Friday, November 6, 2009

Love and Time and the Lint Filter

Love and Time and the Lint Filter
My prison penpals are generous with their time. I sense how strongly they want to give us gifts but they have little more than time. There are birthday and holiday cards and complex drawings and thoughtful letters and one guy even sends me a book and I feel bad that the postage for this must have depleted his trust account. He is in his sixties and works at the prison laundry for a few cents an hour. He asks me to print a calendar with all of our birthdays and I print one for eighteen months and include all holidays, Jewish and secular. I marvel now at how close my appointment book is to year’s end but when I mail off the eighteen pages, with notable days noted, I wonder what the receipt of this calendar will mean to someone serving a life sentence. He is funny and considerate. I do not know the details of the crime he is convicted of nor have I asked about it. There have been some inconsistencies on other topics in his letters which might be just absentminded or sloppy but sometimes give me a sense that he is less than forthcoming. I avoid any judgments about whether he should be in prison and deal only with the reality that he is and that he will die there. I know he will keep careful track of our birthdays and diligently send us cards and notes but I am haunted by the vision of this lifer holding a calendar in his hands, knowing that at the end of these eighteen months, he will be alive or he will be dead and that not much else will change. Ever.

Himself is returned from a strenuous but satisfying trip to Eire. We communicate sporadically via e-mail during his weeklong journey and I learn that he is caught in a terrible storm and is soaked to the skin, long underwear and all, and with this pathetic picture in my mind’s eye, his return has an added urgency for me. I shop for his favorite food and make a special trip home before going to fetch him at the airport to drag in the trashcans, and make sure Fido, his half-breed poodle, who has learned to operate the foot pedal on the trashcan, hasn’t strewn garbage through the house. I check again for messy remnants of the Halloween party we held and for any dead rodents deposited on our bed by Gary the cat. I properly position the Day of the Dead marigold and cockscomb bouquets to show off the psychedelically bright purple and orange flowers and do my best to make sure that his first visage Casamurphy is pleasant and tidy.

My car is on the fritz and I am reduced to driving his, which he does not like although I don’t particularly like him to drive mine either. I actually hate it when he drives my car but of course cannot fathom why he would object to me driving his. We meet him curbside at the airport after being hassled and rattled by storm trooper like airport traffic cops. His flight has arrived half an hour early but having no cell phone, he is unable to notify me. He stands slumped against a post, wan and exhausted. It takes a second for him to recognize us in the unexpected auto and when he does, he goes to deposit his tiny valise in the boot. I am unable to figure out how to release the lock from inside of the car and he pounds the trunk in tired frustration before I am able to come open it with the key.

The kids honor his return by not listening to their IPODS for the first ten minutes of the ride home. He has heard nothing but Northern Irish accents all week and regales us with a cunning imitation, so dead on that I realize in a way, he is coming home from home. I am grateful to find our house undisturbed, cozy and warm, just what I’d yearn for after a strenuous trip. He greets the dogs first thing. The poodle is beside herself, having no affection for any human being but him. The canines receive treats and hugs. I think then that I might get a compliment about how nice the house looks or perhaps even a hug myself but he immediately goes to the dryer and removes the lint filter. As is often the case, I have forgotten to clean it after washing many loads of his spawns’ dirty duds. He looks at me accusingly, disposes of the lint, gives the kids their usual airport purchased t-shirts and me two bags of wine gums and then excuses himself to check his work e-mail.

My niece Marlene gets me and Spuds on the guest list for an informal comedy show by Jeff Garland of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Patton Oswald, who is known for his standup but also is a regular on the “United States of Tara.” We wait in line for an hour in front of the club and I try to remember the last time, besides taking the 17 year old to the DMV I’ve waited in a line. Most of the fellow waitees are groups of twenty something guys. I drink in the rhythm as they interact with live friends while also texting and conducting cellphone conversations. There are detractors who say that the constant communication via Internet or texting has diminished the generation’s capacity for genuine face-to-face interaction. I’m not sure to what extent the real human dimension has been compromised because it seems that what has been honed is an ability to multitask.

