Friday, December 31, 2010

Our Lot

We observe a traditional Jewish Christmas. The Islamic Chinese restaurant is packed and overwhelmed servers pant as they dart about. The place roars with Asians and Muslims in burqas and nappy haired Jewish children prancing about and I feel a warm camaraderie, as one with the infidels.

Himself is persnickety about anything that involves the expenditure of monies and/or leaving the house so it turns out that the only movie the three men can agree on for the rite of Jewish Christmas is 127 Hours. I have a sort of numerical dyslexia and also lately trouble remembering the precise names of things. I request four tickets for 128 Days Later and while the box office girl is nonplussed my family subjects me to several days of ridicule. I see lots of films that I know are disturbing and manage. Heck, Himself and I saw Dead Ringers on our first date. I think I’ll survive the film but as soon as the titles are over I cannot watch. James Franco is going to fall into a in a crevice and get his hand stuck between two rocks and he’s going to end up cutting it off and even though it’s just a movie, I know it’s based on a true story and the imagining of this is just unbearable. I cover my eyes and do my best to jam my thumbs in my ears to block the sound. Himself would be somewhat sympathetic if I wussed out on the scene where he actually cuts the arm off but is annoyed and befuddled that I am unable to endure a single frame of the film. I hope when Himself sees The King’s Speech on DVD he finds it a magnificent film and feels real sorry that he wasn’t amenable to seeing it on Christmas.

The kids ask us when the last time we did anything on New Year’s Eve was and neither of us remember. This will be our 25th New Year we’ve seen in together although at the end of 1999 I was at a cool house party and Himself was stuck sitting with his ailing father in a cluttered stifling condo. Spuds became a bar mitzvah early in 2010 and despite our tenuous connection now to organized Judaism it does feel like an official passage from childhood. My own final and irrevocable passage to adulthood came later in the year when what was left of my mother slipped away and the meager remains dispersed without fanfare. I used to make a big deal about finding the perfect designy calendar because I would have to look at it all year. These days I pick up Mexican presidents from a Guadalupe restaurant or cute kittens from the 99 Cent Store because now a year doesn’t seem very long at all.

My father was frugal and would have blown a gasket about a twenty dollar calendar but he had a strange attraction for bad deals. It seemed he even knew when he was being had but I guess never really gave up hoping that maybe once he’d stumble on a truth that seemed too good to be. I’m not sure if it was with my current stepmother or the one before but an invitation was received for a free visit to what was purported to be California’s next big resort area and sure thing goldmine, The Salton Sea. He was dined and apparently over wined and ended up with a lot and promises that the value of the property would escalate thousand-fold. Dad would often joke about this folly and the land was left to us, a sort of gag gift. Our plans to escape Los Angeles for a few days are foiled, so on a whim, we decide to check out our inheritance in Salton City and cruise down to the Imperial Valley and through the nearby Anza Borrego Desert.

There is no edict that contentious subjects will be avoided during our day on the road but there seems a tacit agreement. As usual the kids pay inadequate notice to spectacular scenery and my prattle about the wonders of nature further incites them to ignore it. But Himself and the spawn take turns sharing music. Himself evokes some sweet nostalgia with REM and Camper Van Beethoven. I ask for some U2 as the natural soundtrack for the California desert but the greatest hits haven’t held up that well. The songs are overly familiar and almost cloying in a Beatles sort of way, stuff you know is good but that you never need to hear again. We switch to the IPOD of our young adult son and he shares some newer music. It is remarkable how accurately he is able to hone in on stuff because the subset of music Mom and Dad both appreciate is a very narrow one. He chooses a San Francisco band Weekend and we both cotton to it immediately and our affinity will always be enhanced as the sound will always remind me of our December drive through the desert.

Himself is too high strung to take pleasure in games so I play a car game with the boys. A film is named and then you have to name another film that starts with the last letter of the previous one. It is a stupid game. The kids and I play for two hours. The frequency of the letter “e” becomes an annoyance but the kids are like machines and I am blown away by the breadth of their lexicon.

The Salton Sea was formed accidentally in 1905 when the Colorado overflowed. Until it became obvious that the sea is evaporating there were sporadic rumblings about grooming the area into a prime resort. The result of these flurries of ambition is a couple generations of decay. Our lot is on the wrong side of the road from the “sea” but a number of cheapola brown stucco unlandscaped houses dot the vast nothingness. At first blush it is an awful place. The air reeks with ammonia and piles of rotting tilapia line the shrinking shoreline. But there is something large and poignant about this worst of California that I struggle to express in words.

Himself returns home from our hajj (there is even a sign on the highway “5 miles to Mecca”) unusually eager to get a book about the Imperial Valley. I pick it up from the library and he is nearly giddy when I present it. It is 1300 pages which make me feel less inadequate for failing to summon a pithy description of the region. This fatness of the tome does bode however for another less than scintillating New Year’s Eve.

I spend the rest of the week mostly at the office by myself. I fulfill a couple of orders and spend a few minutes creating invoices and licenses. Some of my first work there nearly forty years ago was typing invoices on what my father considered a newfangled electric typewriter. This was in the days before the proliferation of video and the only way one could really see a film was to rent it on 16mm. The old office was purchased by the city via eminent domain and torn down. The city had been busted for tossing obsolete light posts into the Pacific and now our old 15,000 square foot building is a storage lot. We stored about 30,000 films there on steel dowelled wooden racks.

We rented films to schools and churches and often to the studios which frequently had no prints of their own titles. The 1970s were a boom time with college film departments, film societies and revival houses springing up all over the country. The Budget Films catalog was legendary and the size of a phone book. It was filled with typos and some really bad writing which I wince to realize is my own. It was laid out painstakingly by my dad at a drafting table with carefully clipped photos from reference books and press kits and thousand of typeset descriptions affixed to boards using rubber cement and a straight edge.

The customer would usually mail in an order form. There were order forms in the back of the catalog and we would mail a new one with every confirmed order. Local, profligate or in a hurry customers would telephone. We would check the availability of prints in enormous black leather books. Each print of a film had a unique yellow page with a calendar grid. Full length films were stored in fiber cases and bound with green cotton straps that were tricky to make taut. Features were categorized by number and kept anonymous because break-ins were common. Early prints had three digit numbers and later ones four and eventually five. The print number was noted in marking pen on the case. Black and white films were marked in black ink and color films in red.

Short films were stored in cans and according to length and category. For example, there were 20 minute comedies which were labeled in black Dyno-Tape, the individual letters were punched out on the hard plastic gun whenever new prints arrived. Labels indicated also whether a film was silent, in a foreign language or bore a music track. There were educational, cartoon, sports and a number of other sections.

Features were shipped, mainly by UPS, in their own cases. 1600’ reels were housed in either single or double reel cans. The average feature fits onto 3 1600’ reels and when shipped with cans and case weighs about 18 lbs. Short films were removed from their cans and packed into fiber shipping cases, which came in a number of different sizes. Sometimes a customer would require that a cartoon or newsreel be mounted at the beginning of a feature or that a number of shorts be mounted together. The film staff hated this and we charged 50 cents per title to remount films on larger reels and splice titles together. We often had will call customers and the film handler would have to drop everything (ballgame on radio) and sometimes even stay late to assemble an order. Once I typed up a fake invoice about five minutes before closing on a Friday. I listed about twenty very short films with the instruction that they be mounted together. The joke was not received in the good natured manner intended.

When a film was reserved, it was marked in #1 pencil ONLY on its booking sheet. Each side of the booking sheet represented a calendar year. We allowed 14 days transit each way for bookings on the East Coast or in the South, 10 days for the Midwest and a week for Western orders. For very heavily booked films we’d have to replace the yellow page every two years. This entailed removing the huge book from its mount and prying the jaws open to fit in a new page. If a film had only a few bookings it was much easier to erase them then to insert a new page. We lived in a sea of eraser dust and our hands were always gray with soft pencil lead.

When a film was booked a 5 part invoice was typed. If there was more than a single error bearing an x-over you had to throw it away and start a new one. A single mistake was permissible but two or more was sloppy and unprofessional. The top white copy was a remittance and mailed when the film was shipped. The next white copy was for our bookkeeper. The yellow confirmation copy was mailed when a film was reserved. The green copy, with a shipping label affixed went to our shipping department. The pink copy was sent as an overdue notice when necessary. Each customer had a file with handwritten booking records and all correspondence. Pending invoices were stored in metal bins according to shipping date.

Checks were all printed on an enormous check printing machine which embossed the amount in bumpy red ink. The bookkeeper would also go through each client’s invoices at the end of each month and type up a statement. If a client was extremely delinquent for a large amount we might resort to a long distance phone call but usually collections were in the form of a “friendly reminder” rubber stamp.

When a film was returned from a booking it was checked back in with a huge steel inspection machine which sped the celluloid through a sort of Mousetrap game. It counted the footage so we could tell if anything had been excised. There was an ongoing problem with collectors removing dance numbers or other favorite scenes. We dealt with a number of creeps. There was the Sally Rand guy and another with a thing for b-movie star Vera Ruba Ralston who once returned a whole print, absent of reels, in a trash bag. Inspectors would remove sections of film with torn sprockets and splice tears by using a razor poised to remove a thin layer of emulsion and applying a tiny brush of cement.

