Something There Is That Does So Love a Cocklebur


You’d think ‘bur’ would have two r’s, the hooks on the letter resembling those on the prickles. Our dogs do not love the cocklebur’s almond-sized fruit, especially Fern, whose fur is the consistency of bad wig hair. The burs cling to Fern like Velcro, using her beard, her tail, her fuzzy pantaloons to disperse to new locations, determined to survive. A member of the daisy family, the cocklebur grows in waste places, places to which its prickly seeds can be blown or washed in, places like the lakebed trails where my husband Marc and I walk our dogs several times a week. As the Kern River and Lake Isabella’s waters recede with the Sierra’s diminishing snowmelt, bottles and driftwood and sunglass frames deposit themselves on the freshly formed beaches. Cocklebur plants, too.

And shoes. Hundreds of them. Once, when we were hiking with the dogs, we happened upon a pile of 50 or so mismatched sandals at the high-water mark. Yet the pile in front of us was not the shoes’ natural rest stop. Someone had curated this collection, matching like sandal to sandal, neoprene moccasin to neoprene moccasin, flip-flop to flip-flop. In bringing them together in a space the length and width of a swimming pool, rather than leaving them scattered and stranded, this curator had created art, both beautiful and horrible. And as with any piece of art, this heap of summer footwear incited questions. What happened to the people on whose feet these sandals belonged? Were the sandal-bearers pulled from the overflowing river by their loved ones, only to realize they’d lost a shoe? Better to sacrifice a shoe to the frigid floodwaters than a person. My photo series of the high-water shoe-pile: I call it “The saga of flip-flops.” Imagine if, like cockleburs, the shoes took root and flourished.

Any farmer with burs in his pasture will tell you, though the seedlings are tenacious, the roots are not difficult to pull. Get them when they’re young.

Twenty years ago, Marc and I rendezvoused in campgrounds on this river. I’d coast in from L.A., where I worked in a magazine office, while he meandered south from the Eastern Sierra, where he worked as a backcountry guide. We’d cook one-pot noodle dinners over a Primus camp stove, share a bottle of wine, and recount our Saturday whitewater kayaking the Kern’s rapids. An hour after the sunset, the campground boulders still retained their heat. Cloaked by darkness, we’d shed every stitch of clothing. Lolling in the rock’s ambient heat, each on our own individual boulder, we’d talk about everything, and nothing. Then one warmed body would cross over to share the other’s boulder, and conversation hushed. Back then, I was in over my head when it came to whitewater rapids. Time after time, I would emerge for air after flipping, failing to Eskimo roll, and slithering out of my boat. I’m swimming again, damn it, I thought, while water flowed literally over my head. I worried I might be in over my head with Marc, that we were just playing at romance, enchanted by the river’s rapids and pools, by the mountains’ granite, and by the impossible array of stars above us, but I was wrong about that. Despite our youth, the seedlings of our relationship weren’t drowned. All these years later, here we are. We’ve traded tents and camp stoves for a house and a five-burner range. We floated in and we’ve taken root.

Strolling in the sandy soil of the lakebed, we spot all manner of tracks—from pickup trucks, birds, boots, tennis shoes, dogs. Eventually we’ll even recognize our own footprints. “Huh,” we’ll say. “So those are the patterns we make.”

On one particular hike, a blur of corgi-terrier sprays my ankles with sand. I follow Keji through a screen of willowy shrubs to the river, where something unnaturally white contrasts with the dark blue meandering water. An ancient washing machine’s four rusting claw feet dig into the bank. The washtub is white—super white—thanks to the sun. It’s a top-loading machine, lid long-gone. The wash basin has a flat bottom, maybe a 2-foot radius. A finned pillar rises from smack-center of the basin—the agitator. Later I will look this word up and I will confirm that an agitator is a device to stir or shake things up. People can be agitators, as can geological faults. This will strike me as a funny coincidence since the 65-year-old earthen Isabella dams—known as Main Dam and Auxiliary Dam—are in the process of being rebuilt. The active Kern Canyon fault beneath the dams threatens to agitate the earthen structures to the point of catastrophic failure.

Meanwhile, beneath the sun-bleached washbasin, a brown, cloth-wrapped electrical cord snakes around its rusty feet, which support a corroded base in which a motor once rumbled. I imagine the machine once rumbled on someone’s back porch, under an eave. Or perhaps in a corner of a ranch house kitchen. But why is it here, a half mile or more through sand and shrub from town? Why isn’t this aged contraption convalescing with other rusting, rustic devices in one of the many local antique shops? I imagine the claw-footed old-timer sandwiched between record player console and telephone table, a quiver of catgut tennis rackets propped in a corner, near a pair of wooden skis partnered with poles, their snowflake-shaped baskets big as diner pancakes. Nostalgia is one of the Kern River Valley’s most lucrative industries.

