Saturday afternoon at Café Racer, my son tasted a chocolate covered grasshopper, proffered by David George Gordon.  I tried to take this as evidence that he was growing up, finding new stores of bravery for the art of experimentation and adventure in the world. 




Dr. Daniel Siegel is a giant of a thinker, theorist, researcher, psychiatrist and therapist and you can’t attend a single course in applied psychology or family therapy without hearing the instructor make reference to him and in many cases take you on a glowing oratory tangent.  He’s impossible to hate and so far as I can tell, he’s impossible to question.  He’s on the cutting edge of neurobiology, memory, child development and about six other related fields.  Also, for the record, he writes for the layperson so anyone can scoop up one of his fascinating books like The Whole Brain Child.


One of the things that Dr. Siegel writes and speaks about consistently is “implicit” memory.  To put it simply, these are memories that happened before we were conscious and able to develop “explicit” memories.  You can’t call up an implicit memory by sheer cognitive ability.  There are ways that implicit memory gets called up or “triggered.”  Many people don’t understand this but it can govern your emotional life, nothing less.  Have you ever found yourself inexplicably furious or inexplicably sorrowful at the drop of a hat?  Chances are that something triggered your implicit memory: a dead cat on the side of the road, for example, or a father reading the paper at a restaurant where his young daughter sits across from him clearly waiting for his attention.  And it doesn’t have to happen instantly—you could glimpse something like this and not be walloped by it emotionally for hours, or days. 


Since learning something about this, I have found myself gaining a great deal of ground.  I was extremely fortunate in that my education around this coincided, more or less, with the birth of my son.  Because everybody gets knuckle-balled with implicit memories when they have a kid and if they aren’t aware of the way the brain works (which most are not), they are going to be baffled and scrambled by their emotional life for a while. 


So when my infant son cried out at night and my own chest got tight and anxiety went up, I understood: I was left alone to cry myself to sleep when I was his age.  When my son gets pushed around the playground, my rage is so hair-trigger that I start looking for a dad to fight: I was a sensitive kid told to “use my words” and was not the Lord of any Fly.  So as the time approached for Pax to start preschool (today), I was not as confused as I would have been about my emotional state—but I’m still struck by the intensity of it. 


Pax told his mother the other day, “I’m going to cry so much they won’t let me stay at school,” which made me want to hyperventilate.  My own mother’s response was amusement that he had learned to be “manipulative” already.  My mother did step up and offer herself as the courier to preschool for the first week, which was tremendously kind.  What my mother did not do was actively recall under what circumstances she left me alone in a preschool classroom.  I can only assume from my own anxiety and blues during the days preceding Pax’s entrance that I was terrified and felt abandoned.


My son left the house with his grandmother this morning in a shark-print raincoat twirling and chattering.  He came back dirtier but in a similar state.  I don’t know if my mother is executing a “re-do” of her own style of parenting 33 years wiser, but she’s doing something right.  I doubt that Pax will lose his breath when his own child’s lower lip quivers at the notion of striking out into school—or anything else in life. 


But maybe each time he sees an insect eaten, an implicit memory of his father will warm him from within?   

Small Talk

You’re getting a Master’s degree in psychology.  People want to know what that means.  They ask you if you’re going to be able to write prescriptions.  They ask you if you’re going to be testifying in murder cases.  They ask if you’ve been offered any decent jobs by the FBI.  They want to know if the things they heard on mushrooms last month mean they are schizophrenic.  They want to tell you about their love stories with “psychotic” exes (you explain that they probably mean “psychopathic,” but that that’s unlikely, too).  Often, they want to hear that not remembering most of your childhood is ok and normal and does not mean that they’ve repressed recollection of a ritual sex ring.  So you explain that actually what you’re training to be—what you’re already doing, only in internship so you don’t paid—is family therapy, or, if it seems more prudent, youth counseling.  Sometimes the fire of interest withers in their eyes at this point.  Sometimes they tell you how wonderful you are (especially if they also ask how much you’ll make).  Often, they want to know the harrowing details of your clients’ lives.  If you share anything, they want to know how you do it, how you leave your work at work and protect your heart.  You do fine with all of this, usually.  There is only one thing you do poorly with: when people—almost always older adults with grown children—express head-shaking sympathy for the poor parents of these fucked up kids that you serve.  Then you want to tell them in no uncertain terms what it actually means, this whole “family therapy” thing: that the state of a kid’s mental health is, nine times out of ten, a response to the family he or she lives in.  That we are only as “sick” as the family systems we form a part of.  That the next time a parent brings in a skateboarding “defiant” fourteen year old boy or a purging, self-harming sixteen-year old girl for you to “fix,” you’re going to have to take some deep breaths before responding.  

Jesus v. Santa











































Dear son,

It occurs to me that as houses light up psychedelically and you begin to see fat men in red costumes everywhere you go, when the size of boxes and bags seems to swell and there is suddenly a tree in the middle of your play space, that it might be incumbent upon me to clear up what is for some children an understandable confusion about Christmas.  It is the birthday of a man named Jesus—or Jesús as mamá would say, if she had much interest in him—and, also, the busiest day of the year for a man named Santa.  I use the term “man” both intentionally and roughly, because one of the things that Jesus and Santa have in common is a lingering controversy as to whether they are—or were—truly men and not merely stories made up for various purposes. But that’s not what I meant to write about now.



