Friday, January 29, 2010

The Way to the Heart

The Way to the Heart
My children are indignant at being served twice in the same week homemade pineapple muffins with candied ginger for breakfast. I am on an experimental fruit muffin baking jag and would have given most of this batch away if I hadn’t accidently gotten a bit of eggshell into the batter which I thought I had retrieved but found traces of in about 25% of the muffins I ate. They are nevertheless, forewarned of shell bits, quite flavorful and evaluated with all possible objectivity, better than any commercial muffin and even most found at hoity toity bakeries that we don’t go to.

The kids bombard me the second I walk in the front door. “What’s for dinner?” to which the standard answer is “I don’t know,” and when I do know and they complain the retort is always, “This is not a restaurant.” They lurk around suspiciously while I cook. Spuds is ever watchful for signs of mushrooms, olives, tofu and raisins and the 17 year old is concerned about suspicious mixtures, which I often rely on to up the nutritional ante of the few sure foods that all three will eat. Himself will ask only if it is a wine or a beer night. His list of verboten foods is voluminous and he knows that in order to insure his proper feeding, that with the exception of lettuce and cucumber which I am unable to cook or conceal, many of the foods which unadulterated would cause a dramatic negative reaction are carefully blended into other concoctions to muddle the intensity of flavor. Thus we sup on traces of Brussels sprouts, cabbage, turnips, squash, parsnips and mayonnaise.

Except for avoiding the anathematic, food isn’t as important to Himself as it is to the rest of us. The seventeen year old notes with astonishment that except when unavoidable during travel, my beloved has and will never stop to purchase food or drink. “I can always get something to eat at home,” he notes while expressing derision at the accumulation of food related detritus that overflows the litter bag in my car. I am prescribed pharmaceutical toothpaste which is effective only if one refrains from eating for a full hour after application. The only way I can accomplish this is by taking a sleeping pill and hoping I don’t pass out before I can brush with the dentifrice.

My mother always took pride in her willpower although she would occasionally binge on favorites like black licorice, dark chocolate and ice cream, her complete inability to sit still mitigated any extra poundage. She is still rail thin and has shrunken even tinier as is typical of the very elderly. I skip my weekly visit the weekend of the Bar Mitzvah and return the following week with a box of chocolate cookies. Guilty at having left her to languish for two whole weeks I let her keep eating them until I’m afraid she’ll get ill. She babbles on incoherently about work and cleaning and money. Then she gets hung up on a word that just won’t come and sits silently. She recognizes me as someone familiar bearing chocolate but alludes to “Layne” and long dead relatives. Up until several weeks ago, when I arrived to see her she would be sitting alertly, tightly clutching her handbag. The purse is gone now and with it, another chunk of my mother.

The caretaker reports that while the other residents sit placidly in recliners watching old movies, the television and being seated don’t engage my mother at all. She cleans and sweeps and fusses. She becomes agitated at night and screams that she wants to go home. Even dosed with sedatives, she has twice deactivated the alarm system in the middle of night and is found wandering the street. The first time she is intercepted by the police and the second time she is found by neighbors who call 911. The facility has upgraded to a better alarm system and they’ve added a motion sensor.

I wonder about this home she’s so desperate to return to. She lived on Fulton Avenue for over fifty years and it is the only home I remember her in but as a child she moved across the country and attended dozens of different schools before graduating in 1938 from Belmont High School. Is she trying to get back to Fulton Avenue or a tenement on the east side of New York City where she shared a bed with two nieces the same age as she, dead now for decades? Is it a shack in what was rural Encino in the 1930s where her parent’s plans for a chicken ranch failed? Is it a tiny Spanish house in a court a block from my Silverlake office that looks exactly the same as it did when my newlywedded and apparently deliriously happy parents lived there in 1942? Is it one of the many other places she never spoke about to me that is burned as “home” into what’s left of her memory?

I am curious about where she is trying to get to and I will never know. I know she wanted to be beautiful and cherished and lavished with attention and riches. She responded hostilely when my first writings were published and then she set out for several months to write herself before losing interest. She trivialized the work I did along side of my father. She did express pride when I taught, which to her I guess seemed a respectable position, that at least was indicative of intelligence, for a fat girl. While I was never fit to compete with her, at least in role of “teacher” I was not a total embarrassment.

My mom romanticized Catholicism and was delighted when I married an Irish Catholic and disgusted when he converted to Judaism. She declined including any of her friends at our wedding because she did not want to reveal our Jewish background. She was pleased when Himself completed his PhD and she could say her son-in-law was a doctor, even if not the kind who helps people. Her major delight in my children is that they are of fair complexion and blue eyed and unlikely to be indentified as being of Jewish heritage.

Although it is less than an hour of my week, the anticipation of visiting her inevitably induces dry heaves. I hate myself when my thoughts turn to the ways in which her death will be a relief. The dreaded weekly visits and fears that she will escape and wander will end. I hate that I will never understand what led to her to a life of obfuscation. It is sad that she will leave the world never knowing, that despite the obstacles she threw my way, I took the best I could from her. It makes me sad that my mother will have died never having appreciated or feeling part of that which I am the most proud of and thankful for.

Through the theatre group the kids get called in for an audition every so often. Nothing has come of it which doesn’t bother them at all, and they have fun. Separate of the theatre group we noticed that a kid’s game show is looking for contestants. Spuds watches the game on TV, does well and wants to try out so we sign him up. We’ve been involved with the children’s theatre group for a decade now and a number of the kids are extraordinarily talented and work professionally. Lots have them have been accepted to performing arts academies and great colleges. With very few exceptions, the parents are mellow and don’t push the kids at all.