More likely, the elderly beast drowned, bound by sand for decades. This section of riverbank is normally submerged by the dammed waters. Isabella’s earthworks were under construction from 1950 to 1953, while the washing machine itself was manufactured in the 40s. This was right around the time the federal government condemned Old Kernville and the town of Isabella in order to build the dam and reservoir. But the local townsfolk didn’t quietly away. Instead, they moved 120 of the old houses and buildings to new sites, such as the vacant land that would become today’s Kernville. What they couldn’t move, they dynamited. Foundations, ruins, and oddities such as this flood-battered washing machine become exposed and then vanish at the whim of the lake level.

Marc and I live on a lot where an Old Kernville house had been relocated. Around 2001, the relocated building was razed but for one wall, the wall containing the fireplace. Over that hearth, on the rebricked mantel, we’ve lined up framed photos. In them, we’re hiking, we’re camping, we’re canoeing. It’s funny, but all the photos cut us off at the feet. You can’t see whether we’re shod or barefoot or wearing mismatched flip-flops. You can see that we’re happy, though, that we’re flourishing in this place. Years before we bought the property, I remember walking past it on the way to the Kernville Post Office. The old green shanty with its screened-in porch listed slightly, weighed askew by time and gravity. The new house—our salmon-hued stucco job—will someday do the same. And a river shall take it, not unlike a cocklebur.


Image at the top of the page: “Cockleburs” by CAJC: in the PNW is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Condom Races

Cris Mazza

“I can give example after example, seemingly trivial things he said, and me-then slicing them open to examine in my journal, one day agonizing over a hex of hero-worship, the next grateful I met someone so worthy of respect.”  —Something Wrong With Her Cris Mazza


Shouldn’t I start with the latest, and most jarring, incident? Before character introductions, before the narrative pondering of questions raised, before metaphors for the sadness, disillusionment, even fear aroused? And fear of what? Being wrong to begin with? Sensing a narrow escape? Somehow … being abandoned?

The initial questions already listed, the primary emotions already announced, why is it so hard to simply dramatize the event? Because it was an email exchange, without setting, facial expressions, background noise … details that I know impact a dramatic scene. Maybe my title can do the job of the lead-in hook, and I can continue blathering.

He is 15 years older, and long ago had become the only person who received a copy of every one of my books — 18 at the point of this occurrence. A mentor during my inwardly tumultuous 20s, then personified, with only the thinnest of camouflage, in four novels and easily a dozen stories.

The latest timespan between book publications had been longer than usual (I’m getting tired, and the world is relieved). Plus I’d delayed sending the latest book for a year and a half after its release. So, as I had for the last several books, before addressing and mailing the package, I emailed to find out if his address had changed. Asking about his address had always been an excuse: I needed to know if he was still alive, and it’s not polite to ask outright. But this time, there was no coy substitute question to discover if he’d recovered from being sucked into an ideological black hole. I was aware he’d run for his local city council in the 2010 Republican primary, as a Tea Party candidate. In fact, the last time we’d communicated, just a year and a half earlier, he’d told me he needed to go speak with several groups about why Hilary Clinton could not be president. I do think he said could not and not should not and I’m positive he said needed; while searching for that email might validate those details, I don’t really want, right now, the visceral face-to-face of words he actually typed.

The comment about Clinton probably and partially explained my delay in sending the book. (I probably had deliberated permanently suspending the book-sending practice.) So this time, even though I had already searched local obituaries to make sure he was still alive, I still did not inquire about his address wholly without trepidation.

His answer came back promptly: yes his address was still the same, yes he and his wife were enjoying decent health, playing golf for exercise. And  … “worrying what was going to happen to California when in the schools they have relay races with 5- and 6-year-olds racing up to put condoms on models of erect penises to see which team is fastest.”

“I went back to see Pryor … In his office — not the same one where I’d worked for him, a bigger one — there was a George Bush calendar on the wall right behind his head. I didn’t want him to notice me looking at it, didn’t want to hear him say anything about it, didn’t want to know what he would say, although the fact that he had it says enough, and says, above all, that I couldn’t have known him the way I thought I had.” —Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls

Why are there people in our pasts whom we can’t forget, can’t shake even when it’s healthier to do so? Besides former-spouses or former-lovers or a love-interest who never reciprocated. Not parents who abused or abandoned or siblings who broke ties. Not close friends who died or converted to a restrictive religion. These are good reasons for the termite trails left in our brains.

But why is it sometimes so difficult to forget, break from, or merely leave behind some of those from a mentor-class: bosses, teachers, professors; maybe a coach or choreographer, music or drama director, club advisor, scout leader?

