Stereo dreams

When I was ten years old, Mama bought me a stereo for Christmas.  It was creamy white with a detachable speaker on each side, and it sported a radio, dual cassette decks, and a phonograph that could only occasionally be coerced into working. For a few years after I got the stereo (which was the best gift ever), I had only a couple of pre-recorded cassettes. They weren’t nearly enough, so during this time, I did a lot of waiting for something musical to happen in the world so that I could record it. Mostly, the recordings were confined to what the radio played (e.g., the weekend Top 40 countdown, and most anything between 3-5 pm); however, I also “dubbed” several of my best friend Julie’s records and tapes (she was decidedly rich according to the standards of our hometown).

yorx

But even 30 years later, there remain a few sad little tapes — remnants that (for me) are like walking back in time, sitting on the edge of my lumpy, pink-sheeted twin bed, and staring longingly at the magazine-creased posters of Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, and Kirk Cameron on my wall.  The barely-teenaged dreams that were in those posters and that are musically transcribed on those tapes speak volumes about a girl who wanted more and better and lovelier things, but who truly had no idea what those things might look like or where they might be found.

But it wasn’t just my life that was changed.  It wasn’t just my teenage self that was preserved by the radio.  When my brother, N, talks about knowing way too many Amy Grant songs for a guy who likes Guns ‘N’ Roses, or my brother, T, sings along with “I Huckleberry Me” in the middle of a mostly rap mix CD while he’s driving down the road, it’s solely attributable to the presence of my little white stereo in all our lives. Occasionally, when I clean out boxes or Mom sends me home with accumulations of stuff she’s found that I don’t remember ever having, I’ll discover yet another of the hundreds of tapes I made on that stereo.  The songs are always a little crackly under the surface.  The beginnings are missing the first three or four seconds, and the ends are sometimes reduced in volume so the voice of the radio announcer can be heard.

Life is almost never perfect, but it’s probably even less so when you have to work with so little money and so many unknowns.

I remember laying on the bed reading, waiting for the song I wanted to come on the radio.  I’d be up in an instant — leaping over the rag rug next to the bed (so as to avoid breaking my neck during its inevitable slide), and hitting play and record together with the most practiced and expert maneuver you can possibly imagine.  And the whole complicated feat usually took less than five notes to perform.  (To this day, you’d play hell trying to beat me at “Name That Tune.”)  I wasn’t missing a song if I could help it.  And oh the joy if they played a couple tunes I wanted back-to-back; I usually ended up dubbing these more complete copies onto new tapes…why settle for missing notes when you can have perfection?  To this day, the five or so tapes I managed to cobble together without static or missing pieces still make me think the Universe was on my side.  At least sometimes.  At least for a little while.

I don’t know how much Mama paid for the stereo, but I’m sure it was too much.  Everything was too much back then.  But unlike all the fad gifts I got (and didn’t get) over the years, the stereo stood the test of time.  Without it, I would’ve had no background noise for the composition of thousands of journal entries, at least a couple hundred of which were written in a purple, lockable diary that my little brother had no problem opening without a key and that I still have to this day.  There would’ve been no Beatles soundtrack for the hundreds of times I cleaned my room (which was my only refuge in the world and which never really got messy except when the cat moved her kittens to the bottom drawer of my dresser, and my room temporarily became the hub of activity in the house).  Without the stereo — and my little brother’s purchase of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet — I might never have decided that rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t the music of Satan after all (no matter what they told me at the Methodist church camp).

I don’t remember Mama ever telling me to turn the stereo down, not in all the years I had it.  And I’m sure I played it loud because — no kidding — I come from loud-music-lovin’ stock.  I think Mom must’ve trusted my musical tastes to give us all what we needed during our time at home, and I have to figure I did okay if Bon Jovi, Amy Grant, The Beatles, and various showtunes are the worst things my little brothers came away singing.  Somehow, the fact that there was an assumption that everything I listened to was all right makes me feel like it must’ve been “a simpler time,” but it also causes me to wonder if (in some ways) I was more privileged than my own present-day step-kids, whose stereos are forever being shushed to a volume that is conducive to TV watching in the rest of the house.

I hate their music.  Their dad hates their music.  They even hate each other’s music.

It breaks my heart that years from now, Step-son will never amuse us, his wife, or his kids with the singing of showtunes or teenage girl music that he heard hundreds of times blaring from his sister’s stereo, entirely against his will.  It makes me think that we’ve come too far, that we’re too comfortable, that our family could use a little less money and lot more forced closeness.  Mainly, it’s just that I’d like to pull them all back in time with me, and make them appreciate the little things so much more than they do.  They don’t know what their futures or dreams look like any more than I did at their age, but I’d like them to be able to look back at this time in their lives and remember — if nothing else — that there was so much possibility around them and inside of them that it lived in the very notes playing on the radio.

Booze, broccoli, and babies

It’s Saturday afternoon, and my house is peaceful enough that I’m actually enjoying the cats weaving between my feet in the kitchen while I’m trying to cook.  Usually, even the people in the house can’t get by with that kind of proximity.  But cooking just now is striking me as a leisurely activity — I’m steaming my broccoli, zucchini, and carrots for the week, and it’s become such a rote thing that I can now actually blog while I do it.  And ignore cats, apparently.  I’m freakin’ zen, y’all.

