Friday, June 25, 2010

The Casa. The Murphy.

June is fraught. School’s out and in a little over a year our 17 year old will most likely fly the coop for college. I am getting on Himself’s nerves, prefacing plans I make with, “This might be one of the last times we will all do this together.” I know that the imminent changes are poignant for him too and his objection is not to my wistful speculations about how our lives will change but because I am using this as an excuse to plan things. Himself typically dislikes anything planned unless it revolves around reading a book or writing a review of one.

I get through my third fatherless Father’s Day and Himself survives his second. It is impossible not to feel palpably fatherless on this day but we both acknowledge a consoling relief at not having to buy a tie that will probably never be worn. Himself’s dad required a trip to Orange County and a visit to a chain restaurant which would shake to the rafters as the nearly deaf nonagenarian spouted his Paul Harvey inspired opinions at megaphone volume. My own child-of-the-depression dad was a sucker for all you can eat champagne buffets and I realize I will probably never have to consume another meal that is referred to as “brunch” or surreptitiously supplement a 5% gratuity.

For the father of my children, instead of a public feeding I buy sand dabs from a farmer’s market purveyor. I ask if they are filleted and receive a diatribe about the impossibility of filleting them. The seller is either lying or just making it up as he goes along because they are readily available filleted from other fishmongers. I stop myself from calling his bluff and correcting him. “They can too be filleted!” I can hear myself. The fish are actually delicious, sauteed simply in lemon butter and the skeleton lifts out very easily so no one chokes on a bone and dies to harsh the mellow.

Also in this week of gravitas is our 19th anniversary. Himself goes for a walk alone and the seventeen year old asks why I haven’t joined him. I say, “He didn’t want me to. He doesn’t love me anymore. We’re getting divorced.” The seventeen year old is not amused much these days by what I say unless I say it with an open wallet but my joke about divorce elicits a deep gut raucous laugh at the absurdity of the notion. Despite Al and Tipper, the idea of his parents not being together is ludicrous. I am proud that the sprats feel the essential solidness of the marriage we’ve struggled to craft. I think the day to day demonstration of how we do it will outweigh the emotional harm inflicted by an occasional nasty ass fight.

We do drive each other to the brink of friggin’ insanity. I natter on about things he finds inconsequential. This is particularly annoying to him when he is trying to read or sleep, which is usually. I rag on him for his staggering domestic incompetence. I strong arm him into leaving the house. Sometimes I don’t keep a lid on it with the likes of the fishmonger and Mr. Non-confrontational is mighty embarrassed. I dis him on my blog. But, in our twenty years together, I have never been escorted out of a restaurant, as he bolts as soon as the bill is settled, eager to get home to his library.

Himself feels an obligation to be helpful around the house but finds no satisfaction in domestic engineering. He pitches in on laundry night and I ask him to remove the clothes from the dryer. He squeals, confounded, “the stuff is still soaking wet.” I come to assess the malfunctioning dryer and find him staring into the washer.

While I think we waste less food than average people, he notices some fresh mozzarella gone green in the back of the fridge, about two months past the sell buy date, and he’s sour when I ask him to toss it. “Can’t you just use it IN something?” I am mindful of expiration dates but not completely inflexible. I don’t think my refrigerator will ever become like my mom’s when I cleaned it out, chock full of items expired during the Reagan administration.

I sometimes buy the kids prepared lunches at the Fresh and Easy. Once they discover that the stamped date is yesterday’s and they both text me from school, irate. I convince them that the “sell by” date is not the “use by” date but they are suspicious. Several weeks later I discover that their lunches are a day past sell, so I scratch off the date. The seventeen year comes home incredulous. “Did you think we wouldn’t notice that?”

Their father’s thrift is legendary. I am slicing a pineapple and he is hovering with a full trash bag bound for the garbage can to collect the remains. I fling the cuttings into the bag. He extracts a yellow piece from skin and leaves and thrusts it accusingly in my face. “This is perfectly fine.” I explain that it is the fibrous core of the pineapple but I tell him he’s welcome to eat it.