“I might dream about you, but you’d be cutting my hair or touching my eyelids with your thumbs or balancing me as I walk around on the handrail of a balcony,” —Your Name Here:___

Did the mentorship ever go bad? Not in the old-fashioned way: the pupil did not eclipse (then neglect) the mentor. We were in different fields, but even a comparison of our career trajectories had a zero factor in any morphing of the mentor relationship.

Also, it didn’t go bad in the now #metoo-established ways. The mentorship never turned sexual, romantic, or even flirtatious. For curious reasons, this is considered bizarre or a suspicious claim. Why should it provide a problem? … but it does: in defining the relationship. The interpersonal dynamic I pondered in all those stories and novels was inexhaustive and resilient as “material” because it was an undefined relationship, or defined in the negative: not friends, not lovers, not colleagues, not peers, not professor-student, not family. As employer-employee, it was once removed. Was he my “boss”? Yes … and no. Was this a complicating factor? Yes, but not in a simple line-of-command way. And some of what did make the “boss” aspect an issue has only been perceived lately, as he was in his mid-30s and a comparison of his demeanor, insight, and ability to reflect doesn’t jibe with either 30-somethings I’ve met from “the other side” or my own bumbling 30s. But remember, my perception of him was that of a 22-year-old, and that image also doesn’t jibe with the Tea Party candidate conspiracy-believer. It’s possible his sagacity, grace-under-pressure, and calming-leadership were a sham, created in part by my unfinished brain’s stewing anxiety over my impending but latent, even delayed adulthood.

But the true complication in our unofficial mentorship relationship came primarily from the “real” boss, the one with official charge and accountability for my position, who was also my mentor’s senior-faculty program director. We both worked under an egomaniac conniver whose motives always came from his desire for power and prestige. This seems almost comical, but power and prestige exist in every little world and society, even dog-training, even Boy Scouts, even Little League, even collegiate bands, even university English departments.   When he wanted to win a teaching award, the Monster wrote a letter of recommendation for himself and asked his junior colleague to sign it. The junior colleague (my Mentor) did as asked. When I, the letter’s typist, realized and looked up from my keyboard aghast, the Mentor said, “just type it exactly as is.”
I recognize now that my mentor’s senior-colleague (and my “real” boss) was gaslighting and manipulating my mentor, “requiring” certain behavior and decisions out of sheer jealousy (the threat my mentor posed on a popularity scale, on a future-prestige scale, on a future-glory scale, etc.). The boss was using common narcissistic maneuvers on me as well. When I looked to my mentor for … what … protection? Relief? Cover? … there was little to none. There was only his ability to explain … although often cryptically. Betrayal was how his conflict became defined in my POV; but the boss had a lasso on my mentor’s future, and I did not. Maybe what we really shared as a relationship was that we were both thrashing around (maybe simultaneously cowering), trying to figure out how to react or survive this monster’s style, posture, and conduct. For decades I’ve always referred to this boss as the only human being I’ve ever hated. Just now, trying (again, again, again) to describe him, I realize he was, not-so-astonishingly, a precursor but comparatively trivial Donald Trump.   Their tension started with jealousy and was manifested by my regard for my Mentor over the Monster. I did extra work for former and not for the latter. “Too much allegiance to the desk in the corner,” I was told. While I was house-sitting for his neighbor — a situation he arranged — Monster took me aside to “warn” (i.e., gaslight) me about Mentor: He was all image and no substance, basically a charismatic, and I shouldn’t “chase after personality” because I’d lose myself. Meanwhile, while I was not privy to what Monster may have said to Mentor, the Mentor started warning me that he might have to ignore me, couldn’t be seen talking to me, and couldn’t call me the name I was currently trying to use instead of a childhood nickname, because he “can’t appear to have knowledge about parts of your [my] life that have nothing to do with your [my] job.” What was he told, what did he deduce, what did he fear?
True, it was my mentor who struggled the most under the ego-motivated, manipulative, sometimes illegal practices of this monster. But even as the mentor was pressured into participating in a plan to drive me out of my job (among other ploys he was coerced into being part of), he still tried (without grand success) to advise me in being able to function without emotion, to help me perceive more of what was going on around me besides my mess, to warn me, even console me, to validate my abilities and attempt to redirect my attention to what should be my full focus and real mission. Have any low-level White House staffers (in their 30s) mentored a troubled 20-something to get out and find their real life’s work while simultaneously finding themselves being asked to lie, falsify reports, or perform illegal practices? Perhaps his lasting impact and importance lies there.   A state-employee position granted to the band program had a student-worker who elected to go home for the summer, so he ran a scheme whereby that employee cashed his state checks and sent a personal check to the person doing the work. The Monster also falsified addresses in order to get paid jobs for noneligible students in a city-run summer employment program for inner-city youth.

“Despite an easy presumption to label it a girlish crush, it was not his leading-man exterior that entranced me. It was that he looked me in the eye, undistracted, while he spoke and listened, and frequently perceived, probed and comprehended the center of my tacit and (I thought) inexpressible insecurities.” —Something Wrong With Her

The previous 5 paragraphs were written by hand in a notebook while I waited for an oil change. On the way home, without cognizant reasoning, instead of my usual practice of listening to MSNBC or CNN news on satellite radio, I chose the 70s music channel. The playlist gave me: “You’re so Vain” … “The Way We Were” … then “To Sir With Love.”

The time has come for closing books and long last looks must end
And as I leave, I know that I am leaving my best friend
A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong
That’s a lot to learn, but what can I give you in return?

 Well, I gave him the 18 books I authored. Now wondering about the right-and-wrong, weak-and-strong concepts I might have absorbed.

Selected mentor quotes:

  • “Are you explaining or defending?”
  • “Credit is easy. Once you’re credible you’ll wish you weren’t.”
  • “A person’s character can be judged by how he responds to not getting his own way.” [He could have used female pronouns, but probably didn’t.]
  • “When the main concern is who gets the credit, little is accomplished.”
  • “Only idiots follow instructions without asking questions.”

And on the subject of perception alone:

  • “Look around, be perceptive. You’re the center of the universe to yourself but not to the rest of the world. Things are not going to be so level, so pure as you want them to be.” [Did he say “level”? That’s what my college journal claims he said. Or did he say “simple” or “equal” or “lucid”?]
  • “When you leave home like this, all you have to do is go 100 miles up the freeway and your life doesn’t seem real anymore, everything’s out of phase, out of proportion, like worrying late at night.”
  • [And, note same theme…] “Have you ever fried an egg? Then you know how you can let it get too hard, turn it over and over-do the other side. The cell breaks down, changes composition, corrodes, changes color, and gets really ugly. That’s like thinking too much, especially when you haven’t slept, you have no resistance, everything changes color.”

Forecasting the future of his own perception?

“’How about if someone told you you’re not the center of the universe to anyone but yourself,’ even though you looked at me and smiled, your words spoken so softly, and the background was a dying day.”  —“Former Virgin”

“Are you still unadulterated?”  —“Animal Acts”

The Believing Brain

No need to repeat the facts about and research on how long it takes the human brain to fully mature. Heightened emotion, impulsiveness, varying amounts of narcissism can continue to stew up to one’s mid-20s. I’ve already wondered how that unfinished brain’s condition may have impacted the mentee’s perception of the mentor’s character, personality, integrity, as well as the one-time conclusion that he ultimately betrayed his mentee.

Now, however, I don’t know what fog or agenda in my perception wants to find a good excuse for the mentor’s turn toward the extreme outer limits of conspiracy theory. But a first look at research in conspiracy-theory belief shows researches not considering aberration but only the evolution of how a “normal” human brain works and why, with danger or survival being chief factors.     His particular conspiracy theory — condom races for 5-year-olds — has not appeared in writing anywhere that I could find. Thus it’s even more “out there” than flat-earth, contrails-are-mind-control-poison, or democrats-are-running-a-sex-slave-industry.

“Belief in conspiracy theories appears to be driven by motives that can be characterized as epistemic (understanding one’s environment), existential (being safe and in control of one’s environment), and social (maintaining a positive image of the self and the social group)… This research suggests that people may be drawn to conspiracy theories when—compared with non-conspiracy explanations—they promise to satisfy [these] important social psychological motives.” (Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton, Aleksandra Cichocka, The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories, Dec. 7, 2017).

A related study proposes “…conspiracy beliefs are part of an evolved psychological mechanism specifically aimed at detecting dangerous coalitions.” (Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Mark van Vugt, Conspiracy Theories: Evolved Functions and Psychological Mechanisms, 2018.) 

In other words, beliefs in unproven, hyperbolic, beyond farfetched “facts” happens through normal brain function. “From sensory data flowing in through the senses, the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. Our brains connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen, and these patterns become beliefs. Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive-feedback loop of belief confirmation.” (Credit to whoever wrote the book blurb for The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer.)

Further exploration might have also led me to research forms of tribalism rising in opposing political principles, and the tendency, therefore, to see hidden life-threatening (or lifestyle-threatening) danger in “the other side.” Although from my (biased) perspective, it does seem that “my side” doesn’t hold as many scientifically unsustainable (i.e., crackpot) conspiracy theories. Maybe Trump is a mentally ill psychopath counts, but when juxtaposed to Trump was sent by God to fix America the irrational derangement doesn’t seem to be of the same dimension.   April 28, 2019: A conspiracy theory is born: In a rally speech, the 45th president told the crowd that in blue states which allow late-term abortion, “The mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby, they wrap the baby beautifully. And then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby.” (Found on PolitiFact, TalkingPointsMemo, ScaryMommy, a few others.) No national media outlet — newspaper or broadcast network media — carried the outrageous hyperbole (i.e., lie) as “news.”

