Friday, March 26, 2010

Semper Fi

Fido is having trouble breathing and going up the stairs and we know that it is time. Other than making the requisite arrangements, I am opting out. It is said that in the course of your life you will have five great dogs. About seven years ago Himself and I sat on the porch stairs on a fine spring day. Bowser, the greatest of great dogs, was administered the pair of injections. Gary was just a kitty then and he pranced and batted at a butterfly in the field of wild flowers next door while the drugs took effect.

Shortly after Bowser’s demise, another great pet, Malcolm the cat was stricken. He was one of those rare cats who loved to ride in the car and he would hop in by himself and ride to work with me every morning. We made copies of him on the Xerox machine. He liked the heat and lay perfectly still as the glass tray moved back and forth. I remembered Bowser’s last minutes and the lifeless body of the dog I loved so much and who loved me back without complication. I could not bring myself to accompany Himself in taking Malcolm to the vet to be euthanized. I know that this is weak and cowardly. Faced with the terminal illness of Fido, another pet that is beginning to suffer, I confess to having failed to cultivate any additional strength of character.

While Bowser was friendly to all, from the moment I adopted her from the animal shelter as a six week old puppy I was the leader of her pack. I wanted to fill the huge vacancy she left with my favorite breed, a standard poodle. Through a poodle rescue organization I found a half breed standard. The mother was a show dog and the father of mysterious provenance, having snuck apparently into the proverbial henhouse. We drove up to Camarillo to fetch six month old Fido from a veterinarian who also bred white toy poodles, thousands of which yapped while we conducted our transaction. Fido was so timid she had to be carried into the car.

Himself was skeptical about my proclamations of poodle as the superior breed and I presumed she’d be my dog. But she belonged to Himself as much as any dog ever has to a human being. When I walk in the door she remains supine on the couch she shouldn’t be on and barely lifts an eyebrow. Yet, she hears Himself’s car from half a mile away and begins to race through the house squealing, knowing that he will either come in through the front door or he will come in through the back door. Because we are remiss with doggie manicures, she has damaged a number of his coats and trousers with her enthusiasm to greet him when he finally enters.

Before Rover (hard on cats) came and forced the segregation of the species, Fido slept in bed with us and patiently let our cats nurse and knead with their claws on her belly. We took her to Santa Cruz and she was able to romp in a stream, all bliss and grace. When Taffy the corgi came as a pup, he immediately glommed onto Fido. When I channel the dogs’ voices, to the kids’ complete mortification, Taffy refers to Fido as “Mommy.” If I had any real voice talent the corgi would speak with a Welsh brogue but I don’t do accents so his voice is more like Tweety Pie. Rover sounds sort of like Deputy Dawg/Joe Lieberman and Fido is feminine and fluttery, kind of Marilyn. I am thankful that we have children to distract/shame us from any further psycho anthropomorphizing of our animal companions. When Fido was taken to the vet several months ago for her sad diagnosis, the corgi became hysterical and barked and whined and thrashed his sturdy body against the door. I realized that except for when Taffy was neutered, they had never been separated.

Himself and I face the loss of yet another of the great dogs we’ve been blessed with. One night we lay in bed and named all the pets we’ve had over the decades and it was a long list. When we met, my feline occupancy rate tottered in the range of social deviance. It is too sad right now to dredge up the names again but what comes to mind is that for over twenty years of my life there has been no loss or sorrow I’ve had to bear alone.

I like Jim Wallis and I read Sojourner Magazine online. I subscribe also to their daily inspirational e-mails. They usually start with a bible passage. Like,
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 2:4-5

I dig it, but ever since my traumatic vacation bible school experience in the second grade, I always substitute “Jesus Christ” with “Whatever.” I hope this isn’t interpreted as disparaging of Jesus because I actually like Jesus although maybe I have a few issues with some of his disciples. For the record, lately the words God, Adonai, Buddha…you name it, get swapped out for “Whatever” too so Jesus shouldn’t take it personally.

After the bible thing, my daily e-mailed Verse and Voice contains a well chosen quote from the likes of Anne Lamott or Thomas Merton or J.M. Coetzee. Finally, there is a prayer which I read the first line of, to make sure it isn’t overly specific, like for World Water Day or uninsured Americans. Maybe I’m a lightweight because my prayers are for the entire universe, (after I plead for my own sorry ass) not special interest groups. These super specific requests sort of deromanticise the concept of prayer for me personally although I envy and admire those who experience so many of life’s sorrows and injustices as prayer opportunities. Plus, it seems that all of the daily imprecations for the uninsured have borne fruit.

