Friday, July 9, 2010

The Summertime Rues

Home for nearly a week, I am still sort of on a vacation from adulthood. The family sends my inmate pen pals postcards from the Madonna Inn and I go a week without writing to them. Someone suggests it is cruel to send prisoners postcards of hotel rooms, albeit incredibly tacky ones, but taking time during our vacation to let them know they’re remembered doesn’t draw attention to our freedom vs. their lack of it. California prisons are grim and dispiriting places but the lack of human connection is far more devastating than the surroundings. We remember their birthdays and send them holiday cards and photos of significant events and new pets. I tell them about our lives and they weigh in about Spuds watching too much t.v. or the seventeen year old’s driving lessons. We have a good life and as much as we are able, we share it with them. They are happy for us. Having visited prisons, I am able to visualize the trajectory of the thick letters I receive, being written longhand on yellow legal paper and inspected and stamped California State Prison in red letters. While the letters themselves are usually cheerful and caring and funny, sometimes the heaviness of their origin dogs me and I allow several to accumulate unread on my desk.

One of my pen pals has recently been transferred for medical purposes from Mule Creek State Prison to the unfortunately named Pleasant Valley. Sugar is restricted at most California prisons because inmates make a type of moonshine called pruno with it. Apparently Pleasant Valley is less punctilious about the enforcement of this, and in general the fare is much better there overall. For several weeks he rhapsodizes about fresh fruit and jelly beans. There is a large stack of letters waiting when I return from vacation and I choose to read his first due to the cheerfulness of his last few missives. Instead of the latest edition of Prison Gourmet, the letter begins with a detailed complaint about the institutional plumbing system and after a sentence or two I fold it back into its envelope and stash it away.

I post only briefly on the blog. I listen to Philip Roth’s first novel, the very difficult and remarkably fresh, Letting Go on CD (21 for a 630 page book) in the car. Roth was 29 when the novel was published and listening to it read suggests to me, that at age 53, I should abandon my writing aspirations. I guess I am also relieved, that at 29 or even 53, I don’t think my imaginings could ever yield grief as excessive as Roth foists on his characters. Other than the weighty car tome, for the first few days home after vacation I feel dull. I haven’t exercised and have been overeating for the past several weeks and I never know if it’s hormonal or a fundamental lack of character. I think about enrolling in an MFA program. I think about joining a gym. I consider a protein drink fast or a cellular phone upgrade. I start to feel lousy about not writing to the prisoners and going days on end without writing anything of value or reading anything pertinent to injustice. Maybe it’s just that summer thing.

My kids survive May and June by marking the days until summer, but just like it was for me, and for most kids, except those who are off to Paris or safari, summer is the year’s biggest anticlimax. The novelty of not going to school morphs quickly in to the onus of not going to school. I look forward to the respite from making breakfast, driving to school, packing lunches and fascista homework encouragement, but now, with vacation over, without this purpose, I languish instead of working out or imagining world peace.


The coordinator of a summer Internship program for kids whose families receive public assistance asks me to hire three interns who will receive a salary paid by some special school district funds. I agree but hear nothing. Cynically, I assume this is because I’ve advised the sponsor that interns would need to be at grade level in their reading and writing skills. Several weeks later she does contact me and apologetically explains that most of her students have opted for internships in retailing. There is however one girl who has expressed an interest working at my film archive. The sponsor indicates that the girl lives in the neighborhood and is a student at UC Riverside. The prospective intern, she tells me is also working this summer on coordinating fund raising projects for her sorority. I agree to interview her. She arrives a half hour early and announces, “Leila sent me.” She does not introduce herself or ask for me by name.

She is tiny and Asian and has on jeans so tight I can only think of Monostat. I ask her if she knows what we do and with lips parted, she shakes her head. I am surprised that she hasn’t looked up the company on the web before arriving for an interview, particularly as she purports having graduated from a business magnet high school. She asks a few questions, none pertinent to the actual work assignments. The program requires interns to complete 160 hours of work prior to August 20. Based on this, I ask her how many hours a week she would need to put in and she fidgets. I tell her that it would be about 26 hours a week and she complains that this will interfere with her work on behalf of the sorority.

I presume interns are paid about $8 an hour so the summer gross will be around $1300.00. My inner Republican is indignant that a member of a family receiving public assistance would look down her nose at an opportunity to earn $1300 and get some experience in the real working world. It seems she is assigning greater value to her social aspirations than to a not insignificant chunk of change and a bettering experience. It is difficult for me to ascribe anything other than shallowness to college fraternities and sororities but perhaps based on some combination of her personal experiences and what the future bodes for someone who will graduate college in 2013, a commitment to a sorority may actually be more practical in the long run.

