Tag Archives: childhood

When I was a little kid, my family had a pet owl

When I was a little kid we used to have this pet owl. I’m pretty sure it’s super illegal to keep owls as pets, but that never crossed my mind when I was younger, he was just kind of there in the background of my childhood, Oggie the owl. I’m not even sure that’s how you spell Oggie. I’ve never had to write it down before. My dad brought him in the house after having found him lying wounded by the side of the road. My little brother at the time was barely old enough to talk, and he kind of toddled into the living room where my dad was wrapping up the bird’s injured leg in white gauze and mumbled something unintelligible in his two-year-old baby voice. Something he said must have sounded like Oggie, because everyone laughed and it just kind of stuck.

Owl in a cage

Every memory that I have regarding Oggie is really fuzzy, probably because we were all so young, and so whenever my brothers and sisters and I talk about our family mascot, there’s really very little in the way of verifying any of the sounds and images we all have kicking around in our memories. And another part of the uncertainty has to do with the fact that we can never talk about any of this stuff when my parents are around. They absolutely forbid even a passing reference to the bird. I’m pretty sure somewhere along the line, someone got word of the owl, that someone gave my dad a pretty serious warning, about how they’re protected animals, how you can’t just go caging them up inside.

It was a pretty big cage. At first Oggie didn’t need a cage, because he was injured, his leg was really messed up. And so my dad just put him in this cardboard box lined with newspaper and Styrofoam packing peanuts. It was fine, he wouldn’t move much. But once he started regaining even a little bit of his mobility, it became clear that we needed some boundaries. I remember one time my little sister, she wasn’t even walking yet, she crawled over to Oggie’s box with that cute I-want-to-play-with-my-pet-bird look on her face, and Oggie surprised all of us by hopping out of the box, fast, he was like face to face with my sister, and he let out this insanely loud screech. Worse, I mean, his feet were still heavily bandaged , so there wasn’t any real danger, but he started pawing at my sister’s face. Imagine if those talons were exposed, that would have definitely been a trip to the emergency room, at least.

My dad confined Oggie to a corner of the living room. He bought some chicken wire at Home Depot and affixed it floor-to-ceiling right next to where we had the TV. He cut out a portion of the wire and that kind of served as a rinky-dink door, so we could clean out his cage, tend to his wounds, and give him some food.

I remember that being a problem, figuring out what he’d eat. My parents did a little research and discovered that owls in the wild were predators, that they eat things like live mice. But my mom, who already wasn’t really too crazy about the whole owl-in-the-house thing, I remember her putting her foot down at one point, telling my dad, “There is no way we are keeping a box of live mice in the house to feed that goddamn owl!”

So there was a lot of trial and error. It would have been nice if he’d taken to any of the various bird foods that my parents bought at the pet store. But after a full two days of being surrounded by several bowls of different types of seeds and pellets, Oggie still hadn’t even considered eating anything we offered, and he started freaking out, hopping from spot to spot, gnawing at various parts of the chicken wire, and eventually, that shriek. It got to a point where all he did was stand there and let loose with that piercing cry.

My mom was worried that the neighbors were going to call the cops, so in a desperate attempt to shut Oggie up, she cut up some raw chicken from the fridge into these bite-sized strips and laid them out on a plate and pushed it through the slot in that fence. It worked, and it was weird, the whole owl-chicken thing. I remember asking my mom, “Mom do you think Oggie gets sad that he has to eat other birds?” and she told me something like, “No, that’s how they do it in the wild,” which seemed like a good enough answer at the time, even if I couldn’t make sense of why they’d waited so long to give him chicken, trying out all of those bird seeds that, still kind of just lying there scattered around all of those bowls toward the back of his cage, steadily attracting lines of tiny ants.

From my little kid perspective, I remember it like he was always there in the corner, not responding to our calls, swiveling his head from side to side, occasionally staring at one of us intently and almost menacingly for hours upon end. But really he could have only been there for a few months, tops. Eventually the house started smelling terrible, my mom wouldn’t let us have anybody over the house, telling us not to talk about Oggie with anybody at school, not like anybody believed us.

But we all got the sense that it was coming to end, the way my mom started cursing under her breath whenever she’d cut up Oggie’s chicken, or the late-night fights my parents had behind their closed bedroom door. One day we came home from school and Oggie was gone, along with any trace that we’d ever had a pet owl.

“We donated Oggie to a zoo,” was all that my mom offered as an explanation as to his disappearance, changing the topic abruptly with, “But good news, now you can have all of your friends over later this week!” Which wasn’t good news at all, because even though my parents told me not to mention Oggie around my friends, it was practically all I could talk about. Every time we had arts-and-crafts, I’d draw pictures of him, I’d mimic his screech out in the playground, I was owl obsessed.

