Why this night is no different than any other – vile anti-semitism persists

Tonight, I know, is the first night of Pesach-Passover, the Jewish festive celebration of the historic/mythical tale of escape from slavery in Egypt. Being an atheist with a complete lack of interest in any religious or pseudo-religious customs, Passover has never been a holiday that I’ve really celebrated. In fact, I don’t celebrate much on any Jewish holiday (although I am interested in the history and culture of the Jewish people); but that doesn’t make me any less Jewish.

It was the Nazis who proved that Jews can’t convert, intermarry or recant their Jewishness. A Jewish grandparent on either side of the family was sufficient to merit being sent to the gas chambers, despite one’s belonging to a church.

One of the key passages in the Passover Haggadah (the guide to the evening Passover service) is a song about “what makes this night different from all the others.” Unfortunately, the answer is “nothing.” This time it was demonstrated by a vile white supremacist and antisemite who murdered 3 completely innocent and defenseless people by cowardly shooting them in cold-blood – just because he (mistakenly) believed they were Jewish. No other reason. Just because they were supposed to be Jews.

It happened only 180 miles from Omaha, at the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City. One 14 year old boy with a passion and talent for singing. His grandfather, a respected family doctor. And an occupational therapist who worked with children who have impaired vision. Cut down by bullets fired by a cowardly loser, whose own life was dedicated to spouting absurd lies, hatred and violence toward others. It’s sickening to think that this coward should have been permanently jailed for incitement to murder, based on his many criminally revolting statements. He should also be tried for treason; praising Hitler, who was the enemy of the US (and many other countries) in World War II, should be grounds for treason.

Unfortunately, as the bereaved families mourn their incomprehensible losses, the Jews mourn with them. But we also mourn for centuries of this type of antisemitism. The Spanish Inquisition. The Cossacks in the Pale of Settlement in eastern Europe who gave my grandmother nightmares. The murder of ~11 million people, among them 6 million Jews. And the knowledge that, no matter who we might want to be,  even if we cast our Jewishness aside – we will always need to look over our shoulders for the antisemitic white supremacists – who will cowardly murder any innocent unarmed person, as long as they can justify that their target was killing Jews.

 

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On the connection between (April) fools and trolls

Trolls seldom have anything worthwhile to say. They twist, bully, rant and rave and insult, putting forth their worst drivel to provoke a response. All behind a cloak of anonymity. That is the nature of a troll; inevitably a loser who dares not show his face. So when such a troll spouts outright lies that can easily be refuted, there is seldom any value in refuting the hateful comments, because the troll already knows they are lies, and is only seeking validation.

In other words, response to a troll allows him to think that he is on the same level as the writer/blogger/journalist, in his perverted mind at least. By ignoring any troll comments, this leaves the troll with the uncertainty as to whether the author has even bothered to read his lowly words – something that I envision is probably the most frustrating thing for a troll: not to be placed at the same “level” as the author.

But for once, glancing at a troll’s comments actually served a useful – if somewhat disparate -  purpose: the relationship between troll and fool reminded me that I need to blog about my most recent April Fool’s joke.

Recently, in my capacity of chair of our departmental graduate and admissions committee, one of my many tasks was to provide a detailed orientation and explanation of the “Comprehensive Exam” that our second year graduate students are required to take. This exam is essentially a very well-structured exercise in grant-writing, in which the students learn to research a topic distinct from their own, write an NIH (National Institutes of Health) style ‘specific aims’ page, receive feedback and input from their examination committee, and ultimately write a full 12 page proposal and defend it in an oral exam. The whole process occurs in a structured manner in the course of about 5 months. I should also point out that the issue of ‘how distinct the proposal needs to be’ from the student’s own research is always a bone of contention…

I want to take this opportunity to point out that I am immensely proud of my department’s graduate program, the overall level of the students in it, and particularly my own students. Furthermore, it is also important for me to note that my general comments about professional amongst graduate students (or lack thereof), in NO WAY reflects my view of the students in my own graduate program. My Guardian article was a very general reflection based on some students in some institutions, and the non-professional examples and attitudes cited had nothing to do with students in my program or lab.

