Friday, July 31, 2009

The 2000 Word Attitude Adjustment

The 2000 Word Attitude Adjustment

I did not know Lily Burk or her family. 17 year old Lily was abducted leaving Southwestern Law School, the former Bullock's Wilshire, one of the most potent symbols of the genteel life my mother aspired to throughout my childhood. Perhaps the deco mosaic mural at the façade was the last beautiful thing that Lily was aware of. She was found murdered in her car early the next morning on Skid Row. I do know a number people who are connected, with varying degrees of intimacy, to her family. I have received a number of e-mails from reeling friends and neighbors regarding police sensitivity and self defense training for teenagers and an unthinkably tragic tragedy in our community begs such a response. I have talked with my boys about this thing that is almost impossible for me to think about and we now have a codeword to use in the event of duress.

The suspect Charlie Samuel is apparently a drug addict who has spent most of his life in and out of the correctional system. Lily was on an errand for her mom. Samuel wanted cash it seems and demanded that Lily use credit cards to get it from an ATM. I destroy the pin numbers that are sent shortly after a new credit card arrives. Apparently Lily's parents do too. She called both of them asking for a pin number and neither was able to provide it. My kids call me a lot, sometimes too much. If I am really busy and they are calling about something trivial or downright stupid I am often short with them. If one of them called to ask for a credit card pin number to purchase a pair of shoes I wouldn’t be particularly surprised, just really pissed off. The actual weirdness would have probably dawned on me later. I wonder if Lily’s parents yelled at her when she called for the credit card pin numbers, their last conversation. I won’t be in such a hurry to get my own kids off the phone anymore.

The talk shows are buzzing. Crime. Punishment. Revenge. The Lily Burk horror, like the murder of Polly Klaas is particularly shocking and impossible not to react to. Unfortunately, the knee jerk response to the Klaas tragedy was the illogical, cruel, fiscal millstone called the three strikes law. Lily volunteered at a needle exchange, reaching out to the most wretched of the wretched. Our natural reaction is outrage and anger but perhaps a more fitting tribute to Lily's goodness is to remember that Charlie Samuels came into our world naked and helpless and purely innocent. We struggle to understand what broke from there to here. As befits Lily’s brief life and the lives of our children and their children, I hope we learn what we must learn and do what we must do to keep the innocents of now, and the innocents of the future, from being broken. I am fortunate to live in a community that is not only committed to protecting our children but also to teaching them not to look away from those who are less fortunate. We aspire to keep our kids safe but we also encourage them to strive to help mend that which is wrong or broken, with compassion, mercy and forgiveness.

Himself frequently wears a sweatshirt with a large brown spot on the front, always pointing out his frustration at the futility of removing the stain. He has worn it in front of the children’s friends and dinner guests even though he is always quick to diss the embarrassing parents he scopes out in the school parking lot. I tell him to give up on the stain and to give up on the sweatshirt and I am ignored. It is summer so its fate has been moot. We are preparing though to leave for an evening of outdoor theatre in chilly Topanga and he reaches for the sweatshirt. “Don’t wear that,” I say in that officious voice that sometimes comes on like Tourette’s. A bit of verbal sparring and some put upon body language ensues. The stained sweatshirt is put back in the closet. The next day I remove it from the shelf and lay it, a gauntlet, stain up, on the sofa. It remains there for twenty-four hours and seeing it unclaimed I deposit it in the garbage can, smushing it down as hard as I can into a conglomeration of cat food cans. Himself, I have reported frequently, performs household tasks with the nimbleness of a narwhal, but in twenty years, he has never needed reminding to take out the trash. I arrive home and the three barrels are perfectly poised at the curb so that I can park with ease. The stained sweatshirt, hangs, bannerlike, stain side down from the recycling bin reminding me what a silly, superficial, wasteful thing I am and that he loves me.

There is a tribute this Sunday to Drean Hanley, stalwart of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park, who died from injuries sustained in a traffic accident caused apparently by a drunk driver. There is a lovely obituary written by Temple board member Ed Leibowitz in the Jewish Journal. Despite our dreadful lapse in temple attendance, when my father died, the temple opened its doors for a memorial and Drean and her husband Chris, who had never even met him, were on hand to help and greet our friends and family and help us honor him. We show up only for the high holidays and a couple important services during the year. Even though our dues are probably not paid up, Drean always made us feel like real important machers, and I was always touched by how genuinely happy she was to see us. Anyone who donated a can of peas for Sova or brought coffee cake for the Kiddush or merely showed up, was treated to a big blast of her warmth.

I did not know Drean well but we shared a special love for Temple Beth Israel, where a family named “Murphy” or a woman with a husband named “Chris” are embraced and experience the very essence of Judaism, the Shekina, the feminine spirit, that seems particularly elusive in this time of Bernie Madoff and rabbi traffic in human organs. No memorial service could be long enough to enumerate Drean’s many contributions to the temple but the congregation, in the face of this devastating loss, should take pride in having nurtured such a woman of valor.

While we attend now less frequently then we should, our Judaism too flourished and grew at Temple Beth Israel where it doesn’t matter that our name is Murphy or we only show up only on the high holidays or for special simchas. We are unable to attend Drean’s memorial because the four of us have planned for many months to drive out to the state prison at Tehachapi to visit a Jewish inmate I met through a penpal program, sponsored by the Aleph Foundation. He is serving a twenty five year sentence and hasn’t had a visitor in a long time. For Drean and for me, Beth Israel has been an anchor, a place where tikkun olam, healing the world, feels like a possibility. On behalf of Drean and on behalf me and mine, to all who have struggled and sacrificed and prayed for a miracle to beat the odds and make a tiny old temple flourish in a neighborhood largely absent of Jews, thank you for preserving for us a place that brought us closer to becoming who we yearned to be.

