Quinoa

In an earlier post, I mentioned that my family is my ultimate reality check. In most cases, this is true, but in certain scenarios, like the one that I am about to unravel for you, it is not.

To recap, my family has no problem telling me about things they find wrong with my appearance:

[In at Target dressing room, wearing a spandex skirt my mom forced me to try on]
Me: MOM this skirt is entirely too tight around my ass. I look like a hoe.
Mom: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
Me: What is so funny?
Mom: I can’t even focus on how big your ass looks in that skirt because I am too distracted by how pale your legs are in contrast to the color of the skirt.

Or creating worst-case scenarios in response to my medical issues:

“I love you, but this just isn’t going to work. The fitness of our species will be weakened by your oral defections.”

[On the phone with my dad after a visit to the dentist]
Me: The dentist says that I have larger-than-normal gaps between my gums and teeth.
Dad: Your dentist is an alahmist (“alarmist” pronounced in a Brooklyn accent).
Me: Why? It’s the truth. She said that I need to buy a special air flosser or else I will have to have a deep cleaning done by a periodontist.
Dad: Have you told Z about this yet?
Me: No, why?
Dad: Good, don’t.
Me: Why?
Dad: Because we don’t want to cause a ruckus over something like this. If Z finds out about your gums, he may think that you are defective or something…and he’ll leave you.
Me: Yes dad, clearly this is exactly what would happen. Who’s the alarmist now?

Or even convincing me that I am hopelessly, socially inept:

“Would that make you love me?!?”

[After my paranoid pothead roommate in college threw away my flip-flops and ate all of my food from the fridge]
Adam: You need to stop being such a bitch.
Me: SHE THREW AWAY MY PROPERTY AND ATE $100 WORTH OF GROCERIES
Adam: Just stop holding grudges. You sound like Dad. This is why you have no friends.
Me: I have friends.
Adam: Animals don’t count.

Yet intellectually speaking, it could not be more of the opposite. While they fully acknowledge that my stories are oftentimes exaggerations of the truth, for some unexplainable reason, my family doesn’t tend to question my book smarts, probably because our intellectual interests don’t particularly overlap. My dad likes radium physics, my mom is obsessed with History Channel specials on the ancient Egyptians, and my brother is my brother. I don’t question them and they don’t question me. We are masters our own domains. If I start talking about something that none of them know or care about, my knowledge is unquestionably accepted as the truth. One time, I spent an entire family dinner pronouncing Contagion as CUN-TAJ-EE-ONN and no one said a word. Sure, I knew how to properly pronounce the movie’s title, but it was just more fun to let it roll off of my tongue incorrectly. I liked the sound of the word more. So I continued to do it, and nobody seemed to mind. It’s not like I was hurting anyone…except apparently myself.

You see, I can handle having pale legs, oversized gums (that would apparently make me an undesirable mate?), and friends that are exclusively dogs, but I cannot handle the idea of being stupid. I have many fears in life – B.O., becoming allergic to bagels, people close to me dying, having my face mauled by hoard of rabid sea turtles leaving me ugly and decrepit – but one of the biggest ones is appearing stupid.

In the midst of trying to uphold my familial role as the type-A super daughter and my family’s willingness to pigeon-hole me into that role, I somehow became unable to handle any sort of opposition to the infinite store of knowledge that my family has convinced me that I have within me. Even my friends in college tell me that part of the reason they love me is because my stories are usually about 60% true and my impressions of people all sound like Eric Cartman. They, like my family, know better than to disrupt me with nonsensical things like the “real facts” when I am on a roll. All in all, the very people who I lean on for support also happen to be the ones who have bound me to an intellectual wheelchair, that is, until Z.

It all started one day when I was watching a re-run of How I Met Your Mother. I used to hate this show because of its use of canned laughter and largely obnoxious characters (with the exception of Marshall, played by Jason Segal, but he still gets points taken away for being in love with Lily, the most annoying redhead to ever walk the planet), but the show has six complete seasons available on Netflix so it is perfect for those days when I just need background noise to drown out the sounds of my own gluttony.

“The Gang” of How I Met Your Mother (Top Row, Left to Right: Ted, Lily, Marshall; Bottom Row, Left to Right: Robin, Barney)

Anyway, this particular episode of HIMYM was entitled “Spoiler Alert.” The premise of the episode revolved around each character’s flaws being made obvious to the other members of the group, thereby ruining everyone for each other (if that makes any sense). It all starts when Ted points out to Marshall that his wife, Lily, makes really loud chewing noises. As a result, Marshall can no longer eat next to Lily without being acutely attuned to her chewing noises – noises that he never would have noticed prior to Ted’s comment. For the remaining twenty minutes of the show, the flood gates of the gang’s flaws are opened: Marshall has a tendency to sing about whatever he is doing, Robin says the word “literally” all the time (and incorrectly), and Barney is forced to recognize a plethora of his own problems, which range from his annoying catch phrases to his occasionally high-pitched voice.

Now obviously, none of these problems would have come out of the woodwork had it not been for Ted, who in my opinion is the WORST character on the show (like seriously Ted, you have too many feelings and no straight woman wants a man that acts like a pussy all the fucking time and Tourette’s blurts “I LOVE YOU” at any given moment to any girl). Ted’s flaw, as pointed out by Lily, is that he corrects everyone. About everything. All the time. He just can’t let anything slide.

Lily: Ugh, this is all Ted’s fault. Ooh, like he’s so perfect, Mr. Corrector.
Robin: What are you talking about?
Lily: Oh, come on, you dated the guy for a year and didn’t notice that most of what he says is correcting you?

[Flashback]
Robin: Oh, can you hand me a Kleenex?
Ted: Actually, Kleenex is a brand, this is a facial tissue.

[Flashback: during a movie]
Robin: Oh my God, is Frankenstein gonna kill that little girl?
Ted: Uh, Dr. Frankenstein isn’t in this scene, that’s Frankenstein’s monster.

[Flashback: after having sex]
Robin: That literally blew my mind.
Ted: Figuratively.

Suddenly, I am struck by the horrible realization that I too am dating a “corrector.” All of these instances come flowing back to me at once, similar to the aforementioned flashbacks in the HIMYM episode.

[Flashback: reading an e-mail forward from Z’s grandfather about Eritrea]
Me: Oh, I had to do a report on the conflict in Eritrea [UR-EE-TREE] when I was in high school.
Z: You mean Eritrea [ERR-IT-TREE-AH]?
Me: No…Eritrea [UR-EE-TREE]…my high school history teacher told us it was pronounced that way.
Z: [pulling up YouTube to type in “pronunciation of Eritrea” and solve the dispute once and for all…YouTube pronounces Eritrea as ERR-IT-TREE-AH, like Z does]
Me: Whatever, Ms. Lambert said it like how I was pronouncing it so it’s not like this ignorance is totally my fault [Of course, when in doubt, blame the authority figure responsible for you.]
Z: Didn’t you go to private school?

 

[Flashback: watching the news about the bombing of the U.S. Consulate in Libya]

Me: [Not exactly sure what I said, but I basically implied that Libya was considered part of the Middle East]
Z: Um, Libya is in Africa babe.
Me: No, it is part of the Middle East [Okay, I am willing to take some flack here because I was partially confusing Libya with Lebanon in thinking that Libya was physically located in the Middle East; but as far as being considered a part of “Middle East” in the way that it is defined by the Eurocentric perspective of most American school teachers, Libya is often included, along with a few other North African countries.]
Z: [Whips out his MacBook Air and Googles “Libya Map,” to show me where Libya is]

Map of the “Middle East”

Me: Okay, yeah, so, it may be ON the African continent but that doesn’t mean it can’t be considered part of the Middle East, like Egypt. The Middle East isn’t a continent.
Z: Well Egypt is technically in both Africa and Asia, so it actually does have land in the Middle East…
Me: WHY DO YOU HAVE TO MAKE ME FEEL LIKE I AM DUMB

[Cue crying until I get an apology]

I know that Z does not think I am stupid, nor do I think he is intentionally trying to “zing” me with his corrector tendencies like I am some insolent dog and he is Cesar Milan, jabbing four fingers into my neck to thwart my naughty behavior (TSST!). Yet, when Z corrects me, I find that I become irrationally offended by what is meant to be a well-intended gesture by someone who loves me.

