Friday, May 29, 2009

Writing on the Possibility

Writing on the Possibility
My beloved will smirk smugly as I spew a bit of invective at our Commander in Chief. Obama made abolishing torture an exception to his decision not to take on issues of principle in these challenging times. Instead he claims to be attending to more urgent threats to the long term well being of this country. He has failed to take a courageous stand on marriage equality or the ludicrous “Don’t ask. Don’t tell,” policy that demeans our military. I can never think of the accomplishments of people like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King or Lyndon Johnson without having to struggle to accept that the inequity that inspired their actions really existed. Right here in America. I hope Obama is brave enough and history will remember him as one whose leadership helped right what will be remembered in the future as an unimaginable hateful wrong.

Mr. Obama has stated that “America does not torture," yet it is documented that solitary confinement has the same psychological consequences as torture. There are 25,000 prisoners in the U.S. who are housed in supermax facilities, confined to steel rooms for 23 hours and locked alone in a steel cages for an hour of exercise daily. Figures as to how many prisoners are held in solitary confinement at other institutions are not published but there are estimated to be somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000. Why is calling to end the torture of suspected terrorists more urgent than ending the torture of about 100,000, mostly Americans, here on our shores?

Obama attended a 30k per couple dinner party in Beverly Hills to raise funds for the Democratic Party on the same day that programs that benefit the poorest and neediest Californians were brutally cut. The Dems will spend most of the So Cal money raised at the shindig on advertising as California becomes the only state in the union that offers no medical coverage for the children of the indigent. It is not just a matter of principle, but seems imperative for a country in financial crisis to end all manner of private and corporate political contribution. If a candidate or a measure has enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, the taxpayers should subsidize modest campaigns with full parity. Mr. Obama is a smart man and aware of the correlation between the amount of money his campaign raised and its ultimate success. Perhaps he will be principled enough to shepherd through legislation that guarantees that political office in this country is no longer bought and sold.

The Silverlake Children’s Theatre's successful production of the Rogues ended on a sad note with the passing of Broderick’s mom Guyline on the morning of the final performance. Brod, ever classy, acknowledges the comfort he takes in the tightness of the community he, of enormous heart and with superhuman exertion of energy, holds together. Guyline always had her hair done before she came up to see one of Brod’s plays. She was gracious and always offered to pitch in and help at concessions and would never let us comp her so much as a cookie. She would beam to see her granddaughters perform and drink in the high praises of Brod that were inevitable after each show. Brod was an attentive son, particularly to Guyline after the death of husband/father Frank. Recently Brod took his mom on a trip to Napa that she had dreamed about. She showed him how to make the family pasta specialty and fittingly he returned home and dished it out to a group of theatre kids. The way our kids treat us when we’re old will be inspired by how we treat our own parents. Broderick is a shoe-in to enjoy his dotage on a gilt throne.

I may have perused I’m O.K., You’re O.K. in junior high school and I certainly poured over The Joy of Sex. I started What to Expect When You’re Expecting but I decided I was better off not knowing what to expect. I bought a book about positive discipline once but the kids felt threatened and spirited it off before I could read it. Otherwise I have no recollection of ever reading anything remotely smacking of self-help. Through a favorable New Yorker review however, I became intrigued with The Parents We Were Meant to Be, by
Richard Weissbourd.

While I am not, like my beloved, a reading machine, I do, on occasion, turn off the t.v. and there are a number of books that I’ve found influential. Weissbourd’s though, I believe, is the most meaningful book I have ever read. He challenges the modern inclination to raise our kids to value being happy over being good. Weissbourd notes the need for us as parents, and even more fundamentally, as actualized human beings, to commit to nurturing our own moral development and modeling that living growing evolving thing for our children. He confronts our tendency to rely on our children to fill in gaps in our own childhoods and discusses how to avoid sabotaging our kids by subconsciously trying to work through our own crap in dealings with teachers, and college admissions and sports teams. I feel like a ninny that such basic, simple common sense, is so revelatory for me. Nevertheless, I’m going to read it again and badger the life out of every parent I know to pick up a copy.

Shoddy merchandise renders me cellphoneless for nearly a week. I reached uneasy détente and accepted that Himself will not use his, although I still attribute it to a not wanting to be bothered, withholding thing. The keys of the Blackberry are visible to me only with my strongest glasses and because it lives in my purse I am filled with dread whenever it rings. I am never able to foist it from the Black Hole of Calcutta in order to answer it in time and inevitably I have to retrieve a message from voice mail which requires typing in a password on the tiny keyboard. I feel compelled in these times to respond to potential customer requests, which come via e-mail from all time zones, faster than my hungry competition. My Blackberry emits three loud beeps every time I receive an e-mail. I forget to mute it at night and often hear it beeping away loudly downstairs in the dark while I struggle in my bed with insomnia. Every beep could be an order and puts me on edge, knowing the truth, that in all likelihood it is spam or some sanctimonious dude on the neighborhood mailing list who posts long diatribes in the middle of the night. My penpal unbraided me for bemoaning my lack of freedom but I feel sort of sad and fettered when the replacement Blackberry finally arrives.

