To Ink or Not to Ink? The Tattoo Question


When I was a kid (I think that was about 300 years ago), the only people who had tattoos were found at amusement park side-shows, on the docks occupied by Marines and sailors, and in a few other places you were discouraged by your parents from approaching. Tattoos were rarely associated with either high-class or high art.

Things have changed.

First, lots of people have them, young and old. Second, there is (thankfully) less prejudice against those who are inked. Third, the art of tattooing appears to have improved, and some of the images are pretty darn impressive, original and beautiful. And you just read that from someone who loves Rembrandt and Renoir.

But, there is still the question: should you or shouldn’t you? I’m going to address the pros and cons here from the perspective of someone who has a lovely cousin who is heavily into getting them, many patients of mine who had them, and many people of my vintage who have a kind of instinctive and negative reaction to the idea of getting inked.

Here is what one lady has to say:

I didn’t start getting tattooed until I was in my forties and they still look awesome to me. If you google old people with tattoos, you will see that what I’ve just said is true of all of them. People just say they will look bad because they like to criticize tattooed people.

As far as work is concerned, it has never been a problem for me. I wear long sleeves and let’s face it, I’m not really a professional of any kind (although this woman does have a college degree). G.S. I think a lot of the people in my son’s generation are more concerned with that. My lifestyle is different now, so I really don’t have to care about employers. I would never take a job where they were uptight, but I don’t really need a job. (Perhaps those who aspire to professional positions do need to consider this, however unfair the discrimination might be). G.S.

To understand why I get tattooed, you’d have to know who I am. I was a hippie in the ’60s and ’70s and my friends were mostly musicians, artists, fashion designers, and actors. I have always been part of the counterculture. I married into the music business. As our kids grew up, we had to settle down quite a bit and give them a more mainstream lifestyle. But, as I’m sure you know, you can’t deny who you are forever without costing yourself a lot.

When our children were in their teens, I had a number of moments that I might call epiphanies. I realized that I didn’t have to be the perfect PTA mom anymore. Tattoos were getting popular and I thought they looked really interesting, so for my daughter’s 19th birthday we decided to get tattooed together. I will never forget that night.

First, I have to tell you that just about all tattoo artists are actually fine artists or musicians — real professionals. So, anyway my daughter and I went to a shop and while we were getting tattooed we were talking to the guys there. I soon realized that I was having a great time, more fun than I ever had with the PTA ladies and the church people! I also recognized that there is an amazing counterculture that is built around body art.

That experience started me looking at tattoos and talking to a variety of tattooed people. I saw some amazing art and I decided to get more. At first, I always got them where they couldn’t be seen. For years I thought about getting a “sleeve,” which is what an arm fully-covered with tattoos is called. I found an artist whose work I really admired. Finally, I decided to go ahead. Now, it took a really long time to get my arm done — over 30 hours. And it really hurt. So, when other tattooed people see me, they have a lot of respect for not only the art, but for anyone who has spent that much time in pain getting tattooed.

I was not, however, prepared for the amount of attention I started getting. I live in the suburbs and the suburbs aren’t very forgiving toward alternative people. And, I’m not gonna deny it, tattoos are popular with some lower class elements of society, like people in prison. So, although it has gotten to be more acceptable in the years since I first started, most mainstream people still see the body art subculture as a negative aspect of society.

I have received some really rude comments from stupid people. I live in the Bible-Belt. The crucial thing for me is, I used to keep who I really am to myself. Now I can’t. I am such an “alternative” person in a lot of ways. I am drawn to the edgy side of life. I am kind of unusual even within the body art culture because of my age and because you don’t see that many tattooed women. But it has helped me in that I can now express myself.

My tattoos are really important to me personally. They have a lot of meaning to me individually. They were designed for me and only me. I have one that is all about my dad (who died when I was very young). Of course, there are a few small pieces I would do differently now. But I’m not tired of them.

