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A Tipsy Outrigger in Tahiti

March 8, 2011
Arman Manookian Men in an Outrigger Canoe Headed for Shore oil on canvas c 1929

Men in an Outrigger Canoe Headed for Shore (Arman Manookian ca 1929)

Around 1970, when I was three, my mother and I joined her parents in Tahiti. My grandfather loved Tahiti and had an intimate connection to the place. Naturally I don’t recall much of the trip besides sun, surf, and hot sand—and most of what I recall is likely memories of memories, things I have thought about periodically or been told over the years—but I do remember when my grandmother tried to kill me. Well, she always denied intending to, but that’s my version of this childhood trauma. Because the dear woman died a few years ago, the old witch will finally stop contradicting me.

My grandfather had a droll sense of humor. My mom said he used to make faces over his wife’s shoulder when she talked a bit too much at the dining room table, sticking a spoon to his face and such. He was good at making my mom laugh, and she loved to laugh. She wasn’t fond of insects and reptiles, however, and when she found a lizard in a bathroom right on the Tahitian beach, she screamed until he came running. My grandfather caught it for her, but when he lifted it up to scare her just a bit more the tail broke free and the lizard shot off to freedom. He used the tail to light his pipe, and she screamed again—somewhat good-naturedly. These were the things that she would recount in later years and which oddly enough reminded her of how much she loved him.

The briefcase pic
Me, ready for work

This picture was his idea, too, and long served as my mother’s “blackmail picture,” the one she threatened to circulate if I ever gave her too much lip. He gave me the briefcase and hat, and took the shot. (I’ll let you wonder whether I’ve censored the picture to protect my ego or yours.) I think I would have enjoyed my grandfather’s company—our politics would have been pretty much opposite but our similarly puckish humor right on the mark—and am disappointed he died not long after this trip.

But the most compelling memory from Tahiti is the very brief outrigger canoe trip with my grandparents. An outrigger is a capable craft—in the right hands (as in the fabulous closing credits of the old TV show Hawaii Five-O). As it turns out, you can lean pretty far to one side in these canoes but not much in the other. It is also just as stable upside-down as upside-right, and bloody hard to put right without anything to stand on. All three of us went right under, and these were the days before everyone and their dog wore life preservers. My iconic memory: Being surrounded by bright clear water, eyes wide open, about arm’s length from the sandy bottom specked with colored shells—then it all fell away in a blur. My grandfather had reached down into the water and plucked me out by the ankle, like a caught fish. He let me dangle a moment then placed me atop the hull of the inverted canoe. I cried furiously. As they paddled us shore, my grandmother always said she told me, “Oh hush, you have the only dry seat!”

It was a running joke between us, that she’d tried to kill me. Every family needs a few of those. She was an uncannily sarcastic, sharp-witted octagenarian. But quite in contradiction of our verbal sparring, we were each other’s favorites (and perhaps still are; she died recently at age 90). When it came to family, she was my outrigger, a source of family news and constancy. And the memories of Tahiti, albeit burnished by time and longing, stand out in my mind as a time when everyone was present and happy.

I intend to go back to Tahiti one of these days with a hat and a briefcase and little else.

A Teddy Bear with No Name

February 23, 2011

“And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
—Dorothy Parker

Bel air shop easy  from just you and me kid

The Bel Air Shop Easy in Just You And Me, Kid

When I was ten, we lived across the street from the now departed Bel Air Shop Easy. It was an independent supermarket, nothing special but close by and pleasantly quirky. I spent a lot of time there killing time and knew half the employees. It figured prominently in the comedy Just You And Me, Kid, starring Brooke Shields and George Burns. (Even aged fourteen and co-starring with an octogenarian, Ms. Shields still manages to lose her clothes briefly.) The movie is fairly saccharine, not quite poisonous, but the kind of thing I avoid. On the other hand I have to disagree with Ms. Parker regarding Winnie the Pooh & Co. Perhaps it’s just my warped sense of humor, but what a wonderful den of anthropomorphized animals just aching for therapy.

