Twice Bitten, Thrice Shy

I’d say it’s natural and normal to react badly to a dog bite. Who likes being bitten by a dog? But how many people get sent into a spiral of low self-esteem and insecurity from a dog bite?

We always had pets in my houses when I was growing up. My dad had an outspoken preference for dogs, but mostly had cats. My mom has always liked to have at least one dog and one cat in the house at any given time. The main dog we had at my mom’s when I was a kid was a cute and energetic but fairly neurotic Bearded Collie named Cookie.

My dad talked a lot about how bad my mother was at training and controlling dogs. He said it was because she lacked any sort of interior authority, which dogs could sense. My dad talked a lot about how weak my mother was. I loved my mother and thought she was as strong as most people could or should be, but I still internalized the idea that “can’t control dogs” = weakness, something my father would disparage and laugh about. My dad would sometimes compare me to my mother, as well as tell me (from childhood well into adulthood) that I was passive-aggressive and manipulative, which were other ways he had of saying someone was “weak.” (My father valued directness and honesty, despite the fact that he was often neither of those things.)

Dogs are not easy pets to have. They’re generally quite clever and eager to please their owners, but they need to have clear pack hierarchy established and reinforced. What might seem to me to be a common sense way of establishing order can turn out to be the opposite of what a dog needs to keep it in line. I like dogs, but I’m generally much more comfortable with cats as pets. When Berkie adopted Dicken, she read a lot on dog behavior and training. We weren’t living together at that point, so I didn’t read up on training and looked to my companion for instruction. I’ve done my best at interacting with the little guy, but I am, admittedly, inconsistent and don’t always behave the right way with him. Add to this that he is clever and eager to please but also loves to test his boundaries and can sometimes just be a little asshole. He gets cranky with me in particular, especially when he thinks I’m encroaching on his quality time with Berkie.

Last week, I got up to let him outside early in the morning. After he came back inside, we both headed up to go back to bed. He wasn’t happy about me coming back to the bedroom and started growling and barking at me–which isn’t all that unusual, but Berkie and I just tell him to shut up and get off the bed, which is usually the end of it. This time, he bit my leg, then when I grabbed him and told him no, he bit my thumb. Neither bite was bad enough to draw blood, but they both hurt and startled me. And then yesterday, he was chewing on the fluff he’d pulled out of one of his toys, and when I started taking it away from him, he bit my other thumb, hard enough to draw blood on both sides of the digit. After both bites, I pinned him down to re-establish my dominance, but it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t really see me as an alpha.

Which shouldn’t really be that big a deal. Berkie has nicely, patiently explained to me things I was doing wrong and things I could do to rectify the situation. I’ve done my best to listen and be open to her instruction. But there’s this strong voice in my head–a voice that sounds exactly like my dad–telling me that the dog is biting me because I can’t project any kind of authority. Because I’m just too damn weak.

I’m sure anyone reading this is thinking, “Ignore those inner voices! Forget what your dad said! He was full of shit.” And he was. I know that. But these are long-established thought patterns in my head. I wish it were as easy as just ignoring them. I wish I could just say, “Fuck it! I know I’m strong!” But I look at the bandage on my thumb and I see a big, obvious sign that I’m weak. I assume everyone who sees it knows that it means I’m weak. I look at this 20-pound mutt and I feel nervous that I’ll never dominate him. And I feel stupid for letting my father knock me down from beyond the grave.

This will pass, as all things do. But today? Today, I’m feeling like a weak-willed, cowardly crybaby.


The Dynamic Duo

Yesterday was my brother Jeremy’s birthday. Not all siblings get along well, and goodness knows, Jeremy and I have driven each other crazy and infuriated each other any number of times. We’ve teased each other, belittled each other, ignored each other, hit each other. And yet, through all of that, we’ve generally stuck by each other. We’ve both helped each other out financially, emotionally, and in many other ways. We can go for weeks without saying a word to each other, but when we get together, it’s difficult to to shut us up or get a word in between us. In many ways, he’s one of the best friends I’ve got.

He’s 23 months younger than me. I can’t really remember a time when he wasn’t in my life. We look very different–Jeremy got all of our parents’ dominant traits (dark hair, brown eyes) and I got the recessive ones (fair hair, blue/green eyes). I’m delicately pale, while his skin is naturally tan. But we were also around the same height when we were little kids, so people sometimes thought we were twins. (Now he’s a few inches taller than me, the cheeky bastard.) We’ve always been charismatic in very different ways. I was a shy kid, lost in my own dreams, but for some reason, other kids often wanted me around. Jeremy was the kid who always took charge of a situation, becoming the leader through sheer force of will, and nobody minded, because his first concern was always justice and fairness. I was terrified of confrontation, but could often get away with things with a smile and a charming innocence. Jeremy was blunt, direct, full of righteous indignation and completely unafraid to confront older children and adults if he thought someone was being treated unfairly. He often won people over with his honesty and integrity.

Our parents split when I was four and Jeremy was two. We moved a lot after that, living in five different places from pre-school to middle school. Wherever we moved to, he and I were generally the only friends each other had at first. He and I weren’t always interested in the same things, but we had enough similar interests–and were close enough in age–that we played together a lot growing up. In elementary school, our mother took us on long road trips, when Jeremy and I had no one but each other to play with. We would generally sit in the back of the car, making tape recordings of weird “radio shows” we made up. In middle school, we both started playing guitar and writing horrible songs together. There were only two years between kindergarten and my high school graduation that we didn’t live with each other, and those were the two most difficult years of my pre-college life.

