Imaginary Friendships

Imaginary Friendships

The chimney sweepers are here to replace an unidentifiable rusting metal thing on our roof.

As they work, they sound as if they are clamoring in an enormous cabinet of bucket-sized baking pans. Chimneys must be flimsier than I realized.

The chimney trumpets out the workers every  word with tinny clarity. I can hear them across the house.

The younger of the two wonders why his girlfriend won’t text him back.  His partner grunts agreement and gives the young man advice he will not follow.  I suspect this scenario has played out before.

Although I met the duo before, I can’t recall their faces. Curiously, the young man is the tallest person I ever encountered. His bearded partner is on the short side. I imagine they are teased over the height disparity.

I like them. They arrived on time and did not ring the doorbell to chat with me (as my husband requested!). Their merry banter vibrates the walls, while a pudgy boom box tinkles out the sort of pop music my son loves.

I see myself bringing them coffee and treats. They entertain me with chimney sweeping stories and we decide to put up holiday lights with their tall ladder since they have time to kill. We enjoy a jolly afternoon.

This fleeting fantasy cheers me, even though I am actually hiding from them in my bedroom.

I have always created friendly little episodes with unknown people. This private pleasure may not be typical, but it fulfills me. I feel connected by observing people, not by interacting with them.

Notebooks detailing such fictional episodes line the walls of my art room.

I peep out the window as they leave. For such a huge stature, the young man is surprisingly agile and handles the ladders like glittery batons. His partner scribbles the invoice and consults electronic devices while tugging his ear.

I mentally wish them well, picturing how our October  Christmas lights would delight my family.

Excellence in Special Education

A feature of my son’s behavior is disinhibition. In plain language, Liev’s mental brakes have a higher threshold, so he is more likely to flush things down the toilet and shout at the cat.

Curiously, Liev’s threshold varies day by day. Some days a forgotten hair clip rests safely by the sink; on others, the clip would be sent spinning down the pipes. Positive behavioral supports don’t help much. The only wise thing to do is plan ahead. Our house is immaculate and uncluttered.

The Kitty is a different story. She is a living creature deserving peace and respect. A mere glimpse of kitty triggers an automatic howl of “KITTY! MREOW!!!” from Liev. All summer I fought a losing battle to build empathy for kitty.  The more I tried, the worse his compulsion to shout grew.

Now, I enact an intricate plan to keep Kitty away from Liev on shouting days.

Thursday that changed. I gave Kitty a bath and she loitered downstairs when Liev came home. Before I could blink, he saw her and whooped, “KITTYYYYYYYY! MEEEEEYOOOOWRRR!”  The cat fled with cartoonish drama.  If I could produce steam from my ears, this was the moment.

I emphatically told him to stop—gasoline on the fire. He rolled his eyes, jerked his shoulders, and shouted again.

“Listen to me,” I said. “I know you can’t stop, but Kitty had a bath today and she feels very nervous. You may not scare her. If you frighten her, you must go to your room and stay until she is dry. Then she can go outside.”

I expected more Mreows and hysterical protests. Instead he replied, “She’s nervous? Scared? Because you gave her a bath?” The idea intrigued him.

“Yes. You may not frighten her. But you can help her to feel better,” I said.

“How?” he asked.

“You tell me, Liev,” I said

Thus, Liev created the Kitty Care Cycle–a diagram of how to help Kitty recover from her bath.

The next day, as I looked through Liev’s school papers, I found a comic book illustrated by his Special Education Teacher, Crystalyn. Hands down, this was the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.

Ms. G wrote:

“Liev told me the cutest story about Kitty Pearl and how he used to meow/growl at her but he realized that she was really upset about her bath. He decided to do something nice for her after her bath to calm her down…so cool! We made a book about it during lunch today.”

This is the comic book they made:

Kitty Care Two
Kitty Care Three
Kitty Care Four
Kitty Care Five
Kitty Care Six

In a follow-up email, Crystalyn wrote:

“Today’s lunch conversation made a light bulb in my head go off! It was the perfect window into Liev’s thinking:

1. Cat growls/meows

2. Liev growls/meows

3. Liev’s re-assesses the situation

4. “Kitty isn’t growling at me, he’s scared!”

5. Liev figures out how to make it less scary for kitty.

A metaphor for how he sees the world.

The insight and sensitivity of this young woman astound me. I never considered how universal  Liev’s systematic thinking is, nor did I see that his Kitty Care Cycle reflects his interaction with the world so accurately. In truth, our family of scientists and mathematicians have our own Kitty Care steps and strategies to piece our way through life.