My penpal writes:
Please don’t ever envy me Layne. I know what you mean about having the time to do all you want but this place is a life destroyer and will never resemble in any way a monastic retreat. I spend each and every day here in this existence doing all I can to make the time seem to go faster through immersing myself in books, studies, escapist t.v. and exhausting my body with rigorous exercise. And through it all I can only pray that I don’t lose myself and the person I am because I have numbed, hidden, and repressed so many thoughts and emotions that do make me the man I am. Layne, this place is not life, it’s an existence, life on pause, while the rest of life goes on and moves forward without me. I am lost in a sea of strangers that are lost in a sea of strangers, in a place that tortures the heart, soul and leaves only the body intact, if you are smart enough.

I know this may sound gruesome, but it’s like I’m the “living dead” to all I left behind. I’m alive “someplace” but…I can’t participate with my family and have, through the years become a stranger to all I love and hold dearest to my heart. Each and every day I am here is filled with that pain and the fear of an uncertain future I’m faced with once I do walk out of this place into a world that has moved twenty years into the future. This existence of heartbreak, pain, fear, uncertainly and trying desperately to hang onto the person you are, without numbing it out of existence is nothing to envy. So please my friend, never envy any aspect of my life, because what I endure I would never wish upon any living soul, let alone a friend I hold dear.

This is part of a twenty-page handwritten letter which continues to explain the shortage of vocational and educational services and the unfair criteria used to mete out placement in them. Mental health services exist mainly to medicate and most prisoners shun any participation because it could have a bearing on privileges, housing arrangements and parole eligibility. He reports that racial segregation and hatred are profound and that to confront it, is etched in stone as suicide. In my wildest nightmares I can imagine no institution less equipped to encourage healing and rehabilitation.

My penpal explains not only the culture of racism but also the culture of testosterone that exists in a men’s prison where it is paramount not to display any emotions that could be construed as weak. He shares some childhood memories, of having had different of his divorced mom’s male friends inhabit his life, as did I. I weep. The letter becomes a heavy thing. It protrudes from a folder in my bookcase and torments me. Perhaps I am not worthy or not strong enough for this correspondence I’ve taken on. I reread it and this time drink in the humanity that inhabits every word. I share my daily struggles with him in my letters and his response is sage and apt and warm. It is my writing about my past, which I explain to him is therapeutic for me, that perhaps encourages my penpal to write about his childhood and family. There is probably stuff in this letter that’s festered for years and gone unspoken and I suspect that the dredging up of this is inspired by my own example. The letter, in my mind’s eye, is not only heavy but it is also solid and I am again sure of the rightness of it and the sheath of other letters it rests with and more certain than ever that words can heal.

Himself writes this week about the pretty flakey (gotta be due to SOMEONE’S karma) Buddhist response to the Holocaust. The Catholics, based on Pope Benedict’s recent performance in Israel remain pretty far off the mark too. Perhaps the very nature of religion makes it impossible to address this egregious abomination to the tenets of any faith. I confront my fellow Jews, suggesting, that while indeed we should never forget, it is time to relinquish, what Hannah Arendt called the “Eternal Holocaust” as Jewish currency and raise the bar for ourselves. Torah mandates us to welcome the stranger and I challenge my people to join side by side with other citizens of the world so that nothing with this much potential to strip us bare of faith ever happens again.

I return to tutor a group of tenth graders at Marshall. They are stymied by the required reading of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night. The first order of business is a journal entry based on a prompt. Some of the kids plunge right in and I watch their facial expressions change as they hunch over their diaries. They have ideas and it is easy for them to express them on paper. Others chat and fidget and apply mascara and spin their pens and their faces are as blank as their journals when time is called. The kids have been partnered and interviewing each other for many weeks, preparing to write a 500-word non-fiction essay about a climactic experience. My last group had four kids who were completely turned off and accomplished nothing during my time with them. I have two of the same girls this week but two new boys. One of the boys is bright and ambitious and into the assignment. The other boy spends most of the hour on a bathroom pass and at least doesn’t bother anyone when he comes back. The teacher has chosen a great gritty story from an anthology of teen writing about a girl accompanying her mom to an N.A. meeting, which seems closer to their frame of reference than a concentration camp. Nevertheless it is grim and real, and devoid of moral or happy ending. There is a sentence obliterated with marker on all of our photocopies but when we all hold it up to the light we can make out the word “dick” which I can’t imagine would be terribly offensive in a classroom containing three pregnant 10th graders. One of the girls who seemed brain dead and snotty at the last session perks up reading the story and can’t conceal that she is taken with it. She brightens and engages. The other girl’s non-participation is blatant. The students are to copy a line from the story that is particularly meaningful and then explain why. I ask this girl why she’s chosen her sentence and she says in an impudent voice that she’s copied it at random and that none of it means anything to her. My first impulse is to chastise her for wasting her time and much more importantly my own. Then it occurs to me, that perhaps she is really overwhelmed because it means so friggin’ much. Maybe there will never be a spark in her eyes but I would be an asshole to completely write off the possibility.

Which brings me to the last paragraph when I try to weave together some common bond and connection to all of the things that have nourished and eaten at me during the week. The election of Obama made me feel proud to be an American in a way I never have before. Ironically, the time freed up by the lack of work attendant to the recession has led to my exposure to the two American institutions that are least living up to their promise. The heathcare system is also in rotten shape but as squeamish as I am, my volunteer efforts would surely only bring it down another peg. I hope Obama sees that just as critical as getting money flowing through banks again is for the long term well being of our country, examining and fixing the American way of dispensing justice, education and healthcare is no less urgent. I send my love and condolences to the Miller family who touch our lives with our wonderful theatre group and their generous friendship. I thank my cynical beloved for not trivializing my meager efforts and my kids for listening when I harp on and make them feel guilty for their privileged lives. I thank my penpal for his patience with my shameless exploitation of him to clean up my karma and bless him for the humanity and generosity with which he imbues every letter.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Sizzle of the Wick

The Sizzle of the Wick.