On the negative side, there are times when I wish I didn’t have so much of my body covered by tattoos; like when I go to the doctor. Or when everyone is staring at me.

But the whole experience has helped me to see who I am. It has been part of the process of finding myself, something that some of us in any generation have a tough time doing. Especially for me, born into an almost immigrant family with very conservative values, my uniqueness was rarely valued. But, like I said, who you really are comes out whether you like it or not.


Beauty, as the old saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder. It is a position that I have been a bit slow to come to since I listen to Beethoven and Brahms and Bach and tend (still) to think that little else offers anything like their art. But, the friend I just quoted enlightened me and humbled me, helping me realize that I’m in no position to judge in that way; that no one is. Taste is not as simple as right and wrong.

Yes, some of the tattooed are doubtless trying to get noticed. Surely, some are trying to stick a figurative thumb in your eye and show contempt for a world that, after all, is often contemptible. And, I suspect, that at least a few of those into body art simply want to fit in with whatever crowd they wish to belong. But is that any different from buying a Gucci handbag or driving a Lexus or wearing a Brooks Brothers suit?

I learned something from this thoughtful lady, as a therapist must if he or she is to be any good at all. We are often taught by our patients, friends, and acquaintances. The world is quite a school, but, just like school, you must pay attention. What did I learn? To look for the personal meaning in body art and be less ready to jump to judgment, something that seems to make us feel superior, but does much needless harm.

In the 1950s it was unimaginable to almost anyone in the USA that there might ever be a black President. Homosexuality wasn’t disclosed and was almost universally and publicly mocked. The acceptable world was mostly white bread and mayonnaise, which left lots of people out. Things change. It is your body, after all, and the art you put on it harms no one. While I’m not likely to try it myself, I’m more open and accepting of it than I’ve ever been before.

In 2000, in a Vice Presidential Debate, Dick Cheney, a man with a gay daughter named Mary, said:

I think we ought to do everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kind of relationships people want to enter into. We live in a free society and freedom means freedom for everyone.

Perhaps there should be a book, something like a high school year book, that we update from time to time. I guess Facebook is like that. But one that requires us to say a few words in summation of our life. And if I could write that summation for the lady who is the subject of this blog, it would go something like this:

I was lost and now I am found. I did no major harm and, in fact, raised two fine children and am helping raise one of my grandchildren. I met and married the man I love and decorated a body that he loves with beauty as I see it. I had a heck of a good time doing it too, and met a lot of neat people along the way. I don’t preach, but if you watch me and have a problem with tattoos, you still might learn something from my example: you might discover just a little about why some people like me decorate our bodies in the way we do and ask yourself why that bothers you.

It is a philosophy and description of a life — dare I say, something that might eventually serve as an epitaph and bring a smile, at least to me. Not many of us do better.

The top photo of a son and his mother was taken by Jeff Stelle and Kat Moya in Columbus, Ohio. They are the same mother and son mentioned in the post. The second image is the Traditional Tattoo of the Datoga People, Tanzania by Kathy Gerber. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Seven Signs of Getting Older (on the Wretched Road to Decrepitude)

A Toast

I thought of calling this essay “The secret signs of aging that THEY won’t tell you about.” I figured that might engage the conspiracy theorists out there. TRUST NO ONE, as The X-Files used to remind us.

Still, I hope that you will trust me enough to treat what follows as a public service designed to inform you of some little-discussed, but tell-tale signs that your body is heading in a direction from which there is no return.

Why am I doing this? I don’t want you to be taken by surprise when decrepitude finally arrives. It happened to my mom in just that way. One day, past middle-age, she looked at her face in the mirror and heard herself uttering, “When did this happen?”