At some point during the year, a Shop Easy manager decided that some of the uppermost shelves, the all but unreachable ones (from a ten-year-old’s point of view), would be a good place to sell stuffed animals. I was there one day with my mom and lingered in the aisle admiring one bear in particular until she called me away. I was too old for stuffed animals, but was still mildly fascinated with them. (Actually, I still am. When my older son was born, I brought a gigantic panda named Hugo to the hospital, large enough that the baby looks wary of it in the pictures.)

Boys are expected to grow up quickly, rejecting comfort objects like stuffed bears, yet tend to mature more slowly than girls. My mom was more or less enlightened about sexual equality for the time—it was the 70’s, but she was a child of the 50’s—yet was clear she didn’t want a sissy for a boy, either. Similarly, she thought (stereotyped effeminate) gays were cool but didn’t want me to be one. I was conscious of these mixed messages, and of being the “man of the family,” and tried to put on a brave face. The disability of her epilepsy and bipolar disorder, which at that point receded briefly, brought even more pressure on me to seem in control. Yet I was still just ten and had plenty of fears.

My mother was very bright and quite witty, yet a bit of an ingénue. I could usually read her pretty easily. However, she fooled me that time entirely. That night she gave me the bear as a surprise, with that broad brilliant smile she displayed when she knew she had really gotten me. It had been happening less and less as she got sicker and our connection weakened. We didn’t acknowledge that I was “too old” for stuffed bears, and I don’t think I ever quite named the bear—it was the giving of it that was the thing. Looking back, it also symbolized the high water mark where the tide of our parent-child relationship peaked at her end and began to reverse. After that I was really forced to pretend to be something other than a child. The tide never came back.

Yes, I wish I still had the bear.

Epilepsy: The Lights Are On But No One Is Home

February 3, 2011

Most of what I know about epilepsy dates from my experience with my mother’s illness thirty years ago. It’s a bit dated. However, my experience describes a kind of epilepsy that is still obscure, and it aptly illustrates the extreme disruption epilepsy can cause. It’s not what most people would expect given typical assumptions. The story is also a parable of the difference outsiders can make by stepping into a situation that frightens off even the well-intentioned.

Types of seizure (from vanumu.com)

Epilepsy affects about 1% of the population, which amounts to several million people in the United States alone. Its stereotype is the grand mal1 or tonic-clonic seizure. This type of generalized seizure—and there are others, as shown in the diagram—is like a wave of abnormal electrical activity that rolls through the entire brain. The seizure leads to unconsciousness, muscles stiffening in the body (which resembles being “seized”), and then whole-body convulsions for a minute or two. Mercifully, the person is usually unharmed and does not remember anything.2 However, the witnesses will remember very well: The sight is frightening, especially the first time.

My mother had a dozen or so of these tonic-clonic seizures, but her most difficult problems stemmed from something else. Her underlying issue turned out to be psychomotor epilepsy, now called temporal lobe epilepsy or complex partial seizures (more here). This kind of epilepsy involves seizures that typically originate from a lesion (that is, damage) in the temporal lobes of the brain (see illustration)3 and are confined to that region, hence are termed “partial.” Complex partial seizures do not involve convulsions but often impair consciousness. They involve both temporal lobes and tend to cause amnesia (the temporal lobes are associated with forming memories). A partial seizure can sometimes progress into a generalized tonic-clonic seizure.

The temporal lobe (click for animation)

A complex partial seizure disorder can be misdiagnosed because it may resemble a number of unrelated problems. Any amount of alcohol, for example, might make the person appear quite drunk. Alcohol lowers the seizure threshold, and my mother had to quit drinking altogether. Her seizures could be rather surreal, for example she would have seemingly normal conversations that after a while didn’t quite make sense, which I describe as “the lights were on but no one was home.” Less amusingly, she had a sort of high-functioning sleepwalking problem. While she was hospitalized she once turned up a mile away, late at night and in her bathrobe. Thank you to the police officer who brought her back without a fuss, and to an anonymous person who mailed her wallet with the cash still inside (less postage, fair enough).

