Saying the Wrong Thing (Vegan Edition)

My 19 year old niece recently spent a month trying on vegetarianism for size.  She even flirted with vegan meals a bit, as she shares my opposition to the murder of animals for our gustatory pleasure.

I took the opportunity to chat with her about nutrition and menus when we both attended a family event several weeks ago.  On that occasion, I shared a vegan “cheeseburger” with her (Boca burger with melted soy cheese) and left her with the remainder of my package of fake cheese.  My intent was to convey the message that one can enjoy many tasty dishes that do not include the rotting flesh of dead animals.  But I tried not to sugarcoat things.  Vegans do need to ensure that they are consuming sufficient protein rather than succumbing to the temptation to carbo-load all the time.  I also explained about the importance of including yellow and orange vegetables in one’s diet for Vitamin A, as well as citrus fruits for Vitamin C and leafy greens for iron.  I shared that I have a tendency to keep lists in my phone, both to ensure that the right items are purchased during our trips to the grocery store and to monitor my dietary balance.

I find it fairly easy to discuss the cruelty of factory farms, the horrors inflicted on chickens and the way that bulls are killed and butchered.  I have no problem holding forth on vegan food options, nutrition and menus.  But there are other things that I have a much more difficult time talking about.  I refer to the “social” aspects of veganism.  The truth is that, even at my age, I still have a lot to learn about human relations.  How should I say this?  Manners have never been my strong point; I tend to put things bluntly to the point that many find me inconsiderate and even downright rude.  I don’t believe that my coarse demeanor quite rises to the level of, say, Donald Trump, but I have had my moments.  I have been compelled to issue many apologies in the course of my life.  So when I became a vegan nearly three years ago, it didn’t take me long to realize that the dangers of social gaffes lurk around every corner.

How do I refuse a cookie?  You’d think “no, thank you” would be sufficient, but some folks won’t let it alone.  Others think you’re just being a snob.  Yes, I know you’ve seen me eating cookies, but mine don’t contain animal products.

How do you tell someone that you are unable to eat a single thing that is being served?  Possible responses include:

  • “It looks lovely, but I’m really full. I just ate a little while ago.”
  • “I’m diabetic, so I have to be really careful. I’ve already maxed out my starches and fats for the day.”
  • Oh, I’m sorry you didn’t know that I’m kosher. I’d really enjoy a cup of tea, though.”

I find that successful vegan eating away from home is all in the planning.  You can check restaurant menus online in advance.  You can warn your hosts well before showing up at their homes.  You can make sure to eat before you go or after you leave, or you can prepare your own food and bring it along.  This last option, as convenient as it is, can be problematic as well.  I have learned through painful experience that some take offense when you show up with a Gladware container of tofu and broccoli and ask to use the microwave.  It’s a minefield even for the socially savvy.  For someone like myself, however, eating with others is clearly a losing proposition.  What I must do is try to keep my mouth shut, and not just because of the food being served.  I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that whatever I say is likely to be the wrong thing.  And no matter how disgusting I find the food being consumed by others, I am nearly always better off keeping my opinions to myself.

Vegans remain a tiny minority in the United States, a situation that is not likely to change for the foreseeable future.  My dad, now in his 80s, admits that he never heard the word “vegan” until about ten years ago.  Fortunately, awareness of the vegan movement is increasing.  While this is, overall, a positive development, it has also given rise to an increase in deprecatory comments.  For example, my wife recently showed me a meme on Facebook that asked whether the mouth-watering sensation one gets upon smelling steak on the grill is similar to the sensation experienced by vegans upon smelling a freshly mowed lawn.  So excuse me for a moment while I head outside to graze.

Okay, I’m back.  Baaaa.  I mean, “yummy!”

I have no clue how to fairly address this conundrum with my niece.  I do want her to know what to expect, but I don’t want her to run away screaming.  She’s already experienced a bit of vegan social woe when she clearly expressed her expectation that her family provide her with vegetarian meals. Umm…

I hate to say this, dear one, but this is not how to ingratiate yourself to those closest to you.  It’s a cruel, hard world and it’s every vegan for herself.  You have a job, you draw a paycheck, so you can get what you need when you visit the grocery store.  Make lists.  Plan menus.  It’s really not that hard.

