Friday, August 29, 2008

Things That Have Happened in My Lifetime

My summer reading has filled me with sorrow at how harsh the world can be and makes me more disgusted with myself for the attention I pay to my own bourgeois concerns. I’m not sure how I ended up on the brutality summer reading tour. It culminated this weekend with an outstanding George Packer article in the New Yorker about a visit to Burma. I learned it is uncool to say “Myanmar” because this name is the anointment of the military dictatorship of what Transparency International reports is the second most corrupt country in the world, second to Somalia. I am feeling beaten down and trivial by a lot of what I’ve read over the last few months and my attempts to form here some sort of cogent response have dogged me for most of the summer. I am still feeling bruised by the stories of Africa from Say You’re One of Them by Uwen Akpan but I have always been curious about Burma and took on the Packer article which indeed, was salt on my wounded heart.

The Burmese government doesn’t even do lip service to providing services to citizens and is shockingly upfront about existing only to enrich the personal coffers of high ranking regime cronies. The ruling junta doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the world’s condemnation and it doesn’t hurt that the two most populous nations in the world, China and India are competing there for its oil resources. In a nation where the government has displayed nothing but indifference for its citizenry for decades, the saga of the recent cyclone was utterly gut wrenching and burned more permanent images of human suffering to my psyche, adding to the ones I’d recently acquired thanks to Father Akpan of Nigeria. As brutal as the Jesuit’s stories were, they affirmed the existence of a loving God and the absence of consciousness that must be heaven.

George Packer is not a priest. A former Peace Corps worker, he has traveled to, and courageously documented some of the most terrifying and violent and destitute places on the planet. He recounts the Burmese government’s refusal of foreign assistance and complete indifference to the cyclone that killed nearly 150,000 and left hundreds of thousands of others in unimaginably dire circumstances. The Burmese, including a number of former political prisoners Packer interviewed, have no faith whatsoever that the junta will ever act towards improving the lives of the citizenry. Their choice not to believe in the possibility of the dictatorship’s demise, in the going beyond that, remarkably, frees the Burmese of cynicism. Cyclone relief was primarily a matter of Burmese individuals coming to the aid (sometimes thwarted, or worse, by the government) of their neighbors. With China and India throwing in their moola it seems unnecessary for Burma to be bowed much by international pressure. I pray Burma’s freedom but I am inspired by the goodness and transcendental dignity that springs from her peoples’ resignation and in spite of their suffering.

Because we live in slightly better circumstances than an iron fisted corrupt junta, there is reason for cynicism. I cannot access any information on Obama’s website without providing my e-mail address. This is not a requirement of the McCain campaign website.

Hillary is out because Barack fears that the image of Bill sticking a cigar up a twat still looms large and embarrasses us all. Biden is in, pandering to those voters who still have to stop themselves from calling an African American man “boy”. A big white working class white paternalistic white man to assure a certain demographic that he won’t let the uppity young colored boy get out of control.

Sarah Palin was a runner up for Miss Alaska and inevitably bikini photos of her will be on the web before I even post this. Plus with roots in Idaho and Alaska, inevitably there are poses with guns. Maybe with guns AND in a bikini. Maybe an AK47 and a friggin’ thong. How many presumptive republicans will jack off to visions of Sarah whipping off those glasses and turning into a regular little fuck bunny? But she’s pro-life and is the mother of a Downs Syndrome baby so she shoulders the yoke of her beliefs and you can be sure they’re going to trot out the poor afflicted thing and gush about Saint Sarah and the patience and love it must take to rear it, hear that chick voters!

My kids asked last night if Obama isn’t really legitimate heir to the title first African-American candidate for president, being only half black and I told them that they themselves are biologically only half Jewish but that won’t make a mite of difference when they come to round up the Jews. There are fifteen nations in the world that will not admit bearers of Israeli passports so fuck anyone who would begrudge me the moment of Obama standing there accepting the nomination. As a footage archivist, images of hatred are etched in my brain. I have seen the little girls being hosed down in Alabama a million times and I have not numbed to it and fuck anyone who was not brought to tears by Obama’s little girls in their party frocks up on that stage.

You have to sell your soul to sign on to his website and he was a nonce late in severing his affiliation with the Reverend Wright. There’s also the connection with Chicago felon Tony Rezko, although the crooked developer had insinuated himself with enough other big name politicos to bring down the government. This is all fodder for the cynical but it was hard to invoke this when Obama made the first presidential nomination speech to address rights human rights for gays and lesbians. He has been forthcoming about his failed father and at the risk of seeming too wussy or touchy feelie, Obama challenged American men and subtly a bit more specifically, African American men, to take responsibility for their children. Good that he has Biden to do all the butch stuff.