And I could just see it in my head, all of my friends coming over, the first thing they’d say is, “See, I told you he didn’t have a pet owl,” which they all did. And my mom kind of laughed it off, like, “Pet owl? Ha!” all while giving me that look, like, you told them about the owl? What did I tell you about talking to your friends about the owl? You just wait until everybody leaves.

D E L space star dot star

Back in the early nineties, I was in the third or fourth grade, and my family got our first computer. It wasn’t new, it was something my uncle was getting rid of. It didn’t really do much. There was no mouse. I don’t even think it had Microsoft Windows. I’m actually trying to remember how we used it, but I don’t think anybody did. It kind of just sat there as we all stared at it, longingly.


“Please mom,” I’d beg my mother, “Can we play with the computer?” and I remember my mom would call up her brother as he took her on a step-by-step tutorial on how to launch the solitaire app. They didn’t call them apps back then, they called them games, not like solitaire was much of a game, really.

That machine lasted like a month or two until my parents decided that maybe home computing was the inevitability everyone kept promising it would be. They tossed my uncle’s hand-me-down in the trash and bought a real computer. This PC had Windows, some old version of it anyway, something named after a number, way before Windows 95. But even though it was brand new, it was still old. Or maybe I’m just remembering it as old, because everything was so much slower.

But it was pretty old. When you turned it on, you had to wait like ten minutes before it took you to the DOS prompt. And you’d have to actually enter computer commands, just like in a cheesy 80s movie. You’d write something like, “Computer, run Windows.” And then you’d have to wait another hour or so while the operating system loaded. When it was all said and done, finally you could use its state of the art graphic user interface to click on the window that said, “Games.” And yeah, it was mostly just solitaire.

But then a few years after that we got a real machine, a Gateway 2000. I can’t even conceive of how my mom went about buying the computer, because I think about how I’d buy a computer today: I’d go on the Internet and pick something out. But we didn’t have the Internet yet. Our current computer wasn’t capable of handling the web.

The Gateway was everything that I wanted a computer to be. It booted right to Windows, which was awesome, and it was Windows 95, which was even more awesome. Now I could finally play with that Windows 95 startup CD, the one that all of my friends talked about at school. It had the video to Weezer’s “Buddy Holly.” And there were games, actual games: Minesweeper, Chip’s Challenge, Ski Free.

Everything was right in the world. My life had finally started to feel like the future I’d always imagined for myself. We had the Internet. I had an AOL screen name. But there was a problem. Instead of throwing out the old computer like they did that antique passed down from my uncle, my parents just moved it to the other side of the room.

“Now we have two computers,” was the idea, but it was a flawed idea, because while technically, yes, they were both computers, only one of them had anything worth using. I’d be waiting for my brother to finish up on AOL so I could take a turn on the Internet. I’d complain that he was taking too long, “You can always use the other computer,” my mom would offer, which was a joke, because it didn’t have the Internet, it was totally useless.

The only one of us who used it was my brother Joe. He had some trial version of a shareware game that one of his classmates gave to him on a stupid floppy disc. And he’d pop it in and play the same minute and a half of sixteen-bit action, over and over and over again. “He likes it!” would be the reply if we complained about having to watch him loop through the same screen on repeat for hours.

And that’s how life went for a while, waiting for my brother to finish up with the computer so I could use it, picking up the phone line every once in a while so as to interrupt the Internet connection, waiting by the door as he tried futilely to reconnect through the never ending chorus of busy signals.

I remember around that time telling all of my computer woes to one of my dad’s cousins at a funeral. This was a guy that I’d never seen at any family parties. He lived far away or something, I don’t know his story, my dad has like a thousand family members. But this cousin, nobody else was talking to him, and once I had his ear about computers, man, I was locked into that conversation.

This guy knew everything about computers. “You know,” he gave me some advice regarding that old PC that took up space in the computer room, “You could always wipe the memory.”

“How would I do that?”

“Easy. You wait for the DOS prompt to load up, and you type in ‘del *.*’”

I remember exactly how he said it, “D-E-L space star dot star,” and I repeated it to myself over and over again for the rest of the night, making sure that I’d be able to commit it to memory.

But once I had it in there, I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Obviously I wanted to use it, to see if it would actually work. But destroying a computer? I wasn’t a bad kid or anything. Annoying, maybe, but not capable of actually ruining something big, like a computer.

I couldn’t get it out of my head though. I just kept hearing it on repeat in my head, del *.*. Part of me wished that my dad’s weird cousin never told me about the command in the first place. It started to encroach upon more and more of my daily thoughts. Sometimes I’d boot the machine up and start typing it out, not pressing enter, but holding my finger just above, not even an inch away. I felt powerful, with the tiniest of movements, I was capable of utter annihilation.