The weird thing is that I don’t mind being wrong, but I HATE being corrected. You would think the two are interchangeable but they are not. For example, I could be wrong for stealing a subway seat from a pregnant woman (Side note: What if she was just fat in the stomach? I would be insulting her by offering my seat. Plus, men should be offering their seats. It’s only right since they are the impregnators.), and I accept that because it is based on my behavior rather than that infinite store of knowledge that my family has convinced me that I have within me. When Z, or anyone else (but really, only Z so far) corrects me, it is like he is pulling away a small section of my security blanket of smartness.

Thus, when Z decided to be “the corrector” in the middle of a romantic dinner on our recent trip to Portland, the last bit of the false smartness security blanket was leaving me cold, both literally and figuratively.

[Flashback: dessert menu placed in front of us at Andina, a “Novo-Peruvian” restaurant]
Me: Oooo this looks good – the crisp quinoa [pronounced KEY-NO-AH] studded cannolis stuffed with passionfruit mousse…
Z: Quinoa [KEY-NO-AH], babe? REALLY?!
Me: What?
Z: You mean Quinoa [KEY-NWAHH] [Slight look of horror crossing his face: “Maybe she isn’t as smart as I thought?”]
Me: [pausing to reflect on what my answer would be, I mean obviously I know what quinoa (pronounced either way) is; I just never actually saw/noticed the word written down. I have only heard it. With my ears.]

Bowl of Quinoa. Could be made to look more appetizing with addition of cheese.

Z: Babe, it’s KEY-NWAHH.
Me: NO! NO! [SHIT SHIT there is no way out I am trapped in the depths of my own ignorance and the horrible realization that my inability to recognize and pronounce the name of this pretentious hipster food group. I am a fake! I don’t deserve to be in Portland or Brooklyn or anywhere that claims to have educated elite! I mispronounced quinoa and now the veil has been lifted and I am revealed for what I truly am! A fake! No use hiding it now. Might as well be Snooki and not even ironically. For real. Someone should punch me in the face stat.]
Z: Would you rather me not say anything and let you go around pronouncing it wrong?
Me: Well, no, but I mean, I never saw the word written down. And you could go about it differently, like sound a little less shocked, maybe? [Or perhaps just never correct me at all because life is just better when you go about it blindly?]
Z: [Shakes head]

Later that evening…

Z: Babe, come here.
Me: What is it?
Z: [Types “how to pronounce quinoa” into the YouTube search box]

 

Me: Well the middle pronunciation sounded pretty much the same as what I have been saying…

It was horrible. I honestly felt like I was some dead victim’s parents on Law & Order: SVU being taken to the Medical Examiner’s room to identify the mutilated body beneath the sheet, except for me the sheet was the YouTube search box and the mutilated body was my perceived intellect being stabbed a hundred times with the box cutter of Z’s competing intellectual stores. Luckily, things took a turn for the better the following day.

Where cranberries grow.

[Flashback: walking past a bush full of small, red berries on our way to get coffee]
Z: I wonder what these berries are.
Me: They look like the ones on the tree in my backyard that I used to eat when I was little. They were so delicious until I had to go to the hospital and have my stomach pumped.
Z: I think they are cranberries.
Me: No, they can’t be cranberries. Cranberries don’t grow in bushes or trees.
Z: No, I think that there are cranberries that grow on trees.
Me: But what about all of those Ocean Spray commercials where you have the farmers wearing the thigh-high boots in a swamp full of cranberries?
Z: I know what you mean, but…
Me: [Googling “where do cranberries grow”  on my iPhone] “Cranberries grow on low-lying vines in beds layered with sand, peat, gravel and clay. These beds are commonly known as bogs or marshes and were originally created by glacial deposits.”
Z: Well babe, it looks like you are right. [Totally unaffected and comfortable with his mistake]
Me: Who’s the corrector now? HAHAHA

And just like that, I am a genius again.

Granny Issues

Unlike most people, I have always preferred the old to the young. Between the orthopedic shoes, tapered pastel sweatpants, Aqua Net-drenched granny fros, and casual discrimination (“Oh hey, you can’t take anything she says personally, she grew up in a different time! She doesn’t know any better!”), the elderly fill a void in my soul that I have had my entire life: grandparents.

Betty White and her trademark G-fro

To be honest, I did not even know that grandparents could be essential, positive influences in a person’s life until I met the ones that belonged to my friends. Every year on Grandparents Day, my classmates would parade their grams and gramps around the school, showing them the classrooms and introducing them to their teachers and friends. These grandparents had a look of genuine wonderment upon their faces. This expression was not because the shitty student artwork bedecking the cement block walls was particularly fascinating, but merely because they were so happy that they got to spend time (or what little time they had left) with the spawn of their spawn.

I have my own theories about why most grandparents are so infatuated with their grandchildren, though they will probably not be confirmed until many years from now, when I become a grandparent myself. While some of this infatuation probably has to do with that whole “unconditional love” thing that you are supposed to feel for people that share your blood, I think that a bigger part of it might be that grandchildren are the true test of whether or not you were a good parent to your own kids. For instance, if your grandchild is housebroken, let alone knows when to say “please” and “thank you,” then your parenting techniques had to have been somewhat effective despite all of the times you may have doubted yourself.

On the other hand, I think that the aforementioned infatuation can also be explained by the simple fact that grandchildren can also serve as a nice form of payback. My friend, Kristina, has the most adorable niece in the world, Jene, who is three years old. Janice, Jene’s mom (and Kristina’s sister), is a fabulous parent, but I would imagine that when she was Jene’s age, she could be a little demon to her mother, Roslyn, when she didn’t get her way.

Recently, Kristina told me this hilarious story about something that Jene did to get Janice’s attention. Apparently Janice was working on the computer, and Jene desperately wanted to play with her. After relentlessly shouting “Mommy!” trying to get Janice to abandon what she was doing, the wee one decided that if she wanted Janice to listen to her, she needed to bring out the big guns. So Jene stepped into the middle of the living room, took a deep breath, and screamed “EVERYBODY SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

While Janice sat there, shocked and trying to think of a way to properly discipline Jene, Grandma Roslyn’s immediate response was to burst out laughing uncontrollably. After all, Roslyn probably had dealt with her share of disciplinary issues as a mom to Janice, and now as a grandma, she got the opportunity to sit back, relax, and watch her daughter get a dose of her own medicine from young Jene.

Unfortunately for me, my one shot at grandparental infatuation was blown when I realized early on that my only living grandparent did not particularly like me. I am not saying that I wasn’t loved by this grandparent, but in order to understand where I am coming from, you need to grasp the difference between “like” and “love” when it comes to family relationships. Just consider the moments when your parents were furious with you, and said things like “I am very angry at you, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t love you. It just means that I don’t like you right now.” Now if you simply remove the “angry” factor, this phrase pretty much explains the view that my paternal grandmother, Harriet, had of me 100% of the time.

There were numerous reasons why Grandma Harriet did not favor me, perhaps the primary reason being that I didn’t have a penis. Let’s just say that her ideas about the value of girls versus boys were a tad bit antiquated. I enjoyed a brief period of Harriet’s admiration until I was about two (documented by photographs of us smiling together), but my status dramatically declined when Adam, with his stupid baby penis and twelve chins, came into the world. At that point, I became not only irrelevant to my grandmother, but a pawn in her master plan to make my brother “the favorite.”

Pink princess dress and gold tiara = desperate but failed attempt to capture granny's attention.

I know that this “favorite” business sounds ridiculous, but having had only one child, and a boy no less, Harriet thought it was only natural that the male child should be the prince of the household. I remember one instance in which my mom decided to confront my grandmother about her neglectful treatment of me after a family road trip from Disney World back to Harriet’s apartment in Boca.  It went something like this:

Mom: Harriet, why are you so mean to Ginge? You blatantly ignored her the entire car ride.

Harriet: [preoccupied with trying to dig her signature green tube of Revlon Moon Drops Lipstick #712 – “Hot Coral” out of her purse] I don’t know what you are talking about.

Mom: Yes, you do. It’s been going on for a while now and I want to know.

Harriet: [absentmindedly applying the obnoxious lipstick color within the strict boundaries of her leftover lip liner] Well, I need to pay more attention to Adam because Ginge is clearly her father’s favorite.

