Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tommee Tippee and the Grassy Knoll: We Put the "O" in OCD

I don't have a diagnosis of OCD, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder for those of you who hold aversions to acronyms. I don't think I have many more than the average number of compulsions. I don't count exactly seven squares of toilet paper each time I have a need for it, nor do I bend my fingers back a particular number of times before I begin any public piano performance. Some obsessions people have are written off merely as superstitions. I've never considered myself particularly superstitious, although I make it a point not to sleep thirteen in a bed on a Friday night. Clearly, compulsions are not a major source of disruption in my otherwise disrupted life. Compulsions do not rule my life.

Obsessions, on the other hand . . . I can obsess with the very best of them. I probably had earlier obsessions, but the very first one I can remember is my Tommee Tippee cup. Mine wasn't like the ones they make now in clear plastic with straws and other exciting features. Mine didn't even have a lid, because my mother believes that sippy cup lids contribute to overbites and other orthodontic problems. My Tommee Tippee cup was one I had inherited from my mother. Its advantage over any other cup I might have used was its weighted bottom, which eliminated all but deliberate spills. My heirloom Tommee Tippee cup -- light blue with a brown bear drinking from a cup -- was interesting in that the cup from which the Tommee on my cup was drinking also pictured a brown bear drinking from a cup which also picured -- you guessed it-- a brown bear drinking from a cup. Etc, etc.

I was an early bloomer in terms of cognitive, language, and some motor skills. I was probably around six months old when I first began using the cup. I know I was using it before I was seven months old because we moved at that point, and I do have memories (with no photos or home videos to bolster them, so they're genuine memories) of using the cup in the old house. As my mom remembers it, I was eight or nine months old when I became very concerned with the bears on the cup, and with the repeated pattern of each bear drinking from a cup bearing an image of him drinking, and so forth. My mom says I first asked for a mirror at about the age of nine months when I was having lunch in my high chair. She said I asked for the mirror (I spoke early), and she brought a small hand mirror from a drawer at a desk just off the kitchen. I had her hold it so I could watch myself drinking. She asked why I wanted to see myself. I told her in a form of language that was probably not quite grammatically standard but still comprehensible that I was looking to see if I turned into a bear when I drank from the cup. She laughed, and I remembered hearing her tell the story to a couple of people.

Not long after that I began to peer intently at the cup, trying to count how many repetitions of the pattern there were. At first I'd just look casually. As the days went on, I'd squint and look so hard that I began to give myself headaches. The Tommee Tippee cup disappeared for awhile, but I won that battle by refusing to drink anything from any other cup for my mom. When my dad was home he could usually, by sheer brute force, get a few ounces of fluid down me, but my mom was becoming concerned about dehydration, so she "found" Tommee Tippee but told me that if I squinted my eyes and gave myself headaches anymore, Tommee Tippee would have to go away again.

After that, I learned to be a bit less obvious in my quest to define the bounds of infinity as depicted by my Tommee Tippee cup. Then I discovered my mom using a magnifying glass. Why she was using it I cannot recall, but she explained when I asked that it made things look bigger. I watched her put it away in a hallway cabinet. Just before lunch, I went to that cabinet and retrieved the magnifying glass. I slipped it inside my overalls.

My mother usually watched us very closely as we ate -- she was concerned about choking hazards posed by our finger foods -- but my brother Matthew for some reason barfed all over his bib and his high chair tray that day. As my mom was dealing with the gratifying task of cleaning up my brother and his high chair, I pulled the magnifying glass from my overalls and used it to examine Tommee Tippee in greater detail. Our kitchen/breakfast nook had a large picture window that allowed morning and noon sunlight to fill the room. The angle of the sun through the magnifying glass and onto my paper napkin (my mother tried to teach us proper table manners before we were even old enough to sit at a table) was the perfect storm, so to speak. My mom looked up from her barf-cleaning task to see my napkin starting to smolder at its corner. She immediately dropped her cleaning rag, grabbed the napkin and threw it in the sink, picked me up from my high chair, and whacked me one of the only two times she has ever done so.

That was apparently on a Friday, which meant that the next day began a weekend, and my dad would be home for the next two days. He had greater ability than did my mom to persuade me to do things I didn't want to do, such as to drink from a cup other than my beloved Tommee Tippee, and was more immune than my mom to my screams and cries when Tommee didn't reappear as I demanded that he do so. Tommee Tippee took a permanent vacation from my house, as did the magnifying glass as far as I could ever tell. I've never seen either that magnifying glass or another one in any of the homes where we lived since. I'm sure my parents must have thought they had a budding pyromaniac on their hands, but making fire was a totally unintentional by-product of my effort and held no allure to me after it happened. I merely wanted a magnified view of Tommee Tippee and of infinity.

