Monthly Archives: September 2014

Goth, Revisited

gothic-5

Once upon a time, as I found myself maneuvering through an especially thorny patch of my adolescence, during which I was watching too many John Hughes movies and breathing in the fumes of too many fruity-smelling erasers, I decided to become a Goth.  Already on my third teenage year, I decided I had enough angst under my belt to proclaim to the world what a melancholic and morose young person I was.

Not a REAL Goth, mind you – the kind that listens to the Cure and the Smiths and acts a bit deviant by smoking cigarettes and wearing black lipstick, but rather a Pseudo Goth Lite – the kind that watches ‘Beetlejuice’ too often and routinely wears a sweater with a small embroidered unicorn over the left breast pocket, because it happens to be the only black article of clothing in one’s closet.

In order to truly be a Goth, I needed to have the right accessories. The list included black eyeliner, a heavy ornate cross and some sort of shirt made out of black netting.  Oh, and black lace half finger gloves.  And maybe a heavy dark veil, for when the weather was cool. I imagined myself a forlorn Winona Ryder, misunderstood, dark, brooding and in a constant state of sorrow, all while looking extremely avant guard and fashionable.

Without any money of my own, I was unable to buy most of the accessories I needed, so I compromised. Instead of smearing black eyeliner around my lids, I rummaged through my mother’s throw away cosmetics only to find the most intimidating color to be an odd rust-colored eye shadow, which when applied, prompted most relatives and friends to ask whether I had an eye infection.

Being Jewish, I felt like a hypocrite wearing a cross, and worried about being randomly struck by lightning for impersonating a Christian, so I substituted a silver-coated plastic Ankh. (Apparently masquerading as an Egyptian didn’t seem to bother me.)

I attempted to expand my wardrobe of black garb, but the selection in the Junior Miss department of Macy’s -the only place my mother would take me to shop for clothes – was far from ideal for my misanthrope aspirations. Anything black usually came with sparkles or sequins.  I started a heavy rotation of black cardigans and shirts with shimmering abstract shapes of silver.  “Very jazzy,” my grandmother once commented on one Gothic failure of an ensemble, “But, you’re really an Autumn.”

Over the next few years, I kicked my Goth mode into high gear by reading Anne Rice novels and buying t-shirts with spider web designs on them.  I also sighed a lot and tried not to smile.  After I moved out of my mother’s house, I began to collect gargoyles and because I was a less than stellar housekeeper, the resulting dust and cobwebs that began to naturally form across most of my furniture and knick-knacks suited my gloomy attitude quite nicely.

Despite my desire to go full on Goth, I found myself in the predicament of acquiring an office job at the age of 19. The idea of dressing up in mourning garb to file mail in the backroom and answer phones while the receptionist was at lunch seemed a bit silly. I searched for another way to express my inner darkness, even while wearing oxfords and polos from the Gap. And it was THEN that I discovered the art of the tattoo.

To be fair, I already had one tattoo. One half of an arm-band of thorned roses around my right upper arm.  My intent was to go all the way around but I couldn’t afford it. The inspiration for that somewhat generic artwork was a photograph in a fashion magazine of a model with the same tattoo, proving that even the most deviant of acts can be  inspired by the very cultural influences we long to rebel against. I brought the magazine clipping into the parlor as I would a photo of a stylish hairstyle I fancied.

It’s not surprising that the idea of inking myself permanently was something I took more lightly than most. When my mother was in her mid-30’s, already a homemaker and parent to three children, she found herself at the beginning of what would become a decades-long effort to find and/or transform herself. A spoke of that wheel of self-discovery was the decision to tattoo herself – an act of latent rebellion against the traditional path her life with my father had taken and maybe the world. So, one afternoon, my younger sisters and I found ourselves in the surprisingly clean and quiet lobby of a local tattoo shop. The other clientele, far more atmosphere-appropriate, consisted of several bikers and one slightly nervous-looking young man with a nose ring. I’m not sure what anyone thought of the three young girls rifling through the stacks of tattoo magazines in search of a possible ‘Highlights’, but we were undisturbed for the duration of time it took for my mother to have a bird of paradise etched across her chest.