It’s five o’clock nowhere, but I’m standing here seriously pondering the virtues of getting liquored up while I cook.  I’m supposed to go to a meet-up at 6:00 with about twenty people I barely know and my sister (in-law), who (as you may or may not know) I love.  Truth be told, I’m going for her, though I also (kind of) know a few of these people from high school.  I’m figuring that my sweet sister will get busy visiting with folks (many of whom she considers family) and I’ll be left wondering what the hell to do with myself.  Thus the early contemplation of booze.  My dear husband was initially planning to go with me to this shindig so I’d have a fallback person (I’m pretty sure this is why people get married), but he’s asleep after working all night, and I’m not inclined to get him up early.  He had eye surgery this week, and it literally looks like he was punched in the face.  I’m sure he’s in pain, plus, I don’t really want to spend the evening occupied with assuring people I barely know that I did not punch my husband in the eyeball for smarting off.  I mean, if he was normal, I wouldn’t have to ever say these kinds of things, but he isn’t (not at all), and I’m forced to grin stupidly and shake my head in the direction of my towering giant of a spouse in some kind of mocking gesture that I hope says as if! or see this dumbass?  I married him because I loved him beyond reason.  

My youngest brother became a first-time father last night.  The baby will be my fourth nephew; I also have two nieces.  All of us kids are step-parents, but until last night, J and I were the only ones who didn’t also have biological children.  Now I’m alone in that, and at 43, my biological clock has long been sounding a lot like pounding, overwhelming, disgusting death metal.  I’m unbelievably happy for my brother, but beneath the surface, I’m also pretty sad.  Since I was 12 years old, I only ever wanted to be a mom; I guess it just wasn’t in the cards.  I’m a killer aunt though.  Seriously.  And my sister (in-law) has always been great about sharing her kid with me.  (She calls her “our girl.”  As in, “you’re not going to believe what our girl did yesterday.”  She’s now 13, and though she almost entirely grew up with me six-hundred-and-some miles away, my sister swears the kid acts more like me than her.)

Anyway.  When shit gets a little real, I fantasize about getting sloshed while I’m steaming my broccoli.  It makes me feel better even though I’m too old to drink much anymore. Plus, I’m the child of an alcoholic so I really shouldn’t, and I’m trying to watch my calories, which means that all the really tasty drinks are now way out of my league anyway.  The best I could do and still stay within the budget is eat nothing but vegetables for supper; then at least I’d have room for two or three shots.  Not that I’d want to take them…that shit’s nasty without a mixer.

Sonny

My cat has kitty breath.  I know this because he’s sitting on the arm of the couch leaning against my arm, periodically meowing in his beseeching little kitten voice. He’s not a kitten anymore.  In fact, he’s five years old and freakin’ huge.  But when he addresses his mother (me), he uses a different voice — the same one he used when he was little and afraid something was going to get him.  Nothing ever did.

He doesn’t like it when I sit the computer in my lap and type.  In fact, he pretty much hates the computer on principle.  Although it is equipped with rubber feet, he tries diligently to push it off the counter when I put it on the charger at night.  And when he finally gives up on attempting to move it, he lays down on it, determined that if it will not die, then at least I won’t have access to it.

I like his smarts.  When I’m not paying attention to him, he walks around doing all the things he’s not supposed to until I get up with the water bottle and chase him around the house.  Once I’ve sprayed him, he follows me back to my chair and gets on my lap before I have the chance to put anything else there.  Sonny is better at recognizing the worried tone in my voice than any dog I’ve ever had.  If I’m looking for him and can’t find him, he comes to my side as soon as I call, sometimes still yawning and stretching from his nap.  When we see one another, I say “there you are,” and he meows in response as if to say “hell yes I am, crazy woman.” Sometimes I think he just talks to hear himself talk, much like his mother.  We spend an inordinate amount of time meowing back and forth at one another, a pastime that my husband finds more amusing than he probably should.

Sonny, I think, is a lot of the reason why I ended up married to Hubby.  Aside from me, there is no one else on the planet besides him that my smart and evil kitty can stand.  Sonny moves from one of our laps to the other while we sit in front of the television; he greets us both when we come home; and he walks across both of our chests at night when we’re going to sleep.  Sonny and I agreed on Hubby, otherwise I’d probably still be single.

Kitty Boy might be evil (and unlikable as far as other people are concerned), but he has undeniable good taste.

Non-practicing

I have bookshelves overflowing with Heschel, Wiesel, and countless named and unnamed rabbis who wrote before, during, and after the Holocaust.  I have books on trauma theory and on bearing witness to history as well as on scapegoats, missed experiences, and wounds that connect us to one another.  I have siddurim and Torah commentaries and even woo-woo books on Jewish mysticism that describe how to find joy in traditions that have long been thought past their usefulness.  My Tanakh is in Hebrew and English, because once upon a time, I could read both.  There is wisdom in these books, and although I did not write them or in any way inscribe them with my own experiences, they are marked somehow.  Or are they are a marker.  Maybe it’s this:  they bore witness, and I find that difficult to bear.