Of course, some of the more obvious signs of aging are well-known. Things like losing your hair, going gray, loss of muscle tone, and increasingly “jiggly” body parts are already represented in popular culture as danger signals. So are wrinkles, age spots, a tendency toward a thickening of the mid-section, memory issues and so forth. So I’m going to deal only with those things that are a bit less obvious.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Becoming invisible. As a kid I enjoyed watching reruns of the movies that were based on the H.G. Wells tale The Invisible Man. Eventually, however, I discovered that no secret formula was required in order to achieve this apparently non-material state. Germaine Greer described it in a 1993 book called The Change. She was referring mostly to women, but it applies, to a lesser extent, to men as well. Simply put, if you are someone who has historically drawn the gaze of others because of your fetching appearance, eventually that stops, usually earlier than you were expecting. Instead of turning the heads of others, they now walk past you with hardly a look. You have become invisible. Your age is showing.
  2. The descent. Your body parts are on the move, like an infantry in retreat. Breasts, butts, jowls, double-chins, and even your height are slowly succumbing to the superior force of the opposing army, otherwise known as gravity. The direction of their path is toward “The Underworld” as the ancient Greeks used to call it. We usually refer to it as “six-feet under.”
  3. The generation gap. I started teaching at Rutgers when I was 25 in 1972. I can recall a moment in my first year there, lecturing a group of 19 or 20 year-olds. For some reason I brought up the name Adlai Stevenson II. No one had any idea who I was talking about. Yet Stevenson had been the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, and famously confronted the Russians at the United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, only 10 years before. Yes, he died in 1965, but most Americans my age would have known who he was. In that moment, I realized that there was a body of knowledge that I could no longer naively assume I shared with those younger than I. As you might have noticed yourself, it eventually grows to cover lots of ground, with you knowing about things that are older, and younger people knowing about things that are newer. Movies, music, and TV shows are among the areas of information that seem to overlap less and less. Familiarity with historical events and technology also inhabit this divide, separating you from the growing group of people who were born after you.
  4. Betrayals of the body.  There is way too much territory here to cover fully, but let me give you a sense of what is in store for some of you. Your body will begin to inform you that its performance of actions you have taken for granted, does, in fact, take some effort. You are likely to discover that you actually have knees and that their job isn’t easy. Some aches and pains here and there tend to creep in, particularly involving your back. By middle-age, arthritis isn’t unusual, although it can be quite mild. Your nose and ears can begin to look bigger. If you are a man, shaving your face eventually becomes more of a challenge because the contours of your face change, leaving tiny hills and valleys that resist your effort to scrape them smooth of stubble. Your skin is likely to get drier. Sense of balance can decline. Many of both sexes encounter the need to urinate more frequently and find themselves scouting out public washrooms just in case. Yikes!
  5. How People Treat You. I remember taking my daughter Carly to the Art Institute of Chicago when I was 50, asking for two tickets, and being given a “senior discount” automatically by the young cashier — well before I was actually a senior. Young people, when they notice you at all, will see you as ancient by the time you are 40. Not long after, they will begin to refer to you as “sir” or “ma’am.” In the grocery check-out line, even middle-aged cashiers will ask whether you need help carrying the groceries to your car. I realize that some of this kind attention is given simply as a matter of course even to those who are younger. But, regardless of how fit you are, it will remind you of the fact that you are no “spring chicken.” And, just in case you are a checker at the grocery market, I’d like to let you know that I do indeed need some help. The help I need is to stop being asked if I need help!
  6. Sleep disturbance. You are at an increased risk of having trouble sleeping. This is actually much reported, so you can find the details elsewhere.
  7. The evening out. No, I’m not talking about a night on the town. This item refers to the changes in physical appearance that cause people to begin to look more alike. It is pretty scary really. Some male faces begin to look more like the female kind, with or without the addition of “man boobs” a little lower down. Some women’s faces look less different from those of men, even to the point of facial hair growth and thinning hair on top of the head. Perhaps worst of all, people who were once movie-star beautiful eventually discover that their declining level of pulchritude makes them less distinguishable from those who were never good-looking. I guess Mother Nature figures that the unfair advantage of beauty is just on loan, not a permanent gift.