A dose of cynicism is a good thing if it is only a small counterpoint to hope. Cynicism unbalanced by hope is really only fear. How can we, with our wife cancelling headphones and craft beer and ice cream maker genuinely be cynical? I can call a potential vice president a fuck bunny on my blog and I will not disappear for reeducation in the night.

My children know my reservations about Obama and about American politics and about America in general but they saw me weep last night when a black (Jew, woman, afflicted, anointed) man stood before a nation where less than a generation ago fire hoses were set upon black children. The images my children gobble from the t.v and the internet are so much more cynical and so less inspire righteousness than anything I was exposed to as a back in the fifties and sixties. We have a different and darker world view and even our children are not spared this. Without hope in excess of cynicism my children will never see the light to make the world a less harsh place. My tears during Obama’s speech may attest to my shallowness. I reacted exactly as the strategists had hoped. My defense of the moment as so friggin’ huge I might tattoo it on my ass may have been sanctimonious but I want my children to bear witness that despite all the corruption and hatred and brutality in the world, it is a better place than when I came into it. If we can fight off the lassitude and fear that is cynicism it is within all of us to make it better still and mellow the harsh.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, August 22, 2008

You're Welcome to My Week

I wearied of the me me me quality here and aspired to loftier writing this week, a piece about Religion and China and the Holocaust and what the African American community faces if Obama is elected, and if he isn’t. I did a lot of poking around about Hannah Arendt on the net. I wanted to be a serious writer for a moment and have these notions stirring about, but my self consciousness about writing that begs so much more sophistication than my usual blather about what an asshole my husband is for refusing to use the cell phone just made the writing get more and more stupid. It bothers me if I don’t have at least one finished 1300 word piece a week and posting here at the end of the week is always a nice way to get into a Shabbat mode. I have no great philosophical treatise and my time is limited. Let me tell you about my week.

The kids came home. I did a lot of laundry. The refrigerator, my gas tank and my wallet have emptied quickly. They have been taken to medical and orthodontic appointments and to movies, and sleepovers and last night, from the acme of end of summer boredom, to the Paseo to “hang out”. Spuds has undertaken the real guitar although we are about 900 pages behind schedule on War and Peace. He can pick out Smoke on the Water on his real guitar. We all hope he learns to tune it soon. That is one advantage of Guitar Hero.

Spuds and I were excited about seeing our first Manny Ramirez game. He recently came on board and has really turned the team around and we were in a tie for first place in the division for nearly two weeks. The vendors were already selling long black braids sewn into doo rags ala the ones Manny sports, and many folks were wearing them. Manny only managed a single and it was a big mess of a game but Greg Maddox, another promising player, was on the bench and will start over the weekend. I missed our Dodger ritual while he was at camp and am wistful that there are only a few games left, not deluding myself that we will be playoff, let alone series, material.

We enter the stadium from the same entrance and Spuds holds the parking pass. We park in the same area and establish points of reference with the letters in the Think Blue (this week changed to Think Cure) sign imbedded in the hillside as latitude and specific palm trees (the one with the baby tree growing out of it…the second tallest one) as latitude. We go to the only friendly guard to have our bags searched. He is always interested in new products from Trader Joe’s.

We bring our own snacks, having not spent one penny on the Dodger concessions, all season. We noticed that when there was a promo on the jumbotron for stadium concessions, none of the foods photographs are art directed, and we laugh hysterically at how disgusting the Philly Cheese Steaks, and the Nachos and Panda Express plates look Spuds brings Skittles and Diet Dr. Pepper and I have black licorice and Coke Zero. We share a bag of popcorn. I listen, with headphones to Vin Scully on the radio and report his interesting tidbits about the players to Spuds.

We watch the jumbletron between innings and always ace the Disney animated hat shuffle game. The Coke Challenge baseball trivia game has become a bit more challenging and I usually get the wrong answer. We like the fan-cam.. Sometimes they play California Girls and the camera travels in search of attractive gals of all ages. There is one segment sponsored by Delta Dental which has people smiling and my favorite, sponsored by Smash Box Cosmetics is the Kiss cam. Although, sometimes it lands on couples who obviously don’t like each other and sometimes people kiss with blatant tongue.

A few times, a man has proposed to a woman on the At the last game the man and woman were probably in their sixties. She seemed shell shocked. It was hard to tell if she was happy. Usually the proposee starts to blubber and of course, Spuds and I blubber too. They did hold up a big heart stickered sign that said , “She Said “YES.” I wonder if they have a sign that says “She Said NO” too. Evidence that the question popping wasn’t totally planned in advance was that the enormous ring he presented was too small and when she tried to jam it on, the camera cut away abruptly.