IMG_2752

When I was 36, I wore a white kippah on my head when I was called to Torah to read (for the very first time) on Yom Kippur.  I was terrified and self-conscious, and I thought I would never be as good or as confident as the rabbi who stood to my right, checking my pronunciation.  Until that moment, I’m fairly certain she thought the same thing.  But I was good.

I was converted to Judaism by a panel of three Renewal rabbis in Denver, Colorado a few months later.  Mainly, I flew out there to see the rabbi ordained; my own conversion was secondary to that, except in the eyes of my beit din.  Despite a year of extensive reading and introspection, despite learning (and then teaching) Hebrew and co-leading weekly services, these people were not at all convinced that I was prepared to convert.  I possessed virtually zero knowledge about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and I had no opinion on the subject.  This was not okay with them and in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been okay with me, either.  I also didn’t have a solid opinion about God.  The latter, it turns out, was much less of a problem than the former; Jews often don’t know what to think about God.  The beit din was reluctant to approve my conversion.  In fact, I’m almost certain they only did so because of the insistence of my rabbi (who was not yet officially ordained).  I think their refusal of her wishes (given her knowledge of me and their lack thereof) would have been unacceptable.

So yes, once I was a practicing Jew.  And I didn’t understand at all why the majority of born Jews weren’t.  I made my Jewishness as official as it could be.  I went joyfully and mindfully into the mikveh the next morning, I said the magic words, and when I came out, I knew I’d never be anything but Jewish ever again.  You should know this:  when I practiced, I was good.  I knew all the songs.  I read all the books.  I gave of my time and talent and money.  I was both teacher and perpetual student.  I wore the Shoah on my sleeve and I railed against present-day injustices that bore too striking a resemblance.  This you should also know:  nowadays, I’m still Jewish because I can’t ever again officially be anything else.  Once a Jew, always a Jew; my name has been writ.  But the closest I’ll ever come to practicing again is lighting the Sabbath candles, drinking wine, and sleeping with my husband.  (Rumor has it, that last thing is a double mitzvah if done on the Sabbath.)

The rabbi had previously been my teacher.  I was an undergrad in a Judaic studies class when I first met her.  I don’t know how she tells the story now, but it used to go “I knew you were one of us the first time I saw you.”  In actuality, I don’t know what she saw, but certainly, she found a sucker in me.  I take some comfort from the fact that I am in good company.  She targets the emotionally vulnerable, the smart, and the talented, and at least at the beginning, we all mistake her for one of us.  But she is predator, not prey, and she just keeps feeding.

IMG_2749

I have bookshelves full of Heschel and Wiesel, and the accounts of the Holocaust that I have both read and heard steal my breath to this day.  I am a Jew, and I became one even though to do so meant enduring the worst time of my life.  I don’t think it’s good for anyone to take history too personally, but during the years I spent studying the Shoah, I could find no other way to take it.  The horror of the event is unfathomable.  The descriptions of even the smallest atrocities become the stuff of nightmares.  It hurts to look and yet you can’t stop looking.  No matter what — for years — I couldn’t exile it from my thoughts.  It became nearly impossible to do my schoolwork, which had long since passed onto new topics.  I had been a writer, but writing with any semblance of my previous joy or humor became inconceivable.  How could there be joy in a world that could allow something like this?

If my rabbi had been anything but a self-interested narcissist, she would have seen where I was and tried to turn me away from it.  (According to her, she had been similarly consumed by her own studies of the subject years before.)  Instead, her only notice of how I was faring came when she realized that I was finding friends in our congregation, both personally and in my capacity as Hebrew school teacher, board member, and lay cantor.  People began to ask when I was singing again, and they sat with me at oneg after services.  We all enjoyed one another, and sitting with me did not mean that everything had to revolve around me.  The same could not be said about sitting with the rabbi, and I have no doubt that my teacher, rabbi, and supposed friend began to experience some jealousy.

I was thrown under the bus for no longer needing her and for making a path to friendship and happiness within a group of people she had considered hers beyond a shadow of a doubt.  A friend of mine (and former best friend of hers) who remained in the congregation after I left called me a year or so ago, days after her own departure:  “I had to go, Angie.  It finally hit me that I just couldn’t take another year.  I couldn’t stand there while she made yet another annual sacrifice.”  My breath caught in my throat, and when I went to tell her that I understood her decision (and so identified with her choice of words), I had to clear my throat to speak.

IMG_2746

I have books on my shelf that I walk by every day.  They are written by wise men and women — great teachers and thinkers and rabbis.  Some of them talk about traumatic events (Freud and Feldman), about missed experiences (Freud, Lacan, Barthes), and about the holes in our very being that connect us to one another (Bataille).  And then…there are also those that stare back quite pointedly from my shelves, and whisper-scream about scapegoats, and about how someone must be made to pay the price if the community is to go on (Rene Girard, and even Shirley Jackson).

Of course, the Jewish population of 20th century Europe was itself scapegoated by the communities in which they made their homes and raised their families.  Other Europeans (particularly Germans) became convinced that they could not survive or be successful while Jews (German Jews) were in their midst; their success and integration could not be permitted to go any further than it already had.  In the end, of course, the Jews were sacrificed by the very communities of which they were a part, by people whose daily lives were almost identical to their own.  The resemblance had become too great.

