Friday, August 27, 2010

Road Trip

Himself and I are happy in the Mount Hermon cabin but there is always a wistfulness at knowing that inevitably our stay is too short. The kids are less sanguine as the opportunities for electronic entertainment are fewer. I drop them in nearby Scott’s Valley to see Piranha and then go to have a signal light replaced on my car. The ringer on my phone is accidentally turned off and when I return to the cabin Himself tells me they have called and said they are stranded as the management refused to admit 14 year old Spuds to an R rated film. I fetch them and return to theater with him the following day. I say that he has my permission to see the film but they refuse to admit him unless I attend with him and proceed to unbraid me as a bad parent. “You don’t want him to see that film” a woman intones. “Yes, actually, I do.” I don’t bother mentioning we’re from L.A. and the woman goes on to tell me that the plot of the film revolves around the production of a porno film and she will not let go of her ire that I would even consider exposing Spuds to this. I realize we’re not getting anywhere but as we retreat from the theater, the Seventeen year old utters in a good stage whisper, “We’ll just go home and watch porn.”

It’s been a long time since I slept in the same room with the kids. Both slept in bed with us for what seemed at the time forever but I cannot remember now exactly when both of them stopped. I write this from a Microtel across the street from a Walmart in Klamath Falls Oregon. In the old days I use a Frommer’s or a Lonely Planet, find a place that sounds good and call and reserve a room. Now I start with Trip Advisor, study the ratings and then check availability which then leads to Expedia and Priceline and six other sites so I can compare prices. Then I go directly to the hotel’s website and see if it is less expensive to book directly. It is arduous and in my haste I fail to notice that while well rated and very inexpensive, the Microtel is about 8 miles from the town proper and in a staggeringly unattractive area. I disbelieve the GPS because it “couldn’t possibly be this way,” and after driving around for forty five minutes amid swarms of mosquitos worthy of a horror film we finally call the hotel and the woman directs us via fast food purveyors, “go past the Wendy’s and turn right at the Burger King and then left at the A&W.” She is affable when we arrive, extremely portly and with food crumbs adhering to her upper lip. She gives us free tickets for the bowling alley across the street where I can get additional discount because it is Ladies Night.

We have driven over seven hours from Santa Cruz. The seventeen year old sleeps stretched out in the back seat for most of the trip. Spuds rides shotgun and is responsible for providing me with snacks, changing the CDs of the audiobook I listen to, navigating and finding restaurants via Yelp on my new smart phone. He is patient and nonplused. He will be a better spouse than either of his parents. He finds a place called Louis Cairo in Williams California. There are branding irons and guys in cowboy hats and homemade bread with an inch of roasted garlic. We had almost no breakfast and by three p.m. we are famished. I righteously order a salmon salad and try to hold back on the bread but then blow it with fresh berry cobbler. There has been an issue with a missing Ipod car charger and while we are able to partially recharge at the restaurant the seventeen year old goes a bit over the edge when we exit the restaurant into 110 degree heat and he is unable to locate his headphones. Spuds and I, manage to remain calm and supportive and Spuds returns to the restaurant to see if they’d been left there. This seems to further rankle the Seventeen year old although when he does locate the headphones in a door pocket he thanks us for having been so patient so he too is probably better marriage material than either of the ‘rents.

Himself is only with us for three days in the cabin we love in Mount Hermon and we are both sad when we drop him at the airport in San Jose to return to work to proceed on our Oregon college tour. We are seldom separated for more than a week and it is hard for me to imagine him feeding himself and tending to the house. He calls around dinner time, as we are driving through the spectacular Shasta Lake area and asks if it’s ok to eat the carrots in the refrigerator or if I was saving them. We will be gone over a week and I guess it is with admiration he believes I plan meals that far in advance. Given the green light on consuming the carrots he asks how to prepare them.

We stop for gas in Dunsmuir and drive through the historic town and we note that like in so many places we visit, most of the store fronts on the main street are vacant and boarded up. . The kids note that most of the inhabitants they see on the streets resemble something out of My Name is Earl. I realize what strikes them in these little towns in Northern California is that, unlike at home, the most of the people who commute on foot are white.