We put our arms around each other and sing and raise our fists high at the word “Dodgers” when Nancy Bea plays Take Me out to the Ball Game on the organ for the seventh inning stretch. Sometimes we’ll stay to the end but if there is no drama, we’ll leave during a pitching change in the eighth or ninth. Usually we’re home in time to pick up where we left off, having a record of seven minutes from Stadium to Casamurphy. We watch the end of the game on t.v. We promise to read War and Peace after but we don’t.

I attended Poppy’s packed funeral mass in a big modern Catholic church. The priest spoke about being broken hearted and confused about God at times like this. He assured us that Poppy, a Christian, was being welcomed into heaven. The word “heaven” has always conjured a pre-Raphaelite tableau of chubby angels and tables laden lavishly with food, heavy on grapes, which I don’t particularly like. Religious scholars state, that while it is seldom depicted in art, there is sex in heaven. We are reminded though that the sex worthy of heaven is more about the mingling of souls than the congress of bodies. When the priest said that Christians will be welcomed into heaven, I wondered if it were only for the sake of brevity, he didn’t add, “as will anyone who honors the creator of the universe be welcomed into heaven too”. I’m sure he meant that. Poppy wouldn’t keep me out of heaven. The thought of Poppy’s death and her children and her brave husband and her non-Christian father and the fucking inexplicable hardness of it raised, at that funeral mass, my consciousness about heaven. Heaven must be the absence of consciousness.

I am reading a book of stories about African children by Uwen Akpan, a Nigerian Jesuit priest. These are the saddest stories I have ever read. A few times in my life I have read something that I wish I had not read. There are some images of degradation from Akpan’s tales that I will never be able to erase. Nor, will I ever be righteous enough to respond to them in a meaningful way. But Akpan, a Catholic priest, like the man who comforted the mourners at Poppy’s funeral, makes me hate him for telling me things I do not want to know but also comforts me with the certainly and promise of gentle redemption. The mass for Poppy may have neglected to mention that heaven is for those who are righteous or would be righteous but Akpan assures us that heaven is for everyone.

Clara and I drove through heavy traffic down Wilshire, close to where my father, dead now nearly a year, lived. I thought about Poppy’s funeral and her scrapbook pages which decorated the foyer of the church, pictures from her life there on a few dozen brightly colored cardboard pages. I thought about the children in Akpan’s fictional stories and knew that real children, children whose mothers love them like I love my children, will be debased and ruined. I asked, “How, in a world of unspeakable sorrow and misery, should I live?” Clara, circumspect as ever, had no response. The answers change with every step of the journey. We were late, delayed in traffic on the Miracle Mile.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Our August Presence

Ethel and Mike are friends from way back, over thirty years. I met Ethel when we were both doing social work at a methadone clinic in West Los Angeles in the late seventies. Methadone clinics, at least in those days, pulled in medical personnel of dubious provenance and I knew instantly that Ethel would be my friend for life after she called the staff psychiatrist, to his face, an "egotistical fuck." Mike’s daughter Poppy would often accompany us to eat or to the movies, and at age seven she was sweet natured and funny and a splendidly beautiful child. She grew into a lovely woman and I attended her wedding to Art which culminated with such a passionate kiss folks had to go home to take a shower before the reception. Poppy worked as an emergency phone operator and then as a junior high school teacher, jobs requiring huge integrity and patience and grace. She and Art had three children. I saw her last when there were only two, a baby and a toddler, at a party at Ethel and Mike’s and noted her √©lan with her little ones, when I myself with two so small was rattled and tetchy inevitably at social occasions. I got a note from Ethel stating that Poppy passed away last week from the complications of Still’s Disease, a form of rheumatoid arthritis relatively common in children but quite rare in adults. May comforting her children be a comfort.

I have finally heard from Spuds that he is happy at camp after a snap on the website showed a fragile sweet faced child on the verge of tears and his little letters home had a real stiff upper lip quality. His situation was apparently improved there by a visit from a "prestigious ice cream maker" and the discovery that one of his counselors is a really nice funny guy and that "the other two are Israelis". The most recent photo of him on the website is from Israeli day at the camp, which I have to remember does have many wonderful qualities and gifted us a generous scholarship. Spuds was wearing black camouflage make up and engaged in some sort of military training exercise, which based on the web photos, along with the waving of Israeli flags, was the gist of the occasion. The Fifteen Year Old is photographed looking deliriously happy on a seemingly hourly basis and expresses through his brother his regrets at having been too busy to write to us.