But all of the above research is only interested in conspiracy theories adopted by large swaths of people. The researchers give examples like anti-vaxxers and flat-earth, government-staging of the 1969 moon walk and terrorist attack of 2001, and the contrail-is-mind-control-poison myth (interesting note: conspiracy theorists may have either mistaken or changed the word contrail for chemtrail). Searching details from any of these conspiracies displays an abundant list on Google and Snopes. But “condom races for 5-year-olds” or “five-year-old children forced to run condom races” — in any rearrangement of specifics — exhibits zero results. No one is talking about, spreading, or believing this story. The closest hits are actual condom races sponsored by various AIDS organizations in the 1980s for college students. These couldn’t be the “patterns” perceived by an evolutionarily wary brain alert for danger.

So: what if it sounds like a conspiracy theory, but you can’t find anyone else who believes it? My conjecture is there must be a how-the-brain-works difference between joining current ballooning conspiracy theories — easily available and passed in tweets, posts, blogs, or email — and adopting one that can’t even be found anywhere on the wide swath of information available except in a different form 30 or 40 years ago. This, to me, tends to put this particular belief in the realm of paranoid delusion.

The Injured (But Believing) Brain

My mother’s brain was injured via stroke just days after a triple bypass. She was only 75. She had time left for speech therapy to improve the resultant aphasia — not a physical difficulty forming words but a neurological language-processing malady. Pronouns and prepositions were scrambled (from the same as to, here the same as there, he and she mysteriously reversed in almost every case). Family relationships (sister, daughter, mother— scrambled), verbs (go and come a mystery to be unraveled), and nouns … she might say railroad when she meant airline). The brain stores language in mysterious ways.

A worse consequence of aphasia was in understanding incoming language, complicated by hearing loss. She began to sit in an isolated bubble at family dinners and parties. She could read large-print books but not watch TV. She had basic know-how for email; she had my father correct her outgoing messages and actual letters (slathered in white-out corrections). Just months after the stroke, when I’d experienced my usual airsickness returning home after visiting her, she typed in an email, “Sory for the terrible sick on the plane.” She eventually wrote an essay that started: “Time to decide to write.” There was something beautifully unique about her diction and sentence structure. Even in November 2008, when, in the weeks after the presidential election, she nearly sobbed, “This new one is going to take all our money.” It was not Obama who took their money, but the 24-hour care she required in her last year of life.

But following her stroke under George W. Bush, she slowly got better, until she started to get worse again. Congestive heart failure was shrinking the amount of oxygen sent to her brain before anyone realized. Before the longer and longer bouts of sleeping, before the fainting, before the monthly then weekly trips to the ER followed by over a year spent in a hospital bed on home-hospice care … Long before any of that, she began pestering my father to help her enter the publisher’s clearinghouse sweepstakes. “A person wins,” she would say.

Over a decade earlier, my uncle, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, was discovered to have spent thousands entering the Canadian lottery. A New York Times article in 2010 on the financial hardship of early onset dementia gave a profile of a man who was “sending substantial amounts to lottery schemes.” (Not insinuating the Canadian Lottery is a scheme.)

This kind of belief suggests brain injury. Call it heightened belief. Or delusional belief. Now add paranoid belief. Commonly, dementia manifests in paranoid delusions, most frequently involving caregivers and family members. My ex-mother-in-law reported that her caregiver ran out the back door with all her laundry, that the hospital was a “clip-joint” and her son was “in on it with them,” and that a stranger knocked on the door to tell her that her new curtains were beautiful (not all delusions are paranoid, but all delusions are …)

“Paranoid symptoms (e.g. believing that someone is out to get you, or is taking your stuff, or is in the house at night) falls into a category of mental symptoms that is technically called ‘psychosis.’” (Leslie Kernisan, MD, MPH, Better Health While Aging.) “Psychosis is uncommon in younger people, but becomes much more common as people get older. That’s because any of these symptoms can emerge when people’s brains aren’t working properly for some reason.”

And those reasons: from the earliest signs of dementia to a late onset of schizophrenia to other neuropsychiatric disorders (Naresh Nebhinani et al., “Late-life Psychosis: An Overview,” 2015). Neuropsychiatry deals with mental disorders and behaviors — including psychosis, anxiety, and disinhibition, a few I cherry-picked off a longer list — that are the result of a nervous system disease. And a “disease” like dementia could be considered a traumatic brain injury. But what if there was a prior event of a corporeal traumatic brain injury?

