Saturday, December 12, 2009

Get Over Your Self

Get Over Your Self

Bay area writer Elizabeth Weil, in the NY Times piece “Married (Happily) with Issues,” describes a revelation in the night. She and her husband have not approached their essentially happy marriage as ambitiously as other of their life projects like gourmet cooking and physical conditioning. Consequently the couple seeks out all manner of therapy, psycho and sexual, towards a more perfect union. This seems merely to ratchet up the power struggle. These are competitive people and while perhaps the therapy orgy expands their insights into the dynamics of their marriage there is not much in the essay that suggests an actual increase in intimacy or substance.

Weil notes several times in the piece that she is repulsed by French kissing. She and her husband make lists for a therapist of things each wants from their partner towards improving their marriage. Her husband asks that she submit to a daily French kiss. I love Brussels sprouts and Himself finds them disgusting. There are other vegetables though that I like and he at least better tolerates and I can live without Brussels sprouts. I mean, how can he get off on jamming his tongue down her throat when he knows it grosses her out? Perhaps my partner and I fool ourselves and therapy would reveal that we are a time bomb, but we amateurs slog through, into our twentieth year, by our own wits alone and sans professional intervention. Such self conscious dissection of a marriage seems, as Weil describes it, a morass of narcissism.

Stephanie Lazarus, the LAPD detective accused of murdering my friend Jayne’s roommate Sherri Rasmussen will stand trial but not face the death penalty. Jayne uses precious vacation days to spend the week in the courtroom accompanying Sherri’s parents to the hearing. The judge rejects the prosecutor’s arguments that Lazarus was lying in wait and that the murder was committed during the commission of a robbery (all that was taken was newlywed Sherri’s wedding license) which would have provided the special circumstances necessary to invoke the death penalty. Lazarus had dated Sherri’s husband and previous to the murder was known to have broken into her condominium and stalked and threatened her.

I have not spoken to Jayne about Sherri’s parents and her own reactions to a death penalty sentence being removed from the table. Sherri, murdered at age 29, would be 52 now. I am 52. In the twenty three years since Sherri’s murder I have met and married my husband, borne my boys and comforted and ministered to my aging parents. We will never know what Sherri would have accomplished in the last twenty three years. Forced to visit their unbearable loss again, do Sherri’s parents sit in the courtroom, see Lazarus led in, shackled, wearing a Day-Glo orange jumpsuit, and wish her death? Would sitting behind the witness window to see Lazarus being strapped to a gurney, hooked up to an IV and executed by lethal injection ease the pain of enduring the loss of a child?

Lazarus married and adopted a daughter. This daughter will bear the weight and stigma that her mother is a murderer. Were she to become the daughter of an executed murderer would that somehow balance the Rasmussen’s grief? An DNA expert testifies that the chances that saliva gathered from a bite wound on Sherri’s body is not that of Lazarus are 1 to 400 quadrillion. Unless there is a legal breakdown or jail escape of unprecedented proportions, it seems most likely that the forty nine year old Stephanie Lazarus will die in prison. I hope that in some measure of atonement she will strive to be as good a mother to her daughter as her circumstances permit.

Circumstances unfortunately will not permit us to rise at the crack of dawn, don sweatpants and sports bra and travel to snowy Tehachapi to visit our penpal Alan who will also be 52 when he is released from prison in 2017. We visit in the spring and spend several hours in intense warm conversation. We plan a visit in September which is cancelled due to a Swine Flu quarantine at the prison. This time it’s chicken pox. The facility, designed to house 2781 men, holds 5758. They have to be careful.

I think our connection with our inmate penpals is more enriching to my marriage and our family than the most rigorous of therapy would be. The prison visiting room is perhaps the most emotionally intense place I have ever been in my life. Harrowing, yet the urgency there to nurture human bonds is exquisitely poignant. Most California prisons have visiting hours on Saturday and Sunday. There used to be Friday visiting hours too but these were eliminated in a round of cutbacks. Morale, never very high in any prison, is particularly low now.

Prisoners have a natural animosity towards those who imprison them. They have no Internet access and no reliable consistent source of news. They depend on what is sardonically called, a quintessential example of which is one of Roger Avery’s alleged Tweets from jail noting that inmates believe a dangerous substance intended to shrink their genitals and reduce their sex drives is laced into their food. I am told by a penpal that the daily food expenditure per inmate has recently been decreased to $1.75, apparently another example of I call the press information office at the Department of Corrections to find out what this amount has been reduced from. I have several conversations with a very friendly young man. According to this spokesman for the Department of Corrections, the daily food allotment per inmate is actually $2.57, which still, for most of us, is morning coffee with a crappy tip. This was increased in 2005 from $2.53. The diminishing quality and quantity of food, as reported by all three of the inmates I correspond with, might be due to increased food prices and/or a decrease in staff available to oversee the preparation.