Here are some other things that Santa and Jesus have in common: both can magically produce gifts, though from Jesus you are likely only to receive wine—that’s “mama juice”—and fishes (not much like Nemo) and if you’re angling for a Hot Wheels track or remote control helicopter (as I suspect you are), Santa is a better bet.  Both Santa and Jesus can do magic—Jesus, for example, can walk on a lake and Santa can make his wagon fly with the help of deer with bright red noses.  Both Santa and Jesus are kind and caring and have particular interest in making children and sick people happy.  We make offerings of food—that’s “num-nums”—to both Jesus and Santa, though in the case of Jesus it’s mama juice and crackers, and though it’s an offering, we get to eat them ourselves, whereas in the case of Santa it’s cookies and milk and…well, kids don’t get to eat them.  It’s confusing, as are many things about this time of year.



Here are some ways in which Jesus and Santa are different: Santa is fat and Jesus is very skinny, like tía Helena, but even more. Santa’s home is at the North Pole, which is made out of snow and very, very cold all the time but Jesus came from the desert, which is why the pictures of Jesus aren’t very good—they make Jesus look like papa’s friend Sean when he probably had skin more like uncle Onyx’s.  We’ll talk later on about why they do that. Jesus doesn’t like stuff very much and some people say he didn’t even wear shoes; Santa, on the other hand, really is very focused on stuff (especially toys) and spends most of his time commanding a small army of fully grown men about your size to make stuff, which he then gives away (to be clear).  Santa has a wife, who is also fat and kind but Jesus did not have a wife according to most people, though that story may be changing.  No one seems to know who Santa’s papa is, whereas Jesus’ papa is God, which is like the biggest papa of all.


So, what about Christmas Day itself?  Simple: it’s Jesus’ birthday and Santa helps make sure that we celebrate it by flying around in his magic sled and laughing a lot and landing on roofs and jumping down chimneys to eat the milk and cookies that you leave for him and leaving you lots of presents that his little army made in his factory up in the north pole.  He does this because he’s a “saint,” which is like a friend of Jesus except he gets to wear shoes and eat a lot.  Those are the stories anyway. Next year, probably, we’ll start talking about the truth.


Merry Christmas,






The Terror and the Love



The snow had just stopped falling in breakfast-cereal sized flakes in Plain, Washington and the Social Justice Fund board had just sat down to hash out the strategic plan for donor organizing in the coming years when Burke got the voicemail.  His little boy, Lucas, born with myotubular myopathy, was in an ambulance, having stopped breathing in the presence of his respite care nurse.  Burke reached out to me amid the crowd and we went into a darkened bedroom of the lodge and I tried to say reassuring things about focusing on his love instead of his fear but they were just words to prop up the air so it could be inhaled.  It occurs to me now that Burke and I crouched in that room and breathed—him nearly hyperventilating, me with the luxury to put mindfulness to it—as if to make up for his son’s lack of oxygen in the halogen-washed rectangle of a jolting ambulance two hundred miles west.




Fearing the loss of cell reception, Burke decided to linger and wait for more news before we split so we stood outside under the gunmetal sky and smoked cigarettes and said things about the terror of parenthood. I said that being a parent is like walking around with your heart outside your body, but you have to keep walking, which is something someone wise once said to me.  Burke said that he and his wife had known they had to keep living their lives despite their son’s condition, that if they didn’t, they weren’t being true to him. We share the terror.  But the odd or graceful or remarkable fact is that while my son is perfectly healthy—strangely healthy, in fact, for a toddler—Burke’s son was born with muscles that didn’t work and his parents sprang into battle for his survival in hour one and have been fighting ever since.  And yet Burke might carry less terror in his chest than I do.  More than once I’ve gotten the sense that his terror is something that he carries like a briefcase while mine is something I wear like a hair shirt.  If I were faced with the task of fathering that Burke faces everyday, I doubt I would be a functional human being, much less an active, progressive, generous member of the Social Justice Fund board.  When a lymph node swelled to the size of a jawbreaker on my son’s neck for a few weeks, I fell victim to panic attacks despite the assurances of doctors, parents and common sense that it would add up to nothing at all.  Perhaps we all receive precisely what we can handle in this life—as people of faith might suggest.  Or perhaps Burke has just done spiritual work on fast forward.  At any rate, though I happily agreed to drive him back to the city, I felt even shakier than he appeared as we hit the blue high ways.




Phone reception came and went many times in the first few miles, the phone calls breaking before any sense could be made of what was happening in the ER that we hurtled toward.  On that black forest-choked highway under freezing rain, I strangled the steering wheel to steady my hands against the fear that right there, in my shotgun seat, this young man would get the news that his beloved son was gone.  I tried to imagine what I would do: pull onto the shoulder?  Speed up?  Say nothing, breathe deeply, keep driving?  Should I let him go if he told me to stop and then threw himself from my truck at a run?  Should I chase him?  What would I want him to do for me?




Fate was kind tonight and Lucas stabilized when he arrived at Children’s Hospital.  And by the time we were halfway back, Burke and I were having philosophical conversations about family relationships and justice.  By the time we strode the hallways of the pediatric ICU Burke’s urgency was more to simply hug his son than to reach him in time…




I was supposed to be at a board meeting all weekend.  I am so lucky that instead I was allowed to drive like a bat out of hell home in time to hug my own boy and put him to bed, safe and warm.  And I am so lucky to have the grace and courage of people like Burke and his partner Krista—and Lucas, too—to humble me and teach me.

You can read about the joys and struggles of Lucas and his parents here: