Friday, April 24, 2009



My Jewish prisoner penpals send long hand written letters. One of the guys is weird and an operator and wants me to order books for him on Amazon. He is the deftest writer of the three and writes about his daily routine, folding sheets in the laundry, and watching his tiny t.v. with headphones while his cellie watches his own t.v. No visits. Letters which were frequent early on, have trickled down to birthday and Christmas cards. He has a life sentence.

The other two have more of a, “yeah, I fucked up.” attitude and instead of playing me, I think they are genuinely trying to plug into a “life in the mind” a prophylactic to the crushing loneliness and tedium. They ask me lots of questions about Judaism that I am unqualified to answer but that doesn’t stop me. I ask them lots of questions about their day-to-day lives and the politics of the correctional system. All three of the convicts feel that the corrections staff, with their good salaries and huge overtime, has an investment in encouraging recidivism. More prisoners. More overtime. I do not know if this cynicism springs from actual contact with the staff or is just a tenet of the prison survival rule of not getting too cozy with the guards. I am encouraging them to confide in me their perceptions of the prison personnel with a, “C’mon. Not every single one of them can be an asshole? Right?”

One of the guys sends me seven handwritten pages, copying “A letter from God” from the Human Kindness Foundation. This is a group that reaches out to prisoners with spiritual materials and tries to guide them toward building a mental ashram. The founder is Bo Lazoff, an acolyte of Ram Dass. Lazoff had some hanky panky with the clientele issues and resigned from the non-profit. The reading is sort of cutesy and simplistic but it is an earnest, accessible plea for religious tolerance and even if Lazoff apparently had some zipper problems, it’s a real good thing to send around and it’s a lovely thing to have written out by hand for you.

Visitors still want to see the office sometimes and marvel at the “suitcases” of film on “spools” and I show them the thousands of handwritten pages of my father’s meticulous notes on yellow legal paper. He hated computers and was stymied by anything more sophisticated than a manual typewriter. He still gets phone solicitation calls. Sometimes we send them to his voice mail which he couldn’t operate when he was alive so his deadness doesn’t really lower the chances of the messages being returned. Sometimes I say in a super sad voice, “he’s deceased,” and the caller awkwardly mutters some sort of condolence. Once I try, “he’s dead,” in the same gleeful voice I’d use to say “We’re going to Disneyland” which merits an immediate hang up.

We bring my mother ice cream and she wolfs it down greedily. She applies red lipstick to her eyelids. Ning, the owner of the house, reports to me that a medical exam reveals that, although she was flirtatious with the male physician, her dementia is severe but her physical health is quite good. Her mind is deteriorating at a much faster rate than her body. I cannot bear to imagine what will come. I hope my children never have to go through this. If she’d known that she’d be so diminished it would have broken her heart. She’ll never know. But I will. I stop by a few days later to drop by some medication and stand inches from where she sits at the kitchen table with all of her lipsticks lined up in a row. I hold a long conversation and she doesn’t realize that I am there.

I tutor three first graders. They are sweet. They are behind. After they finish their homework they are supposed to read for thirty minutes. I read How the Grinch Stole Christmas, at their request and have to explain mistletoe, stockings and icebox. The kids are given a writing prompt to complete. It asks them to create a survivor’s guide to Echo Park, where to go and how to dress and behave and it seemed like a bleeding heart liberal out of touch stupid question and we ended up just writing about the park and things you can buy at the 99 Cents Store.

We watch an HBO documentary, The Recruiter, about a recruiting sergeant in a predominately white community in Louisiana, one of the most balanced documentaries I have ever seen. The recruiter, Sergeant Clay Usie is the best of the best, a patriot who demands and deserves to be taken seriously. He makes sure his recruits are ready for boot camp. “Exceed the standard” they chant as they perform calisthenics on a cold morning. He exercises with them and counsels them and basks with them in their accomplishments and burgeoning patriotism. He baffles them with anecdotes from Rocky and the Princess Bride. He wears his dead brother’s combat boots for each mission. He tells off one kid’s drunken stepfather. He is best man at another’s wedding.

A couple is interviewed about their son Bobby’s decision to enlist. The mother, a teacher, doesn’t say a word but she is channeling super powers not to cry. The father, an attorney, says his son, an honors student, could attend, without scholarship, any college in the country. He says that he was in the military himself, as was his own dad so he can’t say to his boy, as I would say to mine, “It’s just stupid. Let somebody else do it.” The father is petrified but sucks it up to respect his son’s sincere call to serve. Bobby is recognized for a leadership role early on at boot camp and expresses his satisfaction and confidence he’s made the right decision when interviewed. He becomes a Green Beret.

The female recruit, Lauren, lives on the streets for a time when neither parent wants her. She is not college material and maybe already too damaged to thrive anywhere. Her lesbianism creates distance with her parents. Boot camp is a nightmare from the beginning. We are shown the insensitive reaction to a recruit’s dramatic panic attack and forceful hand to hand combat exercises between female soldiers. Lauren bristles at the total loss of personal control. She is a talented artist and is disappointed that all bootcamp has to offer is infantry training and no history or art stuff like she’s interested in. She goes AWOL after graduation and is facing charges. She is working a fast food joint in her hometown.