I have about one tenth of the films we had in the old building. Most of what we need from them is digitized but every so often we get an unusual request and end up looking at film either on a projector or throwing a reel up on a rewind and cranking it through a viewer. When we transitioned from rental library to footage achieve we could not afford equipment to transfer film to video and all of our research entailed using prints of film. We’d mark clips with slips of paper and go sit at a laboratory for hours and guide the technician through a transfer. When transfer equipment became affordable, we combated film deterioration by transferring materials to ¾” tape and then we upgraded to beta sp. Now, the beta sp is showing signs of deterioration and we rush to digitize hours of material. We have thousands of hours on hard drives that fit on a small shelf. I can create a demo for a client in a couple of keystrokes but most of the films are labeled in my father’s hand and we have made only a small dent in transcribing thousands of pages of his written notes.

When we bought our first fax machine and installed the roll of photosensitive paper my dad and I stood and watched in awe as test fax from a colleague slowly fed through. We bought our first computer, a Tandy, from Radio Shack and it cost about $5000. We could print letters on dot matrix printer and we finally figured out how to use a very basic accounting program.

My relationship with a calendar is briefer these days and I know how my dad must of felt as the world progressed beyond his comprehension. He made the conversion of his music collection from open reel tape to cassette but when CDs came in, he threw in the towel and just listened to the radio and complained about all the crap they played. Towards the end of his life I couldn’t really explain to him about our digital conversion of the film library. He did like that we sold a lot of films on what he called “The Ebay” but never quite got the connection between the rows of film and those tiny keyboards we all pecked away at. My kids tease me when I try to navigate my computer or smartphone and so much of what they know is forever beyond my grasp. Tons of moldering films and sheaths of lists and notes and a parcel of spectacularly bleak land would seem a scanty legacy but my earliest memories are of Ella Fitzgerald on a brand new stereo hi-fi and Around the World in 80 Days in my pajamas in the backseat of a pink and black Dodge at the Victory Drive-In. There are no fat trust funds on my kids’ horizon but I hope memories of films and music and drives through the desert linger and enrich the swiftly flowing time.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year

Friday, December 24, 2010

Oy Vey in a Manger

One of my young adult son’s favorite possible colleges is in Portland and people look at me like I’m the world’s most overprotective mom when I express my concern about the copious rainfall. The random shuffle on my Internet radio station, with no way of knowing my location or the weather situation plays a sad beautiful Blue Nile song called “Tinseltown in the Rain” and it pours for the third straight day and proves to me that seasonal affective disorder is not a myth. Work is slow as it always is this time of year. I keep the office open “just in case” but mainly do crossword puzzles and cruise Facebook. A lot of my three dimensional and Facebook friends are busy with Christmas related activities and even though my family was totally indifferent the one year I made stockings to assuage a bit of Santa envy, I feel left out.

We visit Alan, our friend who’s incarcerated at a correctional facility in Tehachapi. We wake up at 5 a.m. and don our black sweat clothes. I don’t bother with earrings and leave my wedding ring at home. The clouds are backlit with a tentative dawn when we arrive at the prison. I am more matter of fact and feel less anxious and humiliated by the entry process. The visiting room is not as crowded as usual although many visitors are sent back to return umbrellas to their cars and return soaked to try again. We are processed for the first time without any misteps that lead to our separation. My plastic hairclip has a tiny metal spring that sets off the metal detector but this is dealt with expeditiously and we hold cold hands on the old school bus from the visitor center to the Level two visiting room. We know to present our wrists for ultraviolet stamping and how to hold our green permits and driver’s licenses up to the camera before the entry gate slides open. We are regulars.

Alan looks well despite a recent diagnosis of hepatitis C and subsequent Interferon treatments that leave him exhausted, covered with a rash and suffering from neuropathy. Screening for tuberculosis and syphilis is mandatory but despite being equally contagious and life threatening, hepatitis C and HIV tests are optional even though a large percentage of the population is undoubtedly positive. Alan is tested when symptoms warrant it but it seems that testing the entire inmate population could certainly reduce the spread of disease and the attenuate suffering and expense.

Saturday is preferable to Sunday for a visit because there are fresh salads and yogurt available in the vending machines. With my ziplock full of quarters I score a grilled chicken salad, a fruit bowl and a carton of yogurt for Alan. The vending machine company has a suggestion box and I suggest last visit coffee and lo and behold, a styrofoam soup bowl labeled this and priced at $1.50 is available from the machine. I purchase it to discover it contains a tiny packet of Starbucks instant, a packet of sugar and one of creamer. This necessitates the additional $1 purchase of a bottle of water and a long wait at the instructionless microwave trying to figure out how to boil it. Alan says it is better than the instant Folgers he gets from the commissary and he also enjoys a real Coke. Soda with sugar is not available to inmates outside the visiting room because it can be used in the production of a jailhouse moonshine called “pruno.”

The guards in the visiting center who check us in are usually pretty nice. There is an occasional asshole but the staff is generally hospitable. The converse is true at the actual Level 2 visiting room. There are a few guards, particularly two women, who are pleasant and seem to get it that visits from the outside increase morale and make their jobs easier. Unfortunately most of the guards are older men who spend a lot of time at the vending machines, gut over belt buckle. Any attempt at civil discourse is met gruffly and every response, no matter how inconsequential, is delivered with snarly officiousness. Himself thinks I am silly to expect otherwise and I guess I am but this degrading harshness seems out of step with the rehabilitation mission.

A bathroom break is called for inmates once an hour. They line up and are admitted in pairs for supervised use of the facilities. We are deep in conversation and may have not heard the announcement or perhaps there wasn’t one. There are four inmates still waiting in line and Alan excuses himself. The guard won’t let him join the line because he doesn’t hop to attention at the first announcement. Even if we’d heard it, due to his weakened condition waiting until the line dies down is prudent, Alan does not argue and steels himself to wait an uncomfortable hour until the next bathroom break is called. We remind ourselves again that most prison guards are would be cops but for failing the psychological examination. I think about the decades and lifetimes for which inmates are subjected to near constant power tripping and how difficult it is to leave prison without a hatred of authority.

We talk about the seemingly inevitable recidivism and how the system not only does little to prevent this, the sheer meaness that is tolerated probably insures it. Alan has a good handle on prison dynamics but his survival tactics of self examination and spiritual surrender have helped him flourish in a system that otherwise operates to fully crush those who are already laid low. Alan thanks us profusely for taking the time to write and visit him but as one of the least complaining, self pitying people I have ever found, he is a rare hero and I am blessed to know him.

Nuala O'Faolain in her memoir “Almost There” observes that the difference between happy children and unhappy children is that peak satisfactions for the parents of happy offspring involve the children and the parents of unhappy children aspire to escape the tyranny of the kids. The author, daughter of miserable broken alcoholics, falls into the latter category but I think her fantasies about happy children have led her to a simplistic conclusion. My mother made it clear frequently that I was an impediment to her self-fulfillment but also, albeit when no better offer presented itself, had real fun with me, both of us being fond of the Ontra Cafeteria, Orbach’s and just driving around and being envious of homes nicer than ours and snobby about those more modest. Although this was less frequent as she grew older, during my childhood she was staunchly committed to seeking satisfactions from which I was excluded but relented that I was sometimes the next best thing.

For the last eighteen years indeed many of my happiest moments are kid centered but I do not think being honest about the need to occasionally get away from them makes them any less happy. My mother often made me feel that my birth had ruined her life but I think my own kids get that I love them like crazy but that once in a while, them included, or maybe even particularly, we all need a change of cast and scenery.

The only notification I am required to make regarding my mom’s death is a relative who visited her occasionally during her first year at the facility. There was a grudgingness about my mother that made it hard for her to keep people in her life. While I suspect this was exacerbated by the ravages of dementia, her history of problematic relationships well predates her affliction. The seeds of the pain that caused my mother to live cut off and lonely really have nothing to do with me but the rare times I remember her brimming with joy inevitably do.

For most of my adult life, no matter how much time I spent with my mom, it was never enough. I see less and less of my own children now and recently I find myself actually lonely for them. But, in silent house and horrified as I am at the kids driving around in bad weather and likely absent of raincoat, the thought of how much fun they have with their friends warms me. My mother resented relationships I made with others and while I guess I’m at the point now, that however much time the kids do condescend to spend with me, will never be enough, I love that they have friends. It seems impossible as a parent not to unwittingly damage our kids. I am sure that they are in some way scarred for life but I am glad that none of the wounds I have blindly inflicted has hindered them from happy relationships.