In fact, I feel it necessary to point out that students from our program do very, very well, on average, in scientific careers. Students from my own laboratory have done exceptionally well. I have already produced an exceptional tenure-track assistant professor at an outstanding and highly competitive institute in India (IISER Mohali), and have 4 graduates at top-grade laboratories in prestigious institutions here in the US doing and thriving in post-doctoral positions. Certainly potential independent investigators and PIs, in a few years time. I have also been told explicitly, on several occasions by colleagues who encountered my former students that they are exceptionally well-trained, especially in comparison with graduate students from those high-tier ivy league institutions.

Okay, enough self-congratulatory back-patting, and now to the point!

Those who know me are familiar with my penchant for little practical jokes, and although I have had less time and energy to pursue this passion in recent years, I still enjoy pulling someone’s leg once in awhile. An example was when I announced to the lab members that I accepted a position in Anchorage, Alaska, and we were moving the lab in 3 months time. Anyone want to join me? Of course that was an April Fool’s joke, but no one caught on until I reassured them that we were not going to be Sarah Palin’s neighbors…

This April Fool’s I prepared a Power Point to orient the students on how to go through the process of their Comprehensive Examination. I began with a slide highlighting the differences between this year and the previous year. I put up an animated slide that said:

1) This year, to allow students more room to develop their proposals, we are moving from 12 pages to 25 pages, as the NIH grants used to be.

2) This year, due to the continuing conflict on how close the proposal can be to the students’ research, the graduate committee has decided that each student prepare TWO 25 page proposals: one on his/her own research, and one distinct from his/her research.

I wish I had had a camera to photograph the gaping mouths, the disbelief, the “how could this be happening to us?” A shocked silence hit the room. I was in my element, perfectly serious, explaining how these changes would benefit the students and the examination process. But I am merciful. I waited a few seconds, savoring the exprssions, before the next animation kicked in.

3) HAPPY APRIL FOOLS!

It’s a good thing the students were so relieved. Otherwise they might have roasted me over a spitfire. One thing for sure: it was certainly an icebreaker for the rest of the orientation!

Until April Fools, 2015.

Yours,

SC

 

 

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Volcanoes

Many geologists and climatologists believe that global warming aside, the next major global climate issues are most likely to come from the explosion of a super-volcano; after all, just look at what an isolated Icelandic volcano did to air traffic across the globe recently.

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The Arenal stratovolcano in Costa Rica. Dormant since 2009, it has a frightening history.

On this visit to Costa Rica, we spent the majority of our time somewhere in the vicinity of the now dormant (but still emitting smoke) Arenal volcano. When last in Costa Rica, we were in the area for 3 days and never even had the opportunity to see the mountain, with rain and clouds throughout our stay.

We did a variety of activities around the Arenal, including birding, zip lining, tubing and hiking, and there was one specific  hike with a guide who gave us a perspective on the geology and history of the Arenal. We learned that in 1968, the volcano gave disturbing signs of activity, but that the people in the surrounding villages (whose ancestors lived there for centuries not knowing this was a volcano) did not evacuate their homes to seek shelter elsewhere. After all, the volcano crater was miles away. What could possibly happen?

What did happen was that the volcano virtually exploded, creating secondary craters, expelling a huge flow of lava, and heaving boulders that weighed several tons as far as several miles from the crater – in fact, within an area of about 15 square kilometers. Two towns were entirely obliterated, and ~80 people lost their lives. Including a rescue team that got caught in the lava several days after the initial explosion.

The town on the west side of the volcano, which was spared altogether, was thus renamed La Fortuna, for having the good fortune of being outside the range of the Arenal – at least on this occasion.

So while we do need to take care of our environment, I think the lessons of volcanoes (even when confused with myths of animals fleeing the Yellowstone caldera in the wake of movies and internet stirring up fear among the masses) are that life is fragile; and as many of us know to be true – evolution on this planet has been shaped far more by geological events than people typically give credit.

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Costa Rica: Part 2- river adventures (“Don’t cross the river, if you can’t swim the tide…”)

No visit to Costa Rica would be complete without visiting the fascinating rivers than run through the luscious rain forests. However, there are a wide variety of river adventures, some of which I would warmly endorse, whereas others – well I will let you judge…
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Me, on the rocks

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If anyone thought I was having fun, think again. RPG, I go with a helmet, thin as a pancake, or not!

The real river experiences are achieved by “safari floats” or quiet and slow moving dinghies or boats that move down the river with a guide and allow time to enjoy and view the wildlife. On our previous trip to Costa Rica 8 years ago, when our daughter was about 7 years old, on the Cano Negro River near the border with Nicaragua, the guide showed her this cute little trick:

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and then, presto!
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This time, we floated down a different river. As demonstrated, this activity was more to my liking than the tubing…
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Cute cayman

crocodile
Quirky crocodile

Blue heron
Harried (blue) heron

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attractive Amazon Kingfisher

These were but a few of the delightful inhabitants of the river.

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Remarkable river

Howler monkeys (too far away for good photos), beautiful flowers:
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And miracles of miracles, we also saw the famous Jesus Christ Lizard (common basilisk), so named for his ability to scoot across the water, running rather than walking.
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Costa Rica – Part 1: The Tree House

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Our Casa de Rana (frog) Tree House, recently

Costa Rica is an incredible country, often described as the “Switzerland of Central America” (apologies to my UK friends, but Ben Nevis and the Munroes don’t quite compare with the Alps…). A country of about 5 million people, with no army and no enemies. 99% literacy rate. Lowest crime rates in Central America. Universal healthcare. A recycling program that would put most “1st world countries” to shame – even in the most remote reaches of the country. 30% of the land conserved as nature reserves.

One of the most amazing things about Costa Rica is the deep understanding that the people have of the relationship between conservation, ecotourism, natural treasures and the economy. Indeed, tourism is the #1 Costa Rican source of income, dwarfing pineapples, coffee and all else in recent years. It seems that every one of the highly professional nature guides that we’ve had the pleasure of talking to strongly feels that it is a national mission to show off the wonders of the country, and they will proudly go to every effort to spot that Quetzal bird, or sloth, or howler monkey, with the same excitement and enthusiasm as the tourist – despite the fact that they see the same (or similar) wonders on a daily basis.

In keeping with nature and ecotourism, our first adventure this visit was to a lodge known as the Tree House Lodge (6 tree houses only) in the general vicinity of the town of Fortuna, near the famous Arenal Volcano. As indicated in the photo above and below, the room was essentially an entirely wooden structure built at the height of the rain forest trees (almost canopy level), giving one a feeling of living in the jungle. Isolated for a couple days, we stayed in this almost-no-frills but fascinating habitat for a couple nights, doing a night walk with the local guide – who caught an armadillo to show us, along with frogs, sleeping birds, spiders (tarantulas) and many other ‘treats.’

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The armadillo was released unharmed back to the rain forest after several minutes

There were also quiet relaxing times.
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Yours truly at 6 am, listening to the sounds of the rain forest with a flask of local Costa Rican coffee.

Each day, we had activities (the subject of upcoming blogs, stay tuned), but “the Tree House” deserved a post of its own, and just wandering around taking photos of the surroundings.

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Some typical flora

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More typical flora

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Even more typical flora – alright, I haven’t a clue about the botanical definition of these lovely flowers

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So hard to decide which photos to post…

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There are about 55 species of hummingbirds in Costa Rica – I won’t even try…

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I love those birds!

Breakfast in the open-air ‘restaurant.’ Almost all restaurants have no walls or windows, with the weather warm and pleasant all year round, and no real distinction between seasons (perhaps more rain in the so-called winter).

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Desayuno, recently. Ahhh, the papaya…
Stay tuned for the next post on our Safari float down the river. Coming soon to a computer terminal near you.

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Surfacing from the jungles of Central America

Following my 3rd trip to Central America in the last 10 years, and my second visit to Costa Rica, I have returned from the rain and cloud forests invigorated by the immense diversity of flora and fauna, with the spectacular colors of birds ingrained in my brain.
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One of my new favorite birds, the Blue-Crowned Motmot

Over the next few weeks as I sort through the hundreds of photos and try to match and classify the birds and other animals (I won’t even try with the flowers…), stay posted for some great photos of kingfishers, herons, a variety of hummingbirds, iguanas, coati and more! But for me the party is over and it’s back to reality.

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More evidence for Lab Lit on the map!

A quick search of Google Scholar yielded some of my publications on Jenny’s Lab Lit site, in addition to the expected scientific papers. If that’s not a sign of Lab Lit on the map, then I don’t know what is! (scroll down to the bottom)

User profiles for steve caplan

Steve Caplan

Prof. of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Univ. of Nebraska Medical Center
Verified email at unmc.edu
Cited by 2512

Regulation of Src trafficking and activation by the endocytic regulatory proteins MICAL-L1 and EHD1

…, D Katafiasz, N Naslavsky, S Caplan – Journal of Cell …, 2014 – jcs.biologists.org
Abstract Localization of the non-receptor tyrosine kinase c-Src (Src) to the cell periphery is
required for its activation and to mediate focal adhesion turnover, cell spreading and
migration. Inactive Src localizes to a perinuclear compartment and endocytic transport

Cooperation of MICAL-L1, syndapin2, and phosphatidic acid in tubular recycling endosome biogenesis

…, N Vitale, N Naslavsky, S Caplan – … biology of the …, 2013 – molbiolcell.fitnessofmen.com
Abstract Endocytic transport necessitates the generation of membrane tubules and their
subsequent fission to transport vesicles for sorting of cargo molecules. The endocytic
recycling compartment, an array of tubular and vesicular membranes decorated by the

[HTML] Role of Phosphatidylinositol 4, 5-Bisphosphate in Regulating EHD2 Plasma Membrane Localization

LC Simone, S Caplan, N Naslavsky – PloS one, 2013 – dx.plos.org
Abstract The four mammalian C-terminal Eps15 homology domain-containing proteins
(EHD1-EHD4) play pivotal roles in endocytic membrane trafficking. While EHD1, EHD3 and
EHD4 associate with intracellular tubular/vesicular membranes, EHD2 localizes to the

Scratching the surface: actin’and other roles for the C-terminal Eps15 homology domain protein, EHD2.

LC Simone, N Naslavsky, S Caplan – Histology and histopathology, 2013 – europepmc.org
The C-terminal Eps15 homology domain-containing (EHD) proteins participate in multiple
aspects of endocytic membrane trafficking. Of the four mammalian EHD proteins, EHD2
appears to be the most disparate, both in terms of sequence homology, and in subcellular

Differential roles of C-terminal Eps15 Homology Domain proteins as vesiculators and tubulators of recycling endosomes

…, PL Sorgen, W Guo, N Naslavsky, S Caplan – Journal of Biological …, 2013 – ASBMB
Background: Vesiculation of tubular recycling endosomes is essential for the recycling of
receptors and lipids to the plasma membrane. Results: A novel vesiculation assay was used
to demonstrate a role for endocytic regulatory proteins in vesiculation. Conclusion: EHD

MICAL-family proteins: complex regulators of the actin cytoskeleton

SSP Giridharan, S Caplan – Antioxidants & redox signaling, 2013 – online.liebertpub.com
Abstract Significance: The molecules interacting with CasL (MICAL) family members
participate in a multitude of activities, including axonal growth cone repulsion, membrane
trafficking, apoptosis, and bristle development in flies. An interesting feature of MICAL

Chemical shift assignments of the C-terminal Eps15 homology domain-3 EH domain

G Spagnol, C Reiling, F Kieken, S Caplan… – Biomolecular NMR …, 2013 – Springer
Abstract The C-terminal Eps15 homology (EH) domain 3 (EHD3) belongs to a eukaryotic
family of endocytic regulatory proteins and is involved in the recycling of various receptors
from the early endosome to the endocytic recycling compartment or in retrograde transport

[HTML] Going bonkers

S Caplan – 2014 – lablit.com
Over the past few months, since reading – or more accurately – listening to the audiobook version
of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science (Canongate), I have been thrust back and
forth (sorry, no pun intended) trying to decide whether or not to write this book review. …

Finding the cure

S Caplan – 2013 – lablit.com
Editor’s note added 14 July 2013: Recently our staff reviewed this novel and concluded that,
due to certain plot elements (which we won’t reveal as they constitute spoilers), it is science
fiction and not lab lit. Regardless, the lab scientists and scenes are realistic depictions, so …

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My fair book

steve OPL book fair

Yesterday afternoon I participated in the Omaha Public Library’s annual author fair, featuring (mostly) local authors and their books. The highlight, of course, was my own table featuring the “new genre of Lab Lit” and my 3 modest contributions to the burgeoning field. But there were books on everything from a young man’s escape from south Sudan, to a book about service dogs (featuring two very photogenic and amiable greyhounds who graced the library with an appearance) and non-fiction about the women executives in Omaha’s own Warren Buffet’s organization, and much, much more.

I sold several books, particularly hot was “A Degree of Betrayal,” which takes place in an undisclosed medical center in Omaha. And a great time was had by all…

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Can’t have it both ways

Over the past 8 months, I have watched with detached interest as the spectacle of the Snowden/NSA scandal unfolded and developed. As with many government-related

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A whistleblower, recently. 

scandals,  who is ‘scandalized’ often depends on which side of the political spectrum one sides. Often, but not always.

Since coming to the US nearly 15 years ago, I have learned that there are a lot of what I would define as “strange attitudes” to many issues. The tremendous value placed on human life and its preservation (including the debate on when life actually begins) coupled with the relative ease in people are sentenced to death. And mistakenly sentenced to death in some cases. Somewhat irreversibly.

Privacy is another issue that’s constantly receiving attention in the media. The same media who lust after every last detail of a politician or celebrity’s sex life often raise the flag of awareness about the common citizen’s privacy. It’s not that I think celebrities or politicians necessarily deserve a media blackout surrounding their personal lives – in fact they often flaunt their personal lives in public. When it suits their goals. I’m more interested in what a visitor from another planet might describe as “hypocrisy” with regards to the issue of privacy.

In the case of Snowden, and his famous release of details about the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs, I am not particularly sympathetic to his cause. Certainly I do fear an “Orwellian over-reach” that impinges on my rights as a private citizen. But I also fear terrorism. For anyone who’s witnessed first-hand the horror of mass casualties, privacy becomes a relative thing.

Prior to 9-11, would anyone in the US ever have imagined that passengers would have to remove their shoes before being allowed into the gate area for flights? That machines – apparently capable of detectable our genitals underneath our clothing – would routinely be employed at airports? I suspect not.

Privacy is a relative thing. Closed-circuit TV cameras are ubiquitous across the US – and I hear rumors that they are employed even more ubiquitously in the UK. IP addresses are recorded with every mouse click and opened website. And now we are told that the NSA is listening in to some of our phone calls, reading some of our emails. Do I care? Should I care?

First, I suspect that any NSA agent listening in to my minimal phone calls, or reading my never-ending piles of emails will likely be bored to death. I can barely keep up with the emails myself – so I doubt that the NSA could really monitor very carefully the emails of 300,000,000 Americans (not to mention leaders of foreign nations – whoops, now that is a mistake!). Unless there are a hidden 300,000,000 NSA workers. Clones, perhaps, with one assigned for each US citizen. The math just doesn’t work. So this of course leads to the conclusion that there is a great deal of selectivity in who is being monitored.

Do I trust that the selection is accurate? No. Because such selection is always statistical, based on the likelihood of a person being involved in terror, etc. So yes, certain cultures, religions and ethnic make-ups will obviously be targeted. But if I were/am on such a list, I would shrug it off and say – “I prefer that the NSA targets me so that they can see I have no evil intentions, and that they do their job conscientiously.” And that I understand (if this were the case) that they make this decision to monitor me based on the fact that others of a similar ethnic/religious background have done damage in the past. What else is there to go on?