Since, at that point, getting a tattoo myself offered none of the usual thrills of revolt or deviance that one usually associates with such an act, I was free to focus on the art of it all. And, eventually, it was through my body art that I finally achieved the Gothic embellishments I had been searching for during my youth.

I started off small. I finished the half arm band of roses with a flock of tiny bats. Only if you were close enough to grab my arm and turn it over would you be able to notice a difference in the flow of the artwork. Soon after I added two fairly large-sized bat wings on the top of my back. Worried about being labeled some kind of bat freak (THAT’s really what I was worried about?), I added a large winged skull on my lower back.  Much more than the typical ‘tramp stamp’, this was a huge piece of work and was drawn in such a way as to create the optical illusion of growing any time I leaned forward. Whether I thought this would scare off sneak attacks at the beach, the only time anyone might be able to see it, I can’t remember.

As I added to my collection of body art, I learned more about tattooing in general and became an odd Gothic poster child for getting inked. I took multiple friends for their ‘first’ and felt a certain satisfaction in having evolved into an authority on something, even if that something was being able to offer sage advice on the importance of using Aquaphor.

The more tattoos I had, the less I felt the need to express my Goth-iness with clothes and make-up.  Or maybe I was just getting older and the idea of pancake makeup and eternal funeral garb sounded increasingly uncomfortable.  From the outside, I didn’t LOOK like someone who was littered with permanent skulls and bats under her conventional exterior and eventually, as my lifestyle became more traditional, I began to cling to my artwork as the last frontier between my adventurous youth (which was really never all that adventurous) and my future PTA-joining, cookie-baking, errand-running, mini-van-driving self.

My tattoos were not without their trials. On our first date, my future husband asked whether I regretted getting them, in a tone that implied that he sure would have.  I could not help but develop a reputation among the other mommies on the playground – a cool, rock star status that I had no chance of living up to. As a Jew, I was constantly asked whether I was concerned that I may not be allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery now that I was tattooed, as if that point was on the top of my ‘cons’ column on the list I responsibly and maturely put together before I impulsively and impetuously ran out to get a tattoo at the age of 18.

Eventually the rate at which I acquired more tattoos slowed and finally stopped. As my fortieth birthday approaches, I think wistfully about adding to one or covering up another, but don’t have any definite plans to do so.  To be honest, I forget I have them most of the time. My husband, who initially thought they made me look wild and dangerous, forgets they are there, as well. They have become as much a part of me and my person as an interestingly placed birthmark or scar.

Recently, I found myself caught in a mundane errand at the UPS store; my back toward the young clerk, as I filled out some paperwork.  As I turned to pay for my packing supplies, he smiled hesitantly and said, ‘Are those angel wings on your back?’

“Bat wings, actually,” I returned with a slight edge in my voice as I waited for the inevitable quizzical look that usually follows my clarification.  “I used to be a bit of a Goth,” I added, feeling the need to explain myself further.

He chuckled. “And, now you’re stuck with them, I guess.”

“Stuck?” I slowly grinned. “No, I don’t feel that way. I still love every one I have.”

And, with that, I drew down my black veil, clicked my Doc Martens, slumped my shoulders and slowly dragged myself out the door.

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Pet Person (Part 4)

Pets

We had decided to get the rats neutered after one began exhibiting some rather aggressive tendencies toward his brother. I knew this was a possibility and although that meant paying a heck of a lot more for such a procedure than one might think, I made the appointment to get it done. Jake seemed to be living in fear of his brother Finn; I would find him breathing heavily and making soft squeaks every time I took him out of the cage. It wasn’t until a week later that I was hit with the thunderbolt thought that these might be symptoms of something else – something far more serious.

Convincing my husband to bring Jake into the exotic pet emergency room (yes, there is such a thing) on a Sunday night which also happened to be our sixth anniversary was not as difficult as you might have thought. My son sat stoically in the waiting room as a myriad of snakes, hedgehogs and other animals with various illnesses and injuries were carried into the back rooms of the vet’s office. Jake was put on oxygen and diagnosed with a likely respiratory infection, apparently quite common for rats. My husband irritably paid the exorbitant fees for the emergency room visit and the meds and brought home our sick patient.