Mom: That is most definitely not true.

Harriet: I see it differently [through my crazy filter]. I need to compensate for the unevenness in attention that I see between the two children by giving Adam all of my love.

Perhaps the best part about Granny Harriet’s “theory” about my parents’ alleged favoritism was that it could not have been further from the truth. My brother and I may joke about which one of us our parents “love more,” but when it comes down to it we know that our parents don’t have one – we are both equally questionable characters and the dog is their favorite.

Unfortunately, Harriet was in such denial that my parents could possibly love both of their children equally that she made it the point of every visit to convince them that I was a terrible, unruly child requiring discipline. I could share many tales about the numerous comments that my grandmother would make to express her disapproval of me, but I would rather tell a story that truly displays the lengths to which Harriet would go to vilify me in the eyes of my parents. It’s a pretty shitty story, both literally and figuratively.

When Adam and I were young, it seemed like the worst thing that we could do was curse. This was pretty ironic considering that my parents are two of the most foul-mouthed people that I know. They used to try to shield us from their verbal infractions, but we were not stupid. We knew. Explosive temperaments and curse words were in our blood, practically part of our genetic makeup. I’m sure that we could have been abandoned in the jungle like Tarzan and we still would have figured out that every sentence sounds better when “fuck” is strategically placed somewhere in it for emphasis.

This kid had it easy.

The few times prior to age ten that either Adam or me would accidentally drop a four-letter bomb, we knew what to expect and it wasn’t any of that soap-in-the-mouth-now-go-sit-in-the-corner BS that our gentile friends usually got for their foul-mouthed offenses. Our punishments were always psychological and thus, far worse than the physical discomfort associated with ingesting toxic soap chemicals.

Basically, anytime we did something “bad,” my mom would scream at Muppet-level decibels, beginning her tirades with key guilt-inducing words like “disappointment” or “disrespected,” and then driving her point home with even more guilt-inducing phrases like “You are so ungrateful! You’re lucky you even have a mom to yell at you!”  Then, just when you did not think that you could feel any worse about yourself, she would top off her tirade with approximately 45 seconds worth of her notorious “evil eye.” The physical structure of the “evil eye,” or “the eye,” for short, was rather complex. She was able to make her right eye squinty with a shaking eyelid while the left eye remained wide open and unmoving. As much as the yelling sucked, it was really those last 45 seconds that were the worst part of her fit because you had nowhere to go and nothing to do but to try to maintain visual contact. If you attempted to run, she would chase you. If you so much as tried to look away, she would bring her face up really close to yours and force “the eye” into your eyes, like a butterfly kiss gone awry. Of course nowadays when she tries to do the “eye” Adam asks her if she is having a stroke, but back then; it was the stuff of which nightmares were made.

DON'T F%#$ WITH ME KIDS

So one wintry day when Harriet was visiting from Florida, my mom decided that she wanted to take my brother and me to mall to buy new shoes. Since my mom was in a rush and didn’t want to have to waste time coming up our unusually long driveway, she told my grandmother to bring Adam and me near the street so that we could just hop into the car and be on our merry way.

Goose poo.

One thing you should know before I continue is that our town has always had a problem with goose overpopulation. The birds themselves are harmless; it is their excrement that is the issue. There are so many of them and their poop is everywhere, leaving greenish-black slivers all along the driveways, sidewalks, streets, and schoolyards. Our driveway is no exception, and on that particular day with Harriet, you practically had to hopscotch around the crap to avoid stepping in it.

Though my brother and I were used to the sight of the goose poo, my grandmother was appalled. She could not stop commenting on how ridiculous it was that the town hadn’t taken any violent measures to stop the birds from “shitting” everywhere. It is not that my brother, then six, had never heard the word “shit” before, but he had certainly never heard it repeated so many times without any acknowledgement of its vulgarity.

"Earmuff it for me, will ya?"

Usually our parents would make some attempt to “apologize” whenever they accidentally said a bad word in front of us. Much like the “earmuffs” technique used by Vince Vaughn in Old School, the presence of an “apology” gave my parents a free pass to say whatever they wanted without having to worry about us picking up their bad habits. Apologizing implied that their words were wrong, and thus, not something to be repeated by our young mouths. Every time Harriet said “I can’t believe how much shit there is,” no apology automatically ensued. As a result, my highly impressionable young brother just stared at Grandma Harriet in awe, blindly accepting “shit” as the new synonym for “goose poo” merely because his elder had said it without any hint of remorse.

When my mom pulled up to the driveway and the three of us got into the car, the first words out of my brother’s mouth were “Mommy, I can’t believe how much goose shit there is!” The car went silent. I looked out the window because I didn’t want to get caught within ear, and more importantly, eye-shot of the wrath that was about to be dumped onto Adam, especially since we were in a moving vehicle and would be genuinely trapped. But then, there was a completely unexpected turn of events: the wrath intended for my brother was redirected at me.

Mom: [evil eye preparing for blast-off] Adam, where did you hear that word? [totally ignoring the fact that we probably heard it at least once a day in varying contexts, masked by “apologies”]

Adam: Ummmm I dunno.

Mom: Well you couldn’t have possibly just made it up.

Adam: On TV?

Mom: I don’t believe you. I hate liars and you are lying. I know that you don’t watch anything besides Rugrats.

Adam: [silence, staring out window because if he blamed it on me, he knew that I would take scissors to his precious blanket, “Blankie,” later as retribution]

Mom: I know that your father and I have said that word before, but we always tell you and Ginge that it is a forbidden word and that you cannot say it until you are older…and even then, it is still not appropriate. I always apologize when I say bad words in front of you kids.

Adam: I know.

Mom: [growing increasingly more suspicious] Now, tell me where you heard the word and more importantly, why on earth you thought that it would be okay to repeat it in front of me.

Harriet: [looking out window, appearing totally disengaged from the situation at hand] It was Ginge.

Mom: What was that Harriet?

Harriet: He got the word from his sister. She said it. Now stop yelling at him. You are scaring the poor boy. He is blatantly afraid of you. It was not his fault.

Mom: [on the hunt for blood, totally disregarding my grandmother’s underhanded comment about her parenting style] Ginge, is this true?

Me: No, mom.

Harriet: Ginge, you are lying to your mothah. You are trying to instigate trouble for your brothah. You are an instigataaaahh (“instigator,” in a strong Brooklyn accent)!

Me: I am not! I am not! Mom, I didn’t –

Mom: Enough! You are lying! You are supposed to be a role model for your brother! He looks up to you! You should know better! MEH MEH MEH MEH MEH

Me: But I –

Mom: [more Muppet-like screaming followed by not 45 seconds, but for the first time in my young life, 90 seconds of the evil eye – I nearly went blind]

I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I mean, no matter how Harriet had behaved towards me in the past, it had always been motivated by my appearance, not by my character. I was used to her going all “Asian mother” on me – you know, unabashedly commenting on my pre-pubescent weight gain and suggesting that I go for a run after every meal, etc. – and, to be honest, these situations were not even that bad. It was fun to watch my father desperately try to rebuild the self-esteem that Harriet had just desecrated as a last-ditch effort to prevent me from becoming an anorexic slut later in life. My dad would usually pull me into another room and tell me things like “Never mind, what Grandma says. She really does love you…in her own way” or better yet, “My father would have LOVED you. He really would have.”

Here’s a piece of information for all you kids out there: If you suspect that one of your close relatives does not like you, and your parents claim that some dead relatives that you never met “would have loved you,” it means that your suspicions were probably right..

"Can you repeat what you just said to me one more time, just a little bit louder?"

Anyway, from that moment on, I became incredibly paranoid, like those shut-ins who sit around whining about how “Big Brother” is always watching us. In fact, I was so determined to prevent any further undeserved encounters with the “evil eye” that I actually started to carry my miniature karaoke machine around the house with a blank cassette so that I could record every private conversation that I had with my brother in case someone tried to frame me again. Anytime my parents accused me of “instigating” something, I would just pull out my handy karaoke machine and play back what had really happened so that they couldn’t blame me for my brother’s wrongdoings. My technique was working brilliantly until the karaoke machine broke and my dad refused to give me the microcassette recorder that he used to capture phone conversations with people he didn’t trust.