Now that I’ve described these lesser-known signs of aging, I’ve gotta ask you a question. Why did you want to know? If you are young, whatever that is, you almost certainly don’t really believe you will ever become aged. And, if you are old, well, you probably already know the secrets I’ve mentioned. But, what good, at either period — young or old — does it do to know this stuff?

Yes, if you are young, perhaps you will take better care of yourself because you give some thought to your body’s future. And, consideration of your physical destiny will remind you to develop sources of self-definition, pleasure, and meaning other than the glorious state of your face and physique. Still, decrepitude is a “bigger than life” opponent who tends to have his way. There is little you can do to fend off time’s offending hand.

I suppose you can put the information above in the category of “the examined life.” I’m usually in agreement with Socrates on the matter of the unexamined life not being worth living. But, I’ll tell you what, your unexamined physical future is probably best left hidden under a rock most of the time. Like the thread on the sweater that begs to be pulled, a preoccupation with such things is pretty destructive. Believe me, you don’t want to imagine a day when you will ask your lawn care service to add the trimming of your lengthening nose hair to their weekly task of cutting the grass.

The top image, called Everyone’s Invited, is the work of SuicideGirls and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Cosmetic Changes: How Far Will We Go?

A funny thing happened at this morning’s dental appointment. In the course of a routine cleaning, my lovely dental hygienist mentioned that I might want to consider Invisalign, a clear plastic alternative to metal braces. The reason: to create a greater cosmetic perfection to my lower front teeth.

I had a good laugh when she mentioned this. It’s not that I couldn’t use it, but what I said to her surprised even me: “You know Kristina, rather than do that, I think I probably ought to just replace my entire head!” Why, after all, have a perfect smile and still have the same bald head, the same wrinkles, and the same less than completely even and taut facial contours. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” as the old English saying goes. Don’t just paint the old car, buy a new one!

If you’ve had your car repaired, you will be able to relate. Fixing a damaged vehicle is expensive. The car doesn’t actually have to be beyond repair for it to be considered “totalled.” When the body shop tells you this, they mean that the expense of the parts and labor exceed the current value of the car. In other words, you’d be better off buying a new one. It displeases me to say that my head has reached that point.

Imagine the following conversation with a salesman: “I can offer you a good price on the new head you want, Dr. Stein. But, I’m afraid that there isn’t much I can give for trading in the old one.” God, the humiliation of it!

The picture of me (top, right) is actually pretty realistic. I have some serious mileage on this head and this body. To the good, however, my younger daughter recently commented on my upper body to the effect that (unlike all other middle-aged or older men she has seen) “you don’t have ‘man boobs,’ dad.”

You can only imagine how wonderful this made me feel. But, it is true, my body is pretty fit. Lots of aerobic exercise, a healthy diet, and weight lifting account for it. However, since I didn’t conduct therapy sessions with my shirt off, I didn’t hear much about my physique while I was in practice. Just as well, since I actually wanted to continue practicing. I wouldn’t have enjoyed a professional review board questioning me about the topic of “topless” therapy.

We’ve all seen those TV shows where someone gets a major “makeover.” Teams of surgeons and fashion consultants transform some unfortunate soul who really needs it. He or she never has to pay for this because the services are donated. Retail price would probably be a seven-figure sum. I’m not that vain or that rich.

I would, however, like to look like Jon Hamm or Brad Pitt for just one day. I’d also like to be Beethoven, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Willie Mays (a famous baseball player) — each in his prime, also for one day per person. It would be pretty neat to know what it would feel like to inhabit those bodies and brains from sunrise to sunrise, and to receive the world’s approbation for the same 24 hours. I’m not quite evolved enough to say I’d like to be a woman for a day, but I’ll bet it would be even more informative and interesting. None of this will happen, of course.


Cosmetic alteration clearly has a future. And, I suspect, all of us who are less than perfect in appearance (in other words, just about everybody) have an appointment with that future. Let me explain.