It would be good if our military were composed of more folks like Sgt. Usie or Bobby who have an aptitude for it and fewer lost souls like Lauren who have no other option. Maybe Obama’s leadership will foster other options for building character and nurturing patriotism. Maybe too it will foster the need for fewer soldiers.

My sister-in-law calls to report Himself’s father, at age 92, has been found dead on the floor at the nursing home. Himself is in class and I have left him a message to call me on his office phone on the machine he may or may not check. Charles was plagued with physical problems and pain and discomfort for many years. He was deaf. We wrote him letters because he couldn’t talk on the phone. Sometimes we’d get a response, in that shaky old man trained at inkwell penmanship. Himself would often wait a day or two to open these letters because they tended to be cranky. His time at Leisure World was well spent. He enjoyed, indeed, the leisure, after working hard for a lifetime and shared a few happy years with his wife. After her death he had an active social life and good companionship. I presume there will be a wake and a visitation, and all manner of lengthy Catholic death rituals, per my sister-in-law. The kids have lost their second Grandpa and soon I will have to tell my beloved that he’s lost his dad.

Aliki calls, and the waterworks breaks loose and she is insane but she has some sort of second sense about when I need for her to call. She recites medical issues, her own and feline, which will prevent her from attending the funeral, and I assure her that this wouldn't be required even if it were being held downstairs in her condo rec room. Then she asks for the address to send flowers which I tell her are an unnecessary extravagance. She insists and then I tell her that I’m going to say exactly what my dad would say and say it just the way he’d say it so I growl, “Fergit about the fuckin’ flowers.” We both laugh.

I picked up a box of family photographs that is now meaningless to my mother and this weekend we’ll get another load of remnants from a life that is no more. Stuff is packed up and dispersed. Minds slip away and bodies die. I found a tiny notebook of my mother’s but it is in shorthand. Himself and his sister will go through the old man’s stuff and maybe learn something about him that they never knew before but there are so many questions that will now never be answered.

I copied all my blog entries into a chronological, earliest to most recent, Word document I named “Big Blog.” The first entry:

September 18 2006
Basking in the glory of starting a blog. Speculating on how this will pan out. Thinking of all the writing projects that didn’t come to fruition all the years. Maybe the puppy quality of this, “I’ll put it out and get your immediate response.” Hey, it’s the movie of my life.

I printed out the whole thing, 341 pages. No shorthand. I’m going to read it. I am sustained and blessed and comforted by those who already have.

It is bittersweet when someone who is very old and very infirm passes to the pain free place. Himself and myself have comforted each other through twenty years of loss and we are adept at this and we write each other words and we hold each other tight. I shed many tears in the arms of my beloved and his letters to me wash me with love and hope. I don’t feel guilty that the death and pain we share makes what we have so much more alive and sweet.

God bless you Charles Murphy and all the rest of us who struggle in cells and offices, with pen or keyboard or inchoate grunt to give and feel love.


Friday, April 17, 2009



I am afraid that my mom is going to suddenly snap out of the Alzheimer’s and be royally pissed. Three years ago I sold her house and cast off about 99% of her possessions via grotesque garage sale and Out of the Closet and the dumpster. Now we have cut what she carries with her by half again. Richard and I arrive to move her from “hotel” to house and she is sleeping on a couch in the t.v. room. We enter her room to begin packing and I notice that eighteen year old Sally the cat is rail thin and wheezing and boogereyed. I find most of the food I’ve provided over the last months stashed in the closet. The new place has agreed very reluctantly to take the cat but surely would rescind upon discovering the degree of decrepitude. I desperately call Himself and he arrives swiftly. I complain about the cellphone a lot and sometimes that he is an asshole, which he sometimes is, but he is the best husband in the world when it matters. The staff all come to say goodbye to Sally and make sure that her toys are packed. I tell them she is moving to my neighbors. The lady from the front desk waves the birdy on the stick and the cat bats at it listlessly. Up until a few months ago my mother would rhapsodize about how much she loved the cat but now she does not remember her. I pack up more clothes than she needs but all are beautiful and I think it will make her feel good to have them. We throw out bags of kitsch shit that she loved and attached great sentimental meaning to and beautiful garments ruined by 3 years of institutional laundry and incontinence. I pack her a few of the wide belts that flatter her Scarlet O’Hara waist and a couple of the less ugly pieces of jewelry. Himself walks right past Grandma and her boyfriend as he carries Sally the cat out for her last ride. She doesn’t recognize either of them.