For such things to come out of my mouth is very much in keeping with the rudeness that seems to have become my personal hallmark.  I need to heed the adage about not judging until I walk a mile in another’s moccasins.  It’s easy to say “take care of your own needs and don’t expect anything of others” when you earn a good salary and have a wife who is willing to do the shopping.  It’s not so easy when you work part-time making FA wages and have a three year old to take care of.  Not to mention the fact that, when you’re 19, you want to eat fast food like the rest of your friends do and you don’t want to have to think about your upcoming meals.  You want to enjoy the convenience of eating what’s readily available, what’s cheap, what everyone else is eating.  You don’t want to have to explain your food choices and your philosophy to anyone.  You want to fit in.

The other day my wife told me about a phone call she received from my niece.  “I did a bad thing,” my niece prefaced her remarks, before admitting that she was unable to resist an egg sandwich at Starbucks.  My kind, gentle wife very patiently explained that it’s not the end of the world and that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating an egg once in a while.  “Yes, but there was bacon on top of it,” my niece added.

I had to laugh.  If I’m to be honest, I have to admit that I was more relieved than disappointed.  Being a vegan is a tough row to hoe, and all the more so when you’ve been raised eating meat at almost every meal.  I had a head start in that I grew up with a mother who kept kosher and have never tasted bacon.  Kosher meat is expensive and it just wasn’t a big thing with us.  So when I stopped eating meat 26 years ago, it wasn’t the type of sea change that it would be for my niece.

A few nights ago, my niece and her little one were visiting us in our tiny rented house at dinnertime.  I was chopping onions and tomatoes to prepare vegan nachos while everyone else was enjoying microwaved pepperoni Hot Pockets.

“I didn’t like the way eating vegetarian made me feel,” my niece told me as she was heading home.

“It’s not about eating meat,” I reminded her.  “It’s about getting enough protein.”

Leave it to me to say the wrong thing again.  It’s the story of my life.

 

Schizo

I never heard of schizophrenia until eighth grade health class.  Along with learning about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and the obligatory, highly embarrassing sex ed curriculum (from which my parents refused to excuse me, despite my entreaties), we plodded through a unit on mental health.  When we covered neuroses, I knew right off that the teacher was talking about me.  But it was the psychoses that were really scary, and I wondered whether I could secretly have one of those.

When we arrived at a discussion of schizophrenia, I was shocked (pun intended) to learn about such strange phenomena as multiple personalities, paranoia, delusions of grandeur, catatonia and hearing voices.  Alone in bed at night, I prayed to the Lord that I would never be afflicted with any of these horrors.

Mental illness, schizophrenia included, was still on the pedagogic menu when we were once again subject to the tortures of health class as juniors in high school.  By that time, I understood that I was not psychotic and was able to relax a bit.  I went on to take two psychology classes before I graduated, one of which included a visit to the local mental hospital.  My father humored me by driving me to the Vassar College library on quite a few evenings, where I researched a term paper on schizophrenia until the librarians threw us out and locked the doors.

Even today there is stigma associated with mental illness, but it was much worse when I was a teenager back in the seventies.  This was the era of Psycho, The Exorcist and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  My fellow junior high and high school students were openly derisive about anyone who appeared to deviate from the norm in any way, and never more than when it came to mental illness or developmental disabilities.  If we didn’t like something that someone did, they were “retarded,” “psycho” or “schizo.”  We bandied these terms about indiscriminately in the same way that many continue to demean the sexual preferences of others by saying “that’s so gay” (sadly, still “dropped on a daily,” Macklemore and Lewis notwithstanding).

It’s good to be able to say that some things have changed in the past forty years, however.  While the causes of mental illness have by no means been locked down, advances in scientific research have made inroads in our understanding of the nature and treatment of schizophrenia.

Still, it came as a bit of a surprise to me today when I learned that bacteria, of all things, are now being implicated as one possible cause of schizophrenia.  New research estimates that about one-fifth of all cases of schizophrenia may be attributed to infection by Toxoplasma gondii.

Now, wait a minute.  I know about toxoplasmosis.  When my sisters (both of whom have always had cats as pets) were busy having babies, my mother warned them to have their husbands clean the cat box.  It was known that cat feces could contain Toxoplasma, and that if this microorganism was transmitted to the blood of the fetus, the baby could be born with horrific brain deformities.

