anxiety · favorites · Findlay · food · mental health

OCD, Mise en Place, and the 21st Chromosome

original_regali-di-natale-2014-tagliere-di-designBy my estimation, the knife sits in proper proportion to the cutting board: 90-degree angled, blade turned inwards, at least two inches separate from the mise-en-place.  The thumb-bowls are three in number.  Julienned radishes, slivered scallions, and minced garlic in symmetric row.

I rest an avocado near the cutting board and, by no accident, it completes some idea of balance.

I could take a picture of this.

I set a fork down.  The tines are pointed north.  Were they south, I just might feel uncomfortable.

Findlay sits in his high chair and grunts.  Nine months in and that’s his contribution to the world: seat-bouncing bearish grumbles.  I’m attempting to re-situate the mise-en-place, placing a pepper-grinder left of center, and exclaiming: ‘Be right with you, Finn.’  He’s meanwhile manhandling a crinkly toy, smunching cellophane with his hands and starting to fuss.

‘Be right with you, Finn.’   My voice is reaching a slightly higher register.

I move the pepper-mill two centimeters to the left.  Suddenly, I’m ok.  You could project the Golden Mean over my kitchen set-up, and there’d be perfect alignment.sandwich-artist-art-food-design-feel-desain  The radishes are amazingly julienned, uniformly 1/8 inch in cut, and I’m creating a perfect brunoise from a willing carrot.  With the leeks perpendicular as they are, this mise-en-place may well as be a Piet Mondrian done in food.

Finn cries.  He’s my square peg in a round hole.

I turn my attention towards Finn and the crying stops, neatly.  It’s uncanny: one minute it’s an exhaustive cry, then—upon inhalation—it’s a laugh.  His eyes widen blue when meeting mine.  It’s his gambit, his manner of saying, ‘ Daddy—your move.’  He actually pushes forward in his highchair as emphasis.

“Kid, I don’t understand you.” I smirk.

I’m met with a smile, stereotypic.  Children with Down syndrome share faces and that smile is a reminder Finn belongs to something else besides his particular heredity.

He’s actually been watching me for a spell and suddenly I feel exposed.  ‘Obsessive Compulsive Symmetry Disorder.’  I’m self-diagnosed, and that’s the worst kind of diagnosis to have.

Still, I move and remove things from the kitchen to exact a space. I’m always in the practice of ‘even-ing’ things, dismissing whatever is odd and creating scalene balance out of Mason jars, prep bowls, and cutting boards. I arrange compulsively in direct defiance of entropy, else relative to it. Bailing against the tide.

‘Daddy, what’re you doing?’  those blue eyes implore.

Would I could explain this.  Stokpic_4It’s a foolhardy gesture to lift a chin against the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  The Second Law dictates how energy always decomposes into degraded form, order forever slipping into chaos.

In an old story, Sisyphus is cursed to push his boulder up a mountain.  Every time Sisyphus pushes his rock up the mountain, it’s always sure to roll down the other side.  Sisyphus is condemned to push it back up, senselessly, and with callused hands.

Sisyphus, mind you, deserved his fate by Olympian standards.  You can look it up in Greek mythology.  He earned his eternal task of fruitless labor by upsetting the order of things. He was too arrogant, too callow. Too trickster. Still, in lending Sisyphus some sympathy, there is nothing so frustrating as seeing a task undone. To experience the undoing of a doing, to watch entropy punitively take over and reduce your labor to a sum-nothing–well–the Second Law of Thermodynamics sucks. And so does potential, if it only means a boulder is going to wind up, stupid, at the bottom of a hill, its coefficient having expired.

In modern day terms:  don’t we all just hate dusting? When dust collects shortly after we’ve passed a rag over the countertop?

“I know, Finn,” I take care to turn the cumin seed bottle label-frontwards.  I check the cork-stopper. I twist it twice.

“I know, Findlay.”  Finn smiles. Findlay is the easiest kid on the planet.  He allows me my behavior, my Custer-worthy calvary charge against entropy.

