The Clouds Smell of Gasoline

In Wrong About the Guy, a character launches into one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite plays–Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. (I lifted this version off the internet, so it may not be punctuated correctly.)

Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You’ve got to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man behind a counter who says, “All right, you can have a telephone; but you’ll have to give up privacy, the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote; but at a price; you lose the right to retreat behind a powderpuff or a petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air; but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline!”

I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately.

Maybe it’s because I see so many people sitting at tables together, staring at their phones, not talking.

Just to be clear, I’m a fan of science and technology. I think we should always move forward. I don’t harbor any nostalgia for the old days, when plumbing sucked, people got polio, and it took you all day to go fifty miles. I just think we have to be aware of what losses might come with each gain and fight to hold onto the things that make our lives good.

The obvious example: I love my cell phone with a passion. I love being able to text my kids wherever they are and hear back immediately from them, unless they’re in class. (Oh, who am I kidding? They text me back even when they are in class.) I love being able to look up anything I want whenever I want and know what the weather will be anywhere and check my email when I’m in line at the supermarket. Smartphones are amazing. They’ve enriched out lives. They keep us informed and in touch.

But . . .

People don’t look around anymore when they have a free minute: they just stare down at their little screens. My kids used to devour books on trips and vacations: now they just watch videos or text friends. Free time for all of us has stopped being a chance to see something new or to think random and possibly creative thoughts. It’s  just another opportunity to check our email or post a photo. So much progress at such a huge cost.

But that’s not actually why I brought up that quote. This is why:

My oldest son just graduated from college.

From college.

From college.

Sorry. I don’t mean to repeat myself. It’s just . . . holy crap, you know? How did he get so old? How did I?

The night after my husband and I attended his graduation ceremony, I had a brief dream that was so vivid I couldn’t shake it the next morning. It was very simple: I was reaching up as Rob handed me our toddler son, and I felt that good, warm, solid, satisfying weight of a small child transfer over from him to me. He put his head on my shoulder and I held him close, feeling happy and whole.

I woke up and lay there, remembering how good it felt to hold all my kids when they were little, how it gratified some kind of skin and emotional hunger in me to have a little person I loved settle in against me. My kids are all taller than I am now. Carrying them is a long distant memory but in my dream it felt real, like I’d never stopped, like I would never have to stop.

the little guy he once was

the little guy he once was

My son has graduated from college and it’s been a long, crazy, inspiring, frustrating, challenging, unpredictable journey for him and for us. I’m so proud of him.

But, oh, how I loved the feel of that toddler in my arms. I miss it with an almost physical pain.

For every gain, a loss. Progress is never a bargain.

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A Sentimental Education

Because I’ve been sad, I’ve spent a lot of time lately trying to figure out which way happiness lies.

I’ve always been a little obsessed with that subject, which hardly makes me unique. I’ve read a lot of books and articles that say people are really bad at figuring out what makes them happy. We think buying material goods will bring us some kind of long-lasting joy and assume that what sounds good to us today will sound equally good down the road. Neither is true.

What is happiness anyway? Years ago, I said to a friend, “I just want my kids to be happy.” And she wisely pointed out that I wouldn’t actually want my kids to spend their adult lives lying on a beach smoking weed all day long, no matter how blissed-out they might be. So it’s more complicated than “happiness”: I want them to have longterm goals and achieve them; I want them to have families and take good care of them.

Of course, I’m proof that even those things aren’t the complete answer: I have a loving spouse and kids and the luxury of getting to do what I enjoy, and yet I’ve still found myself this fall in the throes of an anxious depression.. Some of it is chemical. Some of it is that there are things going on in the world that are scary. And some of it, I think, is that I had lost the ability to appreciate the things that make life sweet. And that’s what I’m working hardest on getting back.

(A side note: It was challenging for me to write the rest of this. I grew up in the least sentimental family in the U.S. My parents wouldn’t have dreamed of crying at our graduations or weddings–I didn’t even know that people could cry from happiness until the year I watched It’s A Wonderful Life and had to figure out why my cheeks were wet at the end. Anyway, the point is, I feel embarrassed when I say sentimental things, even though I’m well aware I’m not my parents, because when my oldest son graduated from high school, I sobbed so hard I sounded like I was vomiting.)