Christmas is not my holiday and even though it is Christmas eve I feel manacled to the obligations of spending some time in the office and publishing some sort of essay here before it is Shabbat. We will have the typical Jewish Christmas observance of a movie and Chinese food. There is an impasse as to the movie choice after an hour long dinner table debate but I will probably be the one to capitulate and see the movie where James Franco cuts off his own hand. The rain has ended but more is due. Our bedroom roof leaks terribly and the room is soaked for days even after the boys from work affix a blue tarp. This morning I step onto a dry floor. The dogs are stretched out on rays of sun. Spuds has a busy social schedule and school work. My young adult son is tearing his hair out with college applications and the looming deadlines have not made for much cheer on the homefront. He juggles his essay writing with visits with friends, now home after a semester of college. Next year he will probably be one of the returned and it will be hard for us to share him with his friends during the short vacation.

The sky, insanely blue and branches heavy with tangerines reflect on the laptop screen. Although it makes no difference to anyone in the universe, I will fulfill my obligation to check in at the office and post my weekly piece. But the office time will be brief and my piece is short. I’m taking the kids to lunch and a movie. The sun is warm. The kids are here but more rain and change are predicated.
Shabbat Shalom, and really, Merry Christmas

Friday, December 17, 2010

I Told You at the May Company

My mother died in September and my primary reaction to this has been relief which makes me feel guilty. I am at Costco where for the past several years I buy for her Depends and dark chocolate and find myself, two months after her death, weeping for the first time. Witnessing my mother fade these past years is harrowing and the pathetic diminishing mother distracts me from the perplexing real mother.

Now that the vestige of mother is gone I worry that I mistook signs of Alzheimer’s for chronic nastiness and was mean to her between the onset of dementia and the time when it didn’t matter what I said or did as long as I brought candy. Maybe the dementia started to take hold about ten years before I recognized it and what I interpreted as selfishness and meanness was merely a response to her terror at her diminishing memory. My attempts to assuage my guilt lead me to mine ancient memories for proof of my mother’s selfishness decades before the dementia could possibly have taken hold. As if forgiving myself is contingent on blaming my mother.

Being what my kids used to refer to as a “Hanukah person” and particularly when the Festival of Lights comes early (although it actually is always on the same dates it’s just that we use the wrong calendar) I feel a little weird the weeks before Christmas. I am relieved at not having to do much but it also feels kind of bad assed and subversive not to. We observed Christmas when I was growing up but I don’t remember a lot. Family lore has it that there was a visit with Santa at Valley Plaza and then another the following evening at Fashion Square. The Bullock’s Santa asked what I wanted and I snapped, “I already told you last night at The May Company.”

We had a Christmas box stored in a shed on the patio. My mother painstakingly repackaged the tinsel so it could be used again the following year. There were a couple of pretty glass ornaments that I looked forward to unwrapping from yellowed tissue. There was a chipped tree topper and a Styrofoam star with glitter and pipe cleaners that was attributed to my sister and labeled “Sheri, 2nd grade.” We never used the fancy living room unless we had company or a Christmas tree.

I am sitting Indian style and opening presents. It is probably the first Christmas after the divorce, I am about seven, and my dad enters. Mom and Dad exchange a few tense words out of my direct earshot, a bag of gifts is deposited and my father is gone. This is the earliest Christmas memory I can conjure but due to my vantage point I can only picture my father’s gray slacks and Florsheims and the hem of my mother’s pink terrycloth robe and her mules glittery with sequins and marabou feathers.

My cousins who lived in the preferable valley location, south of Ventura Blvd., always had a tree larger and more ornately decorated than ours. We would count the presents and evaluate on a numerical scale the quality of the wrapping. Bright pop-art boxes tied with thick day glow yarn from Joseph Magnin rate way higher than thin dime store paper and tacky ribbon that curled when scraped over the blade of a scissors.

Santa would fill my argyle knee sock with packs of Juicy Fruit gum, one of those Christmas Lifesaver assortments that looked like a book, burnished leather hair barrettes with a stick stuck through and later Camel cigarettes, encouraged to help with weight control and purchased from the V.A. commissary for 35 cents a cartoon. When I was about twelve I started making my mom her own stocking with Uno Bars, black licorice, Loreal nail polish, martini olives and Stimudents stuffed into a pair of pantyhose.

When there was no more child support to squabble about my parents settled into cordial relations. My mom and her boyfriend would double date with my father and stepmother. They went to Disneyland and to the track. Both men had enormous white Cadillacs and would take turns driving and compare features. My mom would still disparage my dad and his younger-than-his-daughter wife but with less venom.

My mom always said my sister had a “goyishe kopf” and “kopf” means brain and for my readers who have little contact with people of the Hebraic persuasion, the first Yiddish word is derogatory and used to describe people such as yourself. Even though Mom had a tree herself she found Sheri excessive in her observance, as Mom, who eschewed any garment suggesting novelty, was not a big fan of Christmas sweaters. About thirty years ago my sister hosted a Christmas extravaganza replete with aforementioned sweaters, Honey Baked Ham and red and green plaid everything.

My mother never purchased a four door vehicle in order to discourage people from asking for rides and she avoided driving herself as much as possible. It may have been that the beginnings of Alzheimer’s reduced her confidence behind the wheel or just her child o’depression thriftiness. My mother lived less than two miles from my sister but called my father and asked if he could pick her up for Sheri’s party. It would have been just a few blocks out of his way but I think perhaps Mom, had inveigled less convenient transportation in the past a few times too many and my stepmother put her foot down. My mother blew her stack but made her own way to my sister’s. My father and stepmother arrived a few minutes later, both in red sweaters. My mother glanced at them and hissed, “oh, father and daughter.” My stepmother never spoke to her again although she felt guilty when my mom was laid low by Alzheimer’s and sent her many gifts signed from my dead father. I tore off these “Love, Al” cards thinking they might open a can of worms as, even though 45 years divorced, my mom would try to escape from the board and care and scream for my dad to rescue her.

I attend a wake at the Echo Park Film Center for Kodachrome which will no longer be processed after the end of the year. Three projectors are set up and Kodachrome films and slides are shown. I think about bringing a few minutes from the many hours of Kodachrome my dad shot of the family but it doesn’t happen. My parents wore insanely bitchin’ clothes. My Dad wore blue to match his eyes rayon shirts with hand stitched details from Desmond’s and slender mom wore sailor pants or bright sundresses and Bakelite sunglasses. But the thought of seeing them so young and in such vivid color gives me the heebie jeebies. Others bring home movies from the 1930s and footage shown that is shot by a pair of young filmmakers who are racing across the U.S. to shoot as much Kodachrome as possible by the deadline, in less than three weeks.

In a home movie found at a garage sale someone’s mom swigs gin from a bottle and brandishes a hunting rifle. An elderly man shows vivid films of his boys paddling a boat at Lake Havasu. He shakes his head again and again and says, “That little boy is 50 now.” One girl shows some slides unearthed from a great aunt’s apartment. The aunt emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines after losing both her husband and son in World War II. She earned a masters degree and settled in Manhattan. Her whimsical photos are from the late 1950s and show dressy social gatherings and fantastically elaborate Easter bonnets and children in bunny costumes at a parade. After a few days, when the lab in Kansas closes, we will never be able to make anything look quite like that ever again. We note sadly that home movies and family photos end up end up at garage sales and thrift stores and while I was merciless with many of my parents’ cherished possessions I saved the reels of film, slides and scrapbooks.

Now that my young adult son is in charge of his own transportation and also that of his brother I am even lazier about leaving the house on a weeknight. But my niece Marlene Maginot didn’t really have to entice me with grilled cheese night at The Oaks next door or free tickets to attend a sketch comedy show she’d co-written at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater. I understand that about 40% of a person’s capacity to experience happiness is hard wired and the rest is nurture. I suspect the same is true with humor because my parents and sister are redeemed for fomenting drama and acrimony because they made me laugh. Marlene’s mother Cari was not raised by Sheri, her birth mother but she makes me laugh too, particularly with her gleanings from small town police blotters and accompanying droll commentary. Marlene’s dad Mike also has deep roots in funny business. He teaches Improv and as a cinephile, has a remarkable collection of comedy, giving Marlene a double genetic predisposition to be a crack up.

Marlene’s sketch is about an over-protective Hollywood mom and the result supports the advice that you should “write what you know.” Marlene has done a good deal of babysitting to subsidize her career in comedy and has obviously done a good deal of listening. The piece was written for comedienne Lauren Lapkus who I could watch forever. Lapkus appears in a couple of sketches and she uses her face, voice and body with a remarkable fearlessness and imbues her characters with weird and distinctive quirks and mannerisms. Marlene, when she performs herself, also demonstrates a remarkable physicality, sort of channeling Judy Holiday with a gangly clumsiness that is counterpart to a naïve sexiness. Marlene’s sketch really showcases Lapkus’ offbeat talent and makes for a serendipitous combination of writer and performer jibing successfully and without a net.

