My Special Education

When my sister was born, she was clearly unusual.  Her appearance, her distinctive facial and physical features were a curious, unexplainable phenomenon.  I remember thinking, “Where did this baby come from?  Whose baby is this?”  

My sister, as an infant, had dark, almost black, upturned eyes, a flat nose, a small mouth and large tongue.  Her ears were curved inward.  She had a single crease across both palms of her tiny hands, short stubby fingers, tiny feet with a larger than normal space between the big toes and the rest of them.  

She was extraordinarily double-jointed – almost as if she had no bones at all.

I didn’t know that the features that gave my sister her unique appearance were the physical elements that made people with Down syndrome recognizable.

Lying in her crib, I often peered in at her; she, staring into space, her dark eyes, like the black buttons that closed my winter coat, fixed on the musical mobile dangling above her head.  I don’t remember her ever crying or laughing or making any sound, really.  She was always silent, lying on her back, occasionally moving her feet and hands. 

For the first three years of her life, my sister couldn’t roll over, sit-up or stand; and she couldn’t talk.  She shifted her position only minimally, often with help.  Around three years, she started to roll over, sit up, maneuver herself onto all fours and sit in a chair without slumping into a bunch.  She experienced some level of independence at around four years, scooting across the floor, propelling herself by thrusting her legs and feet forward and humping herself ever onward.  

She grew and developed in her own way, along her own timeline.

“I hate it,” she told me one day as we prepared to go to her job at McDonald’s. She cleared and wiped down tables at McDonald’s and was overjoyed to do that. She was around twenty-two. “I hate it.”   She looked down at her lap, seemingly talking to herself.

I reached to pull her seatbelt over her ever-expanding waistline. “Why?” I asked. “You like working there.”

“They make fron’ a me.”


“The kids; the kids; make fron’ a me.” Her eyes magnified behind her thick glasses, smudged and always in need of a good cleaning, searched for answers in my face that, even if I could explain, would never really ring true for her. 

Even now, my sister survives on the belief that people are essentially good; and each time she experiences the recklessness of others, her expression is consistently a mix of deep sadness, regret and the hope that she will be forgiven for being so unusual – so much unlike others that the most she could ever expect is to be forgiven.  

All people with Down syndrome have some degree of mental retardation or developmental delay.  They are, however, far from being incapable of learning, especially to the degree that emotional expression, social expectation and the way in which others treat them as normal.  They are very sensitive to being a part of the social group. I know I am well outside the boundaries of making a gross generalization, but it is my best judgment that people with Down syndrome are quite emotionally adept, genius at expressing affection toward others. Their intellectual capacity cannot be reliably predicted in infancy and early childhood, but their ability to express love and caring toward others is evident from a very early age.  (I am well within my comfort zone making this generalization, and I invite my reader to take exception with it.)

My sister entered school at around the same age as other children, only she spent her days in a room where the window in the door was covered with construction paper.   I never saw her at recess, and we never sat together at lunch.  Knowing her as I did, I could only imagine that she was content among her friends and teachers, never questioning the good intentions of those who were responsible for her care and education. 

My sister went from elementary, to junior and on to senior high school seated behind a window covered in construction paper.

When she was twenty, she graduated from high school; and for all her efforts, she was mailed a diploma and a copy of her yearbook.  Inside were an empty oval where her picture should have been and a barren, blank square where her biography might have been printed, if anyone had taken the time to gather the information from her.

Of course, when she got the book in the mail, she leafed through it.  She had no idea that her picture should be there, alongside the other members of her graduating class.  She couldn’t even have imagined such an honor. She was content to look over the familiar faces she remembered from school – the lunch lady, pictures of the abandoned hallways, the quad.

My mother, much less content, contacted the school and demanded that my sister’s picture be duplicated and sent by mail to everyone who had purchased a yearbook.  Not only should there be a picture, but my mother strongly suggested that my sister’s favorite color, her favorite song, her most commonly spoken phrase and her most cherished memory accompany the photo in exactly the same proportions as the oval and blank spaces that were provided to her on page 31 of her yearbook.

My sister was quite proud when she pointed out her own picture in the yearbook, after discovering it one day, glued perfectly within the spaces inside her yearbook – as if it had always been there, proof that she was like everyone else.  She looked up at me, through those damnable glasses, kissed her hand and brought it down on top of her own picture. “S’me,” she said, “S’me.” She laughed, extending her long tongue as she drew in more air to feed her belly laugh.