Thank you, Ms. G. Thank you for the dozens of scribbled encouragement notes write to my son. Thank you for reading and working hard to take my son’s perspective. You listen to our family and create the most robust and lively solutions.  We appreciate you.

Bog vs. Life

Last Spring, Liev took Wednesdays off from kindergarten. His therapeutically shortened schedule gave him a much-needed rest from the intensity of school. It also gave us time to pursue activities we would not engage in on the weekend due to crowds!.

During an unseasonably warm day in March, we took a trip to Ponemah Bog. The wildlife sanctuary features carnivorous plants and beautiful birds.

We started our excursion with Liev ‘s usual obsessiveness over poison ivy. I fielded poison ivy questions all morning before realizing his real apprehension was over the expanse of elevated planks we had to walk across to reach the floating viewing platforms.

Fortunately, the local kids had provided us with the best anti-anxiety tool ever: graffiti.


The picnic tables near the trailhead featured messages from two individuals who wrote out the number of steps to each viewing platform. This super-charged Liev for the walk. Along the trail, faded purple sharpie counted the steps by 50s. For Liev, this was better than candy. He hurtled down the planks with alarming speed and agility.


I breathed in thick air, which smelled of a floral scent best described as Herbal Essence Shampoo. I assumed the lurid green shampoo’s fragrance was entirely synthetic—my mother bought it for me to use as a bubble bath in the 70s. To be surrounded by this distinct fragrance in the bog was surreal.

Thrilled with the step countdown, Liev hopped and hollered, “Take the picture! Take the picture! Please!”   I snapped dozens of countdown markers photos. We eventually reached an intersection. The graffiti artists had left a message for us:


I laughed at their wry humor and contemplated their inscription as I followed T’s bobbing form to the first platform.  I took more photographs and pondered the bog around me.

Beyond the planked walkways plants squeezed together, forming a thick fecund carpet. The jostling of fluted, curling leaves was almost audible. I had the unsettling impression that if I sliced a swath into the roiling plant life, it would heal itself seamlessly before my eyes.


How improbable that this odd carnivorous forest thrived less than ten minutes from our home. I thought of the graffiti artists and imagined them as kindred spirits. Young enough to enjoy the countdown numbers as much as Liev, they were also old enough to appreciate the allure of the wetlands.




Which path to take? A part of me never wanted to step away from this un-manicured crush of strange and colorful plants.

I am grateful to past generations for valuing and preserving beautiful places. I am also grateful to the graffiti artists. By sharing their quirky map, they fed two hungry and eager brains with numbers and introspection.

Special Interests Across the Generations

Aunt Ruby

Sometimes, a single kindness travels for decades.

Summer, 1941. Germany invaded Russia and Pearl Harbor loomed a season away.  Citizen Kane played in theaters and the first batches of M & M’s and Cheerios cropped up in market places.

My father was eight years old.

Most of the year, Dad lived as an only child, but over the summers, his half-sister Ruby came to stay.  Older by ten years, Ruby usually resided in a comfortable Tennessee mansion with her maternal grandmother (pneumonia took Grandpa’s first wife).

Ruby vacationed for weeks at a time with Dad’s family. Their home was nestled in the countryside, surrounded by lush vine-wrapped forests, winding streams, and numerous bat-filled caves. It was a welcome change from the dusty streets and crowded parks of Knoxville.

The age difference made my father a special creature to Ruby. Rivalry never existed. She knew my Dad, a dictionary-reading, fact-spewing prodigy, was an oddity his tiny Tennessee community.  Ruby must have been a curiosity herself. She was articulate, highly intelligent and well-read in a time when little more was expected of a woman than sewing and child-rearing.

Dad and Ruby’s uniqueness forged a gentle camaraderie during their vacations together.

Once a week, Ruby and Dad strolled to the local five and dime for treats. Usually, this consisted of penny candies from a thick glass jar and fizzy fountain sodas. One Friday, Ruby splurged and bought Dad a copy of Weird Tales magazine.

Weird Tales, a pulp magazine, featured short curious stories about the supernatural and unknown. Dad read his prize with wide, excited eyes. Then he re-read it. After dinner, he shared it with his mother, who in turn shared it with his father. Ruby read it last the next day.

Family discussions revolved around the possibilities suggested by the weird fiction. Colorful worlds, with brave heroes and fascinating alien races, evoked wonder and speculation over the future. Spooky moody tales stirred up pleasant chills and shudders.