And then one day, I don’t know what came over me, but in a momentary lapse of judgment, I did it, I pulled the trigger. Del *.*, enter. And all of these characters started flying across the screen. The hard drive made audible clicking sounds, a sure enough sign that something was going on inside.

That’s when I regained my senses, realized exactly what I was doing. And I freaked out, I wanted to undo it. I pulled the plug, hoped that if I just gave it a minute, we could forget anything had happened, let bygones be bygones. But it was too late. While the power light showed signs of electric current, there was nothing on the screen, no signs of computing activity whatsoever.

So I turned it off and left the room. A few days later, I heard Joseph ask my mom to help him with something on the computer, “my computer,” as he was fond of calling it, seeing as how he was the only one who used it at all. A little while after that, my mom asked me if I knew what was wrong. “With the computer?” I pretended to act all shocked, running to the new computer, making up what I thought was an elaborate ruse, like I didn’t even know about the old computer.

“Oh, the old one?” I acted relieved after my mom told me what she meant. “I have no idea. I never use that thing.”

And that was that. It sat there for a few months, and then one day my dad hauled it outside and left it on the curb for trash pickup. I’ve always felt bad about it, lying to my parents, ruining the computer that for some reason brought my little brother such a simple joy. I guess, mom, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry? Is that good enough? I’m sorry I broke the old computer, on purpose. But mostly I’d like to blame my dad’s cousin, because why would you think it was a good idea to give a little kid his own computer self-destruct button? Not cool man, you might as well have given me a knife, or a bottle of spray paint, with strict instructions never to use them. Of course I’m going to use them. Don’t you know anything about little kids? So if anything, it’s really that guy’s fault, not my fault. Thanks for ruining my little brother’s computer.

One time I got overrun by hundreds of spiders in Canada

When I was a little kid, like eight or nine years old, my grandparents took my brother and me on a road trip to Ottawa to hang out with some of our Canadian relatives. We were in town during Canada Day, and one of my cousins rented out a hotel suite downtown for a big party. The place was huge, I remember lots of rooms, a giant balcony overlooking the city, it had the perfect up-close view for fireworks.


Everyone was having a great time, but, and I remember this vividly, as soon as the sun set, all of these giant spiders started crawling out from everywhere, from under the furniture, from inside the vents in the ceilings. I’m not even exaggerating, there were hundreds of them, big brown ones, probably the size of a quarter, and they took over the suite. The balcony got hit especially hard, it was like you wouldn’t notice them, not just by looking out the window, because their dark bodies blended in with the night sky. But by shifting the view, or just by walking close enough, you could see they were an omnipresent force, hanging from their invisible threads, it looked like, if they wanted to, they could have covered the whole sliding door in a sheet of thick webbing.

I’m creeping myself out just thinking through this twenty-year-old memory. Actually being there, a little kid in a foreign country on a hotel floor that was being slowly overrun by spiders, I was freaking out big time. But what could I do? I looked around, all of the adults were acting like it was no big deal. I gave my grandma a nervous face and she dismissed my concerns, like I was being a baby, like I shouldn’t be afraid of a few spiders.

And now looking back, I still don’t understand what was going on. Because if I were there right now, of course I’d be scared, at the very least I’d be visibly uncomfortable, squirming around, swatting away at imaginary itches and tingles I’d feel across my body. What was going on here, are Canadians exempt from the near-universal fear of a spider infestation?

Or was everybody just being super polite? I’m having this imaginary scenario play through my mind, it’s my Canadian cousin, he’s in the hotel lobby booking a room with the receptionist. “Well sir, our standard rooms do fill up pretty quickly, especially on Canada Day,” and he’d be like, “I see, well, I guess I’m looking for something kind of affordable. What are your standard rates?”

And she’d lure him in, “Actually, we do have an executive suite available, it’s got plenty of room for all of your guests, plus there’s a great balcony overlooking the center of town. The rate is exactly the same as any of our standard rooms.” My cousin would be skeptical, “I don’t know, this sounds a little too good to be true. What’s the catch?”

Of course there would be a catch. “You see sir, the suite, again, it’s fantastic, but there’s a little bit of a spider problem.” And maybe my cousin would hesitate. But that’s a hard offer to pass up, suites are expensive, surely a group of adults would be able to handle a few spiders. “All right, I’ll take it.”

Cut to the party, people are inches away from being devoured by arachnids, but nobody wants to hurt my cousin’s feelings, after all, he was the one nice enough to pay for the entire party. It would be extremely rude to mention the spiders, or even acknowledge their existence. So everybody put on a show of having a great time, all while trembling on the inside, counting down the minutes until it was OK to make an exit.