I’ve wimped out on going with him to have his dog put down so I am keeping my mouth shut and not gloating about health care legislation being passed. The prohibition on Obama speak at Casamurphy has eased a bit of late because Himself is smug and self satisfied that, AS HE KNEW IT WOULD COME TO PASS, I haven’t had much good to say about the man. I’m glad that for all the attenuate malice of spirit and seeming mass insanity that this watered down bill, a heartening tiny nod towards the creation of a more compassionate, less selfish society, squeaked through. I would never utter it to Himself, but I am glad that Obama is president and I think he proved himself a brilliant strategist in shepherding through some of the most significant legislation of my lifetime.

Spuds and I have been watching a new reality show called Uncover Boss. The premise is that the CEO of a big corporation goes undercover as a low wage employee. Churchill Downs racetrack, 7/11 and White Castle have been featured. It always starts with the big cheese waking up in his big mansion and saying goodbye to his supportive, meticulously coiffed wife and handsome children and then checking into some bargain motel. The austere accommodations are greeted with a stiff upper lip and preparations are made, usually pertinent to facial hair, for the honcho to pass himself off as a bottom-of-the-barrel wage slave. Low level coworkers are told that a documentary is being produced about mid level managers who are displaced and reenter the work force in minimum wage jobs to account for the presence of the camera. The big boss has trouble performing the job. Coffee making is screwed up at the 7/11. Thousands of hamburger buns are trashed at the White Castle. The CCO of Churchill Downs is asked to clean out stalls but it turns out he’s afraid of horses. Think Lucy in the candy factory.

The captains of industry are humbled by their own clumsiness and then moved by salt of the earth employees who struggle to keep afloat economically and emotionally in mind numbing dead end jobs. After his heart is warmed at how earnest and very good the little people are, the big boss goes back to his fancy office, assembles the lowly minions and outs himself. A handful of minimum wage employees are rewarded with scholarships and promotions and everyone weeps and applauds at what a swell guy the big boss is. I admit I that I tear up when $5000.00 is contributed to an employee to assist with his blind son but then I am disgusted with myself for buying into this shameful exploitative public relations boondoggle. Undercover Boss is a thirty minute commercial for corporations whose executives get their hands dirty for a nanosecond in order to discover what they should have known all along.

The ratio of CEO compensation to average worker pay rose from 24:1 in 1965 to 262:1 by 2005. Census Bureau data showed median income rising by only 12 percent since 1979, while that for the top percentile went up nearly 400 percent. At least now some of the people who toil at dirty, soul sucking jobs, so that chief executives can illuminate their tennis courts, will be able to provide their own families with medical insurance.

My murder degree of separation saddens and frightens me and hurdles my reflections on mercy and justice out of the realm of purely philosophical. The apparent murderer of a dear friend of a dear friend was arrested last year based on DNA evidence, 22 years after the crime. The seventeen year old daughter of a neighborhood family was murdered a few months ago while running an errand for her mother. This week the news reports the shooting at a party and subsequent death of an Art Center Professor whose son is a classmate of my own boys.

There is a horrible photo of the victim’s aggrieved wife and mother in the paper. I hope that my sons’ classmate does not see the pictures of his mother and grandma. I am discussing this news with the seventeen year old. Still in the freaked out, “this could be our family” terror mode, I suggest to him that he send the boy a condolence note. But I say it sort of sanctimoniously, and the subtext is “Of course, you won’t think to do this and hence, you suck and are a thoughtless inconsiderate disappointment to your virtuous mother.” I sound like Mrs. Glegg, in Mill on the Floss, one of the best bitches ever written but I am really just scared and flailing wildly to keep our karma squeaky clean. Of course, I am surprised and indignant that he reacts hostilely. He calls me ridiculous. I tell him that I’m ashamed of him.

I hear Fido’s raspy breathing when I wake up on her last morning. She has bald patches, her eyes are rheumy and it is difficult for her to stand. I give her half a dozen of the desiccated chicken treats she favors. It is cold and I get back into bed and try and fail not to wake Himself by crying. I know a sad errand with Fido awaits him and again I feel small and self indulgent for shirking this. He wraps himself around me and rubs my cold hands and I know that none of my inchoate prayers have been wasted.