The Seventeen Year old texts constantly with a number of his friends who are newly arrived at college. They tell him about roommates and orientation and his reaction is complex. Three of his closest friends are gone and it will be a long time before he sees them again. He is happy for them but also anxious for himself about being faced with the same prospect in a year. I remember starting college and knowing no one and writing a lot of letters to friends at home. A friend’s daughter writes thank you notes for college graduation gifts and she does not now how to address an envelope. There was a payphone in the lobby of my dorm but it was long distance and reserved only for calling parents collect to ask for money. I suspect that as soon as friends acclimate to college life and begin to make friends that their contact with the 17 year old will be less frequent and as they settle in my boy’s own apprehension about the big change will diminish.
We are three and not four and without Himself we can order what we want in a restaurant although while the maternal 25% of the family is never averse to starters and dessert, beverages containing sugar are frowned upon. We lack however our repository of information. We drive through the Crater Lake area, one of the most beautiful drives I have ever taken but the kids and I are too lazy to read explanatory signage and haven’t studied up and without Himself we all know that we do not fully appreciate what we are seeing.

Himself and I agree that while we traveled far less frequently as children than our own children do, memories of childhood travel are our most vivid and among the happiest. I miss Himself during this atypically long separation although I am thankful that he has adapted to his new Smartphone to the extent that he can text us frequently. I am aware that there won’t be that many family road trips in our future. I hope that my children remember this one like I remember my own childhood ventures away from home. We know that this is a significant period in history and I suspect as adults my children will remember the economic crisis we have yet to surface from with the same poignance as my parents remember the depression. I hope too that they remember how fortunate we feel to be able to make such a journey and that for these few days before the beginning of school and my eldest’s 18th birthday, that we are happy.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Works in Progress

My kids are pestering me to meet up with their friend Gustavo who they say needs to “just practice” a presentation he is learning for his job. The boys deny that he will be trying to sell me something and even though I suspect otherwise, he’s a nice kid, so I relent. Gustavo lives in Santa Barbara and he visits on the weekends. He has no car and while his family lives nearby, it is a steep walk up the hill to our house on a warm day. He graduated high school last year and had aspired to attend, with his girlfriend since the 6th grade, UC Santa Barbara. The girlfriend is admitted and he is not. He is offered generous scholarships at several prestigious universities on the East Coast and also for UC Merced but he declines them. He moves with Santa Barbara with his girlfriend, ostensibly to attend community college there and transfer to UCSB as a junior but, in one of the most expensive cities in the country, earning a living takes precedence.

As I expected, Gustavo is selling Cutco Knives. Poking around food websites I discover that these are actually pretty good knives, albeit grossly overpriced, but there is an icky sales scheme and the firm particularly preys on college students. Cutco uses boiler room tactics to pressure sales kids to invest in an expensive set of demo knives and then requires them to collect names and addresses of friends and relations for a “memory exercise.” I tell Gustavo from the get-go that we are vegetarians but he has been so conditioned not to vary even a syllable from the Cutco script that he spends a long time talking about boning chickens and steak knives. Most knife sets run around $800.00. I make the smallest possible purchase, a spatula, for $50.00. Gustavo asks me for the names and phone numbers of my friends and I turn him down. Part of me wants to tell him to ditch the Cutco gig pronto but I know he has spent a lot of time attending training sessions and has paid a lot of money out of pocket for a set of demo knives.

I drive Gustavo to his mom’s. Some cholos are being arrested in front of his building. I wonder how many knives he will be able to sell. The Cutco exposés on the web say that most of the students are able to sell a set or two to family members who purchase them out of guilt. Eventually the kids realize the impossibility of selling such high roller items and are left with a set of pricey knives and little financial remuneration when they give up. I go full throttle into guilty white lady mode and worry that Gustavo’s relatives will be buying, on time, expensive knives they don’t need and can’t afford. I know that my control over my kids is on the wane but I cannot imagine that they would turn down college scholarships or get caught up in a sales scam without me going all banshee on them.

My friend Lito has worked for us for over twenty years. He has three daughters in their twenties. Two are in the service and one lives on a base with her Marine husband. I tell him that a friend of the kids is driving them to the Rock the Bells concert in San Bernardino and he asks if I know the driver’s parents. I say that I don’t but that the kid is attending UCLA. He raises an eyebrow and I realize how stupid it is to confer good character on a kid based on which college takes him. He sees my seventeen year old come into the office, ostensibly to complete an online Spanish course and archive some films, spend most of his time asleep or on Facebook. Lito asks me if any of the seventeen year old’s friends are enlisting in the military which I read between the lines to mean “this might be a good solution for that lazy assed kid.” I know one boy who is trying to enlist but this is pretty much an anomaly and most of the seventeen year old’s friends are college bound. I am embarrassed and frustrated by the seventeen year old’s laziness but unlike my friend Lito I don’t consider the military as a possible antidote.