The puppy Oprah, while sweet and personable, is a bad dog. She has dismantled our drip irrigation system and methodically arranged the components on the sofa. She gnaws the walls, through paint and plaster and down to the studs. We are preparing the house for guests and Himself is very upset about the condition. I blow it off. We have a puppy. But he paces around surveying the damage. We are in our home for eighteen years this month. The realtor who represents the seller remarks, after we’ve remodeled, that it had been the ugliest house he’d ever seen.

Our home is owned by a sex therapist. The walls are painted orange and covered with drooping gold veined tile mirrors and gray-with-dust burlap drapes are nailed to the windows. A different shade of filthy red carpeting graces every room. We see the potential and while there are some rooms that are not presentable for company, we love our home. Neither of us has lived for longer in another place. We live for several years before in the Echo Park Owl House cottage but it is my home before we meet. Our funky Mt. Washington manse, the home we’ve made together, is the first residence that Himself has ever taken pride in.

My husband was raised with Montgomery Ward furniture and dog trophies and the TV Guide. I had a theatre in our rumpus room but the rumpus ended when I was six. Kodachrome movies and my speculations are all that’s left. Even when it relegated for storage, the curtains on the custom screen frayed into tatters, the rumpus room is the best room of the house and the only room with color. We have pitted walls and dog smell and jiggle handle toilets but we have color and we have parties. It is hard work to create a home that is superior, and not merely aesthetically, to the houses we grew up in.

June is the month of many holidays. If I finish writing this before we hit the road, it will be read, in the cool of Mt. Hermon, from the home of our greatest friends Chris and Bob, by Himself on his birthday. We find ourselves at an age when an annual occasion feels really frequent and comes with the agita of registering how blurry the memories of previous years have become.

I wake up on the first day of my twentieth year of marriage. I drive the kids to school in Altadena. The school is moving to a different location. This is the last time I will make this ride. I wonder for how long I will have a sense of the route through stately homes at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains or the little bakery with the lousy coffee in thermoses and all the day old pastry you can stuff into a bag for $5.00. I look through a box of old snapshots. Dead people, babies now in college, parties in places I do not recall and faces I don’t remember. But the falling asleep with and the waking up beside and our places at the table are etched deep. Our home. My strange dear reader. Who I am.

To my beloved on his birthday, no present, nary a card this year, just these words, unequal to your patient love that’s blessed and shaped me and will sustain me when all else has dimmed.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Case for Faith

The most famous citizen of Burma is formally referred to as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, “Daw” an honorific conferred on a woman who merits respect, is literally translated as “aunt,“ but usually she is simply called “the Lady.” This week marks her 65th birthday, one of many that the Lady has spent detained under house arrest. She is two years old when her father, General Aung San, Commander of the Burma Independence Army and negotiator of Burma’s independence from Britain, is assassinated.

Suu Kyi completes her secondary education in India where her mother Khin Kyi serves as ambassador. She continues her studies in Britain, earning a
B.A. degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics in 1969. After graduating, the Lady works for several years in New York at the United Nations. Aung San Suu Kyi marries Michael Aris, a scholar of Tibetan culture in 1972. She completes a Ph.D. at the University of London in 1985.

In 1988, the Lady is at work on a biography of her father and returns to Burma at the news of her mother suffering a stroke. The conditions she encounters inspire her first political action, an open letter advocating for fair elections. Several days later, she speaks, addressing an enormous crowd, outside Shwedagon Pagoda and calling for democratic government. Suu Kyi is key in the formation of the National League for Democracy Party. She travels speaking on behalf of the League for the next two years, enduring continual harassment by the military.

The National League for Democracy is banned by Burma’s ruling junta but Aung San Suu Kyi is elected Prime Minister of Burma in 1990 by 82% of the popular vote. The political wing of the junta, SLORC (the State Law and Order Restoration Council) invalidates the election and the Lady has been subjected to detention for much of time since. She is separated from her two children and the rest of her family. Her terminally ill husband is denied an entry visit despite appeals from Kofi Annan and Pope John Paul II and he dies without having seen her for over four years. The Lady is awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1991. She is detained under house arrest and her children attend the ceremony on her behalf.

The government of Burma is considered one of the most corrupt on the planet, second only to Somalia. . The military dictatorship proclaims in 1989 that the country henceforward be known as Myanmar. The official U.S. designation, a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the ruling regime, remains Burma.