I could have kept my game running for years with one of these.

When Grandma Harriet passed away a few years later, I began to take more notice of other people’s grandparents, or really just old people in general. It’s like when you want something so bad that you can’t help but to notice it everywhere you go. Before Grandma Harriet died, all I would notice were my friends’ legs, namely their ankles. I always had tree trunk-shaped legs with accompanying cankles, and wanted nothing more than to have chicken legs so that I could wear spandex leggings like all the other girls in my class. After Grandma Harriet died, all I could think about was how much I wished that I had grandparents, namely the “infatuated” kind.

Though it has been over a decade since Grandma Harriet’s passing and there is no denying her lack of grandparental infatuation with me, her absence has left me with some unresolved “granny issues.” The “granny issues” of which I speak are similar to the “daddy issues” psychiatrists sometimes use as a possible explanation for promiscuous female behavior. Just as a woman who receives inadequate attention from her father during childhood tries to compensate by seeking male approval elsewhere, I fill my grandparental void by inserting myself into situations where I have the chance to feel appreciated and beloved by the elderly.

This is why, on a recent visit to my parents’ house, I decided to accompany my mom to the local Shop Rite. She had complained to me earlier in the week that ever since the new assisted living facility was built across the street from the shopping plaza, the old people had “taken over the supermarket.” Given my secret adoration of elderly, I had to see this for myself.

NO SAMPLES!

Upon entering the store, I could not believe my eyes. I hadn’t seen so many elders in one place since my parents dragged me to an 11 a.m. showing of It’s Complicated on Christmas Day. They were everywhere I turned, digging their arthritic fingers into the mangoes to judge for ripeness, arguing with the butchers about overpriced beef (“Back when I was your age, I could get a flank steak at a restaurant for 15 cents!”), and reaching their liver-spotted hands into the self-service candy area for some explicitly forbidden “free samples.” A place that was once a central gathering spot for stroller moms, soccer moms, and empty nesters had become quite the elderly mecca. I could not be more delighted.

What the sides of my mouth (or wherever else the toothpaste touches my skin) look like after I use Crest Whitening Expressions Toothpaste in "Cinnamon Rush"

So my mom split up her shopping list, giving me the part that involved toiletries. I started in the toothpaste and tampon aisle (I have no idea why these two categories are always paired together, by the way). As I was struggling to decide whether or not I was going to buy the cinnamon-flavored Crest toothpaste that usually left allergy-induced Joker-esque splotches on the sides of my mouth (ah but it tastes so good!), I felt a light tap on my shoulder.

I turned around to see this tiny old lady with an immoveable snow-white granny fro. With a pleading smile on her face, she introduced herself as Grace and asked me if I could help her to find a box of Fixodent denture cleanser. I handed her the desired box, but then decided to see if I could keep the conversation going by asking if she wanted the generic brand instead because it was two dollars cheaper and exactly the same thing.

Grace:  How would you know about denture cleanser brands? You’re young!

Me: I wear retainers, so I use denture cleanser to soak them.

Grace: Retainers?

Me: Yeah, retainers. [I proceeded to pull my bottom retainer out of my mouth to show her what I am talking about] They keep my teeth from shifting.

Grace: I could have used one of those when I was younger! My teeth shifted right out of my mouth! [pulls out her top set of dentures and laughs] Can you help me to find a few other things? My eyes aren’t the best. I have trouble reading the labels, so it takes me forever to pick out anything here. Usually my nurse helps me with these things but it’s her day off.

So I proceeded to walk around the store with my new, old friend to find the rest of the items on her list. As we were passing through the aisles, a few of her buddies from the assisted living facility took notice. “Who is this?” they asked. Grace would tell them that I was helping her with her grocery list. As a result, I made a whole bunch of new friends. In the space of 40 minutes, I was toted around the store by an entourage of old-timers, providing my expert opinions on things like body wash and frozen pizza.

As I said goodbye to Grace in the dairy aisle, I felt an enormous surge of happiness at my newfound role as the “elderly whisperer” of Shop Rite. When I turned to look back at her one more time, I noticed that she was rifling through her purse for something. I imagined how ironic it would be if a tube of Revlon Moondrops Lipstick #712 came out of that bag too – like a message from Grandma Harriet that I was still loved even though I had a vagina and lacked my father’s fast metabolism. Yet what Grace pulled out of that bag was even better.

Glasses.

A “Special” Education

As you will hopefully learn from me in my later blog entries, my family has always been my ultimate reality check. When I was nine, I told my mom that I wanted to be a track star. I was addicted to watching the ’96 Atlanta Olympics, and had even bought fake blue press-on nails to look like Gail Devers (well as much as a white grade-schooler could look like an African-American Olympian). My mom’s response, albeit the truth, was soul-crushing for me at the time: “Better stick to books because athletic abilities are a God-given gift that you definitely do not have.”

Bad ass.

When I asked why I couldn’t just practice until I was fast enough, she said it would be physically impossible. Apparently when I was a toddler, my parents opted out of giving me the surgery that would have re-aligned my hips so that my legs were both the same length because they thought that my walk (limp) was cute. Seeing as I was and still am unable to run without throwing my right leg inwards like some sort of injured animal, I was grateful to my mom for nipping my “dream” in the bud. This way, I was able to move on, accepting my fate as another awkward, uncoordinated, book-smart, Jew-ginger who banks on self-deprecating humor for self-preservation.

Much like being an Olympic sprinter, I believe that working with children is a God-given gift that not everyone has. After years of babysitting and volunteer tutoring, I have come to accept that I am just not good with kids. Not only do I feel awkward around them, but their consistently unsanitary, marker stained hands and Gatorade moustaches are an affront to my status as a stage 5 germ-o-phobe. As a girl who was always said to be “born 40,” I am going to go out on a Trunchbull-like limb here and claim that when it comes to kids, “I never was one.

"They're all mistakes, children! Filthy, nasty things. Glad I never was one." - Agatha Trunchbull

Given everything that I have just said, I was surprised when my boyfriend, Z, sent me a link to apply for an Urban Teaching Residency. Z used to be a teacher, and not surprisingly also has the “gift” of being able to work with kids. If anyone else had suggested this to me, I would have automatically dismissed it, but since it was Z, and because the program covered teenagers (not the wee ones), I figured I would at least check out the website. I am also convinced that my current job is making me dumber, which I hate. At least as a teacher, you are always learning.

So I started looking into it, but quickly realized that there was no way that I could do this program. Besides the obvious fact that I would never be able to get any respect (closed fist, two bumps to the chest, sideways peace sign) from the students that I would be teaching, English (my undergraduate major) was not one of the subject areas listed as part of the program. I thanked Z for sending me the link, but politely told him my debacle – that I was not eligible for any of the subjects listed. Never one to accept defeat, Z persisted by asking me to consider the one option that I had intentionally overlooked: “Well, why not Special Ed?”

I’ll tell you why not Special Ed.

Whether they are three or seventeen, Special Ed students will always need someone with the “gift” to help them succeed. Combine what the teacher learns in grad school with that “gift,” and you could have a real recipe for success. Or so one would think.

You see, it is not that I do not think myself capable of teaching Special Ed because I lack the aforementioned “gift.” I cannot teach Special Ed because the methods that I would want to adopt would probably be considered borderline illegal by the general public.

I have always been pretty self-sufficient in school, requiring little to no help with any of my homework from a very young age. To this day, my mom still likes to brag to people that I was reading Gone with the Wind in second grade while all the other “dingbat” children were content with their measly picture books. My brother, Adam, on the other hand, could not have had a harder time with some of the most basic concepts due to his multitude of learning disabilities including ADHD, Dyslexia, and a recall problem.

Occasionally, when my mom used to get really worked up about my Adam’s struggles, she would throw in some other disabilities and numbers into the mix to make him sound more pitiable: “You don’t get it, your brother has ADHD, Dyslexia, a recall problem, 504, 808, 101, test anxiety, bird flu, dermatitis….” etc.. When my mom realized that Adam could still barely read by the age that I was allegedly reading GWTW, she decided that she was going to go rogue and take his education into her own hands.

