Friday, June 19, 2009

12 to 15 Pounds of Flesh

12 to 15 Pounds of Flesh

Spuds says hasta la vista to the town-without-pity charter school he’s attended for three years. In September he will join brother in the Altadena foothills where I know he will be treated with kindness. Peter, Paul and Mary croon "Lemon Tree" when I visit the office. I do worry about the academic quality and our experience with the 16 year old’s teachers has been a mixed bag. Spuds sports a buzz cut these days and I drop him at school for the last day ever and kiss his spiky head and smell the sweet cheap shampoo I am pleased that he prefers. I drive the boys to school and make their lunches, force on them humiliating goodbye kisses and interrogate them about their homework on automatic pilot. This is just a phase of my life, which like the other phases will end. Many of our friends have kids leaving for college in September and someday we will wake to an empty nest. I know that I will be proud of wherever my boys arrive on their journeys but I am bereft at the thought of them leaving me to get there. I arrive at work with a hectic day in store and Spuds calls. He has forgotten his lunch and field-trip slip so I repeat the 16-mile round trip thinking maybe bereft might be too strong an adjective.

For nearly nine months I sit on the sofa watching all the prison documentaries I’ve amassed on the DVR. Sometimes I get up to bake something but more often I bribe Spuds to follow a recipe while I bark instructions so I can eat by barely getting off my couch. I am at work wearing the largest loosest pants I own. Black, of course. Suddenly I feel like my thighs are going explode them and I can’t wait to get home and change. To further punish myself for this despicable fatness, I peel the pants off and don a housedress-type thingie, which my mother would have referred to as a muu-muu. I sit on the couch and polish off a box of crackers.

Last fall starts out with a bang at the office and then, suddenly in October, there are no orders. I lay off employees who’d worked for me for decades and a few guys continue to report for work everyday, even though there are no paychecks. From October through May, business is down approximately 95% from the previous year. I run through the inventory of shitty things that have happened to me, and because watching the family business slip away is so tainted with a sense of personal failure, and there are so many employees who have been loyal and hardworking for decades who are harmed, I believe that this is the saddest and most frightening experience of my life. The first week of June, orders begin to come in and the billing for this month is comparable to June of 2008. I don’t know if it’s a fluke or the worst is over but after spending nine months catatonic in a sea of cookie crumbs on the couch, able again to issue paychecks, I am sensate now and overcome with disgust and boredom.

Despite lack of therapy and organized religion, I surface occasionally from my vegetative state and mine the disaster for opportunities. I write letters to Jewish prisoners and I would be falsely modest if I did not say that this probably makes a big difference in the quality of their lives. The extra benefit that I never anticipated is that the letters I receive in return are rich and transcendent and hugely comforting. Similarly, I have my teaching credential reinstated and spend time tutoring kids in writing for a few hours a week instead of stuffing my face and listening to the phones not ring at the office. Here too I make a bit of difference. I feel good about the penpal and tutoring projects but both have awakened me to the pathetic state of both our justice and educational systems. This is so jarring and powerful to me, that even though business appears on the upswing, I am too invested now to abandon these issues. What begins as an effort to distract myself from my crumbling world and superstitiously clean up my karma becomes a very heavy thing. But, my examination of American criminal justice and education also keeps my personal sorrows in perspective and helps redefine for me “quality of life.”

The counterpoint to the reaching out, is the staying in. Himself and I attend a memorial service and I realize that this is the first social event we’ve been at together in about nine months. I haven’t even been to the movies. I have human contact via the office and bootcamp but the rest of time I run errands and drive the kids around, endure excruciating visits with my mother, cook, and sit on the couch watching t.v. and overeating. Ironically, I suspect that the last nine months, free of social obligations and restaurant meals has been, for my beloved introvert, his happiest time in our marriage. I am reminded for the first time in many moons of our historic polarities when he bolts from the memorial service to the car, heedless of my desire to say hello to some of our many friends or need to use the bathroom. Nevertheless, it is time for me to get off the friggin’ couch.

It is a wonderful sign that it matters again that I fit into clothing other than schmattas and have interaction with human beings. The damage I might have done when faced with such discouraging circumstances could have been much more profound than social isolation and between 12 and 15 lbs., depending on the time of day I weigh myself. I make some social plans, some with and some without Himself. I know that despite his contentment at moldering at home, he will, because he is more attached to me than to his diagnosis of introversion, grudgingly appear a bit in public at my behest. I stock up on protein bars and vile drinks and subsist on this with supplementary Coke Zero, coffee and sugar-free cough drops. I presume we can reenter society without my beloved being too much of an asshole about it and that before long my black cords will sag a bit like they used to.