The evening is a family affair and the second half of the show is directed by Marlene’s fiancé Kevin Pederson. There were a number of very good sketches but a parody of “16 in Pregnant” with a guileless girl taping a PSA, designed to encourage girls to protect themselves from pregnancy, waxing on about the cool attention she gets from the kids at school, the lowered expectations of home schooling freeing up time for video games and Facebook and how much easier it is for teen moms to get their figures back. It is one of the most fun evenings I’ve had in ages and the only bummer is that Marlene’s folks weren’t in town to see the show.

My mother’s wicked sense of humor, which I and the generation after me, seem to have inherited, tips the balance in her favor. I do worry that some of my other memories may do her an injustice. She is beautiful in Kodachrome and would be sad to know that I can’t bring myself to watch the films or pour through the old albums. But I saved them and, unlike just about everything else, they will never fade.

Friday, December 10, 2010


I have a couple dozen stalwart customers that help keep the lights on. In the 1960s around the holidays you sent and received booze but the seventies saw the shift to See’s Candy and Harry and David gift baskets, both of which I’ve resorted to sending for Christmas when my imagination failed. I’ve also had local purveyors make baskets of cheese and cookies but given my budget, the results always seemed skimpy. Despite all the whining I do about my weight, I am on an experimental candy making jag. This starts after a local artisanal food fair where I sample a lot of delicious stuff that is shockingly expensive but didn’t seem that hard to make. I make a batch of fleur de sel caramel and it turns out as good as the chichi stuff. I try my hand at marshmallows and have good results so it doesn’t seem that big a deal to whip up a couple of big batches of each and a few slabs of fudge for my own custom baskets.

I shop for ingredients on Friday before work and from the time I arrive home that evening until I arrive at the office the following Monday it is candy every single second. I love working in the kitchen but after standing for hours boiling sugar it feels like every pore in my body is oozing stickiness. Himself tries to wrap caramels but rips the expensive custom wax wrappers to shreds. The kids help with the marshmallows but smash them into the bags with such vigor that I have to untie each one to refluff. I have been warned that marshmallows are vulnerable to humidity but they turn out fine. The problem is the second batch of caramels, which after a night of rain, refuse to set. I whine bitterly and get on everyone’s nerves. I try a third batch and now have about twenty pounds of gushy caramel bagged in the fridge tormenting me.

I give up on the friggin’ caramels and substitute peanut butter fudge and arrive at the office Monday morning with all the candy bagged and labeled by Himself with fountain pen and green ink. Unable to wrap candy or fold a t-shirt, he has gorgeous penmanship. This reminds me of the line from The Heiress. Olivia De Havilland’s father is certain that a suitor is a gold-digger. De Havilland pleads that he is sincere but her father posits that it has to be the money because she so lacking in attributes. “With one exception my dear…you embroider neatly.” I arrange the baskets and the boys at the office box them and wait in line at the post office. The baskets are beginning to arrive at their destinations and I read out loud to the kids effusive notes of thanks. As resentful as they are of their indentured candy making servitude they are pleased that at least the family effort has resulted in a good bit of happiness.

The candy making extravaganza makes a crimp in the already minimal fanfare we afford Hanukkah. I promise an additional batch of latkes and one of donuts which I put off making until the last night of the festival. I return from a long day and the kids have peeled the potatoes and the dough is rising in the fridge. I am tired and lazy and it occurs to me that the kids should know how to make latkes anyway so that if I am struck by lightening they will have something to live on besides cold cereal and grilled cheese. I’ve made latkes for decades and try to translate the pinches and handfuls into more accurate measurements. They turn out fine but I think the boys still need a few years of practice until they advance from mere apprenticeship.

I take a day off of work and even though my dad has been dead for three years I am still hostage to his work ethic (Monday-Friday 8:30-5:30, Saturday 10-2, only holidays observed by UPS and a one week vacation) and feel guilty. I purchase a discount voucher for the Pacific Dining Car which has always been our favorite locale for special breakfasts but has gone from being a fine occasional splurge to wildly and stupidly expensive. The coupon is about to expire and I use this excuse to pry Himself out of the house and from his usual breakfast of yogurt and strawberries.

Himself recognizes political perennial Gloria Molina dining in a little alcove. The staff is deferential to her while, after presenting our coupon, my coffee cup remains empty throughout the meal. I eavesdrop as much as possible and while I have no context I can tell that much of what is said is extremely off the record. I realize how important overpriced clubby restaurants are to the workings of our government. In a week where tax cuts for the very rich are maintained as a bargaining chip to extend benefits averaging $293 a week for 15 million unemployed Americans it seems perhaps that the beauty of democracy is purely theoretical.

Having already dragged Himself away from the comforts of books and ‘puter I wheedle too a visit to LACMA. We haven’t been for ages and are disoriented by the recent reconfiguration. There is a retrospective of the work of photographer William Eggleston, who using dye transfer developing, elevated color photography to the same artistic stature as black and white. This is a large representation of Eggleston’s works from the late 1960s through the present. There are a couple of remarkable photos, particularly a series shot at Graceland. But, while the black and white photos of Diane Arbus are disturbing they are also imbued with Arbus’s compassion, many of Eggleston’s hyper-saturated color prints feel snide and cynical.

The permanent collection of American art has been moved to Siberia, and incongruous groupings of paintings inhabit the better real estate. Donors, whose name figure prominently are the only unifiers. We find a compressed version of the permanent collection in another building. I am happy to see George Bellows’ Cliff Dwellers and Winslow Homer’s Cotton Pickers, paintings I remember from childhood. I ask a guard and am informed that Julius Stewart’s huge canvas, The Baptism, is in storage. My dad, master of the malapropism and teller of filthy jokes, was enchanted by this painting of a genteel and gentile subject matter. He would visit the museum just to sit and look at it, marveling how every person present at the 19th century rite had his own story which the painting challenges you to ponder. It reminds me of the best things about my dad and that his story too is more than one of a pugnacious Jew who built from scratch the business I inherited.

I attend the annual Attack of the 50’ Reels screening at the Egyptian. This is an annual event for Super 8 filmmakers who are assigned to shoot a roll of film, edit it in the camera and send it off to the festival. It is processed and the filmmaker sees the work for the first time when it is screened for an audience. Kodachrome film, as Paul Simon noted, gives you the bright bright colors and unlike most other film, the color never fades. Dwayne’s, in Kansas, the only laboratory left in the world that develops Kodachrome is going to stop at the end of the year. Kodak discontinued making the film but the organizer of the event, Norwood Cheek has managed to score a few reels of Super 8 and the theme of this year’s festival is RIP Kodachrome.

Ten 2 ½ minute films are shown. Given the myriad of calamities that are possible when projecting a film sight unseen, it is remarkable that none of the filmmakers is embarrassed. There are a couple of dropouts, a sound glitch and a few frames out of focus but I consider each work a success. In "50" Peyton Reed, a maker of Super 8 films since childhood, trots out all of the toys that were the heroes of his early movies. Another film by John Schultz (Taking Stock of Your Stock/Stock Footage 2010)features the filmmaker’s infant daughter Harriet. Both of his paternal grandfathers shot Kodachrome home movies early on. Kodachrome became available in 1935 but wasn’t used much by home photographers until after WWII. The baby is shown with her grandmother and then is placed in front of a screen to watch projected Kodachrome home movies of the same grandmother, circa 1935. Baby Harriet’s grandma appeared in some of the first Kodachrome films ever created and tiny Harriet herself, appears in one of the very last.

The tour de force of the evening is the world debut of my friend and colleague John Cannizzaro’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony which takes my breath away. My dad always did business with film collectors and while there are scads of interesting characters if I should ever actually write that novel, these transactions were not exactly life affirming. Even thinking about some of the old creeps makes me want to take a shower but there are a handful of exceptions—sane, reasonable people who bathe regularly but just love film. John is the best of the collector legacy and his love of film reminds me again and again, that despite the travails of making a living at it, I love film too.

While none of the films at the festival are disastrous, and each in its own way pays appropriate tribute to Kodachrome, I don’t think any of them require more than an afternoon to produce. The Temptation of St. Anthony however is exactingly planned over the course of several months. Sets are built. Fifty actors of all ages and races are cast. Festival rules permit in-camera editing but John shoots the film in a single take. The results are spectacular, even though the film runs out about 5 seconds too soon. In a vision, Anthony is tormented by fornicators, flagellants, crucifiers and their crucified. The camera travels through the scene as eloquently as any I’ve ever seen. The color is remarkable and the attention to detail, particularly given the scope of the undertaking, is mind boggling. The last of the last Kodachrome fittingly is a glorious spectacle.

We drive down Wilshire Blvd, The Miracle Mile poignant and vivid in both of our childhood memories. I ask Himself if he lately thinks about death more often like I do. He says he does although he is inclined towards the morbid so this might not be conclusive proof that it is normal that I should be doing so with such frequency myself. I teach the boys to make latkes matter-of-factly so they can make them for their own children when I am gone. The death thing is different now and instead of grief or panic there is a serenity that comes with ideations about ceasing to be.