What I’m clinging to these days as I drag myself up out of the hole (stop laughing, Johnny) is each and every instance of kindness, affection, love and gratitude between me and others. Yes, I feel like an exposed nerve these days, and that means the smallest touch can hurt, but it also means I’m exponentially more sensitive to the good stuff, too. As I stop focusing on tomorrow–because lately I’ve just been trying to get through one day at a time–I find myself much more aware of, and grateful for, every email from a friend, every encouraging comment on FB, every shared pastry at Starbucks, every stranger who smiles at me instead of shoving by, every good-natured exchange, every moment of solidarity, and every example of generosity, whether it’s directed at me or someone else.

There’s so much in the news that’s sad and scary but so much in my own life that’s decent and affirming. For a while, it felt like I couldn’t see that. I knew it intellectually: I just couldn’t feel it. But this is the strange gift of my own struggles: I’ve become very aware of the choices we all make at every moment of the day–how we can choose to be kind and generous or malicious and selfish–and I’m so grateful that the people I care about make the choice to be kind. I’m pretty sure that kindness, love, and generosity are all we’ve got to fall back on when everything else feels wrong or meaningless, and that every positive interaction makes life that much more livable for all of us. And the more I stop to notice the goodness all around me, the less hopeless I feel.

Happy Thanksgiving y’all.


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Less Lonely Now

First of all, a warm and heartfelt thank you to everyone who reached out to me in some way–comments, emails, messages, tweets, phone calls, quick visits etc–after I posted my last blog. Whether you were just checking in to see how I was doing or sharing a story of your own struggles, you made me feel less alone and very loved.

Secondly, an update: I’m doing better, due to a combination of exercise, therapy, and, yes, the miracle of modern science in the form of an SSRI that seems to be successfully slowing down the gut and brain churning. (Unfortunately at a cost of insomniac nights and dry mouth–anyone else deal with those and have advice?) I’m not exactly dancing in the streets and my heart speeds up unexpectedly at the slightest bit of tension and I’m fiddling with dosages, and I’m not getting any writing done, but still . . . being better is better than not being better, I always say. (I’ve actually never said that before, but it’s hard to argue with, isn’t it? I love a good tautology.)

One thing that struck me after the last post is how many people told me I was “brave” to write publicly about my anxiety and depression. I honestly don’t think I deserve praise for that (although I’m grateful for the generous thoughts that prompted the praise). I’ve never had a problem being honest about things that I don’t feel ashamed of or guilty about, and I’m not ashamed that I’ve been dealing with depression and anxiety. I believe there’s an underlying physical and chemical reason for it–albeit a complicated one–and so I don’t think I should feel any more ashamed of my emotional distress than my son should for having Celiac Disease.

But I know other people don’t feel that way, that it’s hard for them to talk about feeling weak and helpless. Sometimes there are practical reasons not to want to tell the world what’s going on–you have a job at a place where they might question your ability to get your work done if you admit to emotional distress. Or you come from the kind of family that isn’t comfortable with showing the world anything less than a perfect exterior. Or maybe you just want people to see you as focused and successful, and admitting to depression or anxiety will work against that. Or you’re genuinely the strong, silent type: you can take care of yourself and your family, and you don’t need other people’s sympathy, pity, or help.

I totally get all of that and know that it’s a luxury to be able to speak freely. I’m a mouth flapper. It helps me to talk or write about stuff. I mean, sometimes I’m too deep in the hole to communicate, but that’s rare. Most of the time, I’m in over-share mode. It helps me to talk things out. My friends give me good advice, my family gives me love (they don’t mind my talking–they worry about my silences), and my new acquaintances can decide if they want to share right back or quietly edge away from me. Anyone who thinks less of me for being honest about the crap life dishes out isn’t going to be someone I’ll want to be close to anyway.

So, again, thank you for all the support and kindness and stories and affection. Writing that post was the best step I took toward feeling better. Which means it wasn’t brave–just smart.

Finally, there’s a video going around that most of you have probably already seen, showing a dog obedience lesson. The owners call to their dogs from the opposite end of a floor mat that’s lined with dog treats, toys, chews, etc. The first few dogs trot straight to their owners, ignoring the bounty, but there’s one golden retriever who just bounds delightedly all over the mat, checking out every single item, sniffing, eating, chewing, destroying and just having the best time ever.