Perhaps we have endured the worst of the financial crisis but no matter what, I hope that I never again take my freedom and my education for granted and that I consistently demonstrate this to my children. My little letters and tutoring keep me from sinking into cynicism but Himself, dispirited by trying to teach what he loves at an institution that does not value what he has to offer, has difficulty, as the British say, keeping his pecker up. John McWhorter’s piece at the New Republic will most likely give him the same jolt as a Costco value pack of Viagra.
"Why Do Students Have to Wait Until 21 to Commence?"

McWhorter, like me, left high school early for an early college admission program but unlike me and more like Himself, now sees college as being largely irrelevant for those still in their teens and thinks that for most, vocational training should begin at age 16 or 17. McWhorter cites a report (link here but inactive as of today) by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. The recommendation of this commission is that formal mandatory education stop at 10th grade at which time examinations are administered to channel students into either upper secondary academic programs, more specialized post secondary programs, or vocational, technical or community colleges, based on state board qualifying exams, much like the British system.

McWhorter points out how much remedial instruction is required when high school graduates, often even honors students, begin college. He points out that college is irrelevant for many students and Himself would heartily agree, that this is often the case. The commission notes how much labor is being outsourced to better-educated, lower-paid workers outside of the U.S. American students and young adults place anywhere from the middle to the bottom when compared to other students on achievement in mathematics, science and general literacy. I tutor a bunch of bright and amiable 10th graders and find most unable to compose a cogent sentence.

McWhorter mentions the eloquent letters written by Civil War soldiers, most of whom had no more than the 8th grade education, the norm in those days. I do not know exactly why modern students are so much less successful than those of times bygone. Part of it due to a decrease in reading. Before radio, film and television, people were much more reliant on reading for entertainment. Having taught writing for many years, I’ve found that it’s a thankless battle to teach this craft to someone who takes no pleasure in the written word.

People whine about college courses not being relevant to students’ lives but I think anything that promotes critical thinking is productive and maybe even a future engineer’s life might be made sweeter with a little poetry. Why are we so determined that every intellectual pursuit result in a financial payoff? We will probably live many years longer than our parents, why the huge rush for relevance? Why, given the lack of employment opportunities, are we so eager to knock kids out into the workforce?

The commission also points out that the qualities of imagination and creativity are perhaps more important than high SAT scores in characterizing American innovation and enterprise. I’m afraid that manacling kids, fresh out of 10th grade, to a vocational path will prevent us from nurturing that which is best about our culture and has defined our contributions to the world. Let’s keep ‘em at least through 12th grade, although Harold O. Levy "Five Ways to Fix America's Schools" makes a compelling case for making education compulsory through age 19. It doesn’t matter what the number is. Our educational system is a big mess and turns out tons of kids who cannot read or write coherently. I hope we are able to look to the past and to the future and figure out what it will take so that our kids are able to read and write and think and imagine. And take pride and pleasure in doing so.

My friend, filmmaker John Cannizzaro, curates a great program of animation at the Echo Park Film Center and it is apt that this is my first foray into the world now that ample butt has been pried from crumby couch. The house is full and enthusiastic and films are chosen by nationality as audience members spin a wheel of chance. John’s own work and that of his pal Mark Cosmo Segurson are accompanied by a live orchestra. Independent filmmakers, particularly those with the patience to create stop frame animation are a rare breed and I am filled with pleasure at their work as well as with the international classics they have painstakingly collected. After nearly nine months of entering the office and smelling thousands of deteriorating films and seeing the rows of empty workstations, this is a rebirth of wonder, a reminder that I love what I do or at least I do when I approximate making a living at it.

This will be my second fatherless Father’s Day and the father of my children’s first. Himself’s birthday and the 18th anniversary of our marriage approach too. We are letter writers and not present givers but I cut off my nose to spite my face and order for him a replacement pair of wife-cancelling headphones, the original having died after years in the excellent service of making my voice completely inaudible to him. This is the consolation prize he gets because now that I am off the couch he will have to endure additional human contact and perhaps a bit of diet-induced crankiness. I pray the worst is over and there will no more cold sweats when the payroll lady calls. I don’t think I will ever feel the same about money again and wonder if I will ever again be able to buy a single thing without looking at the price. I will try very hard to give my kids movie money without looking so stricken it spoils their fun. To my beloved, I wish a happy Father’s Day, birthday and anniversary and thank you for being a wonderful father and for marrying me and being born, from which spring every sweetness in my life.

Perhaps the tetchiness of having eaten nothing but protein bars for a couple of days hobbles me in crafting a nimble ending here but all that comes to mind is the man who is asked why he lets his wife hit him on the head with a hammer and he says it’s because it feels so good when it stops. Well it does.
Shabbat Shalom.


Fionnchú said...

Thanks again for the kind words despite the constructive criticism, the headphones, and the love. Nine months watching prison shows? It's been less than half that time, but it may seem that gestation given your house arrest! xxx me

harry said...

Maximum munchies for the "center will not hold" season.

Glad business picks up. Schools (or the failed American education system in the language of the interneterati's public sphere) still slide into the abyss.

Happy solistice witchy woman.