My mom has been in the new place for about six weeks and seems well adjusted to it. Richard and I decide to take her out for the first time. She rides shotgun on errands just about every day with Ning, the owner of the house but, during her last months at the hotel, she became so disoriented when I returned her from an outing, that I ‘d been reluctant to take her out myself. We go to a nearby coffee shop and she eats heartily and seems docile and content. She points out that my mascara is smeared. I present her with a hot pink paisley handbag to replace her ancient Sport Sac with the broken zipper, at Ning’s request, as the constant befuddled sliding of the zipper up and down is starting to get on her nerves. Mom is delighted with the bag and holds it primly on her lap.

My mother has been divorced from my dad for 45 years, twice as long as she was married to him. From the time he moved out until the dementia reached a severe level, she would pump me for information about my dad and his current wife. I was a traitor if I didn’t cough up something and no matter how benign it was, she would craft it with negative spin. In 1975, I was living in Mexico and I read on the front page of the Mexico City paper that my father had been arrested on film piracy, charges, which after a decade long, wildly expensive legal ordeal, were dropped. Despite the ultimate legal outcome my father did illegally sell prints of films to South Africa, in violation of the cultural boycott imposed to pressure the end of apartheid. I had dinner once with him and one of the South African film dealers, a Jewish man who used the word nigger and I left the table. My dad said I was silly and was furious that I’d embarrassed him. Several years ago my mother gave me an envelope containing what she said was important stuff for my dad. I found it contained a big sheath of news clippings about his arrest and trial. She asked me repeatedly for weeks afterward whether I’d given it to him, and having thrown it away immediately, instead of futilely confronting her about the meanness of this, I lied and said that I had..

We return to Ning’s and the transition of Richard and I going and my mother staying gets all bollixed up and she becomes hysterical when she figures out that we are leaving without her. I show her the closet jammed with her clothes but she does not buy it. She is desperate to leave with us. She remembers my name most days when I see her but doesn’t remember Richard’s, her friend of 35 years. She is pounding at the door and howling not to be left and she begins to appeal to Richard but she screams, “Al,” my father’s name. “Al, Al, Help me Al! Take me home!” The dementia has boiled her down to her pure essence. How humiliating it is to think of myself stripped bare of all subtlety. She loves her clothes and to preen in front of the mirror. She made a life out of nurturing rancor for my father but even though there were many other men after him, from the little that’s left, it is a revelation to me that he was the hope and salvation that she let slip away. She lost him years ago and now, is blessed finally not remember this.

The Pew Research Report
One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections notes, that in the U.S., the nation with the highest percentage of its population imprisoned, higher than China or Russia even, one person in thirty-one is either incarcerated or on probation or parole. The extensive research in the report notes the effectiveness of community parole and probation programs over incarnation in reducing recidivism. Unfortunately, the community based alternatives to incarceration are woefully underfunded compared to penal institutions. The powerful prison guards union exacerbates this. My penpal notes that guards often make 200k yearly with overtime and routinely demonstrate their commitment to keeping prisons full, by actively encouraging inmates to mess up and suffer lengthened sentences. The study notes that the national average cost to incarcerate a prisoner is about $80 per day but community supervision, even when sufficiently staffed and equipped with the most sophisticated tools, like GPS ankle devices that can even detect if alcohol or drugs are imbibed, cost about $10 per client per day. Supporting and teaching a criminal to live as a citizen in a community reduces recidivism and in cities with well managed probation/parole agencies this is borne out again and again. I am pleased that this report is being taken seriously but I realize that this consideration is not motivated by compassion for those who we’ve failed, but out of desperation to save a buck.

Economic Armageddon is giving traction to another moral issue and there is serious study and discussion about the legalization and taxation of marijuana. Proposition 8 passed because of a lousy namby pamby advertising campaign. Perhaps if they’d just used “Gay Weddings will generate a billion dollars a year in revenue,” there would have been a stunning defeat. Being hard assed these days might just have too great a price tag.

Perhaps the cost of doing business with malice is too great for the U.S. but the world news reeks with mean spiritedness this week. A fifteen year old Somali kid is being tried as an adult for piracy and likely to be sentenced to life in prison for his participation in the kidnapping of the captain of the Maersk Alabama. Apparently his youth and the dire poverty and lawlessness of his homeland beg no mitigation. Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy, responded to desperate displaced Africans seeking refuge in Italy with, “The left's idea is of a multi-ethnic Italy, that’s not our idea.” Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Burmese opposition has been under house arrest for thirteen of the last nineteen years and this was to expire next month. A man, using homemade flippers, swam two miles across a lake to her home and was, based on his exhausted condition, permitted him to stay two days, in violation of her house arrest. Most news sources have alluded to this being a set up, particularly given the timing so close to the expiration of her house detention. She is now in prison and on trial.

Being condemned to drive for hours to far flung charter schools due to the staggering lack of acceptable neighborhood schools, I listened to an NPR series on prayer and neuroplasticity. Brain studies on people who regularly pray or meditate reveal, when a dye is injected to the brain during prayer or meditation, that the frontal lobes virtually light up, a sign of increased and superior brain function. Studies also indicate that those who participate in prayer or meditation for as few as five minutes daily are more likely to respond to stressful situations with compassion rather than in anger or self destructive behavior and even have improved physical immunity to disease.

