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February 18, 2008

True Stories From My Life Part I: Christmas, 1976

Mom was a feminist and a lesbian. When we were kids, her feminism manifested itself in all kinds of ways. Mostly it was a lot of badmouthing men, and saying high-minded things like, “I think men should have to wipe themselves after they go to the bathroom, too.” This is not to say that all feminism equals man-hating. Not at all. It just so happens that my mom’s version of feminism did. And she certainly didn’t hate all men. She liked Alan Alda.

Aside from subscribing to various feminist periodicals and throwing around the name “Gloria Steinem,” she was not particularly politically active, although for years, we had an inexhaustible supply of blue note cards that we used for jotting down phone numbers and grocery lists; on the reverse of each card was an exhortation to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, the feminist’s Holy Grail. I think my mom was supposed to hand out these cards to friends, neighbors, passersby. I don’t remember her ever handing out one. The ERA died in 1979, but I think my mom is still using those cards to this day. She is no longer quite the ardent feminist she was in days gone by, but she is still an ardent lesbian.


My parents split up when I was five, in 1976, and we moved into my mom’s partner’s house. That was my first lesbian Christmas, which was no different than other Christmases except that we started referring to Santa’s wife as Ms. Claus. It was also my first blended Christmas – the first Christmas with Arlene and her son Greg, in addition to my brother and sister. So the six of us were in new surroundings and as a result, the holiday took on extra weight that year. Would this year live up to Christmases past? Would Santa even know where I was living? These were the questions I grappled with that winter – not why is my mom making out with another lady. Oddly enough, that thought never even crossed my mind.

I have no idea what I told my mom I wanted for Christmas that year. The truth is, I was indifferent to most entertainments; mostly I just liked running around screaming, but that’s not the kind of thing you can buy. As such, maybe it was hard for my mom to think of something to get me for Christmas.

(A note: yes, I am Jewish. But I am a bad Jew. This is not my fault. Either you are raised with religion or not. We were not. Neither of my parents were observant Jews, and made no effort to give us kids any religious training. While this was regrettable in terms of imparting to us an understanding of our selves in the larger context of our religion’s rich history, it was great for one important reason – Christmas. We had the fake tree, the stockings, the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, and a neglected menorah in the kitchen that we often forgot to light. Bad, bad Jews.)

When Christmas morning finally arrived, I was shocked and astounded to discover an enormous box under the Christmas tree with my name on it. It was easily the biggest of all the Christmas presents that year. As such, it was also obviously the best Christmas present. And it was for me. When you are five, size really does matter. Bigger always means better, and in this turbulent year, I couldn’t believe that something was finally breaking my way. I had no idea what that big box could contain.

The box was probably about the size of a small television set. There was no way it could have been a television set, though. I don’t care how progressive you are, you don’t give a five year old his own television set. Plus, back then, the only TV sets that size were black and white, and who would want one of those? Not me. No, I knew it wasn’t a TV. It wasn’t a remote controlled race track because it wasn’t flat. Too big to be a model car or even a model airplane. Too big to be anything I could possibly think it could be. I was freaking out.

Now that I am older, I have my own son. When he was five years old, the wrapping paper on a mystery present would not have lasted two seconds. Had he seen some giant box with his name on it, he would not, could not, have waited to open it because he did not, and still does not, understand the concept of delayed gratification. If something is to be enjoyed, it is to be enjoyed NOW. Which leads me to believe that my son is a hedonist.

I, however, was very mature for my age, and instinctively understood that savoring the mystery was part of the fun. I distinctly remember wanting to save that package for last. I wanted to wait to open up that big beautiful box until, not only did I have nothing else to unwrap, but nobody had anything else. I wanted it to be the last Christmas present opened, period. To accomplish this, I paced myself opening my other presents, unwrapping them as slowly as I could, keeping a careful eye on the diminishing pile of gifts beneath the tree. I can recall none of the other gifts Santa and Ms. Claus gave me that year. None. But I remember exactly what was in that box.

Even now, as I write this, I can still feel a little tremble of excitement as I started tearing off the paper, all eyes upon me. I can still feel the delicious, seething jealousy oozing in my direction from my brother and Greg. (My sister has Down’s Syndrome, and so is never jealous of anybody, not even brothers who are lording their incredibly cool Christmas present over her.) And then, finally, the Christmas Present to End All Christmas Presents was revealed.

It was an Easy Bake Oven.

I was crushed. What boy wants an Easy Bake Oven? Answer: no boy. If a boy wants to cook, he wants to do it over a fire with a stick. He doesn’t want to do it under a lightbulb in a pink and yellow plastic box. If I could pinpoint a moment in time where my sexuality was first questioned, it was this moment: 9:53 a.m., Christmas Day, 1976. My lesbian mom was trying to turn me gay.