This is a try out for an ultra low budget game show, not an acting opportunity. The biggest prize is a weekend at a lousy tourist hotel in San Francisco and dinner at a chain restaurant. Spuds likes playing the game and thinks it will be fun so I drag him all of the 15 blocks from my office to a freezing soundstage at Sunset Gower Studios. It seems though that the preponderance of kids and their parents are star struck and many know each other from rounds of auditions. A number of the kids are home schooled so they can attend cattle calls and one girl says she’s just moved to Hollywood from Arizona in order to pursue her acting career.

The kids are given a little written version of the game to start. Then, comes the excruciating part. Each of the would be contestants has to extemporize in front of a camera for two minutes. The words “awesome” and “random” are intoned frequently. There is much singing and dancing. None good, particularly the poor child who’s migrated from Arizona. Other parents have schlepped kids from Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. There is a potential contestant who misses a day of school for a drive from Fresno. A number of the mothers have younger siblings with them in the freezing waiting area. The little kids are bored and cold and fidget and are harshly admonished by their moms to pipe down and keep still.

Getting on the show isn’t that big a deal to Spuds who notes that even the grand prize hotel is beneath his standards. He’s been on other auditions so he just faces the camera and is relaxed and funny. He gets a laugh saying that he’s a vegetarian but he hates vegetables and that he subsists on pasta and candy. This is close to the truth, lest you think of polishing the mother of the year award. Most of the other kids, all aged 10-14 have this really creepy desperate quality to them. I find this and the vibe I get sitting in the audience surrounded by brittle anxious stage moms sad and distressing.

This mother stuff is hard and hasn’t come naturally to me. My mom was never a stage mother and gave up early on my being the keys to her kingdom of fulfillment. When my fatness and sullenness and my betrayal of her by maintaining a relationship with my father made it plain that I would never be a vehicle for her personal ambitions she made it clear that I was an obstacle. Being aware of this as a mother doesn’t necessarily make easier to avoid the extremes of wanting my kids to fill my void or resenting them for distracting me from my own self fulfillment. Maybe one day they’ll be as conflicted as I am and drag themselves out of guilt to visit me in my decrepitude. They say that as our children see us minister to our own aged parents, so will they attend to us. So at least, even if they’re hobbled by old resentments, they will most likely bring me something to eat.

Friday, January 22, 2010

6 Generations to Go

6 Generations to Go

Valley housing sprang up boom style after the war with little attention to storm drainage in the temperate climate. There was a big storm when I was about five and Fulton Avenue turned into a river. I remember the strangeness of water rushing down my familiar walnut tree lined street. I have lived briefly in other places but have spent most of my life in Southern California where extremes in weather are infrequent enough to become etched on my memory. Our old Echo Park Owl House is a 1920s bungalow on a walk street below Elysian Park. The walk is paved and relatively flat except for a dip about 100 feet from our house that would accumulate water. During another atypically heavy storm, I traversed this veritable pond and was soaked to the waist. I vaguely recall being pregnant at the time but this might just be a trick of memory to dramatize the discomfort.

The present condition causes some fearsome roof leaks at the office. Water accumulates in bulging bubbles of paint. It is satisfying to pop these with a screw driver and see the water burst through into a strategically placed bucket. We move films and tapes and jerry rig tarps cut from trash bags. At home, our street is filled with rubble from the crumbling hillside. From the living room window I see the branches of the jacaranda sag in the pounding rain. Booming wind threatens to explode the graceful trunk to smithereens. My memories of rain are tinged with feelings of lostness and melancholy. I love the green of Ireland and it is where Himself yearns to be I can’t imagine living for days on end in the sad rain.

My memories of storms in a typically mild climed place stand out from the day to day of life lived and the accretion of years like other milestones of birth and death and ritual. Recollections of my wedding are colored by my sister’s refusal to attend, anxiety about my parents and stepmother being present together and my in-laws fury at Himself’s yarmulke and their subsequent abrupt departure. The cake that arrived was not what I’d ordered. The leftovers prepared by the caterer for us to consume on our flight to Mexico the next day were badly packed, leaked and were thrown out at the airport. Despite a lesson even, Himself didn’t really want to dance and having eye surgery several days before the ceremony left him even more tepid. The rabbi had asked us several times if we wanted him to bring his guitar and sing at the ceremony and we had gently not availed ourselves. He arrived for the ceremony guitar in hand and we both must have looked stricken because he quickly explained that it was too hot to leave it in the car.

The births of the two boys run together. Same hospital. Same doctor. When the seventeen year old was born my mother-in-law surprised me and showed up at the hospital. She sat at my bedside when my OB, a woman the same age as I, came in on rounds. I felt awkward asking my mother-in-law to leave and when I did she was embarrassed and said, “I thought she was just one of your friends.” After Spuds was born I was famished and ordered matzoh ball soup from Jerry’s Deli across the street and I remember it as being particularly delicious. I also remember that big brother was delighted with the Winnie the Pooh bathroom décor when he and Dad came to pick up mom and baby. It’s funny how such huge earth shattering events fade into peculiar memories and weird feelings.