I studied the Holocaust as well as the events that led up to it.  I read the books that should have taught me all I needed to know about what was happening in my own personal life, and about what had happened to many, many people before me.  And we’re not even going to talk about how my mom was yelling at me from 650 miles away, trying desperately to warn me that A TRAIN WAS COMING.

The train hit, and when it did, my long-awaited adult bat mitzvah was only two days in the rear-view mirror.  (It was a rousing success.)  I was in the middle of a semester of grad school, and I considered my relationship with the rabbi one of the closest in my life.  So I was utterly flabbergasted and totally devastated by the betrayal and abandonment that came.  One minute we’re talking, the next minute we’re not.  One minute I’m a teacher at the Hebrew school, a board member, a student in her department, and a friend, and in the next I’m not even worth a conversation, and the remaining members of the board are convening by phone to remove me from the temple so the rabbi never has to see or talk to me again.  (For the next six months, a repeating chain of questions cycled through my head, totally cutting off all other avenues of thought:  Can she really do this to people?  Of course she can — I’ve helped her do it two or three times before myself.  Why didn’t I realize that this wasn’t okay, that other churches and clergy don’t do this?  Why didn’t I recognize that I’d been manipulated into helping her?  Why didn’t the board full of people who knew me realize it?)  In the five years that I had known the rabbi, the pieces of my world that didn’t include her had become very small indeed.  I had changed my area of study, my religion, my friends, even the music that I listened to.  Without realizing it, I had made the differences between us negligible at best, and — as Girard could have told me — one of us had to go.

I went.

Less than two years later, I moved back to Illinois.  A year and a half after that, I was married to my husband and thanking my lucky stars that I wasn’t still stuck 650 miles from home, living a life that only looked good from the outside but really was never supposed to be mine.  In retrospect, I’m so glad she showed me who she was.  I got away late, but at least I got away.

When I left, all that was left for me to finish grad school and get my master’s was sitting for my comprehensive exams, and frankly, I was never worried about whether I’d be successful.  I was a writer and a thinker, and I have no doubt that I could’ve done it with one eye closed and one hand behind my back.  But my questions — the ideas I would’ve chosen to be “tested” on — reside entirely between the covers of those books that I once loved and now can hardly bear to look at.  I couldn’t have reread them if my life depended on it.  In the end, my life depended on me leaving them alone, and I haven’t opened them since.

But I do look at them often in the course of standing and admiring my bookshelves (as we book freaks are wont to do).  I don’t suppose I’ll ever stop loving them, and they’ll always be an integral part of who I was and even who I am now.  Occasionally, I manage to forget for a while the pain they caused in me or witnessed from me, and I catch myself quoting their ideas before I even know what I’m doing.  I also frequently recommend them to others, though I am careful to keep certain volumes out of the hands of the younger ones.  I know better than most what these books can do, how sometimes the tales of other people’s destruction can so closely mirror our own as to become indistinguishable.  Our feet follow our thoughts more often than one might think.  And I also believe there’s something of the truth in this eerie description of traumatic resonance from Toni Morrison’s Beloved:

Where I was before I came here, that place is real.  It’s never going away.  Even if the whole farm–every tree and grass blade of it dies.  The picture is still there and what’s more, if you go there–you who never was there–if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you.

I read this and I think simultaneously of my former rabbi and my over-exposure to Holocaust history, testimony, and literature.  And yet…I am Jewish and I always will be.  Though I am usually deceptively silent on the subject(s)– though there are books I will not open for the sake of my own joy and sanity — I am not broken or crazy or even as forgetful as some might like.  I remember who I was, what I did, what I felt, and why.  And nowadays there’s nothing I can do but honor that memory and keep my distance.

[Note:  This blog reflects only my thoughts, feelings and opinions.  None of the statements herein should be construed as objective fact.  Feelings are not facts.]

Jammies and judgments

If you were sitting in my living room right now and we were having coffee, it would no doubt occur to you to wonder exactly how long I stay in my pajama pants on an average day.  You might even think about asking me directly, because right now it’s like one in the afternoon and to most of the world, my comfy clothes might look a lot like clinical depression.  You’re probably a really caring and nurturing soul and I appreciate that, but before you jump on the bandwagon, I can assure you that everything’s all right.  I’ve had a shower today.  Hell, I’ve even shaved my legs and put on moisturizer.  I am not depressed.  If I was, my mom (whose name would have been either Frank or Earnest if she were a man) would’ve called me out on it like two seconds after it started, my cats would’ve been really pissed about their dirty litter boxes, and my husband and step-kids would’ve wanted to know where the hell their supper was, and that would’ve been that.  So again, I’m not depressed.  But admittedly, there are a few things contributing to the plethora of pajama pants in my possession as well as the frequency with which I wear them.

  1. I keep my house cold enough (even in the summer) that most people need an afghan to be comfortable.  (This is not at all inconvenient because I actually MAKE AFGHANS, so I have plenty and I like to share.)  Since I’m either on the computer or crocheting, I can’t really cover up; the pajama bottoms mean that I don’t have to.
  2. I have a cat who barely lands on the nice side of satanic.  If I don’t wear pants that he likes to sleep on (fuzzy soft pajama bottoms), he’ll scratch my legs until I reconsider my choice.  The scratching is, of course, unintentional.  (Yeah.)
  3. I’m going through a bit of a heavy phase at the moment, brought on by the purchase of Oreos, ice cream, and potato chips every week for the past six months.  The pajama bottoms are among the few articles of clothing I own that still fit.  The way I see it, folks should be grateful I’m wearing pants at all.

