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.


FionnchĂș said...

A marathon scribal stint, so you'll be in shape for the reenacted Exodus. Thanks for being diplomatic, to at least a degree, in not airing my whole basket of dirty laundry, stained with self-pity and snobbery. And, unless it's a trick question, the answer is YES. xxx me

Layne said...

The quintessential Kaz:
"Yes, you definitely look younger than Frances Mcdormand and I'd say Debra Winger too. More importantly, do I?"

harry said...

Blood on the door frame, if not the tracks, to save the first born. Hmmmm. Oops, where did I put that jar of lamb's blood.

Nah, don't make 'em pay, kids are kids and guns are the inevitable transition from flaccid to not. I rolled in the hills of Hermon with cap guns and spies, and I was never anything other than on track to be a semi-conscious conscientious objector.

And even Barbara Bush looks younger than McDormand. Happy Pesach.