The Correction’s spokesman is very interested in what I am writing and makes me promise to tell him when my piece is published. I am awkward and feel sheepish about pretending to be a real writer and wasting his time gathering information for something as trivial as a blog. I feel like a spy because, while the information I am provided by my penpals is sometimes inaccurate, my personal feeling is, that in ways significantly more fundamental than food, the Department of Correction’s philosophy guarantees degradation and recidivism. Corrections, I will add, is subject to pressures from a very powerful guard’s union, and also overcrowding attendant to a widespread and politically expedient “tough on crime” stance in California.

My spokesman offers to provide me with information whenever I need it and I will avail myself of this. He asks me, “Have you ever visited and had lunch with our inmates?” and I answer that I’ve visited Tehachapi and Frontera, omitting that it really wasn’t for lunch, unless you count candy from the vending machine. I presume he has in mind some sort of formally sanctioned event. There is a provision of my corrections codebook for providing a guest with a meal and I expect it’s a public relations thing they set up every so often with a group of hand selected inmates. My first response is to recoil at the way he says “our inmates” but it may just be a knee jerk reaction that this is patronizing because maybe it isn’t. Accepting a luncheon invitation might clarify the nuances of “our prisoners.” I wonder if the invite will still be extended when I am revealed to the writer of only a lowly blog.

The seventeen year old has lost his Ipod and Himself and I “tsk tsk tsk” at his lack of responsibility. This means though that while Spuds, who has about a 100% failure record at being the first to call “Shotgun!” hip hops headphoned in the backseat, my elder son and I can actually converse on the way to school. We meet with a college counselor and I get all overwrought at the thought of him leaving us to live his life and embarrass him and his father. He takes a second driving lesson and then guilts me about not practicing with him, although I explain quite firmly that I am not as emotionally sound as many of his friends’ parents. I feel bad though so when we are about a block away from home-just a single downhill curve with no parked cars on it, I let him take the wheel. It doesn’t occur to me when I turn over the keys that it is also a blind curve and that the car he’s had lessons in is about a fifth the size of my big wagon. I need a stiff drink when I get home and I silently toast my mother who somehow survived me and a learner’s permit. Dementia’s silver lining for her is that she is very young which makes me slightly younger. She often asks me if I am driving now and is always surprised that I am indeed old enough to be licensed.

I have been a licensed driver for thirty six years and with no net at all I married and procreated. The seventeen year old will perfect his driving and may log many miles chauffeuring me in my decrepitude. French kissing is not a contentious issue in our marriage. It would be cool if he didn’t fold laundry like an ape or could discern a dessert plate from a saucer but I do not look for him to make compromises or sacrifices to enrich my marriage on any meaningful scale. Once a basic compatibility has been determined maybe marriages flourish most, not through compromise, sacrifice and endless dissection but when the “me me me!” is turned off and we dare to see ourselves as citizens of the world. We continue to want what we want but it is in the nanoseconds when we transcend this that we feel most palpably the grace of our union.

I feel squeamish more and more about using the word “God” because it sort of connotes Santa, or the Tooth Fairy and we rail against anything that is unknowable and are unsatisfied with a mystery until it is solved. “Higher power” conjures images of recovery and this notion for many has made recovery a feasible thing, but the “higher” and the “power” parts sort of miss the mark too. The twenty three years I have had , unlike Sherri, to live, and unlike Alan, in freedom, are due to something so sublime and unknowable that to ascribe the worldly concepts of height or force would diminish my awe at what has been, and of what is, and what will be. There are no words.
Shabbat Shalom


Fionnchú said...

"A god whose existence you can prove is a god to whom you cannot pray, postmodern theology argues, and prayer -- not proof -- is where religion rises or falls." Jack Miles reviewing Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God." I blogged about this "Religion: Evolving or Unnameable" as it struck me, hard, and as fitting neatly your eloquent conclusion this week.

Sitting down now, I was all set to write, admittedly in broken Irish first, about Alan and our broken-off visit. Having read another entry of yours telling of my habits to all concerned, I am humbled again. I will do blog as previously scheduled, another attestation to our orbits. Apish as I am. Maybe less gifted than Elizabeth Weil's cooking-pro husband, but I hope a bit more sensitive to you, somehow. xxx me

harry said...

The Tao that can be named is not the real Tao.

Chris Berry said...

Dare I say...

"What shall we say, shall we call it by a name,

As well to count the angels dancing on a pin..."

Of course there are those who enjoy counting angels dancing on a pin...