I wrote several years ago that a human being can concentrate and focus on a single thought for about eight seconds before drifting on to another subject. Himself points out that twelve seconds might be a bit more accurate but I suspect my own norm is on the low side. Whereas I am intellectually lazy and will reject a book merely because the type is too small or the pages too thin, Himself has discipline and is challenged and thrilled and determined to make conquest of material that’s impenetrable to 8 second gals like me. Apparently he even has sufficient mental discipline to meditate when not interrupted by my arrival home with groceries for him to unload. When we were temple regulars I remember hours of boredom but there were also moments when I would feel high and lifted by the feeling of praying in a room full of praying. I breathe in when we light the Shabbat candles and I feel the light and my little family, and it is probably only about 8 seconds before we go back to fighting about what to watch on t.v., but in the flash of light and sizzle of wick there is God for me.

Himself this week introduced me to a fresh inspiration, Antonio Gramsci, the Italian politician and theoretician whose work on the theory of cultural hegemony was influential to educational theorists like Paulo Freire. Gramsci made a distinction between the old school intelligentsia, aloof from the unwashed masses but determined to cram ruling class culture down their throats and what he called “working thinkers” who use their intellectual advantages to help give voice to and validate the proletariat experience.

The week has not been stellar but I am grateful that I don’t live in prison or Burma or Somalia and given the asshole prime minister, even Italy. I feel beaten down and ashamed by the paucity of mercy in the world. I have always known that prayer makes me feel better and more inclined to feel compassion but maybe now that I know it will make me physically better, perhaps I’ll be able to feel less self conscious and muster better concentration. My parents broke apart. My mother pushed my dad away and over forty years later, screams for him to save her. I am sustained by eight second brushes with the divine and holding close Himself and my boys and stalwart friends. I feel the weight of all the screams that go unheard. Gramsci, my hero of the week, brought to me by Himself, the hero of my life, requested the epitaph, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence but an optimist because of will.” I pray for those whose screams are never heard, and for myself, sufficient strength of will to know light.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Little Old Ideas

Little Old Ideas

My mother will not permit anyone but a professional beautician to touch her hair and it, and her finger and toenails are getting gnarly. I brace myself for several hours of wrangling her and stifling her from agreeing to hundreds of dollars in extra salon services without sounding like a bitch. The familiar dry heaves are starting to roil when I call over to announce that I’m going to pick her up for a grooming triage. Ning, the owner of the board and care tells me that she herself has already taken Mom to the beauty parlor the day before. This is better than winning the lottery. My stepmother has dropped off a pound of See’s candy for my mom and some lousy Costco cookies for my kids and I consider a switcheroo, what with the Alzheimer’s and all. The sixteen year old and I go to visit and freed of beauty shop ordeal, to keep good juju, I fork over the See’s. She does not offer to share and wouldn’t have, even pre-dementia, when, if I’d had the temerity to ask for a piece, she would have snapped, “You don’t need it.”

The other two lady residents are always clad in sweatpants or model coats. My mother sits imperious, on the periphery, with her purse in her lap. She wears a woven silk skirt and complimentary cashmere sweater and trademarked impossibly wide belt. The only thing that betrays her, if she doesn’t open her mouth, is that a bunion, after years of wearing size 6 high heels, reduces her to only thong sandals. Thanks to the Alzheimer’s I am able to purchase them for her in the correct size (7 ½). Ning suggests I provide a few more pairs of flip flops and I notice the sparkly ones she herself sports are right up my mom’s alley. I ask her where she got them and she laughs, and says that my mother has inquired after these same sexy shoes herself. A number of times. An incalculable number of times.

Mother’s Day? We don’t celebrate it. Himself reminds me annually of his father’s rationale for failing to acknowledge his wife on this day. “She’s not MY mother.” Nevertheless, when I rise there is a gorgeous letter from my beloved and a handmade card from Spuds on which he has glued a picture of a very fat me with his very tiny brother and written a sweet loving message. I hunker down on the couch with a book and the phone rings at 8 a.m. for me to pick up the still not driving, which makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs but I restrain myself, sixteen year old, immediately from a sleepover because he doesn’t want to impinge on THAT family’s celebration. Having chewed him out, I return to my nightgown and bed. I hear kitchen clatters and presume breakfast in bed is being prepared in my honor but it never materializes, which is probably a good thing, because I would still be cleaning the kitchen. Spuds ascends the stairs, late morning, under threat of grievous bodily harm, to present the mother’s day card anew and with the addition of his brother’s signature.

I ostentatiously prepare for myself only, a perfect grilled cheese with enough butter to merit a Lipitor chaser. I realize that the kids’ rehearsal starts an hour early. Himself has offered to take them and pick up his weekly portion of strawberries from the farmer’s market but the kids need lunch too and three separate errands in a single outing is beyond his scope. I hurry with my sandwich but eat all the way around and leave the center, bitten into a perfect square, on my plate, the best bite, saved as an incentive to get ready quickly. I throw on my jeans and descend the stairs and the plate is gone. “Where’s my bite?” I wail. Himself, thinking it a carelessly discarded scrap, has divided it into three portions and fed it to the dogs.