I hate going to the hotel. I hate the thickness of the air purifier used to mask the effluvia of the demented masses. I hate the smell of the food. I get sick, deep in the pit of my stomach and keep my jaw tightly clamped to ward off dry heaves or worse. It is a sickness unlike any I have ever known and it is difficult for me to describe my state at the anticipation of visiting the hotel or at the bittersweet, wracked with guilt, relief there is at leaving. Some of the residents are less than placid, others drooling zombies, and inevitably I am yelled at or grabbed or pled with to facilitate an escape. I avoid going alone either dragging Richard or bribing one of the kids with lunch. For the last few months, she doesn’t recognize the hotel when we return from Saturday lunch. She is frightened and bewildered when we leave. I close the door of the hotel for the last time and feel the rush of sad sweet relief.

I unpack what is left of her possessions in the new house. I realize that heartlessly, I have tossed all her jewelry boxes and her plastic finery is relegated to remain loose in an unlined drawer. My mother was fanatical about lined drawers and would hoard wall and contact paper. I have been too spastic to correctly cut a piece of contact paper and peel off the paper backing so it smoothly lines a drawer and I abandoned this practice years ago. Mom discovered an unlined drawer at my house once and looked at me like I’d opened a beer bottle with my teeth. She makes herself at home immediately and is delighted by the kitchen and Precious, the Pomeranian, which she refers to as a cat. Instead of begging me not to leave her, she barely notices when I go.

There is a message that some of her medications have been left at the hotel and I must return for them. Her boyfriend, the doctor is sitting at their table having lunch all alone. I realize though that for as much company as my mother is capable of being and the doctor is capable of appreciating, the hotel staff can take any other of the lady residents there, apply some Aquanet and seat her in my mom’s chair and no one will be the wiser.

I carefully back a large box of framed family photos, of me and my kids and her parents and my sister. There are too many for the walls of her smaller room but Ning, the owner, says she’ll have Mom choose the ones she wants and I can pick up the rest. The entire box is returned to me intact. “She says she doesn’t care. All she cares about are her clothes.” I have offed her cat and ruthlessly trashed the nostalgia of her life but it is a great blessing for her that I know her as well as I do. One of the great tragedies of my life is that she never knew me, and slips every day further from ever knowing me, as well as I know her. Nevertheless, I will insist that they hang up the most beautiful photo of Mom that I can find. And maybe a good one of me too.

I visualize the Passover week as a journey and in this year particularly it feels like one. With the help of my family I make a sweet Seder to begin the trip out of Egypt and tell the story with people we love. It is a lot of work but of all the meals I make in the course of a year, it is my favorite. Until Thanksgiving. Then that will be my favorite.

I realize that the 60 year old business I own may not survive the downturn in the economy. I inquire, thinking a lot of coursework will be involved, into reinstating a teaching credential and discover I am able to renew it instantly on line with a credit card number and the click of a mouse. I am now a credentialed California teacher but that will not stop me from saying “fuck,” I haven’t taught in 17 years but I’ve volunteered to tutor and brush up my skills at something I love to do.

826LA has a real groovy artsy homey feeling. Floor to high ceiling shelved with Murakami. Beverly Cleary. The History of Communism. There are squishy sofas and hipster tutors, tending toward the younger side but also a few of us weathered egghead types. Scads of Latino children. Four Macs of intermediate age which reduce me to ask a fellow tutor for help by saying , “Excuse me, I’m a PC.” Er, “Excuse me, I’m a big stupid asshole.”

On my first day, I am assigned to shills. Jerry, a firth grader, who despite the stultifyiness of his assigned school homework performs like a little machine. The program director brings a copy of a handsome literary journal bearing one of Jerry’s illustrations. I just sit there with him for a few minutes and we look at it. Sister Stephanie is a front toothless sweet faced first grader with pink barrettes who takes enormous delight in completing her worksheet and learning the difference between “quiet” and “quite.” She clasps the sleeve of my sweater and caresses it until she suspects her brother is getting more than his fair share of my attention and then she gives it a good yank.

There is a gaggle of boys between eight and ten who are hyper and physical and snotty and the program director glares at them and says, “Just let me take care of them.” One of the kids reminds me of a seventh grader I taught in Compton in about 1979. He was ablaze with rage. He couldn’t read a word and spoke little English but could be nasty in Spanish. Recently enrolled, he was on the waiting list for evaluation by the school psychologist. He was hitting other kids and disruptive all the time. Other teachers at the middle school paraded about with paddles and they used them frequently. I spoke about the boy to the principal and one day she arrived with what I gleaned was a newly arrived couple with a baby and some toddlers. The principal disappeared. My Spanish was at about an elementary school level but there were no social worker or translator available. So I just said something like, “He behave very bad daily.” The man slapped the boy who glowered and winced. The man grumbled that the boy wasn’t his kid and he didn’t want him and was stuck with him so he better damn well behave. I don’t remember what happened next. Another kid I taught in Compton though calls me once in a while when he’s high and asks me to invest in a business. Even though he is brain fried it is remarkable that he remembers me, his 9th grade teacher over thirty years ago.

