oliver sacks, with thanks

My late sister Lucy introduced me to Oliver Sacks back in the late 1980s. Not literally. She didn’t grab me by the sleeve, pull me over at a cocktail party and say: “Hey, Ame, this is Dr. Sacks,” introducing me to the broad, bald Brit who spent his career spelunking and explaining the deepest recesses of the brain. No, Lucy simply called me up one day and announced, “‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat’ — you need to read it.”

I read it. And almost everything else he ever published. After Lucy took her own life in 1992, Sacks became, for me, both an invisible thread connecting me to my sister and a way to understand her better — a way to process all that had happened to her, all the temporal-lobe dysfunction and unremitting suicidality that resulted from it. Reading his accounts of brains and brokenness, I felt closer to my sister, more grateful to her, more awed by her strength and stick-to-it-ive-ness in staying alive as long as she did. I learned about the plasticity of the brain, the strangeness of it. I learned about resilience and fortitude and love. All of that was in his books. All of that illuminated his writing and, as I read it, my own eccentric and rattled brain.

Lucy loved him. So did I. We loved him because he treated people like her — people with serious and mysterious neurological woes — with profound comprehension and compassion, never discounting their humanity for the sake of science, never forgetting that the colorblind artist or the autistic anthropologist or the locked-in Parkinson’s patient had joys, depths, yearnings that fell outside the order and disorders of neurology. Instead, the exactitude of his science informed every case study with an exquisite, clear-eyed pathos. His patients weren’t less human because of their problems. They were more human, more realized and whole.

I read a ton of Sacks after Lucy died, cranking through his best-sellers as well as his less-read works — “Hearing Voices,” “Uncle Tungsten.” I returned to him again in late 2011, when, exhausted by my husband’s six-month descent into insomnia, anxiety, depression and suicide, I gave up on easy explanations — there bloody hell weren’t any — and returned to the voice that had always described our oddball human brains with a reverence, a poetry, that saw beyond the broken bits and found creativity, personality and a fabulous, fertile quirk.

I learned from Oliver Sacks that no brain is a simple thing, that no life is easy. But what beauty lies in them both. What wisdom lies in opening ourselves to their mysteries. What gratitude I owe him for opening my mind and my heart, too.

Learning of his death, I felt as though I’d lost a friend. I’d written to him a few months back, after he published that column announcing his terminal cancer. My words felt grievously insufficient, but I thanked him for living his life and thus enriching mine. I included a copy of my latest book, but not because I wanted or expected him to read it; I only wanted to give him something, although that, too, felt grievously insufficient. He had given me so much.

This morning, I expressed these sentiments again. I hope he heard me, and I hope he hears me now, although I imagine the heavens are noisy with shouts of gratitude. Whether he hears me really doesn’t matter. I have to say it once more. Goodbye, Dr. Sacks. And thank you.

how to cross the street

So I was walking back from Stewart’s, hauling a bag and a backpack full of milk and milk products and chocolate and chocolate products, when I came upon the crosswalk dividing That Side of New Scotland Avenue from This Side. Both sides are generally pretty busy with people busy errand-running, lunch-eating and stroller-pushing — even mid-day, even mid-week, even mid-August. The city painted a crosswalk at the intersection three or four years ago, adding a swell in-street pedestrian-alert sign that’s been replaced a few times after getting run over by resentful motorists or snatched by aliens mistaking them for stick-figure two-dimensional humans, or whatever.

The sign was up when I stuck my toe tentatively into That Side of the crosswalk. I don’t have a death wish. I know enough not to thump my chest, howl I AM A PEDESTRIAN! YIELD TO ME! RAAHHH! and stride boldly into a busy intersection. I’m not THAT stupid.

On the other hand, it peeves me when motorists just, you know, act like I’m not there. Or act like I’m there but I don’t count, or maybe I do count, but not in the way that cars do, and definitely not under THESE circumstances, i.e., any circumstances involving IMPORTANT THEM and THEIR IMPORTANT CARS. And what do I think I’m doing anyway, moving around a city of any sort without the aid of internal combustion?