Finn’s blue eyes are constellated with white dots. They’re decorated with Brushfield Spots, anomalies reserved for children that share his particular syndrome.  Stromal hyperplasia is the scientific term.brushfield

All means Finn’s eyes have aggregate cells, extra cells which pearl something fantastic along the iris perimeter.  I liken them to the quartz crystals that decorate expensive men’s watches.

I don’t own a wristwatch.  But I have Finn’s eyes that lend me the time.

We all have something, something that pretends pause to stop the futility.

This friend of mine: we’re shooting darts in a garage and he laconically smokes a cigarette.  ‘For a year,’ he says, ‘I never used a declarative phrase.’ He ashes, expertly.

“I could’ve said, ‘This house is yellow.’ But I wouldn’t say that.”

He pauses to hit a trip twenty.

“Instead I’d say, ‘This house is yellow, I THINK.’”

“There was a…moral residue tainting my world.  Like, I couldn’t say ‘I’ with any resolution—that would’ve been somehow…less than benevolent.  This whole deferral system: it was a moral undertaking for me. ”

I appreciate this.  My friend always shoots for the bottom half of the dartboard,darts and he hits a triple ‘7’.  I always aim for the top of the board.  He wins periodically, as do I. We’re a pretty even match.

“I was obsessed with numeric systems: 3’s, 4’s, and 7’s.  Things that hold quasi-religious significance.”

Which means the trip seven’s are probably no accident.   Three equals trinity, and seven is the numerical symbol of fullness by biblical standards.  In Revelations, seven angels bring seven plagues, and upon the seventh trumpet, the mystery of God is supposed to be revealed, or ‘finished’ if you read the Greek translation.   In Greek ‘teleos’ is ‘finished’, else ‘fulfilled’ or ‘closed’.

We have our superstitions.  There’s that phrase, ‘a means to an end.’  As best I can figure, this OCD thing is an attempt at being teleological.  My friend—he has his lack of subjectivity and the number seven.  Me—I have my compulsion to arrange outside what’s rational.

When all’s aligned, which is not often,  there is closure and an extra-sensorial idea of fulfillment.  Which is really right fucking stupid—all superstitions are—but, hey, means to an end.  I just confess to finding comfort in a carefully orchestrated mise-en-place. Mise-en-place-1 Why that comforts me, I don’t know.  Would I could snip the nerve that finds peace in symmetry: it’s just faulty programming.  Symmetry always dissolves into the asymmetrical.  I’m left always wanting, the scale never exactly even.

The thing about Finn’s eyes:  the Brushfield Spots are gorgeous.  It’s a cruelty that they’re deemed a genetic mistake.  He watches me with an intensity that’s old-soul worthy.  Those precipitate spots are incredible.

A doctor took at look at my eyes once, and he told me they were beautiful, too.  He, of course, was looking at them through some optometric binoculars and was remarking my lenses, cholesterol spotted and galaxy-like in their disease.  I’m 35.  I’ve since had both lenses siphoned out of my eyeballs and new ones put in place.  Talk about genetic mistake.

There is a certain order in Finn’s eyes.  I see it, at least.  When we look at each other, it’s important.

You see: a recovery room nurse whose name I won’t remember, hinted at Finn’s diagnosis on the day he was born.  She couldn’t tell me legally what her suspicion was, and she just penned Finn’s name to a newborn cap and blathered on about cyanosis and improper oxygen registers.  She beckoned over other nurses and wordlessly point to his eyes, his head, his immature genitalia.  She batted away my questions.

I won’t say she was a liar, but she was.

The day was asymmetrical and I felt like I was falling upwards.  In a hallway, I paused with my phone open to the Facebook app.  What am I announcing exactly?  I was standing by a picture window and the society garlic was flowering.

I put my phone away.  I only had one bar anyways, an odd number.