The worst series of seizures came during my “summer of hell” in 1978, the year after my mother spent three months in a psychiatric hospital and prematurely checked herself out. Unmedicated, she lurched from one seizure episode to another, which is not surprising. Seizures can have a kindling effect, which means that each seizure lowers the threshold for the next. The seizures likely kindled her bipolar disorder as well, inducing large mood swings between depression and mania. As if that weren’t enough, bipolar can also kindle itself. These patterns thus get worse with age. Her symptoms emerged in her teenage years, but because of the stigma her loving parents looked the other way. Stigma also discouraged her from seeking treatment as an adult. By the time she no longer had a choice, the self-destructive pathways were deeply ingrained.4

I should have sought help that summer, but it was hard. I was just eleven years old. There was no one else in our daily lives (my father, briefly her husband, left before I was born). I am thankful for two adult friends, saints really, who intervened when they stumbled into the chaos. She went back to the psychiatric hospital with me in the bargain, to stay in a bungalow on the grounds. A year there brought the worst of the seizures and maybe half of the bipolar under pharmaceutical control.5 It was not a gentle path, but she persevered. As for myself, delivered from the awful situation of that summer (albeit in a rather odd new one), I swore that I would never be passive again.

Looking back, I’m surprised by my own tolerance of my mother’s troubles. It was a delicate relationship. I loved her, but she made my life hard. Yet I also understood her better than anyone else ever did. I understood that biology can drive one to do things without intention, and that blaming her failures on not “trying harder” was poisonous nonsense. Epilepsy and bipolar alike are illnesses, not character flaws, and require treatment. But however intellectually convinced I was of these facts, my survival turned on my simple faith in her devotion to me.

Crazy things happen to ordinary people. My mother, who was bright, beautiful, and funny, didn’t seem like a wreck until she fell apart. Most survivors take the damage, move on with various amounts of baggage, and keep the experience secret. It’s expected. I buried mine. But now that I have children of similar ages, I reimagine that past through them and shudder when I imagine them going through anything like it. (Thankfully their lives are pretty ordinary.) I can also now appreciate the difference that a handful of others made in my life. They didn’t have to do anything and actually didn’t do all that much, but thank goodness they did what they did. I wish there were many more like them. If you are the one in trouble, let me say that you deserve better, and that better does exist. I’ve been there, I’m back, and I’m no longer silent.


1 The term grand mal literally translates as “big bad,” which is certainly a ten-thumbs way of saying it. However, it is accurate.

2 It is a myth that someone can swallow their tongue during a seizure. That is physically impossible. Do not stick anything in the person’s mouth, even supposing you could get it open. Rolling them on their side can help them to breathe. Sometimes you can’t do much more than try to protect them from injuring themselves against things in their surroundings. Do not leave them alone. Afterwards the person may be disoriented and headachy for while. More info.

3 In my mother’s case, her doctors speculated she might have been injured during her birth via high forceps delivery—a now-discredited procedure that involved gripping the baby’s head while still high in the uterus. This was done because in that era the mother was often anesthetized to spare her pain, the so-called twilight sleep, which also made her unavailable to push. The forceps sometimes left temporary marks on the baby’s relatively soft skull. Forceps are now used more conservatively, and ultimately there is no way to be sure of the true cause of her epilepsy. As for her bipolar disorder, it appears almost certain that she was genetically predisposed for it.

4 The cycle was so incorrigible that by the time I was sixteen the doctors were talking seriously of brain surgery to limit the seizures by severing the connection, the corpus callosum, between the hemispheres of her brain. She died of a heart attack before the question had been resolved.

5 For the curious, the key drugs were Dilantin, Tegretol, and Ativan. In the last twenty years, improvements such as Lamictal have emerged, and there is promising research suggesting an important role for nutritional supplements such as Vitamin D. Some antiepileptic drugs, including Lamictal, are indicated and approved for bipolar disorder, raising the possibility that the two disorders have neurological pathways in common.