Thursday, December 6, 2012


"I love that old phone with a passion. It was the only real property Seymour and I ever had in Bessie's entire kibbutz. It's also essential to my inner harmony to see Seymour's listing in the goddam phone book every year. I like to browse through the G's with confidence."

-Buddy Glass, explaining why he doesn't want his old phone disconnected four years after his brother Seymour's death. Franny and Zooey, By J. D. Salinger. 

I love the quote above so much that I used it to begin one of my chapters in The Empty Room. It really gets at the point that though the people we love cease to physically exist when they die, there is a sense of continued connection. And because of that, it's hard to imagine ever, say, erasing said loved one's contact information--now, alas, unusable--from one's address book.

Or, since we're now in an era when phone books may soon become defunct themselves, erasing Facebook and LinkedIn pages. We like some reminder that our people were here--and why shouldn't we? The idea that love and connection ceases when the physical bond does is absurd.

Along these lines, it occurred to me, awhile ago, that I could Google my brother. And it was in pursuing this occasional past time that I happened upon some really weird bookmarks, so to speak, of his presence.

Here's what I found: A Facebook page. And a book on Amazon. Both in my brother's name. Both seem to have somehow been generated by Wikipedia (where he also has a page--mostly generated from my book, it seems).

I suppose I should be happy that he's been noticed and noted by someone besides me, that others know he existed and find him interesting. But my first reaction, I must say, was more along the lines of WTF? A fan page?

Maybe it's because these marks of his presence were not made by me, not controlled by me. Buddy, after all, was ostensibly the one who placed and renewed Seymour's listing in the phone book. So, it could be just a case of mineminemine.

With the advent of public sharing in the form of Google, Facebook et al, we both gain the ability to browse well beyond the phone book with confidence with regard to lost loved ones. But we also lose a little bit of control, too. Now, everyone gets to browse them with confidence.

Or maybe it's because I know that he'd be so (so) pissed. Ted hated the media interest he generated. As unusual as his life was, he really was not interested in how it fit into some bigger picture. When people suggested he write about it, he'd say: "I have to live it, why should I write about it?"

Maybe he'd have felt differently if he'd lived beyond the experience somehow. But he didn't.

I'd love to finish with some deep kicker...some great insight on life after death on the internet, or real life characters who become fictional ones on the internet after their death. But, for now at least, that's all I've got.

That and the simple fact that writing about Franny and Zooey makes me want a chicken sandwich like the one Franny asked for at the beginning of the book. And my older brother back. Just like Buddy.

Friday, February 10, 2012

At Long Last....

First, an apology--to anyone who found themselves on this blog recently and registered the fact that my last post was about two years ago. My youngest son (I have two) is just over two years old. There are other writers with kids who seem to have figured out how to get everyone fed, get them to school on time, tend to illnesses and just hang with them, etc. without losing some productivity. But for me, it's a work in progress. Slowly, slowly, I am figuring it out. Henceforth, I hope to be on here more regularly.

Second..A little musing. In my last post, I wrote about not having witnessed much sibling fighting...a state of affairs which feels very remote and amusing right now. Two years on, I have witnessed A LOT of sibling fighting. And while the prospect of it, two years ago, clearly filled me with apprehension and dismay, I can happily say it doesn't now. And it's not just that I'm used to it, though that's definitely part of it.

It's that it's so clear to me, watching Henry and Luke go at it, that they are working on things--relating, empathy, compassion, knowing how to push the other's buttons (i.e. getting into one another's heads, a phenomenon psychologists refer to as theory of mind). Having a sibling is a relationship PhD. And like most PhD work--so I hear--it's not always fun. To experience or to watch. But I'm blown away by the way that our relationships with siblings force us to learn to deal with others, and ourselves.

Overall, I think it's a good thing. But what will they think, twenty years on, when they're looking back on their early lives and cataloging the good and the bad?

Last night we were at a book party, and I got to talking to a friend who is writing a book about couples deciding to have only one child. She asked me if I'd had a second because I wanted one, or because I wanted a sibling for Henry. I didn't have a short answer for her on that one. (In fact it's a freaking long story.)