Since my brother was not making much progress in the school’s Resource Room (Adam used to call it the “Retard Room”) with the Special Ed teachers, my mom’s first order of business was to create a Resource Room within our house where she could carry out her operations. This Resource Room started out more like a “Resource Area.” Basically, it was an entire half of our oversized kitchen table that was covered in Adam’s school shit and other supplies. I remember him sitting there for hours, twiddling his thumbs while my mom gulped her red wine, stirred tomato sauce, and barked demands from her lonely kitchen island.

"I own you"

Perhaps the best part of this initial resource area was the profuse amount of “ducks” bedecking the sliding glass doors leading out to the backyard. In my brother’s elementary school classroom, the kids who could not follow directions in class, refused to complete their assignments, and/or stirred the pot of classroom tomfoolery were sent home to their parents with yellow, duck-shaped pieces of paper listing the child’s crimes of the day. Whereas most parents would scold their child and promptly dispose of these ducks, ready to move on to a more hopeful future where their child would bring home “dogs” (same thing as the ducks, but distributed to the “good” children), my mom took a different approach. She thought it best to display the ducks on the sliding glass door to remind my brother of all of the things he should try NOT to do in school anymore.

Example of a Typical "Duck" Note

As you can imagine, special needs children are not easy to reach. Social cues that a regular child might understand aren’t always processed by the special kids in the same fashion. My mom thought that posting the ducks on the doors would bring my brother some sense of shame and make him want to do better in school, but my brother was impervious to her Jewish guilt. All Adam saw when he looked at the ducks were cute animal decorations – and he would stop at nothing to get more of them because he liked how they looked covering the glass. Every day he would bring home a duck, and every day I would hear mom’s screams echoing throughout the house, saying things like “WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU PISS ON THE LENAPE WIGWAM REPLICA DURING RECESS??? IT IS RECESS FOR A REASON – YOU HAVE FREE TIME TO DO WHAT YOU NEED TO DO, LIKE USING AN ACTUAL TOILET.” All the while, Adam and my dad sat there laughing hysterically while my mom, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, would dejectedly tape another duck to the door.

Lenape Wigwam

By middle school, the kitchen table could no longer bear the burden of my brother’s issues. What was originally intended to be a room for family fun and bonding had transformed into a space that represented Adam’s daily torture, which subsequently meant that the rest of us were being tortured as well. I don’t know about your family, but in mine, when my mom is not happy, everyone suffers as a result. Clearly, my brother’s situation was anything but happiness-inducing, so for as many years as the kitchen table was covered in crap, so too were the rest of us. As a result, The Dungeon was born.

The Dungeon was a conference room off of my dad’s home office that had a massive, black, 80’s style dining room table originally intended for business meetings. The room was largely unused until my parents decided that it would be my brother’s own mini-prison for the remaining duration of his years at home. Shelves and plastic Tupperware drawers were moved into the room to hold endless school supplies, reference books, and files of Adam’s past work.

The main benefit (for my parents at least) of moving my brother to The Dungeon was its proximity to the spiral staircase leading up to my parents’ bedroom. This way, if my brother so much as attempted to go to the bathroom, my mom would hear the creak of The Dungeon’s door opening, stomp down the spiral stairs in her polygamist-esque prairie nightgown and squawk “Get your ass back in there and study” or “Fine, I don’t give a shit, Imma throw your ass in public school!” and my favorite, “Whaddya think? You’re gonna get into college on good looks and charm? No fucking way José”

Perhaps the funniest thing about The Dungeon was how fitting its name was – it really was like a prison. Not only was the door always closed, but it also had one small, narrow window to the outside, white walls with no decorations, and a pull-up bar installed in the doorway. Like a true convict, my brother really had no choice but to read or work out. Sometimes when I was pulling out of the garage, I would look up at the sliver window and see my brother’s face pressed up against it, with an expression that screamed “free me!!!” I felt guilty until he got older, when the “free me” face was replaced with the finger.

Example of a Kid with the "Free Me" Face

My dad even started referring to my mom as “Warden,” since she determined what visitors, if any, my brother was allowed to have during his homework time. For instance, I was only allowed me into The Dungeon when my mom felt like pimping me out for my paper-writing skills. I was like her academic bottom bitch – “helping Adam with his homework” was a process that typically involved fifty bucks in exchange for my promise to write a B-range paper with some appropriately placed spelling errors.

By the end of it all, I won’t lie when I say that I became a firm believer in the power of threats and imprisonment. My brother may have complained, but when it came down to it, he was and still is better in school because of the “Special Education” that he got at home. He not only graduated from high school without failing any classes, but he also attends a good college which, after a couple of face-to-face admissions interviews, overlooked his academic mishaps and accepted him for reasons that cannot be explained as anything other than “good looks and charm.” He also works for the school’s TV station where he is one of the news anchors. The kid who at one point could barely read, now does so fluidly off of a teleprompter.

So this is why I cannot be a Special Educator – because the methods that I have found to be truly effective are not exactly the kind of things that can be put into professional practice. Had I not borne witness to my brother’s lifelong plight in school, Special Education might have been a completely viable career option. But now, as with many things I encounter in my daily life, my perception of this profession has been completely skewed by my upbringing. It is hard for me to imagine a way that learning is possible for the “special” kids when I can’t help but associate it with sloshing wine, shame-inducing duck displays, threats, or more importantly, a small, isolated space where apparently, a kid has nowhere to go but up.

Some content on this page was disabled on March 30, 2016 as a result of a DMCA takedown notice from Jenny Wicks. You can learn more about the DMCA here:

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How the Grinch Stole Chrismukkah

When gentile children are babies, such a big fuss is made about “Baby’s First Christmas.” The child is brought to the mall, placed on Santa’s lap, and forced to take a multitude of photos that will ultimately be sent to relatives, transformed into tree decorations, and inserted into family photo albums. It doesn’t matter if the baby is sobbing throughout the whole ordeal; those pictures signify a sort of initiation into the Christmas spirit.

Baby's First Christmas.

The “Christmas spirit” to which I am referring may not even necessarily be religious. Sure, Christmas may have originated as a religious holiday, but I find that in America, or at least where I was raised, the vast majority of my friends who celebrate the holiday haven’t been to church in years or were not even raised with a religion. I even know Indian people who celebrate Christmas, merely because they consider it an “American tradition,” like Thanksgiving or Memorial Day. It is basically an excuse to get excited about something, be it buying and exchanging gifts, eating a home-cooked meal, or just reuniting with special people.

Celebrating Christmas, and more importantly, believing in Santa Claus, is probably the highlight of the year for every gentile kid from the time they can walk until around when they reach middle school. And who could blame them? Christmas is the shit – sparkling decorations, pretty colors, awesome music, and of course, that gleaming tree to hold all of those family-specific ornaments, only furthering those feelings of “peace on earth and goodwill to all men” that most of us lack the other 11 months of the year. I love Christmas, and I don’t even celebrate it. Well, at least not anymore.

You see, no one ever talks about a child’s “Last Christmas” – you know, the final time that a family celebrates this wondrous, retail-driven holiday because the gentile parent has finished converting to Judaism so this technically “Christian” holiday must be eliminated from the family calendar. Then again, maybe you haven’t heard of such a thing. BECAUSE IT IS ABSURD.

As mentioned previously, my mom began her conversion to Judaism when I was very young. As soon as we could walk and talk, we were enrolled in Hebrew School and brought to synagogue services. We even celebrated all of the Jewish holidays with their accompanying foods, both at home and in Boca Raton with my grandmother.

Based on the aforementioned practices, one would think that my religious identity was pretty much set by elementary school. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Why? Because for the first six years of my life, my family celebrated Christmas, complete with the tree, the ornaments, the stockings, the presents, and even that paper advent calendar with the chocolate-filled windows.

YUM.

I was a card-carrying Christmas lover. Once again, this was not due to any religious attachment, it was merely because of that “Christmas spirit” that makes you forget how cold it is and appreciate the days off from school, time with family, and most importantly in the mind of a child, the presents. Given that we were celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah at the time, or Chrismukkah as it has come to be known nowadays, my brother and I loved the holiday season because we got double the gifts and candy.

Then, one December, the glory days of Christmas unexpectedly came to an end. My mother, a.k.a. the Grinch, decided that it was time to steal Christmas away from me, the innocent and unsuspecting Cindy Loo Joo.

