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.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

You did heroically (heroinically?) bring it all together at last, as I hoped you would! Following up on the Jewish connection this week, I read this morning an observation how the warped genius of modern Israel has been to generate chaos in their society that emanates outward to trap their foes within whatever s--tstorm Zion's kicked up, like sand in another's face. But doesn't it blow back at you?

There's such a determination to take revenge, to get payback, to drag down the other person to your own level that I see all around me, and probably contribute to.

The separation of your prisoners reminds me, as my two Beckett novels this past week gotten through, that such isolation and terror in the face of apparent nothingness and solid indifference-- behind bars of steel or of the spirit's lack-- can erode the toughest soul.

Broderick and you and whoever else tries to reach out and foster and tutor the less aware out there deserve acclaim far more than whomever funds and is feted at the 30k rubber chicken dinners. That corrupt system, abroad and at home, remains a determined foe against those who try for a more humane, less vindictive world. xxx me