Drivers are getting better at stopping, I must say. They stop most often when I try to make eye contact and wave at them friendly-like, as if to say, “Hi! I’m here, and I would like to cross the street without dying and/or spilling my milk and chocolate products!” This seems to either humanize me or guilt them into submission, maybe both. Then, to express my profoundest gratitude, I issue them an even friendlier-like wave that says, “Thank you SOOOO much for pausing in your busy day to let me pass without a life-crushing incident!” They smile. I smile. Happiness all around. Humanity and civility prevail! Hurrah!

Usually, the drivers who don’t let me cross just flat-out ignore me. When I try to make eye-contact, they resist, turning their square jaws and steely eyes straight toward the horizon (or where the horizon would be, if we had such things around here). In return, I smile broadly in gratitude and wave as they pass. I love love love doing this to people. They look soooooo confused. Their poor widdle wide-eyed faces! They ask so many wondewing questions! Such as: “Waaaaaah?” and “WTF? Did that Weird and Insignificant Walking Thing just wave at me?” and “Do I know her?” and “Did I do something nice to her that I don’t recall?” and “Holy holy SHIT! Is that my Aunt Brenda? Have I forgotten what she looks like? Does she live around here? Is she that weird? Does walk?”

It is so much fun. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

And so, on my most recent walk home from Stewart’s, I took a hesitant step into traffic and tried for eye contact. Cars whooshed past. I waggled my right leg. More cars whooshed past. I waggled my leg a little more, kick-line style, accompanying this chic move with a jazz hand and a fetching smile. Yet more cars whooshed past.

Finally, I caught the eye of a woman driving a BMW. She looked at me! Victory! I smiled! Another victory! I waved my hand as if to say, “Beemer Lady, hello there! You’re soooo nice! I can tell! Please stop for me! If you let me cross the street without killing or maiming me or my dark chocolate Milanos, I will love you forever! I will praise you to the heavens! I will tattoo your name across my forehead! Across my children’s foreheads! Right now! Watch me! Pass the ink!”

And do you know what she did? You don’t. There’s no way you could know. She DID NOT LET ME CROSS, although I’m happy to say she didn’t kill or maim me, either. Instead, as she whooshed through the crosswalk, she gave me a dismissive backhand wave — sort of a lazy, whole-handed flip-off, as though the entire appendage functioned as Just That One Critical Finger, which she honestly couldn’t be bothered to extend — and rolled her eyes with a little twitchy grimace of annoyance. I repeat, she ROLLED HER EYES. As in: “Puh-LEEZE. I can’t be bothered. We BOTH know you don’t count, O Weird and Insignificant Walking Person. As if! I’m so bored by you and your groceries, I want to vomit.”

In reply, I did not smile. I did not wave. Then again, I did not give her the finger, either, or even a whole-handed approximation of same. So I think I behaved pretty well, under the circumstances. I didn’t even stick out my tongue at her tailpipe! Seriously! Be impressed. I am.

Anyway, there was traffic behind her, and I still had to get to This Side of the street. I stuck out my foot again and looked out, hopeful. The very next car was a shiny black SUV driven by some young dude, and I caught his eye. He let me cross.

I smiled and waved. He smiled and waved. Humanity and civility prevailed.plunger





FullSizeRender (1)Everything I own is broken. I am not exaggerating. When I say everything I own is broken, I mean EVERYTHING I OWN IS BROKEN, including the eternally clogged drain, the blitzed-out light over the upstairs toilet and the malfunctioning Dwight Schrute bobblehead that wouldn’t actually bobble, just flop sadly over in existential despair, until I wadded up paper and crammed it into his head. So I guess it technically isn’t broken any longer.

But my cars. Holy shit. You know how I hate them suckers, right? How they just break down uninvited, get into accidents for the heck of it and poop out muffler insulation that resembles cheapo wigs? Well, let it be known that that’s been happening again. In a big way. A big, big way. Involving THE IMPENETRABLE KAFKAESQUE NETHER-ZONE OF INSURANCE-COMPANY CONVERSATIONS.