Probably none of these explanations is really good enough for you, and I have to admit that even I occasionally find my attire appalling and problematic.  Mostly, these moments occur in the presence of other people.  For example, there are times when I have felt truly and unfairly judged by the UPS guy.  And we’re not even going to talk about the visiting 12-year-old friends of my step-son.  Except to say that those kids really need to work on keeping every thought they have from crossing their faces.

Thankfully, I can at least say that in my house, I am not alone in my preference of pajama bottoms.  To illustrate:  last night, step-daughter and I returned from an afternoon out with my mom.  As she walked through the door, she was tweeting about taking off her makeup, putting on pajamas and binge watching Supernatural.  By the time she finished typing, I’d already re-donned my fuzzy ‘jammy pants from earlier in the day, grabbed the Chromebook, and started a cup of coffee.  By the time my coffee was done, she had on her own fuzzy pants.  We could only smile at one another as we grabbed various bags of unhealthy food and seriously contemplated having frozen pizza for supper for the second night in a row.  In the end, we couldn’t be bothered to wait for the oven to preheat and we ate whatever we could find that took even less effort than that.  (Parenting goals!)

So, if you were sitting here right now drinking coffee with me, it would probably occur to you that I’m not depressed so much as I’m an obnoxious teenager in a 40-some-year-old squishy body.  And I couldn’t really argue with you there.  Not at all.

The big dog and the blind boy

My mother can be truly tenacious. Many are the times in my life that I’ve been grateful to look behind or beside me and find her there. Always — even when I’ve disappointed her or done something utterly ridiculous — I know she’s there if I need her. She refers to herself as “a big dog”. Not all the time, but like: “I took your grandmother to her appointment today because the doctor wouldn’t answer her questions and she needed a Big Dog.”

Yesterday, I told her that, as a Leo (and the single defining force in our collective universe), she was to blame for all her children being “freaks of nature.” I say this kindly, and in the funniest way possible, but in actuality, I think there’s an element of truth to it. The five of us cannot gather anywhere without being the center of attention. She says “well honey, that’s just because we’re fascinatin!” And there’s truth in that. I’ve never met anyone else like us. We all naturally gravitate toward intellect, learning, and wit. Throw in my mother’s penchant toward creativity and strangeness (regardless of the situation), and well, you got yourself a buncha freaks. Smart freaks who talk about interesting things, but freaks nonetheless. In fact, I’ll bet there isn’t a one of us that wasn’t “different” before the age of three.

As an example, I give you J, my youngest brother. First, the basics: Like his sister, he learns about the things that he’s interested in quickly and is able to apply that knowledge. He’s good at his job and knows it well, he’s intuitive and knowledge-seeking, and he’s excellent at correctly judging situations and people. Now, the kicker: He’s a fucking freak. When I was home last, he did his traditional “humiliate Mama in the grocery store routine.” This has been an ongoing thing with them for years, but this was the first time I actually saw it play out firsthand.

My mother works with developmentally disabled adults. Years ago, when J was in junior high, her job had an in-service on “the proper treatment of blind people.” J just happened to be there that day; he’d gotten out of school early, so he was on the sidelines being uncharacteristically quiet and still, waiting on her to get off work. Now, the in-service was a serious thing. They were having it because their staff was often inconsiderate to the blind people in their care. They’d forget to tell them to step down or they’d steer them too close to objects in their path, and since the blind person’s hand is always on one shoulder or the other (and they’re always on one side or the other) they’d end up getting hurt. So, this in-service involved just the staff, leading each other around blindfolded, trying to learn how to be sensitive to the very existence of the people who were relying on them. J watched all this passively, silently. But somewhere in his little freak brain, he also integrated it. We saw hide nor hair of it for years. Then, some years later, it popped up in the grocery store.

The story goes, Mom was in a bad mood. Some bitch did something to her at work, and she was walking around with the “don’t fuck with the big dog” face. I hear it’s a Leo thing. Anyway. So J puts his hand on her shoulder. Now, we’re a somewhat affectionate family. I pat/pinch the boys’ asses being stupid, they put their arms around both me and mom when they think we need it. So Mama didn’t really notice the hand on her shoulder – not until she realized that she was garnering stares from everyone she and J passed in the aisles of the supermarket.

J was pretending to be blind. And so far, she’d walked him into a couple endcap displays and a wall of Coke products. He’d stumble for a moment, pat his way around, and walk with his hand out at the right level till he “found” her again. When she looked up and over her shoulder at him after she noticed people staring (J’s about 6’4), she saw that his eyes were sort of heavy-lidded, fixed on some invisible point ahead that never changed. He was doing the perfect imitation of a blind person. So, she punched him in the stomach (and this woman’s playful punches are NOT painless) and told him to stop it. And naturally (after he gave her a visual demonstration of what he’d been doing), she couldn’t stop laughing, which was J’s objective from the beginning.