My sister has never been like anyone else, really. She is my cherished and pure spirit, someone who is never truly unhappy for long or without a friend.  Her life has been a hearty handshake, a warm and sincere hug and a promise for unconditional positive regard toward everyone she meets, no matter who they are or how they may have treated her in the past. I can never imagine comparing myself to my sister’s strength of character and her dedication to the idea that everyone possesses inherent goodness – if we just take the time to see it.

My sister’s medical and cognitive impairments have increased over the years; they unravel the mystery of her human condition more and more each day; but from the day she came home from the hospital, wrapped in a yellow, satin edged blanket, she was the most wonderful gift I could ever have imagined receiving. 

My sister provides me with special education.

From the day she was assimilated into our family and our neighborhood, complete with her own unique personality, her own strengths and her own weaknesses, she has taken every opportunity to become the strong-willed, sensitive and tremendously good-humored woman she is today.


Mano Po Must Live

If you’re patient and willing to wade through any number of unremarkable, familiar duplications, you will eventually find someone or something at the mall that will hold your attention. This past weekend I was not disappointed. I witnessed an exquisite event – something I never expected to see nor shall I ever forget.

Much like bird watching in an aviary, I watch for rare and fascinating people at the mall.  I initially focused on an Asian boy and girl who had each purchased a large Starbuck’s coffee.  The boy was dressed in all the latest gear, head shaved, hat to the back, jewelry, chains – the works.  The girl wore equally trendy clothing, pink Keds, a tribal arm tattoo and various facial piercings. I was taken by the contrast between the cool, rough-neck, hip-hop look the boy was desperately trying to preserve as he delicately sprinkled cinnamon onto his grande coffee in a venti cup with two pumps hazelnut, two pumps vanilla, two pumps caramel, two Equals and four Sweet’N Low, filled to the top with cream – extra cream on the side, double cupped with no sleeve, a stir stick and stopper in the top. I looked away with a grin and sipped my plain, black coffee.  Over the rim of my cup I encountered the eyes of an Asian man intent on me.  He was dressed in Western clothing, but was also wearing a barong, his black and gray hair neatly combed to one side.  We each casually looked away, recovering smoothly from our accidental encounter.

The Asian man was with a young, teenage girl who I imagined was his daughter.  The two sat for a moment, not talking.  The man seemed to be settling in, taking in his surroundings before committing to sitting in that particular spot.  The girl was a bit jumpy, anticipatory, looking from side to side and checking her phone for texts. Before long the man carefully took money from his billfold and handed it to the girl.  She bolted toward Starbucks, taking her place at the back of the line. She gave two small, excited jumps, outwardly energized by some thought she was having.  Her movements were quick, rapid, unlike her father who seemed to move in slow motion, as if performing tai chi, adjusting his chair and settling in contentedly. He folded his arms over his chest and crossed one leg over the other.

It wasn’t long before the girl was joined by the boy and girl I had been observing earlier.  The jumpy girl apparently knew the Keds girl because, when they saw one another, they initiated an animated, dance-like greeting, gripping each other around the forearms and jumping up and down. The boy stood, sipping his coffee, still focused on maintaining his emotional distance. The girl pointed in the direction of her father, and the teens waved in his direction.  The man nodded back.

Not long after, the girl, followed by her friends, carried a tray of refreshments to her table. The hip-hop boy put down his coffee and approached the man.  He greeted him, referring to him as Uncle, and then took the man’s fingers in his hand and raised them to his forehead.  The Keds girl did the same.  I imagined that I must be in the presence of royalty, or at least someone who was very wealthy or possibly famous – someone who deserved this level of respect.  I looked at his ring finger, expecting to see a wide, ostentatious red ruby.  The man wore no jewelry. The teens stood for a few minutes and chatted, but soon left, bowing their heads once more in the man’s direction.


One of the most wonderful things I find about today’s technology is that I can locate information about nearly anything in just a few second.  I typed some keywords into Google on my cell phone and learned that what I had witnessed was a Filipino greeting called mano po – mano meaning hand; po is placed at the end of a sentence when addressing elders.  It appears that Filipino children and young people greet or say goodbye to their elders by taking the right hand of the elder with their right hand and touching the back the elder’s hand lightly on their forehead. Mono po is a Filipino custom for showing respect to elders and receiving their blessing.  This gesture of deference is not, as I had supposed, reserved for the wealthy, the famous or the politically connected.  Mano po is performed as a sign of respect with all elders by Filipino youth, regardless of the status or social class of the elder.