Plus I just paid, like, a million dollars to replace every last bit of one entire Honda after it threatened to kill me on the drive to work. I’m serious. I brought it in immediately to the nearest possible shop, and now it’s like a whoooole new vehicle. You know that Richard Scarry book where Mr. Frumble takes his pickle car in for repairs and it comes back a hot dog, or something? This is like that. Exactly. I swear.

Also, my dryer broke. And my piano needs fixing. I could go on (NO! NO! NO! howl all six of my readers) but won’t, mainly because it’s an endless list, and I could be here all night, and I still need to exercise and shower and practice the violin and watch the first “X-Files” movie with my son. But also because, well, isn’t this how it works, this complicated gizmo of life? There are too many moving parts to it, too much occasion for cosmic chance. At some point — at most points, actually — it’s sure to break down.

So am I. I’m broken, too. I don’t just mean the mess in my knees or the ever-increasing hyperopia of my eyeballs. I mean I’m broken inside, but I don’t know who isn’t. As a person of faith, I believe we’re born with a sense of order, a yearning for perfection, that amounts, I think, to a kind of metaphysical homing signal. On some level we KNOW things are better somewhere else, more seamless and loving and less prone to breakdown, and we try like crazy to replicate that here.

Of course we can’t. Of course we can’t stop trying, either. That’s what plumbers are for.

trump in the lunchroom

The whole flap over Trump’s latest Trumpism has me thinking about middle-school lunchrooms. It’s like we’re all trapped at a table with our half-eaten mystery meat and the kid who won’t shut up. You know him (or her). We all do. He’s a show-off. He’s mean. He bad-mouths people behind their backs, dishing his snark at the fat kid with the butt crack, the skinny kid with the zits, the girl with the crooked bangs, the quiet boy who draws cartoons in a corner and, in a nasal whisper as she walks past, the lunchroom aide with the cheap dye job and the shuffling gait of a lifer.

We’re all too mesmerized by this kid to object. We can’t even look away. His air of relaxed authority and entitlement — and don’t all mean kids have that? — suggests that everyone everywhere ought to be listening, no matter the inanity or offensiveness of the content. I’ll never forget the sight of one such mean kid, a rawboned girl, holding forth on the playground with her fist on her sharply jutting hip. I don’t remember her name, or anything she said, or about whom, but I remember the crowd of girls huddled around her. I remember the expression on her face: snotty. I remember the angle of her elbow: 90 degrees. I even remember the color of her bell-bottoms: gray. And I remember that none of us moved.

So when Trump got in trouble, post-debate, with that remark about Megyn Kelly bleeding from her “wherever,” I was a little surprised. For one, I think I might — MIGHT — actually believe him when he says he didn’t intend it as a comment on her menstrual cycle; the “wherever” sounded more to me like the inexact blah-blah-blahing of someone who’s talking too fast for his brain. Also, after all the hateful, outrageous and objectifying remarks we’ve heard from him so far, THAT’S the one that finally incites widespread outrage? Talking about Penny Period? THAT gets him booted from the lunch table and disinvited from the RedState Gathering (and does anyone else appreciate the rosy irony of the name?).

And then I remembered those old tampon ads with clips of women in flowy white dresses intercut with shots of sanitary products being doused in crystalline blue liquid (not ferrous at all), and it hit me: EVERYONE IS GROSSED OUT! THAT EXPLAINS IT! It’s the lunchroom factor! If any woman learns anything from middle school, it’s that you do not talk in public about menstruating. You do not. Men don’t want to hear about the real-world phenomenon, much less talk about it (another reason I’m inclined to believe Trump), and women don’t generally raise the subject unless they’re in the ladies’ room and in sudden need of a Tampax. Outside that restroom, no one wants to associate bleeding with female plumbing. The most anyone ever does is make cracks about PMS, but (news flash) all the fun hormonal stuff occurs BEFORE the onset. That’s why they call it “pre.”

Maybe Trump intended the remark as outright misogyny, maybe not. He’s said plenty else that might and should have sent the embarrassed middle-schoolers shrugging away, cafeteria trays in hand, in search of another table — but nothing so far has sparked this type of revulsion. Whether he meant it or not, he introduced menses into the national conversation, and the lunchroom is officially squicked out.

extrovert, introvert, ambivert

People are always telling me I’m an extrovert, and I’m not. This happened again the other day, and my response, as usual, was: NOOOOO! I’m not! I swear! I only seem like an extrovert!