I notice the words “Lil Chola” embossed on the back of her jacket as she leaves. I wonder if she planned in advance to be deemed unsuitable for the internship or if she is genuinely clueless. Is it culturally insensitive or classist to expect a graduate of a business high school who is accepted at the University of California to make a better impression even if she is economically disadvantaged?

Paolo Freire wrote in 1970 that “no pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.” Perhaps my expectations of my would-be trainee brand me an educated white oppressor. Maybe the institution of the sorority has blossomed into a shining temple of redemption. Regardless, I hope that the intern I’ve rejected will be better prepared for her next job interview.

My seventeen year old, after a rigorous prep session, endures the ACT Test. Many of his friends who are also entering the twelfth grade have already taken this, as well as the SAT several times and also a number of subject tests in categories that seem to me more grad school than high school. Families we know spring for 10k college counselors. I see the boy stressed out in the face of the ACT and agitated when a remiss teacher fails to grade an assignment which might reduce his grade in a history course from an A to a B. Part of me feels we have failed to be on top of things and perhaps some avenues of opportunity are permanently closed because we’ve been so laissez faire, but seeing how stressed out the 17 year old becomes even with our college light approach, I am glad we haven’t ascribed to the Isabel Buckley philosophy. The Buckley school in Sherman Oaks is one of L.A’s most prestigious. It was attended by the children of wealthy relatives who I spent a lot of time with while growing up. An autographed copy “College Begins at Two,” pruney Buckley glowering on the cover, graced the bookshelf.

Himself and I were both math imbeciles in high school. I was fortunate to land in geometry with Fred Carrington at Grant High School who was the best teacher I ever had. Somehow, he not only made me get it, he made it beautiful. Himself says that algebra and geometry are a waste of time and that kids should only be taught practical math. My potential intern, who was unable to figure out how many hours of work she’d have to put in, makes a good case for this but in that kids have no reason to hurry to finish school and be unemployed, why not take the time for both? I wrote Mr. Carrington a note a few years ago to tell him what a life changer he’d been and got a nice note back. I found out later that he’d received a Disney Teaching Award, which is the highest honor that can be bestowed on an educator and so my praise was just a drop in the bucket.

Our boys haven’t found Mr. Carrington yet but we’ve been able occasionally, unlike our own parents, to bring in a tutor on an emergency basis to keep them afloat. Math is a struggle for them and probably a subject that will rule out for them both a number of universities. This was the case for Him and myself. We ended up with scholarships at less prestigious liberal arts colleges. But, I was never taught by a graduate student. Fewer than fifteen students were enrolled in my largest classes. For over thirty-five years I have remained in touch with some of my professors and they continue to help shape my thinking. My young adult son will make his own choices but I hope he lands somewhere in the world where his fitness as a student is determined by more than a test score.


Himself notes the cool in Felton again and again. “59 degrees, he exclaims, in July!” There is nothing, except reports of puppy vandalism, on the home front to make us dread returning but we are a bit somber on the ride home, down the aptly bleak Interstate 5. We return to an unseasonably cool L.A. I’ve broken out the summer wardrobe of cotton skirts and sandals and because it is summer, no matter how chilly it is, I refuse to wear a sweater, banking the memory of this cool time for the inevitable months of triple digit heat. In mere moments I’ll be bitching about sack lunches and homework and again counting the days until summer surcease so maybe it isn’t so profligate to sleep a bit later. I try to wean myself a bit from vacation languor and force a three mile treadmill stint. I finish the prison letter describing time delay toilets. I’ve had a real vacation though and as I ease back into the day to day, what felt at the end of a hectic school year like a weight to be lifted, feels now solid and mine. A heatwave is inevitable and the balance between heaviness and purposefulness will always shift. We are not jetting off to Paris or a swanky safari and we tell the kids they are lucky to have batteries in the remotes. But there will be more trips up north and more good memories to be made and to bank for when it’s hectic, hot or heavy.

Shabbat Shalom

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

I rouse myself from the couch to which after a long commute and wearying traffic I crashed, after putting the challah in the oven, and from which I rose, after taking it out, to read this entry.

You have a way with wordplay, and matching that to Freire takes a nimble, nifty eye. Yes, cherries gone, berries from up North baked into a cake I've enjoyed all week, and back to the usual smog, dust, and clamor, I too feel the post-vacation letdown, in body and mind. I've been forcing myself on that same treadmill.

But the thought of you by my side to get us through the quotidian makes me happier I wound up with you rather than some sorority gal from Stanford (even if she might have made more money than both of us combined!). xxx me