"Oh my sweet little tart..."

I may only have been six, but I remember that day so clearly. It was the last day of school before Christmas break (it wasn’t called “Holiday break” back in the less PC days of the early 90s), and I had just arrived home. I excitedly threw off my backpack and was about to head to the pantry for a snack when my mom shuffled into the kitchen and said that she needed to discuss something with me.

Mom: Ginge, we need to talk. It’s about Christmas.
Me: What about Christmas? Do you need me to add more toys to my list?
Mom: Ha, no, you see, I was thinking that it is time to stop celebrating it.
Me: [silence, wobbly lower lip, swallowing in order to prevent the onslaught of tears]
Mom: Ginge?
Me: Yes.
Mom: Are you listening?
Me: Yes.
Mom: As I was saying, this is going to be the last year that we celebrate Christmas together as a family. From here on out, we are only going to celebrate Hanukkah.
Me: Ok, well I like Hanukkah too…but does Pop-Pop know that you are doing this?
Mom: Well, here’s the thing…

I probably should have mentioned earlier, that my mom’s grandfather, or “Pop-Pop” as he was known to us, was living in our house at the time of The Last Christmas. His bedroom was located in the basement, a mere 20 feet from the family room, also known as the “tree room,” that housed our 8-foot artificial evergreen (because God forbid we had a real tree that would rain pine debris all over the carpet).

Realistic looking without the mess.

Pop-Pop was well into his eighties, blind, deaf, and practically mute. Despite our daily after-school visits to his basement quarters to appease my mom, my brother and I didn’t know Pop-Pop particularly well. Typically, we would ask him how he was doing while petting his bald scalp, only eliciting an audible response when we poked him to make sure that he was still alive. Usually Pop-Pop would spend the day chilling in his wheelchair, “watching” TV and taking intermittent naps while his Trinidadian caretaker, Mary, would tend to his hygienic needs throughout the day. Yet, regardless his ever-growing senility, the one thing that I ever remember making Pop-Pop appear animated (well, about as animated as an 85-year-old Helen Keller-type character could possibly be) was Christmas.

Every year that we celebrated Christmas, we would roll Pop-Pop into the family room so that he could observe my dad assemble the fake tree. Pop-Pop would also hold the ornament box from which Adam and I would draw our decorative inspiration. For the days and weeks leading up to Christmas Day, Pops would request that he spend as much time as possible in the tree room. I guess he just liked being around this prominent symbol of the holiday, probably because it reminded him of simpler times, like when he used to celebrate with a slew of Italian Catholics, rather than Jew-spawns like us.

Thus, on that last Christmas Day, I was sure to pay special attention to Pop-Pop’s face when Adam and I tore open our gifts. With every Hot Wheels car and American Girl Doll accessory bringing us one step closer to Christmas’ end, Pops’ face shone with glee, foiling the dread that I felt about losing this day and all of its associated cheer.

Considering how much my great-grandfather loved Christmas, I wondered why my parents would want to take the “Chris” out of our family’s Chrismukkah equation so prematurely. I mean, the guy probably didn’t have much longer left, so why take away the one thing that made him visibly happy?

I discovered the disturbing answer to this question shortly thereafter. You see, my parents never had any intention of eliminating Christmas for Pops – they weren’t that heartless. They weren’t going to take away one of Pops’ few joys left in life. That would be cruel. No, no. Christmas was only being taken away from us children for so-called “religious” reasons, you know, since we were supposed to be “real Jews” now.

In fact, my parents respected Pop-Pop’s adoration of Christmas so much, that they decided that he should feel like it was Christmas every day. But how did they plan on accomplishing such a feat as keeping that beloved Christmas spirit alive throughout the remaining 11 months of the year in a house full of Jews? The answer is simple: They left the artificial tree assembled and decorated in the family room throughout the year.

And why not? It’s not like the tree was hurting anyone or detracting from the family’s Jewishness so long as it was being treated like a display item. In fact, we were instructed to think of the tree as an enormous fake plant, just like the dozens of other fake plants bedecking our house. Never mind that this particular “fake plant” with its lights and ornaments was a constant reminder of the coolest holiday ever that we were no longer allowed to celebrate.

Pop-Pop lived for three more years following The Last Christmas. For every day of those three years, that fake tree remained in the basement as a way to keep my great-grandfather connected to his heritage while simultaneously making Adam and I feel like we were stuck inside some twisted, Jewish version of Tim Burton’s movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas. By keeping the Christmas tree on display year-round, it was as if my family had opened the portal to “Christmas Town.” Similar to Jack the Pumpkin King, my family decided to steal Christmas for the enjoyment of our own town, or a “Hanukkah Town” if you will, simply because we liked its appearance.

A Christmas Tree: The Gateway Drug to Holiday Cheer

Yet Pop-Pop wasn’t the only part of The Last Christmas conversation. He was only the tip of the iceberg hindering Santa’s sleigh from ever leaving the North Pole for our house again. Here is how the rest of the conversation with my mom went:

Mom: So do you have any more questions, hon?
Me: Well, did you tell Santa this? Does he know that you cancelled Christmas for us? Will he know to ignore our house on Christmas Eve?
Mom: Ah, yes, Santa. Hmm, yeah well I guess as long as we are on the topic of eliminating Christmas, I should tell you that Santa isn’t real. Santa is your father and me.
Me: WHAT? But what about the half-eaten cookies on the table next to the tree? Who brings the presents? They are signed “From: Santa” on the gift tags!
Mom: Your father eats the cookies. I buy the presents, write “Santa” on the tag, and put them under the tree.
Me: Oh. I guess that makes sense. The handwriting did look a little like yours.
Mom: Yes, dear. I am sorry.

When school reconvened after Christmas break, I entered the classroom only to discover that the rest of the students still high on Christmas spirit, discussing what they had received from “Santa.” It was like they were pouring salt in my fresh wounds with all of this talk of “Santa” and “Christmas” – totally oblivious to the fact that not everyone celebrated the damn holiday (well not anymore at least). I decided that the best method by which I could weather this post-holiday happiness was to avoid everyone altogether. They couldn’t possibly understand. Thus, I hung up my jacket in my cubby-hole, returned to my desk and twiddled my thumbs hoping that no one would ask me about my Christmas because I didn’t want to admit to my WASPy colleagues that it was actually my last.

Similar to how I felt that day.

Unfortunately, all of my thumb-twiddling was in vain. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. B., decided that we should begin the class by going around in a circle and share with the class what our favorite Christmas present was. Little did she know about the Pandora’s Box that she was about to open:

Mrs. B.: Okay, class, so let’s go around and each person say what their favorite Christmas present was. Tommy, let’s start with you.
Tommy: My favorite present was my Nerf Gun. Because I can shoot my weirdo sister with it.
Mrs. B.: That’s not nice, Tommy. You should resist violence. Shoot at things, not people! Now, let’s move on. Sara, what did you get?
Sara: I got a watercolor set.
Mrs. B.: Very interesting, Sara, perhaps you can paint us a picture sometime. Audrey, how about you?
[Audrey was this only child in our class who probably got more presents for Christmas than the entirety of the children in West Virginia combined]
Audrey: I got 12 Barbie dolls so that I can create a Barbie town, two Barbie Doll houses, rollerblades, ice skates, three soccer balls, a bunch of sweaters and candy, all five American Girl Dolls, a My Size doll, a tree house, a few Trolls, and an Easy-Bake Oven.
Mrs. B.: I asked you what your favorite was.
Audrey: Yeah, well all of those were my favorites!
Mrs. B.: Okay, never mind then…Ginge, what did Santa bring you this year?
Me: Santa isn’t real.
Mrs. B.: [panic-stricken face, Tourette’s-driven blinking and twitching gone awry] Excuse me?
Me: Santa isn’t real. Santa is just my mom and dad.
Mrs. B.: [twitches out of control] Ginge, that is not true. Who told you that?
Me: My mom, she said that she buys the presents and my dad eats the cookies.
Mrs. B.: [look on her face that basically says “SHIT what do I do”]
Tommy: Ginge, you are lying! Santa IS real! My parents were sleeping last night!
Audrey: I am going to tell my parents what you said! My mom met Santa!
Me: [face in my hands, shaking my head]
Mrs. B.: [face in her hands, shaking her head]

Yep, that’s right. I was robbed of Santa’s magic so I decided that I was going to poach this illusion from the rest of the class faster than a dolphin in Taiji. If I couldn’t have Christmas, namely that blinding childhood faith in Santa Claus that was the subject of so many early 90’s movies, neither should anyone else.