There are over 2000 political prisoners in Burma. Secret police are rampant and arrests are often made under provisions of Burma’s Penal Code that criminalize free expression, peaceful demonstrations, and forming organizations. Prisoners include teachers, journalists, and students. Seventy-five year sentences are commonplace. Trials are not transcribed and are conducted in secret.

The most notorious prison in Burma is Insein prison. Many political prisoners are relegated to solitary confinement. A prisoner found with a pen suffers far more serious consequences than an inmate concealing a knife. Until the International Committee of the Red Cross makes a formal complaint in 1999, all form of reading matter is banned at Insein. Human rights groups cite the high incidence of torture of political prisoners at Insein and other locations and report that the nation’s prisons uniformly fail to meet the standards outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Facebook=High School

My baby daddy and I have been at loggerheads for over a decade with regard to his refusal to do anything with his cell phone except keep it powered off in the glove-box of his car for use in an emergency. HIS emergency. In the advent of MY emergency, he is unreachable. His specious excuse is to maintain a good example for his students whom he admonishes to turn their own phones off. Actually, the students just turn off the ringers and probably text and game and cruise Facebook every moment his head is turned and given his sucko vision, probably even when it isn’t. We both know that he refuses to use the cell phone because he doesn’t wish to receive importuning calls that could potentially interfere with his true avocation of being seated with a book or at a computer. Because I am the only person likely ever to call him, his dogged refusal to be accessible via cell phone cannot be whitewashed into less than the personal affront it is. I am due for a phone upgrade this month and I have been trying to tantalize Himself with my two year old Blackberry. I am driving and need an address. I tell him step by step how to locate it via my Blackberry and he swears in frustration only a couple times until he is actually able to retrieve it. I mention my new Facebook application and there is hope that he will swap being unreachable for Internet access. I promise that I will never call, only text and I am even closer to clinching the deal. He is thinking about it.

Himself is sucked into Facebook before I am and I resent that he has way more friends than I do and there sure are a lot of people I have never heard of. Even with my piddly friend list, Facebook has been an eye opener. Some people that I thought were very interesting are actually very boring and some people who don’t have a lot of pizzazz in person, are fascinating via Facebook. A number of folks post several times a day about things so banal I wouldn’t mention them even if someone is urging me at gunpoint to make chit chat. There are a few chefs and ambitious cooks who post what they eat but what ordinary people eat is no great thrill. A number of people use Facebook as a confessional. Jesus has a profile page but I don’t think he gives absolution for a box of See’s or a tequila binge. The self righteous counterpart to the “I have sinned” post is the reportage of marathons of exercise, particularly marathons of exercise for charity, also a bit of a turn off. Facebook mirrors life, or I guess life in Hollywood, as there are a bunch of nearly compulsive posters who are heavy on the Me! Me! Me! and light on any possibility of you.

My own motives may also be less than pure of heart. I aspire to engage in the sharing of information and ideas but in a way, Facebook is exactly like high school except no one can see how fat you are. I notice that a couple of ex-boyfriends are friends of friends. I have not asked for their friendship but am sort of miffed that they haven’t initiated mine. I notice a friend of a friend with whom I’ve socialized. He has a lot of friends but nowhere near 5000 or anything that could pose a problem but my friend request is “ignored” while he continues to comment frequently on our mutual friend’s posts, often directly beneath my own comment. I always thought he liked me and now I wonder why he doesn’t.

I avoid posting about my day to day life and I try post information that is useful or interesting or things that are funny and make it a point to respond to friend’s posts that meet the same criteria. Himself is very scrupulous about “liking” everything I post and I reciprocate. But, our Facebook presence, like the blogs Himself and I pour so much of ourselves into, never seems to garner much traction. Someone’s cat barfs up a hairball and there are twenty five inane comments but I post something witty or illuminating and, except for my generous husband, my contributions languish. I am trolling Facebook for the inspiration to conclude this paragraph towards bridging my Facebook disappointment with my life history of social heartbreak. In the past I have only relied on Facebook instant messages to communicate with members of my household who are on a different floor so that I don’t have to move ass or strain vocal cords. I receive an instant message from a friend who says he likes my writing and that it is worthy of publication in the New Yorker which takes my breath away but also kind of fucks with where I’m going with this. Nevertheless, with the exceptions I have noted, I feel that this blog and my contributions to Facebook sometimes get a short shrift.