But it got me thinking about how profoundly we changed Henry's life by adding Luke to the mix--from having to share attention and the aforementioned PhD work, to the ever present playmate (they play a lot now). And then there's Luke...who has grown up with this enormous presence, in the form of Henry, to love and admire and also to challenge, as he increasingly does, for his place in the ecosystem.

It's staggering and a little scary, the power we have as parents, to change someone's life to the degree that you change a child's when you make him a sibling. And yet, we can't wait until they're adults to ask them how they feel about the decision.

You hold your nose and jump. Or at least that's what I did. And that's what I told my friend. I couldn't find any logical inroad into making the decision that would stick, so I just went with my gut.
And here we are. Watching it play out.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Some sibling fights aren't all that harmless

The general thinking, as far as I can tell, is that sibling fighting--something I've yet to witness in my two little guys, but dread, if only for the noise--has a function. They're learning how to resolve conflict. They're becoming proficient in something called theory of mind, i.e. learning to intuit what others think and feel. And probably some other things we're not sure of.

But a new study from the University of Missourri on sibling pairs between the ages of 8 and 20 suggests that squabbles that involve intrusions on physical and emotional space--like borrowing something without asking, or hanging around when they're not wanted--do have a negative impact on the siblings relationship. 

"When these issues were present, both younger and older siblings reported less trust and communication," says lead researcher Nicole Campione-Barr, assistant professor in the Missourri University Department of Pscychological Sciences. (Not surprisingly, older siblings reported these kinds of incursions more often than younger siblings.) Campione-Barr also noted that fights about equality and fairness, i.e. sharing responsibilities, had no impact on the quality of the siblings' relationships with one another.

It's interesting. I've been told that its best to stay out of sibling fights. (I've been told because I ask--I'm very curious about what parents should do--or not do--in hopes of promoting good relationships between siblings.)

Campione-Barr herself mentions the stay-out-of-it advice. "Previous research tells us that parents should step aside because they have a tendency to make matters worse," she says. But in this case, she says parents should step in. “Parents need to establish and enforce family rules about respecting privacy, personal space and property,” Campione-Barr said. “However, when sibling conflicts occur, there needs to be negotiations between siblings."
I often find the take away advice from studies silly, or questionable. But this one makes a lot of sense to me. I'm a hybrid--part sibling, part only child. I did have a brother growing up, but he lived in the hospital for most of my life, in a sterile room that prohibited physical fights and the sharing of toys etc. I like my personal space, and my stuff, and am pretty sensitive to having it trespassed upon--so I'm more than willing to step in to make sure my kids respect each other's space and belongings. 

I'm betting, however, that it's one of those things that sounds a lot easier than it is. We shall see. I'm already anticipating (and not in a good way) the day that Luke decides he has as much fun dismantling Henry's trains as Henry has assembling them.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thoughts on Megan O'Rourke's "Good Grief: Is there a better way to grieve?"

As usual, I'm way behind on New Yorkers. Fortunately--or unfortunately, depending on the kind of day/week/month I'm having--my husband tries to flag articles he thinks I'm going to want to read, so there's really no guilt-free tossing to be done.

 Last month, while on vacation, he set the February 1, 2010 issue on my night table, folded to O'Rourke's piece, and said that I should take a look at, that there was some stuff he'd never heard before in there. I've been carting the issue  around in my backpack ever since, looking for an opportune moment to read it. Today's subway ride (hello 1 train!) to the upper west side turned out to be it.

The piece is basically a cultural history of grief, and largely framed around the life of Swiss-born psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who is credited with making death, dying, grief and loss acceptable topics of conversation in the U.S. and paving the way for the hospice movement. Many know her best for the five stage model she came up with for the emotional process people go through in facing their death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What Paul said he hadn't realized was that, when it comes to loss, the model has been largely discredited.

Kubler-Ross only briefly believed that the five stage model applied to grief and loss, as well as those facing their deaths. She recanted the idea herself--to no avail. In fact, it's a profound source of irritation for grief experts that the five stage model has managed to so deeply entrench itself in the American psyche that many who've never even read Kubler-Ross's work can quote them.  