This is my real life dog Harvey. He’s getting a little old but he’ll still detour for food any time, any place.

That dog is my hero and my inspiration. Someday I want to feel that kind of exuberance and delight and dedicate myself to enjoying things simply because I  can. That golden retriever reminds me what I’m working toward as I try to make myself healthy again. Here’s to going off the beaten path to crunch some liver treats!





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The Loneliest Time

I haven’t written many blogs posts lately. Haven’t written much fiction lately either. The most I seem to be able to manage is a Facebook post or two. Even emails feel overwhelming.

It’s hard to be sick and I’m sick. Only not in the ways I’m used to being sick–sneezing or coughing or whatever. I feel sick down to my core, sick in my brain, sick in my heart.

“An anxious depression,” the therapist called it–“or a depressed anxiety, if you prefer.” I think the first sounds better. I still like phrases to sound good even if I’m not writing many of them these days.

My heart races, my stomach knots, my mind leaps around, terrified, and I think, “I have to flee.” And then I remember there’s nowhere to run to and, anyway, I don’t really want to leave the family I love and the wonderful life I have (but can’t appreciate right now). And the conflict of that–the wanting to be gone and the knowledge that I should stay–hurts and bring sadness.

This is the loneliest I’ve ever been. I feel so alone in my head. Sometimes I watch myself talk and it’s like I’m pretending to be me, to say the things I would “normally” say to my kids and husband and friends, and it’s like something out of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. Am I fooling them? Do they think it’s the real me? What if they see through me?

I don’t want to go on too long about this, not because I’m worried about revealing too much–I’m not ashamed of feeling like this, just wish I didn’t–but because I’m worried about being too boring. It’s a cliche, isn’t it? Middle-aged woman, grappling with menopause, falls down a deep hole and can’t find anything to grab onto to keep from going deeper. It’s not news.

So why write about it at all? Partially because I want to explain why I’m not being creative these days and partially because it really does make me feel better when I open up to someone and that person says, “I know, I’ve been there.” And means it. That helps the loneliness. It also helps me believe that this will pass. So there’s a hopefulness to sharing: maybe some of you have been in the hole or are in the hole and maybe you’ll help me or I’ll help you feel less alone in there.

And, just so you know, I’m being responsible: I’m working in every possible way on getting better, both on my own and with professionals. This week was better than last week. Two weeks ago, I couldn’t even have written this post. So that’s something. And there are moments when I feel like my old self, when something makes me laugh for real or distracts me from the thoughts that race around my head and body, telling me not to relax my vigilance for one second, because bad things are waiting to happen, will happen, soon and forever. There’s such relief when I can escape from those thoughts even for a moment or two–it gives me a glimpse of a future when I won’t feel this way all or even most of the time. I know it will come and I’m doing everything I can to make it come sooner rather than later.

In the meanwhile, see that little hand waving around at ground level? That’s me in my hole. Reaching up to say hi.


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“See? Moms can have fun too!”

My daughter’s birthday is coming up, and one good friend already gave her an early present: a set of Flash temporary tattoos. Annie and her friends were decorating themselves and called me over, and that’s how I ended up with a shining gold and black circlet on my upper arm. This morning, I was waiting in line at Starbucks when a woman spotted my tattoo and said to her tween daughter, “See? Mothers can have fun too.”

Blue hair and Flash tattoo:. Hell, yeah, I'm having FUN.

Blue hair and Flash tattoo:. Hell, yeah, I’m having FUN.

And here I’d thought that went without saying.

But maybe I’m unusual in expecting my kids to KNOW that I want and intend to have fun on a regular basis. Maybe a lot of kids are like poor little EmilyRachelNicole or whatever her name is, who somehow managed to reach the age of 12 still thinking that mothers aren’t interested in anything but hard work and self-denial.

Yes, SamanthaLaurenSophia: moms can have fun. They even like to. Sometimes they dance to music when they’re alone and watch junky movies and blow off the work they should be doing, even though they know they’ll pay for it.

Sometimes moms eat potato chips out of the bag and ignore the carrots in the fridge.

Moms like sex. Well, maybe not all of them and probably not if they’re brand-new moms. But in general and roughly in the same percentage as people everywhere, and occasionally in ways that would shock your delicate pubescent ears.