The first thing I noticed was that Finn’s eyes were blue.  On a Mendelian Punnett Square, this was an improbability, but certainly a possibility. He came with an extra chromosome, too.  Improbable, but certainly not impossible.  We just had no idea.

I am uncomfortable when things aren’t aligned.  Trisomy-21.  That’s a three and a twenty-one.Downs-syndrome-trisomy-21-karyotype Mind you, this obliterates my sense of symmetry but I have to make sense of it.  ‘21’ is a three times seven.  Those threes and sevens again.

I’ve a hard time living in my skin, but when the math works its superstitious manner, I guess I’m ok.

Finn’s eyes have spots.  I know this well.  I have OCD.  I know this, too, though I haven’t heard it from a doctor’s mouth.

OCD runs in the family.  It has manifested itself in different forms, sometimes criminal, sometimes self-destructive.  Various family members have landed in institutions, corrective and otherwise.  I’m lucky, I guess.  My house is simply tidy.  And I can leave it voluntarily. No one’s affixed an asylum door to the house just yet.

I busy myself in the kitchen, frittering away, wheeling wider circles, too, as room by room I set the house into idiosyncratic order. I arrange and I adjust, waiting for that moment entropy is momentarily at bay and I can relax—languor, even—in that microsecond the universe is sufficiently aligned and my brain can stop emitting its maddening impulses, that moment when Sisyphus’ boulder is poised at the top of the mountain and the only energy present is latent and potential.

I rest my knife west of the cutting board and I look into Finn’s eyes.

Cayden · childhood · family · favorites · Findlay · parenting · the road

Everything is my fault.

sky-webWe’re driving over a bridge expanse, and the cable-stays are lit periodically with lantern effects.  This means I see Cayde in occasional relief as we pass beneath the lights.  Every three hundred feet or so, I catch glimpse of those brown eyes, the wrinkled brow he’s affected from me.  We’re sharing the back seat while Jenn drives.  Cayden finds something novel about riding so far to the posterior: he enjoys the wrap-around glass of the rear-window, the seat that is proportioned to his measurements but not mine.  I’m knotted a few times over, legs straining to find approximate repose among the middle seats.  We’re driving over a cantilevered bridge, so tension seems appropriate.

“Daddy: what’s 6×2?”

Here we go.  In Cayden’s world, ‘what’s 6×2?’ is a conversation starter, the equivalent of a ‘how are you,’ or, ‘how about this weather we’re having?’  We’re heading out of Napa, passing over the waters that fuel the ‘C&H’ sugar factory east of San Fran.  We’ve had Thomas Keller’s ‘Ad Hoc’ for dinner and I’ve yet to shed the cardigan, blazer, and tie I wore for the occasion.  It’s increasingly warm at the back of the van.  I can’t impress upon Cayden why it is I’m so dressed up, Ad Hoc being a bucket-list restaurant of mine.  I actually saw Chef Thomas Keller today, just a few doors up the street.  We had stopped the van momentarily so I could take a picture of The French Laundry, Keller’s famed four-star establishment.  He was on the back patio in chef’s whites addressing the service staff.  All of the linemen and souxs—they had their arms crossed behind their backs, blue stripes ringing their coat-sleeves like culinary admirals.  The van idled.  I didn’t dare shoot a photo of Keller—he garnered applause from his staff beneath a vine-strung pergola—and it felt more appropriate for me to just document the middling flax garnishing the ‘French Laundry’ nameplate instead.

Hey: Keller won the Bocuse d’Or.  I just make a mean risotto.  Back to the van.

“Daddy: what’s 6×2?”

“12.  You know that.”

“What’s 40×10?”


And so on.  The bridge is soon over and so are the base-ten questions.  Cayde escalates the math.  He is fond of the numbers ‘42’ and ‘68’.  Usually, he wields them in magnanimous fashion, the numbers representing his immense ‘like’ of something.  As in: “Daddy, I love you 42 68 eleventy BILLION.”  Which is always a nice affirmation to hear: a Euclidean thumbs-up of sorts.  But tonight, it’s ‘what’s 42×68?’ Like a challenge.

