Friday, July 30, 2010

Walking Mom

Michael Kinsley writes for the Atlantic Wire that a story about the death of Silver Lake’s Walking Man in the New York Times is one of the most boring ever published. He notes that Walking Man Marc Abrams garners so much attention by his presence in our streets because he is an affluent physician firstly and an eccentric secondly. Kinsley speculates that the death of an equally present person who rails at the universe and pushes a shopping cart will not be noted. Perhaps the story is only of interest to locals but the seemingly harmless nut, who was sighted so frequently as to become local lore, leaves a complicated and mysterious story.

Reports have surfaced that the Walking Man is being investigated for unlawfully prescribing schedule 3 drugs. He is vilified and suddenly our sorrow at his passing feels icky. Is he a greedy narcissist who works only nights and gouges addicts so that earning a living doesn’t impinge on his compulsion to exercise? I work with drug addicts in the 70s and a number of years later, after a series of surgeries, I find myself quite hooked on opiate pain killers. I pay big bucks for phone consultations with specious doctors all over the country. It is three years next month since I took the last 1/4 of a Norco pill after detoxing myself over a period of several months. I will never be able to refer to this period without reference to Himself’s steadfastness and bravery. I still receive calls from pseudo pharmacies on a regular basis trying to sell me expensive opiates shipped via Fed Ex. Drug addicts are treated first and foremost as criminals but after years of counseling addicts in withdrawal and ironically years later experiencing opiate withdrawal myself, I know how cruel this is.

Perhaps the Walking Man is a sympathetic practitioner who knows the degradation that addicts endure. Maybe I don’t have an inkling or it is somewhere in between and the Walking Man does have compassion for patients but he also enjoys the spoils of profiteering from our country's ass backwards attitudes about drug addiction. We are all saints and sinners. Perhaps the Walking Man’s compulsion to exercise was some sort of mortification. Maybe in the moment in the hot tub, before the self administered overdose kicked in, came his final cleansing.

My mother is still of the earth but cleansed and at peace. The attendant at the board and care asks that I have her skirts all shortened so she can attend to her personal needs more efficiently. She also asks that I buy an eyebrow pencil and some new earrings. Even though my mother is so ravished by dementia that she cannot form a cogent sentence and most of the time when I visit she does not know my name, the caretakers have a strong sense of her former person.

I notice that the bibs four lady residents wear for mealtime are faded and well worn. I search for adult bibs on EBay and find some that are bright and cheerful and I order four although my former mother would be irate that I am including the other three ladies. The current vestige of my mother won’t know the difference. I will bring the new bibs and a chocolate bar for her and she will be childish in her pleasure. I visit every Saturday. I cannot go alone and sucker the kids or my friend Richard to accompany me. I hate that there is so little I can do beyond bibs and chocolate and that the moment I leave the board and care brings a sense of extraordinary relief.

The seventeen year old has a less than salubrious relationship with the Department of Motor Vehicles, as did I decades ago myself when attempting to qualify for a license to drive an automobile. We make many trips to the DMV due to his similarity to his mother in not testing well but also a number of purely abortive missions. Not once, but twice, the seventeen year old is all geared up to take the test and the current registration is left on my desk. Of course, being the DMV they have no way to verify that the registration is renewed. Another time we are refused the test because, while the website indicates a two week wait is necessary between tests, it is actually two weeks and a day. Everyone to whom I’ve recounted my screw ups has made reference to Sigmund Freud and sabotage.

He is driving very well and can park and drive on a very busy freeway and I am pretty much not frightened. Budget cuts make it even more difficult to schedule an appointment for a driving exam. When we are sure the 17 year is ready, the Van Nuys branch lists an available appointment two weeks earlier than any other branch in the county. I failed the test there on Vanowen street, the Valley at its bleakest, three times before the examiner finally took pity on my tears and issued me a license.