Now, I had the privilege to see some of this when I was home last, though by now Mom has learned to immediately smack J’s hand off her shoulder when they’re in a public place. To compensate for this, J has adapted a vocal routine to go along with the physical. “Mom? Mom! Where are you? You’ve left me again. Has anyone seen my mom? Hi! (touching a stranger) I’m a blind person, can you help me find my mom?” And he’s standing stock-still in the middle of the aisle with his hand uselessly reaching into the air around him. Now, I don’t know who you think I am, but I do not have the ability to keep a straight face in the presence of The Funny. (My middle brother, T, has it, and I’m totally envious. It makes him a terrific joke-teller.) So I’m laughing my completely loud and distinctive laugh, Mama’s moving quickly down the aisle trying to pretend she doesn’t notice or know the blind person who’s very loudly asking for his mother, and T and N are shaking their heads and following her, chuckling to themselves. It takes me a moment to realize that I look a little cruel, standing five or six feet away from a blind person in a supermarket laughing my ass off. When I do, I walk up to J and put my arm around his significantly-higher waist and we walk off smiling to find Mama.

Normal people – nay, even just fascinating people – do not do these things. These are the actions of freaks. Once again, I use this term with all possible humor; I certainly wouldn’t have my family any other way.

ADDENDUM: I called Mom at work to read her this story, knowing she a) probably needed cheering and b) thinks I’m far too distant from my family nowadays and needs to know I’m still the same person. She said, and I quote: “Yes, but you’ve said nowhere that I’m actually a very nice person, small and petite of frame, and generally a delight to be around! You talk about the ‘big dog’ and people are going to think I’m a big woman. Why can’t you use the nickname you gave me? ‘Mamasita’ makes me sound so cute.” This, from a woman who yanked people from car windows when I was a child, and parked behind people who stole her parking place so they couldn’t leave in recent years. Naturally, I mentioned these behaviors, to which she said “well, what do normal people do when assholes steal their parking place?” I said, “we cuss, loudly, from the confines of our car.” She said, “well that’s not healthy. That’s bottling up your anger; it’s passive/aggressive behavior. You know I don’t believe in passive/aggressive behavior.”

This is exactly my point. I love my family, but freaks we are, and ever shall be.

This entry was originally posted in May 2005 when I was living 1650 miles away from home and missing my family. I’m reposting it today in honor of Mama’s birthday and her continuing role as Big Dog and Freak-in-Chief.

Coming out

A few days ago, I spent some time feeling homesick for the interwebs of my misspent youth and for the people I met there.  At least a fraction of what I missed about those days (and that place) was the extent to which everyone had a sort of instant audience for the things they were writing.  Recently updated journals would pop up on the main page feed; there was a running list every time you’d log in.  There were thousands of journals, but after awhile, you “knew” the ones Continue reading “Coming out”

The Old Green Singers

For quite a few years, there was no steady money coming into our house. When it finally arrived, we went for car rides and ate McDonald’s and Hardees for days on end. Mama didn’t like to cook and didn’t really know how. Plus, she didn’t have a thrifty bone in her body. She had no idea what to do with our occasional bursts of money; certainly, it never occurred to her to stock up on groceries or to prepay bills. But she liked to drive, and we all liked to ride. And it goes without saying that none of the four of us kids had a problem with the fast food diet.

At the times when we were a two-car family, Mama always named the car that was ours.  Dad’s car didn’t get a name because we weren’t usually allowed to ride in it.  On the rare occasions when we did, it wasn’t fun for any of us, so no one felt compelled to give the vehicle an affectionate nickname.  Over the years we had a couple of Monte Carlos, a Pinto, a 9-seater station wagon (aptly named “the goat wagon”) that was a piece of crap before we ever got it, and an extremely ugly and extraordinarily loud green utility truck.

211180159_287af4803c_oWe were a musical family, and I don’t say that lightly.  Every single day for all five of us, there was music.  Mama played the guitar.  We sang in the kitchen while we did dishes. We sang in church on Sundays. We sang on the front porch and didn’t care if the whole neighborhood looked on. We sang as we drove down the road on all of our many weekend drives out into the unexplored middle of nowhere in a fifty-mile radius around our small town.  By the time I entered the fifth grade, I sang harmony better than any adult I knew, and my brothers (who at the time ranged in age from four to eight) had no problem picking a part — whether it was Mom’s or mine — and sticking to it.  Music was our escape. No matter what bad luck or circumstance threw our way, no matter if we didn’t have heat or electricity or hot water or a decent dad, we always had each other and we always had music.

It was about this time — during the height of our music-filled days — that our old Monte Carlo drew its last breath and Mom (in a single afternoon of used car shopping) stumbled upon the vehicle that stayed in our family until I entered high school. I don’t know where she got it or what she paid for it, but my inclination is to say that it must have come from one of the union guys my dad knew.  I can’t imagine anyone else in our little town driving around in a rusty old utility vehicle.

I was horrified when I first saw it; I had to ride to school in that thing. My brothers, on the other hand, all thought it was wonderful beyond imagination. The truck was GI Joe green!  It had doors and hatches everywhere, was perfect for climbing, and all four of us could ride cross-legged on top of the roll-out bed cover holding on to the rusty iron bar that rose just above and behind the cab.  We were all very careful not to get stuck by any rough metal edges on the sides and bed, and I’m sure Mom was vigilant in her warnings of what would happen if we did get cut by something.  Nobody wanted a doctor’s visit and/or a tetanus shot, and yet, over and over, the four of us climbed up from the ground, grabbing each other’s hands and pulling one another into position, little ones in the middle.