Since then, I've developed other obsessions. Our family passed through the Truckee area when my twin brother and I were approximately two-and-one-half, and my parents took us along as they visited historic sites and monuments related to the Donner Party. Thus began my obsession with the Donner Party, which exists in a minor form to this day. I used to have nightmares about William Keseburg, who allegedly ate Tamsen Donner. Mrs. Donner had been relatively healthy when last seen and had remained at the Truckee site because she refused to leave her critically ill husband to die without her. After George Donner passed, Mrs. Donner was attempting to make her way into the valley below when she met up with Keseburg. Parts but not all of her body were recovered, and human flesh was found in Keseburg's cabin. Keseburg denied the allegations, which haunted him all the remaining days of his life, but the facts were that Tamsem Donner was healthy when last seen, and that there was plenty of actual food to sustain Keseburg, Tamsen Donner, and the dying George Donner until the next rescue party arrived. Still, when that rescue party got to the site, they found a deceased George Donner, parts of a deceased Tamsen Donner, and a living William Keseburg. Almost any way you do the math, Keseburg comes out of it looking as though Mark Geragos or Johnny Cochran ("If Mrs. Donner's tibia don't fit, you must acquit" is a rather catchy slogan, though) would've had one hell of a time convincing even one juror of reasonable doubt against the greenest ADA in the nation, or even against the fictional character of Casey Novak, a former ADA on Law & Order SVU. Did she ever win even a single conviction against anybody?

Soon after our Truckee visit, I began to have nightmares about William Keseburg. Keseburg occasionally still creeps into my nighttime unconsciousness, but for the most part I now have matters closer at hand about which to have nightmares. Still, I'm sure my parents rue the day they took us along as tiny children when they toured the Donner Party sites. They probably had no clue I was taking in so much information. It didn't seem to bother my brother in the least. As long as my parents kept his Tupperware holder filled with Cheerios for him to eat, he was content to sit there forever as tour guides talked on and on in gruesome detail about starvation and the extreme measures to which the group resorted to prevent it.

I was barely two when the Jonbenet Ramsey murder occurred, but it caught my attention in a big way. About two days after it happened, my brother and I were babysat in Utah by my paternal grandparents while my parents skied. My grandmother in particular was greatly intrigued by the Ramsey story as it unfolded, and watched on TV every bit of coverage she could access. She probably had no concept that as a two-year-old I was taking in the information as she was watching it and that it was upsetting me. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt anyway, although I've learned since then just what a mean old crone she can be. Regardless, that was my introduction to true crime that happened in my own lifetime. I read milk cartons with pictures and descriptions of missing children, and obsessed over each new case as it was reported by the media. I refused to go into any basement. I developed a fear of Maglite flashlights, as one had been suggested as the weapon used in bashing Jonbenet's skull, and I refused to eat pineapple, which an autopsy report showed she had eaten shortly before her death.

I was seven when the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping took place. That one hit home a bit more because of the location --Salt Lake City, where I had spent considerable time -- and because one set of her grandparents lived near my grandparents. I had personally seen Elizabeth Smart, although the two of us probably had not spoken more than five words to each other. Her sister Mary Catherine was closer to my age, and the two of us had once played together for a short time at her grandparents' home. From the Elizabeth Smart case I developed a fear of alarms not being set and of windows being left open at night -- I didn't even want my parents to leave open the upstairs ones with no access unless an intruder had brought a ladder. Because they didn't want to run the air conditioner all night in the summer (the swamp cooler is much less expensive to run and works adequately at night, but needs open windows in order to operate) and because summer is uncomfortably hot where we live, my parents had our house alarm adjusted so that windows could be left open to a slight degree but if anyone moved any window even a fraction of an inch, the alarm would sound. I wouldn't or couldn't go to sleep until our alarm was set at night. My mom had been in the habit of setting it when she went to bed, but she had to adjust her routine to set it when we were put to bed. It had to be disarmed if either of my parents needed to open a door for any reason. My parents were forced to have the alarm company demonstrate to me that if anyone tried to cut our alarm lines or disable the system in any way other than by using the code, it would automatically sound, with battery power if necessary. My parents had qualms about humoring my obsessions or fears or whatever one might call them, but if they wanted me to sleep, they had no choice.

Fortunately for everyone involved, the Elizabeth Smart case had a happy ending, but it still left its mark on my psyche (while she appears to be doing remarkably well, I hate to even think of the mark it left on poor Elizabeth's psyche) and gave me one more source for nightmares.

