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 fa├žade 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

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