The seventeen year old drives now most places and I grow less and less fearful. I apologize for being a jerk. He sends the boy who lost his dad a note. I confess to him that I feel lousy about making Himself go alone to the vet with Fido. The seventeen year old pats my shoulder as I weep and says, “Mom, I’m going to go with him.” My perception of sorrow and despair is no more valid, but certainly with time’s burnishing, very different than my teenaged son’s. It is all so very different than I ever imagined it would be when I was seventeen. Sometimes I would like to see the world as a seventeen year old but usually I’m satisfied with my own vantage point because the love thing has panned out so much better than I ever thought possible.

John and Leo took Fido to be put to sleep Friday morning. She was a great dog.
Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Driven to Didaction

The seventeen year old cannot find the brand of pencil he prefers. All of the ones at my office have “shit erasers.” He throws a tizzy and stomps and snarls in a way that would induce Himself to mutter under his breath “your side of the family.” I refrain from uttering the guaranteed incendiary, “What if something pisses you off while you’re driving?” I still find it remarkable that so many of our friends have endured this student driving phase so uncomplainingly and seemingly unscathed. I suppose that in six months when I am screaming at the seventeen year old to run an errand or transport his sibling I will have forgotten this process but here in the throes it is difficult for me to think about much else. I have also heard that the excruciating pain of giving birth is soon forgotten and I’m looking forward to that too. It is weird to sit in the passenger seat of my own car and see behind the wheel this strange hulking creature that’s mutated from the tiny person on whose tummy I used to make fart sounds. Oh, the mortality! Having a son who’s old enough to drive means that I am closer to my inevitable death. And I have never been more certain as to the inevitability of my death as when he turns the key in the ignition.

I maintain dictatorial audio control while I am driving, so the seventeen year old demands parity when he is behind the wheel. Part of me wants to say that there is to be absolutely no aural interference whatsoever while he is learning to drive but I remember how urgent I was about music at his age and I sort of agree with his theory that it will help keep him focused. Unfortunately, the radio lands on a hip hop station and not the white kind of hip hop like Kanye West and Mos Def that I like.

We undertake our longest journey, over an hour from his school to my office. The tunes aren’t very mellifluous. Actually it’s sort of a big stretch to even categorize them as tunes. There are a couple of people who will probably be moving through crosswalks a bit more briskly henceforward and a swarthy man in a Corvette who will think twice about making a left turn on a yellow light. I return to the office ambulatory, albeit a bit wobbly and clammy. Per my fervent admonishments not to distract his brother, Spuds in the backseat maintains silence. I ask him later if it is frightening to him when his brother drives and he says he doesn’t know because he was asleep the whole time.

I was about sixteen and a half when I passed the driving test after three humiliating failed attempts. I made an awkward right turn, jumped the curb and hit a fire hydrant with my mother’s car shortly after being licensed. I told her it had happened while I was parked in a lot but the insurance adjuster pointed out the suspicious yellow paint. My dad bought me a splendid 1967 Dodge Dart, white with four doors and red upholstery. I was seventeen when I started college and I drove to and from Redlands and out to Palm Springs and up to the Bay Area so often that I had over 200,000 miles on the car when I totaled it a few years later on a mountain road.

I was living at the time in the tiny community of Forest Falls. The only commercial enterprise there was a Christian Conference Center and I was one of the few residents who wasn’t employed there and being of the hippie persuasion and with Jew hair, quite conspicuously so. I was probably taking diet pills at the time but I think I caused the accident by reaching for something in the glove box. I hit another car head on. Both vehicles were goners. The other driver was not injured but was 8 months pregnant and I was already less than popular in the tiny hamlet. My little poodle Gladys was with me at the time. I was pretty banged up, my face was badly cut and I lost a number of teeth. An ambulance came. I told one of the spectators my address and about the key under the mat and asked him to take Gladys home.

