Monthly Archives: January 2015

Rats. Death.

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This past week, I dug a grave. It was a tiny one – just rat-sized – to bury our family pet. It was, in fact, the second such plot I had to prepare in less than a month. As I cut through the thick roots that seemed to weave just under the surface of our entire back yard, it grimly occurred to me that digging a grave is much more difficult than they make it seem in the movies. But with my husband away, the job – and shovel – of grave digger for our two rats had fallen into my hands, as well as the painful and daunting task of beginning a ‘death dialogue’ with my two young sons. Pets die; we all know this.  In fact people also die, and although I counted myself lucky that my first major discussion on the circle of life involved a rat rather than a relative, I was dreading it nonetheless.

Woody Allen once said, “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” The truth is I am consistently apprehensive about the concept of my own mortality. The idea of suddenly and permanently ceasing to exist seems extremely unpleasant, to say the least. I’m sure my lack of a formal religious upbringing and being born a third-generation hypochondriac doesn’t help my spiritual or secular chances of feeling comfortable with the idea of eventually passing over into either nothingness or (possibly) somethingness, but I was determined not to let my neurotic fears get passed on into the brains and hearts of my children.

After the death of the first rat, I attempted to reconcile my own feelings, and delivered what turned out to be a rather forced and phony soliloquy about ‘all things coming to an end’ and a reference that I believe came from Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ about our dead rat feeding the soil which will then feed the plants and other animals and thus allow our pet to live on in some cosmic form of recycling.   I think I even mentioned the distinct possibility that our rat would be reunited with loved ones in ‘rat heaven’ and could frolic once more together on some giant hamster wheel in the sky.

I felt like a hypocrite, and when the second one passed away weeks later, I reconsidered my approach. My sons were already very familiar with the idea of death as it related to cartoons and video games. Violence and fatalities without consequence is a concept that is almost unavoidable in this society. Were my sons immune to the idea of a loss of life at this point? Were all the studies about television violence that I had skimmed online correct?  Would my children feel anything stronger than a vague desire to change the channel on this fairly uncomfortable scene?

I considered my older son, who had taken on the responsibilities of pet care with the typical and varying amount of enthusiasm of a nine-year-old boy; from excitement to boredom; from determination to annoyance. When the first rat died, I worried about his reaction; all the time he had spent cuddling and petting something that was just alive yesterday and now was gone. But, he is more practical than dramatic and adopted a stoic sense of appropriate but succinct grief; the emotional equivalent of politely removing one’s hat for a moment of tribute to a fallen, unknown hero, before easily changing the subject to something cheerier.

My five-year-old, still deeply rooted in a ‘monsters under the bed’ phase, lingered on the gruesome possibilities of our rat joining the army of the undead. “Will he be a zombie?” he wanted to know. He was interested in the process of digging the grave and wanted to watch.  I worried about his morbid curiosity, and my mind flashed forward to his inevitable serial-killing future and subsequent trial during which it was revealed his grave-digging proficiency was directly related to my early influence.

I wavered on what level of fervor should accompany my final discourse on the topic, which I was saving for the backyard funeral. I was caught somewhere between ‘My GOD, he’s dead, Jim!’ and ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’  How could I both comfort and clarify on a subject that was not only distressing and mysterious, but was such a personal stumbling block for me? I worried that whatever I said was the wrong answer and would set my sons on a path of anxiety and fear.

I recalled when I was about ten, I had a particularly severe case of strep throat. Before my official diagnosis was determined, there were other opinions thrown around. Perhaps I had the flu or pneumonia. It seemed serious and it was suggested my lungs be x-rayed. Sitting anxiously in the waiting room, I looked up at my mother and asked, “Am I going to die?” Unaware of my train of thought, she looked at me seriously and answered, “Yes, you are.” Obviously, she meant ‘some day, which she apologetically explained later, but it was the definition of a poorly-timed lesson on reality. What I NEEDED to hear at that moment was, “No, you’re going to be fine.”

Ultimately, I decided to avoid delivering a definitive death diatribe – and not only because I didn’t have one – and focus on what I thought my sons needed at that moment instead. For my practical son, I suggested he pick out some rocks as headstones and inscribe appropriate tributes to our departed pets. I allowed my kindergartner to watch the burial, but was secretly relieved when he decided to turn away at the last moment. We all shared funny stories about the rats and focused on their lives as much as possible. Unfortunately, I’m sure there will be other opportunities to have such discussions; but I’ll take as much time as I can get.

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Happy MLK Day – late!

