Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Holiday Limbo

My husband is what's known as a lapsed Catholic. He's been lapsed since age 18, when he graduated from Father Serra High School and his parents could no longer make him go to church on Sunday. Despite years of religious education, the dear man seems to have amnesia about the entire experience, so much so that he can't answer the simplest questions about the liturgy, the lives of the saints or church hierarchy. If you were to ask him to name the current pope, he'd probably draw a blank. This is the sum total of what he remembers from catechism:

"If a little bird flew low around the planet, tracing a circle in the ground with the tip of his wing, the time it would take him to slice the earth in half is but a second on the face of eternity. And eternity, of course, IS HOW LONG YOU WILL SPEND IN HELL IF YOU DON'T BEHAVE!"

I guess that would make an impression. Especially on the bird.

As for me, I'm not a lapsed anything. My father is a non-practicing Jew and my mother was raised culturally Catholic by parents who each had a Catholic mother and an Armenian Orthodox father. My father was barmitzva'd because that was the thing to do, and my mother had a first communion because she wanted to be like her girlfriends.

Over the years, people have occasionally asked me "Do you celebrate Christmas?" Sometimes, it's just conversation. Sometimes it's code for "Are you Jewish?". I grew up celebrating Christmas, sort of. There was a tree which my mother liked to put up alone, on Christmas Eve, after the children were in bed. The next day, there were gifts from Santa - not anything excessive, mind you, just the right amount. Once or twice my mother made my father drive us around the neighborhood to see Christmas lights. It was a bit of an anthropological experience - Oh these people do this and we don't and isn't it pretty. Despite having a Jewish family, I attended exactly one seder, at my father's uncle Jack's. I think I was about 15.

I am a secular person by nature and education. I have just enough of a sense of awe at nature's more inexplicable wonders that I can call myself an agnostic. My Armenian ancestors fled to France to escape the genocide. Some kept moving, and I have found distant cousins in Britain, France, Texas and Australia. The Jewish side of my family was not so lucky. Every single one of my Grandmother's old country relatives was murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto. I am leery of people who thinks their God is better than someone else's.

My children are inherently skeptical as well. When my daughter was four, she determined quite logically that Santa Claus did not exist. She explained to me that reindeer couldn't fly - they don't have wings. And it was logistically impossible for Santa to hit that many homes in one night. She was so reasonable in her thinking, I didn't have the heart to lie to her. I swore her to secrecy and told her the truth. But every time we would pass a department store Santa, she would look at the kids waiting in line, shake her head and say "Look at that fake guy. If they only knew."

So what does Christmas mean to a secular family like us? A time to count your blessings and enjoy your quirky, entertaining loved ones? A reminder to give more to people and organizations who need it? An opportunity to cook an elaborate family dinner and enjoy it together? An excuse to buy stuff? And how does Jesus' birthday fit into all this?

For years, people have advertised their tolerance by reminding each other that "Jesus was Jewish." And you could technically call him the first Christian. But I would also say that Jesus was a humanist. Not a secular one perhaps, but a humanist just the same. A man who taught such humanist values as love, non-violence, forgiveness, tolerance, self-sacrifice and respect for human dignity. Whether you believe Jesus was a visionary and extraordinarily gifted spiritual leader or the actual son of God, celebrating his birthday is a chance to reflect upon and honor our shared humanity. That is what is known as "the spirit of Christmas" and you don't have to be Mike Huckabee to get it. So while you probably won't run into me in church tomorrow, I will be celebrating Christmas, in my own secular, Jewish, French and Armenian way. And I wish you and yours a happy holiday and a healthy and prosperous new year.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

My Son and Hair

My children don't look a thing like me. They have some of my quirks, mannerisms, abilities and, ah... disabilities, but if you look at them, you might think they were adopted. The only exception is the hair: my daughter's is much lighter but she has the curl. My son's hair is less curly, but his hair is the same color mine used to be. A rich dark brown with natural red highlights and a perfectly lovely color if I do say so myself.

My son says different. For the past five years, he has been threatening to dye his hair blue. At first, we ignored this and simply changed the subject, but the topic kept coming up, and diversionary tactics became increasingly ineffective. In the past year, our hair discussions have gotten increasingly serious and prolonged. I have tried the following arguments:

• It's bad for your hair
• It will prejudice people against you
• It doesn't work with any human skin tone
• It won't match your clothes
• It could hasten the activation of the family baldness gene
• Your father will divorce me if I let you do this

None of these arguments have had the slightest impact.