My last visit (out of only a handful) to my mentor in the years since my first book was published was in the early 2000s. It was also the last time he told me a story to make a point in answer to a “situation” in my life … and it spawned another book (Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls).

When you read the excerpt of that dialogue, one detail, a throwaway, is his voice being “more scratchy” than it used to be. It was an aural detail I had perceived and recalled, so there it was, included in the scene. But the background of the scratchy voice was another story he’d told during that visit; a story that had nothing to do with me, with my history with him, with our nameless relationship, and had not been used in the fictional scene. He’d told me that in the recent past, he’d been in a bicycle accident, had hit his head and lost consciousness and was ambulanced to a hospital. The scratchy voice was residual from intubation. That fact alone indicates a level of seriousness. But he also told me he’d lost a lot of his memory, for names and incidents; and his years at the university, in what he did recall, had no sense of chronology. And yet … his memory of the girl who’d tried to lure him into teenaged marriage was lucid. Long term vs. short term memory. At the dementia-care facility where I take my dog for therapy, a woman tells me the details of her 80-pound dog scaring her neighbor … three times every visit… but she doesn’t recall ever seeing my dog last week.

   “Those are the kinds of moments that definitely stick with you,” he said. And with that, he shifted into a different gear, back to being the Pryor who knew me as a girl, and his voice became his voice, a little more scratchy than it was then, but still the same earnest voice as when I was across from his desk. He said, “When I was in high school, I was dating this girl for a while, and it was just dating, someone nice to do things with.”
A feeling of normalcy may’ve settled over the conversation, but it didn’t mean I was relaxed the way I used to be. I would never be relaxed with him again.
“Then one night,” he continued, “she wanted me to go to this amusement park, but it seemed odd because not many other people were there. And she insisted we only go on this dark little boat ride.”
“But who could possibly do anything during the ride?”
“Well,” he said, “she tried. I was a very morally concerned boy, and didn’t think it would be right.”
“Was she furious afterward?”
“It turned out, she was pregnant, and she didn’t want the boy who was responsible to know; she didn’t think he would do the right thing, or else she knew it would be a disaster if he did. And there I was, this really nice, responsible, moral, boy, and if she could get me to …”
“Then you’d think it was yours.” I stared straight out the windshield, not at him. “Then you’d have married her.”
 “I would have. And gotten a job, and not gone to college. Everything would have been a completely different path. You can’t help but bookmark a moment like that.”
Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls
Among the symptoms of long-term effects from traumatic head injury, from multiple sources: memory loss, mood swings, impaired cognitive function, and other degenerative brain conditions. Among the symptoms of degenerative brain conditions is psychosis. Among the symptoms of psychosis are delusions, hallucinations, depression, even late-onset schizophrenia-spectrum disorders, all of which can display in  “disorganized thoughts … meaning saying or thinking things that seem illogical or bizarre to others,” (“6 Causes of Paranoia in Aging…,” Leslie Kernisan, MD, MPH). Research also led me to a lesser known from of dementia called frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), “a form of dementia centered in the brain’s frontal lobe. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, which attacks the brain’s memory centers, FTD causes atrophy in the part of the brain that controls judgment, behavior and executive function. People with FTD are often described as apathetic, lacking in empathy and exhibiting an impaired social filter,” [emphasis mine] (Kevyn Burger, So add loss of inhibition to the list of symptoms. Our relationship couldn’t still (if it ever was) be one where he would, in his 3rd sentence, tell me his deepest fears.   Head injuries are particularly worrisome for a number of reasons—especially ones that result in traumatic brain injuries. Not only are these injuries highly dangerous in the short term, but they may have devastating long-term effects.
Depending on the nature of the injury, its severity, treatment received, and many other factors, a head wound can result in permanent brain damage that causes an impairment lasting the rest of your natural life.
Some long-term side effects caused by a head injury may worsen. This could be due to the slow degradation of brain cells over time
—team-written for 


Just noticed: my search for a rationalization for the Mentor’s belief in condom races for five-year-olds is in itself proving that “once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive-feedback loop of belief confirmation.” My mom entered publisher’s clearinghouse because of brain damage … my Mentor believed a conspiracy theory no one else ever heard of because of …

Crunching the cause-effect is easy, especially if you’re desperate for an answer. Impaired cognition + (forms of) psychosis + paranoia + lowered inhibition = an excuse.

It’s possibly true, may be the reason, could be what has befallen him. There are some factors that would tend to go against my hypothesis, like that his wife might also be endorsing these strange views (with only an impaired view of her social media to judge this). What can’t be denied is that finding an explanation was important … for me.