I am always delighted to get comments and feedback about my writing here. I take it seriously and work as hard at it as running a business, and having a family, and all the crap I have to do, allow. I have long struggled with the fear that I am a scattered, unfocused, dilettante. The self discipline I’ve mustered to create weekly blog postings for the last few years has improved my opinion of myself. I make notes all week and sit down to pull things together on Thursday and Friday. I walk Rover at 10:30 every morning and on Friday I always agonize during our stroll that I have fouled up the week’s piece and will either have nothing or post something that I will reread later and find embarrassingly awful. But for three years somehow it’s come together and I’ve have left my office Friday night having completed 2000 or so words towards gleaning some meaning from the past seven days. There are some entries that I like more than others but I think, all in all, I pretty consistently do justice to having lived another week.

I have on file some longer non-fiction pieces intended for traditional publication in various stages but having written a blog for so long, it is difficult and sometimes boring for me to focus on a single subject. I love the immediacy of the blog and the discipline and concentration it requires to weave together all the disparate elements of my life and things that move me. It is comforting to go home on Friday to make Shabbat with a sort of sane and optimistic conclusion. I am told frequently by people who enjoy my writing that I should seek publication and this is wonderful but also horrible in a way. This writing here is the most satisfying I’ve done in my life and because a blog happens to be the best venue for it, does that make it not as good as pieces less immediate and more suited for ink on paper? Maybe so, but when I finish the weekly piece on Friday, I transfer it to the Blogspot interface and push “publish” to me at least, it feels like I have done just that. For those who urge me submit stuff for “real” publication, I love that you are touched by what I do here and I gobble up every word of encouragement. I am not closed off to submitting pieces to traditional publications but if you think what I try to do here, in what I guess is considered a “fake” publication, deserves to be read, please glance at your address book and send a link to anyone you know who might feel the same.

Horrible scary tragedies, a discarded sweatshirt and blog defense. We are off to prison. We cannot wear blue denim, or any garment containing a zipper or anything metal at all. I pose more of a danger to public safety in a sports bra than the usual industrial strength metal reinforced model I prefer but the rules are strict. Our car will be searched and then we will park and take a bus to a visitor center. We will be patted down and pass through a metal detector before being allowed to enter, where we will meet a man, who has poured his heart out to me in hundreds of handwritten pages, for the first time. My natural inclination is to bring a baked good like I usually do when I visit a friend but we are permitted only a transparent baggie containing $100.00 in quarters, two prison visitation approval forms, the boys’ birth certificates, two driver’s licenses, and one car key. We also have the option of bringing a plastic comb but none of us needs one.

My penpal finds that prayer helps him endure his long sentence. I am far too self conscious to suggest we all pray together in a prison visiting room. The guards would have to rescue me from my kids if I suggested such a thing and there are signs all over reminding that “warning shots will not be fired.” Yet, while we’re at the prison, the sanctuary at Temple Beth Israel will be filled with prayer and heartfelt remembrance of Drean Hanley and I hope her husband Chris and her friends and family and the congregation, all bereft at the loss of her, share warm memories and find solace.

Charlie Samuel sits in a cell in the county jail and I cannot imagine what he is thinking or experiencing. If he is indeed guilty, his act was monstrous and inexcusable but still I am sorry for him and the thousands of drug addicts and mentally ill people who get taken off the streets occasionally, thrown into a criminal justice quagmire that is unequipped to provide the help they need and then sent back out into the world with $200.00 and the name and number of a parole officer.

I know that the community is reaching out to Lily’s family and I hope that this comforts them as they endure the greatest grief I can imagine, actually grief I can’t imagine. I am not going to lead a prayer circle at the state prison in Tehachapi but the week's events hover. After a short visit and an enormous amount of junk food from vending machines, we will return, minus our quarters, back through the desert to our funky little house, just the four of us, mindful, blessed and changed.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, July 24, 2009

Movies Are My Life

Movies are My Life

Spuds is learning how to handle film. I know the basics. I can operate rewinds, run a projector, recognize most types of film stock and if there were a gun to my head I could probably make a hot cement splice that would withstand projection. But I approach film with trepidation and always with the anxiety that I will fumble and do irreparable harm to what is often a rare print. Spuds seems to have taken to it naturally though. The boys at first give him little busy work projects and he completes them thoroughly and with diligence. This week we are short staffed and overwhelmed with research requests and 13 year old Spuds has worked his way up from the mailroom.

We get a lot of straightforward requests for things like stiletto heels, drug stores, Shanghai and lunch counter sit-ins. Much of this is already archived and online but often we refer to enormous files of handwritten notes by subject that my dad made after screening hour after hour of film. Many of our customers needs are more subtle than just concrete images. A client demands a scene with sexual tension between a man and woman that illustrates that the man is torn between wild attraction and the fear of being emasculated. Oh, and make it funny. Another customer needs a clip of a medical professional promoting eugenics. Spuds is asked to review some animal husbandry films looking to fulfill the requests for animals (an employee rolls his eyes and corrects my verb) “mating.” Spuds makes perfect selections. He sits on a high stool at the projector, a slightly later model than the rock solid forest green RCAs that were designed to be parachuted to American G.I.s during WWII, which I grew up using.

I worked for my dad when I was a kid. It was different then because our customers rented whole films and not single images. When I was five or six, I would dictate the plot descriptions of Our Gang comedies and Popeye cartoons to my dad who would type them fast with two fingers on a manual Remington and submit them to be typeset for the annual catalog. Later I would make the description notes myself with a pencil on a steno pad for him to transcribe. He grumbled about my terrible handwriting and spelling. His hand was pristine and elegant and his spelling flawless. Finally, I was able, armed with carbon paper and white out, to type my own descriptions which he would edit with a thick red pencil, the kind you sharpened by tearing down brown strips of paper with a string.