Spud’s Bar Mitzvah has been my raison d’être for many moons as was his brother’s four years ago. I had just had surgery and was still bleeding and felt pretty lousy for the first go round with #1 son. I was freaked out about my parents and stepmother again as I don’t think they’d been together since our wedding. It turned out to be a wonderful event but my recall of it is skewed a bit because I wasn’t feeling my best and all of the anxieties about family members that preceded it.

Since then my dad died and my mother is fangless in another universe. My stepmother, as I’d expected, calls in sick for Spud’s event and along with the regular congregation at our woebegone temple we are joined by loved ones who do not judge us and take pure pleasure in our pride and our joy. I do not remember a happier day in my life. I hope that I have earned it and will continue to earn it. We are indifferent about formal services and organized Judaism so our home is the center of our Jewish lives and the place from where we strive to do justice to our heritage and mentor the two boys who have publicly averred their Judaism.

Back in the work a day world, I languish in bar mitzvah post partum, relentless rainy gloom and a week of particularly distressing news. It is unbelievable to me that the Supreme Court has opened the floodgates for corporations to wield even more political control by ruling that these entities cannot be restricted in their contributions to political candidates.
“The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism—ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt in an April 29, 1938 message to Congress warned that the growth of private power could lead to fascism.

Obama, so far is less persuasive than FDR and the possibility of parity in health care for the citizens of the world’s largest economic power seems slimmer. I am haunted by how sad this would have made Ted Kennedy, adding insult to injury that the senate seat he held for 46 years now belongs to someone who brags about driving a truck. There is widespread suspicion and pessimism about the incursion of government into our lives but I doubt that many who benefit from the Medicare program would promote severing the entitlement program’s government involvement. Given this nation’s resources, I am surprised at the strong opposition to legislation towards reducing the suffering and deaths of those who lack access to medical care. It is couched some I guess in legitimate skepticism but to me the vitriol loosed against nationalized heath insurance smacks of the same greed and selfishness that spawned the current economic crisis.

The Gini coefficient measures the disparity between rich and poor on a scale of 1-100. Information is collected to measure Gini coefficients by the United Nations and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. In a society where all citizens earn equal income, the Gini is zero The most recent figures for the United States and China, are 45.0 and 46.9, respectively. Iraq is at 42. Cuba, Canada and Mexico are 30, 32.1 and 46.1, respectively. The countries with the most equitable income distribution are mainly social-welfare or mixed economy countries such as Sweden at 23, Denmark 24, Iceland 25, Luxembourg and Bosnia-Herzegovina at 26, and Norway, Germany and France at 28. The United Kingdom is a 34. The most unequal distribution of wealth registers in Namibia 70.2, Equatorial Guinea 65, Lesotho 63.2, Sierra Leone 62.9, Angola 62, Central African Republic 61.3, Afghanistan and Gabon 60.

In 2007 the richest 1% of Americans held 34.6% of the nation’s wealth. While the U.S. is in the top fifteen of countries with high literacy rates perhaps a more telling statistic is that one of the largest gaps between high and low performing students is found here. This suggests strong correlations between education and the distribution of wealth. Certainly too, unequal educational opportunities relate to the fact that 1 in 10 Americans has a connection with the criminal justice system. Now that our selfishness and greed has caught up with us, it seems that those who were already disenfranchised will slide farther into destitution and the elite and privileged will claw all the more viciously to protect the disparate amount of wealth they feel entitled to control.

Common wisdom is that boundless American imagination and a knack at innovation determined the U.S. position as the most powerful nation on the planet but now those qualities are only nurtured in a select few. The rich in this country would still be very rich indeed if personal and corporate taxes were imposed towards a goal of reducing our measure on the Gini scale by ten points or so. It is urgent that we reform our healthcare system, modernize and increase the accessibility of our educational system and return to the national ethic of humanitarianism that helped establish our position in the world. In addition to instituting a more equitable taxation system, it is time we go for broke as a nation. Our fears about leaving our children in hopeless financial debt are stoked constantly but this reflects an insidious and pernicious cynicism that our investment in education and health and social programs will not build a new generation better equipped to demonstrate the imagination and innovation that brought our nation to power. This seems so critical that perhaps it is time to print as much money as we need not only to demonstrate a shift back to the original philosophical tenants on which this country was founded but on a practical level, groom a future taxbase that’s positioned to pay off the investment.

Perhaps it is time we begin to practice the Native American ethic of considering all our actions with regard to the consequence they will have seven generations in the future. Maybe this is the compass I need to be less disheartened by the seemingly miniscule amount of change that’s feasible in my lifetime. The rain makes me blue and this week, so does being an American. My connection to the ancient people is tenuous but my boys have come forward and averred their bond and a commitment to justice and compassion which I pray stretches to the next generation and the one after that, until the seventh, and beyond.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Hebrew Broadcasting

Hebrew Broadcasting

Kids don’t get that adults change and grow and develop too. For my repeat Bar Mitzvah Mom performance I seem to have attained a degree of enlightenment sufficient to I know that I’m being a bitch when I’m being a bitch. Whereas, the 17 year old’s public call to the Torah was rather grand, and the last social appearance for both of my parents, Spud’s, as is fitting with his more conservative mien, will be a way toned down affair. Nevertheless, I am preparing the Kiddush lunch for our guests and the temple congregation and fixin’ for an evening house party for Spuds and his friends. This requires extensive shopping and planning and cooking and schlepping, complicated further by the illness of a key employee. Himself is in shreds with a new semester, a boss who is oft compared to the bumptious Michael Scott character on The Office, a brutal schedule and chronic computer failure at the school that bills itself as a premiere technical institute.

