sides, 22 inches of flashing silver wrested from the deep. He hunted deer every fall, and nothing ever went to waste. He grew dozens of beautiful flowers, but his irises and roses were stunning. Vegetables flourished in the backyard all summer long, a lush backdrop to his Wile E. Coyote-like battle with the squirrels that feasted at his birdfeeders.

In every undertaking, he fretted, tweaked, measured, re-measured, jiggered, and planned until the product was meticulous. It drove my grandma, with her Irish practicality and genius for the slap-dash and shortcut, rather mad. But the combination of them was just about perfect, and they played a huge role in raising my siblings and me. Weekends, vacations, long summers–any stretch of days was an excuse to hitch their pop-up canvas trailer to the car and head for parts unknown. We cooked over campfires, read by kerosene lanterns, and slept in sleeping bags with the skies of mountains and deserts, coastlines and great plains above our green canvas tent.

They showed us the wonder to be found close to home, too. They would take us on long, rambling nature walks in the birch forests on the cliffs above Lake Michigan, letting us collect treasures like the armloads of wildflowers I would amass (even though they made us all sneeze), while teaching us the values of preservation and the beauty of a thing in its proper environment. My grandma named the plants and animals for us; my grandpa named the trees and tracks.

My grandpa with (L to R) my cousin Star, my sister Jenn, and me

While he was a man of quiet dignity, faith, and pride, he was happily a fool for his grandkids. He rode sleds, roller coasters, and water slides with us. He ate every dubious baking effort, accepted our art projects like treasures of the western world. We’ve got Super 8 footage somewhere of him playing with my cousin in Rocky Mountain National Park. She’s from Florida, so snow was always a special treat. In the film, she decides she wants to slide some snow down Grandpa’s pants, so she sneaks up behind him and starts trying to cram a snowball past his belt. But Gramps was a skinny guy, pants always tightly cinched, so there’s nowhere to slide the chilly bundle. Not wanting to disappoint her, the film shows him unbuckle his belt, undo the top button of his pants, then hold the back open for her. In goes the snowball, and my cousin claps with glee, as Grandpa does a herky-jerky dance of put-on shock and discomfort. Anything for the kids.

So it was a no-brainer to celebrate his birthday out in nature. We talked of him as we walked to the park, as I named the trees with their buds unfurling. I watched the wind in the branches as I sat beside the playground, and I thought of what he would have made of my two bright boys. What hijinks they would talk him into. What wisdom he would etch in their hearts. 100 years after he came into this world, I still look at it the way he taught me: with reverence and gratitude for all its gifts.


Love Is a Mixtape: Reverb Broads 2011 #29

Reverb Broads 2011, December 29: What was the soundtrack of your year? Of your life? Which songs most strongly represent the various eras of your life? What songs were playing for the most crucial, formative moments of your life? Or, if the chronological approach doesn’t work for you, which songs best capture the different facets of your life? (Childhood, Love Life, Adulthood, Loss, Growth, Career, Happiness, Sadness, etc.) Please elaborate. (courtesy of Bethany/Katie)

These are just a few of my songs. I know, the list is unbelievably long as it is, but it feels so incomplete. Some of them, I don’t even like, but most of them I always have and always will. And, for better or for worse, they’re like little hyperlinks to my memory. I did the best I could with the actual links; there’s supposed to be a YouTube clip attached to each. If it doesn’t go where it’s supposed to, you can Google as well as (or better than) I can. And how could I do it in anything other than mixtape form?

Side A: Child and Teen Jess

“The Bare Necessities” from Disney’s The Jungle Book — my favorite movie, age 2

The Star Wars theme — my new favorite movie, age 2.5

“Stardust” by Willie Nelson — my first concert, age about 2

“Help!” by The Beatles — Mom is a Beatlemaniac, and she started us young

“The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie — my new favorite movie, age 4; also excellent for showing off at the rollerskating rink

“Tomorrow” from Annie — my new favorite movie, age 7, and a good audition piece

“Mickey” by Toni Basil — those first heady days of MTV and the roller-rink

“Thriller” by Michael Jackson — the cassette I got with my first walkman

“Purple Rain” by Prince — my first R-rated movie (I still stop to watch it whenever it’s on VH1)

“The One I Love” by R.E.M. — my first taste of college radio in my stepbrother’s room

“All Cried Out” by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam — my first junior high dance drama

“(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” by Bill Medley and Gloria Loring from Dirty Dancing — my new favorite movie, age 13

“Watermark” by Enya — mission trip to Appalachia, and my first taste of New Age music

“Everyday Is Like Sunday” by Morrissey — my first kiss

“So Alive” by Love and Rockets — my first chaperone-less concert

“With Or Without You” by U2 — my first high school dance drama, and the beginning of a 10-month abusive relationship

“Three Little Maids from School Are We” from The Mikado — my first college-level theater experience, as a HS sophomore in the chorus

“Skid Row (Downtown)” from Little Shop of Horrors — music from the soundtrack I sang with my girlfriends as they took me in and protected me after the abuse

“Blue Monday” by New Order — falling in love at music camp

“Cuts You Up” by Peter Murphy — first (voluntary) you-know-what

“In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel — first big breakup

“You Are The Everything” by R.E.M. — falling in love at World Affairs Seminar

“Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd — senior year long-distance relationship