Ana cleaned my mother’s house and has been cleaning mine for over thirty years. Her son Hairo is six months older than our seventeen year old and had planned himself to enter the military after completing high school. He is like a brother to my children and they spend more time with him than any of their other friends. Hairo has difficulty at regular school and transfers to a continuation high. He’s had a girlfriend for about 6 months and since hooking up hasn’t been attending school and has had no luck with finding a job.

Ana understands a lot of English but except for saying “scuse me” when she accidently kicks one of the dogs, is too embarrassed to speak it. She is unable to read and can write only her name and numbers. We often find little scraps of papers on which she has written a phone number in a kindergartenish scrawl. Oddly she has savant like spatial and mechanical abilities and is able to dismantle and repair a faucet using only a kitchen knife. When the kids were little we had an extremely complicated three dimensional dinosaur skeleton to assemble. We were all stymied by it but came home to find the thing fully assembled by Ana. She has three sons and until Hairo rented an apartment this week with his girlfriend, they all live together with a dog they keep hidden from the landlord in a ramshackle apartment in Frogtown. My kids spend a lot of time there lounging about on all of our cast off furniture.

I am haunted by a scene in the 1980s film Racing with the Moon. Elizabeth McGovern plays a girl whose mom works as a maid for a wealthy family. The housekeeper’s girl is best friends with the rich folk’s daughter. The dad returns from a trip and presents the maid’s girl with a sweater and his own daughter with a dazzling pearl necklace. There are a few frames of McGovern that capture her appreciation at being remembered combined with a tiny wistfulness at the enormous disparity. I know that Ana and her kids consider us kind and generous but I often wonder how the disparity registers.

Ana’s sons have been translating for her since they were able to speak. The two with driver’s licenses drive her all over. Ana’s kids floundered in school and I am aware that ours excel partially because they live in a house full of books with two educated parents who keep up a pretty sophisticated level of discourse. But Ana’s kids have navigated the real world in a way that ours never have.

Ana’s middle son attended for profit college to train as a parole officer. He now owes about 20k in student loans but is now unable to qualify for a job because, due to the loans, he has a poor credit rating. We assume that our children will attend university and perhaps their admission to a good school will make some other parent feel comfortable about our kid driving their kid to a rock concert. Higher education, particularly in the liberal arts, to which I suspect both of my children will gravitate, no longer guarantees economic security but unless they tell me point blank that they are not interested, I will do what I can to help them get admitted to the colleges of their choice. There is a lot of press lately about college, based upon graduate’s employment statistics, being a poor value. I hope whatever path my kids take after high school that it nurtures their inspiration for a lifetime of learning, even if they end up crashing, jobless, back at Casamurphy at certain junctures.

The Los Angeles Times is on the verge of printing the test results for the students of every teacher in the school district. My friend Kim is known throughout the neighborhood to be the best teacher in the best elementary school in the city. She agrees that teaching to the test doesn’t better most kids. Kim also gives an example of how unfair it is to evaluate teacher performance based on scores. She examines the test results of one of her fifth graders and discovers that the student didn’t miss any problems on the test in fourth grade and in fifth grade missed only a single problem, but one that happened to be weighted very heavily and stastistically registers as a 30% decline from 4th to 5th grade. There is indeed a lot of ineffectual teaching but the union often puts the needs of its membership above the needs of the students they serve. UTLA has been wishy washy for years with regard to getting lousy teachers out of the classroom.

Unfortunately neither test scores, nor parent, administrative or peer evaluation really accurately measures a good teacher. I know teachers who charm parents and administrators and even students but are pedagogically clueless. I think back about the teachers who mattered to me and the only commonality is a sparkle in the eye that says, “I really love this subject and I want you to love it too.” I wish there was a measurement for eye sparkle.