When we published the last Budget Films catalog in 1989, we were already transitioning to stock footage and we knew it would be the last one. Some of the descriptions I wrote for this catalog, our customers called it the “phone book,” were actually word processed on our first ($5000.00!) Tandy computer and printed out on perforated pages via dot matrix printer. The commercial printing firm had no way of importing text so it still had to be typeset. My father laid out each of the nearly 400 pages by hand, going through dozens of exacto knives and gallons of rubber cement.

We don’t do plot descriptions much anymore. Instead, we pour over frame by frame and our descriptions are archived on the internet and seldom committed to paper. When I look at a film, one part of my brain is always in frame by frame stock footage mode. I try to see as many of the documentaries we provide footage for as possible. I can’t bite the hand that meagerly feeds me but sometimes I know even from the research stage that the filmmaker plans to use the footage completely out of its original context. This is fine for fictional films but in many cases it pushes potentially effective documentaries over the agitprop edge.

The 16 year old, a big Phillip Glass fan, and I go to the Hollywood Bowl to hear Glass conduct the Philharmonic in accompaniment to the film
Koyaanisqatsi. Because I have no footage in it, I am free to diss it. Now there’s some stock footage. Super flashy stuff but it feels like I’m at work. The title comes from the Hopi phrase “a world out of balance.” Unfortunately it is video projected at the Bowl but this truly is an assemblage of really extraordinary footage, although the frequent shots of blurred lights on a freeway remind me of a high school photography project. Much of the footage is aerial and relies on the most sophisticated technology available at the time (1982). While not a linear film it is loosely divided into sections. The first movement is lots of really blue skies and gorgeous roiling clouds and unspoiled mountains. The earth is beautiful. This transitions to man befouling the earth footage. Big machine digs big holes in pristine place. Man bad. Man spoil earth. Then there’s footage of people. People all crammed in. Crowded streets. Crowded subways. Close-ups of people with bad hairstyles grimacing. Spoiled earth too crowded make people sad. Technology and people bad, except for the technology used to shoot beautiful footage for movies that the few not bad people can drive their cars to theatres to see so that they feel that they are not bad people because they flagellate themselves with the reminder that man spoils earth. Eighty minutes of beautiful footage that inspires awe and nothing, a beautiful vapid thing.

I always had a projector at home and until I bought my first VCR in the 80s, I ran movies from Budget all the time. In the eleventh grade I cut school for days and ran film after film, my mother complaining only about the precariously teetering stack of fiber film cases. I could name the major works of just about every director and performer, usually in chronological order. Now I rely on Internet Movie Data Base. It is summer and Spuds is perched at his projector like I was for most of my adolescence.

At home, DVDs arrive in the mail box every day except Sunday. The 16 year old returns from summer school, lunches and commences to watch. He has just about finished Fellini and is working on Truffaut. He has seen every horror film ever made and has matured now to noir and new wave and neorealists. Like my friend Richard, he is convenient to have around when I have a film question and no internet access.

I enjoy revisiting films with the 16 year old that I loved when I was his age. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the Bicycle Thief with him because my memory of it was so sad but is wonderful to watch him watch for the first time films that changed my life. I guess one family’s indolent teenager is another’s savvy filmgeek.

A letter from one of my prisoner penpals admonishes me for not turning off the documentary about Texas death row that freaked me out so much and consequently affected my family. I have now been off prison documentaries for a couple of weeks although they continue to accumulate on the DVR. The 16 year old has been pestering us for several years to watch the Showtime series Dexter. I caught a couple of frames of it while he was watching and it was pretty bloody so I demurred. He was very adamant about the show’s quality so several weeks ago Himself and I watched the first episode. It was better than I expected but nothing, I thought, worth getting hooked on, but Himself liked it. One of the great challenges of my marriage is to get Himself away from a book. It is hard to get him out of the house. He detests social occasions. Very few movies interest him. He abhors chitchat and loathes eating in restaurants. I seized on his interest in Dexter and now we are both shameless devotees, having devoured the entire first season of 12 episodes and about half of the second season.

The premise of the show is outlandish but it is extraordinary that the writers and actor Michael C. Hall have created an utterly sympathetic serial killer. Flashbacks of young Dexter with his adopted father are done brilliantly. The violence occasionally crosses over into the realm of disturbing but then seamlessly and swiftly the script returns to the realm of delicious black comedy where for the most part it remains anchored. The supporting cast is wonderful and the setting of Miami becomes a leading character, seamy, steamy and glaringly bright in the pitiless sun. The performers glow with perspiration as do we, in the dog days of summer. Another heatwave is predicted. The 16 year old is splayed out on the couch with the big screen, ticking off Antonionis and Billy Wilders. Spuds is helping Mom by searching for animals schtupping, er, mating and subtle sexual innuendo. Himself and I are sprawled on our bed in our skivvies, ceiling fan full blast, rooting for a serial killer. We are having a bitchen summer.
Shabbat Shalom

Friday, July 17, 2009

Pictures Mfuleni Township, Capetown

Pictures Mfuleni Township, Capetown

Pictures Mfuleni Township, Capetown

Apollo Rising

Apollo Rising

My beloved doesn’t bring me flowers or breakfast in bed but this week he proffers one of the most meaningful gifts I’ve received from him during the twenty plus years for which our souls have been entwined. Based on my writing here and a National Geographic Documentary about death row inmates in Texas, he is reevaluating his position on capital punishment.