There will be a time when you won’t have to have a million dollars to make yourself look like a million dollars. I imagine a future in which each person will have the capacity to holographically alter his appearance, even if the actual body hiding behind the holographic image isn’t the world’s most beautiful. Every day would be like Halloween, but with really good — and good-looking — masks. Mail-order catalogues, websites, and brick-and-mortar stores will have a department that lets you pick out the face you’d like to face in the mirror. Computer programs will let you “photo-shop” the image to your precise specifications. Everyone will be stunning! Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

How would that change the world, I wonder? Well, yes, there would doubtless be some who still want to stand out at any cost. Lots of perforations and punctures, body art, wild clothing, that sort of thing. But for the most part, just beauty as far as the eye can see. Jaw dropping appearances. Men would look like Jon Hamm or Brad Pitt if they wanted to, women could be as physically attractive as Marilyn Monroe or Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez or Katy Perry. A movie-star level of beauty all around.

The effect would be paradoxical, I think. In a world without disease or death, for example, no one would think about how he feels or worry about getting sick. In a climate that is always mild, sunny, and clear, no one would care much about the weather. And in a future of endless and omnipresent pulchritude — where anyone could become exquisite just by visiting the department store — the value of physical allure would surely diminish. The beautiful girl or guy would become something of a commonplace.

Other things would correspondingly count for more. The trophy spouse would have to be a Nobel Prize winner or an author; or someone of unusual charm or wit, generosity or kindness. A different world, for sure.

Until then? I think I will hold on to my old head. Despite some relatively high mileage, it has served me well. It is not the head of a handsome 25-year-old, but there are some good ideas and interesting experiences contained therein. I wouldn’t want to be without them. I’ve earned the weathering and learned from the lines. With a little buffing and waxing, it still does its job.

See you at the car wash.

The top photo is of Jon Hamm. The bottom image is a poster of John Barrymore as Mr. Hyde in the 1920 Paramount Pictures classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“Will You Accept This Rose?” Reactions to Receiving the “Beautiful Blogger” Award

First of all, I will end the suspense, little as it may be: I did accept the “Beautiful Blogger” Award. The writer of Anxiety Adventures was kind enough to nominate me for this, for which I am very grateful. But, if you’ve been following my writing for a bit, you also know that I tend to think about things a good deal. So I’ll offer you a few thoughts prompted by this little bit of recognition.

Before I do that, however, I need to tell you about three other blogs worth your attention. My acceptance of the “Beautiful Blogger” Award actually requires seven such nominations (it is a little like a chain letter), but I’ll give you just three for now, with more to come in the future:

I’m happy to hear from other bloggers who might wish this sort of recognition. My panel of judges is a tough bunch, but you never know whether you might get lucky. Bribes may increase you chances! Now, back to thoughts inspired by the “Beautiful Blogger” Award. Questions, actually:

Question #1: How many bloggers are out there? According to NM Incite, “overall, 6.7 million people publish blogs on blogging websites, and another 12 million write blogs using their social network.” The same source states that they tracked over 181 million different blogs by the end of 2011. WordPress indicates that there are about 500,000 new blog posts each day on its WordPress sponsored sites alone.

Question #2: With so many posts, how does anyone get noticed? Unless you are writing for some outfit like Huntington Post that will promote your work by its very existence, people spread the word via Facebook, tweets, and other social media sites and methods. They use photos to get attention, try to “tag” their posts with key words so that search engines like Google will pick them up, and send their URL (web address) to those individuals who might find their writing interesting. In turn, those contacts are encouraged to pass the posts on to their own friends and acquaintances. Bloggers are also wise to leave comments on other bloggers’ sites as a way of encouraging reciprocal attention to their own blogging activity.

Question #3: What did you do, Dr. S, to get an audience for what you write? I did some of the above, but not as much as you might think. First, since I don’t use any of the usual social media like Facebook or LinkedIn, there was only a limited amount of self-promotion. For the record, I did not tweet, chirp, squawk, or transubstantiate to get the message out. I did not pray for readers or wail. I did not beg or plead with my patients, only with my friends. I did not wear sandwich boards (see the image just below) announcing my new venture. I gave some consideration to traveling from town to town, setting up a tent, and performing miracles, but dismissed the idea when I couldn’t get a good price on a tent.