Thus, our lives entered a new phase. Rat care-takers. How’s the rat today? Does he seem better yet? How’s his breathing? Does he look worse today? Is he eating enough? Administering oral medications into a rat’s unwilling mouth through tiny syringes is about as fun as it sounds. When days went by and he didn’t seem to be getting miraculously better, it slowly sank in that I had to consider another possibility – something that up until this moment I had forgotten about, something that was probably the number one reason I had avoided pets for the past 22 years of my life.

Pets die.

When I was about ten or eleven, our bull terrier got out of the gated backyard and ran full-speed into oncoming traffic on our very busy street. She didn’t die immediately and I remember vividly the seemingly endless car ride to the veterinarian, as her head lay on my lap, and I watched the dark blood from her wounds seeping out into the fabric of my new lavender winter coat.  I had watched her grow from a puppy and now our relationship had come to a screeching stop on the wet night pavement in front of my house.

Every animal that we had owned was now dead, obviously. Animals only live so long and a plethora of accidents, diseases and other calamities can befall them even before they live to a respectable age. There had been other dogs that were hit with cars, a number of cats that went missing, and even a disturbingly sad discovery in the basement by me and my sisters.  There had only been one euthanasia that I remembered – our ancient and blind dog that would drag herself up the basement steps only to slip and fall clattering down the staircase again and again. I remember seeing my mother wince each time she heard the commotion, eventually steeling herself for the inevitable.

I reflected on these sad memories and wondered why anyone would put themselves through the eventual and unavoidable torture of having to part with a creature who had become a loved companion. Jake was only a rat, but he was someone that I took care of, someone who enjoyed snuggling in my arms – someone who was a someone, regardless of his species or size. The idea that sooner rather than later, I would have to watch him suffer towards death, or worse, have to make the decision to euthanize him if he was sick enough brought tears to my eyes. Why put myself through it? “THIS is why I don’t have pets,” I said to my husband.

I worried that my son would become despondent about the decline of our rat and watched carefully for signs he was depressed or overly concerned. I was almost disappointed to realize my mature boy known for being sensitive and emotionally aware seemed to be just fine. Even when I sat him down and gave him ‘the facts’ about Jake’s condition, he nodded soberly, but easily changed the subject to a video game he was hoping to download. Was it because he was a boy? Was it his age? Did he not really ‘get it’ – this idea that his small furry companion would not last much longer?

Children don’t understand many of the grim disappointments and tragedies in life and they shouldn’t have to. That’s what makes them resilient and adaptive and confident in the everyday joys of cartoons, bike-rides and ice cream. While I examine every potentially negative aspect of every choice I am about to make, my sons blithely seek out avenues of pure happiness, not caring whether it might last a moment or a month.

Pets are like that too. They don’t understand bankruptcies or lay-offs or cancer diagnoses. They don’t need to know where ‘this relationship is going’ or how committed you are to providing them with a certain lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. There’s no judging or miscommunications or passive aggressive plays to hurt your feelings. Perhaps that’s one reason why people have pets – to be closer to that part of themselves that they might have lost along the way from carefree child to anxious adult.

Jake remains with us for the moment, although I know one day I may walk into my sons’ room and find him lifeless in the cage. And, I’ll probably cry. And, then I’ll have to move on, understanding that like any relationship, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Maybe.

I still don’t consider myself a ‘pet’ person, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of having another one after our rats pass on. No chinchillas though.  They’re just creepy.

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Pet Person (Part 3)

Pets

I was second guessing myself as we drove the hour and a half home with two very large and rather intimidating rats in a cardboard box on the floor of my mini-van, yet my son seemed to summon a hitherto hidden Dr. Doolittle ability to befriend all members of the animal kingdom, naming them after his favorite television show heroes – Finn and Jake.

The rats themselves were cheap – no pure-bred pedigree papers to buy here – but buying the cage, food, bedding and a number of other ‘must have’ rat items made it clear we were really investing in this venture.

“I hope this isn’t a mistake,” said my husband after the fifth time he cut his hand putting together the $80 cage.