"Explorer: 'Inside Death Row'." This unflinching and graphic film chronicles the final days of three condemned inmates. One of the condemned, Willie Pondexter, participated in a home invasion robbery with three others when he was nineteen. The 85 year old victim was shot by another but Pondexter, pressured by the first shooter, fired another shot after she was already dead. No pathology reports were presented at his trial. Pondexter committed a horrible crime indeed, but under Texas law, the death penalty cannot be imposed if the accused did not actually commit or cause a murder. Pondexter devoted the fourteen years he spent on death row to becoming a better person. He expressed deep remorse for his crime and was considered a model prisoner. Many prisoners claim the same but David Dow, Pondexter’s attorney and director of the Texas Innocence Project found Pondexter extraordinary and stated that while he had known many death row inmates, Willie Pondexter was a man he would trust with absolute confidence to babysit his children.

The Innocence Project has a particularly uphill battle in Texas. Two Harvard law students working on Pondexter’s behalf attempted to interview a corrections officer with regard to his appeal and were ticketed and threatened with incarceration for trespassing. Pondexter formed a relationship with a British penpal and both stated that in their hearts they felt married. It seemed inevitable, that while Pondexter’s crime was reprehensible, the lack of pathology reports at his trial and the clarity of the Texas law with regard to the death penalty, that there would be a stay of execution. Pondexter’s wife stood outside the prison with a small group of death penalty protesters and received the news that the stay had been denied. In the next frame, Willie Pondexter lays dead on a gurney while his wife holds and kisses him. It was the first time and last time they were to touch.

In honor of my beloved’s fresh open mindedness, here is my thank-you card in the form of a list of former death row inmates who have been exonerated based on DNA evidence. There are about 90 other men whose death penalties have been overturned since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 for reasons other than DNA evidence and when Himself concludes finally that there is no place for the death penalty in a civilized society I will print here the entire list.

Kirk Bloodworth, MD, Exonerated 1993, Served 9 years .
Rolando Cruz, IL, Exonerated 1985, Served 10 years.
Alejandro Hernandez, IL, Exonerated 1995, Served 10 years.
Verneal Jimerson, IL. Exonerated 1996, Served 11 years.
Dennis Williams, IL, Exonerated 1996, Served 17 years.
Robert Lee Miller, Jr.OK, Exonerated 1998, Served 10 years
Ronald Williamson, OK, Exonerated 1999, Served 11 years.
Ronald Jones, IL, Exonerated 1999, Served 10 years.
Earl Washington VA, Exonerated 2000, Served 16 years.
Frank Lee Smith. FL, Exonerated 2000, Served 14 years. Died prior in prison prior to sentence reversal.
Charles Fain, ID, Exonerated 2001, Served 19 years.
Ray Krone, AZ, Exonerated 2002, Served 10 years.
Nicholas Yarris, PA, Exonerated 2003, Served 21 years.
Ryan Matthews, LA, Exonerated 2004, Served 5 years.
Curtis McCarty, OK, Exonerated 2007, Served 21 years.
Kennedy Brewer, MS, Exonerated 2008, Served 13 years.
Michael Blair, TX, Exonerated 2008, Served 14 years.

Himself notes in his blog entry this past week, "Jarvis Masters: Justice Denied," that my recent death penalty research walloped me emotionally and he asked me a number of times to turn off the Nat Geo documentary and I refused, noting how much even more fucked up the world would be if everyone refused to confront things that are disturbing.

This brings me to Mary Beth Sorensen, one of my heroes. MB is on her third trip to Mfuleni Township in Capetown, where she and daughter Elizabeth are working on the creation of a nursery school (crèche). I am sharing some of her pictures and these words, “Life has been busy in the township finishing up at the crèche and purchasing much needed supplies. We made home visits as part of a nutrition project in one of the larger neighboring townships which was a sobering experience. We visited mothers of infants and toddlers that are not thriving and living in the shacks, under quite dire circumstances. Most had no food at all on the shelves. There was no running water or heat and it was quite damp inside due to the recent rains. I could see holes in the tin roofs that dripped water onto the bed and floor. I did not take any pictures...Toys were delivered to the creche and we had a 'ribbon cutting' ceremony.There was joyous singing and dancing by everyone along with tears of pure joy…”

I continue to read everything I can get my hands on about the correctional system and the death penalty. I receive thick letters from my inmate penpals almost daily and things have gone from bad to worse for them given the budget crisis. Guards are subject now to furloughs and reduced overtime. Yard coverage is often impossible and lockdowns of 23 hours per day locked in cells with no mail, one hour of exercise and two showers a week become more and more common. Because most inmate trust accounts are subject to a 55% garnish for restitution and also $5.00 to $10.00 charges for each visit for medical or dental care, it is difficult for many to acquire basic hygiene items such as deodorant or shampoo from the commissary. Prisoners are issued for hygiene, a bar of soap, a tooth brush and a tin of tooth powder. Period. We have tried to send some books to relieve the tedium but the rules are enforced without consistency, and sometimes simply made up on the spot, so this has been hit or miss and very stressful. One batch of Jewish history books we sent was actually destroyed when a guard claimed a new rule prohibiting the receipt of used books. Subsequent batches of used books to the same inmate have been received by him but we never know if what we send is destined to be read or shred.

I like my inmates. I hold their letters for a bit before I open them and pray that there is nothing too sad despite my tacit contract with each to share with them the weight of their sadness. The warden of an Australian in a documentary said that a prison sentence is a punishment; living in prison should not be one. It is heavy for me to think that three men I like, who are kind to me and care about me and my family and send us anniversary and birthday cards and jokes and articles have lived for decades in such grim and punishing conditions. It is a miracle that humanity can flourish in such abundance in such a brutal environment and my family is blessed to witness this.