“Blister in the Sun” by Violent Femmes — senioritis and graduation

“Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers — school trip to France


Side 2 — College and Old Jess

“These Are Days” by 10,000 Maniacs — first semester of college

“One Night in Bangkok” from Chess — first off-campus apartment with a boyfriend

“Supervixen” by Garbage — AmberMUSH and the start of so many good things

“Possession” by Sarah McLachlan — end of an engagement; freedom

40-Part Motet by Thomas Tallis — singing in my fantastic college choir

“Linger” by The Cranberries — study abroad in France, and the beginning of a courtship

“Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden — dating by phone call and mix tape

“Je t’aimais, je t’aime, et je t’aimerai” by Francis Cabrel — life in France

“Ngaire” by The Mutton Birds — planning a wedding, half a world away

“The Macarena” by Los del Rio — coming home, and the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta

“The Lark in the Clear Air” (trad. Irish) — the song I sang at our wedding

“Darling Nikki” by Prince — working at the record store, the song we had to sprint the length of the floor to skip before he sang the word “masturbating”

“He Watching Over Israel” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah — staging the oratorio as an opera, with my fantastic college choir again

“Candle In The Wind” by Elton John — moving to Pennsylvania

“Tubthumping” by Chumbawumba — first semester of grad school

“The Trick Is To Keep Breathing” by Garbage — my fibromyalgia diagnosis, and the depression that followed

“Du Hast” by Rammstein — so very sick during my first pregnancy, but the baby loved this song, before and after birth

“The Night” by Morphine — the song playing while I was in labor with my first son

“Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3, from The Sopranos— that first long summer of motherhood

“Fix You” by Coldplay — my second son arrives

“American Idiot” by Green Day — mad, mad motherhood

“Business Time” by Flight of the Conchords — moving to Wisconsin, and gaming conventions

“What’s Left of the Flag” by Flogging Molly — life in Wisconsin among my Irish family

“I Will Follow You Into The Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie — teaching at Carroll and getting by

“We Used to Be Friends” by The Dandy Warhols, from Veronica Mars — moving to Minnesota, and depression I almost didn’t survive

“Bad Things” by Jace Everett, from True Blood — rediscovering joy

“Paparazzi” by Lady Gaga — the long, hard winter, and children old enough to start influencing their parents’ listening habits

“The Parting Glass” by The High Kings — a much better summer

“Firework” by Katy Perry — the Next Big Thing arrives for my Darling Husband

“I Still Believe” by Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls — back to school, and the best concert I can remember


Dec 28, 2011 - Domestic Engineering    No Comments

The gifts that keep giving: Reverb Broads 2011 #24 & 25

Reverb Broads 2011, December 24: Name your top 5 best holiday gifts given or received. Who gave it to you? Who were you giving it to? Why was it memorable? (courtesy of Kassie at http://bravelyobey.blogspot.com) and December 25: Silent Sunday–Just post a picture that represents your day.

It’s not that I don’t love getting presents, or that I don’t get awesome ones from the folks who love me. But the most memorable Christmases have been the ones when I really nailed it with a gift for someone else. Those moments are the Holy Grail of gift giving for me, and I’ve drunk from the cup a time or two.

My most triumphant moment as a gift giver was my first Christmas home from college. Lawrence, KS is a great, quirky town with an awesome downtown shopping and eating district on Massachusetts Avenue. And for the first time, since I was living away from home, I didn’t have to worry about hiding presents–I was practically drunk with the freedom. That year, I found the perfect things for absolutely everyone in my family. They weren’t big or extravagant, but they were Exactly Right.

My grandpa used to take us for nature walks in the birch woods on the cliffs along Lake Michigan, so I got him a little birch bark box. I filled it with the kind of jelly beans he used to eat by the pound on all the road trips we took. I got my grandma gorgeous smelling handmade soaps. She liked them so much, she announced to everyone that she “would keep them with her undies” so they smelled nice; they stayed in that drawer for years.

I’d found a picture of Brandon Lee as The Crow at an on-campus art sale earlier that fall, and I picked up a silver frame with cutouts that showed through the black velvet backing board in a cool geometric pattern around the photo. My hardcore little sister practically swooned. I got my mom a special release Enya Christmas CD that she played all vacation. And I’m sure the presents for my brother and my dad were awesome too, but the snot monsters occupying my brain at the moment are blocking my recall.

I just remember smiling nonstop and basking in the glow of everyone’s enjoyment. They were clever, thoughtful gifts that let them know I’d been thinking of them, even while I was away in the exciting whirl of my first college semester, and I knew they would think of me when they saw those things after I’d gone back to school.

I’ve scored a few more precise hits over the years, and I love pulling off the “but how I didn’t I can’t even” surprises. My kids are incredibly gratifying recipients, too–all the manners and graciousness that eludes them in most of their day-to-day life flows freely as they gush and hug and adore every little thing, even the duplicates and the obviously lame. But never since have I managed such a perfect storm of intention and execution. How I love to keep trying, though.

This year's entry for Memorable Gift: Connor and his create-your-own-Sonic Screwdriver kit