Turns out cat boxes are just the beginning, however.  Humans can also contract toxoplasmosis long after they are born.  T. gondii can also be transmitted through eating undercooked meat or by drinking contaminated water.  It is estimated that as many as 60 million Americans may currently be infected with T. gondii, and that some of them will develop schizophrenia as a result of the protozoan’s effects on their brains.

Just think of it:  One in five schizophrenics could have avoided a lifetime of misery and incapacity by avoiding infection by Toxoplasma.

Still want that steak done rare?

Sounds to me like yet another argument in favor of the vegan life.

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Runaway Squad

Lately, we’ve been watching episodes of the detective show “Runaway Squad” on DVR.  The way that the parents act on this show bugs the heck out of me, so today I am going to spout off about it.

The premise of the show is that families hire this elite group of seasoned investigators to find their children after they have run away from home and disappeared from their lives.  Often, the squad first begins ferreting out clues many months after the kid absconded.  Typically, the rogue teen is located somewhere in New York City, ground zero for the nation’s runaways.  While New York has become the destination due to the ease of blending into the city and the multitude of opportunities there, it is also a dangerous center of exploitation where both girls and boys often end up sucked into the sex trade.

Predictably, the squad gets their man (or woman) and sits down for a discussion with the newly reunited family.  What transpires never ceases to amaze me.  After the tearful hugs, the parent(s) begin raging with anger at the recovered kid.  How could you do this to us?  How could you not take our feelings into consideration and allow us to wonder whether you were alive or dead?

Um, excuse me?  First of all, after you’ve gone through the effort and money of hiring the Runaway Squad and then successfully recovered your kid, you think you’d act a little grateful that your kid is back at home?  Secondly, you know perfectly well why your kid ran away from home.  Either it was a difference of opinion about a boyfriend/girlfriend or about religion or about privileges or about lifestyle choices or about something. Parents, how could you fail to take your kid’s feelings into consideration on an issue that meant so much to them that they felt they had no choice but to run away from home?  You only see what your kid did to you, but you refuse to see what you did to your kid to cause him or her to leave home in the first place.

Wise up, parents, it’s not all about you.

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Popcorn and Hot Chocolate

Two of the kids whom I do not see very often came over the other night.  My niece is a junior in high school and my nephew is in middle school.  It was good to see them, but a certain sadness came over me just the same.

These two are the youngest children of my sister-in-law’s second husband (they divorced several years ago).  Most of his brood of eight (who joined my sister-in-law’s three kids from her first marriage) are now adults and scattered among several different states.  My wife tries to keep up with them on Facebook and we see them now and then.

I am sorry to report that my sister-in-law’s ex recently saw fit to divest himself of responsibility for his last two kids still at home by essentially dumping them on one of their sisters (and her husband).  It’s nice that the kids are now just 40 miles away instead of out of state.  But I can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to be pawned off by one’s dad in such a manner.

When I first met my niece, she was two years old.  While visiting at her house, I heard a squeak from down the hall that sounded like “Hep! Hep!”  One of the other kids had played a mean trick on her by placing her on top of the clothes dryer.  That little bit of a thing was stuck up there like a china doll with no way to climb down.

It had to be tough growing up with so many brothers and sisters.  My niece was known as a biter.  I suppose she had to have some way to defend herself in her rough and tumble world.  Her weapon of choice was her teeth.

My nephew, who has developmental disabilities, had just turned one when I met him, and was still in diapers.  With so many siblings in that blended household, we made a lot of “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Yours, Mine and Ours” jokes (anyone still remember that movie?).  We had to save up all year long to have enough Christmas presents to go around.

My nephew had a very special bond with his great-grandmother (who has since passed on), but he loves his Nana (Pastor Mom) dearly and retains fond memories of being spoiled rotten by her when he was little.  When he was visiting the other night, he requested popcorn and hot chocolate, so it would feel just like the old days.  When I arrived home from work, the house stank of microwave popcorn and he and his sister were stretched out on the living room floor, enjoying their snack in front of the TV.

While I was in the kitchen making myself a sandwich, my niece wandered in and asked me how my new job is going.  It’s hard to believe that the tiny girl stuck up there on the dryer is nearly all grown up now.  When she was maybe nine or ten, and I was still a pescatarian, she called me out by demanding to know why I ate fish if I was a vegetarian.  This bothered me for years until, realizing that she was right, I changed my ways.  (Eventually, I went all the way and became vegan.)  Funny how kids tell it like it is.