The Laci Peterson murder was of deep personal interest to me. Scott and Laci's home was only about sixty miles from where we lived at the time. When the reports of the missing woman first hit the airwaves, my dad said immediately (as probably did many people, though maybe for different reasons) that the story could not have unfolded the way the husband told it, because there was no way a golden retriever would allow anyone to abduct his or her pregnant female owner without putting up a major fight. Dogs can sense pregnancy, my mom says, and golden retrievers in particular are even more protective of owners who are expectant mothers than of other family members, with the possible exception of small children. In this case, at least as far as the jury verdict went, my father and a whole lot of other people called the case correctly from the onset. The case was especially sad because life was taken from a radiantly beautiful young woman who had so much to which to look forward. My mother had a slight connection with a very tiny portion of the prosecution of this case, but I am not at liberty to divulge the information. This particular obsession caused me to be sad, as it would have caused anyone with remotely normal human emotions to feel sadness, but it wasn't a source of nightmares for me. It was more of a morbid curiousity thing. My morbid curiosity has been piqued with cases since then. I continue to follow true crime but am not quite so obsessed by it, nor am I traumatized to the degree I was with the Ramsey and Smart cases.

I'm not alone, even within my family, in my tendency to obsess. My mom wasn't alive when President Kennedy was assassinated, but developed an obsession with it and with all things related to the Kennedys. She was three when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and remembers the event well. She talks of feeling terribly sad for his children and for his pregnant wife that everyone was saying was pregnant but who did not yet look pregnant. My mother associated pregnancy with greatly protruding midsections and didn't understand that the condition was present for months before it became physically apparent. To this day my mom could tell you the names of the boiler room girls (known for their role in the party before Ted Kennedy's drive off a bridge on the island of Chappaquidick), the names of all Rose and Joe Kennedy's grandchildren, and could recite the birthdates of JFK and all of his siblings. I'm sure there's far more that she knows about these people of which I'm not even aware. She's had other obsessions besides the Kennedys. My point here is that I didn't start the fire (figuratively speaking; I did start the fire with the magnifying glass and the paper napkin); obsession as a tradition existed in my family long before I made my appearance on the planet.

My dad probably obsessed over sports statistics as a kid more than over any other matter. He still does obsess over sports in general and statistics in particular to some degree -- an obsession he shares with my brother Matthew. It is interesting to note that Matthew knew his NFL team logos -- and could correctly identify the location associated with each insignia on a U. S. map -- before her reached the age of three, and long before he knew either uppercase or lowercase letters. To be perfectly frank, he didn't break any land-speed records in learning either his NFL insignias or his letters. Matthew has always pushed the lower limits on Piaget's six cognitive stages, proving that when genes and chromosomes pair themselves up in random ways, even highly intelligent parents can end up with offspring that can only euphemistically be described as "average."

Now my dad obsesses over cures for leukemia and lymphoma. Occasionally another medical research area will creep into his focus, usually when his help is requested by a colleague, but reliable cures for lymphoma and leukemia remain his Holy Grail, so to speak.

If I were to venture out to the extended branches of both families, but my dad's in particular, I could provide countless examples of OCD, ODD, schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorders I and II, kleptomania, Borderline Personality Disorder, Psychopathic Syndrome, and Sociopathic Syndrome, just to name a sampling of the cornucopia of my extended family's mental and/or psychological anomalies. For now I'll spare you. On another day, if one of my batshit-crazy relatives does anything new to warrant my wrath, his or her psychological profile may become fodder for my blog. Karma can be a bitch.


  1. I had an obsession with a baby doll that squeaked. I could never understand what made her make noise, until an unfortunate accident led to her decapitation. I was around 2.

  2. I was a bit hard on toys, too. I destroyed a Fisher -Price popper because I was certain the colored balls inside it were gumballs, and no one was going to convince me otherwise. I couldn't start destroying it until I was three becuase my lame brother still played with it. I argued with my mom about it for months, because the writing on the box at the store said something like 12 to 24 months, and dumb Matthew was still pushing the thing around pretending to mow lawns or something similarly stupid. I'd ask my mom if she thought there was something wrong with Mattheew when he was still playing with a baby toy; she'd reply "It's not really MATTHEW I'm concerned about." Finally he became bored with the toy just about the time we turned three and I was allowed to begin my destruction of it. It took months of hammering on the plexiglass 9fisher -price toys are solidly made), but I eventually broke it open to discover that the colored balls were not gum but plastic.

  3. There's a book in this idea, you know. You could go for the angle of "Childhood obsessions of the Hollywood Stars."

    Seriously. I think it would sell well.