Our groceries fit in a tiny bag and we eat dinner, just the two of us, melancholy and reminded of life before the children. I do miss them fiercely but we wasted a lot of the "just us two" time before the kids by being angry and misinterpreting signals and lying and just getting all bollixed up on the partnership thing. It wasn’t as central to our beings to seek comfort in one another as it is now. There were fewer full days of pure love such as we’ve enjoyed now for nearly three weeks. This little blissful time is sweetened by missing the children, the legacy we’ve made together, physical, breathing, exquisite emanations of my love for him and his love for me.

A year ago we were stinging from the birthmother’s initial rejection of our attentions, my father was alive and I had no idea of what business, legal and educational challenges were in store. It is calm now as summer winds down. We are in a stronger place after suffering through sorrows and frustrations that well could have pulled us apart. Our partnership has carried us through several seasons of distress and now we cling fast to one another, peaceful in the balmy night. He still pisses me off when he walks ahead of me, lost in the universe that is his mind and carried by his extraordinarily long legs and of course there is that expensive electronic gadget he eschews the use of. But, we have duked it out for two decades and as we approach the twentieth anniversary of coming together, I observe that finally we are sort of like grown ups, which is a good thing and doesn’t preclude sitting in our underpants on the bedroom floor eating Thai food right out of the containers.

As is the wont of persons my age I have some piffling health problems being diagnosed. After 6 years of reducing in weight slowly but steadily; there has been in the last two months a precipitous increase in poundage. I am distracted by this and also for the first time in six years I have that old familiar stabbing feeling that I have gained weight due to some deficit of character. Many of my clothes do not fit and I can see the difference in recent photos. My doctor assured me that my weight gain is truly a medical symptom and one she is certain is temporary but when I look in the mirror I have a real hard time not feeling like a profligate asshole loser with no (spoken in my mother’s voice) WILLPOWER.

But really Ma, the power of my will is awesome. Most days I am evolved enough not to confuse beauty and perfection. My poor mother is further at sea with each visit. She remembers no names now but mine and her gentleman friend’s but she gazes at herself constantly in her pocket mirror and continuously criticizes my appearance. I do have the knee jerk old fat girl reactions when I see more of myself in the mirror these days and it is very important to me to lose the weight, but here, in these mild days of August I am feeling more loved and beautiful than I ever have before. My beloved worships my soul and spirit, my body a mere vessel. It is loving him and being loved by him that has brought me closer to knowing this myself and actually feeling, after lumbering around on the planet all these decades, beautiful. I am blessed to have Himself beside me on the journey towards being less the fucked up fat girl and towards truly feeling what he sees in me. We are in light and we are humbly thankful but also chastened. We know and fear the mercurial swirling of loss and tragedy and this further inspires us to surrender to love. My children will return and in love, terror, faith and in tribute to lost mothers and to lost children, I will hold them close.

Friday, August 8, 2008

What Do You Do at the Deli?

It has been a long while since we traveled to a foreign land, himself and myself but after shipping the younguns off to Jew Camp, we journeyed to Toronto where my beloved presented a paper about Welsh writer Menna Gallie whose drolly titled book You’re Welcome to Ulster is an unusual spin on the Troubles from a Welsh perspective, and contrasts the Welsh experience to the Irish, the subtle and the unsubtle differences. We share a continent and a language with Canada and seldom, during our five days in Toronto did I feel palpably foreign. But drinking in the subtle differences was satisfying as was the exhilarating freedom of driving country roads, just the two of us, reminding us of when we explored Europe years ago, before kids and cell phones and the Internet.

I had always been taught that Los Angeles is the most ethnically diverse city in the world but Toronto rightfully claims this distinction. Canada actively recruits educated immigrants. One in five Canadian citizens was born outside of Canada. I posted a couple thousand words about ethnic food there on the Ontario board at for more on that. We were treated with genuine warmth in contrast to the false warmth or genuine coldness we are used to in L.A. We were reminded though that our northern neighbor is not an idyllic paradise of politeness, by the bus beheading that took place during our visit.

We visited the Mennonite farming community of St. Jacob’s and watched a multimedia presentation at the Interpretive Center. Spuds and I recently visited Hearst Castle and watched a presentation about William Randolph Hearst. It was so bland and spinelessly non-controversial that Marion Davies wasn’t even mentioned. The St. Jacob’s exhibit was excruciatingly well balanced even alluding to the tendency for rifts to develop among the different denominations of Mennonites. We also noticed public highway signs marking the locations of family nudist camps. The media show at Ste. Marie’s Among the Hurons, a restored Jesuit mission, was frank about the contributions and the failings of the Jesuits and also those of the neighboring Wendant Indians but adamantly encouraged viewers to refrain from making judgments. Canada, it seems, is almost militantly open minded.