OKAY, all right, so I write and blab in public about all of my deepest thoughts and my most horrifically painful tragedies; I’ve written two, you know, books devoted to said tragedies;  I did a TEDx talk and a “Moth” story on them; and I am ready and willing to discuss them with any total stranger who approaches me in almost any context. Almost. I also happen to talk a lot. A shitload, really. Total windbag. I am more than capable of being stupidly loud, even when I shouldn’t. I like meeting new people, I enjoy parties, I’m forceful in an argument, and I don’t slink away quietly from crowds.

But none of this means I’m an extrovert, because I also savor long stretches alone to recharge my batteries, though the realities of my life mean this only rarely happens. But when I’m able, I am perfectly happy to spend time in my own head, whether I’m reading contentedly on the porch or spacing out, my unfocused eyeballs twirling like gaudy carnival rides while my body blobs bonelessly in a slump. I do that a shitload, too. Just ask my offspring, who’ve been known to jump out and down while waving their hands maniacally in front of my face, shouting MOM MOM MOM MOM MOM or saying outrageous untruths just to test me, most of them involving the construction HEY GUESS WHAT MOM I’M _____ (fill in the blank).

though i suppose only an extrovert would upload this

though i suppose only an extrovert would upload this

Maybe I’m an extrovert who feels like an introvert, or an introvert passing as extroverted. Or it could be I’m an introvert turned outward: someone who popped out of the birth canal with her head stuck up her moist little newborn tuckus only to have the hands of God and fate slowly, if not always gently, yank it free. As a kid I was profoundly, agonizingly shy — quiet, klutzy, pigeon-toed, unsure, never one to speak out in class, only ever at ease around my parents and older sister or my few close friends. I perceived the world and its confident occupants from within a chubby bubble of insecurity and confusion. I sometime spent hours — whole days — alone in the yard or the woods behind my Connecticut house, making little forts inside hedges and stands of bendy saplings, hoarding leaves and rocks and knick-knacks in holes dug in the ground, talking to myself, daydreaming constantly, lying on brittle grass or swinging on branches and snuggling the roots of my favorite tree. It was a Norway maple, and its name was Sweetheart.

But then I enrolled at the teensy all-girls school where my mother taught music, and I began to play sports — soccer especially. I found that my klutziness did not preclude athleticism, my pigeon-toed-ness did not prevent me from disco-dancing (with imported boys), and my shyness did not prohibit me from speaking up in classes so small that I was, on occasion, the only student. By the time I got to college I’d figured out how to talk in larger groups. I took a public-speaking class. I went to frat parties and acted drunk, even though I wasn’t.

Then, in 1992, my childhood family started dying, and I started talking and writing about it. I kept talking and writing after my husband died in 2011. None of this was my idea. I didn’t set out for a side-career in gut-spewing grief confessionals. It just happened. Life happened. But I didn’t change inside; I only learned how to live on the outside, how to face it rather than fear it, navigate it, find joy in it, fill myself with a new kind of energy from its stores.

So, no, I’m not an extrovert, but I suppose I’m not an introvert any longer, either. Better to call me an extroverted introvert, an introverted extrovert — an “ambivert,” as one personality test labeled me. “The Chameleon,” pronounced another, although that makes me feel like a slimy and shiftless master (matron?) of disguise. No test so far has called me a “bivert,” “panvert,” “omnivert,” “megavert,” “supravert,” “super-de-duper-vert,” “hermaphrovert,” “wowza-vert” or “who-gives-a-vert,” but believe you me, I’m waiting for it.

Or, hold on! I know! Here’s an idea: Maybe I’m just a human being who’s had one heck of an eventful life, and maybe it’s had some lingering effect on me and my approach to the world. It may also be that labels are USELESS AND SIMPLISTIC CRAP, and I should ignore them, slinking timidly away into my fort made of saplings. But only after I’ve blogged about it.