I write my prisoners and send them Pesach cards. They write back. One of the guys hits me up for stamps or money and obviously wants me to perceive him as a victim. I send him twenty stamps and tell him stuff about myself and just don’t respond to what seems manipulative. Another sends me a sad prison visiting room photo of himself and “the love of his life.” He was born in 1965 but looks older. He writes, “Thank you so very much for bringing a huge smile to my face and heart. I read and re-read your letter.”

The Dodgers massacred the Giants 11-1 on opening day. Orlando Hudson hit for a cycle, (a single, a double, a triple and a run) something I have never seen. Opening day is the best day of the year at Chavez Ravine, a new season, a blank slate and we brim with hope as we prowl the spruced up stadium checking out new food concessions and debating about whether this year’s seats are better than last year’s. There are no Dodger tickets this year. I cry every time I see Manny on a billboard and then I feel like an asshole because there are hungry children and professional sports stand for a lot of things I really hate. I still would have liked to sit in the sun, and listen to Scully on my earphone radio and see Hudson hit the cycle. Spuds didn’t take it as hard, or if he did, didn’t let on. He knows there will be many more opening days and really, I know it too.

The kids and I attend a small college production of Hair. I must have seen it more than once at the Aquarius Theatre in 1969 when I was enthralled with culture and politics in radical transition, just like Spuds is now. Eloquent or shocking young voices made me feel important. I expect it all to be icky but it is wonderful and powerful and staged with great brio. A few decent singers would have been swell but the kids are earnest and sweet and giving it their all. Hilton Als writes about the painful depiction of the black male in the NY revival and I notice that in our Pasadena adjacent version the nude scene is o.k. (although not everyone in the cast strips) but Prisoners of Niggertown (it’s a dirty little war) is changed to Prisoners of Honkeytown. There was a good deal of “Hey Hey L.B.J. how many boys did you kill today?” and my kids were prodded to chant it but I couldn’t. I remember the Great Society. His daughter spoke in an interview about being a young girl in the White House and hearing from her bedroom protesters screaming "Hey Hey L.B.J..." all day and night.

I return home exhilarated and nostalgic after tutoring and Hair and Himself is eager to sleep. He does this psycho thing of getting up at 3:30 a.m. to catch the train which has something to do with the way the sun hits the east facing window but I don’t remember the all of it, either because it was of no interest or seemed specious, or both, and I stopped listening. Nevertheless, I know how important it is for him to sleep these nights so I peremptorily, feeling in a chatty mood, shut myself up with a sleeping pill. It goes down the wrong pipe and suddenly sounds akin to a whale in heat begin issuing from my throat until I am able to loudly gargle to dislodge the tablet. Earlier in the week our cats (obviously sensing the treachery we are capable of wielding with cats) deposit a dead rat love offering at the foot of our bed and Himself is awakened by my spoon in the garbage disposal shrill voice to perform another service in the odious annals of husbandry.

I honor how small what’s left of my mother has become and ruthlessly/lovingly wrest her from an institution and return her to a home. The Passover journey is almost over and I have survived and I am proud and I am weary. My chametz is sold to a gentile for a dollar and I will buy it back in person. I paired down my mother’s things for this phase of her journey and now I must decide what I should take back for my dollar and what it’s time to cast aside.

Chametz, or leaven is a metaphor for vanity and arrogance. Like the yeast makes bread rise, our egos get puffed up. Yeastfree I transition my mom and her clothes and keep my horror at bay and show love. I accept that the business my dad started in 1950 might have passed the point of no return and I begin to explore other ways to earn a living. I resist the temptation to read my horoscope on fifteen different astrological websites and do puzzles and instead write letters to people that society has sent away to rot. I make Seder. I tutor children. I help Spuds with an essay about morality being an inborn quality and insurance for mankind’s’ evolution. The 16 year old travels two hours on the train for geometry tutoring but arrives without his textbook. I do not kill him or even yell with particular vigor. I buy my beloved spring strawberries from the farmer’s market and massage the gnarly tense spot in his neck. The Passover journey is nearly over and I find myself a bit closer to who I want to be. I will hand back the worn gentile dollar with instructions to cast away all that is vain and arrogant and to return only the leaven that is sweet. There is sweetness there just for me, the comforting balm at the journey’s end. There is sweetness there to share. I’m buying it back for a dollar. If I can only decide what to wear.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Change for a Dollar

Change for a Dollar
The morning of erev Pesach is also a Birkat Hachama, celebrated every twenty-eight years when the sun returns to its same position as at the moment of creation. Everything that may impede me from getting the fuck out of Egypt this Passover week has been sold for a buck to a gentile and I hope when the sun sets on the last night of Pesach, that I am rich enough to buy back what I need. It seems that I've been stripping away for the journey for months but when I look at getting from here to there, I still feel encumbered by fear, selfishness, anger and self doubt that I hope are not beyond the scope of a single dollar.