She could tell I was disappointed. She said, “What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?”

If I asked my son that question after giving him an oven, he would say, “No. No I don’t like it” because whatever other shortcomings he might have, at least he has balls. I didn’t have his courage; instead I mumbled assurances about how much I loved my girl toy.

Perhaps I wasn’t convincing because I remember her saying something like,  “I thought you wanted an Easy Bake Oven.” This is typical of my mother. She invents other people’s opinions for them. “I thought you loved plaid,” she might say. When you ask her why she thinks you love plaid, she’ll lie. “You told me you loved plaid.” If you tell her you never said that, she gets mad and insists it is your memory at fault, not hers.

Even at the age of five, I knew this about my mother and so mumbled that yes, I must have at some point demanded that she buy me the most effeminate toy she could find. If she could have put some panties in my stocking to go with it, that would have completed the humiliation I felt under my brother and Greg’s watchful and mocking eyes.

An Easy Bake Oven? Not a miniature, gas-powered Dune Buggy? Not a three stage model rocket? Even some sort of Donny Osmond action figure clubhouse would have been preferable. Anything would have been better than this shit, and yet I did not have the courage to tell my mother and Arlene how I really felt because I knew it would be taken as not just a rejection of the gift. but a rejection of the new, unisexual worldview they were attempting to construct that Christmas. That single Christmas gift represented their entire post-penis existence, which is a lot of pressure to put on a five year old.

That night, we all sat down at the kitchen table and poured the ready-to-bake brownie mix into the little Petri dishes that came with the toy, then watched as the sixty watt lightbulb transformed that watery goo into tiny desserts. How did it taste? I would be lying if I said anything other than this: delicious. Even though I hated them and everything they represented, I have to admit they were delicious lightbulb brownies.

My mother was a certain kind of idealist, I guess. The kind that wanted to transform a patrimonial society into a gender neutral utopia where all little girls played third base and all little boys braided hair. That’s fine if you’re a little boy who wants to play dress-up, but I wasn’t one of those boys. As I said, I liked to scream and hurl myself down the stairs in a laundry basket. I felt like one of those hermaphrodites whose parents are forced to choose a sex for their child and they choose the wrong one. No matter how much my feminist lesbian mom wanted me to embody the new seventies man, I could never be him. Even at five, I was masturbating to thoughts of Cheryl Tiegs. And for all his dewy talk, I bet Alan Alda did, too.

Over the years my mom’s feminism softened. Now she buys my son Hot Wheels and Thomas the Tank Engine toys. My daughter gets fairy princess wings and magic wands. They both love their lesbian grandma. After our initial foray into dessert-making that Christmas, my mother never asked me if I wanted to bake again. The Easy Bake Oven went into the back of the toy closet, never to reappear, and the next Christmas, I think she got me a Big Wheel.

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Me again

Michael,

I enjoyed this story immensely. This sort of vulnerability makes you so much more human and likable, and I'm actually kind of touched that you would share it.

I used to baby-sit a five year old, whose father did all the family cooking. When he saw an easy-bake oven commercial, in all its pink feminine glory, he was disgusted. He asked me, "What are they doing?! Everybody knows girls don't cook!"

Ahhh...utopia.

Rabbi Shapiro from Legalzoom.com

Just because you didn't follow the Talmud word for word doesn't make you a bad Jew. In fact you are a GREAT Jew because you are a master of comedy and therefore a key part of our community. Buy my legal documents. Legalzoom.com.

Camille

Ah-ha...this explains much. Thanks for the personal glimpse:)

Oh,and I will no longer fumble for a description of my mother when asked. I'd love to borrow this:"She invents other people’s opinions for them".

Susanna

I have been yearning to hear this kind of personal story from you, and it's everything I hoped for and more. It was very insightful and moving...absolutely delightful to read! Pure joy!!

Also, I hope that the "Part 1" isn't just a teaser, and that you're planning to give us more parts. Yes, we're all definitely going to need more parts!

Therese

This was just the absolute best blog ever. Ditto Susanna's hopes for more.

Therese

Wait, that last comment doesn't sufficiently portray my delight. I hope there's an autobiography in the works, because this blog was perfect; emotive, well crafted and most importantly, fascinating. This glimpse into your childhood is wonderful, and I appreciate you sharing it with us.

Ethereal Zoe

Count me in on the blog-love. Er, the "blove". True stories from you are fun.

I do have to admit that I'm a little bit jealous of you though, because I never got an Easy Bake Oven and I really wanted one. I did pour batter in a toaster once, but the effect was hardly the same.