In the kitchen, my niece discussed college plans, career options and the differences between living in Las Vegas and Sacramento.  I beamed when she explained that she is active in Student Council.  She expressed disappointment that she hadn’t yet figured out what to do with her life and I assured her that a lot people my age still haven’t found an answer to that quintessential dilemma.  I encouraged her to study a broad range of disciplines and to avoid committing to any one of them until necessary.  This is your opportunity to learn and grow, to become a well-rounded person, I told her.

It is gratifying to see that despite having survived a drug addict birth mother and a father with many problems, despite having been tossed from pillar to post all her young life, my niece seems to have turned out just fine.  I’m very proud of her.

And I’ll try not to remind her about the biting thing.

Although I might say something about how she used to remember how to spell “banana” by blurting out the lyrics to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.”

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The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York – Part Two

Continued from yesterday:  An excerpt from my memoir work-in-progress, Walking to New Jersey.

“The Pop Tart Malfunction” is part 2 of a chapter titled The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York.  I hope you enjoy it!  All comments and suggestions welcomed.

By the time I reached the middle of my sophomore year of high school, I realized that the flame of my old junior high babysitting dream still burned brightly and that the only way to consummate this desire was to get off my ass and go do something about it.  So on a cold Saturday afternoon in January, I pinched a handful of index cards that I knew my mother kept in the big hutch in the dining room and wrote my name and phone number on each, along with BABYSITTER in capital letters.  Then I pulled on my parka, woolen hat and mittens and told my parents I was going to take a walk down the street and back.

I stuck the cards in the pocket of my winter coat and zipped it up so that no one would suspect anything or know what I was up to.

I walked a block or so, passing Stella Drive and entering the “new development,” a place where most of the houses were occupied by families with young kids and where I wouldn’t be likely to run into anyone I knew.  I was more than a little embarrassed regarding what I was about to do and I certainly didn’t want anyone from Ramapo High going around blabbing to their friends about how I must really be a girl.

We hadn’t had snow in several weeks; the sky was clear and an icy breeze blew straight down the new sidewalk as if making an effort to follow me on my rounds.  My heart beat out of my chest each time I walked down a driveway, approached a door and rang the bell to pass out my handwritten card to some wanly smiling mother or father who would really rather have been left alone to the weekend chores.  They humored this fat kid bundled up against the wind, some admiring the spunk of a prospective entrepreneur, others just wishing I’d get lost.

When my index cards were gone and my cheeks and toes felt entirely numb, I hurried home and hoped for the best.  Maybe one of those nice couples would have an event to attend on a Saturday night and their regular babysitter would already have another gig and no grandma or aunt would be available to step into the breach.  I didn’t obsess about it; it was as if I had taken a test and now there was nothing I could do but wait for the grades to come back.  Besides, I wanted to remove myself somewhat from what I had just done.  Perhaps if I pretended that it never happened, no one would know.  Well, my parents and my sisters knew, but as far as I was concerned, no one else needed to know until I started getting calls for jobs.  Then everyone would be proud of me and maybe even a little jealous because I’d be making my own money.  Patience, I knew, was the key.  I figured the black wall phone in the kitchen would have to ring eventually.

Only it didn’t.  Not to be deterred, a few weekends later I made up some more index cards and tried again.  This time I went in the other direction, trudging halfway up Alexander Avenue and then up the big Harmony Road hill before I started ringing doorbells again.

I finally hit pay dirt.  A divorced woman on Trinity Place had two little boys and needed someone to be there when they got off the school bus every afternoon and to watch them until she arrived home from work a couple of hours later.  And she was willing to pay a dollar an hour, which I thought was a small fortune.  From eavesdropping on the girls at the bus stop, I   knew that the older ones were getting 75 cents per hour and the younger ones only 50 cents.  What I didn’t yet know was that I was going to earn every penny.  For the time being, however, I was overcome with joy.  I had done it!  Now I had to prove to the world that boys could be successful babysitters, too.  Why should girls have all the fun and make all the money?