My father was mentally alert until just a few days before he died. I know he was frightened. His father died by suicide and this left him peculiarly weird about death. But I also think ultimately he had no regrets at the end of his life, having loved and been loved, created something enduring and entertained a lot of people with his movies. If I were able to catch my mother at the exact moment before the dementia began to break her down and ask her about the life she’d led, I am afraid she would have expressed bitterness and dissatisfaction and it makes me sad that having loved me hadn’t been enough. Would it comfort her or merely salt the wound to know I am not bitter and have now more than I could ever have imagined wanting?

Just before her death this week, Elizabeth Edwards posted on Facebook:
I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times, and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that."

John Lennon also died prematurely thirty years ago this week. I was at my desk at the methadone clinic and another counselor rushed in, hysterical and it took several minutes for us to calm her down enough to relate the news coherently. I remember the Kennedys and Dr. King but this was more personal. This was music. At my 7th birthday the boys sport Beatle cuts and we dance wildly to what I recall was “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” in a silent Kodachrome film shot in the backyard at Fulton Avenue, Van Nuys, 1964. This will never fade. Lennon said “God is the concept by which we measure our pain.” But is it a mere concept that compels us to make music or paintings or movies or candy?
Shabbat Shalom

Friday, December 3, 2010

Collegiality, Candles and College

It is Chanukah. I fry latkes for the first night and the house still stinks. I make yeast dough for a batch of donuts but after frying the potato pancakes I am too grease weary to stand at the stove. Experimentally, I bake the dough in muffin tins. The response is tepid so inevitably I will return to the vat of hot fat before the holiday is over. Even though I railed against it, when the kids were little our Chanukah celebration aimed to give Christmas a run for the money. It sickens me to watch fights break out at the Toys’R’Us but I too am a sucker for a kid unwrapping a coveted present.

Our Chanukah becomes more and more toned down. I present everyone with a Snuggie™ , purchased with my 20% discount at the Rite Aid, and wrapped in some old Christmas paper from the zillion rolls I have left over from an elementary school fundraiser. My young adult son feigns a tantrum when, while he receives the deluxe Leopard skin Snuggie™, little brother’s Snuggie™ has pockets and his doesn’t. They are gloriously hideous, but I suspect Himself, short on body fat and stuck in a drafty house, thinks it’s one of the best gifts he’s ever received. He accuses me of staging the whole Snuggie™ episode and the attendant photo session in order to have a topic for blogging and I chew this around a bit because the notion of orchestrating life experiences in order to have material to write about is a disconcerting one. I do not purchase or photograph the Snuggies™ with blog on the brain but it is true that my imperative to produce 2000 words more or less every week, does make for more observant living, which has the added benefit of enhancing my appreciation for the rich pageant.

Sometimes I wring my hands because we put so much steam into two Bar Mitvahs and now we almost never attend synagogue and more and more we seem Jewish only by food. We do almost always light the candles for Shabbat. I try to make a special meal although sometimes when I’m beat I pick up frozen crap from Trader Joe’s which they seem to enjoy more than most of my ambitious cooking. We have a challah, sometimes even baked from scratch. When the kids have friends over on a Friday I offer to skip the blessings in case their guests will think it’s weird but they always say it’s ok. My young adult son lights the candles and Spuds passes the challah and shows his friends how to rip it up with their bare hands and devour it. My uncle often told a story about speaking only a bit of Yiddish and being invited to dine with some hoity toity synagogue machers. They apologized for being slow eaters and he urged them not to worry. “Go on,” he said, “fress, fress,” which indeed in Yiddish means to eat, but to eat like wild starving animals. I remember this anecdote far too frequently when beholding my family at the table.

The boys are shooting a movie the second night of Chanukah and a troop of kids march in and out and in again. I have five loads of laundry on the dining table. I make some burritos, leave them on the stove and announce it’s every man for himself. Cast and crew departed, food partaken and laundry dispersed I am ready to sink into an evening of lassitude when the kids ask about Chanukah. I haven’t given it much thought on a laundry night absent of fried food or gag gifts but this is something we’ve done as long as they can remember and even without any of the accoutrements, the lighting of the candles, in and of itself, is essential to them.

We are in college application mode and I create a color coded chart with deadlines, essay prompts and audition schedules. My management gig is both appreciated and resented. I like to think I am being a role model for the organization of projects such as this but perhaps I am just a facilitator of perpetual dependence. I am afraid also that my dedication to his educational future is confused as a desire to get rid of him. I am way more involved with the boy’s college admission process than my parents were with my own. I applied for one school with an un-proofread application and was accepted. I drove off myself and moved into a dorm at age seventeen. I suspect that my parents were less in oversight mode than many of my friends’ folks but in general, we are more dedicated to micromanagement than our parents were.

I am disturbed a bit by how this college thing has gotten to me and find it curious that the definition of parenting has changed so much in 35 years. Despite working mothers now being the norm, statistic show that for both moms and dads, time spent with children has increased. This is from the NY Times, Surprisingly, Family Time Has Grown
By Tara Parker-Pope
Before 1995, mothers spent an average of about 12 hours a week attending to the needs of their children. By 2007, that number had risen to 21.2 hours a week for college-educated women and 15.9 hours for those with less education…Although mothers still do most of the parenting, fathers also registered striking gains: to 9.6 hours a week for college-educated men, more than double the pre-1995 rate of 4.5 hours; and to 6.8 hours for other men, up from 3.7…

I figured it out. I graduated college, supported myself, married a man with post graduate degrees and bore two above average kids. How would my life be better now if my parents had parented me like I parent? Will my apron strings strangle the kids as I overcompensate for what I perceive as my parents’ indifference? Or is it that each generation comes of age and lands a bit higher on Maslow’s scale than the one before? Compared to my parents, I started out with my basic needs more adequately met. Am I a over-compensatory control freak or do I just have more luxury to concern myself with personal fulfillment which includes advocating for the kids?

We visit the Lewis and Clark campus in Portland and it is so beautiful and the kids seem so great that I wish for a time machine, thinking how cool it would be to start college, knowing what I know now. I worry the boy isn’t ready for college but his recent triumph in Virginia Woolf increases his own self confidence and also suggests to me that he is ready to succeed. Now that the kid has more than proven his mettle, I visualize him being at college instead of a younger version of myself. I’ll buy him bed linens and towels and I remind myself to impart some basic laundry skills. I imagine him holding forth and delighting a circle of bright and funny friends. He will call frequently for money and perhaps for advice about a hostess gift for a tweedy professor who invites him and a few other favorite students for a home cooked meal. I’ll continue with my whack fantasies but it just boils down to remembering what college can be at its best and thinking about my fabulous kid being fabulously happy, and really, by his own definition, and not mine, although I do hope he changes his sheets a couple times a year.

My beloved Catholic/Jewish/Buddhist Catholic husband has never bought into the happy thing. I do notice once in a while that he is actually happy, at least until I draw his attention to it. Himself and I are the poster children for opposites attracting. But we not only share a sense of humor rooted in the dark and/or puerile, but we have a common savior. We are both peculiarly curious and grew up taking refuge in books from families who perceived us as freakish aliens. Himself escaped early on at a parochial boarding school and I found my own salvation via early enrollment at a tiny hippie college where for the first time I felt almost normal. It is obvious that our eldest is not as eager to fly the coop as his parents were and maybe we can credit that to the extra parenting hours our generation puts in.

I guess it is weird to have your mom so devoted to getting you out of the house. I see college as a good transition to the real hard knock world and as a time to hone not only intellectual but social skills. I had an enormous amount of fun in college and built relationships that are still important to me. I hope my boy has as wonderful experience and also that, as it did for me, college serves as a net for some of the inevitable profound stupidity that seems essential to finding oneself. Himself has no patience for the good times and mirth I envision for the boy. No party animal, Himself’s hopes and expectations are more grounded in intellectual satisfaction and accomplishment but he’ll bawl as hard as I do when the kids clear out.

It used to be a big deal for us to hire a babysitter and get away from the kids for a night. Now I encourage them to postpone doing homework and watch t.v. with me. I see how the tables are turning when I am barely awake when Spuds turns off the set. He rises and announces, “I’m going to bed and I suggest that you do too.” I try to savor Chanukah and Shabbat and Snuggies™ and watching t.v. with a flatulent dog sprawled on top of us. My boys will leave to live their lives and I will miss them. They are good and smart but that and even all my love will not protect them from sorrows and disappointments that devastate and ultimately build character. We do the best we can and pray it is good enough and that when they are men and out in the world that the memories of the funky house will sometimes make them warm.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Chanukah.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Inventing the Parachute

G.B. Stern said, “The optimist invented the airplane and the pessimist, the parachute.” Himself, who is not only of the glass half empty persuasion but also confident that it teeters precariously close to the edge and will inevitably crash, break in slivers that will be stepped on leading to infection and fatal sepsis, is headed for Ireland. As usual, he has a number of books to deliver and undoubtedly a number to receive. Propose checking a bag at your own peril. Because a purse is so essential and sometimes woman’s lib works both ways, in airline-speak it is referred to as a “personal bag” and even though this connotes tampons and sex toys and Preparation H, he is entitled to tote one, in addition to a carry-on. He worries that due to the Thanksgiving holiday permission to carry a personal bag on International flights might be rescinded. I threaten to confirm this Thanksgiving Penalty Policy at the airline website. He agrees to carry Spuds’ small messenger bag.