A few days late, but this video was worth waiting for…

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Fear of Flying

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Among many other personality idiosyncrasies that seem to be worsening with age, I have developed an increasingly frustrating aversion to flying. On a plane, that is.

In my youth, I remember the idea of taking a trip to some far away exotic place like Buenos Aires or Cleveland as something magical and thrilling. Even having to wake up in the wee hours of the morning before the sun rose and leaving the house in blackness created a sense of mysterious purpose and adventure. I was a hobbit in a Tolkien story, throwing my leather knapsack over my shoulder (or perhaps dragging a vinyl Strawberry Shortcake carry-on case) and starting off on a journey of great importance. To slay a dragon. Or visit grandparents. Whatever.

Part of the thrill was surely the novelty of it; because I can count on one finger how many plane excursions I took between the ages of two and 15. We were a family of automobile passengers; my parents content to contain our escapades within the tri-state area. As such, I remained a less-experienced traveler throughout much of my youth, resulting in a somewhat diminished appreciation for foreign cultures. For instance, as a seven year old, on an extremely rare foray to Puerto Rico, I remember the highlight of the trip being the several large bowls of Rice Krispies I was allowed to eat for breakfast in the hotel, a delicacy I was not sanctioned to enjoy at home.

Sadly, just as air travel became more of a necessity in my life, my enthusiasm for it waned as the post-911 airport complexities and entanglements took a firm grip on the industry. Although I realize the absurdity of diminishing the required anti-terrorism tactics by using the phrase ‘a real killjoy’, I can’t help recalling fondly the last time I made it through a security line without catching a sock in my shoe as I hopped along attempting to remove multiple layers of clothing with one hand while I guided dirty plastic bins containing my belongings through the conveyor belt with the other.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy waiting in lines. Or being herded like cattle through an x-ray machine that will no doubt at any minute be proven to cause cancer. Or being forced to guzzle down the bottle of water I just bought for $5.00 before I get to the front of the security line. Or sucking up to TSA officials on the off chance they might find me suspicious-looking (I’m not sure I have ever resembled my own driver’s license photo). Or being charged an additional $50 for every extra pound over some arbitrary pre-determined mass that my suitcase may weigh. Or keeping all my liquid items under 4 ounces and sealed in a plastic bag in my purse. Or removing my belt in front of strangers. Or watching other strangers remove their belts in front of me.  Actually, I take it back – I don’t enjoy any of that.

Lately, being forced to spend time in the airport makes me angry. Just considering the possibility, as distant as it may be, that my flight will be delayed or cancelled puts me on high rage alert, as I psyche myself up for an inevitable argument with a customer service representative or flight attendant. The fact that I have no control over how many minutes are spent sitting near a gate waiting to depart or even on the plane before take-off creates in me a perfect storm of anxiety, apprehension and angst. By the time I’m told to ‘sit back, relax and enjoy the flight’, I have a pulsing vein in my temple.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy paying for meals that used to be free. Or paying for headphones that used to be free. Or paying for movies that used to be free. Or being told ‘cashews are for first class only.’

Besides the internal psychological warfare that accompanies any trip I may take on a plane these days, there is the continuing and exasperating demise of my physical tolerance for turbulence. Whether it’s directly related to some aging symptom of my impending decrepitude or perhaps an indication that my mind-body connection is disconnecting, I find myself increasingly incapable of dealing with air bumps. My head and stomach suffer varying degrees of nausea as the plane tilts and rolls over invisible pockets of air, causing me to grip the arm rests of my tiny seat with sweaty palms as I stare out the window (which a….l…w…a…y…s… has the shade stuck) in vain and count the seconds until we land.

What usually makes the experience all the more painful is the apparent immunity to such suffering that I am forced to witness in my fellow passengers. On a recent plane ride, I was aggravated to have my sense of sickness compounded by the aroma of a tuna fish sandwich, calmly being consumed across the aisle by Jon Lovits’ doppelganger. As the plane leaned to an angle in the sky that implied we were nearly upside down and my stomach lurched appropriately, I was aghast to notice Jon serenely chewing and swallowing his lunch (upside down!), pausing only to notice my pale and clammy stare. He winked, which I took as a direct indication of his lack of humanity.

The practice of flying, like many other aspects of my life, has revealed itself to be disillusioning as I have grown older. However, currently my travel options are limited. Although, I’ll bet if I live long enough to see it, teleportation will get old too. I mean, all that molecule rearranging just sounds messy.

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No Idea

Reuben: Mom, when is Gary coming to visit?

Me: I have no idea.  Probably late afternoon.

Reuben: So.. you do have an idea.

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