I remove my tie and cardigan.  My belly’s warm.  I’m not used to eating so much, so late.  But despite the food and the IPA flight, I answer correctly.  I’ve forgotten my calculus over the years, but not my arithmetic.

“2856.  Hey, Cayde: why all the questions?”

“What’s 6×1000?’

‘6000.  Seriously, Cayde—the questions.’  We’re passing through green hillocks, now nighttime grey.  Oak trees fast become street signs. I rest my head against the back seat.

“Daddy—you know all the answers.’

I pointedly look at Finn who’s snoring in his chair, sleep masking his almond eyes, his extra chromosomes asleep.  No, I don’t.

Silence for a while.

“I just wanna know all the answers before I’m in first grade,” Cayde announces. This seems a reasonable timeframe.  Why not.  That’s when I knew all the answers too, by virtue of there not being that many questions.

I drape my arm over Cayde’s car seat and we’re passing by the Lafayette Reservoir. Were it daytime, the oak trees would signal something of return passage into the East Bay.  The BART line reaches this far and the trains pulse in steady whoosh left of the road.

“Dad-DEE!” Cayde’s looking to find comfort against the constrains of his seat belt and he fingers me as the source of his unrest.  “You’re making me uncomfortable!” It’s not me, of course: it’s the car seat and its tangle of straps.

But this is how Cayde sees me these days: I am at once the source of all answers and the wellspring of frustration. Everything is my fault.  I can only reposition myself in what is already an uncomfortable position.

“Cayde: well—here.”  I loosen Cayde’s seatbelt and hold him in the back seat.  He’s comfortable enough to fall asleep in my arms, bucked forward, while my arms strain against the weight of his sleeping body.  Cayde snores, eventually, in tandem with his brother.  By the time we pull up to my aunt’s house—where we’re staying this vacation–the loropatelum blossoms are asleep and Cayden’s asleep.  It’s a short climb up the stoop, then everyone’s in bed.  My arms are decidedly sore.

I drift off last.  Just after Finn rattles his toy keys one last indiscriminate time and Cayde confirms he is still asleep by rasping a few quiet snores.

Everything is my fault.  I think these things as I try and sleep.  When I’m not the ‘go-to arithmetician,’ I’m simply ‘to blame’.

Listen: if I discipline Cayden, I am told I’m “breaking his heart”; if I dare raise my voice in those heated parenting moments, my portrait is drawn with fangs in chalk on the sidewalk. If I make one mistake in doling out consequence, use one poorly chosen word, I’m the guilty one.  I’m the one that needs reigning in.

“Cayden: this is your own damn fault!” (This may be about relinquishing the iPad or refusing a bath, just something that has escalated into a pitting of wills and the earning of consequence).

“No!  It’s YOUR fault Daddy!”  And as I play into this exchange, it does become my fault.  Like, 48 62 eleventy billion my fault. Because my voice is raised and my chest is tight. I’ve let loose a gratuitous curse and I’ve forgotten the cardinal rule that he’s just testing my boundaries to make sure I’m still in charge and that he is safe.  Guilt becomes something free-floating and, as words are exchanged, that guilt is quickly lent substance. It becomes almost palpable.  I’m screwing it up again.

Listen: I’m too angry, I’m damaging him.

I prop Cayden up in the back seat of the mini-van as he sleeps and I’m suddenly apologetic as the lights illuminate his face in periodic fashion. I remain awake.  ‘Didn’t mean to bark at you, Cayde, when you fell into the garden bed outside Ad Hoc.  You certainly fucked up your Easter linens, though.” (For chrissake: he was being a BOY.  Simply, and without the thought of reigning it in.  Keller’s not gonna miss the loss of a salvia sproutling ).    There’s a smile, then a frown, as we pass beneath lamp after lamp: it’s a nickelodeon of changing expression.  When his eyes flutter, I hope he takes a picture of the moment before fast dissolving back into sleep.