The climate at Bar Mitzvah Central is rife for a nasty assed fight but after two decades we seem to have learned to rechannel our ancient resentments and rein ourselves in from the brink of angry explosion. I haul in a trunkload of groceries in a big huff. “No. Don’t help me. I’ll do it.” I still nurture the stupid fantasy that one day I will return from the travails of commerce and my three men will be standing smiling on the curb. They will unload the packages cheerfully and carefully, all the while thanking me for the hours I spend shopping all over town, selecting and lovingly preparing for them three meals a day. I am doomed forever though to arrive at Casamurphy, car laden with excruciatingly carefully chosen provisions, to glowers and grunts and eye rolling. Groceries are toted and stowed by them with the enthusiasm of POWS on the Bataan Death March. I am the only one who appreciates the irony that grocery duty is inevitably followed by a demanding, “What’s for dinner?” and then an impatient “When will it be ready?”

This quarter, due to a teaching marathon, Himself isn’t home for dinner two nights a week. We eat salad and eggplant and other foods the mere presence of which on the table make him woozy. Sometimes we even forget to turn off the TV before we eat, the three of us lined up on one side of the dinette like a family in a sit com, staring at the Simpsons, Mom drinking hard cider directly from the bottle. As an aside, my husband who has contempt for most social conventions has a thing about beer or other beverages being consumed directly from the bottle. “You wouldn’t drink wine from a bottle, would you?” No dear, unless you’re working late.

We e-mail back and forth, even if we are both at home, Himself and myself. We seldom speak on the telephone so my heart leaps when he calls from school during dinnertime. He returns from his afternoon walk between classes to discover his wedding ring missing from his finger. I check the nightstand and when I report back that I can’t find it there is a stricken desperation in his voice that I’ve only heard a few times before in all our many years together.

I am only rarely able to stay awake until he returns from late night teaching. The time of the day I look forward to the most, the moments between getting into bed and falling asleep, is less sweet. I doze off sad at his sadness at the loss of the 50 buck soft gold ring that I bought so many years ago, clueless about what it would come to mean. We rise in the dark morning. He is wan and haggard after relentless days and fitful sleep but he tells me he went searching in the dark for his ring after his night class and located it in the wee hours on the deserted campus. We wear cheap beatup Claddagh rings. They symbolize, heart in hand, love and trust, which we aspired to when we bought them. We said then that we'd replace them with better ones in a few years when we could afford to. We are different people now, although our children do not perceive of us as living growing organisms, and our crummy Irish rings are better than fine. They are better than ever.

For many years, we attended services every Saturday. Now we stop by for an hour on the high holidays or commandeer the temple when we need to host a memorial for a deceased parent, as in my father. I do not speak or understand Hebrew and maybe my eagerness to attend shul regularly back when the kids were tiny was because the older congregants were happy to have the boys running around and it was the only chance I had in the course of the week to sit and space out. I remember rays of morning light streaming through the stained glass and illuminating the worn faces of the elderly minyanmakers as they wrestled the Torah from the ark. It felt remarkable and comforting that Jews all over the planet were reading and interpreting and yearning for guidance from the same exact portion. I wonder now though if the power of this emanated from feeling connected to God or merely feeling affiliated with a dogged, ancient people. On the infrequent occasions I attend services these days, I am still struck by the light on the Torah reader’s craggy faces and the universality of the portion. These moments of exaltation are fleeting though and mostly I find myself bored and have difficulty sitting still.

I encourage Spuds, whose lineage is as much Irish Catholic as it is Jewish, when he chooses to take a step that was never even a remote possibility for his fully Jewish mother. I suspect that when the Bar Mitzvah is over, despite the generosity he’s been shown there, Spuds will not voluntarily return to temple for a while. And if he does, it will be via public transportation because his parents are less than gung ho. Although it obviously means something, I do not know, and presume he does not know himself, what Judaism means to him at this moment.

The meaning for me has ebbed and flowed and morphed for years, ever since I attended free vacation bible school and came home and announced to my father that Jesus was in my heart. It was then that I was informed that Jesus wasn't ok, without any further clarification or alternative answers to a seven year old’s existential questions. I was raised with nothing but when I began to act out as a young teen, my mother foisted me off to the Jewish Community Center, not, out of any solidarity but because it was close and cheap. This did increase my social possibilities but I don’t think made a dent in my enthusiasm for Judaism.

I was shipped off to the attendant sleepaway Camp JCA and while we had to wear white blouses and observe the Sabbath, my Jewish inclinations remained tepid and few of the Jewish activities had any resonance. I adored the camp anyway and returned every summer because it got me out of the house and into a pine forest. I must have been about Spud’s age. I was walking back to my cabin after a campfire and I looked up into a madly star filled sky. Just like there was a jarring memorable quality to my wedding ringless beloved’s panicked voice, nearly forty years later I can still remember the sensation that washed over me, my lungs filled with pine air and the universe and all its promises low over my head. Something changed and opened and even after four decades, my grasp is ephemeral. Whatever did cause that warm adrenalin tingly rush there in the forest had a connection to being Jewish. Not Jewish in the way I wanted to be as a new mother who sat in shul for hours each Saturday, hoping to reach God in that specially sanctified/proscribed time or at least clean up my karma so that I would be less a loser as a wife and Mother. The teenager in the forest was more a precursor to the way I feel Jewish in today’s incarnation.