I hoped so too, especially several weeks later when the novelty of having new pets wore off. Insisting my son take out the rats every day to play with and handle them became a daily chore for me. When he complained, I had to remind him that they were HIS pets and HIS responsibility. Unfortunately, the responsibility of cleaning the cage (as well as any random droppings and urine) fell to my husband and me. I began to remember why I had avoided pets for so long. The musky smell of the cage hung heavily in the air of my sons’ room and there wasn’t too much we could do about it, but get used to it. I worried about the rats being bored in their cage, and worried about them not getting enough exercise and worried about them chewing through their cage bars and running amuck in the house. I realized that I was thinking of them as extensions of my own children – well except for the bar chewing bit.

Here’s the problem with letting people know you have rats – they never let you live it down. My family and friends were at best amused and at worst aghast at the notion that we had willingly brought vermin into our home as pets. If I had a dime for every snake food joke or grandmother that declared she would never visit my house again, I’d be a rich woman.  My neighbor told me about one of the houses on her street becoming infested with rats while the owner was away. “Thought you’d like that story,” she smirked.

Despite the reputation we were developing as ‘that family with the rats’, I felt our pets were serving their purpose. My sons were becoming less afraid of animal encounters – even with dogs – and we got used to Finn and Jake crawling into the bookshelf or scurrying behind the toilet when we let them roam out of their cage. I am not too proud to admit that I began to adore them. They both had very distinct personalities and especially Jake was very fond of snuggling. Rats do this odd eye-ball popping thing when they are having a good time and it became a physical manifestation of their joy when they did it while nestled in your arms. Perhaps I was becoming a pet person after all.

And then, disaster.

To Be Concluded….

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Math for Bullies

Max (age 9): Reuben, I can teach you how to handle bullies.

Reuben: OK…

Max: If someone is bothering you, just say to them, ‘Do you consider yourself a worthy opponent?’

Me: THAT’S what you are suggesting a kindergarten kid should say??

Max: Trust me, it works. Then ask them what 12 divided by 4 is.

Me: Math for bullies? He’ll get beat up for sure… Wait a minute… what is your angle here?

Max: Hee hee.

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Pet Person (Part 2)

Pets

I don’t want to make myself out to be some kind of anti-PETA monster. I think puppies are cute. I appreciate the aesthetic of a basket of kittens and yarn. Seeing-eye dogs provide an amazing service to those in need. Animal friends can help old people live longer. But, perhaps because I grew up with an understanding of how much work pets can be, when I finally moved out of my house, it was with a sense of relief that the only thing I had to take care of for a while was myself.

Eventually that changed, and unfortunately, as much as I knew about owning animals, no one really prepared me for how much work it was to have kids. But, for some reason, taking care of babies didn’t bother me as much. Maybe it was the biological link or maybe it was the fact that they didn’t have teeth yet to chew up my shoes, or maybe it was because they wore diapers to prevent accidents on the rug. I didn’t mind changing them, or feeding them or playing with them the way I minded cleaning up after animals. (Except for vomit. Vomit’s always bad.)   

For years my husband, kids and I lived without any pets at all. Happily. I smiled knowingly when I heard my friends complain about finding someone to watch their cats or guinea pigs while they were away. I shook my head when I read the latest neighborhood email trail about a loose dog found on the street. I casually scanned through Facebook photos of ‘fur babies’ and ‘fur mommies’ without the slightest consideration of whether adding a pet to our own family would be a desirous prospect.  I was surprised when my sister, who I thought shared the same views on animals as I did, purchased a dog with her husband. “I have enough things and people to take care,” I would say, if my mother – who to this day, remains an ‘animal’ person – would bring up the idea.

It wasn’t until I noticed that my two sons, who were growing up isolated from any kind of regular pet contact, were afraid of animals that I gave owning one a second thought.  The idea that my stubborn refusal to entertain the notion of having a pet might in some way be detrimental to my children’s psychological state set off some perfectionist paranoia and I abandoned my rock-steady resolution on pets in a matter of days. Initially, we tried a couple of beta-fish and hermit crabs, but it became clear a species on a slightly higher order was necessary.