I discovered the professional view of this whole issue when researching The Empty Room, and wrote about it. But even before that, I would have said the five stage model bore little resemblance to my grief experience. And I'm willing to be others who have travelled this particular road would agree. "Perhaps the stage theory of grief caught on so quickly because it made loss sound controllable," writes O'Rourke. Yes, exactly. And, just as importantly, for those terrified of loss--and aren't we all?--it makes it seem like there's an end to it. I wish it were that neat. But it's not.

I found O'Rourke's article, which covers the evolution of thinking on grief beyond Kubler Ross, as well,  thorough and well written. But I was disappointed that it didn't delve into a lot of what is, to me most current and interesting in this field--i.e. the research on continuing bonds, i.e the notion that many of us have a sense of continued relationship with those we've lost. It's an idea that directly contradicts the theories of the past (i.e. that "healthy" grieving is letting go), and, in my experience, speaks to the way many feel about lost loved ones.

That said, someone's got to keep chipping away at the our cultural grip on the five stage model of grief--I feel so sorry for those, vulnerable from loss,  who find themselves trying to fit their experience into it--and, as far as we may have come as a society in making death, grief and loss discussable...we have a long way to go. So, here's to more discussion....!

Sibling loss, motherhood and postpartum depression

Today I was supposed to have a shrink appointment, the first since our extended vacation in Florida. My shrink, however, seems to be somewhat schedule-challenged, because she wasn't there. (We've had one schedule glitch already--a double-booked session.) When I told my husband, Paul, he said: "What does that say, that she thinks you don't need it anymore?"

Good question. I don't really know the answer to that, yet. The fact that I'm seeing a shrink again, at all, surprises me. I spent more than a decade in therapy when I first arrived in NYC, learning to understand and cope with the effect of my brother's illness and death on my life, and, at long last, mourning him in a way I had never been able to before. I thought I was kind of done with the big psychological task of my life.

But after Luke was born, I developed postpartum depression. It totally threw me--not just because I felt horrid, but because I really thought it wouldn't happen. When I was pregnant with Henry, I worried that I'd develop it. But I didn't. A first child, I thought, is a much bigger adjustment than a second, so I didn't worry about it during pregnancy #2.

But after I got home from the hospital, I found myself crying, numb, regretful, negative disconnected...literally in emotional pain every waking moment. I was in agony over what I'd done to Henry, by having this second child, taking attention away from him. And I was in despair over this poor infant who had a mother who was, rather than doting, a disheveled mess. And though I'd nurtured hopes of a close relationship between my two boys, I now saw that, though Luke followed Henry voraciously with his gaze, Henry was mostly indifferent.

It took me a few weeks to realize, and admit, that it was more than "baby blues" (what an annoying moniker) while my hormones adjusted. Fortunately a friend who'd worried about ppd during her own pregnancy had a contact for me, and I was able to make a shrink appointment, get diagnosed, and treated.

The turning point for me, though, was not the diagnosis (which I found humiliating...even though that's not rational), or medication (I'm on a tiny dose of an antidepressant, which probably isn't doing anything, but since I'm feeling okay the shrink sees no reason to up it). It was realizing, with her help, that Luke's birth had opened up a new well of feelings surrounding my experience as a sibling.

Well, duh. But, shockingly, I had never occurred to me. I don't know why I was surprised, really. So much about me has to do with that. My shrink wondered, aloud, if I felt so guilty about what I'd done to Henry, taking attention away from him, because that had been my experience as the well sibling--essentially ignored as my parents tried to manage the situation with my brother. I burst into tears.

A moment later she proposed that I felt so horrible on Luke's behalf because I could sense his yearning for Henry's attention, even at such a tiny age, and could sense Henry's irritation and see, at times, his patent rejection of the little guy. And that I identified with his yearning. Right again.

Once I realized that there was cause and effect causing my depression, not just some random neurochemical blight, I basically snapped out of it. It organized my emotions--made sense of them--in a way I hadn't been able to myself. Sibling loss, the life long effects of it--I get it. I just hadn't "gotten it" yet, in the realm of motherhood.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Birth Order: Myth or Reality?