I did, however, put the URL for the blog on my business card and my website. I also told a number of people about what I was doing. I linked my blog site to some online therapy referral services where I was listed. Mostly I just wrote and let the writing do the job. Eventually people read my stuff, but this didn’t happen very quickly — I had only eight “page views” in the month that I began posting, February, 2009. As a few of the posts became popular (see particularly the first two items on the list of Top Posts in the column to the right), more and more people began to pay attention. Last month I had 7,411 “page views.” Clearly, I am not Oprah. OK, I’m not even Oprah’s assistant, but neither am I anonymous. Were I to try to do more to promote my writing, I’d need to read and comment on the blogs of others a good deal more than I do.

Question #4: How has the blog changed over time? I am doing more writing now that I am retired from clinical practice. I’m also freer to share whatever comes to mind, including humor and fiction, than when I had to be somewhat more concerned about the professional impression I was making. Moreover, now that I’m not working for a living I’ve discovered that my imagination is less restrained than when it was more narrowly focused on helping my patients and tending to the business aspects of my corporation. As a consequence, I’ve written humorously about invisibility, masturbation, and nausea. Very soon, I will post something about the male fear of the digital rectal exam! Apparently, I am becoming more shameless in my writing.

Question #5: How are your posts different from those of other bloggers? I’ve ignored the general rule to be brief. I tend to write essays. I try to keep a conversational tone so that you, yes you, will feel that you are engaged with me and that I take you seriously, because I do. I hope that people will think about the topics, not necessarily just turn the page and forget about the issues I raise. I’m older than most bloggers, half of whom are between 18 and 34, again according to NM Incite. And, of course, the last time I checked I’m not a woman, as are more than 50% of bloggers.

Question #6: For whom do you write? I start out with topics that are of interest to me, so I begin by writing for my own satisfaction and enjoyment of the process of putting words on the electronic white board of the Internet. I also try to do a bit of education, touch the heart every so often, and produce an occasional smile. I hope to have done a bit of all three before the end of this post.

I write, in part, for my adult daughters, so that they will have this small piece of me to hold on to, kind of like Jor-El in Superman, who created a hologram of himself so that his son (aka Clark Kent) could interact with and consult his father even though he was long gone. I’m not planning to leave the planet for a while, but the idea of emptying myself of whatever I have learned about life has some appeal, whether for them or those sympathetic and kind souls who find what I have to say has some value.

Question #7: Does any of this make you a “Beautiful Blogger?” The adjective in question — “beautiful” — is probably not the first one that comes to your mind when you look at my picture, but, as the old maxim tells us, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Seriously though, I will say one more thing: I’m pleased that you are reading my work. If you enjoy what I do I’d be grateful for you to pass it on. And to show my thanks, here is something of beauty that doesn’t require a vote or a nomination — a performance to tug at your heart: Slower Than Slow (La plus que lente) by Debussy; four minutes of music that expresses things that words cannot.

The June, 1988 Bonn, Germany image of people wearing sandwich board advertisements comes from the German Federal Archives by way of Wikimedia Commons. This sort of ad was common during the Great Depression. You even see an occasional sandwich board today, usually during “going out of business” sales.

Murmuration: A Flock of Starlings

This two-minute video will dazzle you: Murmuration.

It is the movement of a flock of starlings, as if choreographed, in a jaw-dropping spectacle. This happens each autumn in the evening sky of portions of the UK and elsewhere in northern Europe. Stay to the end of the film to see the reaction of one of the two young women in the boat.

The film is by Liberty Smith and Sophia Windsor Clive. Thanks to my friend Judy for sending it along.

The first image above is called Awklet Flock, Shumagins 1986, posted by D. Dibenski. The second photo is entitled You Make Me Fly by ElBe. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.