Mostly, we rode at night. The heat inside the house always seemed worse as evening wore closer to bedtime, and our nighttime rides were the best kind of reprieve — one last cool off lark before the lights went out.

We cruised the neighborhood at a top speed of ten or twelve miles an hour, but mostly Mom kept it around five or six. Almost unfailingly, a kid from the block ran out to the curb to ask if he could ride, too. Mom wouldn’t let them — not unless they rode in the cab with her. She didn’t want anybody getting knocked down from up there, she said, and it was too crowded on top already. We never asked to let anybody else ride. While we rode, we sang after-dark, less raucous versions of our favorite car songs. But a lot of the time, we were just quiet, listening to the night sounds of the world that was sometimes much too hard in the daylight. We all calmed down on those rides, and maybe none of us had even realized we were wound up until we felt ourselves gradually winding down. For as young as we were, we had a lot to deal with in our lives. We just didn’t really know it because we were singing the whole time.

There was happiness on the roof of that old rusty truck in the summertime, but we were just as happy come that first winter when we realized that with the windows up, Old Green (as we lovingly called the truck) was like singing in a concert hall, despite the fact that the five of us were wedged in pretty tight.  No one’s voice got lost and every part could be heard. The acoustics were perfect. We sang all the old standards, awed by the full-bodied noise that almost seemed to rattle our eardrums with its intensity. We sang Christmas carols and the typical kid songs that we had learned at school; we sang Peter, Paul, and Mary and Simon and Garfunkel and The Judds until our voices were gone and the windows were too foggy to see through.  Then we all sat forward in the seat and wiped our mitten hands in messy, uneven streaks across the windshield until it was clear enough for Mom to slowly steer the way back home.

Although I wouldn’t have had the words (or the depth of understanding) to have voiced such an opinion back then, in more recent years, I’ve come to understand that Old Green was not just a rusty old truck any more than my mother was just different without reason.  Her difference — and the difference of that old truck — became the great stories of our collective childhood, not to mention the moments that we clung to when (as my colorful mother would say) “the shit came down.” I feel pretty certain that the four of us owe our survival to both of them.

Years later, when we went to sell Old Green, my mother lifted her GI Joe green and rust hood, pulled a six foot tulip poplar through the smoke-blackened machinery from the ground below, walked around to the driver’s door, coerced it open with not a little yanking (and some growling metal protests from the truck), and started her right up.

“She’s a helluva gal,” my mother told the buyer. “She’ll get you where you’re going.” She patted the cracked dash lovingly, half amazed that the truck had started and half wishing that it hadn’t.

Mom would say, ‘People don’t need to know everything about us,’ so she didn’t tell the man that Old Green had great acoustics. She didn’t say that on nights when you were sitting outside a bar with your four kids waiting for your asshole husband to come out, or come home, or give you some grocery money, Old Green was a great place to sing and pass the time.  (She also didn’t mention the time that she nearly ran the bastard down in the parking lot of one of these same bars, my brother hysterically screaming at her from the other end of the bench seat:  “Mom!  What are you doing?!”)  She didn’t say that there was an old pullout metal bed cover in back either, or that on sticky nights, four insanely hot children could catch a good breeze from up there, rolling slowly through a neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks. She didn’t say that you could fairly easily damage your twelve-year-old for life by dropping her off at school in the Old Girl — not only as a result of the truck’s appearance, but also because one couldn’t exactly make a silent entrance when driving it.  While Mama talked and the buyer stood there nodding, I remembered my daily mortification.  In short order, I also remembered what Mama always had to say on the subject: “It builds character, honey. One of these days, you’re gonna be awful glad you aren’t like everybody else.” Turns out, she was right.

What she did tell the man who bought our truck (and whose face I cannot recall) was that in cold weather, the Old Girl needed to warm up for a while, that the side storage cabinets were rusted through and wouldn’t keep anything secure, that the starter was on the floor, the shift was on the column, there weren’t any seat belts, and that the passenger door occasionally opened on a whim and spilled out a passenger or two on the outside of a tight turn. He looked a little shocked at that last bit, I remember, but my mother’s mood was not such that she reassured him about what happened after the people had fallen out.

She didn’t want to sell. None of us did. Old Green brought us joyfully through some of the worst years of our lives. She was part of the family.

via Daily Prompt: Harmonize

You can’t go home again.

Boredom is a rarity for me.  There are too many books and blogs to read, too much television to watch, too much Amazon browsing to be done to ever allow it.  This afternoon though…I just finished a book (Hillbilly Elegy), and before I can really get into another one, I need some silence and a steady lack of company.  Neither are happening.  Step-son is having technology issues that I must periodically attend to, step-daughter is trying not to throw her phone in frustration with one of her friends (who seems to think that sending a screenshot of her phone will show evidence of her broken screen).  Husband is trying to sleep for a little while before he returns to work tonight for another 12 hours.  The cat is high from the catnip spray we bought last night, and the neighbors are mowing their grass in the 95 degree heat of the day.  The trains roll through repeatedly, too many to count and way too loud.