The first session of the letter writing workshop I am teaching goes well. Each kid gets a letter from a real adult writer. For most it is the first letter they’ve ever received and they are astounded that someone has taken the time to create something interesting and funny and personal just for them. The kids are all ten and I am worried that they will be unable to complete a letter before it is time to walk to the mailbox but they all carefully answer all of the questions their penpals have posed and then counter with some of their own. “How old are you?” is the most common one and I’m sure that will go over real well. I sucker Himself into participation and while all the other writers send word processed letters, his is green ink fountain-penned in his elegant script on good paper. All of the kids write their return letters in blocky printing, but Brian, Himself’s penpal, painstakingly answers in excruciatingly careful cursive. Spuds (enrollee by force) sees my quivering lower lip, a precursor to a full blown blubber and flashes me the ”I swear I’ll harm you if you cry,” look. It’s weird enough being the teacher’s kid and having your dad write a letter in green ink to a ten year old that describes his teaching of Social Issues in Technology. I pull myself together and we head to the mailbox. Each kid puts his letter in the slot and then opens it again to make extra sure that it has gone in the box.

My friend Patty, of the blog that I link to, "Eating L.A.", has a great op ed piece in the L.A. Times "My Son, the Marine" about her son Sam’s enlistment in the Marines. Given where we live and who we are, to be proud of this is to risk censure. I wish that the Peace Corps had as large an enrollment as the Marine Corp. but as liberal as my heart bleeds, it would be ludicrous not to support maintaining a strong U.S. military. I question though the soundness of a military that is mainly comprised of men and women who join up merely because no other options exist. My friend’s daughter Jessie has known since elementary school that she wanted to be a soldier. She enlisted right after high school. In the wonderful HBO documentary "Recruiter," which I wrote about here several months ago, one of the kids clearly has the aptitude for the military, and he like Jessie, took to bootcamp like a duck to water. They are both the kind of soldiers we need and should be proud of. I wish Sam and Patty well and in this new age of Obama I hope more kids with his intelligence are encouraged to act on their patriotism. Perhaps we’ll be able to provide better options for kids who would enlist simply for food and roof. Maybe diplomacy will pay off and future recruiters will be able to focus more on quality than quantity.

Former LAPD Detective Stephanie Lazarus pled not guilty for the murder of Sherri Rasmussen in 1986. I am surprised by this plea. It seems, that with the DNA evidence and proof that she’d harassed Sherri and the report she made several days after the murder that her service revolver had been stolen, slam dunk that she will be found guilty. I imagine that she would inspire more compassion and leniency if she came clean and expressed remorse immediately. She is accused now of murder with special circumstances which makes her eligible to join the twelve other women on California’s death row. Daryl Gates, police chief at the time of the murder deflected speculation that there was a cover up on the part of the LAPD and said that they simply never suspected a female would be capable of such a particularly brutal murder. There will be a hearing on July 21 regarding a motion to obtain Lazarus’ dental impressions.

My dear friend Jayne was a close friend and roommate of Sherri Rasmussen. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a close friend in a heinous murder and then to have the loss made fresh again two decades later. She is unable to say the name Stephanie Lazarus and when discussing the case, she lowers her eyes and whispers, “that person.” She has lunch with Sherri’s sister and returns home later in the day to find her house crammed with well wishers attending a surprise 60th birthday party for her, planned by husband Michael and daughter Mollie. It is always good form to tell the guest of honor at these milestone birthday bashes, “My God, you don’t look_____!” but in Jayne’s case, it is not a white lie. All of us bootcamp girls are jealous that she looks so amazingly young and fit. Jayne is unflappable in that reason that I worship nurses way. I know that the reopening of the Sherri Rasmussen wound has been very hard for her but she maintains the composure of one whose life is lived to keep others composed. When she returns home and finds it crammed with people whose lives are better for knowing her, I see a different face of Jayne, as composure gives way to radiant tearful joy. This is the Jayne who I will always see now in my mind’s eye. It is lovely to see her showered with love. So many lives, including mine, are made richer by her open heart.

Drean Hanley, the one woman welcoming committee for the tiny Temple Beth Israel that we love, passed away at age 59. a few days after an accident involving a drunk driver. She was active in collecting food for SOVA, the Jewish food panty and other humanitarian projects. This is not only a staggering loss to her friends and family but also to the little temple to which she was tremendously devoted. My friend Diana is marooned in Massachusetts, waiting, as her father, admitted recently to hospice, drifts in and out of consciousness.

Smack in the middle of the summer and it’s death row. Death vigils. Senseless Deaths. Death cruel and death merciful in a world full of things far too terrible and things far too sweet for mere words. MB visits the leaky shacks of malnourished children. She is unable to take photographs but also unable to look the other way. My friend Patty rises to the challenge of averring her pride in a son who chooses a less travelled, surprising, terrifying and righteous path. My prisoner friends are warehoused where we cannot see them, to rot and die and grow more and more forgotten but this does not crush them and their thick heartfelt letters challenge my complacency but also comfort me more than the writers will ever know. Jayne is able to forget for a bit the new news about old horrors and drink in the love she’s nurtured since this loss. My kids at the literacy center come from neighborhoods where kids are more likely to go to prison than to college but their parents intuit that learning to express themselves in words may prevent them from turning to impulsive action. My friend Diana longs to return home but knows that when she does that she will be fatherless. My beloved, who has made two lives by simply loving me, has opened his heart. Rilke wrote "The Archaic Torso of Apollo" about the shattered headless statue of the God of the sun and truth and prophecy and music and poetry and healing, that despite its ravages still shines miraculously bright. “…For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Lethal Objection

Lethal Objection
The moratorium on California executions will be in effect for at least another year. The attempt to execute Michael Morales influenced the decision to extend the moratorium until a new execution protocol is approved. A 42 page manual was introduced and public comment was recorded at a Sacramento hearing on June 30, 2009. The state has a year to accept, reject or amend the newly proposed lethal injection protocol. Morales was given a date for execution on Valentine’s Day 2006 and made his final phone calls and ate his last meal. Minutes before the procedure was to begin, a delay was announced when the state ruled that a medical professional was required to supervise the execution by lethal injection.