Even with the controversial personal bag, it is clear that the lunchbox size case he usually carries is going to be too small to contain obscure tomes and cool weather garb. We have a number of other bags that could probably meet carry-on criteria but I know he will deem them too large. I see some nice backpacks on-line and convince him that this might be a good anecdote to the weight of the books. He also requests some long underwear which is a specialty item here in SoCal. He freaks out when I tell him the closest retailer, Patagonia is in Old Town Pasadena. PARKING!! We find a fifteen minute spot on the street and Himself makes Spuds sit in the car to feed the meter again ONLY IF NECESSARY. The transaction is a quick one.

We don’t eat out much and my chances are better when I can tie it into an errand, when we are “out anyway.” Sometimes we go to Whole Foods because Himself likes the fish and chips, cheap beer that meets his standard, plentiful free parking-albeit in a subterranean lot that aggravates him-and no tipping is necessary. The kids and I have eaten a couple of times at an amiable Thai Vegan place. It meets some of Himself’s criteria, being reasonably priced and I recollect that the service is affable enough to temper his grudging of gratuity. The deal breaker though is the lack of a beer and wine license. I telephone and ask if we may bring wine. I don’t want to say beer because, although the particular bottle in question costs more than most plonk, beer sounds low class. There is a moment of hesitation and then it is agreed, we may bring wine.

We hungry and winded from our Patagonia sprint. The parking lot is quite full. The car ahead of me takes the last good space. Himself sighs. He is leery about parking but I have no memory of ever in the last 20 years giving up on a destination because we are unable to park. The restaurant is crowded and there are people waiting for tables. Himself rolls his eyes. Waiting for a table is right up there with parking and checking luggage. The host relocates a couple though so that he can join two tables and accommodate us. He asks if we want ice for our beer. Himself twists the cork from the Belgian ale and it explodes violently and soaks both of us, the floor and table. About six ounces of beer remain in the quart bottle. He grouses about this and the dry cleaning bill and I don’t mention it to him that I leave a 30% tip, as recompense for our stinky sticky mess.

I am given detailed instructions for ministering to Brother Juniper, a bonsai that arrived from Chris and Bob at the time of my mother’s death. Himself, who I have never known to name plants before, has taken a shine to it. I have never given much thought to bonsai. Sparse, carefully composed Japanese floral arrangements, like bonsai have always underwhelmed me. My aesthetic is more rooted in the Latinate and I like my flora more in your face. Big bunches of it. Because the tree is a gift from dear friends and because Himself is so enchanted by it, I pay it a visit on the deck. It is more than just a sprig of cypress thrown in a pot. It is an exquisite and perfectly realized diorama, a slip of forest and while I still bring home a gaudy bunch of flowers every week, through his eyes I see the delicate fineness of the bonsai.

The quality of family life hinges on acquiescence and compromise. With Himself gone, approximately 25% less of this is required. I presume that when I am absent they eat without napkins and put Tupperware containers right on the dining room table. If they use the dining room table. When Himself is gone we have a veritable orgy of one a.m. trips to Chinatown, not recycling and watching even more crap TV than we do ordinarily, down to Jersey Shore and Dancing with the Stars.

Spuds and I discover Bait Car. On one level it is funny in a Candid Camera kind of way. The police take to the meanest streets, in what I gather are exclusively black and Hispanic neighborhoods, and perform an elaborate charade to convey that a car is being left unattended with the keys available. The rouses are cunning and clever. A guy is picked up for a DUI and the cop, distracted by the arrestee fussing with his partner, leaves the car keys on the roof. An ample black officer pounds down the street in high heels screaming into her cell phone. “You can come get your own god damn car!” There is a camera inside the car. The vehicle is controlled by remote and those unable to resist the temptation find themselves locked inside when the car comes to a dead halt. Some argue that this is entrapment but it really isn’t because there is always clearly the choice not to take the car. It’s worse than entrapment though. It is terrible to indulge our appetite for the prurient by inducing people to be bad. A much less cynical and practical use of these resources would be an inducement to be good. I guess that wouldn’t make for very good television though.

Spuds and I go to see the newest Harry Potter at the Vista Theatre. The Vista was originally Bard’s Hollywood Theater when it opened in 1923. It was a porno theatre through much of the 60s and a first rate revival house, I believe a member of the Landmark Group in the 1970s. It is where Himself and I saw our very first movie together, Dead Ringers, a real date night flick where Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologists, one of whom is a sexual sadist. The Vista is one of the last single screen theatres left in town and a real ornate beauty. The 5th Harry Potter is a loud mess except for some clever art direction and a gorgeous animated sequence reminiscent of the silhouette animation of Lotte Reiniger. I love the Vista and it makes me sad that my kids largely see films in shopping mall multiplexes. It is a treat to be there with Spuds and we even splurge on the fresh popcorn with real butter.

It is nice not to have to cook Thanksgiving just this once. The puppy Oprah has made the house look even more squalid and we still have the ongoing problem of Rover’s excessive shedding. We’ve made a bit of progress with Oprah’s destructiveness by keeping her amply supplied with bones and rawhide chews but her deportment is a work in progress. We are seated at the dining table and Oprah stands, two paws on the table. She watches the food action and listens to the conversation. Himself and I, beaten down by bad dog behavior, ignore her. My young adult son glowers at us and then goes into perky self help voice, telling the dog, “It’s just fine that you do that. Yes, it’s perfectly ok.” He seems to be the most acutely aware of how unsuitable we are for company and is relieved that his father’s absence resulted in our invitation to Scott and Julia’s.

The kids are all a dither about the new Kanye West album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I love a lot of Graduation but Kanye is so obnoxious, what with replacing his teeth with diamonds and all, I am indifferent about the new recording. I agree to give it a listen in the car on our way to the valley, something else we wouldn’t have been able to do with Dad around. I have listened to it now about 2 ½ times now and I suspect I will not be as enchanted with it as I am with Graduation. But it is groundbreaking and West’s musical lexicon grows more and more sophisticated. There is a really filthy diddy performed by Chris Rock that the kids skipped. I’ve heard it now and henceforward will skip it myself. I still think Kanye is obnoxious and this record is crude and vulgar but parts of it are complex and beautiful enough perhaps to give the anger and crudeness context.

Scott and Julia have a short guest list, Richard and me and the boys. We all remember other Thanksgivings that were marred by family crap and are happy to be in the easy company of old friends. Richard remembers that my mother was always eager for desert, immediately followed by clean up and get rid of the guests. He always notes that hers was the only Thanksgiving from which he’d left the table hungry. Mom would rush the meal at my house too and while the guests were just tucking into second helpings, she’d try to clear people’s plates. We remember her squawking “Layne, do you have a cake server?” and Richard and I always use this line when faced with dessert. I bring some vegetarian gravy to Julia’s and there is a conundrum about serving it and the real stuff. Richards accuses, in a stage whisper, “She only has one gravy boat…” The second gravy is served in a pyrex measuring cup and how fine it is to be in a place where this is fine.

Just before sunrise, the air is cool I roll over to Himself and wake to realize he’s gone. I grab the cats but under the warm covers they purr too loudly for me to get back to sleep. I think about what good cats they are and if there will be other cats for us. I have fun with the kids and enjoy a Thanksgiving with dear friends of many decades but I am thankful Himself doesn’t have to travel more often than he does. He returns to home turf on Sunday and while he will probably never find a place to park again in his whole life I am certain that the thought of our good cats and the tiny tree on the deck and our cluttered funky life will inspire a bit of optimism.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, November 19, 2010

Blog is a Four Letter Word

When I don’t have a pretty good handle on what I’m going to say here and maybe 500 words written by mid-morning Thursday I get anxious. I’ve been at this “Friday thing” for over four years. I avoid the word “blog” because my kids say it with such lacerating scorn, perhaps even more embarrassed by this than my AOL e-mail account. I make no plans for Fridays and leave the office only after I have posted an essay and subsequently look forward to going home, and having accomplished something, feel deserving of Shabbat chill. When I turn down an offer, usually to go out to lunch with a girlfriend, on Friday I never say that it’s because I’m writing my blog because it sounds stupid. While the Friday posting is mandatory, I make no conditions as to word count, but, with few exceptions, pieces end up in the area of 2000 words.

I run my own business and make my own hours. There is no one in my household, although they claim otherwise, who would perish if bereft of my ministrations. There are no more mandatory errands to run on my mother’s behalf. Very little is required of me. While I spend a lot of time in front of the television and working crosswords and bemoan my own sloth and lack of self discipline in a number of other areas of my life, I manage to write a letter each week to each of my three penpals in prison and post an essay here pretty much without fail.