I have no clue what Spuds will remember about his Bar Mitzvah and I have no idea what role religion will play in his life He is older than the standard issue Bar Mitzvah boy. He decided himself to complete the process and worked at his own pace. My beloved writes, maybe a bit simplistically, about my unwavering faith in God and perhaps he needs to perceive me that way as an anecdote for the doubts that trouble him. I do not live every moment basking in God's love and sometimes even think that our existence here on the planet is some weird quirk of something completely unconnected to a higher power. Or that the higher power which created the universe no longer exists but of course the verb “exist” is too tangible to apply to my perception of God. There are indeed signs that seem to substantiate that God is not never/dead. Some are obvious, like my kids fast asleep on each other in the backseat of the car and some are subtle and surprising, a tiny whiff of a sweet fragrance I can't identify, but reminds me that something larger, beyond my grasp, beyond words IS and has indeed conferred existence.

My God brushes these days don't often run on the Jewish channel. My Orthodox brethren have a clear sense of God's special relationship with the Jewish people and use that perhaps to rationalize their separatism. Our life in the secular world has at this time pretty much precluded our connection to an organized Jewish community. On what would have been my father’s 92nd birthday, I will stand with my husband and my two sons and the Torah will be unscrolled and spread open before us in the morning light. Spuds will publicly avow his connection to an ancient people and demonstrate his openness to the ramifications this choice holds for his life ahead. I suspect this will come in on the Jewish Channel.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Box in the Entry Hall

The Box in the Entry Hall
My mom’s two roommates at the board and care sit in recliners in front of the t.v. sporting sweat suits and Snuggies™ and sensible close cropped hairdos. My mother sits imperious on the periphery in a straight back chair, purse in lap. Her finger tips are bright pink, like she’s soaked them in Easter Egg dye. She is so insistent about doing her nails that her caretakers relent, knowing the job will require prompt professional revision. She stares at herself in the mirror for hours each day. The helpers fix her hair in fancy styles and ask me to bring rollers and hairspray and mousse. They help her put on makeup, although at times the supervision is a tad lax, and her eyelids bear a thick application of rust lipstick. Dozens of well cut trousers and dresses hang dormant now due to her reliance on Depends. For the convenience of her caretakers she is dressed always in full, long skirts and socks but still they remain committed to prettying her up as best they can.

One of the ladies, Laurine, is at about at the same level of dementia ravage as my mother. She is obsessed with shoes. When she does look up from our shoes and registers that we are guests she introduces herself as Laurine Fowler from Arkansas. The other lady is named June and while physically frail at age 95, she is cogent and alert and it is obvious that sitting in front of the t.v. with my mother and Laurine blathering the same thing over and over again all day drives her insane. She spits at Laurine, “We know you’re from Arkansas!” or when the Arkansas native attempts to insinuate herself into our conversation, chastises, “They’re not your relatives.” My mother is presented with two new skirts. The living room becomes a dressing room. She tries both on in front of all the assembled. She twirls in front of the mirror, “I’ll take this one,” and looks for money in her purse.

Spuds and I go to the bakery to order the cake for his bar mitzvah. I’d found it online but the cake is not represented in the glossy cake book that’s displayed. After making us wait forever while he indolently wipes the glass cases with a murky rag, the clerk ambles back behind the counter. “I need to order a bar mitzvah cake. I saw it on line.”
“If it’s not in the book, we don’t have it.”
“I saw it online,” I say more emphatically.
Spuds stares daggers and pokes me. There is a very fine line between emphatic and shrilly obnoxious but I will be damned rather than walk away without a cake because some lazy bakery drone wants to blow me off. I transition to drenched in honey, but emphatic nevertheless, simpering and he makes a call to bakery headquarters and gets confirmation that indeed they can produce a cake to commemorate this strange Hebe ritual.

My usual routine causes little occasion to out myself as a Jew. There are very few Jewish kids at the sprats’ school and Spuds reports that many of the Bar Mitzvah invitations he extends to fellow students require instruction and explanation which makes him a bit self conscious. I wonder if he might have let me go off full throttle at the bakery nimrod if it had been a mere birthday cake. Maybe I would have been slower to capitulate to his “shut the fuck up” poke in the ribs if we hadn’t been on a Jewish mission. “Bar Mitzvah mom” conjures images of Mike Myers as the loud, gaudy, but guileless Linda Richman. The wonderful/awful thing about this character is that Myer’s creation, inspired by his real mother-in-law, is not only totally clueless that she is a stereotypically loud, vulgar, pushy Jew, she also doesn’t give a rat’s ass. On the other hand, my propensity to be loud, gaudy but with no dearth of guile or self consciousness doesn’t particularly make me a more secularly acceptable specimen of the tribe.

From bakery we head to the behemoth Glendale Galleria on a quest for suitable temple garb for Spuds and his big brother. I am surprised to find it crowded at dinnertime on a weeknight but suspect, for all the minions of shoppers that we are the only folks in search of bar mitzvah attire. I stand sentry in front of the dressing room and make them both come out. I jab my finger in the waistband and make them sit down to inspect for perfect fit. Both are nearly apoplectic but they know how much I loathe being at the mall and accept that submitting to my inspection for crotch fit is less humiliating then being screamed at in a crowded store.