Happy Birthday, Jeremy! I’ve very thankful to have you as my brother and my friend.

The Young Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

When I was a wee lad, I was a very shy kid who usually only opened up when other people engaged me, at which point I became a talkative, energetic playmate. Because I was a very imaginative, creative kid, my shyness often took quirky turns.

In the winter of first grade, my class was making holiday cards. I don’t recall exactly what my handmade cards looked like, but I seem to remember them being decorated with drawings of snowmen, UFOs, ghosts, and robots. I do distinctly remember having a crush on one of the girls in my class and wanting desperately to give her a card that expressed how I felt about her. But I was so shy and afraid of my classmates laughing at me for being in love with someone, I created my own code of symbols, where each symbol represented a letter of the alphabet, so that nobody but I (and whoever had the key) could read the message. I wrote my love letter in code, put a key to the code in the card…and then promptly hid the card and key in my backpack, embarrassed by the entire thing and wanting no one but myself to know anything about it.

I’m proud to say I never express my feelings in code these days. Well, hardly ever.

Lipstick Traces

Meanwhile, in New York, 1978…

It was the beginning of my 3rd grade school year, and I bought a copy of Firestorm the Nuclear Man #4 with my allowance. Firestorm the Nuclear Man #4

There was something about the character that really grabbed me. Maybe it was his odd name, or his bright, garish costume. Maybe it was that he was a sarcastic smartass or that he had weird powers (he could turn one object into another, like in this issue when he turns the air around a gang of robbers into a huge, plastic pumpkin). Or maybe it’s that HIS HEAD WAS CONSTANTLY ON FIRE. Whatever it was, this comic in particular appealed to me. I got a pad of tracing paper and traced every page of the comic, including the cover. I renamed the main character (to the less dynamic “Flamethrower the Burning Man”) and rewrote all of the dialogue.

I wasn’t thinking about it at the time–in fact, I didn’t think about it until just now–but I was learning how to write when I did this. I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, but deep down, I was paying attention to panel layout and plotting, framing and narration, and, of course, dialogue. It was practice for when I wrote and drew my own comics that same year. But it was also practice and self-education for my writing now. I’m still thinking about how to create colorful, engaging characters, write fun dialogue, and produce stories that inspire other people to dream and create.

To be continued…

My Family’s Red Spring

Last night was the first night of Passover. Tomorrow is Easter. In honor of both holidays, and in memory of my father, I’m going to share one of my favorites of my dad’s stories. Here it is:

Once, when I was about six or seven, I asked Mama, my grandmother, about Passover. So. Mama’s Passover story: there were Jews in Egypt. Their working conditions as brickmakers were terrible, so they sent the union strike committee to see Pharaoh, the Egyptian boss. One of their organizers, Moishe, ein groise starker [a big toughguy], made an enormous tsimel [a noise] and said “If the brickmakers get a fair deal, you’ll get seven prizes. If not, you’ll have a ganz’ tsoris [big trouble]: seven strikes.” To which Papa, my grandfather, added sotto voce to me (but loudly enough for Mama to hear), “Moishe zug’ tzu die Mitzracher, ‘Shtup es in toches!‘” [Moses said to the Egyptian, ‘Up yours!’] At which point Mama (in front of whom nobody used such language) yelled at him, he winked at me, and my Passover education was complete. At school, and from my Swedish friend Leonart, I heard about “The Tomb at Easter.” At first I thought it must be Moses in the tomb. Then I figured out that at Easter it wasn’t Moses but Lenin who was in The Tomb. When I was eight, I learned it wasn’t Lenin, either. Leonart explained that it was the guy nailed on the cross which was hanging on the wall over our friend Fredo’s bed. Our family holiday was May Day: Workers’ Easter, Workers’ Passover.

Love, Peace and Soul

Today is the first day of African-American History Month. It’s also the day the world learned that Don Cornelius, the creator and most famous host of Soul Train, committed suicide.

I hadn’t thought about Cornelius in ages, but Soul Train was huge for us kids of the ’70s and ’80s. I’m about as Caucasian as they come, and my parents’ tastes in music have never been…funky. Soul Train was my primary introduction to Afro-American music and, more importantly, culture. Soul Train was a direct result of  the Civil Rights Movement and “Black is Beautiful.” It didn’t just showcase Black music and Black dancing, it showed African-Americans proudly being themselves. They had big afros. They wore stylish clothes (that would probably be called “urban” today) and African-influenced fashions. They were proudly and joyously not trying to fit in to “mainstream” White culture. (As I remember it, Soul Train was also free of a lot of the clownish caricatures of African-Americans that sadly dominated much of American TV and movies of the time.) Soul Train was unapologetically in your face without being confrontational and angry. Soul Train was Black Pride while also being inclusive and multi-cultural. Soul Train was the embodiment of Emma Goldman’s “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Damn, it was cool and funky and beautiful!

I’m sad and sorry you felt you had to leave us, Don Cornelius. But your legacy lives on. I wish all of you love, peace…and soul.