I plan a slumber party while in junior high. My mother makes ornate sandwiches with sloppy joe filling stuffed into hollowed-out French bread that is wrapped in foil, baked and sliced for a dramatic presentation and we buy real Coke with sugar instead of Diet Shasta. I invite about fifteen girls. Mom and I lay quilts and blankets all over the floor of the rumpus room and air out sleeping bags. During the early seventies a number of girls, and if my memory serves me correctly, mainly affluent girls, are diagnosed with scoliosis of such severity that the only remedies are surgery followed by the wearing of a cast for months or the donning of a heavy back brace for several years. Even though it means an exemption from PE, and not having to appear in a bathing suit, I am not jealous of the girls who endure this. Only two girls show up for the party and one sports a cast from extending from neck to hipbone and the other wears a steel back brace. They glower at each other, repulsed and mortified. Neither is able to sleep on the floor and they are relegated to squeeze together into my bed. I have the fancy sandwiches, cold, the beef fat orange and viscous, in my lunch for the next two weeks and the good soda is returned for a refund.

My dad shot hours of 16mm Kodachome home movies. This, unlike most film, does not fade and the colors are almost creepily vivid as they memorialize my parent’s life together until they divorced when I was 7, in 1963. My parents threw tons of parties but my only memories of them are from the old films. My dad created a state of the art screening room in their valley house. The projectors and screen could be operated by remote. The theme was Paris cafĂ© and there was a mural of the Moulin Rouge and some very sexy pen and ink drawings. There were movie nights and dance parties. For special occasions my mom whipped out the big blue McCall’s cookbook which was higher class and more modern than the Betty Crocker she used for everyday. After the divorce there were no grown up parties but my dad would come to the house, poke around wistfully and run cartoons and movies for my birthdays. Whenever I meet someone I knew from childhood, they remember my dad running movies.

I planned and hosted many events, even after the scoliosis debacle. I attended a college reunion last year and have also caught up with some old college chums on Facebook and many remember a screening I held at my little cabin up in Forest Falls. The film was apparently The Harder They Come, for which I undoubtedly got sufficiently into the Rasta spirit as to have no memory now of ever showing it. Another girl must have also partaken of themed party favors as she remembers that we kept replaying again and again the parts that we liked, which would have been impossible with a 16mm print.

My beloved is as notorious for his dislike of entertaining as I am for loving the creation of a good party. Himself always behaves himself at events and people always say, “Well, he really is awfully nice. I don’t know why you complain about him so much.” I plan a party about a month before I ask Himself if it’s ok by him to schedule one. After twenty years I know that he very seldom issues a direct edict not to do anything, the exception being a third child. He inevitably relents on the party but there will be eye rolling and long bitter silences from the moment the event is proposed to him until the Tuesday after when the garbage truck empties our barrels of its last vestiges.

After permission is grudgingly granted, I give him a head count which reflects about twenty five percent of the actual invitees, knowing that inevitably some people won’t come and that there’s really nothing he can do about the rest once they arrive. The minute the first grocery bag containing what he intuits are party provisions requires unloading from the car, he enters full throttle snit.

During preparation for festivities he will report hourly to me, as I generate more and more party related waste, that the barrels are getting full. Does he expect that I will say, “Oh. We’ll have to cancel the party because the city allotted trash receptacles are inadequate.”? Himself sometimes grouses about things that people have no control over. He is late to the dinner table, reporting to us that he’s been engaged in plunging the toilet. The kids, fruit of my loins, chime up immediately and in unison, “Did you wash your hands?” Himself is full of remonstration about the “stuff down there” which makes me feel guilty for serving even more food and putting the plumbing at further risk. Even if I could plan an event without a carbon footprint he dreads and resents anything threatening to impinge on book/computer time and his displeasure looms large as I cook and tidy.