A sure fire recipe for the inducement of panic is to remember myself at seventeen while attempting to get a read on my own seventeen year old’s emotional whereabouts. I was already licensed and until I got my own car, I’d borrow my mother’s enormous dark olive Pontiac Catalina. She traded in a beautiful 1963 Impala for the monstrosity impulsively when she spotted a good looking salesman at a used car lot. He never called her for a date and we found out that the odometer had been set back a year later when it broke down and had to be junked. There was a boy I liked in Long Beach. He had long flowing hair and played the guitar and had no interest in me whatsoever. I made excuses that I happened to be in the neighborhood and armed with new driver’s license, would traverse the snarled freeway for an hour in both directions to spend five awkward minutes. We would sit cross legged on the floor of his faux pine paneled den and he’d play me the latest song he had written, singing in falsetto, and then, stymied by his unwillingness to participate in any conversation, I would, facing not the slightest opposition, leave.

Remembering the enormous heap of things my mother didn’t get about me makes me worried about pushing the 17 year old away. I write him an email trying to check in and let him feel my presence in a way that’s less smothering than a face to face with bar mitzvah mom. It is a nice e-mail and I make a big effort to address a few controversial issues fair mindedly. I receive an e-mail back from him in minutes and it’s jarringly nasty and I am devastated at how apparently tenuous our relationship really is. I reply that I am wounded and then we both stew for a few days. He doesn’t even bother to call “shotgun” when we leave the house and he sits sullenly in the backseat.

Trying on clothes at the Galleria we reach a shaky détente and are both on good behavior. Thanks to a number of coupons and giftcards and compromises, no blood or tears are shed. In two exhausting hours both boys have pants that fit, shirts, ties, shoes and even dress socks. We are ravenous and exhausted and for the first time I can remember since I was a kid at Laurel Plaza, we take our dinner at the food court. I remember my first glimpse at the colorful stands surrounding the ice rink at the newly opened North Hollywood mall in about 1964. They were alluring and exotic and sophisticated. I would not use any of these adjectives with regard to the 2010 incarnation at the Galleria.

While Spuds prowls for something vegetarian, from across the sticky plastic table the 17 year old tells me he is sorry and even risks shedding a tiny of glimmer of light on his inner life. Compassion was meted out to me mercurially when I was growing up and I strive to be more consistent with my own kids. This rapprochement with my older son fills me a bit with the hubris that perhaps I am a better parent than my own parents were. It does seem, at least at this moment, that my relationship with both of my kids is less fractious than my own was with my parents. Nevertheless, knowing the nature of the teenage beast, this is tenuous. I bear in mind too that it is only on the piggyback of my parents’ sacrifices that I find myself in the circumstance to gloat about my own superior parenting skills.

In my last entry I spoke about how freaked out I get by doom and gloom fantasies whenever I take time off from work. I also pointed out that I always return to the office after these fretful vacations to discover posthaste that my fears were overwrought and then I rue having colored leisure time with worry and despair. As was also predicted, I return, after being in the office only briefly for the last two weeks, to work the first Monday of the year and find that there is indeed a smattering of clients who want what I have to sell.

I admit to Himself how naïve I was when I took up corresponding with three Jewish prisoners. I receive several letters from each in the course of a usual week. The thick prison stamped envelopes amass and menace me from my desk. Just like my vision of work and the office gets skewed and distorted when I am away, the stack of envelopes conjure the grim grayness of where they emanate from and not the extraordinary light and warmth each actual letter contains. When I am graced with some perspective, the time I spend at my office and the penpal experience are not oppressive or diminishing. Au contraire. I work most days and I write each inmate weekly, proving again and again the dread I muster is mostly unwarranted.

I visit my mother once a week. I’ve done this now for three years and dread it more than the travails of running a business in an impossible economy or the physical manifestations of human degradation that the mailman delivers most days. I go back to work and long time employees after a vacation or don my reading glasses to take on a twelve page letter from prison and inevitably am made happy that something I felt stricken by actually adds great value to my life. I wish I could say that visiting my mom is another one of those things I dread but once I plunge in I find myself relieved and bolstered. It is hard to shake the sadness or feel ennobled by attending to this weekly obligation. Our relationship was frequently acrimonious and unsatisfactory, and now more often than not, she does not even recognize me.

I felt most of my life, accurately I’m afraid, a stranger to my mother and yet I do not think she loved anyone in her life more than she loved me. Even now, she may not know my name but she acknowledges my significance. For years, before she was institutionalized she would always try to give me lots of crap I didn’t want. There was always a box, with my name emblazoned on it, in the entry hall at Fulton Avenue crammed with off brand chewing gum and irregular ankle socks. Now she tries to gift me a used napkin or an advertising circular from the porch. I whine often about how much Himself and my children require of me but maybe, not being needed is the ultimate despair and this reminder redeems my sad visits with my mother.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Closed for the Holidays

Closed for the Holidays

The office is shut down due to lack of business for most of Christmas and New Year’s week and I have languished watching Office reruns on the couch with Spuds, baking and working endless jigsaw and crossword puzzles. I think I get it from my dad but whenever I am not at the office during what ordinarily would be business hours there is a bolus of tension in my gut combined with guilt and foreboding premonitions. When I return to the office, having pissed away time off, unable to shake my angst at being absent, it usually takes me about an hour to realize that my fears are exaggerated and then I berate myself for having wasted precious leisure time. I am aware of this pattern whenever the business is closed for holidays or I take a vacation but I promulgate the uneasiness about not working with insidious thoughts that maybe this time my fears will pan out as real.