The tutoring schedule changes and instead of working one-on-one with primary graders I return to work with groups of tenth grade English students at Marshall High. The last group was funny and interesting and sweet. This group is militantly not interested in me or anything I have to say, which I could have stayed home for. These kids, the same age as my boy, are hollow eyed and will not look me in face. Two of the girls play incessantly with each others' hair and one boy keeps his head between his knees so that he can gaze at a fresh tattoo on his ankle. At the end of the class the teacher asks the kids to give the volunteers a hand and the kids all burst into rowdy applause except for my group who remain slumped in their seats staring at the clock. The kids want nothing I have to offer and I resent them for wasting my time. The teacher apologizes for my particularly recalcitrant charges and sites that the class itself has been in upheaval with one kid coming from a pretty hard core boys’ residential facility, three girls pregnant and the boyfriend of one of them on the verge of expulsion for losing his temper at a substitute teacher.

I tell my 16 year old, who will make eye contact and engage with anyone who appears mentally stable and makes an overture, that these kids at Marshall make him look pretty good. I remind him that safe sex is everyone’s responsibility and he rolls his eyes. Later I text him a line we use to crack each other up from the movie Kinsey. A heavily accented man is participating in sexual history interview, “I sed it was whore. Not horse.”

Kinsey began our dialogue about sex and Helen Gurley Brown was one of the first to give women permission to enjoy it. My mother read Sex and the Single Girl and Cosmo slavishly. Her boyfriend Sumner, who she insisted on calling Jose for some adorable reason that escapes me now, would come to pick her up for their regular date every Saturday night to take her out for dinner. Frascati. Tail ‘o the Cock. The Dresden Room. He stood behind the knotty pine bar at Fulton Avenue and stirred martinis with the gin he was expected provide. Mom coughed up for the olives but she’s stock up on them at the Bargain Circus when she found a mark down. Sumner paid for and transported a babysitter. The one I liked the best was Virginia, kind of a rough chola all the way from Pacoima who they used only if no one closer was available. We watched the Virgin Spring on KCET and I can see the rape and puking sequences on the little black and white t.v. haloed with UHF antenna. She told me about boys trying to cop a feel or get a piece of ass.

I think my mom adhered to the Sex and the Single Girl admonition that you enjoy approximately twenty expensive restaurant feeds before you invite your gentleman for a home cooked meal, for which he should provide all libations. Gurley Brown emphasized that single women should enjoy sex and men while simultaneously exploiting every mercenary potential. She spoke to women my mother and sister’s age. As a college student I was more programmed for a harder line feminism which fomented rebellion against pervasive male oppression but I filed this brain index card a few fathoms from the one that read, “I like boys.”

When I was eighteen I came home to Fulton Avenue for a weekend and slept with an old boyfriend from high school. Both my mother and my sister were open with me about being involved with married men at the time and there were douche kits and floral feminine hygiene sprays in the bathroom and Cosmo graced the coffee table. It didn’t occur to me that my old boyfriend spending the night would elicit anything except some niggardliness about me giving him breakfast, but my sister discovered him in my bed and all hell broke loose and they both called me a slut and I rushed back to college without even having done a load of laundry.

I am my mother’s vain shallow needy girl and when I was relieved of my virginity in 1973, I was torn between Helen Gurley Brown and Kate Millet and pathetic insecurity and loneliness. I assumed the girl role in my relationships and was one of those chicks who, Jill Johnston, the feminist writer, who thought capitalization was patriarchal, derisively referred to “sews patches on her old man’s jeans.” Being considered an intellectual equal wasn’t an issue in these early relationships because all boyfriends, previous to Himself, had been intellectually challenged, although a few at least were quite nice looking.

Himself’s misanthropy is legendary but because he is so purely prejudiced, he is the least prejudiced person I have ever met. Himself never denigrates or disrespects me because I am a woman. It is due instead to some, as perceived by him, deep seeded flaw unique to my own character that has nothing to do with gender, weight, or religion. He is harsh and fussy but the foundation of his interpersonal relationships is his pure experience of a person’s self and not fogged by circumstance of birth or persuasion.

Last week I took pleasure in helping a group of high school students understand about epiphanies and big new ideas. There are no big new ideas this week but I am reminded that the advantages I have struggled to bless my children with have paid off. I am sorry that it takes a group of their sullen brain dead contemporaries to remind me of this. Himself has never had to exchange my cooking or even the love I pray he feels showered with, for restaurant meals or decanters of gin. I am lucky to be a woman who can love and be loved with no trace of guile or avarice or commerce. I’ve given up on the friggin’ cellphone but at least he’s pretty good about putting the toilet seat down. Maybe there is an epiphany or two in here somewhere. Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Good Word

The Good Word

Himself writes on his blog that while meditating he hears my car approaching and becomes cranky. Due to myopia I guess, he always sets the oven thermostat about 25 degrees too high and has overcooked many a hapless chicken, which there is a 50/50 chance he will have laid on the roaster upside down. His laundry folding would be admirable if he were one of those inspirational armless folks who accomplish day-to-day tasks with his feet. His efforts at bedmaking look like the sheets and blankets have been spun and dumped out of a ginormous food processor. Then you cover it all with the bedspread.

The prickliness of the week climaxes after I wake up at 5:00 a.m. to unload dishwasher, complete two loads of laundry, answer a number of east coast e-mails to get an edge on my local competition and make the spawn a nutritious breakfast. At seven, thinking it will take him two minutes, after which he can return to dreams of the Irish coast, Penelope Cruz and MacArthur genius grants, I ask him to put the 16 year old’s bike in the car, not because it is too heavy for us but because my eldest and I are both spatial retards and can never get the friggin’ thing to fit. My beloved is not at his most gracious. I leave the house yelling, “I hope my kids don’t end up selfish and grudging like you.” He should have yelled back, “I hope they don’t end up judgmental self righteous control freaks like you,” but it was too early for him to be articulate or apt.