We make a family outing to the Long Beach Aquarium where Spuds projectile sneezes over a group of pre-schoolers and we are all sort of spastic and high pitched when faced with lorikeets landing on our hands to sip the nectar we hold in a tiny cup. Himself and I hadn’t been to the Queen Mary since high school and remember only vaguely the Cousteau exhibit. The attraction now is The Ghosts and Legends of the Queen Mary, the wildly imaginative adaptation of an existing space into a dark ride. It’s campy and not at all scary and completely entertaining. It’s fun but doesn’t compromise the ship’s character. After the Ghosts show we are free to roam the ship, which is beautifully preserved and I swoon with fantasies of staterooms and maids unpacking technicolor ball gowns from steamer trunks and close dancing to the strains of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

There is a tiny chapel, dedicated to the "Immortal Chaplains," with a Roger Whitakeresque (Himself counters Slim Whitman) ballad braying about their bravery and Vaaaaa-lor. But for the song (which would probably be really knee slappingly funny if one were in an altered state of consciousness) it is a very moving tribute to four naval chaplains: two ministers, a Catholic priest and a rabbi, who gave other sailors their life jackets on Feb. 3, 1948 when the USAT Dorchester was sunk and there weren’t enough to go around.

Kim, who turned me on to Ru Paul’s Drag Race, was not at bootcamp on Saturday and we presume she was either attending Opera for Educators or being slothful. What I am about to relate was told by Mimi, who said that the story was related to her by Kim. Her memory is that the incident involved Kim herself and was not related by Kim to her as about having happened to someone else. Kim and Mimi are both above reproach which is the only reason I post the following here. Kim’s dog came home with what was left of the fluffy bunny beloved of the little girl next door. While it was important for the child to know the pet was dead lest she search, eyes brimming with tears, futilely, Kim knew that in its current condition the critter would be a cruel thing to lay eye upon. Bunny was shampooed and blown dry and in the dark of night returned to his patio cage. The next day, Kim saw the neighbor who reported being completely freaked out. "Last week the rabbit died and I buried it in the yard…."

If this weren’t from unimpeachable sources I would relegate it to the status of the Mexican pet. Nevertheless, I thought it a cute Easter story for my genteel and gentile readers. Actually, as I type genteel and gentile I realize that I strongly connect one characteristic with the other and always have. I find no strong etymological connection between the two qualities of being but to me they are inseparable. Add a smidge more of that self-hating Jew thing to that buck that is already over stretched.

My mother spent the afternoon in little California bungalow on a leafy Eagle Rock street with three other ladies and the owner of the home she is moving to. There is a snow white Pomeranian named Precious, dressed in a different frilly seasonal outfit on the two occasions I visit. There is lots of Jesus and saint stuff which is good because she always glamorized Catholicism, thinking I had married up, until Himself converted.

Richard and I will cull again through her things and I still can’t get over how filled with blazing rage she would be if she knew what more we were going to throw out. It is extraordinary how malleable she has become. The IT of her is gone. She will no longer wander the long halls of the hotel. Living room, dining room, bed and bath are all she will have to navigate. I had no idea when I moved her to the hotel how her decline would transpire and I cannot bring myself to think forward to the inevitable progression of her crumble. She will share a room with another lady, which I am iffy about, but after sleeping mostly alone for over forty-five years, to hear someone else breathing and alive might be comforting.

My stepmother, who makes me insane and knows it, but we love each other, brought to the office her usual Passover gift of baked goods and a DVD for the kids. She suffers, now that my dad is gone, from Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy via Sally her cat. Have I mentioned here before that both my mother and my stepmother have very old cats named Sally? Nevertheless, my stepmother and her cat ail and both are too brittle for much other human contact. My stepmother calls to comfort me about my mom. She says she feels guilty for my father’s treatment of my mother and she is deeply concerned about her comfort. She has never encouraged me to be anything but loyal to my mother and a good daughter, even at times when this was to her personal detriment. We cry on the phone. I haven’t been crying that much lately but it was good to cry with someone who actually cries back.

Through the Aleph Foundation I sent three letters to three Jewish California inmates who had requested Jewish penpals. Three responses arrive exactly one week after mine were mailed. None of the three prisoners were raised as Jews, although born to Jewish mothers. They find, in prison, a strong desire to connect. One writes that there are about fourteen other Jews on his yard. They are visited by an Orthodox rabbi once a year and told by him that God only hears prayers in Hebrew. The letters are all very sweet and I am aware that their writers have heaviness and that has perhaps hardened into chronic falsification. Still, it makes me feel good about being Jewish, at a time when this has challenged me, to reach out, with no judgment, as a Jew.

My beloved survives another Seder, even though the guest list increases a bit from the initial negotiation phase. The sprats are commandeered for kitchen crew. Spuds peels zillions of cloves of roasted garlic and I can smell him three floors down but he complains not. The 16 year old masters the pastry bag in case he gets a hankering for deviled eggs in his dorm which will be fully paid for, in addition to his 100% academic scholarship. Maybe some place nippy. Harvard? He also accomplishes the perfect caramel chocolate matzoh assbuilder which is why we get more fat on these nights than on other nights.