In my Beloved’s comments regarding this piece there will be the link to the “Compassion for Your Introvert” article which he will remind you is the most downloaded article in the history of Atlantic Magazine, undoubtedly because he has downloaded it himself 10,000 times. While I make light of it, I have actually committed the article to memory and acknowledge that indeed introversion is a bona fide, clinically diagnosable condition and I repeat over and over my mantra, as I prepare for an onslaught of invited guests, “He’s not an asshole. He can’t help it,” and this has saved many a social gathering. As is stated in the article, he is actually not only capable of socializing but also capable of enjoying it but only in small doses with a buffer of long tranquil spaces on each end. It is the hubbub of preparation and the anticipation of restoring the house to normalcy that really get to him, so he is pleasant in the actual throes of the party, it’s just the periods before and after that require my zen meditation.

There are a couple friends I’d e-mail back and forth with a couple times a week, sometimes just quips or links and sometimes real letters. These are Facebook friends now and there’s an efficiency to having so many of your friends collected into a single compact unit but the only effective management for this merger will probably require some artifice. Perhaps the energy devoted into pleasing the crowd detracts from time formerly spent in nurturing individual relationships. Facebook, is more than a sophisticated telephone directory. Its enormous popularity has changed radically the way we interact with each other and present our selves. Facebook is your Self as media, which seems for many to behoove a warmish blandness. I receive a real letter, with paragraphs and all, that is pertinent and interesting to me and me alone and after a couple months skittering around Facebook, this feels particularly warm and satisfying.

I have, as I write this, 107 friends on Facebook. I have been friended by friends and acquaintances from college and earlier and I wonder if the reconnection with people from a time of my life when I felt like a big loser has reawakened the attenuate insecurities and after decades of latency, not getting enough love on Facebook is tantamount to being chosen last for the team. When I discover someone from college I remember with warmth or as being interesting I send a friend request accompanied by a few sentences of greeting and a memory of you and twenty-five words or fewer on who I’ve become in the 35 or so years since I saw you. I also respond to requests to be friended similarly. Often, there is no response to my message beyond the acceptance of the request and the only catch up is a sparse public profile and tiny Facebook glimmers of who exists now. Facebook has not only redefined social commerce but also the meaning of the word “friend.”

I am not the queen of the prom there but I like Facebook as a good consolidator of potentially interesting information and for the convivial atmosphere. It is a good tool for the maintenance of casual relationships but to expect anything more is to unnecessarily dredge up adolescent neediness, undermining years of therapy. I have 107 Facebook friends but Facebook, as a new phenomena, must be relegated to a new compartment. Real friends are only a tiny subset of Facebook friends. It is the endurance and quality of the relationships that didn’t require artificial resuscitation via the magic of the Internet that are my real sustenance. Once in a while, ok, about once a week, I use analytics to see who reads my blog and from what location. There are always a number of folks who look at the page once for about thirty seconds and then never return but there is a small core of readers who slog through my meanderings week in and week out and when I apply the map overlay function in the analytics program, I see that this well reflects that subset of real friends and I am reminded that while no hoity toity editors are badgering me for submissions my writing is indeed read by the audience that matters the most.

It is cool that people have happy memories of my parties and ironic that my most ardent supporter, my best Facebook and real friend looks forward to a colonoscopy with happier anticipation than to a social event. A thrifty man, Himself’s biggest investment in years is a pair of audio headphones that completely filter out the sound of my voice. Despite a monthly contract, his cellular phone remains powered off in order to fulfill the same purpose as the headphones. He is happily entrenched in the cyber world, his network much wider than my own but prefers to keep his three dimensional social interactions on a smaller scale. He gets real cranky about parties but maybe the reason it ticks me off that my ex boyfriends haven’t friended me is because I want them to see that I ended up with a terrifically smart husband who “likes” every single thing I post on Facebook. In this weird new social milieu and in our homely day-to-day, Himself demonstrates a love for me that when all my newfound old friends on Facebook knew me I could never have even imagined.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 4, 2010

An Orange

My mother will turn 90 soon. I notice a steady decline each Saturday when I visit. Sometimes she knows my name and sometimes I can make out the phrase “my daughter” from what is otherwise unintelligible jabber. Her face is soft and shows no tension and if she were to magically snap lucid, she’d be particularly pleased to see that she got her money’s worth on that last facelift. She eats with delight and climbs into a twin bed with her roommate at the board and care and they both sleep peacefully. The past few years, as the dementia has eaten away and taken her farther and farther from me, seem, given the years that preceded them, her most happy.