I immediately reread my Baby-Sitter’s Guide — twice.  I had kept it stashed clandestinely under my bed for more than two years.  The author suggested bringing a special babysitter’s bag to each assignment.  The bag, she explained, should contain some toys and games to keep the kids amused in case they get bored or cranky and you start running out of ideas.

My first stop was the broom closet in the kitchen, the place where all the folded-up grocery bags lived beside the broom, the dustpan and the cleaning brushes.  But it wasn’t a paper bag from Waldbaum’s I was looking for this time.  I wanted something a little more classy for my first job.  I pulled all the bags out onto the kitchen floor tiles until I found just what I had been looking for.  Hiding in the back was a plastic shopping bag that my mother had brought back from Florida.  It was green and white with the logo of Britt’s department store emblazoned on both sides.  I raided my own closet as well as the big double closet in Becky and Ruth’s bedroom, harvesting a checker set, an old picture book and some coloring books and crayons.  Little did I know that, before long, the checkerboard would be torn down the middle, several checkers would go missing, the crayons would be broken in pieces and the coloring books would be scribbled on in purple and green.

And these were good kids already.  It’s just that Scott and Jason were four and six years old.  I was fifteen years old, and each of those boys independently had far more energy than I did.  Sharon Sherman’s book notwithstanding, I really had no idea what I was getting into.  I jumped in blindly and figured things out as I went along.

My boys were latchkey children from a very early age.  Jason carried his house key on an elastic cord around his neck, much as my sisters and I did.  After being cooped up in school all day, they tore off the bus at the corner, running as fast they could up the grassy slope of lawn (or the driveway in winter) to unlock the front door.

The first order of business was always a snack.  Scott and Jason were creatures of habit; each day, their mother left three Pop Tarts on the kitchen table, one for each of the boys and one for me.  We’d unwrap, toast and eat.  Dishes went in the sink and the boys were off to watch a half hour of cartoons, lying on the floor in Mom’s bedroom.  Once Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig had done their thing, the show belonged to me.  At least I thought it did.  It didn’t take too long before I learned that it was entirely their show and that I was little more than a pawn in this operation.

We’d do whatever the boys wanted to for the next hour or so.  This could involve crawling around on all fours to give piggyback rides up and down the hallway, wrestling and roughhousing on the carpet, or on the rare occasion when I was very lucky, playing a board game from their huge stash.

For a little while, my employer had a man named Vince living in her home.  I never figured out whether he was a boarder or a boyfriend.  He was always just — there.  He generally stayed downstairs and did not bother us.

One day, I nearly set the poor woman’s house on fire.  Let’s just say that we experienced a Pop Tart malfunction.  I don’t know whether it was an electrical problem or perhaps the toast crumbs hadn’t been cleaned out in a while.  All I can say is that the toaster became stuck.  And I mean really stuck.  And I couldn’t unstick it.  The Pop Tarts were burning black, smoke was starting to fill the kitchen, and I was unable to force those toaster handles up.  I pulled and yanked at the plug in a desperate attempt to separate it from the outlet before we all went up in flames.  By this time, both boys were yelling “Vince! Vince!” and, horrified, I joined in the chorus.

Just then, that dastardly plug popped out of the wall.  Fortunately, none of the houses in our neighborhood had smoke detectors back then.  Vince finally climbed halfway up the stairs to the landing and poked his head up.  I assured him that everything was okay, we had it under control.

From the time I stepped off my own school bus in the afternoon, I had about 40 minutes before I had to meet the boys up the hill at their house.  After a while, my initial feeling of responsibility waned.  With everything in my Britt’s bag destroyed, I didn’t bother to bring it anymore.  In fact, I didn’t bother arriving at the boys’ home on time after the first couple of months.  I knew they would let themselves in and would be munching their Pop Tarts or watching Bugs and the Road Runner whenever I sauntered in.  I knew I’d get my dollar regardless.

After about four months of babysitting every weekday afternoon, I decided I had had enough.  My excuse for quitting was that I had final exams to study for.  I had already stayed a month longer than I wanted to, but I kept putting off my departure for the sake of those boys.  At the end, I was dragging myself up the hill every day.  On my final day, I felt a little guilty about abdicating my responsibilities, but mostly I just felt liberated.  Free to relax when I got home from school every day!