We have eight teenagers and one preteen at the Seder. Only two of the kids, a brother and sister, are born of two parents who were born Jewish. No one argues when I posit at the Seder that most of the kids there would probably intermarry. Some of them might take partners whose faith is stronger than their own in Judaism and agree to raise their children as something else, or nothing. If my child is in love with someone good and kind and worthy I would not make faith an issue and I don’t think any parent at our Seder would act differently.

The Ultra Orthodox, boycott the national airline, of the country that funnels tons of money into a separate and definitely not equal education system and offers them deferments from military service, because movies are shown. A photo of some politicians is photoshopped to remove images of women before it runs in an Ortho paper. While our kids go out and marry for love, these isolated crackpots breed with frenzy. There are nearly seven billion people in the world and with a mere 14 million Jews for all they go at it, the Orthodox aren’t going to make much of a dent.

I pontificated again at the Seder about the horrible labor conditions at the ostensibly kosher slaughterhouses in Iowa and that in the Orthodox version of Kashrut, a non-Jew is of less value then a cow. We were strangers in Egypt and now are mandated to live with compassion and welcome the stranger. We sell our chametz to a gentile for the days of Pesach. Trust is implicit to this transaction with our gentile friends. They underpay us for our leaven and could turn usurious when we need to buy it back. Trust leaves us open to love and intermarriage seems inevitable if we are to live peacefully among strangers. My kids are going to love for love but we tell the story every year. We cook together and maybe the flavors of Passover will be sweet enough for them to remember to tell the story and teach it to their children.

Jimmy, the Thai mechanic down the street, fixes a turn signal for me and will take no money. He has a Buddhist shrine, glowing red and gold, next to the cash register. A customer needs a close up of church bells ringing and the boys climb to the roof with the camera and we ask the priest of the Polish Catholic Church next door to ring the bells. He rings them with enormous delight and abandon and all the neighbors run out assuming there is a funeral. I pack up two big boxes of the assbuilder matzoh and drop it at the mechanic’s and the church, and briefly explain it is matzah from my holiday. But all I really have to say is "chocolate."

Every twenty-eight years the sun returns to where it shone at the creation. Every year we remind ourselves of the journey from Egypt and we sell temporarily, to a trusted gentile that which weighs us down while we navigate the arid desert to our freedom. Christians wash the feet of the destitute on Maundy Thursday and wait hands and heart open through the Easter vigil for the Resurrection. Every faith welcomes the spring with rites of cleansing and sacrifice. We are all desperate to feel God’s love and I hope that in the twenty eight years it takes for us to arrive again at the moment of creation, God's children learn that this love is infinite and not subject to border, race or secret handshake.

Good Friday and it is the shabbat of the third night of the Passover journey. There is a harmony, perhaps a fragile one, but warm and palpable here in our home as we prepare to break the bread of affliction instead of sweet challah. May this be the first shabbat of our exodus and the resurrection of sweet new creation. I’ve got serious dough riding on it.

Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Do I at Least Look Younger Than Frances McDormand?

Do I at Least Look Younger than Frances McDomand?

Spuds has exploded suddenly and intensely into teenageness. Just weeks ago we marveled that we’d very seldom yelled at him, and that he had never been grounded or really punished. Himself bemoans the cessation of the newsy little notes he’d write and leave for his dad to find upon returning home from late night teaching. I observe a sudden snottiness and contempt for what he feels is our overprotectiveness. We have permitted the lad to travel via Metrorail from Mt. Washington to Hollywood, by himself. He is allowed to take public transport to Olvera Street with a group of boys to “hang out.” He is not allowed, and miffed about it, to bring six boys we barely know to our supervisionless house to “hang out” for several hours. He is invited to a slumber party at the home of a boy I don’t know and I insist on speaking to the mom before he is delivered. Deeply embarrassed, he furiously thrusts the phone at me. I thank the mom for inviting Spuds for the sleepover. “Oh. Are they all staying overnight? I, er, guess it’s o.k.”

During the therapy hour that is bootcamp breakfast, in the middle of an informative discussion about vaginal dryness that I realize was probably spirited enough to be audible to the many other customers dining on the sunny patio, Spuds calls to say that the mom wants to talk to me. “Did you do something bad?” I demand. I arrive and Spuds is standing in the street with his friend’s mom.