The driver’s license thing has gone on now for nearly two years and is remarkably fraught for both of us. The seventeen year old and I spend a lot of time at a number of different DMVs. The bureaucracy is impossible to navigate and it surprises me that so many people are able to negotiate the system to become licensed drivers. I finally throw in the towel and hire a driving school to practice a bit with the seventeen year old and take him for the behind the wheel test. He drives me to the office and not very artfully, making a few not particularly smooth stops. The teacher comes to fetch him and I send him off, secretly relieved that if he fails the test again the instructor will be stuck in the car with him on the ride home instead of me. I plan a number of errands to take my mind off of the testing in progress but am insufficiently distracted and too sick to my stomach to enjoy samples at either Costco or Trader Joes. The seventeen year old calls, very agitated, reporting that the DMV has no record of the appointment I waited for over an hour on the phone to make for him. He screams. I scream. The instructor takes the phone and calmly promises to take care of it.

The phone rings about a half hour later and the 17 Year Old reports that he’s passed the test. I whoop so loudly that when I go to announce it to my officemates, they’ve already figured it out. The seventeen year old returns and I send him on the first of many errands I have been looking forward to him running. He gets me books instead of books on tape for my library list and manages to get a concrete parking slab wedged between the front tires of the car. I send him to the market by himself and he calls and I panic. It is only a question about items on my list but it is a “be careful what you wish for” moment, enhanced by his unconcealed resentment at having been imposed upon to run an errand.

Himself is crazy for the Droid. We even text message back and forth. From inside the house. From the same room. “I’m going to bed.” “So am I.” I try to call him while he is on an errand though and he doesn’t answer. I mention that he hadn’t answered the phone and he confesses to having forgotten it.

I try to attach a leash to a skinny but otherwise recovered puppy Oprah to take her for a walk but she is too wild so I leave her home. I am taking my driver’s licensed high school senior elder son on a tour of colleges. Maybe he’ll find a good fit but if nothing else, we will hone his driving skills a bit as we head to Portland. I hope the other kids we know whose parents don’t do college tours find opportunities to affirm and nurture their own abilities. Our public schools are so lacking that sometimes the only hope seems to start over but there are at least some teachers who, no matter how rotten the system is, light up the classroom. Himself will start to remember to carry and answer his cell phone. We will work on Oprah’s manners. The summer is almost over and I think of all that I’d planned to accomplish and didn’t get to. But I am thankful to have a son with a driver’s license, a puppy who’s returned from the dead, and a husband willing to operate a cell phone. We begin our eldest’s senior year. He has a driver’s license. There is more to worry about but I still wouldn’t want to be anyone but me.
Shabat Shalom.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Himself is the professional pessimist in our family and I usually balance this by assuming the Pollyanna position. Given the facts though, it seems almost certain that our puppy Oprah has no chance of recovery and will have to be put down. It seems impossible that a dog vaccinated against parvovirus and that gnaws everything in sight would be felled by a virus and not an obstruction. The vet tells me she thinks it’s parvo but I suspect she’s stringing us along to incur more hospital charges for a dog that inevitably has an intestinal obstruction we cannot afford to treat. Oprah is hospitalized for nine days. I call every morning and afternoon for a week and there are no reports of improvement. I call Monday and am told that she has finally stopped vomiting. On Tuesday the laboratory results come in and to my surprise, are positive for parvovirus. The vet, who previously has been pretty businesslike says wistfully, “She’s a nice dog. I hope I can save her.” I intuit an atypical tenderness and I believe her. Oprah improves enough to eat solid food. We pick her up the following day. She is skinny and stinks but on a very restricted diet and too weak to risk bathing for five days. She clings to Spuds in the backseat. Rover licks her face and she yowls in delight all the way home.

Himself nurses an antique Ipod for many months and finally the thing is kaput. Being the paragon of frugality he scoffs at my suggestion that he replace it. Our whole family shares a love of music. We do not listen at home together because the divergence in preferences would incite a riot. Spud’s taste is pretty much all hip hop although oddly, since a surfing expedition with our friend Chris in Santa Cruz he now has American Beauty on his Ipod. I don’t know if Dr. Dre or the Grateful Dead would be more likely to drive Himself to hari-kari.

Most of my music buying was in the vinyl era and Himself has been largely responsible for painstakingly accumulating my cd collection which is scattered throughout the house and car. I agree with Himself that my callous treatment of cds indicates a lack of character, as does my stubborn indifference to recycling. I listen to the same half dozen CDs again and again and now most of them are too scratched up to play. I’ve never had an Ipod. We are due a phone upgrade and are relatively happy with our carrier so I don’t mind being shackled for another two years. The tech guy at the office recommends the Droid. It has a good camera and lots of other cool stuff and is available with unlimited music for an additional monthly fee.