I don’t know, I have trouble believing the accuracy of these old memories, even though I can still see them, congregating in spider clusters in the corners, by the legs of the furniture. Maybe my traumatized childhood mind embellished what actually went down. Who knows? But for real, there were a lot of spiders. I’m not making it up. Sometimes I still get nervous in hotel rooms, even if I’m nowhere near Canada. I’ll run down to the receptionist right before dusk, I’ll be like, “You guys don’t have any sunset spider problems, do you? Because if you do, just tell me, I won’t get mad, I promise, I won’t even ask for a refund, I’ll just leave, you can still rent out the room. Just, come on, no spiders, right? Promise?”

Substitute teacher

When I was a little kid, every day I’d wake up for school, it was always the same drill, the same getting up way too early, way earlier than a human child is supposed to naturally wake up. Breakfast was a haze, I always remember sitting around the kitchen table, half-asleep, constantly pissed off at my brother reading the back of the cereal box while eating his cereal, annoyed in the way that an older brother gets watching his younger brother just sitting there content, minding his own business.

It was just a regular school day. Summer vacation would still be months away, even Friday felt impossibly out of reach. All I’d have to look forward to on any given day was going to school, sitting in class, bored, trying not to get in trouble for fidgeting in my seat too much. Then I’d go home, I’d have to do my homework, help set the table for dinner, and then it’d be bedtime.

But every once in a while the universe would hand me a present, would break up the monotony of the school year with its routines and assignments and homework. Every now and then I’d arrive at school, I’d line up in the cafeteria to wait for the teachers to bring us into the classrooms, and we’d walk down the hallway and I’d see all of my classmates entering up ahead.

Something would be different. I could hear giggling, euphoria. Whereas normally the chatting would be silenced by our teacher immediately upon walking through the door, this time something was definitely different, instead of shutting up, everybody was getting louder. What was going on? Who was inside?

And I could already sense it, that our teacher was out, that, for whatever reason, maybe she was sick, maybe she just took a personal day, it doesn’t matter, she wasn’t there. It would be a substitute teacher. And for the rest of that day anyway, all bets were off.

My school had a rotating cast of subs. The best was Mrs. Tackish. She should have been our regular teacher. She loved kids. She loved us. While our regular teachers would yell, scream, “Stop laughing! Get in your seats this second!” Mrs. Tackish would welcome us to the classroom with a huge smile, a, “Good morning children! I’m so happy to be substituting today! We’re going to have so much fun!”

And we would. Of course our regular teacher probably left some bullshit photocopied worksheets for us to fill out, but Mrs. Tackish saw right through all of that nonsense busywork. Let’s play Seven-Up instead. Seven-Up was the greatest, seven kids selected to stand in front of the class, everyone else remained seated, putting their heads down on their desks. With nobody watching, each one of the seven would tap someone on the head. A hand was raised to indicate you’d been tapped. Then the seven lined up back at the front and each of the seven who’d been chosen got one chance to correctly guess who had been the tapper. If you got it right, congratulations, you got to take a turn up front.

Or there’d be hangman. It’s actually not that great of a game. I mean, not for an adult. Recently I found myself at work, it was dead and so a bunch of us started playing hangman. The category was movies, my coworker put five dashes and then three dashes. He showed it to me and I immediately said, Cabin Boy, to which he stared at me in disbelief for like a while, because how did I get it so quickly, with no letters?

But in grammar school? Hangman was the shit. It was all about putting things up there that the teacher had no idea about, like names of cartoon characters, weird little inside jokes. Under normal circumstances, mild giggling would be acceptable while playing hangman, but with Mrs. Tackish, even a full-blown uproar was tolerated.

Unfortunately, The Tackish (as we referred to her with utmost reverence) wasn’t always available to sub. In that case, our school would default to the B-team, which included the recent college grads still looking for teaching jobs, a bunch of retired nuns who used to teach school decades ago or, if things were really bad, somebody’s mom or dad would have to fill in. I always felt really bad for whoever wound up having to sit there while their parent pretended to be a teacher. It was painfully obvious how bad of a teacher impersonation they were performing, and everyone would make fun of that kid for at least two weeks, how he had to sit there and either call the teacher mom or Mrs. and then his own last name.

I wish we could have subs in the adult world. I wish that I’d show up for work some random das and instead of my regular boss there’d be a sub, and even better, it would be Mrs. Tackish. I’m a waiter, and so tables would start complaining about this and that, and instead of me having to explain the situation without upsetting anybody in charge, I could just go to the Tackish and laugh, like, hey Tackish, get a load of these clowns at table twenty-five. And she’s go, “Oh Rob!” like trying to be in charge, but really just getting a huge kick out of it, out of all of us, just goofing around and having a great day.