We head off early on the big day. The seventeen year old has been expressing anxiety about the test for weeks although he is at ease behind the wheel. On the way to Van Nuys his driving is erratic though. He merges beautifully onto a crowded freeway but then starts to make a left turn into oncoming traffic. Apparently the reason the Van Nuys DMV has a testing appointment available so much sooner than their counterparts is that they overbook. The wait of over two hours ratchets up our anxiety.

The test goes badly although the examiner is incredibly nice about it. I am devastated. I am looking forward to not driving him and having him run a few errands for me to compensate for my nearly 18 year chauffer stint but it is awful to see him fail. He is wounded and frustrated but he does not blame the examiner or the route through an unfamiliar area. I am proud at his maturity and we drown our sorrows at Corky’s, a valley coffee shop I remember from childhood that recently reopened.

There’s a Roseanne bit about fat moms being better than thin moms because when you’re devastated the thin mom suggests you run a few laps to work off the tension and a fat mom shares a two pound bag of M&Ms with you. The chocolate cake at Corky’s is excellent and we talk about how when something you’ve been afraid of really happens it always turns out that the anticipation is worse than the actual experience. Returning from the DMV, we see a terrible accident which I think is only by coincidence in front of the Braille institute. As anguished as I am by the young man’s anguish, I am relieved to not have that to worry about that for a bit longer.

My own mother was less of a micromanager of me than I am of my kids. This was typical of the era, but she did go to bat for me a number of times. I was sick at middle school, and while waiting for Mom to fetch me, the tight assed spinster girls vice Principal Miss Heinmiller noticed I was wearing jeans with patches, all the rage in 1969. She went ballistic and said I should be ashamed of myself for coming to school dressed like a hobo. "If your pants rip, there is nothing to sewing a neat seam!" My mom arrived, dressed quite casually herself, and let into the v.p. for hounding me when I was sick and for her blindness to current teenage fashions.

I also remember taking the bus by myself at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to Barnsdall Park in Hollywood when I was about twelve to wait in line to register for free art classes. I have no memory of discussing college or any other educational or professional aspirations with either of my parents. I called the admissions department of a college that my high school counselor told me offered early admission in lieu of 12th grade. I drove myself to the campus and spent the night in a dorm. I applied by myself and was accepted. My mother filled out a financial aid application and I packed up my car and took off. I have no memory of either of my parents visiting my college campus in Redlands, about an hour from L.A. until my graduation.

Towards fulfilling the requirements of graduation I held a screening of some videos I made, shot with a video camera the size and heft of a steamer chest filled with bricks. One was a series of interviews with women in their thirties. I wanted to know how it was to have missed out on the Age of Aquarius. I knew them to be tragically bereft of the heightened consciousness I’d attained. I’d glommed unquestionably to a lot of hippie mumbo jumbo at age twelve, and clung to it for about five years too many, as typified by being in London in 1976 and seeing an incredibly unctuous folk band with Breck girl hair called Tir Na Nog instead of the Sex Pistols.

The first woman I interviewed was the founder of a large successful teen rehab program. She grew inpatient with the vacuity of my questions. The next was with my sister Sheri and I don’t know if I would play this tape if it should surface. I chew around Sheri’s life for the decade since her death. It is only very recently that I’ve begun to process the extent of her brittleness. I might have really been terrible to her on camera. I don’t recall what I asked only that we sat on my mother’s big fancy couch under a bright light. All I remember of the video itself is that her face looks very sad. I spend a lot of time speculating about my mother and my sister and the demons. I obfuscated my real self from them and then blamed them for not loving me right, just like they taught me.

The senior project presentation is a big event and I designed invitations which included a suggestive photo of me with an ex-boy friend, the posing for which I hoped would lure him back to my ample bosom. I sent these invitations to friends and family. My parents did not attend the event. Unfortunately I do not remember if there was nipple showing which would have been really bad if I’d sent it to various and sundry aunts and uncles. If this indeed was the case, then I certainly forgive their boycott of my show.