When I was writing The Empty Room, and doing a considerable amount of delving into the scientific literature on siblings, I, of course, encountered the notion of birth order, i.e. the theory that the order of your birth in a family affects your personality, your intelligence....basically everything about you. It's a theory that isn't thought to have all that much import, as far as I can tell. I gave it short shrift in my book, too, largely because it exemplified the limited extent to which anyone within the psychological realm had considered the relationship at all. And experts told me that the theory was, in essence, stupid. Plus, the idea of a formula that neatly summarized the relationship annoyed me. (I'm easily annoyed when it comes to ignoring the subject of siblings.)

Now that I have two kids, I find myself thinking what a HUGE influence the order of birth may have on each of my sons. Henry had our undivided attention, my doting anticipation of his needs, for the first three-and-a-half years. Luke, on the other hand, gets planted places--a bed, the floor, a bouncy seat--while we tend to Henry or some other immediate crisis in the household, and, bless him, often quietly amuses himself until one of us remembers to go pick him up again. Lately, he's taken to giving an enormously loud cry when he's had it...and I can't help but wonder if he's learned that he better be loud if he needs something, and whether this I'm-mild-but-I've-hit-my-limit loudness will become part of his mature personality. Luke's childhood has also been vastly more social, more kid-oriented, than Henry's, by virtue of the fact that he's watching another kid--Henry--all the time, and dragged around to the park, etc., where other little kids peer into his face and poke him.

I encountered this article, noodling around on the web with the search phrase "birth order." The article, by Joshua K. Hartshorne, appeared in a recent issue of Scientific American Mind. Hartshorne--another quick google search suggests that he's a Harvard grad student in the psychology department, but I'm not sure--comments on the fact that birth order theory hasn't been taken all that seriously in the past, largely, he says, because the studies were pretty weak. But he cites two recent ones that are stronger--one that suggests that firstborns have a few more IQ points than younger borns (ouch), and another, which he worked on, that suggests that, when it comes to birth order, like seeks out like in both romantic and platonic relationships.

Hartshorne says the two new studies are "good news" for the theory, which strikes me as odd. As a scientist, aren't you supposed to be more interested in the truth than in validating your theory? That quibble aside, I have to admit, now that I'm watching my two guys evolve in relation to one another, and thinking about just how different Luke's early childhood has been, thus far, from Henry's, I can't help thinking there really has to be something to this birth order stuff. I doubt it dictates everything, of course, but something...yeah, I wouldn't be surprised. I also wouldn't be surprised if, like most sibling research, it's complicated and difficult to do.

Two boys...part two

Awhile back I posted about the fact that I was expecting another little boy, and wondering what it would be like to have two. Luke is now almost five months old.

Henry: Yes, there's been some jealousy on Henry's part, and some irritation (mainly due to the noise Luke makes when he cries or whines in the car....part of his going to sleep process). But there's also been a lot of interest, for Henry, in watching Luke, in seeing how Luke responds to him, and pride in the fact that he's often the one who can get the biggest smile or laugh out of Luke. Sometimes Henry acts a little babyish, or imitates Luke, or throws himself on me, when I'm paying too much attention (to his mind) to the little guy. But all in all, it hasn't been as bad as I thought it might. The worst part was my anticipation of it being bad, and my sense of guilt at not focusing all my attention on Henry anymore. In recent weeks, in fact, I've actually come to think maybe it wasn't that great for Henry to be so focused upon. Henry might disagree.

Luke: For Luke, it's all about the Henry show.  Just about anything Henry does elicits a smile or a laugh, and there's almost nothing Henry can do to him--no matter how rough--that Luke isn't willing to take. He's so thrilled that Henry is paying attention to him, it appears, that he's willing to put up with a having his arms and legs yanked and a finger poked in his belly.

It's been a real window into my own siblinghood and childhood with Ted...I feel like I've got the fly on the wall spot, watching what it must have been like...I'm not mystified by the adoration I had for my brother. Younger siblings, I think, don't stand a chance. We're smitten from the beginning. And I see, with a bit of a twinge, that my brother wasn't really kidding when he used to say his life was perfect for three-and-a-half years....(pre-me). But I can also see that I was part of his self-esteem, part of his sense of himself as accomplished and capable.

When I was writing my book, I was sort of guessing...thinking my way into what it meant to lose a sibling, because I no longer had a sibling from which to base my musings. I think I actually got it right. But it's different, thinking my way through it, and seeing it unfolding every day.