My kids used to spend their school days cut off from me. Now, we text back and forth several times a day. Lots of logistical things but also “A on Algebra Test” and “Is your stomach better?” Nothing worth an immediate phone call but just a second of connection. Sometimes the race to make the long drive and arrive at school on time rankles and a brief text later in the day can undo a lot of morning nastiness. They are sick at school and I go to fetch them. The campus is hilly and sprawling and I have not mastered the layout. The school administrator says it will be difficult to contact the boys because there are no phones in the high school classrooms. I tell her that I will text them. She raises her eyebrows. “Are they able to receive text messages during class?” I mutter something noncommittal and sneak out sheepishly to wait for them in the car.

The comedy show is very loosey goosey. Spuds is the only kid. The performers are surprisingly genteel, but with a show built on improvisation and audience participation, the audience is rather coarse. Garland warms up by giving away a number of his superfluous personal possessions which he pulls from a crumbled Trader Joe’s bag. Spuds raises his hand and is brought on stage. Garland asks him whether Halloween had been a social opportunity or if he’d trick or treated. Spuds affirms that he’d collected candy door to door and Garland bestows him with a handsome graphic novel series of a dozen volumes. Spuds is thrilled and I mime, hysterically from my seat, “Say thank-you!” even though none of the other recipients of Garland’s castoffs ascribed to this nicety. I finally catch his eye and he turns and thanks Garland, who takes a beat, looks Spuds in the eye and says, “You’re welcome.” My kids say that I am an insane freak with regard to manners but they are starting to see the more accurate picture and getting that it’s not snobbiness but making people feel good and respected. I do not imagine that I am the only one in the world who is friggin’ needy and buoyed by the tiniest of such considerations.

I love the movie Diner although the 17 year old is not as smitten as I. There is one scene when the two newlywed characters have a fight. He is a diehard record collector and has his collection excruciatingly categorized and organized. She misfiles a 78 and he explodes. She sobs, “I just like to listen to the music.” I have always loved this scene and it is the only part of the film that struck a chord with the 17 year old, but while I sympathize with the girl who just wanted the music, he relates strongly to the husband, whose record collection was thrown cavalierly out of order. I guess it’s a guy thing but the 17 year old is addicted to film and record “best of lists” and details and minutiae when all that’s really of interest to me is whether I like a film or a song. Because of his frame of reference I often get bored when he tries to engage me in conversation about what he is watching or listening to. I salvage our relationship by text messaging, the message field being too small for him to respond with a list.

The comedian Patton Oswald does a wonderful bit about his father being sympathetic and warm but never quite able to fully conceal that he finds his son’s teenage concerns trivial. I am guilty of this too because I just don’t give a rat’s ass if the fourth cut on a CD is eight minutes long and I just don’t have it in me to pretend that I do. A conversation begins,
“You know the TV on the Radio album Dear Science?”
“No. I don’t really know albums.”
“Well, you’ve heard it and you’ve liked it.
“What do you think about the name of the album?”
“I haven’t thought about it.”
“I like it. Dear Science. Get it? Like ‘Dear God’, except ‘Dear Science.’”

It is good that he is going deeper than production details and best of lists. And maybe he senses that in his time this “Dear Science” thing might be where we are heading.

From the Pew Institute:
“A survey of scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in May and June 2009, finds that members of this group are, on the whole, much less religious than the general
public. Indeed, the survey shows that scientists are roughly half as likely as the general public to believe in God or a higher power. According to the poll, just over half of scientists (51%) believe in some form of deity or higher power; specifically, 33% of scientists say they believe in God, while 18% believe in a universal spirit or higher power. By contrast, 95% of Americans believe in some form of deity or higher power, according to a survey of the general public conducted by the Pew Research Center in July 2006. Specifically, more than eight-in-ten Americans (83%) say they believe in God and 12% believe in a universal spirit or higher power. Finally, the poll of scientists finds that four-in-ten scientists (41%) say they do not believe in God or a higher power, while the poll of the public finds that only 4% of Americans share this view.”