When baby boy was born, he had a pointy tuft of hair sticking straight up from the middle of his head. To my doting eyes, his head looked like a little chocolate kiss. As the hair grew in, it became apparent that he had dueling hair whorls, causing a giant, persistent cowlick. (When we visited the ruins of Tulum in the Yucatan, we were informed that double hair whorls were a sign that a child had been marked for sacrifice by the gods, an option I am not ready to rule out.) The boy's hair is thick, unruly and hard to cut. He doesn't like to wash it very often and when he does, he tends to forget the shampoo. He has never, to my knowledge, used a comb, although his father occasionally manages to tackle him and run a brush across his head a couple of times, which usually makes his hair look even messier. So when the kid came home from boarding school this Thanksgiving, Dad made it clear it was haircut time again, thereby triggering the usual round of protests.

I made an appointment at a funky salon in downtown Berkeley, specifically requesting a young, punky stylist that my son would be able to relate to. All my husband had to do was show up with the boy. Unfortunately, I decided to store the date and time of the appointment in some remote cranny of my addled brain where the Tuesday appointment somehow morphed into Wednesday. I did get the time right, but you don't get points for punctuality when you're exactly 24 hours late. What you get is turned away. Now, I was in the doghouse, our son was shaggy as ever and my husband officially turned over the haircut negotiations to me. Sensing my vulnerability, my son started talking up a blue streak - or five.

I decided to work my maternal magic and soften the boy up, so I took him for a sunset walk with the dog. We teased, poked, berated, imitated, harassed, annoyed and amused each other. Winston seriously grossed us out by eating a piece of horse pucky. I tripped on a rock and fell on my face. In short, my son and I bonded and talked about everything from bobbleheads to skateboarding before the subject finally got back to hair. And tactfully, yet tactically, I presented my case, a shamelessly guilt-based diatribe about dear old Dad. After all he's done for you...you know how important grooming is to him ... he's a sixties guy who doesn't believe in artifice... he doesn't even like me dying my gray... etc. etc. Almost miraculously, I got the kid to concede. He would get the hair cut, and he'd wait 'til he turned 16 to dye it blue.

Unfortunately, I made a fatal mistake. I neglected to tell my better half that the boy and I had reached this agreement, giving my son the opportunity to work on his father when I was out of earshot. Worn down by years of arguing, Dad caved and agreed to the blue streaks, as long as the haircut was part of the deal.

I had nowhere to go: It was either go along or be the bad guy. I've been the bad guy a lot, and it never seems to work for me. So I took my son and daughter to the hair salon - haircuts for both, highlights for the girl and blue streaks for the boy. This is where we got lucky: the salon was too mainstream to have blue hair dye, but they did have a flashy burgundy, a shade artificial enough to please junior yet dark enough to not totally embarrass his parents as long as he stayed in the shade. The haircut turned out well, a little spiky all over, which camouflaged the cowlick and gave the streaks a certain punkish charm. Better yet, the hairdresser assured me the color was semi permanent and would soon wash out.

The kid went back to school, raring to show his friends his new look. We rationalized that we were cool and progressive parents, and this was not the kind of issue worth dying on one's sword over. We'd save the big guns for more permanent disfigurations like tattoos, piercings or, God forbid, ear-gaging. Of course, we secretly hoped the burgundy streaks would fade by Christmas.

A week later, while I was away on business, my son called his father to inform him that the dye had indeed washed out, leaving lighter streaks where the hairdresser had bleached it so the color would take. Not to worry, though, he had replaced the burgundy with purple and green. In the background, Mike could hear kids snickering. Whether they were laughing with our son, or at him, he couldn't tell.

I was furious. I had spent a bundle on a professional color job in a relatively subtle shade only to have my son remake himself into a troll doll. I fired off a seriously evil text message and Andrew called me as soon as he got it. As he saw it, the color had faded, so he HAD to do something. "Don't worry mom, it looks really cool, and purple and green are the school colors."

Yesterday, our son phoned with an update. The green side of his head was staying green, but the purple side had devolved to "a poopy pinkish brown." Apparently, this qualified as an emergency situation, leaving the boy no choice but to bleach the formerly purple side of his head blonde. As the green continues to wash out, his bisected head will eventually have a blonde side and a brown side. As long as it's the brown side of his head that does the homework, I guess I can deal.

As for my husband, he's found his own way to live with our son's hair: when he drives down to pick the hellion up for Christmas next week, he's bringing a stocking cap.