Even on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, because my dad was so contemptuous of my taking these days off, I have a twinge of guilt that I should be at the office. If I make a morning stop at the market on the way in, even if I am getting provisions for the office, I feel sheepish arriving after nine. Back from the days when business centered on films being shipped and returned, my father worked Monday through Saturday and shut the office only on the days that UPS closed shop, like Thanksgiving (BUT NOT THE FRIDAY AFTER) and Christmas. It is only on these holidays that I am completely comfortable not going into the office.

Guilt free I hit the road with Himself and Spuds hours before dawn on Christmas morning. I fumble half asleep with geeky sweats and sports bra and heavy coats. There is no traffic. My car thermometer registers 21° minutes before sunrise. The parking lot at the prison visitor’s center is crowded. Himself sees an Escalade and hisses “Drug money!” and I just let it ride, Spuds being of sufficient age to apply the “grain of salt” rule to most of what Dad says. We stow handbag and other usual appendages under blankets in the backseat and enter with our driver’s licenses, a single car key and rolls of quarters in a zip loc bag.

I have been self employed for so many years that I am unaccustomed to being subjected to authority. My natural impulse, when faced with what I perceive to be the flouting of power, is to snap into officious white lady, but in my self conscious attempts to rein this in I morph into an obsequious high pitched ninny. Not only am I tetchy with the authority thing, the prison visit ratchets this up because not only is one required to submit and acquiesce, it is to an authority that is predisposed to expect that you’re up to no good and the vibe is very much guilty until proven innocent.

We expect the entrance process for our second visit will be less crazy making but my heart starts to pound the second we are sucked into the grim room full of Christmas visitors. I have been reminded a number of times, because the dress code rules change so frequently, to just wear black, black and only black but scrambling to get ready I overlook verboten colors in outerwear and we are forced to return sweaters and jackets to the car. We are so nervous we have difficulty completing the forms and having screwed up I request a new one from an officer, apologizing way so profusely I’m surprised she didn’t slap me.

An ancient frail couple has trouble with the metal detector. The man and then the woman, sans shoes and glasses, teeter back and forth, eliciting the blaring buzz again and again. Himself is called to enter before us. He removes his shoes, wedding ring and glasses and stumbles through to wait to board the bus. Spuds and I are called twenty minutes later. I am fastidiously metal free yet the detector buzzes repeatedly. I can feel the eyes of the other impatient Christmas visitors burning into me more and more fiercely each time I pass through and the machine squawks that I’ve failed again.

They give up and Spuds and I are told wait in chairs in a passage way. We are summoned eventually into an office and I have to sign some consent forms. I am told that if I fail to pass successfully through a metal detector on subsequent visits I can be barred permanently from entering the prison again. Two female officers examine my ankles, the area apparently that triggered the detector. They pass the wand over my calves again and again and it remains silent. They say that sometimes the metal detector gives a false reading and that it may have to do with my size. This is curious because as far as American women go, I am of slightly below average weight. This is not to say that average size isn’t pretty friggin’ huge because we have become a nation of big fat pigs but regardless, you’d think the machine would be calibrated to conform with what statistics indicate is the norm.

We are passed through to the bus waiting area. Himself is not there and I do not like to think of him riding the bus by himself, bereft of dark blue sweater that looks black in dark. The old couple that experienced their own troubles with the metal detector hobble in and collapse onto the hard plastic chairs. The guard at the desk tells a string of deadpan jokes, like Santa leaving nothing but bags of coal for the likes of who you’re visiting but between the lines he thanks us for sacrificing this Christmas to prison. I laugh all out of proportion. I am the only one laughing until I poke Spuds and he dutifully summons the most forceful chortle he can manage, jacketless on a cold morning.

The bus wends around from Level 4 to our level 2 destination. A guard tower looms over two electric gates that separate the carriageway from the visiting room. Driver’s License and visiting permit are passed beneath a camera. The old couple wear thin coats. Fifteen minutes pass before the guard in the tower activates the gate. He calls through his microphone, “You come all the way from Utah” and the old man and woman nod and feebly wave.

We turn in our permit at the door of the visiting center. We see our penpal Alan, already seated at a table and engaged in conversation with Himself. We sit on a bench and wait to be called. The people across from me speak in Spanish about various Indian gambling resorts. An extended family of folks Himself says evoke Flannery O’Connor characters, worn inside out and back again, saunter in, passing to the guard a medical note indicating that Granny needs seating at a higher than regulation table.

We are finally admitted and led to join Alan and Himself at our assigned table. Next to us an ashen bald Cholo prays and reads the bible fervently with a sturdy older woman. Bibles,in English and Spanish and a selection of board games, including half a dozen unopened Scrabble sets are all that are provided for diversion. One family engages in a game of Monopoly the whole visit but my occasional glimpse registers sad faces and not much gameful mirth. The room fills up until most of the tables are taken. Visitors are permitted a single kiss and hug at the start and again at the end of a visit, an embrace even more big and sad a thing to witness on Christmas morning.