Some moms like to have sex with other moms.

Moms don’t always behave well. They might cut someone off in traffic when it isn’t the safe, rational thing to do or leave out food that should have been put away or drink more wine than they should.

Sometimes moms pretend they can’t hear you calling from the next room, because they don’t feel like answering right away.

Sometimes they give people the finger behind their backs and spread gossip they shouldn’t.

A lot of moms like to sing loudly when they hear a good song and get ridiculous, pointless crushes on movie stars and handsome teachers.

Moms say stupid things that they wish they could take back and they have nightmares that terrify them, and sometimes the only thing that gets them through the day is the thought of the junk food they’re going to stuff into themselves that night.

Moms can be petty and resentful and magnificent and patronizing and generous and self-sacrificing and self-centered and mistaken and small-minded and brilliant and tough and resilient and angry and wounded and damaged. Most moms really love their kids and would do pretty much anything for them. A few moms don’t and that’s tragic.

Some moms need to take care of themselves before they can take care of other people.

All of them need to have fun now and then.

You see, little JessicaCaitlinSarah, Moms are human.

Crazy, isn’t it?


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Come See Me!

I’m speaking at the Torrance Public Library this Saturday (September 13) at 2 pm about OVERCOMING AUTISM. Please come and ask questions! I’m going to make most of it a Q and A because it’s easier for me to respond to questions than it is to just stand there listening to the sound of my own voice. Plus I find people’s questions interesting. And occasionally heartbreaking. And often inspiring. There will be books on sale, which I will sign, and of course you’re welcome to show up with my novels too–once I’m signing, I’ll sign anything.

From the library website:

In this extraordinary book, authors Koegel and LaZebnik provide concrete ways of improving the symptoms of autism and the emotional struggles that surround it, while reminding readers never to lose sight of the importance of enjoying your child.  Katy Geissert Civic Center Library.


Please do come!

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My Thoughts about Autism and Cures

A lot of people are talking about the New York Times article that explores whether or not people with autism can be cured, and if so, why some seem to and others don’t. Can it be ascribed to parental and therapeutic influence? Or are some kids just destined from the start to be “autism-free” one day, and others aren’t? And even if you can cure people of autism, should you? Does anyone have the right to decide what constitutes a happier or more productive life for anyone else?

I’ve been thinking about all this and trying to put my thoughts into some kind of coherent form. Not sure I’m there yet, but here goes:

I believe we have to accept and love the children we are given. I also believe we should teach them the things we think will help them along their way. I don’t think that these two beliefs are mutually exclusive. For example: I have a daughter who isn’t academically inclined. We get it. We moved her to a less academic school and don’t ask her to take challenging courses. But when she has a test coming up, I encourage her to go to her room and study for it. Sometimes I even insist on it. Does that mean I’m trying to negate who she is as a person? That I want her to be something different from who she is? Nah. I adore her. I’d just like her to make a connection between working a little harder and doing a little better, so that for the rest of her life, when things are hard, she thinks, “I’ll just work harder” instead of “I can’t do it.”

Teaching your children is part of parenting. And identifying the things that are hardest for them and trying to find ways for them to be able to do those things–that’s also part of parenting. And recognizing that there are limits to what you can or should teach your children . . . also part of parenting.

Do I believe that autism can be cured? No, actually, although I’m not a doctor or a PhD, so there’s no reason to listen to me. I’ve simply come to believe that whatever the neurological damage is, it’s there to stay. Do I think many children on the spectrum can learn skills that will help them navigate the world around them? Yes–but that appears to be easier for some kids than for others, so no parent should feel bad if his child can’t learn the skills another child can.  Do I think our society should be more accepting of those who are different, in subtle or overt ways, and stop trying to impose a homogenous standard of behavior on everyone and judging everyone who doesn’t conform to it?


My son is 22 now. He was diagnosed with autism at 2 1/2 and had behavioral and speech therapy for years. He is finishing up at a four-year college where he has majored in graphic design. He’s a good person and handsome as can be and very talented. But he struggles on a daily basis, in ways that he himself has started to explore in a blog he started. I’m glad we worked so hard on his language in those early years because he has the words to tell us how hard it is for him, how hard it’s always been. And by telling us, he’s teaching us. I just hope people are ready to learn.



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