I drop Spuds at school and pull into a parking lot and call Himself and I blather about partnership and I apologize. We are both still smarting to have lashed out with an unusual degree of ferocity but “I love you” via cellphone makes it better. We are destined to reenact scenes like this again and again. Dr. and Mrs. Murphy and the prehistoric wounds. Our parents were wounded by their own wounded parents. Women are from Venus and men are from God knows where. I need to engage. He needs quiet. I like Obama. He hates everybody. A good marriage is creative detente.

I was seven when my parents divorced and I can really only piece together vague memories of their marriage via Rashomon versions of my mother, father and sister. Being awakened by my parents screaming in the kitchen about a loaf of bread. My mother, during a brief brunette period, in a scoop backed floral dress and red high heels doing the cha cha with my pipe-in-mouth father to jangly latin music on the big hi fi.

My parents told me to choose any restaurant I wanted to go to and I chose the one with the model trains but they said that was too far and took me to another restaurant and told me that they were getting a divorce. My mother cried. We returned to Fulton Avenue and my mother sat on a barstool and cried and I hugged her while my father stacked his things on the slate floor of the entry hall. Both always maintained that the other wanted the divorce. My sister began to have emotional problems before I was born and I suspect the awesome force of her is what the marriage couldn’t withstand. I intuit, based on lots of sexy, cuddling photos, that their early years together were sweet and tender and I hope I’m right.

Himself calls me to inform me that the computer he has been begging me to get an external backup for has crashed and a tremendous amount of his work, particularly a very lengthy essay he has been working on, is corrupted. He sleeps badly and is agitated when I wake up in the morning. I fear enormous loss. His work is my work because it is so fine that I sacrifice my own need for his attention so that it can be accomplished. The computer travels to the office for assessment. I pace around nervously. Bryce’s wife who I like very much, calls and I resent her from distracting him from diagnosing. I hover over his shoulder asking a million inane questions that all start with “Couldn’t it be fixed by…”and then realize I am getting in his face and go drink another cup of coffee. Minutes later, jittery, I am hovering over him again. I am not encouraged when I suggest taking it to one of those forensic hard drive places that scours for kiddie porn. I tell Himself that most of the essay he’s been pouring his heart into is lost. We have both lost writing and had to recreate it. I remind him that this reconstructed writing always turns out more thoughtful and polished, which is true, but not particularly comforting. I feel like an asshole for wrangling with him the day before. I would write the whole thing over for him in my own iron poor blood if I could.

My penpal reminds me about the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by a psychologist in 1971. Men were recruited for the experiment and they were divided arbitrarily into prisoners and guards. A realistic prison set was created and guards and prisoners were issued uniforms. The experiment was to last two weeks but was cancelled after only six days because almost all of the participants so thoroughly assumed the role of prisoner or guard that they forgot that they were just subjects of a psychological study that it was deemed too dangerous to continue. The prisoners, who had been screened by psychologists and assessed as normal before being admitted to the study, showed signs of deep depression and even psychosis and were gravitating towards violence. The guards became aggressive and authoritarian and punitive.

What if the Stanford Prison Experiment had been conducted with women? There are indeed women who are unable to control violent instincts but there are about 1.5 million men incarcerated in the U.S. and only 115,000 women. Studies show that women who are prone to violent behavior usually have much higher than average serotonin levels. Abnormal serotonin levels contribute also to male violence but this is far less consistently a factor. Letters from my penpal and hours watching cinema verite prison documentaries and tutoring children struggling to master a second language give me some clues why a country that has only 5% of the world’s population has 25% of its prisoners, but it makes me feel hopeless to realize how complicated and radical any solution would have to be.

My high falutin’ beloved, for all he disdains the t.v. is now hooked on prison shows too. I am about to watch one about Salinas Valley Prison and he has to go pick up the kids and I ask him if he wants me to wait to watch it and am surprised that he does. While I was barely literate before I met him, we both shared an affection for the writings of contemplative monk (friar?) Thomas Merton and we are both intrigued by the spiritual possibilities afforded by living outside of society. He still bears the burdens of religious guilt and mine was foisted on me by blood relatives and genetic predisposition and at our lowest ebb we both wander the world waiting for due punishment. Perhaps we are drawn to the prison shows because we envy the comfort of a proscribed and finite punishment, meted out by the state. After we read penpal letters and watch our prison shows though we are ashamed of ourselves and chastened to try and suck up and endure the capricious expiation of our sins that the universe dishes out.

I tutor a tiny first grader whose English is very limited though nearly an hour of homework which he completes accurately and with surprising focus. His face is all blue and all the other tutors smirk because he swears he hasn’t eaten any candy and I defend him as truthful because it was obviously a popsicle. We work on division via slices of pizza and alphabetizing words and I try to wean him from an alphabet chart glued to his notebook. I read to him a book he chooses, an earnest politically correct retelling of Little Red Riding Hood in which the wolf is after Grandma’s muffin recipe and Grandma, who drives a tractor, foils him by putting him to work in a muffin shop. The muffins, it is noted repeatedly, are whole wheat. Finally, my little pal is required to respond to a writing prompt about how to convince the wheel hating king of the trees that wheels should be permitted in his kingdom. My little protégée completes a word search puzzle in no time flat but when I try to tap into some place of fancy and make him say words he becomes very thirsty and requires a number of visits to the spigot. Painstakingly I coax a little statement about the importance of wheels from him. He is particularly proud to appeal to the king’s compassion by noting the needs of people in wheelchairs. He makes me read the story back to him twice, his blue lips grinning with satisfaction.