Himself perks up when I mention the music feature. Long time followers of this blog or our family will know about our decade long cell phone impasse and Himself’s dogged refusal to use one, which frequently inconveniences and frustrates me. “My Droid has unlimited music,” I tell him. “It won’t have what I like,” he scoffs. I show him how to search. He finds a couple of obscure bands and is impressed. I order a Droid for him and while he knows this is a blatant ploy to get him to use a cell phone, he can’t resist the lure of the music.

I don’t tell Himself we’re picking up Oprah but I let the kids know that Daddy’s Droid has arrived and they posit that he won’t even notice the homecoming of the miracle survival pup. He has been researching and reading reviews of the Droid all week. He is happy to see the dog, pats her affectionately, notes her stinkiness and returns to the Droid. He sits wearing headphones and dicking with it all night , stupefied and deaf to us as Spuds and I say things that would make him apoplectic like, “I went downtown today and paid $20.00 for parking,” and “I invited four couples for dinner on Sunday.” But he is too enrapt with the device to even notice our mockery.

The Droid comes cheap for what it does and therefore arrives with very few accessories and car chargers, screen protectors and cases must be ordered separately. I find what seems like a decent accessory package on Amazon and order it. The process takes about 10 seconds. The day after Himself is Droided I receive a 500 word email from him, replete with about 20 different links to Amazon items, agonizing as to which case and screen cover to choose. This is about a $12 purchase. Including shipping. I have a small credit with Amazon and I respond requesting he simply choose what he wants so I can order it for him. This is followed by a flurry of several dozen more Amazon links for me to peruse. Instead of saying, “I really don’t give a fuck what kind of case you get,” I diplomatically respond with my Amazon password and the instruction to just order what he wants. Case and screen protector finally selected, Droid is still at the forefront of our home life with download, software and myriad other questions although I can’t think of anyone less qualified than I am to proffer technical support.

Through my analytics program I see that people spend more time reading blog posts that are light and funny and after Oprah miraculously survives, and I am finally victorious in the decade long cell phone battle, I begin making notes for an upbeat piece. Then I learn about the death of my friend Margaret Goldsmith. She was diagnosed with pernicious cancer about two years ago and experiences a rare form of neuropathy after surgery which results in partial paralysis. We communicate via Facebook just a few days before her death and I have been under the impression that her health is improving.

Margaret’s home is a graceful impeccably furnished 1930s Spanish style palazzo in the hills. She is remarkably beautiful, resembling Sophia Loren. She also has a son named Leo, a few months younger than my own seventeen year old. My own boy is flummoxed this week by a can opener, further reinforcing the need for parental acceleration of the college readiness program. I spend time visiting Margaret after she becomes ill. Before her diagnosis, despite many friends in common, I am too jealous to forge a connection.

I drop some food off. Margaret is obviously very ill and wears a brace on her leg. The gorgeous house has been modified so she has greater mobility. There are ramps and the living room is filled with hospital equipment. There are big boxes overflowing with medical bills. A commode sits in the middle of a charming tiled bathroom. I learn of her death via Facebook which is ghoulish and creepy and apparently the future. I peruse her recent postings there. Less than a week before her death she shares a salient political article. At the end of June she makes kumquat marmalade. She reads and responds to my writings about conditions in Burma. There are stylish professional black and white photos in her album. I do not know her entire vocational history but a foray into modeling does not surprise me.

Ordinarily I hate it when personal conversations are shared with all and sundry Facebook friends but in this case it’s kind of sweet that 3 days before her death Margaret interacts back and forth with a girlfriend about getting together. Margaret’s last comment on Facebook is “I’m busy until three.” I do not know how long these Facebook postings remain, ephemeral like memories.

I receive a note written by her husband that explains she declined rapidly over a period of four days. A number of my friends and contemporaries have died over the years but this is the first time I have lost a friend who is the mother of teenage children. She leaves two sons, roughly the same age as my boys. One boy is starting college this year and the other is a junior in high school. She knows she is going to die. I try to imagine her last conversations with her boys but break down before I am able to complete the thought. What would I say to my sons?