“Kids need to have a furry pet,” I reasoned with my husband, who had grown up with dogs and cats and was more than happy not to have any now.

“No dogs,” he said.

For a moment, I considered a cat, but I was still very allergic and the idea of subjecting myself to cat dander and the heavy regimen of anti-histamines which would be necessary in order to live in my own home was not appealing.

That left the rodent group. Ferrets, hamsters, chinchillas, gerbils, guinea pigs, mice and……rats. Let me briefly explain that prior to the story I am relating, I always had a ‘thing’ about rats.  For Indiana Jones, it’s snakes. For me, it was rats. They’re clever, creepy and contagious. As a child, I’d seen at least two movies in which humans get eaten by rats.  ‘Flowers for Algernon’ and ‘The Secret of NIHM’ notwithstanding, I hated rats.

Yet, as I continued to research the best ‘first furry pet for a child’, rats kept coming up at the top of the list again and again. Apparently, they are as smart as dogs. They can be trained fairly easily and will adapt to your sleep schedule (most other rodents are strictly nocturnal). They are extremely social and enjoy interacting with people and rats. They very rarely bite without provocation. They don’t require shots and are relatively easy to take care of.

Ultimately, no one was more surprised than me when I agreed to allow my nine year old son adopt two rats for Hanukkah. Two instead of one because they are so social, they will get lonely if left by themselves for too long, apparently. We didn’t even own them yet and I was already anxious about their psychological states.

To Be Continued….

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Conjunctions

Max (age nine): So, we had a pre-test in grammar today. Man, I didn’t know half of what they were asking us! One of the questions was ‘what word should you use to get two other words together?’ I had no idea, so I wrote ‘sex.’

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Pet Person (Part 1)

Pets

I have never considered myself a ‘pet’ person. Dogs are messy and chew up your furniture. Cats smell and leave hair everywhere. Birds have no personality.  Fish can barely be considered pets. Give me an animal and I’ll give you several reasons why I don’t want it in my house.

My current aversion to pets exists in spite of (or perhaps because of) a childhood surrounded by animals. My mother has always been fond of taking care of things that need her and even before I was born, had a habit of bringing home the most desperate and woeful cases from the animal hospital at which she worked as a young woman. Three-legged dogs or cats with one eye would routinely become semi-permanent fixtures in the small apartment my parents rented in the Bronx.  

Eventually, my parents moved our growing family to a house in Westchester, and from the day I was born until the day I moved out, (probably closing the door behind me fairly quickly so as not to allow something to escape) my household included multiple dogs, cats and even a few gerbils thrown in here and there.  And, most of the time, the pets ruled the roost.

Now, don’t get me wrong – although cumulatively, we probably owned upwards of 20 or so animals, we didn’t own them all at the same time.  An episode of Hoarders we were not. But the animals were treated more like members of the family than pets, which is not a problem as long as you don’t mind your family members peeing on a pile of your freshly washed clothes or pooping on the expensive imported rug you just bought. There was no training, no heeling and no walking. Our fenced-in backyard became a doggy bathroom, which made getting to the swing set a tedious and time-consuming set of careful maneuvers.  And while I was grateful the cats were kept outside, (because I was highly allergic to them), our front porch was quite often strewn with the dead and decomposing bodies of rodent ‘gifts’ and overrun nightly by neighborhood raccoons stealing cat food.   I remember having to yell or bang something while approaching my own house if I was returning after nightfall, in order to scare raccoons away.

Even though I remember enjoying having pets as a child -especially the dogs -I don’t recall having ever seen a single picture of me cuddling or even petting one of our animals. I just wasn’t really into them. The cons just always seemed to outweigh the pros of having them. Sure, they loved you, but that meant getting licked or slobbered on or rubbed until you were covered with sheddings. Yeah, they protected the house, but they barked at friend or foe – in fact, sometimes you couldn’t get them to stop.    They chewed up toys and blankets, demanded (not just begged, mind you) scraps from the table, got sick and retched in dark corners of the room (sometimes not discovered for a day or two) and could even turn family events into disasters. The night my grandmother tripped over our dog gate and broke her leg, I recall feeling very responsible. Pets were just more trouble than they were worth.  

To be continued…..

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