I was taken by ambulance to Loma Linda Hospital. My mother arrived from Los Angeles, like a bullet, in less than an hour. She drove me back to my mountain cabin the next day. It is funny to think about my intrepid mom speeding down the freeways and traversing mountain roads now that she gets lost going from her bedroom to the kitchen. My little dog Gladys was sitting on the front porch waiting when I returned the next day. No one had bothered to take her home and she walked a couple of miles and found the house herself. The accident resulted in neighbors’ censure and over a year of medical procedures but perhaps the harshest consequence of all was that my beloved Dodge was replaced by a Chevy Vega.

When I was about eighteen I drove up with some friends to San Francisco. We smoked a joint in the car while we drove through the city with the windows closed. Apparently the pot was stronger than we’d expected and also potentiated by the small enclosed space. I remember getting on the Bay Bridge with a college station blaring on the radio. Suddenly we were approaching Oakland and realized that we’d been completely unaware that we’d lost radio reception and had been deaf to loud screeching static for the entire trip across the bridge. We were also all in tears. I still get a weird feeling whenever I cross the Bay Bridge. I was only a few months older than my eldest son who will soon be driving places with his own friends.

I make the trip downtown to the library one evening to hear a favorite novelist read. It been a while since I’ve made the transition from the Pasadena Freeway to the downtown exits and it requires a quick lane change. It is dark and there is a lot of briskly moving traffic. I have changed lanes to this exit hundreds of times but for a second I feel frightened like Woody Allen when Christopher Walken confesses in Annie Hall his urge to drive straight into oncoming traffic. I change lanes in time but remain struck at my strange lack of confidence.

Although she is wearing red boots, it is satisfying to see in person Lionel Shriver one of the writers I most admire. My first digression of this piece is that while I have never had a really comfortable pair of boots and thus may be prejudiced, I am just not crazy about boots. I’m sure they’re fine and look cool in extremely cold weather. But it’s been in the 80s and not only is Lionel Shriver bootbeclad, so is the interviewer. I am distracted by the thought of how their calves must be sweating.

Lionel Shriver, for the uninitiated, is a woman named Margaret at birth. She hated the name and changed it at age fifteen, not in tribute to vibraphonist Hampton nor a model train. Her advice to those contemplating a change of name is to do it young and make it stick. I am a devotee of Shriver’s because she writes with enormous authority on a vast swath of social and moral issues but inhabits her fiction with such nuanced, authentic characters that her work doesn’t feel didactic.

Shriver writes with confidence and command and I often call her work to mind when I feel myself veering towards facile sentimentality. An American who lived for many years in Belfast and now in London, Shriver’s the recipient of the prestigious Orange Prize for Literature. Nevertheless, there is a sparse crowd at her reading and I think she can be accurately characterized as a “writer’s writer.”

I learn the sad news of Alex Chilton’s death at age 59. Chilton, frontman of the Box Tops and then Big Star, I think can be accurately characterized as a “musician’s musician,” remaining somewhat obscure but having been hugely influential to groups like REM and the Replacements. He performed with the latter band on the album “Pleased to Meet Me” on which the song “Alex Chilton” appears. This song about being in love with music is to my mind the best rock ‘n roll song ever written and while I have no other preferences as to the proceedings, I would like it played at my funeral, which seems ever more imminent when the seventeen year old practices his driving. You can even call it a celebration of life if you want. I don’t care. Just play “Alex Chilton.”

My mother hit another car in a parking lot. She denied it but there were witnesses. I noticed too an accretion of various dings and dents on her car. My hesitation about reporting her was mainly fueled by self interest and the thought of being fully responsible for her transportation. Nevertheless, I made an anonymous call to the DMV and she was summoned in several weeks later. A test was administered and her license to drive was revoked. My mother, who had driven at 90 mph to San Bernardino County at the news of my accident, was now permanently grounded. Soon I would be not only charged with her transportation but with every other facet of her existence as well.

Later in the week, the seventeen year old wants to drive to school in the morning. I make the treacherous left turn at the bottom of our hill, pull over and he takes the wheel. Mill on the Floss, which I have been enjoying on CD is switched off and a previously programmed IPOD replaces it. He has learned that in addition to red lights that stopped cars, pedestrians in crosswalks and stop signs also require the application of the brakes. There is a bus occupying much of his lane and sufficient traffic to the left to make changing lanes impossible. I would have stopped, signaled and waited for the traffic to subside or the bus to move and I presume he will do the same. He doesn’t slow down though. I cover my eyes and pound the imaginary brake pedal until my foot is numb. But he passes the bus easily, maintaining his speed and without leaving his lane. “Good.” I croak and he reaches to turn up the volume on the IPOD.