My doctor has been pestering me for three years to have a routine colonoscopy and I make an appointment. This is a 50th birthday rite of passage and in the misery loves company department, everyone I know over 50 has either endured it or is a friggin’ asshole coward. The gastroenterologist asks about my family medical history and notes good longevity. My father is almost 90 when he dies, and my mother, despite her brain turning to jello, is physically healthy and about to turn 90 herself. I am not so much of a Pollyanna so as to gamble with this, although if my mother had known what she’d be reduced to in her final years, I don’t think she’d have much good to say about longevity.

Others are better served by the gift of a long life. Visual Acoustics is a documentary about architectural photographer Julius Shulman. Many of Shulman’s photos of modern homes are more beautiful than the homes themselves. When I think about this style of architecture I find so beautiful and my hometown Los Angeles, I am more likely to think of Shulman than seminal architects Schindler or Neutra. Shulman is in his late 90s and the film shows him still at work and engaging in discussions about architecture and photography. He is older than my mother, who while just as hearty physically, forgets my name and how to use a fork. Shulman works up until his death at age 99.

Lillian Ross is 92 and has written for the New Yorker since the early 1940s. She still writes wonderful Talk of the Town pieces which show she is not intellectually diminished in the least and still physically capable of traveling around the city to attend events and conduct interviews. Roger Angell is another New Yorker old-timer. The erstwhile fiction editor, creator of the diabolically clever annual Christmas poem and one of America’s foremost chroniclers of baseball still writes with crackling wit and will celebrate his 90th birthday next month.

I guess the dreaded colonoscopy improves my odds for a long life. The death of my friend Margaret and the destiny of my poor mother drive home the imperative, that no matter how many or few years I have left, to make sure they are well lived. I will make sure my kids know how to use a can opener. I will not dis my husband too much for plugging the fancy headphones I call the wife cancellers into his new toy and absenting himself to bask in music. I will remember the miracle of Oprah even when she is so excited to see me when I come downstairs in the morning that she pees on the floor. Wishes come true. Tragedy strikes. I think about tomorrow and am filled with hope and with horror. Today.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, August 6, 2010

And Your Little Dog Too

We visit our friend Alan at the California Correctional Institute in Tehachapi. I don’t turn into a complete blithering fool during the visitor admission process anymore but in my grogginess at our 5:00 a.m. departure, I let Spuds wear a white t-shirt. The officer is very nice about it and we are able to quickly arrange the temporary loan of a black shirt from the Friends Outside program which has a small bungalow next to the visiting center and keeps a large store of loaner garments for those, who like us, can’t keep track of the minutiae of the dress code. Otherwise the routine is familiar now.

Fill out form. Wait. Called to counter. Turn pockets inside out. Put earrings, wedding ring, i.d, bag of quarters, and shoes in box. Flop sports braed through metal detector and collect visitor pass. Replace shoes and jewelry and present permit to guard. Hand stamped with ultraviolet ink. Wait for bus. Ride old bus. Wend from Level 4 to Level 1 to Level 2. Disembark. Hold driver’s license and visitor permit up to camera. Gate, triggered by guard in gun tower, opens. Pass into chain link holding pen. Gate closes. Second gate opens onto path to visiting room. Pass i.d. through the barred entrance to the visiting room guard. Wait in the lobby until summoned. Guard scrutinizes driver’s license and keeps it until visitor exits. Inmate attendant shows visitor to low table. Designates where inmate is to sit. Inmate arrives. One brief kiss and hug only. Then, only handholding.

Alan has been hospitalized recently for a double whooper of meningitis and valley fever. These illnesses occur more frequently in prisons because most are crowded to double their capacity and often more than 150 men sleep in a single dorm. We are happy that our friend, while having lost a lot of weight, appears on the mend.

As always, we worship at the altar of vending machines. Sometimes there are salads and yogurt and fresh entrees but these items are more likely to be available on Saturday than on Sunday. Twice during each visit the vending machines are refilled. During this time inmates and visitors must stay outside the perimeter of the machines. When the machines are filled and closed up again anxiety runs high as people jockey for position. Despite my urging him to be more aggressive, Spuds ends up at the end of the line and all we can get for Alan is a frozen burrito which the funky microwave heats to molteness. The burrito is really squishy and the paper towel dispenser near the microwave is empty. I determine to track some down. I experience a fraught awareness that I am flitting around trying to find a napkin at a prison. Then I buy about a dozen different varieties of chips and candies, ostensibly for Alan, but we end up eating most of the crap ourselves.