Himself and I talk a lot about how much our kids have it better then we did and we wax smug about how much better we are as parents. We took charge of our own educations early on and got a pretty indifferent response when we excelled, as in his case, or did ok, as in mine. Neither of us can remember our parents much interacting with our teachers, at least on our own behalf, as one of my teachers did become my mom’s drinking buddy. I think we are less hands-on than many of our friends are but we are much more engaged in advocating for our children than our own parents were. We, however, were born at a time when the neighborhood school was a fine and only option. In my 1960s a kid’s life could pretty much be accomplished within walking distance. I worry about the inevitable consequences of our generation’s adaptation to parenting.

I am committed to an all female novelist binge in an effort to find books worthy of shaming my misogynist, not one woman author on his ten top books list, beloved. I am winding down first from an orgy with the last star, ala Liz Taylor, novelist still alive and even writing, Phillip Roth. I am uncomfortably uncomfortable with much of Roth’s 1977 Professor of Desire except there is one scene that is now one of my favorite in literature.

Roth’s David Kepish, is an accomplished PhD in English and the son of a borsht belt hotelier. The typically thrifty old man, with much ceremony, presents his professor son with a gift. It is a set of silver medallions, produced by a company that’s similar to the Franklin Mint, each representing one of Shakespeare’s plays. The case has sections for Histories, Tragedies and Comedies. The elder Kepish is certain that his son will want to show it to his students but he is adamant that it only be handled by admirers wearing gloves.

Himself received a television from his parents when he graduated from college. My mother took tours of Europe with miles she accrued by strategic credit card use. Of import when travelling to most of the great cities of the world was first class air tickets and shopping ardent enough to locate atrocious souvenirs in even the most sophisticated of cities. On a trip to Germany she came back with a music box adorned with blond plastic Hummel-like dolls. I forget what song it played but it doesn’t matter because all I heard was Deutschland Deutschland Uberalis. On a trip to Israel she came back with a keffiyeh, just like Yasser Arafat wears and told me it was a tablecloth. Sadly, I was unrestrained in expressing my revulsion at these love offerings.

I like to think I am better in touch but sometimes my own loving gestures are met with disgust. It seems our children are strangers to us like we were to our own parents. Is it the curse of the generations that parents be perennially out of the loop and incapable of appropriate demonstrations of affection? Perhaps I'm destined to be as out of touch as Roth’s old man Kepish and his Shakespeare medallions. I hope my kids are gentler with me than I was with my mother.
Shabbat Shalom


Fionnchú said...

Paul Murray in "Skippy Dies" sums up being 14. He takes 660 pp. to do so, but he does it well. "At a point in life in which the lovely nurturing homes built for them by their parents have become unendurable Guantánamos, and any time spent away from their peers is experienced at best as a mind-numbing commercial break for things no one wants to buy on some old-person's TV break channel and at worst as a torture not incomparable to actually genuinely being nailed to a cross"--well, even the boarders at a failing Dublin boy's school are envied their domicile by the local lads.

I think our two feel that way. Odd as we too longed to escape our domiciles. We did, as young as we could. I wonder if they'll be able to do so now? Or if they really want to?

Murray also sums up being 28 and already feeling worn out. The knowledge of "de-dreamification," that this is as good as it may get. There is wisdom as well as satire in such observations. Which I know you and they understand. xxx me

Pat said...

As usual the commonality of our experience leaves me breathless -- from a son failing the driver's test, to fending completely for yourself in college, to interviewing old hippies with clunky video cameras in college (my senior project was on lesbian food co-ops!)
Lovely writing,

Layne said...

Yeah, Patty, I don't know anyone whose path approximates mine so closely. And thanks for the kind words too, high praise coming from a writer I admire.

Carolyn said...

So you still get the drug telemarketers too? I am constantly fending off East Indian callers who cannot pronounce either my first or last name hustling me to re-order some med I bought online 10 years ago....Do you think I'll EVER get off that call list? Oy.