I imagine Ruby sitting on a faded chintz couch smiling, proud to have infused her summer family with such excitement.

Weird Tales captivated my father.  That summer day in 1941, dad became a lifelong collector of science fiction, fantasy, and strange stories.  Ruby’s fifteen- cent purchase ignited an enthusiasm that spanned two generations.

Dad transmuted his love for weird fiction and comic books to me via immersion. I grew up amidst a vast sea of pulp magazines and comic books.  Hermetically sealed lockers of taped and bagged treasures lined the periphery of our garage.

Volumes from the book pantry—a wall of storage lockers filled with perhaps a thousand anthologies and comics—served as my first library. I submerged myself in obscure and classic short stories for weeks at a time.

Looking back, I can visualize few toys from my childhood, but I can recall countless comic book covers and book sleeves.

Over the years, my father has gifted me with hundreds of my favorite titles from his colossal collection. I still re-read them, re-organize them and scrutinize their snug-fitting book bags with gusto.

Before Liev’s birth, Dad gave me his most precious gift–his Weird Tales collection. Forty-eight mostly mint magazines. I was overcome.  Dad’s original Weird Tales were mythic to me. Just to look at them was magical.

Dad said, “It’s a shame for them to sit there, sealed away. They need to be seen and enjoyed.”

Six years later, right before Father’s Day, his words revisited me.  I pulled the pulps from their dark, safe place and scanned my favorite covers.

These scans are for my Dad and any soul who likes the art, history, or stories from bygone decades.

Remember, what you give to the world will resonate. Like Ruby, you might not hear the peals, but history will hear the echoes of your effort and be grateful.

When You Bite at Night

Twenty years ago, I had a peculiar experience camping.

Unable to sleep, I ventured out of my tent to fetch a soothing glass of wine. I was not the only restless soul.  Moonlight illuminated Mom, sipping wine and stargazing. I joined her on the picnic bench near her tent.

We exchanged polite murmurs and tilted our heads to the sky. The Milky Way Dangled just beyond our reach, a three-dimensional filigree of dust and light.

A strange sound interrupted our peace. It was a clomping, lopping clatter, like a tiny horse trotting across a Formica countertop. Puzzled, I strained to listen. The weird clopping continued. My brain whizzed to make sense of the unusual racket.

I mentally ticked off possibilities.  Were wild animals engaged in a sinister game of rock-hockey?  Was someone taking infrared photographs of us? Perhaps a serial killer chipped future notches into a nearby boulder?  The odd clacking sound became louder and more insistent.

The horror of the unknown swept over me. My body dumped a massive quantity of tingly adrenaline straight to my toes.  Before I succumbed to a full-fledged panic attack, I whispered to Mom, “Do you hear that?”

“Yes. Yes, that’s Dad. He’s grinding his teeth.”

I would have been less surprised if she had told me the noise came from aliens or Bigfoot.  I crept up to the tent. Clack, clack, clack, grate. Chomp.  Chomp.

Poor Dad. I never imagined tooth grinding could make such a racket. His jaw gnashing seemed so powerful; certainly, he would pulverize his face into splinters before morning.

Dad made it through the night, but years later he sacrificed four cracked and worn molars to bruxism.

Painful Teeth

Ten percent of the population experiences significant bruxism (teeth grinding).  Daily, you chew food using 20-40 pounds of pressure. Nighttime bruxing can generate 250 pounds of pressure.  Dentists and oral surgeons can’t decide if stress or uneven teeth cause bruxism.

My personal experience is that people on the autism spectrum grind their teeth more often. The proprioceptive input relieves residual nighttime anxiety.

Fast forward to winter 2012. The unnerving clomping and grating sound revisited me–in my son’s bedroom. I considered making Liev’s first dental appointment as I listened to his symphonic teeth-gnashing.

I put it off, naturally. Regular doctor appointments induce hysteria in both Liev and myself. Brushing Liev’s teeth is like imposing dental hygiene on a badger.  This daily struggle I leave to Papa or ignore outright. A dental exam seemed unmanageable.

That changed last week when Liev broke a molar.

Panicked, I finagled a same-day dental appointment. The dentist informed me that a combination of tooth grinding and decay caused his molar to deteriorate and break. He also recommended swift removal. An extraction was scheduled for 7 am the next morning.

The kindly dentist prepared me for the possibility of general anesthesia for my rambunctious son.

To be continued…