The American Medical Association and the American Society of Nurses consider it unethical for their members to participate in an execution. Two anesthesiologists were hastily recruited and the execution was then on again. When it became clear to the two physicians exactly what role was expected of them in administering the lethal injection, they both resigned. After fifteen hours on death watch, a shaken Morales was returned to his cell, where he remains. Ironically after the failed execution attempt, some testimony in his trial has been proven not credible and half of the members of Morales’ jury and the presiding judge have all appealed to Governor Schwarzenegger for his clemency.

One of the objectives for the new protocol is to minimize the role of medical professionals in state executions. It is not easy to find a physician to assist in an execution although most are offered full anonymity and legal immunity. There is a small loophole that a physician may be present only after the inmate is pronounced dead, to officially certify the death, but both medical professional organizations state clearly that their members are to have no participation in executions other than this final certification.

Some of the physicians, who disregard the AMA policy and assist in executions, feel that given the inevitability of execution, it is humane to provide as much comfort as possible. Inserting an IV can be tricky even when performed by a skilled practitioner on a normal patient. Death row inmates are often former drug users, obese, or extremely muscular. All of these conditions make finding a viable vein challenging, even for experienced clinicians. I can’t imagine how the new protocol will include a safe and quick method for the placement IVs by anyone other than a medical professional.

After the IVs and lines are in place, three drugs are administered in order. The first is sodium thiopental, a very short acting barbiturate. Pencronium, the second drug and the most controversial component of the triumvirate, is administered second. This is a muscle relaxant strong enough to induce complete paralysis. Some feel that this is an unnecessary and dangerous addition, used only for aesthetic affect as it prevents twitching, grimacing and contortions, sparing witnesses the sight of death’s pain. The paralysis culminates with the lungs. The patient appears completely serene, but if the third drug, potassium chloride, which stops the heart, doesn’t act quickly enough, the cause of death will be agonizing asphyxiation. A California judge in the Morales case examined prison evidence logs which indicate that out of eight inmates executed, six had suffered suffocation.

The Morales case reopened a dialogue about the ethics of medical personnel participating in executions. It also raised two challenges to the 8th amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment with regard to the common incidence of painful asphyxiation and also the psychological torture inflicted on Morales’ by his “mock execution.” The court agreed that a revised protocol is necessary but also ruled that while Morales was subjected to profound psychological stress, because there was no intention to torture him, his experience did not constitute torture. Does intention have more weight than experience in the determination of what is or is not torture?

Our execution chambers seem clinical and efficient but the truth is, even if you throw in Texas and Oklahoma, we do a lot more appendectomies than lethal injections in this country and I was surprised to find out exactly how higgledy piggledy the process has been since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. The Ohio execution of Christopher Newton in 2007 required ten attempts and took over two hours.

Atul Gawande has written for the Journal of the AMA (Volume 354:1221-1229; March 23, 2006; Number 12) about physician participation in executions.
"When Law & Ethics Collide: Why Physicians Participate in Executions"
Dr. Gawande had difficulty locating for interview physicians who’d assisted in executions. The doctors who did agree were very protective about anonymity and were conflicted about their participation in capital punishments. In many cases, doctors are asked casually by a neighbor or patient employed at a prison to certify death at an execution as a favor, Often though, physicians end up taking a more hands-on role as it becomes clear that if the procedure is left to a non-medical staff, there is the risk of subjecting the inmate to unnecessary pain and discomfort. If I were a physician I would be unable to participate in the taking of a life. If I were to be executed I would pray that there were a physician who felt otherwise.

The subject of race cannot be ignored in any discussion of the death penalty in this country. On San Quentin’s death row, 251 inmates are white, 239 are black and 143 are Latino. Of the approximately 205 death row inmates who were sentenced in Los Angeles, 98 are black, 54 Hispanic and 39 are white. Black people comprise less than 10% of the population of the state of California and of the city of Los Angeles. Nationwide, not only are black men twice as likely to receive a death sentence, the likelihood of someone being sentenced to death is also much greater if the victim of the murder is white rather than a member of a minority group.

I spoke with an investigator for the L.A. Public Defender’s office who works exclusively on death penalty appeals. He acknowledges the irrefutable evidence of racism in the meting out of the death sentence but also confirms that a very large percentage of death row inmates are mentally ill. Mental illness is often perceived by our society as a lack of character and not a medical condition. Mental health resources are inadequate in most communities and there is often stigma attached to partaking of the services that are available. With regard to the role of mental illness in death sentence appeals, he says, “This is one of the main battlegrounds on appeal. Was the defendant mentally ill in a way that explains his conduct in some way or generates some compassion toward him, or does he just have an ‘anti-social personality disorder’ (as the prosecution will argue)? Experts will testify for both sides. He killed and raped someone. Of course he's mentally ill. The question is whether he's the right kind of mentally ill, the kind that will get him some relief.” He concedes to that that most of the men on death row wouldn’t be there at all if there’d been some relief from poverty and broken families and emotional demons early on in their journeys.

Now some conservatives have gotten on the anti-death penalty bandwagon in the name of fiscal moderation. But with the determination to have our cake and eat it too, it seems inevitable that there will be voices that counter propose as an alternative to abolishing the death penalty, the reinterpretation of the constitution towards accelerating the wheels of justice and streamlining the appeals process. Think of the savings if we installed the leather straps right on the jury table.

Opponents of the death penalty are often accused of lacking compassion for the victims of crimes and their families. I have seen crime photos and heard interviews that are so disturbing I wish that I had not. But, I do not think the families of the victims of unspeakable crimes are comforted when their perpetrators are put to death. Death row inmates are a microcosm of what is wrong with our society and perhaps their victims’ loved ones might find more solace if we studied and analyzed those who should never walk among us towards identifying the signals that we missed. Maybe a more fitting tribute to the victims of our death row population would be an attempt to figure out what kind of intervention is necessary to keep a disturbed kid from evolving into a monster.