Although 15 year old Spuds will be twenty-two when Alan is released, given the paucity of assistance available for ex-felons and to maintain his mental health, Alan explores his options. I suggest he find a synagogue that will commit to welcome and support him when he is released. I locate a synagogue in his home town and write the rabbi a letter of introduction, suggesting that reaching out to Alan might be a good mitzvah program for the congregation. Alan writes a beautiful letter himself but tells me he doesn’t expect an answer. It is unbelievable to me that any religious community would receive such an eloquent letter, particularly one preceded by my introduction, and not respond. Alan is too polite to say, “I told you so,” but he could have.

I send Alan pictures of the puppy Oprah every few weeks. He tells us about one of his dogs who ground down her teeth by relentlessly chewing on rocks. It’s been years since Alan had a dog to love but he subscribes to Dog World, and like me, can recognize a lot of different breeds. Oprah is listless and has vomited a bit before we take off for our visit and we leave the 17 year old home to mind her. We return to find her unimproved. She vomits again the next morning and I take her to the vet.

Based on Oprah’s consumption of remotes, shoes, walls and furniture I think it’s garbage gut but an x-ray reveals no obstruction. The doctor diagnoses Parvovirus although I think it’s more likely a blockage that doesn’t appear on the x-ray. My dog Bowser, who like Oprah, was adopted from the Lacy Street Shelter, contracted parvo as a puppy. I remember visiting her at the Romanian vet’s clinic, hooked up to an IV in a metal cage. This was one of two times I remember seeing my father cry. The other was when we had to have our Airedale, Andrew, put down. I need to bring the other two dogs in right away for parvo vaccinations but remembering Bowser caged and on IVs, I do not ask to see Oprah.

We called the Romanian veterinarian who treated Bowser “Dr. Ceausescu.” His office was adorned with large blown up photos of himself performing surgery on a variety of different pets. Grinning into the camera, “See, this is me making an incision and yanking something out of dog’s insides.” When he neutered my little Bingo he found it hilarious that one of the dog’s testicles was extremely small and he brought it out on a paper towel to show me.

When we were last in Felton, Chris and Bob’s Lobo was real wobbly and although oddly his synapses would snap back to normal for a daily run, Chris was pretty much carrying him around. I said goodbye to the sweet noble boy and I told him I was glad he’d had such a good life. He looked back at me with his usual confounded expression but he knew I was being affectionate at least and he licked my hand. Since his dad puked at the entrance to the parking structure of Disneyland, and we had to return home in a car stinking of barf through heavy traffic during a heat wave, we always say that Spuds holds the world’s record for bad birthdays. I am sorry to say that Spuds has been displaced as Lobo passed away on Chris’s birthday. We was a wonderful dog. We will visit Felton later in the month. It will be sad not to see him.

I told the kids that it is most likely that Oprah will not be returning home. We have a limit with regard to pet medical bills which we have stretched in the case of Oprah but there is a limit to the limit that’s been adjusted up a couple of times in the course of a week. Based on some test results we’ll learn in a few days, we will probably have to have her put down. If the test is negative for parvovirus it indicates an obstruction only detectable via $500.00 ultrasound and treatable only by surgery for which the vet’s cost estimate is an “arm and a leg.” I receive a mass email through the neighborhood newsgroup that a member is seeking contributions to raise $4000 for a dog’s hip surgery. Newspaper articles attesting to the dog’s bravery are attached. But even after nearly twenty years of marriage to a man who shares in common with me not much more than a love of dogs, given what $4000 could accomplish towards relieving human suffering, I have some trouble with this.

I have always found something slightly snide and judgmental about interviewing techniques Alexandra Pelosi uses in her documentaries. Her disapproval of her subjects is more measured in The Homeless Children of Orange County. The film chronicles the lives of children who live in weekly motels, cars and parks within sight of what Pelosi refers to a couple times too many, as the Happiest Place on Earth. Poignantly, one of the moms trapped at the motel works in parking services for the Magic Kingdom but her slightly above minimum wage is not enough to rent an apartment. Pelosi even bites her tongue when interviewing a mother crowded into a tiny room with three kids and four Chihuahuas.