The following letter was written by me and sent to the NY Times Ethicist:

Dear Ethicist,

My 13 year old was at a sleepover with some other boys. He was shot in the eye via a pellet gun. We are told he is a gifted child and if this is indeed the case he would absolutely know, with certainty, that playing with guns, toy or otherwise is absolutely forbidden by his bleeding heart liberal parents. The host's mother was made aware of his injury. I suspect in his reluctance to admit to us the gunplay, which he indicated was, prior to getting shot, a lot of fun, he may have discouraged the mother from calling us immediately. She put Visine in his eye and sheepishly admitted to the accident when I picked him up the following morning. I took him to the emergency room where the attending physician admonished us for not bringing him to the hospital immediately. Even with no obvious symptoms, there was serious risk of an injury that if not immediately treated could have caused permanent blindness. Fortunately, the diagnosis was a corneal abrasion which will most likely cause no permanent damage. My husband says we should ask the sleepover family to reimburse us for the several hundred dollars in medical expenses that aren't covered by insurance. I say that even though the mother is as dumb as dirt, our boy is old enough to know that fooling around with guns is against our rules and this places the onus of the co payment on him, er, us, especially in that it appears her failure to call us did not result in serious consequences. If you decide that we should shake down remiss mom for reimbursement, would you please suggest that my husband be the one to ask her. It was his idea after all.
Thanks for your advice.

As of press time, there has been no response from Randy Cohen to this query, so readers here are encouraged to chime in.

The sixteen year old has been posting urgent messages on Facebook to all our friends protesting, like he’s Mumia Abu-Jamal, that he is still grounded, after a month, without so much as parole hearing. As I prefer to air family laundry here in a venue so much more intimate than Facebook, I will address the 16 year old’s grievances. He has been granted the freedom to attend two movies, including a midnight show, permitted to ride in a car driven by a licensee whose provisional license period ended mere seconds ago and has entertained friends at our, according to him, pathetically inadequate, home. And you can get Amnesty International off our backs. A hearing has been scheduled.

I am delayed in picking the 16 year old up from the movies and text him to walk to the office. After about fifteen minutes I text an employee “Is Leo there yet? I don’t trust him.” I had left my glasses in the car intentionally so as not to be badgered about Lasix surgery which the ophthalmology practice where Spuds is being evaluated promotes very aggressively. Instead of my office, I text his best friend’s girlfriend. It’s probably all over Facebook by now.

Quasimodo’s ER visit prevents our regular visit with Grandma and we head over later, around three to take her for a not much more early than usual dinner for her and not much more late than usual lunch for us. I call the Hotel and ask them to have her dressed and ready to go because I don’t like making the kids walk through the halls to her room and this is a great excuse for not having to walk through myself. My mom is not in the lobby waiting when we arrive. She is alone in a large living room area, slumped in a chair, fast asleep, an old Columbia musical on the projection tv. I try to wake her up. She is wet, either having worn the same Depend for too long or forgetting to wear one at all. The staff tries to wake her but we all finally give up and we leave so she can be moved to her bed and changed.

When my mother first moved to the hotel she consulted the activity board daily, although it pretty much the same every day except for some churchy stuff on Sundays, and made notes. She made me take her shopping to buy aftershave for her gentleman friend’s birthday. She preened and fussed about her clothes and makeup. There is live music almost daily at the hotel and Adele would dance like no one was watching, beaming with a face decades younger than her four score plus. Now she is wet and crumbled on a chair and while last week I was tentative that my wordsmithing here would lift me out of the mire, the sight of my tiny overmedicated mother leaves me too wretched to be moved by even the peppiest of peptalks.

Himself spares me description of many of the indignities he suffers being an educator at a for profit only institution. He sucks it up because everyone tells him that he is lucky to have any job at all. His birthmother, unbidden, sends him some lovely recollections about her childhood. He is delighted to find a photo of her Belfast childhood flat now divided and for rent as a bedsitter and he sends it to her. She responds in anger and admonishes him to stop grilling her about her life. She is smart and interesting but deeply wounded. Her reach out/lash out pattern is something we must learn to steel ourselves for as we wait for tiny fissures in her impenetrable infinite mystery.

It is a lousy weekend. Spuds is shot. Himself is working on a writing deadline and I have many chores and miles of driving and the emergency room and mom. While I feel shallow and shitty about it, I resent the time that is devoted to Himself being an intellectual. Although, I blather on to all and sundry about his geniuslikeness it would be nice to incorporate geniuslikeness with “Sure, I’ll bring in the groceries from the car” sans eye rolling. Most days I’ll take a smart guy over a guy who does stuff but this weekend we are beaten down. I learned the rudiments of marital malfunction from my parents who would scream vicious cruel things and slam and throw stuff. Himself never cottoned to this and simply walks away when my tone becomes shrill. At first this was provocative to me and fomented even more venomous venom but now we have found the silent treatment the more effective display of marital discord. After twenty years we’ve done all the petty annoyances to death. We are more likely now, if we don’t bite our tongues, to get to more primal and essential stuff, which if expressed in anger could result in permanent wounds. Now we just grunt at each other for a few days and sleep as far apart on the bed as we can until we get lonely and ready to just eat it and accept that which will never ever change. Ever. I write an e-mail with a list of grievances, an apology and a pledge of eternal love and it is received by my beloved just at the moment he was about to send a similar e-mail olive branch to me.

