Friday, July 23, 2010

Decisions You Live With

Self-Portrait, 1967

Our daughter and her husband live in New York and mingle with the tragically hip from time to time. You don’t have to have been living under a rock to know that tattoos have been a big thing with the tragically hip of all ages for some time now. When we used to attend their street hockey league games on the Lower East Side, you’d see young artists, writers, musicians and stockbrokers covered in everything from discreet little tattoos of hearts and fishes to full “sleeves” of body art running from their wrists to their shoulders, across their backs and chests and all up and down their legs.

If you’re a parent of a young person who came of age over the last fifteen years, you’ve probably had a skirmish or two over piercings and tattoos. A friend wisely advised us early on to pick our battles carefully when dealing with a teenage child. I like to think we did just that, giving our daughter enough space to be experimental (e.g. blue hair) and enough independence to learn how to spend time on her own so that we could save our chips for the really serious stuff.

The summer she turned 18, it seemed important to our daughter that she do something to signal this first step into the world of formal independence. Her ears were already full of piercings. There was talk of something in the tongue. As a favor to us, I suspect, she didn’t do anything until the fall when, about ten minutes after we’d dropped her off in New York for her freshmen year of college, she went looking for a place to get her tongue pierced. By the time we saw her again a month later, we didn’t even notice the little stud in her tongue until she pointed it out. If she’d had swelling or infection, she’d endured it without any nagging from us. We didn’t say much about it and eventually the stud disappeared when the impracticality of a tongue stud became clear to her, too.

Our daughter still expresses some interest in getting a little tattoo every now and then. She’s an adult, so we stay out of such affairs, hoping that now that she’s in her late 20s and giving serious thought to having her own children she might be doubly cautious about inking something really obnoxious across her body.

One of my daughter’s friends is the wife of a famous indie rock musician. When they were together recently our daughter noticed for the first time that the woman has extensive “sleeve” tattoos up and down both of her arms. When she observed that she’d only seen the woman before in long-sleeved shirts and wondered why the woman didn’t show the tattoos more, the woman explained:

“You wouldn’t want to live for the rest of your life in the room you decorated when you were 16, would you? It’s the same way with tattoos.”

That same thought occurred to me recently when I came across the self-portrait shown above. I think I was somewhere around fifteen when I stood in front of the camera for this picture. Later on I would realize that at that age I looked like some kind of adolescent creep meant to be played on stage by Andy Kaufman or Crispin Glover. No wonder I had such a feeble social life!

I never had any piercings or tattoos. But I sure hope I never have to explain this picture to a grandchild.


  1. How funny you should write this now. I've always thought I wanted a tattoo, but have avoided it for fear of regretting it "when I get older". Well, I figured 40 was officially "older" and thought I would celebrate that milestone with a tattoo. I ran it by my mother who said she would disown me but eventually admitted she used to want one in college, but still cannot bring myself to do it for fear of regretting it one day.

    Perhaps it's really just fear of commitment. I don't know.

  2. This is a very strange and surreal photo! And coincidentally I have just been looking over lots of David Lynch material (clips)and this seems to fit right in!
    I always thought I wanted a (discreet) tatoo , too. Not when I was young, but with mature adulthood, or rather middle age !, but I never did it. I think that seemed just so pathetic and pat, and.."typical" : mid-life crisis-ish. Or when "everybody' started doing it, then just too faddish... but maybe, who knows?

  3. This piece you've written underscores a very important and often tragic fact: Good judgment develops considerably later in life than does the desire to establish one's independence.

  4. I've never wanted a tatto, but I used to let my son use the temporary kind, hoping that would satisfy his curiosity. Eric never did get a tatto, (well, to my knowledge,) but he did pierce one ear. I figured if that was the worst thing he ever did, I was a lucky mom. I went through all my earrings to see if I had some that were just "one," and not pairs--he never wore anything but a tiny little stud, and then, within a month or so, he let the hole close over and he's never worn one again. My dad, when he saw him with the earring, said "Do you think he's gonna' want a tattoo and a motorcycle next?" I had to tell him to shut up and stop giving Eric ideas.

    When he and his wife lived in Bermuda, he did ride a Vespa, but to my knowledge, the motorcycle never happened either!

    That photo of you is a riot--love the sideburns, groove.

  5. Love the photo, and your commentary hits the mark right on the nose.Pow! We parents it seems share the same nightmares of irreversible offsprings mistakes. "Dear God, please don't that, she'll regret it later. “Gosh was I was so dumb when I.......” “I hope she won't repeat my mistake.” On and on. How do we survive our children’s mistaken cool and for that matter how did our cool end up so lame? Thanks for your wonderful story! You got me thinking, and now my head hurts.