I’m not sure whether my memories of her unhappiness as chronic are exaggerated or corrupted by the terror she experienced, and the backlash consequently inflicted on me, as she attempted to conceal her slippage into dementia. If I’d realized what was happening I like to think I would have been more patient. I wonder too if the onset of the dementia began even decades before I finally picked up on it. My childhood memories of her are more weighted toward the selfishness and the screaming than the warm or the fuzzy, although my uncertainty as to when the brain actually begin to crumble fosters an inclination to forgive. With my own kids I try hard to keep the ratio of loving gesture to permanently damaging atrocity within a mentally healthy range. I worry though that my children’s more vivid memories will be of the times I fucked up. Perhaps my relentless mining of my own childhood for the joyful is a form of insurance that the preponderance of what my children remember about me will be good.

Edie and Thea, A Very Long Engagement is a documentary as sweet as it is efficient and elegant in recounting the forty year romance of its title characters. The women fell in love and have lived together since the 1960s. Thea’s Jewish family emigrated from Holland in the 1930s. A psychiatrist who treated her as a teenager assured her father that he would have her cured of her lesbianism and married off in no time. She refuses to expand about her relationship with her family when interviewed and she went on to become a psychologist herself. The film chronicles underground lesbian life in 50s and 60s Manhattan and the burgeoning gay rights movement. Edie and Thea much more resembled models from pages of Town and Country than the braless overalled crewcut sporting lesbians I usually associate with the genesis of the movement. They were very publically involved from the inception nevertheless, even though Edie, a pioneer in the computer field, had significant corporate ties and undoubtedly put her livelihood at risk. At the age of 45 Thea is diagnosed with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. My older sister Sheri was sentenced with the same diagnosis.

Edie and Thea have sufficient resources to provide an entourage of helpers and a lot of services, like hydrotherapy, which seemed to have prolonged Thea’s life and kept her free of pain. My sister depended mainly on public assistance although she refused to participate in hydrotherapy that was offered to her at no charge. I do not know her reason but given my family’s worship of physical beauty, I suspect it may have something to do with appearing in a bathing suit. Sheri also, despite medical advice to avoid warm climates, moved to Las Vegas. Her husband moved there in an attempt to end their relationship and she followed him there in an attempt not to. That both were compulsive gamblers exacerbated the consequences of a lifetime of bad decisions.

I have written many times over the past few years about my mom and dad and sister, trying to understand what it was that didn’t work, and while this propels my occasional forays into arrogant superiority, for all my words, the picture is still hazy. Edie dances, draped around Thea in her electric wheelchair, to some soppy pop song. My sister lived to dance too but the love that she craved eluded her. I was holding her hand when she died but it had been decades since anyone danced with her.

Dementia has ravaged my mother but also stripped her of a lifetime of inhibitions so she innocently clings to a warm body in the night. My father always seemed the most happy in the throes of acquisition, the latest fine things and the youngest fine women. Having been hungry as a child during the depression may explain his later penchant for conspicuous consumption and his love of buffets. Marriages and the onus of alimony and child support tarnished my own relationship with him. I sat with him too when he died. The hospice people unplugged the machines and said it would be only a few hours but he endured for thirty and I don’t know if this was due to a quirk of medical science or his iron will.

When finally all systems shut down and death was pronounced I was desperate to flee the stifling room at Cedars and my stepmother and I walked to our cars. I returned home for the first of dozens of uncleansing showers. My stepmother snuck back to my father’s body. She kissed his gangrenous legs. She clung close until she was physically removed and locked out of the morgue. Nearly three years later she is still essentially immobilized by widowhood and as frustrated as I get with her dogged refusal to try to have some sort of life, I am grateful that for all my own conflict with my dad, who never made as much money as he felt he deserved, he died feeling utterly and completely loved and remains so.

I correspond through a Jewish public service agency with three inmates in California prisons. One inmate, a lifer, is transferred recently from Mule Creek State Prison, to inaptly named Pleasant Valley State Prison for medical reasons. He writes about the transition to the new prison:

I am in the “hole” (first time ever) simply because they have no bed for me anywhere else. So, I have none of my property. I have been given boxers and t-shirt to wear. My shoes have been taken. I get cuffed and belly chained to leave the cell and I have to step out backwards. I can have a shower every three days (chained to go to it) and ½ a bar of miniature soap once a week.

