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.


Fionnchú said...

I got a note after dinner via Facebook from a high school classmate who left after two years and whom I missed but never saw him again. Now, he found me, and his note comforted me as he wished me a "Shabbat Shalom;" he followed that with a mention of a book on tangled spirituality he'd heard about today on KPFK. I responded and thanked him for his good words to me.

Now, I do the same for you and Bryce. I probably would pick the more formidable Salma Hayek over the rather simpering Penelope Cruz if I had to choose for my dream, but what a choice! Still, it's back to you in the morning after dreams, same as I left you, never leaving, the night before. xxx me

harry said...

The warrior's dilemma is that there is no war. Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do when they come for you.

As an aside, this is your best blog ever.