Oops, my bad.

Luckily for Mrs. B., the kids in my class were still dumb enough (or were choosing to be dumb enough) to dismiss my completely sensible revelation of Santa’s true identity. Everyone basically accused me of lying, and Mrs. B., in an effort to appease the droves of gentile parents from whom she would inevitably be hearing from later, sided with the rest of the dingbat class. Sadly, the children’s ignorance did not stop Mrs. B. from calling my mom for a conference to discuss the inappropriateness of my outburst. I imagine it went something like this:

Mrs. B.: Your daughter told the class that Santa wasn’t real.
Mom: And? Is she wrong?
Mrs. B.: Well no, but isn’t it a little bit too soon to be revealing the truth about Santa?
Mom: I figured it was better to admit it to her myself rather than having her find out on her own and be upset about it. Plus we aren’t celebrating Christmas anymore, so the discussion about Santa kind of went hand-in-hand with the whole “no more Christmas” thing.
Mrs. B.: Hmm, well now that Ginge has told the class about Santa, she sort of deprived the rest of the parents of the ability to have that discussion with their own kids.
Mom: Is there something in your eye? Listen, I’m sorry that this happened, but I don’t know what else to tell you. They’ll have to learn sooner or later, I guess they just learned sooner. Now is that all? I’m going to be late for my hair appointment. I love my kids, but I’m almost completely gray now because of them.

**********************************************************************************************

As much as I can still appreciate the beauty of Christmas, I cannot say that I really miss it the way that I used to when I was a little kid. I mean, the main reason for my wanting to celebrate Christmas was because it provided a feeling of “belonging” in my overwhelmingly homogeneous town. Yet I have come to realize that people spend so long trying to be like everybody else when they are younger, but wish that they were more unique when they get older. I guess being able to say that I didn’t celebrate Christmas but had a year-round Christmas tree in my basement is one of those stories that makes me feel unique, so it was totally worth the mental scarring.

In addition, just because Christmas was removed from my calendar, it doesn’t mean the “Christmas spirit” was too. Regardless of what I celebrate, this time of the year still means that I get to reunite with special people, buy and exchange gifts, and eat a home-cooked meal…even if the food isn’t actually made in a home, but rather a Chinese restaurant.

“Quick, a wet paper towel!”

I am and have always been an anxious person. It is not like I enjoy being this way, but I know that no matter how hard I try to persuade my mind to believe otherwise, I will never be that laid back, go-with-the-flow kind of girl that so many people encourage me to be. I am sure it would do me a world of good to adopt this persona, but it feels unnatural. I mean, why would I stress myself out with trying to be something that I am not when there is the far easier option of over analyzing everything until I have driven myself into a fit of mental paralysis curable only by Xanax and fried food?

Luckily, I do have one thing going for me that I think the majority of anxious people do not: I have learned to accept the majority of things that I cannot control. I am able to do this because I have such low expectations of the vast majority of human kind that when anxiety-provoking things happen, I cannot help but be apathetic. As a result, I have focused my anxieties on the short list of things that I actually can control, which aside from keeping my recurring hemorrhoid, Chester, uninflamed, includes cleaning.

Whenever I have a free block of time to myself, I will spend it doing some form of housekeeping. I am not proud of this. I truly wish that I had the desire to use my precious time on something far more productive or fun, like exercising or going out with friends, but I usually do not. Even when I do venture out into the world, I am always thinking about the things that need to be cleaned when I get home. To be honest, I can barely focus on writing this paragraph right now because I know that there is fallen pizza crumbs trapped in the couch-cushion valleys on both sides of me, just begging to be evacuated like James Franco’s character in 127 Hours.

Unfortunately, not much helps to curb my anxiety about cleanliness besides cleaning as much as I possibly can. Though I know that it is not healthy for me to feel this way, I have rationalized that it is a far healthier alternative to having an eating disorder, since that is usually the go-to self-inflicted torture for female control freaks.

Though I am painting myself to be some sort of Monica Geller-esque clean freak, there are many people in my life who would disagree with this self-assessment. For instance, my brother, Adam, laughs when hears me talk about my addiction to cleaning because his image of my living spaces has always been less than pristine. When I was growing up, my childhood bedroom was always disorganized – books, phone chargers, and shoes were strewn all over the carpet, used towels were haphazardly tossed onto the couches; and there was always a growing a pile of clean laundry in the corner. Even when visiting my various college residences, my family would comment on how one had to swim through a sea of clothes just to reach the bathroom.

Yet, I have a valid defense against my brother’s accusations of slovenliness and it lies in the sharp distinction between what it means to be “neat” and what it means to be “sanitary.” I may not be neat, but I am certainly sanitary. In other words, Adam judges my ability to be “clean” merely on the superficial mess, or the mess that is visible to the naked eye (i.e. clothes, shoes, books, etc.). I, on the other hand, judge cleanliness on what I believe to be the true mess, or the mess that can only be felt by naked feet.

You know what I am talking about – the grime that you usually cannot see, but is lurking everywhere, just begging to be dusted, swept, vacuumed, scrubbed or sprayed. All you have to do is to take a shower and walk a few damp-footed paces on your carpeted or hardwood floor and you will be disgusted at what you will discover stuck to the pads of your feet. For me, it is typically a combination of my shed red hairs, rogue toenail clippings and the boogers that that my boyfriend, Z, believes to magically vanish into thin air once he flicks them (though in reality, these boogers have formed quite the flourishing community in the floor space between the nightstand and the bed skirt).

I know that my brother is not alone in his beliefs about cleanliness. A lot of people operate under the false pretense that as long as something looks clean, it is clean. These are probably the same people who have no qualms with holding onto a pole on the subway during rush hour, and then using that same pole-gripping hand to rub their eyes, bite their nails or to lick cream cheese remnants off of their hands. I envy these people. They probably have ridiculously strong immune systems and lead blissful, fulfilling lives, ignorant of how disgusting they really are.

Is this bitch serious?

The roommate I had during my freshman year of college is a prime example of someone whose cleanliness did not extend beyond the surface. She was always boasting about how “clean” she was, when in reality, she was just “neat.” This girl would hang up her clothes immediately after doing the laundry, make her bed every morning before class, and properly dispose of her late night snack remnants. To the untrained eye, her half of the room would appear to be the “clean” side. Yet as her roommate, I knew that this “cleanliness” was purely superficial considering that she only washed her sheets and pillow cases once a semester, which caused the room to smell like a delightful combination of scalp sweat and crusty, unshaved vagina. In addition, whenever she would take her empty pizza boxes out of the room, crumb remnants from these boxes would snow all over the linoleum floor and remain there for months, attracting ants and roaches.

I acknowledge that I sound crazy and that there are far more important things upon which I should be focusing my ever-dwindling energy supply. Yet, I take solace in knowing that I am not alone in my insanity. Like most of my unappealing (or awesome, depending on how you look at it) personality traits, I have these habits because of my father and the five word mantra that he has uttered throughout my life as a last-ditch effort to maintain cleanliness even in the most desperate of dirty situations: “Quick, a wet paper towel!”

It all started when I was seven and Adam was four. Back in those days, we were forced to go to temple services every Friday night as part of my mom’s conversion to Judaism. Neither Adam nor I really knew what was going on in these services, except that they were always followed by a reception of desserts, or the Oneg Shabbat, which ultimately made the two hours of boredom spent on the cheaply upholstered velvet pews worth it for us. Yet, on one particular Friday night, everything changed. It was the night that I went from being a carefree, marker-stained elementary schooler, to the clean freak – not “neat” freak –that I am today.

It was snowing that night. My mom, fearful of the icy roads, told us that we needed to skip the Oneg Shabbat and leave before the weather became worse. As soon as services let out, my mom grabbed my brother and me and dragged us out of the temple’s front door before we could even think about running into the social hall to scarf up all of the Linzer cookies. My dad, on the other hand, said that he would meet us at the car later because he wanted to “get his money’s worth” of the temple membership. Whereas for most people, “getting your money’s worth” would mean participating in synagogue events and charity drives, for my dad, it meant taking advantage of every opportunity in which free food was being served. The Oneg Shabbat, with its barely defrosted Costco cookies was one such opportunity.