The key issue is not the invasion of privacy per se; rather, whether the NSA is diligent enough to seek out and process information gained to prevent terror, while at the same time able to ignore and rapidly dismiss irrelevant information on honest people, and thus hone their selection process.

This is a new game – and it’s regretful that democratic countries have had to resort to to these measures. But it’s a necessary evil, and the jury is still out on how the government will strike the right balance with these measures.

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Next to (Ab)normal

I’ve had a rough time this week; not just the stress at work, the snow storm here in Omaha, a bit of illness and a young inexperienced driver smacking into the back of our car. It’s more than that. Part of it has to do with a play that I watched this week.

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Next to Normal” cast at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

The University of Nebraska Medical Center sponsored the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Next to Normal” at the Omaha Community Playhouse, and my wife and daughter and I attended the preview night. While I am an avid patron of the theater, normally (to use that word) I only attend musicals under one condition – when my daughter is in the cast. Otherwise, I tend to yawn and lose interest as soon as the actors open their mouths to sing.

Well, although my daughter recently appeared in another terrific play directed by Omaha Community Playhouse Resident Director Amy Lane  (“Recommended Reading for Girls“), and she acted together with the immensely talented star of “Next to Normal” (Angela Jenson-Frey) in “The Sound of Music” at the Papillion-LaVista Community Theater a few years ago, she was not in this cast. And yet there I was, in the audience, spellbound by the fantastic performances of the 6 actors in the play. Why? What made me give up an evening of reading and writing to go to this musical?

Next to Normal” addresses a topic that is close to my heart – too close, in fact. So close that although the story differs greatly from my first novel, “Matter Over Mind,” the essence and message of the story is similar. The play is about the life of a suburban mother who has been suffering from a psychotic mental illness (loosely diagnosed as bipolar disorder) for the last 16 years, the struggles of her loving husband to help her, and the terrible price paid by her daughter who feels abandoned and angry. As in “Matter Over Mind,” the focus is not just on the patient himself/herself, but also on the impact that mental illness has for other family members – an issue that’s been largely ignored until recent years.

From my perspective, as an affected family member – despite the tears that the show brought to the eyes of many in the audience – I felt that the real-life impact on the surrounding family is even greater than that portrayed in the musical. Yes, the actors and director put on a superb show. The teenage daughter (played by Grace Bydalek) who turned to anger and drugs did an exemplary job venting her pent up frustration with her mother. And of course every patient is afflicted differently; no two cases are the same. Nonetheless, my own experiences with a bipolar disorder parent were far harsher. However, as noted by Omaha World Herald play critic Bob Fischbach:

“The acid test for any cast of “Next to Normal,” a musical about a family coping with mental illness, is how much they make you feel — and how deeply you feel it.”

And the musical dredged up a lot of emotions and difficult memories for me, and even a new revelation or two. I had always been proud that as a child and youth, from 1st grade on through 12th grade I didn’t miss a single day of school due to illness. Well, that’s not strictly true, but it would have been if I hadn’t had my appendix removed. In any case, the reason is not that I am a superman of the type that Cath wrote about recently in The Guardian, immune to all disease (I wish!). No. It’s because I couldn’t bear the thought of being alone with a parent who was so unstable. So much so, that I was able to bear colds and fevers and flus, nausea and pain – just to be out of the house. Anything to be away from an unpredictable parent: the instability of slamming doors and anger one minute, depressed and never coming out of the bedroom for weeks on end, or sky-high mile-a-minute gibberish at other times. At an early age I lost a parent. Not to cancer, or heart disease. But my trust in the parent had dissipated.

Some of this comes across in the dark humor of Matter Over Mind. But every new exposure to mental disorder and the suffering of those close to the patient further unravels the onion peel that has surrounded my soul. Apparently, “Next to Normal” achieved its goal for the audience. It did so for me as well.

If you have a chance to see this musical, don’t miss it.

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