I think a lot of intellectuals envision and yearn for a society that is more anchored in practical knowledge and provable facts then in the vagaries of faith. They see this as mankind’s true passage, rational and practical, into the new millennia and a harbinger for the defeat of all the ills associated with the defense of faith. Maybe we will arrive here and perhaps this will pave the way for a more peaceful world. The more I learn though about science and provability and perfection, the more obvious it seems to me that a universe this perfect and intricate, born of nothingness, demands the existence of a higher force. Apparently, the belief in this is out of fashion among many thinkers and I wonder if the total rejection of religion will ultimately make man’s plight more peaceful or simply, less rich.

Last Shabbat my beloved was far away and the 17 year old went to some experimental theatre thing. I envisioned an evening of Brickbreaker on the Blackberry for me while Spuds and I attended a potluck at his school but I was prescient enough to grab a stack of New Yorkers and able to make a dent while sitting in the chilly foothills on a concrete bench while Spuds enjoyed the school dance. Tonight the candles will be lit and there will be a raisin challah for him and myself and a plain one for the sprats. We will sip our wine knowing that all over the world Jews are breathing in and then out and sanctifying this time. Himself is jet lagged and the administrators at his college are shamelessly playing the “you’re lucky to have a job” slave labor inducer card. I romanticized him and slept with his pillow the week of his absence. His physical return to the household and beeline for the lint filter has induced a bit of “well, there’s that too.” He is distracted and I pause while writing this piece to e-mail him and beg for him to leave as much of his work at work as possible and to be present for me for the weekend. I cannot predict how much undivided attention there will be for me. Monday we will return to our offices and I hope we are fortified. The mailman will bring for me the inevitable thick letters from California prisons and I will do what I can to make three lives there more bearable and chew over how different my penpals’ experience of time must be from mine. I worry so much about fortune and karma and happenstance but realize that really, time made rich with caprice and unpredictability is a gift and not a punishment.
Shabbat Shalom


Tony Bailie said...

layne, myself and sinead almost felt there was an empty place at the dinner table during john's stay with us and sincerely hope you will be with him next time he comes to visit. I have to say meeting him for the first time on an ancient pagan site on a storm-lashed hill in co Meath was a memorable occasion as was his entire visit. Sinead is a regular reader of your blog and I enjoy an occasional visit myself.

Jamie said...

I feel like your last sentence speaks directly to me, not necessarily intentionally. The unknown is damn scary, but a gift it certainly is. Thank you for setting me straight :o)

Layne said...

I usually post a piece on Friday just to have it there and then Himself has a brief look see and I do a final once over Saturday morning, so to wake now to 2 wonderful comments, I feel like there's been an audience at the dress rehearsal.

Sinead and Tony, thank you so much for your hospitality to Himself and of course for the brief respite from the banality of my incessant small talk and prattle. Disneyland is about as close as we get to ancient pagan sites, but there are less publicized wonders here to behold and we all hope some day, you will be our guests.

And dear Jamie, I know the magic of your family and God's grace will bless your journey...and your words.

FionnchĂș said...

To see ourselves as others see us. Sorry for finding myself in your eyes so rattled and insensitive. I'd blame jet lag but regular readers know this is my character flaw that no time zone shift can excuse, for in my native habitat I'm as rude. I apologize for my addled state, now over ten days into poor sleep every night and not much of it. Glad to be back to a clean home rather than an ex-seminary dorm, and in a climate less liable to (neo-)pagans setting off the wrath of the weather gods upon our heads. Thanks for making this and so much else happen, domestic goddess. xxx me