Across from us, is a diminutive young man, perhaps of Filipino or other Pacific Island descent. We remember him from our last visit because he is the only one of a group who did not fit on the departure bus as everyone has to be seated and no one can stand for the quarter mile ride to the exit. I feel bad for him as I watch him alone on the curb as we drive off. He is visiting a dissolute John Carradine sort with long stringy gray hair. He is the only inmate in the center wearing a prison issued denim jacket. I suspect some infirmity has rendered him particularly vulnerable to the cold and he is granted special medical permission to wear it. The pair, like on our last visit, sit silently together. The old couple from Utah, looking remarkably less fatigued, sit with a young man, perhaps a grandson. He is ruddy and robust and their conversation is continuous and animated and all three of them look as happy as can be.

The doors to an underloved grassy expanse are opened and many leave the room to walk around in a circle. The sun has come out and in a couple hours the day has gone from bitterly cold to pleasantly warm. Fathers wrestle and run with tiny girls in Christmas dresses and boys with slick backed hair. The coveted spot that fills immediately is a cement wall where couples sit side by side on the ground, and although a guard stares directly at them, it feels more intimate than sitting across a Formica table.

Most visitors don’t partake of bibles and board games and all that’s left to fill the time between those two fraught kisses is conversation and food from the vending machines. All three of my penpals reinforce to me how important food is to prison life and the machines offer items that are not part of the regular institutional diet. We manage to score yogurt, which Alan hasn’t eaten in thirteen years, and some melon and a chicken teriyaki meal for him. Spuds and I inhale a box of Mike ‘N Ikes, and Sunchips, barely sharing with Alan, while the abstemious Himself stares at the dwindling bag of quarters in disbelief. It has taken us nearly three months to schedule this four hour visit and Alan struggles between sporking down food better than he’s used to and availing himself of the rare opportunity to converse and commune. He is at a loss to decide whether to chew or to talk.

The drive to Tehachapi offers a somber beauty somehow befitting our final destination, a gray dystopia resting at the foot of imposing mountains where six thousand men fester in a space designed to hold 3000. Being physically inside a prison disturbingly transfigures the notion or metaphor of prison into a unspeakably hard and punishing real place. The two and half hours spent being evaluated for suitability to enter are so dehumanizing and jarring that before I can shake it off, the actual visit with Alan is close to over. It is not so much the the endurance of the entry process, as addled as this makes me, it is the knowing that when we return to the empty open road, our friend Alan faces many more years in this environment and the other two inmates I write to will face it until they die. I expect our second visit to be more chill but it is harder. Several additional months of Alan’s letters have given me more of a picture of life under constant and often mean spirited or mercurial authority and exactly what he goes through to insure that the decades he spends in prison are intellectually and spiritually productive.

Our visiting passes are returned to us. The inmates line up across the hall from us as we file out to board the bus. I wonder where the other visitors will have their Christmas dinners. I try to imagine how the inmates feel as they return to dorms and cells and a world of steel and uniforms. Does a four hour visit with friends from outside make an inmate ultimately feel more full or does the conclusion of the visiting time and return to the drudgery of prison life render him even more bereft and empty?

We return to L.A. in silence and make our way back home. We change into less embarrassing clothes and make our way to Chinatown. All of the restaurants are jammed and when our usual suspects have lines around the block we settle on a newer place. We wait nearly an hour and seeing how thinly spread the staff is I expect a mediocre meal. Maybe it gets to me that I can eat wherever and whatever I want, but the meal is sort of mindblowingly excellent. I savor every bite, hoping that at least savoring my own freedom nurtures my compassion for those less blessed. At the risk of slavering too much over spiritual writer Jay Michaelson, one of his recent columns in the Forward noted an imperative to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. I will add how important it is to keep in mind how, despite work panic, how firmly ensconced I am in the comfortable category. Not taking my comfort for granted does nothing for friends locked away to molder but it would be disrespectful to their experiences not to keep my fears and fortunes in perspective.

I tread the treadmill watching a French film. My housekeeper of over thirty years, whose hours have been slashed but I haven’t the heart to let go entirely, is obese and her vision is failing. I wish I could buy her a little house in a pretty place with a yard and some chickens which I think would make her happy. Instead I am able to throw her a day of work and leftovers from meals I intentionally cook in large quantities. I push myself to three miles on the treadmill, squinting to read subtitles. She lumbers up the stairs with a huge bale of laundry. What must she think of me?

I am terrified of the tiny Filipino women who works long shifts caring for my mother. I visit only once a week and if there is something good on the old movie channel I can manage to stay about a half an hour. Once or twice a week I have to stop by and deliver prescriptions before work and she asks me if I want to come in and visit Mom and I , lying sort of, and claiming I need to get to work, do not cross the threshold. I dread this ten second interaction so much that I wake Spuds and bribe him with a restaurant breakfast. He delivers the medication to my mother’s caregiver. I stay in the car. What must she think of me?

I write to three different prisoners about once a week. I want them to know that I remember them but my letters just babble on about domestic trivia and maybe they seem weird or ridiculous and they write back having not much better to do or out of politeness. Probably though the housekeeper and the lady at the board and care and the prisoners have better things to think about than my mental heath or character.

I have always worried that I am not doing the right thing. My inbred reaction is to feel fraudulent and guilty that the first day of this new year will probably be spent on the eau de dog couch watching t.v. and working puzzles. Himself will sit with his laptop and write and surf and read to us his most interesting findings. The seventeen year old makes only brief pit stops but at least will proffer television recommendations. Spuds will loll with me under a blanket and snack and light incense when the dogs fart but soon he too will be gone more oft than home. There will be no gainful work nor comfort for the afflicted. But UPS is closed.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year.