My mother trusts me with her life while the seventeen year old struggles to wrest his own from me. He is like I was at seventeen in a lot of ways, in love with music and movies. I hope he is not like me in a lot of ways. My mother made less of a fuss when her license was revoked than I thought she would. I imagine that driving had become terrifying to her but out of pride and to keep from becoming a burden she kept at it. I guess the loss of her license was actually a relief to her even though it was the first step towards her now complete dependence on me. I get a bit frightened these days myself driving the freeways at night. The seventeen year old grows more confident behind the wheel. My mother trusts me with her life, and more and more, inevitably, I will entrust my son with mine.
Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Small Screen

The Small Screen
I am teaching the seventeen year old to drive. It occurs to me that in other countries I’ve visited, cars driven by trainees and newly licensed drivers are clearly marked to alert others to the driver’s status. It would be good to have a sign on the car that says “student driver” when the seventeen year old cuts off a crowded bus. As I typically do when faced with the vexatious, I google “teaching kid drive.” Many of my friends have survived the training and licensing of their teenagers so it seems obvious that I am missing something. The web scour unfortunately unearths no missing link. Don’t yell. Use positive reinforcement. Don’t overreact. You and your firstborn are about to smash headlong into a Hummer…but stay calm.

We suck at suffering in silence. Himself has been suffering particularly unsilently of late and I while I myself am not exactly forbearing, neither was I spoon fed The Lives of the Saints. The purely for profit ostensive learning institution for which my beloved toils has put the screws to its full timers and Himself is this quarter ministering to over a hundred students. He has mentioned this to us, perhaps more than once. I am folding laundry and the kids are sprawled on the couch. Himself, hunched over laptop, mutters perhaps not for the first time “I have so much work,” and Spuds says under his breath, “We should start a drinking game…” He and his brother explode into a paroxysm of laughter. I emit an involuntary snort which I hope Himself confuses for an allergy related incidence. I am thankful that my back is facing my husband and I pray that he will presume my quivering shoulders are the result of folding his underpants and not the constraint of laughter. Nevertheless, the kids’ failure to prostrate themselves at his feet, mindful of the tortures he endures that they may have sustenance, throws him into a big tizzy and he stomps off to his office and slams the door.

I am sorry he doesn’t feel like we appreciate how hard he works for us to have food and shelter and Netflix. I am glad though too that the kids are able to make light. My mother constantly foisted the martyrdom she endured on my behalf in my face and my reaction was usually pretty self destructive. Sometimes the sprats hurt my feelings too, but as devastating as it can be, I am happy that they see through me. It is good that they have each other and are self actualized enough not to fall for a lot of the crap I would inadvertently drag them through otherwise.

Tacit Casamurphy policy is to neither censure nor coddle huffy self righteous self pitying door slammers. We are all capable of being snarly assholes but we are all adept too at snapping out of it. The kids watch t.v on the couch, Himself stews in his office and I retire with a novel. I am asleep when he gets into bed. He is usually asleep when I leave in the morning. I kiss him and tell him that I love him before I go. I try to land a big smooch of lipstick on his face so that I can verify when I return from work that he’s washed. The morning after the drinking game kerfuffle I am probably still a bit annoyed at his brittleness but comfortable in the knowing that assholeness is always a fleeting thing at Casamurphy.

The daily back and forth household management e-mails from our respective places of employment begins and Himself notes that he is sorry at having been thin skinned and adds, “I do wish you would kiss me good morning.” I don’t remember if, still ruffled, I intentionally do not kiss him or if I am simply rushing and as I do once in a while, forget, or if I do actually kiss him and he is so conked by his grading marathon that he sleeps soundly through it.

My beloved is capable of grumpiness en extremis and even after decades, he is still surprised to have attained an intimacy so authentic that his crankiness actually matters to another human being. My revelation, a counterpart to his, and the one that makes griping incessant enough to inspire a drinking game the merest blip on the radar, is that my kisses matter and are missed.