Mano po represented a striking contrast to the people with whom I am more familiar in my own culture – people who shout orders and demands, swear, discuss intimate and private matters of national television, cough into the open air, shoot one another over a parking space, push, pull, grab and generally behave selfishly and inconsiderately.  How magnificent, I thought, to live one’s life long enough to be honored for enduring this short, yet chaotic journey?  To be prized for one’s experience and knowledge – to have achieved an even higher degree of personal value and social significance as a consequence of normal aging.

In my lifetime, older people have never been greeted with any particular degree of enthusiasm. It seems, instead, after a certain age, older people become more or less invisible, incidental, imaginary and tedious – much like the appreciation we show when cleaning the underside of a toilet bowl. We know it’s there and we know it needs attention, so we take care of it now and then, just to keep up appearances. The aging person, placed under these harmful psychological pressures, can, instead of the gift of mano po, expect aging to be a frightening period, more likely to instill dread – even terror, than a sense of achievement let alone esteem.

Seconds after the two Filipino teens left, the man and the girl stood to leave.  The girl was still quite excitable.  I watched as the older man rose confidently, pushed his chair neatly under the table and collected the trash from the tabletop. The man handed the girl her own empty cup and she accepted it and dropped it into the bin. Once on their way, the older man placed his hand lightly on the young woman’s shoulder and the bounce in her walk seemed to slow a bit.  He slightly increased his own step and the two found a balanced cadence, a tempo with which they could both walk comfortably together.  They disappeared into the crowd.

Do you know anyone who would benefit from a gesture of mano po?

Would you willingly offer mano po to the elders in your own life?

Are you willing to replace a handshake with a gesture of mano po?

The gesture of mano po makes certain that there will always be cooperation between elder and youth, Filipino and Filipina.  It is a gesture that represents equality, possibility and hope.  In its magnificent simplicity, Mano po makes experience and strength a dynamic of dreams; and, because of that, Mano po must never die.

Each new generation wants to believe it holds a unique perspective on the future – so we ignore our elders and the advantage of their insight.  As a result, we have either lost our ability to build rapport with older people or we simply have never developed the skill to talk across generations. Regardless of its cause, ageism keeps us divided, ignorant, ineffective and hopeless.

We have so much more potential than that.

I Sing Quite Out Loud

How about just a chat – instead of polished piece?

No endless editing.

Just my thoughts for what they are, in the moment, today, right now.

I have talked a bit in the past about how I walk every night, at least four miles, and how I like to concentrate on my breathing.

I left out some things.

My walk is more like a power walk than a dawdle or a mosey.  It’s the kind of walk Donald Trump would take if he walked. (I imagine he’s carried most places, now that he’s too powerful to walk anymore.) It’s late winter now, and it gets dark early, around six; so I am often left to power walk in the dark. I don’t normally run into anyone at that time of night. My neighbors sometimes pass me, when they occasion to walk their dogs. We startle one another, like one is started upon discovering a raccoon in the bin eating leftover lettuce.  Of course I can’t hear a thing except the music on my iPod, so I imagine my neighbor says, “Hello!” much like one would presume, so I say, “Hello!” probably a bit louder than expected, and the dog starts to bark and struggle against its leash.

In the spring and summer, however, it’s light out when I walk and I can clearly see my neighbors taking their evening constitutional, as if their diddling about could possibly burn off that chocolate cake they had for dessert. They do feel better, I’m sure, and that’s all that matters. I look at them smugly, as I propel myself down the road, fists chugging like a great iron steam engine, listening to my iPod. My neighbors look at me rather sympathetically, knowingly, as if they’d met me before.

When I walk, I imagine myself a thoroughbred heading for the finish line, rounding the one-mile-circle of asphalt that surrounds my neighborhood. Everyone is cheering and there is a great wreath of flowers waiting to be set around my neck, like a Hawaiian lai. I sometimes pretend that the song on my iPod is the backdrop to a show at New York Fashion Week and I am Sebastian Sauve on a runway. The paparazzi are going NUTS! and I’m pretending not to notice. When I am not a well-paid fashion model or a frothing stallion, I am a rock star, a finalist on American Idol, a diva or the lead in Fiddler On the Roof, performing in front of a live audience.

And I sing quite out loud.

If I skip a day of walking, because I have sufficiently convinced myself to take a deserved break, I punish myself the next day by walking five miles instead of four. (Sometimes, in fact, I walk an extra mile just because I like the song that’s playing on my iPod, as I head for the home stretch and I feel it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t become Whitney Houston for a moment and belt it out into the forgiving darkness.)