Almost every death sentence convict pursues appeals. I believe that the death penalty accomplishes nothing that betters our society but it puzzles me that more death row inmates don't opt out, and choose death over life in prison. I correspond with, through a social service organization, two lifers in California prisons and they report that due to furloughs and budget cuts there are fewer guards available and an inordinate amount of time is being spent on lockdown. Prisoners are confined to cells without air conditioning for 23 hours a day. Mail and library and canteen privileges are suspended. They are released daily for one hour of exercise and for a shower two times a week. I haven't the heart or nerve to ask either of them if death would be preferable to the decades they stand to exist like this. Plus maybe their answers would make me feel like a total hypocrite for opposing a death penalty as strongly as I do. Nevertheless, while both will inevitably die in prison, they have been spared state execution. Both write me long letters and there are complaints about their circumstances, particularly with regard to the recent funding cuts. I do not know the details of their crimes, only that their sentences are for life without the possibility of parole. Besides their gripes, each letter is filled with smart ideas, good advice and warm wishes for me and my family. They make me sad but also, these two guys who will be warehoused until they wither and die, make my life better. Selfishly, I am thankful that for them, opting out is not an option.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, July 3, 2009

Miracles Off Season

Miracles Off Season
I am pissy with the 16 year old. I don’t like driving him around because when I was his age I had my driver’s license. I am asked for rush hour Silverlake transport and it seems stupid to me that he is the one who wants to go to Silverlake and I am the one who has to drive him there and then myself back, only to fetch him again the next day. I am sour and remind him that gas is more than three dollars a gallon again, but the sixteen year old has IPOD and djs a set combining familiar and new music, cunningly chosen for my eccentric listening preferences. This is better than any psychoactive drug, except maybe for untried mescaline and that new extra potent hallucinogen that requires users to don a diaper. I am sad when he gets out of the car and am tempted to ask him to leave the IPOD but I wouldn’t know how to work it and he wouldn’t leave it anyway.

Michael Jackson’s death and hastily thrown together obituary specials preempt my weekend prison shows. The spawn are watching an interview of Jacko waxing sentimental about his little boy sleepover parties. “It was so sweet. We’d tell stories. We’d have cookies. We’d listen to music.” “Yeah. Barry White,” deadpans the 16 year old. While channel surfing, I pass a clip of Farrah Fawcett, leaving a hospital in a wheelchair and obviously gravely ill, weakly fending off an army of paparazzi. How could you stand there with a camera? I am driven to the on-demand feature of the Independent Film Channel and call upon Spuds to operate the remote and the 16 year old to make well-considered recommendations for my viewing pleasure.

To soften the blow of the 16 year old’s summer school and the lack of a firm vernal itinerary for Spuds, I spring for them to spend a day, even cancelling Hebrew tutoring, at Universal Studios. I have purchased their tickets via the Internet but I am required to present my credit card and identification prior to their admission to the park. There is a great deal more traffic than I’d envisioned. Apparently the recession is not taking that an enormous a toll on local tourist attractions. There is confusion about where to leave my car to present my identification and I become confused, angry, profane and get nasty and shrill with the clueless parking attendants. The 16 year very gently points out how unfair it is of me to take out my frustration on mere employees and puts me in my place without humiliating or antagonizing me.

The 16 year old has grown taller and narrower and his face is more manlike. He shaves and his legs are hairier than mine would be if I didn’t depiliate. I have trouble distinguishing his voice from Himself’s on the telephone. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of current films and music. It is summer. He is 16. The giddiness of having elected our first black president is tempered as the economy teeters. Michael Jackson is dead.

When I was 16, Nixon was battling to suppress the Watergate tapes and Agnew was vowing not to resign. Tom Bradley was elected the first black mayor of Los Angeles. Salvador Allende was deposed and I was listening to Traffic’s “Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory.” Springsteen released "Greetings from Asbury Park" but wasn’t on my radar until years later and Bowie’s "Aladdin Sane" was appreciated only by my friend Kathy Bryan’s (a descendant of William Jennings) little sister who we thought was a hopeless weirdo.

I visit my mother and she is reading a Handy Man magazine about rain gutters and siding. She accompanied her caretaker to a large Filipino baptismal celebration in Riverside and a neighborhood Laker playoff celebration. Her appetite is good and she is friendly and social. The caretaker is surprised that she will turn 88 in November. If she remains quiet and refrains from applying eyeliner to her lips she appears to be a terrifically well preserved, perfectly coiffed older lady. When she was 16 in 1936, the novel "Gone with the Wind" was published. Hitler hosted the Berlin Olympics and Benny Goodman recorded "Stompin’ at the Savoy." The history of her 88 years on the planet mean almost nothing to her now.

The news and the music of the summer of 1973 are vivid. I did not attend summer school or do much of anything but wear out my vinyl albums and without conscious cultivation, grow into the sad but liberated condition of “stranger to my parents.” I recall how far away from my mother and father I fled that summer and I think about the sixteen year old there in the dungeon we call his bedroom. I know he is growing away from me down there but when he makes me chill with music I like or gentle confrontation or smart movies or tasteless jokes, I hope in some ways he is choosing to be closer and think that history may not be doomed to repeat.

Newly licensed at 16, I found my mother’s Pontiac up on the curb, sideswiping a fire hydrant en route to visit a boy I liked in Long Beach, despite being expressly forbidden to do so. I told my mother that it had happened in a parking lot but the first thing the insurance adjuster said, seeing the yellow scrapes was, “Somebody hit a hydrant.” The 16 year old swears he will get his permit this summer. Maybe I won’t mind driving him around for a few more months that much.