“Despite the reams of paper damaged by the electric typewriter on his second desk where I logged the bewildered fears and fretfulness and fury of a 20-year-old, I can barely begin to recount specifically what happened, and when, there in his office, where I was paid for ten hours a week, but where I stayed for at least 15, sometimes more.” —Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls

The Orphaned Brain

Is mine the first generation to feel set adrift, pushed from the nest, at 60? Or is it an upshot of myself being childless, so there’s only one parent-child relationship in my life, the first one, which, inevitably, ends. It wasn’t as though I lost a lifetime of essential influential parenting; I can remember many innocent missteps but little, if any, cogent wisdom. She gave the lesson of example: how to live fully in every moment — recognized, appreciated, idealized, if not followed. I had never, going back to teenaged years, asked her advice or told her of my sorrows or dilemmas. Still, with her passing was the basic loss of someone-who-cared. When my father followed two years later, the loss became the complete removal of scaffolding, or the sun’s gravity. It had been several years since the last time he’d dispensed advice or opinion, but almost everything I did (except writing) included a background question of what he/they would think of it.

If being a parent helps to dull the loss-of-orbit when parents pass, could being a mentor do the same when mentors fall-from-grace? If so, the comparative flimsiness of the female mentor is another topic to be plumbed, the first stop being studies that show college students more often use the words genius, wise, or inspiring for male professors, while words chosen more often for female professors than male are nice and friendly, or strict and bossy. Not qualities that develop into durable or profound mentorships. Perhaps, as well, there was a desire lacking in the particular female professor now cogitating the subject, not enough of a gut tug to become a mentor, or too much residual identity of being the mentee to allow for any effective reversal.

Recently, in a cursory communique for a practical reason, a former student — male, who had not kept contact with me and likely had read none of my books, even when he was a student — told me that a former undergrad of his — female — was doing a master’s project on all four of his novels. Must be nice, I almost replied. The irony of his boast apparently lost on him.

My mentor was in a different field, a life coach not career adviser. Without analyzing what might have been lacking in my relationship with my parents, and if possible, putting undeniable gender contrasts aside, I was apparently in enough dire need of a life coach to become addicted to the rapport, plus seemingly so inadequately or incompletely coached that I never stepped up to pay it forward. Truly alone in a self-made vacuum.

“… you’d laugh. Not out loud, but that smile which is a laugh anyway. Sometimes a shared laugh. That was only okay if I was the one sharing it. If not … I felt like someone who desperately wants something, deprived of it over and over and over. But what was it?” —Your Name Here:___

Here is where I should return to the mentor’s situation at the time, how young he actually was, how his professional (and then personal) life was destabilized by the Monster — ostensibly in a position to be his mentor. How unhealthy the whole milieu was for everyone. And still he tried. As he tries, now, to stop five-year-olds from being forced to run condom relays.

“And then you smiled. I never saw you in the process of smiling, and I never saw the sun coming up—it’s just suddenly there, muscling its way over mountains, around trees or through cracks in clouds. Your smile was always something waiting inside, on your other side, like where the sun is at night.” —“Second Person”


Donald Trump, Thank You?

At 22, I turned down my boyfriend’s offer of a gun. The cop, who responded to the 911 call when my stalker broke into the house and stole my leotard, panties, hairbrush, and ballet slippers, insisted a gun could make things worse. That I’d probably hesitate at an intruder’s sob story and he’d wrest the gun away from me.

I was no stranger to men wanting to get in without permission: in my home, my car, my head, my mouth, my pants. I’ve lived a life punctuated by more than my share of abuse, assault, and an endless lineup of groping, threatening men in social settings and the workplace. Even in high school, a boy set a contact explosive on my locker when I refused to date him.

In the end, I refused the offer of weaponry because I’d been convincing myself that my quick mind, snappy tongue, my balled fists and fleet feet were all the protection I needed. This grew, in part from a defining moment during my early twenties while traveling solo for a year in Europe. I was hurrying from the restroom to a beer hall at the Munich Oktoberfest, where my new travelling companions waited. Skirting other beer lovers over the cobbled road, two cute tall, blond guys walked toward me, smiling big. I smiled back. They parted and let me pass between them. I was working out how to say bread-and-butter in German when they each grabbed one of my arms and carried me into the dark behind an empty tent where they tore at my clothes. For ten seconds, I froze, terrified, until my body surged with a startling, explosive rage born of the times I’d been molested, raped, humiliated, frightened; all the times I’d been cowed, too afraid to fight back. Blood surged through my veins, pounded in my head. I became a convulsion of screaming, kicking, biting, scratching, punching. My ferocity shocked them

Sheit! one cursed and dropped me; Misstück! (bitch) the other hissed as they fled. Unsteadily, I returned to my friends, my shock slowly giving way to a shaky triumph. I took this victory as proof that I could protect myself. I vowed to stay on guard, believing that if I never let fear best me, I could keep safe.