In the late winter, when it gets dark very early, I am almost always alone with my imagination. The real challenge is in the spring and summer, when my imagination is on display and the darkness doesn’t cover me.

My imagination improves with each passing season.

Love your life.


Magpies, dolphins, sea lions, geese, elephants, squirrels and, of course, dogs (to name only a few) each express some level of discomfort over the loss of an offspring, a mate or a companion. Whether that response is equal to the expression of human grief is left to conjecture. There does seem to be some resemblance.

It is unclear what role grief plays in our human adaptive response to loss.  We do know that grief, at some point in our evolutionary history, served to strengthen social and family bonds.  Death may disrupt our attachment with others, thereby weakening the very survival of the group.  Grief and its accompanying empathetic response may make reconciling differences between surviving group members more possible.

Grief does appear to have offered some adaptive value to how we’ve evolved and continue to evolve as a species. Like many of our modern-day emotive potentials, however, grief may no longer serve the same purpose for which Nature had intended it, leaving us to grieve without a rational appreciation for its meaning or value.

Death, with its ambiguities and subjective parameters is, much like grief, beyond our human understanding. As much as any group, troop, cult or individual would like to claim a clear understanding of death, the fact is we have nothing more than subjective opinion to go on – a view that relies mainly on Faith and Hope to sustain it. Death and grief are, and will likely remain, the principal mystery of human life.

Human misery appears to rely on Hope to endure it. Moreover, Hope plays an integral role in sustaining our physical and psychological health during times of hardship, helping to reduce or eliminate the body’s bio-psychosocial response to stress.  The expression of Hope may be necessary to sustain human life.

Without Hope, humans may perish at the first sign of misfortune.

Viktor Frankl, M.D., Ph.D. (March 26, 1905 – September 2, 1997), an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor whose book Man’s Search for Meaning [] endorsed the value of Hope in all forms of human existence, especially the most sordid ones. Hope holds the promise of relief from anguish, physical pain, oppression and uncertainty and can serve to moderate the physical and psychological drain that is often experienced during hardship.

Without Hope, humans are destined to Despair. Chronic despair (stress) can lead to cardiovascular disorders, cancer, pernicious anemia, ulcerative colitis, leukemia, lymphoma, lupus, pneumonia, diabetes, influenza, glaucoma, high blood pressure, chronic itching, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic depression, alcoholism, drug dependency and malnutrition. The expression of Hope mitigates our response to despair by providing us with imaginative solutions, fostering the prospect for manageable outcomes.

Humans approach the death of a loved one as they would any misfortune of life – by looking toward Hope to restore pshysical and psychological balance.  Not surprisingly, humans have come to use dogma, mental images, self-talk, ritual, ceremony and custom to foster a Hopeful frame of mind that helps endure the hopelessness the death of a loved one might bring.  Although these expressions of Hope are satisfying for some, death is also a time for uncertainty, confusion, chaos, mystery and disorder.  Under those circumstances, our stress response is activated in order to face it.

We may rightly conclude that grief is mainly a part of the human stress response.  Our brain is stimulated to take action against misfortune; but, since we cannot undo the death of a loved one, there is no rational action we can take.

In times of stress, the fight-flight-or-freeze (the 3F) response is induced.  The 3F has deep evolutionary roots in our basic human structure. Our physical brain responds to stress by increasing the production of CRH, a hormone that produces symptoms of anxiety. Emergency-mobilizing chemicals are released. As our stress increases, the chemical levels increase.  Our central nervous system becomes highly stimulated, along with our breathing and our biological rhythms our normal sleeping and eating habits. Our digestion, metabolism, circulation and respiration change and our ability to concentrate and pay attention decreases.

The absence of Hope in times of stress may be overwhelming for some individuals, resulting in a chronic state of distress and despair.  Chronic despair is often described as a state of being grief-stricken, heart-sick, wretched, inconsolable, woebegone, heavy-hearted and bereft of hope.

In order to better meet the psychological and physical demands of despair, we might view death and grief as instruments of  enlightenment.

Ultimately, death may serve the magnificent purpose of putting life in perspective for the living.

Death may prompt us to enjoy ourselves more;  take more risks; ask more questions; defend the defenseless, and to savor every bite. Death may prompt us to refocus and tend more conscientiously to our living relationships.  Death may encourage us to learn to pardon and forgive others for their errors in judgment and imperfections.  Death may be a time for building new relationships and strengthening existing ones.