We stumbled upon, not far from our apartment, what at first seemed to be a garish casino. Toronto, for the most part, is a stately and sophisticated city so we were taken aback by a brightly painted building covered with a zillion light bulbs and looking like something from Stateline Nevada. New York has Macy’s and Paris has the Galeries Lafayette and London has Harrod’s. Toronto has Honest Ed’s, a gigantic discount store, covered with sayings like “Come inside, only our floors are crooked.” I knew almost immediately that Honest Ed was one of my people and the tip off was the combination of a huge amount of crap for sale and the funny signs. Honest Ed was a rag merchant who thought big, had fun and made good. He died last year at the age of 91, just a few weeks before my dad. There were times when my dad embarrassed me with what I perceived as uncouth, loud, crass Jewishness. I wonder if there were times when Honest Ed’s children were embarrassed by the gaudy shlockmeister emporium that put food on their table. Honest Ed, for all the plastic crap, became one of Toronto’s biggest patrons of the arts, buying and restoring a number of old legitimate theatres, including London’s Old Vic and producing, in partnership with his son, several very successful shows. And while my own dad was often less than genteel, his business fed me and sent me to college and is now feeding my children. Budget Films and Honest Ed’s are kindred spirits, sharing the guilelessness of hopeful Jewish boys who remembered being hungry and believed in working like dogs and in the possibility the better life that I now take for granted.

Eager to try a Montreal bagel, I wandered into Montreal’s Deli, another family business. Every table was covered with ancient xeroxes describing the family of the deli’s founder, Melanie Simpson. Her parents were one of those serially adopting couples, like in the movie about the DeBolts, or Mia Farrow. They had a few kids of their own and then ultimately adopted some twenty five others, many of them handicapped, from poor countries all over the world. Many of these children are employed at the large, successful enterprise. I salute people who are able to open their homes and hearts to children the world has cast off and lord knows I appreciate the righteousness of a family business. One of the tattered photocopies contained an article from the Toronto Sun from 9/30/96 about the family and the restaurant from which I copied verbatim this remarkable sentence:

“In view, performing various tasks are siblings Sashi, 26, who is from India; day manager Katherine, Melanie’s younger sister by birth; Halima, 29, from Somalia, who was not expected live when she arrived here; Tim, 26, from Cambodia who suffers the effects of agent orange used during the war years; Jasmine from Korea who is deaf; and Roberto, from Ecuador, who is charge of all the recipes at the deli.”

If you have an affliction, that takes precedence over what you do in the deli. The bagel was sweeter and cakeier than the ones sold here.

Although we’ve never had twenty five kids to contend with, Casamurphy is quite a different place absent of the Fifteen Year Old and Spuds. We ate vegan thai food right out of the carry out cartons on the bedroom floor with the t.v. on and the dishwasher is run so infrequently that we have to hand wash the enormous coffee mugs we both favor. After his huge apprehension about returning to camp I’ve found a number of happy pictures of the Fifteen Year Old on the camp website and we received a breezy note that he is making friends and having fun. I have found only one picture of a very serious looking Spuds and his notes home have had a tinge of melancholy. This gave me pause but I communicated my concerns about it to the Fifteen Year Old and for all the crap the boy has put me through, I trust with every fiber of my being that he will take care of his little brother.

Summer is winding down and after several dramatic years I am thankful for a mellow time, particularly because I realize mellowness and fraughtness and the places in between are often determined by forces I cannot control. And besides the kick in the gut acts of God, of which I have amassed a sizeable list these last years, I have personally fucked up spectacularly in the past despite my pure intentions, and inevitably will again.

I was in the religion section in a huge Toronto bookstore and there was eastern and western and the Koran and all manner of Bibles and sacred texts and hundreds of religious scholars and philosophers I've never heard of and I felt so friggin' overwhelmed and hoped for the briefest moment that I would magically gravitate to the one and only book I needed to read. With my next breath I saw my folly and knew that from my mellow place in August I would shun the book with all the answers. It’s the journey. The sweet horrifying humiliating love filled journey. I held my beloved’s hand as we drove Ontario back roads and was perched in the last row when his research paper was applauded. My beloved elder child is protecting my beloved younger child. I know there are days when I will not feel as blessed and buoyant, but still, it’s the journey. Kill the Buddha on the road and burn the friggin’ book. May we not be known by our afflictions and remain humble in the light and thankful for all that makes us less and less afflicted every day we fumble down the road.

Shabbat Shalom.