My next 826 gig is at with a group of 10th grade English students, Friday, last period, at Marshall High School. The kids are reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and writing biographical essays. The teacher tries to get them to write in five minute spurts but they chat and fidget and doodle. One of the boys was born here but was taken, speaking no Spanish, at age ten, to live in a rural Mexican village for several years. One of the girls never met her father and spent her whole life fantasizing about him. When she finally met him recently he fell short of all her fantasies. Another recalls a vicious argument with her father and wishing he would leave and then being heartbroken when he actually did. They are surprised when I tell them that these experiences are interesting to me and I give them permission to put their stories on paper and assure them that their lives and ideas are worthy of this. I explain to my group what the word “epiphany” from the writing prompt means. I avoid my usual Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus analogy so they don’t think I’m some sort of religious nut but the explanation I give is way more florid than terse. When the teacher asks the class later for a definition, one of the girls in my group raises her hand and answers “a big new understanding” and he is delighted and writes this on the board. She winks at me conspiratorially and gets pats on the back by the rest of the group.

I think a lot about big solutions and my mind and heart get tired and there are no epiphanies and I feel guilty for being part of a society that sanctions cruelty and fails to value tenderness. I am not think tank material. The only endowment I make is bus money for the kids which I often find under the couch cushions. All I have is words. The ones I tap out here and in letters and the ones I try to coax from those for whom the world is less than tender. It is shabbat and my prayer for peace is for those who feel they have no voice. I will hold my beloved editor as his lost words are reconstructed, new words are born and until there are no more words at all. Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Abiding Time

Abiding Time

My sister Sheri must have been about seventeen and I must have been three. She wanted to go out. I know she went to the Bob’s Big Boy Drive-In on Van Nuys Blvd. a lot, in tight black capris , a shirtmaker blouse-tails out, and sporting an enormous beehive. My parents were going out too. They'd been taking cha cha lessons and insisted she stay home and babysit. There was screaming before they left. She put me to bed, waited until I was asleep and took off. I woke up and realized that I was alone in the house and felt a strange sensation of not being frightened. I went outside and sat on the front porch to make a dramatic impression on whoever arrived home first. It was, to my great satisfaction, my parents. I got in the habit of shining the spotlight on every personal affront early on.

I read old blog entries all week. It’s a mixed bag. It chronicles the withering away of my mother, the death of my father, Himself’s experience of finding his birth mother, and most recently the death of my father-in-law. I see how much better we do as a family and how much pleasure my boys give me. There is also bad , over-medicated, self aggrandizing and arrogant writing. I haven’t read the whole thing but it makes me happy that for having the self discipline to write at least 2000 words a week for nearly three years, my writing seems to have improved. It is also gratifying that the writing that I’m the most proud of is the stuff that expresses my love for Himself and chronicles the growth of the greatest accomplishment of my life, my marriage.

Himself is sad about the death of his father. I remember how sad I was, even though sometimes he was an asshole to me, when my own father died. Our only remaining parent is what remains of my mother. Himself’s birthmother, known to him for fewer than two years, inhabits a different part of the universe. A friend sent me, via Charles Schultz, "No more sleeping in the back seat while someone else drives." This has been true for both of us for a long time but death permanently dashes all stupid hope that it will ever be otherwise again.

We arrive late for the funeral mass. There are a handful of neighbors and ancient men from the Knights of Columbus. Himself’s sister insists on an open casket which I find disturbing. I avoided looking at his mother’s coffin during her visitation but when we entered the vestibule the next day for the mass, there she was in ghoulish makeup and pearls. I did not want the memory of Grandpa all laid out in his best suit and waxen with pancake makeup to be our last memory of him. Some of the girls at bootcamp understand my being freaked out about this, but the Armenian and Catholic girls and one from the deep south say that anything but an open casket is unthinkable to them. Someone points out that although the Jews close our simple pine caskets, we do wash and sit with our dead until they are buried. One girl spoke lovingly about holding her dead mother and meticulously applying makeup, a beautiful gesture I would not be capable of. I pointed out that Jewish washing and waiting is a paid service and nothing I would ever wish to participate in a on a voluntary basis, although I am exploring alternative professional opportunities.

I held my sister’s hand while she died and stayed with her until the rabbi came to say Kaddish with me. I wasn’t creeped out but I didn’t feel like hanging around and I didn’t have any sense that any essence of my sister remained in her poor ravaged vessel. My dad took so long to die, and Aliki wouldn’t stop kissing him all over, gangrenous legs and all, before and after flatline, that I was eager to bolt. Fortunately we are so late for the mass that the coffin is closed before we arrive.