The possessions of a dispossessed family are thrown away by the motel management. The kids scavenge through the dumpster to grab toys and clothing. They take meals at soup kitchens and pick up clothes from local charities. Pelosi asks a number of the kids what they are looking forward to and most answer “nothing.” Some of the families are primarily victims of a lousy economy but others are trapped in a cycle of bad choices going back generations. I would not be the one to tell seventeen year old girls or women whose financial prospects don’t seem very bright not to have babies. But I wish we could nurture kids along so they are better prepared and more realistic about taking on the commitment of parenthood. I might be able to get some steam up about people having pets they can’t afford to take care of, although I find myself sort of in the same boat, plus it would be hard to deprive anyone the love of a dog.

The kids in the film attend the Hope School which serves homeless children throughout the county. Sadly, the film is footnoted with news of the recent layoff of a teacher due to budget cuts. The kids are picked up daily and don’t change schools as they move from park to shelter to motel. They’re fed breakfast, lunch and on Fridays given a backpack full of food to take home. Because all the food is donated, most of it is packaged and processed and full of salt and fat. I suppose they don’t waste much time at Hope School with the nutrition section of the health book. This is the trade off for this slice of stability and continuity. One of the teachers says she is aware that many of her charges will end up teen moms or behind bars but she believes that some will accomplish something more substantial than a minimum wage job and a room in a cheap motel.

I worked for a year in a middle school in Compton in the late 70s. I began as a day-to-day sub in September and am the department chair by June. The year I began teaching California mandated that all teachers pass the C-Best Test or be terminated. When I took the test the questions were all at about a 5th grade level. Teachers had three opportunities to pass the test or be terminated. On a Friday the results of the third chance examination were released. I arrived at school the following Monday to discover that the school, already short about a dozen teachers, had lost over 2/3 of the teaching staff.

This was my first teaching job and it would have been a challenge even for an experienced teacher. Instinct told me early on to eschew the curriculum and I just tried to teach the kids stuff they could use. I’d drive down on Saturdays and pick up a carful and take them to movies and restaurants and museums. I think most of them were at least three years behind grade level. I wonder what’s become of them. My memories of them are hazy. I wonder if any of them remember me.

I do remember one kid, Dusean, who had a particularly lousy home situation and was shuttled back and forth from grandmother to mother, neither of whom wanted him very much. I spent a lot of time with him. Dusean calls me at the office once in a while when he’s loaded. Whoever answers says,”There’s some drunk asking for you,” and is surprised when I take the call. I don’t explain who it is. I am embarrassed that this one vestige of that impossible year is such a sad one.

I sent Alan the name and address of a new Chavurah in his home town. Maybe if he writes to them, they will answer. Maybe some of the Hope School kids will catch some other good breaks and connect with teachers who can start them on the path to a better life. I caught a number of good breaks myself teacherwise. Perhaps Dusean will sober up and pull himself together but even if not, that we remember each other after more than thirty years is significant for us both.

I can spend hours enumerating how ineffectual our systems of corrections and public education are from foundation on up. I see little in either institution that shouldn’t be scrapped but we can’t simply tear down all the schools and prisons and start over. But there are prison guards who treat inmates like human beings and teachers who mine diamonds from among the most destitute.

Our poodle Fido died of cancer a few months ago and little Oprah distracted us from our grief. We took more pictures of her than we’ve taken in years. I hope my instincts are wrong and she recovers. I feel guilty for not supervising her and trying to diminish her compulsion to chew incessantly and I dread the results of the test. Our intention was to make a good life for her. Perhaps it is a punishment for my fraudulence that so many of my loving gestures are so ill-fated.

I guess in some ways, from early on my mother’s needs and mine were at cross purposes. I resented the affection she lavished on Sonny, a tiny toy poodle who drank milk when the phone rang and is the first pet I remember. I must have been tormenting him in some way and he bit me quite hard. I began to cry and my mother yelled at me for making him nervous. I remember a stunning sense of betrayal but also the first inkling that if treated lovingly, dogs are more reliable than people. I think my kennelborn beloved may have figured out the dog thing himself early on. Maybe it was this safe and unconditional love that gave us the courage to take a gamble on some human intimacy. We’ve lost a number of beloved canine companions but never a puppy. The imminent loss seems so senseless. I am left with a camera full of photos. I came home from work every day excited to be greeted by her licking me and prancing about. I consider that maybe we shouldn't have adopted her at all but remember that love is not the means to the end, it’s the means to the means. In time the pictures of Oprah will be a treasure.

Shabbat Shalom