I drive home thinking that having written so glowingly about the superiority of the 16 year old’s relationship with me to mine with my own mother that it is probably inevitable that he piss me off. He returns and is furious that the four loads of laundry I have, after working a full day and preparing a meal, washed and folded, did not include certain garments that he hadn’t bothered to place in his hamper, and superior relationship be damned, I go off on him.

Sensitive to looming summer school for the 16 year old and inspecting rotted film for Spuds, I book two nights at a new hotel in Palm Springs at a very reasonable off season rate. We hit the road for our first family trip in more than six months in high spirits. I even stop and buy myself a Starbucks and Himself doesn’t flinch, even faced with the trifecta of things he hates: corporations, spending money and coffee. Apparently there has been an error in ordering and I am offered a free iced tea which Himself drinks happily, although he complains about his bladder for the rest of the trip. We stop at a coffee shop and true to old couple protocol, we share an omelet. The 16 year old notices Himself examining a vintage photograph before returning from his third trip to the men’s room and says, “Dad is going talk about that picture,” and we laugh so hard when the prophecy is fulfilled we don’t hear a word he has to say about it.

Before hotel check-in we splurge for a 3D screening of "UP." The 3D is cool looking but always makes me a little nauseated so it was a good thing Himself was with us because otherwise we probably would have gotten some popcorn or Red Vines. The first part of "Wall-E" and the closing credits are stunning but otherwise I have never been much blown away by Pixar stuff, mainly because the human characters are so disturbing looking, with their odd shaped heads and Kewpie features. I guess more realistically human animations would be even more unsettling. Maybe they’d be better off sticking to animals or fantastical creations. I like the talking dogs in "UP." The audio continues for the credits but the projection stops. The house lights never go on. We fumble our way out of the theater, disappointed to have missed the end credits, always charming on the Pixar creations. I point this out to the manager as we leave and am given four free admission passes. My family is always satisfied when I deal with such matters and even though I usually do it very politely, I’m afraid that they also think I am a pushy bitch.

The hotel is a hipster converted Howard Johnson's and while there are vinyl records and players in every room, it still resembles something out of "Touch of Evil." We discover that the room is not only incredibly tiny, it lacks the separate sleeping area that had been described to me when I reserved it. With children who stay up until 3 a.m. while the ancient parents are in a stupor before 10, this bodes big bummer. I hate the room and do not want to stay there. Like with "UP" it always falls to me to remedy the dissatisfaction of the whole. My family has grown reliant on me taking action on stuff like this but when I ask, “Do you want me to try to get another room somewhere else?” no one weighs in and they all just sit there looking hot and glum in the teeny tiny room. It weighs on me sometimes to be decider, remedy-er and bitch but I notice the built in narrow sofa thingie where two large teenagers are expected to sleep is about 3" from what is traditionally my side of the bed. I log onto Travelocity.

We stayed about six years ago at the Hyatt right in downtown and I remember that it, while stunningly ugly, is all suites. The website indicates the property is being remodeled but still the Auto Club rate seems an error, almost half of the bargain rate of the Tijuana channeled by cheap hipster joint we are crammed into. We arrive and it is as hideous as we remember and way gone to seed but the construction is mostly on hiatus for the holiday weekend, the pool is fine, the room is big and they throw in parking, Internet and a full (not continental!) breakfast. Unfortunately the free breakfast includes a pork product, reminding us all of the hackneyed Jewish dilemma joke.

Spuds is scapegoated by the larger two to visit the Palm Springs Museum of Art with me. Free admission Thursday nights! I point out a few Tamayos, some Ruscha, Motherwell, Bacon, Frankenthaler and Francis and Spuds decides he likes his art representational, although better not at all. I am pleased to find a D.J. Hall painting. Hall, a few years older than I am and a native Angeleno aptly portrays the California, peopled by women, of my childhood memory. Spuds gives it an obligatory glance and then makes it known he is ready for his dinner.

I buy Himself a beer at a liquor store because a bar would require human contact and greater expense. There is no bottle opener in the room. He walks down to the ice machine and there isn’t one there either. I tell him to call the desk and ask for a bottle opener and am ignored. He dicks with the bottle cap. I suggest again a call downstairs and this time the response is irritation. I retreat to my book but I hear him on the balcony with that friggin’ bottle and I crack and call the desk. I worry that he will actually get the beer open before the opener arrives and I will have wasted some poor worker’s time but I am lucky. He is stone faced and unappreciative when I open the bottle for him, even though I withhold noting that his effort to muster the right combination of brute force and ingenuity hasn’t made a dent.

It is strange to find myself with 2000 words with nothing about prison reform or education or Burma. I sit here amid loose plaster and broken light fixtures. It could be Bagdad but the room is big and there is a pool and bargain movie theatres. Not so long ago I would have been in a big snit about vacationing in such squalid conditions but for the summer of 2009 it is miraculous. A drive through Palm Springs and environs reveals a staggering amount of commercial vacancy. Huge shopping centers and blocks of previously prosperous shops stand vacant. I worry that our decision to leave town for a few days may be folly. I check my Blackberry constantly, aware of the fragility of the slight improvement and ministering to clients in places where it’s business as usual 4th of July weekend. The kids get miffed by this slavishness to work and burst out with things they know will immediately capture my attention like “poodle” (I love ‘em.) or “cotton candy.” (The vilest food in the world that they are forbidden to buy with my money.)

As I write this, the work week has ended for all of my customers. I want my children to strive more for morality and compassion than for their own personal happiness, although I did buy Spuds a children’s movie ticket he was too old for and told him to look short. I do hope my children grow to think more expansively than of their own personal satisfaction but also, that they remember how we stole a weekend away in the desert the summer that Michael Jackson died and it was all four of us together for a couple of days and we were very grateful. And happy.
Shabbat Shalom