The priest, I guess tipped off to my infidel status by my sister-in-law, gives me a shout out by saying that Jesus said “shalom” at the Last Supper. He also says “shalom” to me directly during the sign of peace. He speaks with assurance that Charles is now in heaven with his beloved wife Merla and his brothers and sisters and he gives the notion a vivid, corporeal feel. I guess it is nice and comforting to be able to actually believe this. My sister-in-law speaks of her father and mother now being together and with the angels and I think she envisions a physical manifestation of this. I feel embarrassed for her although I have nothing much better to offer by way of comfort. She has arranged a catered lunch in an enormous function room at Leisure World Club House #5. Seniors engage in exercise and classes and social activities in other rooms. From the patio we watch ancient leather skinned golfers traverse from hole to hole. Cold cuts and fruit punch have been provided in abundant quantity but including us, there are only nine mourners to partake.

My boys have participated in ceremonies commemorating the deaths of both of their grandfathers. I see them processing the fresh sensation that someone they loved and who showed them love is no more. I have been to more funerals and wakes and celebrations of life than I can remember. I am not inured to loss and I think about my father and my sister and I miss them. I write about them. I try to keep them alive as I struggle to decode and understand them. More and more though, funerals are all about me and force me to consider, faced with the inevitability of death, what I should do with the time I have.

Obama’s magic wand still hasn’t extended to my business and morale is grim. I tell my beloved that his father has passed away and am powerless for him to be any other way but sad. The next morning, while I am exercising, my car is broken into and my purse is taken. I discover it and collapse in a sobbing heap on the sidewalk. I don’t remember ever losing it like this in public before. The bootcamp girls shift into ubermom mode, calls are made, tiny shards of glass are picked one by one from the filthy floor of my car, tears are dried and hugs are dispensed. Richard arrives at the office to help me track down credit card account numbers. I have evoked the state of treading water many times here recently, but with my beloved’s loss and the theft of my wallet and phone and camera and so many other things, I feel myself sinking, buoyed now only by the love of my friends and my family.

I receive a sixteen page handwritten letter from my penpal with “State Prison CCI-Tehachapi LVII Dorm 7” stamped in red on every page. Most of it is a considerate response to questions I have posed about the correctional system I am not positive how long he’s been in prison. The brief bio I was given by the Aleph Foundation indicates that he is scheduled for parole in 2017. Born in 1965 he has never used a cellphone or a computer. I glean that his wife (he sent me a two year old visiting room photo of them) has left him for another. His writing about prison is fair and balanced and he is diligently providing me with information that proves how boneheaded the entire criminal justice system is in our country. He depends on me to disseminate this and he also writes, “Thank you for coming into my life and being my friend.”

My penpal responds to my penchant for the show Cops with “I’ve seen the show but don’t watch it because the lights, sirens and sounds of handcuffs clicking don’t bring fond memories.” He doesn’t have cable t.v. so he doesn’t see all of the prison reality shows that I watch. I wish he could see an episode about a University of Indiana professor teaching Shakespeare to inmates in solitary confinement. The counterpart to the heartening segment about inmates coming alive by updating Macbeth to reflect their own experience, is the appalling saga of Sheriff Joe Araipo of Maricopa County Arizona, also the subject of one of the many prison shows the kids dutifully record for me.

Sheriff Araipo dubs himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” Inmates in Maricopa County jails wear old fashioned black and white striped uniforms and pink boxer shorts. The Sheriff has revived the chain gang for male and female convicts, women added in the name of “equal opportunity.” Inmates receive only two meals a day and Arpaio has reduced the cost of these to 40 cents per inmate per day. He brags that far more is spent on feeding members of the K9 unit. Araipo has banned smoking, coffee, salt, pepper and sugar in the jails. Over 2000 inmates live in a tent city where temperatures often reach 110 in the warmer months. Inmates are not permitted to receive letters, only small metered postcards written in blue or black ink. In 2003, hundreds of inmates being transferred to a new facility were marched, in only pink boxer shorts and shower sandals through public streets. Arpaio is proud of this brutality and there are regular public tours of Tent City. There is even a nearby tent encampment with sort of a scared straight program. Local high school students don the black and white uniforms and live for several days in the same conditions as the inmates.

Although he preaches equal treatment for women and dogs, there are a number of articles detailing Sheriff Araipo’s draconian tactics to rid Maricopa County of illegal immigrants. “Illegal Immigrants are Banned from Visiting the Sheriff’s Jails” is emblazoned in bold red type all over the website. Sheriff Joe was reelected in 2008 by 55% of the vote. He was reelected in 2004 by 56% of the vote and in 2000 by a whopping 66%. Maybe the decline shows that gradually people are coming to realize that maybe the jails shouldn’t really belong to a single sheriff, particularly Araipo. I guess it’s heartening in the same way as when Proposition 8 passed by fewer votes last year than an earlier proposition to limit the right of marriage to heterosexuals.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s website had a live webcam of arrest processing until the state supreme court ordered the removal. Now it posts mugshots accompanied by the charges for anyone arrested in the county, before even preliminary hearing. There have been approximately 2150 lawsuits against Maricopa County and millions have been dispensed for wrongful death and other damages. A study completed by the sociology department at the University of Arizona reveals that Sheriff Joe’s inhumanity has resulted in no decline in the rate of prison recidivism for the state.

I wonder how my penpal would react if he knew that sometimes I envy him. He can read whatever he wants and has time to write 16 page letters. There are no carpools, unpaid bills, traffic, computer glitches or lost cell phones to interfere with his prayers. His letter though recounts his struggle to pray and feel comforted in, although less inhuman than Maricopa County, an isolated, degrading environment. I’ll keep my prison metaphorical and friends and family close. He writes, “Don’t you ever worry about me Layne. I’m fine. I’ve got plenty.” Me too.