So my mom, Adam, and I started our long trek through the white abyss to the car. Adam and I were still young enough to be infatuated with the snow, and this particular night was no exception. We jumped all around the parking lot through the mud and slush, creating brown footprints in the virginal white accumulation, and trying to find the ice patches where we could pretend we were skating on the pavement. When we finally got to the car and my mom unlocked the doors, my brother and I plopped down, asses first, into the burgundy leather seats.

Just as we were both about to swing out little feet into the car, a very nasally “NOOOOO” echoed throughout the cold, dimly lit, parking lot. Emerging from the shadows was my father, armed with what a stack of carefully prepared wet paper towels from the synagogue restroom. In the red hues of the tail lights, you could see what appeared to be the face of a sweating mad man, possessed by the mere thought of our salt and slush-covered shoes leaving their mark on the car rugs without his being able to control the situation. His frustration only escalated from here:

“MEHHH ARE YOU CRAZY??? Do you have any idea how disgusting the ground is in inclement weather…especially the snow since you cannot see what kinds of things are sticking to the bottom of your feet? Maahhhddge [my mom’s name, masked by a strong Brooklyn accent], you were just going to let the kids get into the car like this??? Careless! Think of all the salt granules that get picked up by the tracks of their shoes, become embedded in those tracks, until one day, one of these delinquents [creates a V-shape with his forefinger and middle finger and points with one leg of the V-shape directed at my brother and the other at me], and stomps around hard enough for the granules to loosen and make final deposits around the house!! You know I hate walking around the house with no shoes and feeling mysterious chunks of debris on the bottom of my feet!!”

Visual Example of the “V” Pointing Technique

At the same time that my dad was conducting this elaborate tirade about the life cycle of street-salt granules, he kneeled in front of me, careful not to let his knee touch the filthy pavement, and held my ankle securely with one hand while frantically wiping one squarely folded wet paper towel along the length of my shoe bottoms. He would alternate between both sides of the wet paper towel until each was completely covered in brown, then proceed to grab a new one from the pile resting atop his knee. He would continue to wipe my shoe bottoms until he felt that each shoe had been sufficiently “disinfected.”

Once my wet paper towel attack was over, he moved on to my brother to repeat the process. Unfortunately, Adam was not so cooperative. I may have only been seven, but I already had a decent understanding what made my parents tick. If I did something that pissed off my mom and led to yelling and the occasional bout of corporal punishment, I knew to avoid doing it again. Similarly, I realized early on that my dad had a crippling obsession with cleanliness and that it was best to just take these “disinfections” like a little bitch rather than to fight the inevitable.

Adam, on the other hand, was immune to such operant conditioning. He saw how upset my dad was at the thought of salt granules infiltrating his barefoot paradise, and decided that he would stir the pot of my father’s all-encompassing OCD by swinging his feet into the car and stomping all of the so-called “granules” into the rug while cackling hysterically.

As you can imagine, this only furthered the madness. My mom, no longer entertained by picking her teeth with one of her Plackers, started yelling at my dad that he needed to quit it with the wet paper towels and drive home before the snow got worse. My brother, at the height of his childhood animism phase, started crying that the salt granules shouldn’t be washed away because they were his friends. Yet, my dad was not fazed by any of these protests. It didn’t matter how much my mom shouted or my brother whined, he was not going to stop until he had the peace of mind that the evil snow debris was not going to infiltrate the car rug or any other part of our house. As the fuehrer of cleanliness, my dad truly believed that these wet paper towels were the soldiers necessary to carry out his final solution: the elimination of all the messes that came with having the small children that, as a once self-proclaimed “bachelor for life,” he never thought he would father.

From that night forward, I was never the same. The majority of my daily decisions were made with some consideration of the messy repercussions that could potentially be involved. Take, for instance, story time in the third grade classroom. None of the other kids thought twice about sitting their well-clothed asses on the linoleum floor space surrounding our teacher, Mrs. Wood. I, on the other hand, would merely crouch in the circle, bending at the knees, careful not to let any part of my body besides my shoe bottoms touch the germ-ridden floor with its visible traces of playground pebbles, scuff marks, and other mysterious brown debris.

At home, I unintentionally found myself in the unpopular position of my dad’s cleaning apprentice. I say “unpopular” because I was the only family member who had bought into my father’s theory of the “proper cleaning technique,” or the idea that every dirty surface had to be “primed” with a wet paper towel prior to being sprayed with disinfectant and re-wiped with a dry paper towel. In any sort of messy situation, you could hear my dad shout to me, “Quick, a wet paper towel!” until I delivered a Bounty-ful array of paper towel squares, folded into fourths, doused in lukewarm water, and carefully squeezed free of any excess drippage.

The Perfect Wet Paper Towel

I would even help my dad prepare the wet paper towels for our family road trips to Hilton Head Island every summer (because clearly Wet Naps were an unnecessary expense). We would prepare a stack of wet paper towels and store them in Ziploc bags for the car ride. Any time my brother or me had vomit stained lips from motion sickness, or sticky hands from a beverage spill, my dad would demand that the car be pulled over to the highway shoulder so that he could properly assess the situation. Ultimately, this assessment would end in him shouting “Quick, a wet paper towel” multiple times until my mom, thoroughly annoyed that we had to pause the 18-hour driving marathon for something so trivial, would finally hand over the Ziploc bags of wet paper towels to my father while my brother and I would sit quietly and endure our punishment for being children.

Though Adam and I are older now and no longer live at home, the wet paper towel attacks still happen – they have just been redirected to our pets. For example, our pug, Zorro, has been violated by wet paper towels three times a day, every day, for the past eight years. If this dog could talk, I think that his story would bear a close resemblance to the convicts interviewed in the documentary, Turned Out: Sexual Assault Behind Bars (2004). Basically, every time Zorro returns from “doing his business” in the yard, he is not allowed to leave the kitchen area until my dad has used a wet paper towel to triple-wipe each of his paws, dab any remaining pee dribble off of his penis, and most importantly, thoroughly clean out his asshole.

Here are some pictures to illustrate the process:

Doing His Business

Cleaning Front Paws

Cleaning Rear Paws

The Grand Finale

Any time I come into the kitchen and see my dad doing this, I immediately feel like I have walked in on something I should not have seen. I am also secretly in awe of my father’s ability to take something seemingly ludicrous, but no doubt considered at some point or another by pet owners worldwide, and actually put it into practice. My dad is usually kneeling, with Zorro’s hind legs over his knee, using one hand to hold up the poor pug’s unfurled tail and the other hand to manipulate the wet paper towel around and inside the dog’s little butthole. Zorro used to fight my dad on this ritual, but now he, like Adam and me, has realized that it is just easier to take it like a little bitch. In fact, Zorro has become quite the trained masochist! Nowadays, he doesn’t even try to leave the kitchen until he has been adequately butt-raped by the wet paper towel.

Recently, one of my friends confronted my dad about why he bothered to wipe the dog’s ass. I warned her not to, but she couldn’t help herself. As a result, my dad took the sullied wet paper towel, brought it within close, sniffing distance of her face and said, “The first thing this dog does after he takes a shit is run upstairs to our bedroom and sit his ass down on our pillows [while my dad was saying this, he bent his knees and swayed his hips from side to side as if to impersonate how the dog gets comfortable by digging his asshole into the pillow cases]…Would you want to smell THIS [holds up poo-dotted wet paper towel again for emphasis] when you go to sleep at night?

One comfy pug.

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All in all, it is no surprise that I have these compulsions to clean. In fact I have been doing a lot of thinking about it, and I think that my situation bears a close resemblance to that of Dexter Morgan. Dexter grew up to become a vigilante serial killer because he saw his mother get chopped into pieces with a chainsaw when he was one year old. I grew up to be a clean freak because my dad forced to see the nastiness of the world being wiped off of my shoes with that first monumental wet paper towel all those years ago. Dexter can’t stop killing and I can’t stop cleaning. I guess you could call it my dark passenger.