I have spurts of reworking some of these essays and submitting them for readings or publication but I don’t stick with it. I threaten to enroll in an MFA program for creative writing ostensibly so I can teach college level writing but also because perhaps that would help me get unstuck from this rut. But then maybe I don’t want to be unstuck. My readership creeps up a tiny bit each month and I do watch numbers but am more gratified by the amount of time the average reader spends here than the little uptick in actual hits. I mostly believe this. Eventually another form of writing may provide the same satisfaction as publishing here Friday evening and then walking out the door does. For now though I’ll keep at it here. I work hard, which you’re not supposed to notice, and, at least by my own criteria, my writing gets better, which you are.

This is a slow week in getting this thing started. It is 11:27 Thursday and the word counter says 300 words so I am behind schedule. Plus a lot of times in response to the scourge of the blank page I’ve started carrying on about my magical blogging process and then the next day cringe and in revulsion delete the self serving blather. Once in a while I face Friday morning with nothing at all written and I almost always am able to cobble something out by the end of the day but I get agitated by the possibility that I may not pull it off. Once in a while things get bollixed up and I don’t publish until Saturday but when this is the case, I am grumpy and distracted until the piece is complete. I like it best when I arrive on Friday morning to about 1500 words I feel are solid and I have time to tweak and polish and relax into an ending but this only happens a couple times a year.

I write last week about my boys’ great experiences with the children’s theatre. I lay it on pretty thick about the kids but as it turns out, after two additional performances of Virginia Woolf, unprecedented honorifics at the cast party, and a screening of the LACHSA winning film I spend a whole second week focused mainly on being soppy with pride in my boys. But I hate it when parents go on about their kids so I suffer a shortage of appropriate material.

I will note a non-offspring related milestone of this particular theatre season. Parent participation is mandatory but because Virginia Woolf has such a small cast, we are short of help for concessions and in desperation I conscript Himself. He sees I am wearing myself out and truly wants to help but selling cupcakes to a crowd heavy with teenage girls of the shrill and theatrical persuasion is a bit outside his comfort zone. Buyers’ enthusiasm and indecisiveness discombobulate him. He keeps cheerful for the customers but glowers at me, wild with panic, as he struggles to make change from the cash box. A twenty dollar bill towards a $3.50 tab nearly puts him over the edge. He opens a roll of quarters and they explode all over the floor. He flails on all fours scooping up coins and I wonder if preparing his own dinner on the nights I sell concessions is perhaps the best sacrifice he can make on behalf of the theatre group. Later though, he is sent to sweep the dark empty theatre and the house manager notes that he sweeps like a Buddhist monk. He also helps break down our truck load of concessions gear and spares me the lifting of pallets of soda. I presume there will be a better selection of parent volunteers for the spring extravaganza, and as sweet as it is that my beloved lends a hand, I hope next season I’m able to leave him home to struggle with the microwave.

10:18 Friday. I call it a day yesterday with 1000 words and arrive today to a hectic office. Some technical problems complicate a decent and much needed order from one of the most popular shows on television, one that I have written about derisively here. I have also put off all week reading a stab of writing sent by one of my pen pals. It is either fiction or memoir, although the distinction is sort of irrelevant because I suspect that he is a pathological liar. I devote half an hour of what should be writing time to the story, which is about polio. I write back to him about some of my memories of seeing kids a few years older than me in leg braces and standing in a long line with my mother for a big public vaccination event. I encourage him to keep writing but will also enclose crossword and Sudoku puzzles to distract him.

It is almost time for Rover’s 10:30 walk and I have only written one paragraph. I have delegated one employee to have tires (much cheaper via internet than Costco) installed on my car and another will be making photocopies of my penpal’s polio story which he has asked for and also print 14 L.A. Times crosswords for him. The crossword puzzle site was down all last week, so I owe him seven and to feed my own jones I waste a number of NY Times puzzles from my hoard. The dog is starting to whine and even though I have shirked chores that I would have performed myself were it any day but Friday, unless I want to have a real rocky afternoon, I’m going to have to go with the” I blog therefore I am” material I started in on yesterday. This is about as naked as it gets. I am embarrassed at how important to me these weekly musings are. For as long as I’ve been at it and as entrenched this writing is in my routine I am still pretty mystified myself by the process of how it comes together.

Back from Rover’s walk and I write a paragraph I suspect I will delete. There are business matters to attend to and if I am to savor my lunch and leave at five I have four hours and 1300 words to work with. I am about to reread what I wrote yesterday and earlier this morning and then I will check back in here as to my level of exasperation. I will make a note to myself here, per revelation while walking, that even though I’ve said it before, and it will take a deft hand to make it not syrupy, as Thanksgiving approaches I have a lot to be thankful for. So, if I’m lucky and can tie the giving thanks stuff into the first paragraphs all I have to do is think of a title and find a piece of art and there might even have time to do a few crossword puzzles and end the week smug and satisfied.

1589 words at 11:49. I go back to yesterday’s writing and spruce and trim a bit but evidently this week’s piece is to be about the creation of this week’s piece and as noon approaches there is no turning back. During my first reread I rework the part about Himself helping with concessions. It was sort of mean, even though watching him sell cookies during intermission is pretty hilarious. But he really isn’t an asshole. He has an introverted personality and will post a link to the explanatory article inevitably with his commentary on this piece. The concessionaire gig is tortuous for him. I tweak toward sounding a little less hard edged and mocking and a little more grateful that he loves me enough to sacrifice himself to children’s theatre concessions duty.

Also, there are some disjointed ramblings with more gushing about my kids, stuff that I excise alot of, because I really do hate it when people go on about their kids. I have reached 1700 words which is the lower limit of publishable but will need at least three hundred more words here to tie things up. I am going to read again and polish what I have so far. I will make consistent my habitual use of the present tense to describe things that happen in the recent past and the past tense for memories older than a year or two. I’ll fix up some punctuation and break down some long sentences. I suspect I’ve got some transitions to refine although I have once or twice, come back from lunch, decided that everything I’d written sucks and started from scratch so until what I’ve written already inspires a worthy conclusion, I’m not out of the woods.

It is nearing lunch time and while I cut out quite a bit there are still two paragraphs about the kid’s theatrical triumph and the effect this has had on the college application process that are problematic and I either need to effectively integrate them into rest of the piece or delete all together. I guess I can sort of tie it together by getting at how the kids and I all work really hard at something we love and are subsequently blown away by the results. The logical thing would be to pat us all on the back for perseverance but I hate to mess with the illusion I like to give that I just toss these essays off in a couple of minutes and they’re really just a lark.

I am returning now after lunch. Juevos ala Mexicana and corn tortillas. I could probably have made the perseverance thing work but even though I’ve already blown my cover and revealed that these writings are not casual to me, I dislike the two paragraphs pertaining to college applications and bad charter schools and even though it is late in the day to diminish my word count so substantially, I did say I wasn’t going to go on too much about the kids and it feels better not to. I delete two additional paragraphs. It is 2:10. The word count is 1826. I am still feeling sort of cheap for resorting to the blog deconstruction exercise and I have to read again to make sure it’s not self indulgent and/or boring and towards gleaning a fitting end.

Note to Himself about usage of word deconstruction: the narrow definition, ascribed to Derrida and referring to a purely post modern pursuit of meaning, has broadened now and it is acceptable (but maybe pretentious?) to use in the much broader context of “picking something apart.”

The summation should note that my beloved is leaving for Ireland and this, except for when the kitchen was being remodeled and we took my mother for Chinese, will be the first year in decades that I haven’t cooked a Thanksgiving meal. The sprats and I are joining the lovely Wayne/Wirtz family in their gracious home and my anticipation of the holiday is for once not marred by panic at how cluttered my house is. I will miss my beloved but he will be celebrating the holiday at an ex-pat celebration near Dublin. This is where I should lay it all out that while I will miss my husband it is nice to think of him back on the old sod. He always returns better for having been there and better for arriving home. While I finally do chop the paragraphs about the kids, I grow more thankful for them as more and more they reveal who they are going to become.

Last year I stopped by and brought my mother some desserts for Thanksgiving but she didn’t know I was there. For five years I have been buying Depends and filling prescriptions for what had become of my mother. That mother died a month ago and I am glad to be rid of her. What’s left is the mother that was before, funny, grudging, vain beautiful and complicated. It is a lot to process but with her death, once again, my mother is a real human being. The day is growing late as I sit here and list the things I’m thankful for and I worry some that somehow taking note will jinx it all. Still, I risk tempting fate and note that I am grateful for this period of abundance, the anticipation of Shabbat and an essay of 2347 words.

Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hollywood Kids

Each morning I drive past the Jewish Community Center preschool, attended by both of my sons over a decade ago. Tiny tots dwarfed by lunch boxes and stuffed animals are marched in by weary parents. As a toddler my young adult son preferred being barefoot. I am reminded how difficult it is to get a child and attenuate child related accoutrements in and out of the car, always complicated for me by having to struggle to stuff his tiny feet into his tiny shoes. He is over 6 feet now and his feet are larger than his dad’s. I have commandeered a nice pair of black loafers he wore in elementary school. Apparently they’d even been used for children’s theatre productions because the insoles bear his name on masking tape. The shoes are very comfortable and even though it’s so sappy it would make him puke, wearing them makes me feel close to him, as sometimes I barely see him for days.