It really is the car seat that hurts him.  I’m propping him up so he can sleep comfortably.  I hope he realizes that this my small sacrifice to him, and—as he passes into Nod—I hope this will somehow sustain him.  At least till morning.

I know what’s ‘6×2’.  And I saw Chef Keller today. Can’t all be bad.

Later, at the Best Western in Mariposa, I watch the traffic pass on the 41.  I’ve sat myself down curbside with a plastic cup of juniper ale.  The cars pass and their brake lights are something beautiful: streaks of red down the highway.  The sky is not what you’d might expect crowning the Yosemite Valley.  It’s muddy and flecked with very few stars.  Not exactly what I was hoping to show Cayden.  The Milky Way is still something he hasn’t seen save for the telegraph points present in our San Diego sky, the stars that barely suggest the galactic sweep hidden beyond our view.  I remember the first time I saw the Milky Way in its full splendor, the moment it really hit home that we were looking outwards through the cosmic arm of a giant spiral.  The stars set slowly in their great arc as satellites traversed the same curvature–just more quickly–and there was the sense that orbits were relative, and circular.

Cayde will not experience that this trip. Circularity instead comes in the form of a highway–the 41—whose curves prove unkind to Cayden’s stomach.  There are mad loops through the redwood forest; I get to experience, first-hand, what a PB&J looks like, homogenized, and strikingly pink in a barf bag.

“Daddy—my stomach hurts.”

“It’s cool, Cayde: don’t worry.”

For the second time, we’re alongside the road.  Cayde tries to cough up in a bed of pine needles.  I’m pissing unceremoniously against a redwood.  “No worries, Cayde.  Take a breath, dude.”  He does.  “Look, Cayde-snow.”  There’s a dirty patch alongside the road, stained brown.  He jumps in it.  I point to a sign pinned to a tree.  “Apparently, bears have been here, Cayde.  That’s what the sign says.”   Stupid me—Cayde jumps back into the van.  His stomach proves ok until we get back to the motel.

The tree line outside the motel is grey and any idea of expanse comes in the form of a full-service Vons at the end of a switchback highway, two blocks down from the Best Western.  We pick up a turkey breast, some crackers, and some libations.  Cayden gets a ‘Lunchable’.  Ask him: he will tell you this is the highlight of his vacation.  Didn’t matter that he experienced both the Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls, his joyful face wet with mist.  End all, he gets a Lunchable, and—after having survived the 41, and after surviving his dad’s lectures to “really quit climbing over every gravestone and rock and fence in Lower Yosemite, Jeezus Christ”—Cayde is delighted. He gets Skittles and some processed ham in a plastic tote.  He gets to swim, too, at the Best Western, 45 minutes from Yosemite.  He’s on Cloud Nine.

We’ve marched up to the pool.  The Mariposa Best-Western is terraced and the pool is hard to find.  There are at least five staircases leading up to the “indoor spa”.  Purple honeysuckle fashion the stairwells.  This really is a fun lodge.  Above our headboards are kitschy paintings of Half-Dome (resembling rounds of Camembert more than anything else) and the pool is an indoor oasis ripe with chlorine blossoms and murals of pine trees.

Once there, Cayde swims ecstatic; Jenn tows Finn in a slow circle.  Finn kicks occasionally and laughs; Jenn laughs too, and I’m situated at a poolside table scrolling through my phone.  It’s an indoor pool and the air is heavy with a bleachy smell.  I should be swimming, too, but it’s 7 pm and I’m content to watch my family suit up while I remain in my road-clothes.  Cayden has a face reserved just for swimming, and he’s wearing it now while he navigates the pool in floaties.

“Daddy!”  Cayden has nothing really to tell me—he just wants me to look at him, and I do, as he splashes about.  His smile is precious.