Matt

I literally laughed out loud, at work, when you said the gift was an Easy Bake Oven... Even before I found out you hated it.

If this really is true, thanks for sharing. Either way, awesome.

Zane

Great story.
I recall that Alan Alda could do no wrong in my all-female household.
HE was what every man should have been like, and I considered him my tv father, funny friend and my perfect boyfriend, which amused my mom and aunt Donna, 1970's feminists who taught their daughters that most men were no good losers who died on you too early and couldn't be trusted to be there when you needed them anyway. "Get an education, earn your own keep and expect nothing from nobody."

Excellent advice, I guess, except that is was accompanied by "Learn shorthand and get a job as a secretary in a big company with a good health plan."

Was anyone still using shorthand anymore? From this I learned to dismiss all of mom's advice as antiquated and useless since I was planning a big career being famous and best friends with Brooke Shields and Scott Baio that I was convinced would happen any minute now, as long as I kept starring in all those plays at the park recreation center summer drama camps.

Anyway, was your fake christmas tree as "flocked-up" as my Aunt Donna's? Her house ruled for x-mas excess and over the top snow villages, angel-hair "Heaven" manteltop manger scenes, Santa-themed, hand-knitted toilet roll snoods in the guest bathroom and fancy commissioned oil portraits of her (dead) dogs, Tammy and Tuffy, placed honorifically over the couch in the living room.

I'm done rambling, but I will quickly add that my easy bake oven was great because it was a hand-me-down from my 6 years older cousin so it was pre-safety concerns and I was free to burn my fingers and eyeballs on the exposed single bulb as often as was my wont. These new ones are a big gyp.

Me again

The Rabbi pushing his legal documents after a heartfelt story has to be my favorite comment on this blog ever.


Jaime

Real? Is it? I can't think so. Entertaining? Is it? I certainly do think so.

You are so hard to trust, you know. You and your silly kids Suri and Maddox, but so easy to laugh with. Not a bad trade.

By the way, I especially enjoyed the stream-of-consciousness consideration of TV's for five-year olds. I drove my husband out of the room because I kept laughing and reading the blog to him. All disconnected, he didn't understand the funny as well. But, it was -- so funny.

Reen

Oh,a peek. (Or, more like a long glance). I join the others in hoping you'll feel like sharing more.

Your mom seems like a neat lady (yes I still use the word "neat") - colorful, strong, and fights for what she believes in. Even if it is the hope that boys will someday share in the joy of cooking.

I had a similar Christmas. Couldn't wait to open a huge decorated box that I was sure contained the prettiest baby doll on earth. Instead it was a globe. "But look honey, see where the mountains are? It's raised there just a little bit where the mountains are! Wasn't that sweet of Uncle Don (Scientologist)to get you that educational present"?

Anyway, thank you for another window.

You're my favorite distraction.

Camille

ha! Speaking of horrid gifts...After she gave birth, my sister recieved a good one from her husband's grandmother. A girdle. Why,I never!

Sloane

Yeah I thought that you had two girls..

qwerjklhasdfuiht

love this blog!

Joe

That was a great story Michael! Keep em' coming. You should really consider adding some of this stuff to your routine. People love story time. Maybe bring a rocking chair out on stage or something. :)

Nicole

Michael,

That story was amazing. I have my own version of that story. It's not nearly as laden with symbolism as your Easy Bake Oven was but one Christmas, I got the biggest toy ever. I saved it for last. It was a yellow electric blanket. I never believed in Christmas after that day ever again. Thank you for immortalizing the Christmas present let down in yet another touching blog.

Nicole

Lizzy

AHHH, I used to hurl myself down the stairs in a laundry basket TOO !!! what are the odds....sigh...

Jess Fink

We hurled ourselves on couch cushions and my easy bake oven made nasty cakes.
Michael! This was wonderful! Write a book or something! This was just as good as any David Sedaris story!

Jenny

this was a great story! and very funny! just like your CBGB's let down. not that that was great, or funny..just the storytelling was great and funny..um.

but yes, you should write an autobiography. one day. you're very talented. thank you for sharing. :)

Jenny

oh, also, i'm jealous though b/c i also never got an easy bake oven. but i probably would've inadvertantly burned the house down, so in hindsight i understand why.

The Seasonal Storage Gal

What a great story. I have a 15 month old daughter, and like many other parents, I struggle and wrestle with that doubting voice in my head "Am I doing things right?!?"

I think this story is a wonderful reminder to all of us that parenting is an adventure and a learning process for everyone. Just like your mom, I know I too will figure it out eventually!

Laura

I'm reading this from the future right now and loved your story. It really made me smile.
Thank you.

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