The dollar bills had piled up.  I would throw them loose in the top drawer of my dresser until I had built up an impressive collection.  The funny thing was that money didn’t mean anything to me in real terms.  There was nothing in particular I was saving for, nothing I dreamed of buying.  I just wanted to have some money of my own in case.  That is, in case I had a hankering for something that my parents didn’t want to buy for me.  What never occurred to me was that:

  1. My parents weren’t going to allow me to purchase anything that they disagreed with, whether the money was mine or not.
  2. When I did ask my parents for something special, they would remind me that I could now buy it with my own money if I wanted it that badly.

This wasn’t working out the way I had planned.  Not at all.

 

The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York – Part One

Fellow bloggers,

I have been working for some time on a book-length memoir of my New York childhood.  Now that I am getting closer to completion of the manuscript, I’d like to offer a two-part sample of Walking to New Jersey for your perusal.  Today: “My Secret Desire,” part 1 of a chapter titled The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York.  I hope you enjoy it!  All comments and suggestions welcomed.

Author’s Note:  All names have been changed.

With the Baby Boomers hitting junior high school age, many of our eighth grade classes were quite large.  Mr. Pettigrew’s English class in Room 109 was no exception.  Although this gang wasn’t quite as rowdy as what Miss Donnelly had to contend with the previous year, there were times when it seemed that more socializing than learning was going on.

As for Miss Donnelly, I wondered what had happened to her.  As I was half in love with her, I was disappointed that I didn’t see her around the school.  Room 116, in the alcove across from Mr. Pettigrew’s class, was where Miss Donnelly taught last year.  This year, however, the only teacher I saw going in and out of that classroom was Miss Rosenbaum.  I didn’t know anything about her, but I wanted to be in her class.  You see, she was young and beautiful, with palpitatingly gorgeous flaming red hair that hung straight down past her ass like a horse’s tail.  I would inwardly sigh as her tresses went swish, swish as she walked by.  Not only was I a sucker for redheads at a young age, I thought she could be a model for a modern-day Rapunzel, or just a model, period.

Girls were an enigma to me.  For the most part, I ignored them, treated them as part of the wallpaper.  They were just there, and the less I had to deal with them, the better.  There were female teachers, there was my mother, and of course, I had sisters.  No big deal.  But then, there was the other thing.  It was hard to ignore a pretty face, the Miss Rosenbaums of this world who knocked your eye out with floor-length orangey locks.

To most of my agemates, women were about one thing only, and no two ways about it.  Girls were a deep, dark, tantalizing mystery, an encoded message they were just dying to crack.  In my case, however, my wonder and curiosity were tainted with a heavy dose of Orthodox Jewish guilt.  What saved me from the grip of obsession, to which many of my classmates had given themselves over heart and soul, was the fact that I was inordinately late to develop physically.  Although I appreciated a kind word and long, red hair, I didn’t yet have the benefit of raging hormones to drive me off the deep end.

As much as I enjoyed reading a good book, most of what we covered in Mr. Pettigrew’s class didn’t interest me very much.  We studied Greek and Roman mythology and I put on an extremely lame skit with two of my classmates for which we cut a lightning bolt out of cardboard and played the role of Zeus hurling it.  We read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and I memorized a stanza of “The Highwayman.”  I found memorization to be quite challenging, so I was flabbergasted when I learned that my father could recite the whole darned poem by heart!

As ho-hum as Mr. Pettigrew’s English class was to me, it wasn’t too far into the school year when I discovered with delight that, however unlikely it might seem, this class was going to help me progress toward my Secret Desire.

I wanted to be a babysitter.

My Secret Desire was not something to which I would readily admit for the simple reason that this activity was securely ensconced in the clubhouse labeled GIRLS ONLY (all others keep out).  For a boy to express an interest in such a thing was simply Not Done.  It would be akin to expressing an interest in makeup or Shaun Cassidy.  I would be laughed right out of junior high.  And, of course, more than anything else I wanted to be taken seriously as an upstanding officer of the Student Council.  So I kept my Secret Desire under wraps, at least for now.