I come from good guys. A large family with a loving father and brothers. I love men and told myself that I just had to be smart and keep a close watch out for the bad ones. I learned to never walk at night without tracking who was ahead and behind me, my keys laced outward through my fingers. I stopped making eye contact with strangers. Years went by without another attack or rape, and for many years, I operated under an ignorant confidence in my ability to keep myself safe. A confidence intensified when I became a mother and was filled with a primal instinct to protect. When a man threatened or frightened me or someone I loved, I would freeze for few seconds, until my fear downshifted, remembering my past in a singular fury, assaulted for daring to move freely through the world as a female. My caution and fury felt like a super power, like the mother who lifts a car off her trapped child.

Decades later, when Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape sent shivers down the spine of America’s women, I began to relive terrifying memories, the ones I’d tried to forget so they could no longer hurt me, the ones I believed I’d locked up tight and put away for good. Things I never told a soul. Not my parents, my siblings, not my therapist. Not even my husband.

At a writing residency on Whidbey Island in the state of Washington, just weeks after the tape’s release, I lingered after dinner with six women around Hedgebrook’s farmhouse table, trying to make sense of a presidential candidate who bragged that he “grabs ’em by the pussy.” That night, we shared our own troubled stories of harassment, violence, abuse. All but one of us had been raped or assaulted at some point in her life. I was shocked and saddened by the universality of these experiences, and the revelation that most of us had never shared our story with anyone. Later that night, walking back to my cabin, my flashlight bouncing through the dark woods, I heard a crashing through the bushes, felt the presence of someone following. My brain reasoned that it was only a coyote, perhaps a dog, but a voice deep inside warned it was a man.

Back in my cottage, I locked the door, pulled the curtains tight, sure that someone was watching with evil intent, though my inner tough girl clicked her tongue at my paranoia. I woke at 2:00 a.m. in a sweat, screaming, with clenched and aching hands, my heart beating so hard I feared it could break my ribs. It would be the first of a year of torturous nightmares. Reliving past attacks. Several times, I woke in a semiconscious state, paralyzed with fear, certain that someone—not my husband—was in bed with me. In the following months, my sweet husband woke me out of many frightful dreams, himself jolted awake by my thrashing as I relived memories, memories I thought I’d left buried in my past, things I’d never told him. Alone, in hotels, traveling on business, my nightmares worsened. One night, I woke, standing in the middle of a DC hotel room, my pajamas sweaty and ripped to shreds. Was this a kind of PTSD?

After months of nights like this, as I slowly began to share the incidents inspiring my nightmares, my husband urged me to go back to the therapist I’d seen years before. And there, for the first time, I spoke of all the things I’d once hastily brushed aside, things she’d previously urged me were important to talk about, but I’d insisted would be a waste of time because they no longer held power over me. In truth, I don’t think I could allow those traumas to take up any more of my life or my mental real estate. It was my misguided way of refusing these men and their assaults, in a way I hadn’t been able to as a child, a teenager, a young woman, nor in my  professional life.

As I allowed myself to remember, I came to understand that spending my childhood and adulthood on alert, prepared for attack, had forced me to live on edge. By refusing to accept the power these abuses held over me, my body poised for fight, I’d internalized the trauma.

I tried to understand my reticence to admit the things that happened. There is, of course, the relentless, inescapable shame. And, growing up in a large family, one learns to be tough, self-reliant. Deal with it. My mother and I had polio when she was pregnant with me. The doctors didn’t think we’d live. Perhaps the polio is why I’m smaller than my sibs, why I was born with one leg slightly shorter than the other. A disparity my mother noticed when I began to walk. She took me to doctors who had her undress me, who watched me walk. “Don’t worry,” they told her with great amusement. “She’ll have a cute wiggle when she grows up.” Even as a toddler, my body was regarded only in terms of how it would appeal to men rather than how it would serve me through my life.

I rarely have nightmares now. Therapy, my husband’s loving support, bodywork, and sisters have helped me change. I am healing in surprising new ways and move with more ease now. My shoulders sit lower on my frame, my neck is no longer plagued with tension and pain. But this change comes at a cost. I no longer believe myself invincible and for the first time, feel vulnerable in ways I’ve never allowed myself to feel.

Perhaps I would never have understood the full impact of my past, its physical and emotional costs, if it weren’t for Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, and the subsequent #MeToo Movement. You might even say Trump’s words inspired a deeper understanding of myself, which has led to an unexpected and welcome healing.

So I’m going to surprise myself and say, Thank you, Donald Trump.