The weekend is all movies, all the time. Spuds and some boys from school are completing a project for their physics class. I’m not sure what the premise is but one scene involves Spuds, face smeared with my schmancy artisanal cocoa to resemble dirt- although living like we do on Tobacco Road, he certainly could have found a lot of the genuine article in the yard-swinging by a rope from our rickety deck. I offer to cook dinner for his crew and am refused and firmly admonished to do nothing an iota more momlike than buying frozen pizzas. I hope the boys don’t tell their mothers what they ate.

Another filmmaking extravaganza is also taking place at the home of my colleague John Cannizzaro. John lives at one of the last vestiges of ranchero that conjures the rural valley, Fulton Avenue in Van Nuys, of faint early memory. John’s Tarzana home has a large garden, stables and an apiary. John is a filmmaker, animator and archivist and I have enjoyed a number of screenings of films he’s made and others he’s collected. He used to come and hang out with and sometimes buy a few films from my dad. A check John gave us for a film purchase was misplaced and he mentioned to my dad that it had not been cashed. My dad often remembered John’s honesty with regard to this check in a hushed, reverent tone, like he was talking about Rosa Parks. John endured long coffee shop lunches with my father and his cronies and kept his cool dispite being the frequent object of impolitic remarks. My dad was harmless but on certain topics, particularly race and gender, he could be wildly embarrassing. But Dad was also the last of the last movie oldtimers and John is one of very few repositories of his sort of, now nearly arcane, film knowledge.

John’s films are subversive but never inaccessible. I am uncertain after seeing a lot of artsy films whether the filmmaker really is smarter than I am or just a poser but there is a charming vivacity about John’s oeuvre of handmade films. He participates annually in The Attack of the 50 Foot Reels, a Super 8 filmmaking event. Filmmakers shoot a single reel (2 1/2 minutes) of film, edited only by stopping the camera, although John elects to shoot his in a single take. The unprocessed film is sent in, processed and shown to the festival audience exactly as shot.

This year’s event is dedicated to Kodachrome, known for its rich color and its resistance to fading. Kodak doesn’t manufacture it anymore and after the new year will no longer process it either. John scrounges up two rolls of Kodachrome from Ebay and despite the complications of shooting a film in a single take he plans an ambitious project inspired by St. Anthony, sometimes spelled sans “h,” and not to be confused with the other saint of the same name whose parvenu is finding stuff that’s lost. John’s Anthony is the one who sequestered himself in a cave and experienced horrific visions. He emerged invigorated and went on to promulgate monastic life. John builds the sets himself and recruits a cast of fifty. John’s partner Anne, her mother and a number of volunteers make amazing costumes out of scraps and found objects. The monkey falls through but John manages to snag a snake and a miniature donkey for the shoot.

Fifty people volunteer a day of their time to help make a 2 ½ minute film. Shot on Super8. There are nursing babies and elderly folks and an actor’s wheelchair is disguised as a liter. Without even having seen the final project I am blown away by John’s ambition and particularly that there are so many people who like him enough to actually change into a costume. We are manacled to children’s theatre and unable to participate. I would have even surrendered creative control on the costume but I would have done my own makeup. John, with a few drinks in him, admits to being sort of post partum and also apprehensive about seeing the film for the first time. John’s extraordinarily accomplishment, more significant than whatever’s on one of the last reels of Kodachrome ever to be processed, is that he is able to assemble a large and diverse cast of friends, all happy to indulge his crazy vision . We look forward to seeing the opus for the first time, at the Egyptian theatre on Dec. 9 with John and fifty other close friends.

I have lizard paws after compulsively using hand sanitizer between every transaction of cupcake and cash at the Children’s Theatre. Two plays are being presented in repertory. Spuds, per usual, plays a cop in the play Nature of My Game, which his brother co-wrote. I have pointed out to the director, despite the moniker of Murphy, Spuds is genetically half Jewish and therefore should also be considered for a part as a physician or attorney. Nevertheless Spuds gets to fire a gun and pound a bit on some of the other characters. He started in children’s theatre as a tiny mascot but now is the tallest kid on the stage and completely convincing as an adult.

Inspiration for what was to become The Nature of My Game, came from my young adult son and his co-writer/mentor watching The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Seventh Seal, and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Adventure. This led to the creation of a drama set in purgatory. Himself is a real purgatorian, having done a doctoral dissertation on the subject and often sporting a countenance that would make you think he’s doing time there. The play really riffs on a lot of the afterlife territory the old man is drawn to. In a nod to mom, who writes articles about prison reform and drags him to Tehachapi to spend a day visiting an inmate, a prison warden is really God and I am surprised at the agility my boy shows, at age eighteen, at sustaining this metaphor.

In addition to his play writing responsibilities, my young adult son is cast as the lead in the other play in repertory, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? When the choice of play and casting decisions are announced I am nearly apoplectic. A children’s theatre production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with George in braces could be a scream for the likes of Saturday Night Live but this production is to be dead earnest. The kids go once in a while to see a film called The Room. The filmmaker has made a bundle but I still feel sort of sorry for him. This is really one of those transcendently awful films. After it developed a cult following for being hilariously bad, the filmmaker started showing up at the screenings and claiming to be in on the joke. I am mortified that my kid is being set up. I cannot think of any material less appropriate for a children’s theatre production. I panic too because the kid is in the middle of his senior year of high school and has college application deadlines and pressure to maintain a decent grade point average. The character of George is on stage for 90% of the play and has several long monologues. The director of the play wishes his leading man a happy birthday on Facebook but adds GET OFF BOOK!

My young adult son attends the opening night performance of the play The Nature of My Game, which he co-wrote. Virginia Woolf is to open the following Sunday. Two of the other Virginia Woolf cast members attend a performing arts high school. Our theatre opening weekend coincides with an annual filmmaking project. The students leave school on Friday and must return on Monday morning with a completed film. It turns out that the lead actor has dropped out at the last minute and my young adult son has been asked to replace him. For my boy, helping out on a friend’s (or friend of a friend’s) film is an inviolable obligation.

My young adult son leaves the theatre after the performance on Friday night to go help his friends and I do not see him again until he arrives at the theatre for his Sunday afternoon call. He and his castmates have been awake for most of the past 36 hours. They beg for concealer and Coca Cola. There is a not unrespectable audience for a children’s production of one of the most adult plays ever written. For this production we ascribe to the Jewish tradition that lacking a minyan, a torah will count as the 10th, and we count in the crew and cast. Liz and Dick chewed a lot of scenery and pretty much own Martha and George. My son could be stepping on to the stage to endure one of the great humiliations of his life. I hope that he has mastered the script and is able to pull off a passable aping of Sir Richard Burton to compensate for the lack of maturity he brings to the part. But he creates a different and perhaps more nuanced and fragile George. Himself and I are blown away. I still think the notion of a kid's theatre production of Woolf is a clear sign of insanity but the quality of the production drives home too the genius lurking in that disordered psyche.

I cut our George some slack during the week between performances but he takes advantage of our largesse. Some parental advice is ignored which leads to a bad outcome. Some instructions are forgotten which consequently result in the wasteful expenditure of MY time/money. The hours the young thespian spends reclining on the sofa watching films has long been a topic of contention. I did the same thing as a teen, keeping the living room dark and watching 16mm films on a rumbling projector. My mom didn’t like it very much either and in terms of how my life has panned out sometimes I think that the thousand of hours I’ve spent escaping in films and t.v have indeed had an underwhelming payback.

I would like my young adult son to find a way to balance his insatiable appetite for films with taking the measures necessary to insure that he won’t be spending the rest of his life on our couch watching them. But I will be a bit more circumspect about calling him lazy and useless now that his film obsession seems to have inspired a script and a performance we are all proud of. My dad fell in love with silent movies and an uncle in L.A. worked at Paramount and would send him film trims. He’d splice them together and show them for a nickel in his Seattle backyard. It wasn’t just the legendary uncashed check that made my dad love John Cannizzaro. He loved his passion for movies. I have put in my share of sofa time and also most of my twenties were spent in the dozen or so revival houses that thrived in L.A. before home video made them irrelevant. Even though my livelihood is dependent on my memory of films that I have seen, and I would choose watching a movie over just about anything, indulging in this passion still feels profligate.

I watch the children’s theatre production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and my young adult son achieves a remarkable otherness in his portrayal of George. He hasn’t seen a lot of theatre so I know his performance and approach to acting and writing is largely attributable to the many times he’s succumbed to a movie when his homework wasn’t finished. He arrives at the theater exhausted because there was a film to be made. The film ends up winning the first prize in the competition. I see the performance of a play he co-wrote and his take on the dissolute college professor George and realize how his compulsive watching has honed his sensibilities. I think it started almost ninety years ago in Seattle, with film ends and a sheet nailed to a fence.