We were a few weeks into the fall term when Mr. Pettigrew passed around book sale order forms.  Students were encouraged to look through the brochure of offerings from Scholastic, pick out some books for leisure reading and bring money from home to pay for them.  Perusing the selection, I didn’t find much to interest me, certainly nothing that captured my attention sufficiently to warrant cajoling my parents for money.  Then I saw it, and it stopped me cold.  Baby-Sitter’s Guide by Sharon Sherman, featuring Tizzy Teen cartoons by Kate Osann.  It was as if someone had read my mind.

Ohhhh, I get it.  Of course!  This wasn’t meant for me; it was for junior high girls who were considering following their older sisters into the entrepreneurial world of suburbia.  Teenage babysitters were an essential commodity in our little corner of the world.  Without girls willing to work on the cheap, how would harried parents ever get a Saturday night out on the town?  So it made perfect sense that there would be a manual that explained to girls exactly the thing that I wanted to know how to do.

I knew what I had to do:  I asked my father for three dollars to order a book through my English class.  I hoped he wouldn’t ask a lot of questions, and he didn’t.  He opened up his wallet and handed me the money.  It was fate, destiny, bashert!

When the books that my classmates had ordered arrived a few weeks later, I snatched mine as quickly as possible, hoping no one would notice the title.  I hid it inside the cover of another book and stashed it in my bookbag.

The timing could not have been more perfect.  It was the day before the school holiday for Yom Kippur, and I smiled thinking of the treasure I had scored.  I had to hold myself back from taking a peek before I got the contraband to the safety of my bedroom.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was a very solemn holiday, and always a trial for kids.  The adults were fasting and irritable, and we had to go sit in boring old synagogue with them for hours on end.  When we’d finally get home, the adults wouldn’t be paying much attention to us and we’d have to amuse ourselves.

But this year was special for me, for two reasons.  For one thing, this was the last Yom Kippur before my bar mitzvah.  This meant that this was the last Yom Kippur for the rest of my days on this earth that I would not be obligated to abstain from eating and drinking for 27 hours or so. With my bar mitzvah a mere four months away, however, I was eager to show that I was ready for my new adult responsibilities.  When I refused to eat any breakfast just like the adults, my mother humored me.  We walked to shul, where we spent about five hours while the hazan chanted and droned his way through the Morning and Additional Services.  Then my mother walked the mile or so home with the three of us.  I can’t remember any year when we returned for the Afternoon Service.  However, my mother expected my father to walk back to synagogue for Ne’ilah, the Concluding Service and then to walk home again after hearing the blowing of the Shofar that announced that we could break our fast.  By this time, however, my father had started refusing to go.  As a nonbeliever, he simply had no interest and was tired of going just because my mother wanted him to.

My mother usually prepared food in advance for the three of us so that we could eat lunch and she could lie down and continue her fast until the sun dipped below the horizon and three stars were visible.  My father would usually be sitting on the porch when we got home, and he’d go take a nap with my mother.  This year, I refused to eat anything.  My mother became mildly upset and urged me to eat several times.  When I staunchly refused, however, she didn’t push the issue.  I, too, went off to bed, but not to sleep.

And this was the other reason that this Yom Kippur was important to me:  I pulled my secret out of my bookbag, crawled under the covers and began to read.  I knew I wasn’t supposed to read anything but the holy books on Yom Kippur, and perhaps indulging myself in this pleasure was proof that I had a way to go before reaching adulthood, but this was an opportunity I was not about to forgo.  I knew that no one was going to bother me to go anywhere or do anything for at least four hours and my agenda was set. I read through the entire book and stashed it under my bed for further reference, as if it were a girlie magazine I was trying to hide from prying eyes.

I haven’t seen this book in more than forty years, yet I still remember the author’s advice on dealing with fights between children:  Avoid descending to their level.  Don’t yield to the temptation to throw a few punches of your own!  I read Sharon Sherman’s book cover to cover many times and to this day remember the ending.  If you ever catch yourself chanting “rain, rain, go away, come back another day,” perhaps you have not yet lost the magic carpet of childhood from under your feet.  I was mesmerized by that statement.  Yes, yes!  She was talking about me!  Here I was on the cusp, still a child of twelve but about to be bar mitzvahed and assume the mantle of religious adulthood.  I had one leg planted on either side of the border and I was ready to spring forward into the unknown.  I knew I had what it takes to bust out, to break the mold.

I would be the first boy babysitter in Spring Valley, New York.

 

Tomorrow:  Part Two – The Pop Tart Malfunction