I volunteered my services as a writing instructor at the Dave Eggars brainchild 826LA, a literacy center that has a number of amazing free programs for kids. I attend an orientation with a group of earnest twentysomethings and wait for acceptance as a volunteer and assignment to a project. The place is a magical kingdom and after years of struggling with students who struggled with words I believe that this inspired methodology will help coax charming stories from the most recalcitrant of writers. 826LA is a better venue than I could ever have, even with unlimited resources, imagined.

Also in an effort to stop the juggernaut of drooling time waste, compulsive consumption of candy and self pity that has been part and parcel to the dispiriting slowness at the office, I joined the Aleph Foundation, a Jewish penpal program, headquartered in the unlikely location of Wanganui New Zealand, that attempts to match prisoners who request a penfriend with volunteers.

I am issued three men’s names. I know that lots of these guys who request letters are on the lookout for vulnerable girls and folks to subsidize their canteen accounts but I write three letters and will see which, if any, of my correspondents are for real. They are all in California prisons. There are no details of their crimes although one of the convicts, age 55, notes that he is there for life without possibility of parole. The other two, ages 64 and 44 have about ten more years. All three write about not being raised Jewish but becoming interested in exploring their heritage now. I write three different letters although I lift two paragraphs from prisoner #2’s letter to use in prisoner #3’s. I am awkward and feel like a superior do-gooder lady as I compose the letters. I try to be honest, but not too honest, about my current approach/avoid relationship to Judaism and skepticism about organized religion in general. I mention my long marriage more than once, lest anyone think I am girlfriend material. I fess up to my lifelong curiosity about the spiritual lives of folks who live separate from society, in prisons or religious communities. I try to make it clear that I have personal needs in play, beyond feeling sorry for the poor lonely prisoners, in taking on this penpal thing. To the oldest guy, who in his bio sounded the smartest of the three, I wrote about metaphorical vs. actual prison but I toned it down for the other two guys who seem more interested in fantasy novels and football respectively. It has been a very long time since I’ve received a letter in the mail. I hope one comes soon and that it portends a relationship that will be a source of comfort to both of the correspondents.

I realize that while it is a fine and human place, the hotel isn’t working for my mom anymore. It was excruciating to transition her from Fulton Avenue to the hotel and the thought of moving her and all her stuff and determining the fate of her cat makes me weary beyond words. Nevertheless, I begin research to find for her a smaller and less institutional facility. Those halls are so long. She is so small now. I spend some time on the phone and am recommended places in far flung parts like El Monte and West Hollywood. Closer facilities have no space or are wildly expensive. Finally, I am referred to a location in Eagle Rock, two blocks from where Spuds attends school and about ten minutes from home. I visit and find a four bedroom home. The owners live in a house behind and a tiny white dog in a carcoat prances all around. There are two other ladies there, both at about the same stage of dementia as Mom. The family and caretakers all sit down together with the residents to take meals. Once a week they walk across the street to Burger King. There are two attendants on duty twenty four hours so she will get far more personal attention, and maybe even more important, physical contact, than at the hotel. She is going to spend a day there to see how she adjusts and if is as good a fit as I hope it is, we will move her in and they will even take the cat. Moving my mother from her home was one of the hardest and most painful things I ever had to do. Moving her from an institution and back to a house will not be a spa day either but it is comforting to think that the tiny shell that once was my mother is at least will be swaddled once again in the safety of home.

The 16 year old and I, so desperate for something sweet bake strips of frozen puff pasty with butter and sugar. I am taking a thrice day vile peptobismal sort of beverage I bought impulsively at Costco because I had a coupon and it said it would reduce my appetite. He watches me inhale a dozen of the fat and sugar holders and notes, “I guess that stuff isn’t working.” We watch Rachel Getting Married. I don’t pester him by asking him if I look younger than Deborah Winger although I drop a few hints for him to volunteer this by noting that we are close to the same age. There is a great mother daughter slugfest between Winger and daughter Anne Hathaway. It is only recently that I am no longer certain that I could bring the 16 year old down in a brawl. We are both moved by the story of a family unable to escape the grief of a tragedy, even in the midst of a joyful occasion. He is annoyed by the self conscious overuse of handheld camera and I think they overdid it a bit with some of the music. For no reason at all (that has surfaced yet) he helps me unload the dishwasher. I think the 16 year old is starting to get it about how complicated families are and able to better take in how he is an essential and cherished part of ours. Amnesty and driving permit may be imminent.

I spend another morning with Nick the dentist and he completes work on a mutant infected baby tooth that has been one of those ongoing physical maladies I vowed never to discuss because I find similar discussion by others excruciatingly boring. I mention it now only because the long work is finally done and I see this as one harbinger for a new phase it seems we are about to enter. Spuds is a teenager. The 16 year old, somehow in sync with this, shoots up in height and grows too in patience and maturity. My wisp of a mother is being downsized. Himself and myself are making up for several days of lost commerce. We are facing large life changes but together now, we try to mine loss for opportunity. Passover is next week and after weeks of treading water I feel finally that I’m finally a tiny bit closer to getting the fuck out of Egypt.