It is likely that there will be a period of sadness and loss at the death of a loved one; give them that time willingly.  If your loved one achieved the love and affection of others, s/he contributed in some consequential and meaningful way and may well deserve your focused attention. The rightful use of Hope as a means for adapting to death, however, might be found in how well you reestablish your connection with others and how successful you are, in your own life, at leaving a legacy Hope for the living.

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Part of my clinical training required that I actually be a client seeking help. That expectation of my program was built from the idea that a better-informed therapist would be one who knew what it was like to sit in the client’s seat, to have an in-vivo (in life) educational experience. So, I sought out a therapist to fulfill my 10-hour/10 session obligation. I began by registering with the student counseling center and getting a therapist assigned to me.

“Do you have a preference?”

“A preference?”

“Oh, most folks have a preference for a male or a female therapist. Do you have a preference?”

“Can you recommend one?”

“Not sure. I think they’re all pretty much the same. Have a seat, please.  We’ll just go with the luck of the draw.  Let me see who’s available.”


The counseling center was as one might expect – a former Victorian style, single family home with a zillion painted-over fireplaces, retro-fitted cubby-spaces that nicely transformed the building into awkwardly meandering faculty and therapy offices. Paint peeling from the ceilings. A faint, musty odor.  A bulky staircase covered in dusty, aged yellow shag carpet hulking behind the over-sized double front doors. Posters of kittens and rainbows hung on the waiting room walls, imprinted with slogans like, “Even if happiness forgets you a little bit, never completely forget about it” and “The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer up somebody else.” Of course, there was the old standby (the emergency poster) detailing where some ethereal being carried some guy across the beach and turned two sets of footprints into one. The coffee table was strewn with old Cosmopolitan magazines: Is your Boyfriend Right for You? Find out in 5 minutes! A box of Kleenex was set precisely beside each chair.


The therapist began by asking me how she could help me. Her body language was somewhat animated, spirited, as if she were preparing to open a surprise Christmas present on her lap.

“I’m not really sure,” I said, “I have this class assignment to speak with a counselor for ten hours, so here I am.”  I handed her my assignment sheet.

“Oh, yes! How nice,” she said with the enthusiasm one would show when giving a dog a new toy. I moved back in my chair. “We get these all the time. I’m a student too. I’m sure we can find something to discuss. Do you have anything in mind?”

I thought for a moment, literally placing my finger on my temple. “Well, I don’t like it that I am losing my hair.  Is that worth talking about?”

The therapist immediately reached for the box of Kleenex, “That’s something,” she said and cleared her throat, “How does that make you feel?”

“I feel like an old guy.”

“You look wonderful.” She leaned forward and grasped my hand, “You’re a very handsome man . . . boy. Have you thought of wearing a cap?”

“Not really. I sweat a lot.”

“How about a hairpiece? I hear Hair Club for Men performs miracles.”

“I’m 23.”

“Wow! I had no idea.”

” . . . humph.”

She leaned forward, as if preparing to tell me I had twelve minutes to live.  She lowered her voice. “You have a self-esteem problem.  The first thing we have to do is get you to a place where you don’t care what people think of your hair.”

“Where is that place?”

“Well, silly, we have to make a list of all your positive qualities and focus more on those than on your weaker qualities.”

“I already feel pretty good about my positive qualities.”

She looked at me, troubled with my answer.  “Sounds to me like you’re in denial.”

“Goodness, really?”

“Yes!  It sounds like you might be splitting or maybe you have like a personality disorder.  Sort of like a dissociative identity disorder. It’s called DID. It’s nothing to worry about, really.”  She patted my knee.  “I’ve seen this sort of thing before.  I will have to consult with my clinical supervisor, but you might need more than 10 sessions.”


I remember sitting in a booth at the student center cafeteria, eating my lunch, several weeks after my first session with the therapist.  I was content that I was developing nicely as a clinician, grasping the concept of in-vivo experience, looking forward to uncovering the hidden me and replacing my former self (one driven by denial and self-loathing) with  more manageable neuroses.  I was reading a book on DID, astonished at the uncanny similarities between myself and DIDs. (Later in my education, I noticed that nearly any diagnosis I read about matched my personality; schizophrenia, borderline personality, oppositional defiance, bi-polar, etc.)  I listened to the two women sitting behind me, talking about their feelings and what one of them was doing to get over her depression, “So what’s up your ass, now?  I thought you were getting better.”

“No, I’m still depressed.”



“What happened to your therapist?”

“He broke up with me.”