I joined the penpal organization when I was laid very low by the economic downturn and was desperate to pull myself away from the refrigerator and have something that would improve my opinion of myself. I get a lot of letters from three men who have a lot of time on their hands. I write to each of them once weekly and mainly blather on about the day-to-day travails of my life. The composition of these three weekly letters remains in the back of my mind as I go about my day. While the self imposed obligation to describe my life to three men deprived of freedom and confined to what I consider cruel and inhumane prisons, isn’t always in the forefront, my tacit promise to them does obligate me to remain mindful of my own freedom.

I have California Code of Prison Regulations on my desk. It is several hundred pages but the interpretation of the rules varies wildly from prison to prison. Most California Corrections facilities do not serve inmates fresh fruit or products containing sugar because either can be fermented into prison moonshine, called pruno. The letter that describes the transition from Mule Creek to Pleasant Valley goes on to note a difference in policy at the new institution:

Imagine my delight on my first morning here when on my breakfast tray was an orange. A real orange. First one I’ve seen in five years. I cannot tell you how much I savored it. When it was gone, I ate the peel.

Himself was reared and maybe is even genetically predisposed, not to expect any happiness during this lifetime and that it is base and vulgar to aspire to anything purporting to give the kingdom of heaven a run for the money. My deli inclined/temple disinclined family was much more rooted in the here and now and coveted physical beauty and flashy material possessions. I learned early on that these were the requisites for happiness. While my beloved’s people would have trashed the relevance, there have been a number of studies in recent decades about the nature of happiness. Two years ago, French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy appointed a commission to study how the government could be more effective and the conclusion was that a nation’s gross national product had little to do with general quality of life and that increasing public happiness and satisfaction is a better objective of government policy than financial growth.

Other studies corroborate that the rich are not necessarily, and often not at all, more happy than the poor. There is also indeed evidence that there are genetic factors that effect an individual’s disposition. Older people are apparently more predisposed to happiness than younger ones and religious people are generally more upbeat than non-believers.

Statistics on Alzheimer’s suggest that my mother will not live very long and while she lacks the cognition to evaluate her own state of well-being, via proxy on her behalf, I would aver that this final stage of her life can be considered happy. My dad’s memory is beloved and I like to think that by mining my memories of my sister, who in her too short life really only harmed herself, I pay a little tribute. If nothing else, maybe she would be happy to think that I remember her. Shortly before Thea’s death, she and Edie are married in Toronto. The assistance of helpers is required to help Thea slide a ring on Edie’s finger and both beam as their forty years of love is finally consecrated.

A year ago I was uncertain whether my business would endure but as I write this, the phones are not ringing off the hook but the lights are on. My children hit me up for money all the time but have very few physical requirements of me now. They are tall enough to get me things from high shelves and are capable, when I luck out, of lively conversation and excellent cultural recommendations. My beloved is on a well deserved, albeit too little, too late, sabbatical and has had a number of stellar book and music reviews published in prestigious publications and during our twenty plus years together, I have never seen him so much in his element. The puppy Oprah is almost housebroken and the other dogs have bonded with her. There is a basket of oranges on the counter.

I am superstitious and am always uptight and afraid of jinxing things but given the inevitable twists and turns life takes, it seems foolish not to drink in and be grateful when times are good. My family thought that heaven was a silly gentile notion and I was conditioned to seek happiness here on this earth but in the wrong places. My beloved learned that his existence vis a vis the mortal coil was a mere conduit to eternal life in heaven or hell. He is superstitious like I am and also has that “who the fuck are you to be happy?” thing etched on his soul. Still, I take a risk and ask him one night if he doesn’t really think that this is a happy time for us, expecting he’ll change the subject or otherwise deflect the question. He stretches in the bed though and rubs my bushy head. He whispers, “Yeah.” In my humanistic Jewy rationality I cannot imagine that such a state as heaven exists but as we share a pillow on a balmy night, I cannot imagine that it doesn’t.

Shabbat Shalom