I wave to Cayde.  I probably look fairly stupid in long-sleeves what with the humidity fogging the windows.  Jenn’s in her bathing suit, and I like the view: Finn’s tugging about, hut-hutting that laugh of his.

This kid appears.  Left of my shoulder.

“Your phone is broken.” (My screen is fractured—let’s call the kid astute).

“Yes–yes, it is.”

“Really broken.   Not my fault, you know.”

The kid has hair combed to the left and he sports a pouted belly.  He’s pointing to my phone, and I register his eyes.  They’re blank, but I know there’s something going on upstairs.  I figure autism.

“Nope—not your fault.”  My feed is stalled on a meme featuring Kate Upton.  There’s ample breasts involved, perhaps not appropriate.  I slowly turn my phone upside-down.

“I didn’t break your phone, y’know.”

“I know.”  I make what I hope is a compassionate face.  “It fell out of my pocket—shattered.”  I shrug.

“It’s not my fault—it’s your fault.  I didn’t break your phone.”  I’m not sure if this is an accusation, and I really don’t know where this is coming from.  I hope he didn’t see that photo of Kate Upton’s tits.  He’s probably all of seven.


“It’s your fault.”  He’s not being mean.  He’s in fact smiling, but de facto I feel the guilt precipitating again.  Like the pool water beading the windows, the chlorine heat finding certain register, the poolside greenery dripping a little.

The kid has vacant eyes and he’s really close to me.


Andy’s dad collects Andy.

“What’re you doing?”  He smirks my direction.  “C’mon, Andy.”

I look towards Finn hoping that Andy’s dad follows my gaze. He doesn’t.

“G’night Andy,” I say.  I collect Finn in two towels. It’s a long walk from the pool to our room.

Finn gazes up at me.  Huge smiles as we negotiate the myriad stairs.  I get lost, then find my way again.  We pass by a ‘permanent’ building, the only building replete with wind chimes in all of the Best Western.  Chickens and doves compete for coop-space in a makeshift construct. Chimes clang; a dove does its neck-thing and coos. I wonder who lives here.

“C’mon, Finn.” There is beaded water decorating his forehead.  He pumps an arm in response.  He’s happy.  He’s always happy.

I wonder about Andy.  And I can’t help but think, at his prodding, that—really—it is all my fault.  Like the pool water finding form on the under-lobes of philodendron leaves, guilt just precipitates, finds home.  Doesn’t matter what I have or haven’t done; that guilt I always feel when disciplining Cayde becomes something real, and it finds deposit in recollections of my guiltiest moments.

I’m sorry I yelled at you, Cayde.  I’m sorry for yesterday.  I’m sorry for this ever-present red plastic cup, the lack of stars, and this highway which is long and too curvy and which makes you throw up.  Sorry, Cayde.  It’s all my fault.  Tomorrow we’ll do better. Sorry I punched a dent into your wall at age 2 and that you actually remember that.

Once I put Finn to bed, Cayde marches into the motel room.  Sans trunks, he is naked and beaming.  His penis is uncircumcised, small in the cold, and he’s laughing and flexing his arms.

‘Really, Cayde?’  I don’t protest too much.  Just roll my eyes.  Cayde giggles and bounces around.  He bounces off the beds in total abandon, naked butt testing the mattresses, little tidbits flapping around.

‘Cayde: get dressed.’  Bounce.

‘Please get dressed.’  Cayde takes two more bounces before saying: ‘OK, Daddy.’

It’s predictable.  As Cayde pulls his shorts up, there comes the question: ‘Daddy, what’s 6×2?’

I would usually say ’12.’ This time I say: ‘nothing, Cayden’.  Don’t worry about the math, Kid.

We go to bed.  We’re asleep beneath a bad mural, and—with everything my fault—causality arcs the way of satellites Cayde hasn’t yet seen.  Circular and relative.  If this is all really my fault, and the night sky is mud: well, ok.

I kiss Cayden a good night.  Let it be my fault.  The stars will be out tomorrow.