So I’m not bored, not really.  But the book was good and a little thought-provoking and my mind is certainly wandering.

Today, I’ve been thinking about people I originally encountered on the internet, met face-to-face, and now haven’t seen or heard from in more than a decade.  Thinking of them led me to a sort of homesickness for OpenDiary, a community I joined in 1999 and stayed with off and on for the five or six years following, even though I was also self-hosted during most of that time.  (OD, of course, closed permanently in 2014, but even looking at the Wayback screenshots of its standard crappy page design makes me more than a little sad for those days long gone.)  It’s funny the things that stick with us and that become synonymous with “home” in our heads.  Place–I guess even virtual place–becomes something so much more once feeling is attached to it.  On OpenDiary, I met Leah, whose last name I no longer remember, whose emails were lost to the ether when my old standby email address was shut down due to inaction.  She made me soap, sent me a book on powerful historical women, and hugged me in the Charlotte townhouse of a friend of hers.  She was a first-year teacher with a lot of frustration…not at all a new thing for that school district, even then.  Then there was Essdee (Shawn Dana), whose last name I never knew, whose face I never saw, but whose comments on the every day minutiae of my life made everything so much easier.  And, of course, Dominica, who accompanied me and my then-partner to a Star Trek Voyager convention in Cleveland (where we all patently refused to sit in on Jennifer Lien’s section, even though she hadn’t yet become a psycho with a record), who was so very kind, who loved us both, who was a brilliant web designer, and who herself had more psychiatric problems than any of our circle of friends could have possibly imagined.

Where do these people go?  How do we all drift so quickly in and out of one another’s lives, especially if what we have seems to be good for all involved?  I like to think that I am a person interested in people, that the people I love and have around me are more important than any thing I might accomplish or any money I might make in my time on this planet.  I would rather excel in friendship than in the accumulation of possessions, and I hope that the people who are (or have been) in my life know without a doubt that this is where I stand.

I am Jewish for a reason:  I believe that this life is all we get, that our only company for the journey is one another.  That we have to take care of our fellow humans even in their weakness and sadness and madness and baddity.  (I don’t care if “baddity” isn’t a word, I’ve still been using it for more than a decade and it works.)  I was young once, so of course I didn’t always feel this way.  As young people, we rarely value the right things, and I’m sure I threw away many people I should’ve kept, and vice versa.  It’s just so hard sometimes to remember (even now) that it’s not just me in the world.  People don’t do the things they do because of how those things will affect me; rather, like me, they mostly only consider how they themselves will be affected.  I have to remind myself on a daily basis that I am not the end all and be all, that the teenager neglecting to pick up her mess cannot be taken as a personal affront anymore than the weather can.  It’s a freakin’ struggle, but I’m guessing it’s one with which we’re all fairly familiar.

I’ve digressed a little.  My point is that I’m missing all those long-gone folks today, and I’m taking their gone-ness (and OD’s gone-ness) more personally than I should.  Conventional wisdom tells me that I can’t go home again, but today….today that’s just making me really, really sad.

Into temptation

Y’all, I can pass right on by the fried chicken and the french fries and the mozzarella cheese sticks and anything else that’s cooked in fat and sold in fast food restaurants.  But Jesus on a bicycle with no helmet, I cannot pass by the Sixlets…or actually any chocolate, come to think of it.  And the soft serve vanilla ice cream?  To echo a certain badly written Twilight character, it’s my own personal brand of heroin.

I’ve done so well in the last few weeks.  I managed to get ten pounds down after our return home from the beach.  But today has not been good.  I went grocery shopping with my step-daughter, and ended up buying all that cheap, nutrient-void junk food that tastes so good you just can’t make yourself stop eating it till it’s gone.  Long story short, I ended up going over my calories for the day by 200.  Tomorrow is likely to be more of the same, and probably worse; it’s my step-son’s birthday, and there’s a damn Dairy Queen ice cream cake in the freezer.  I probably don’t need to tell you that I didn’t go for the small one.  Mama always says that “for a dollar more you can go first class,” and in this case, two dollars took the cake from “probably too small to feed four” to “almost big enough to feed ten.”  I’m counting on there being leftover cake that everyone else will forget to eat and that I will probably obsess over until it’s gone.  If I had any sense of self-preservation, I’d make a vow to not log a single calorie for the next couple days, but knowing how very Type A I can be, I can pretty much guarantee that each one will be meticulously counted regardless of what it does to my self-esteem.

I did go swimming this morning with Mom though.  We took the water weights and moved around a little while we visited and talked about the other people in the pool.  You’d think we never saw one another, the way we carry on.  Maybe this is just the way maturing mother-daughter relationships are, but I feel like we’re probably a little more appreciative of our time together than most.  Until the end of 2014, I had been 650 miles away from her for 14 years.  I’m hopeful that we’ll have many more years together to continue being inappropriate in public; the women in our family tend to be unnaturally long-lived, even when they chose to spend the majority of their lives doing unhealthy things like smoking and drinking.

Actually, now that I think about it, I’m going to blame today’s transgression of the diet on those girls in my gene pool who lived way too damn long.  If it weren’t for them, I might be a little more careful about how I treated my body.

L’chaim, grannies.  And shalom, y’all.