I place second in the Oscar pool. I think people might feel sorry for Meryl Streep for having lost so many times and I dislike Sandra Bullock’s nose. Plus, in a cynicism fueled by trying to make a living of late in the film industry, I cannot believe the academy will ignore the earning power of Avatar. My friend who takes the pot has seen just about every film, while I have seen only about four. Before children, I typically saw four or five movies every week. It is hard to undo the programming that watching television is profligate and that film is the higher form of art. When I consider some of the shows I watch though, like the Sopranos, or Dexter and the Wire, I realize how paradigmatic TV has become. I find that the cable series is consistently more satisfying to me than most of the films I see.

I score three tickets to the Paley Television Fest and make an unusual weeknight outing cross town to Beverly Hills for a tribute to the show Breaking Bad. Himself and I both have vivid childhood memories of swimming in the huge backseat of some behemoth sedan and taking Wilshire Blvd., of the famous synchronized stoplights, to the sea. We both remember the looming white Carnation Building. I was enchanted by Bullock’s Wilshire, having gone there for tea and depiliation bi-weekly for my entire adult life, until it closed. It is now Southwestern Law School and my memories of Dawn (nee Don?) the statuesque transsexual manager of the beauty salon and floating island in the tearoom fade from the foreground as the murder nearby of seventeen year old Lilly Burk last year, while running an errand for her mother, a law school employee, displaces a lifetime of sweet memories.

We pass the Ambassador Hotel. In 1967 I was ten and my mother’s boyfriend took us to the swanky Coconut Grove there to see the Scottish singer Lulu perform her hit “To Sir With Love” and I guess some other songs that I don’t remember. I was taken backstage after the show and received a cursory smile and a glossy still autographed, despite having spelled my name out slowly and clearly, “To Elaine, with love, Lulu”.

I always tell the kids that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in the kitchen at the Ambassador and this is one fact I can always repeat without inducing insolent “you said that a zillion times” yawns. They turn their heads and look until the hollow remains of the infamous hotel, clad now in cyclone fence, are out of sight. I was on Fulton Avenue watching the election returns in the bedroom with the ballerina wallpaper at age eleven. I had just co-opted a replaced TV for myself. I was probably getting some hippie influence from music, reading (linear notes?) and friends’ older siblings. My mother was relatively apathetic politically once she discovered that volunteering for a candidate was not the greatest way to meet men. I had supported Gene McCarthy in the primary. A film archivist aside here is that when an obituary tribute to Eugene was played at the last Democratic convention the footage used was actually of Joseph McCarthy.

I probably was down with the martyr like commitment of “Get clean for Gene,” although I never would have been attracted to a boy with short hair. Maybe it was because we did have the war in our living room and McCarthy seemed to be the most adamantly against it. Or maybe someone’s long haired big brother had a bumper sticker. Kennedy was my second choice though and Humphrey might as well have been Nixon. I saw the shooting and woke my mom. It took a long while to convince her that I was talking about Bobby Kennedy, and not John.

LAUSD has been trying to turn the Ambassador site into a high school now for well over a decade. Now, there is only a tiny shell of the hotel left, eclipsed by an enormous green glass erection, soon to be a high school. Unfortunately, district enrollment has decreased so precipitously since the idea was born that it is doubtful that the grand modern high school that replaces the historic hotel will ever be filled to capacity.

Spuds is the only kid at the crowded Breaking Bad forum. The show revolves around a high school chemistry teacher whose financial pressure is exacerbated by his need for expensive cancer treatment and leads him to take up the manufacture of crystal meth. I am surprised there are no other edgy precocious teens attending, particularly because the show is so dead on in its depiction of aphasia, vis a vis high school. There are clips and then an episode of the show followed by a discussion with the cast and creators.

The show and a number of others produced for cable not only represent a cultural zenith but also suggest an anomaly. Himself cites yet another article noting that the blog is doomed ,as less may not be more but is what the public apparently wants nevertheless, as evidenced on Twitter and YouTube. . I will make another aside here with reference to the “long form.” Several months ago Himself wrote a very cogent proposal of approximately 500 words regarding his employer ponying up for some professional conferences he wished to attend. It was submitted for the approval of some professional educator on high but returned to Himself the following day with instructions that the request be resubmitted, this time in the form of bullet points.

Breaking Bad is just beginning its third season but there are 86 one hour long episodes of the Sopranos, 60 of the Wire and 63 of Six Feet Under. In an age where a two thousand word essay is too demanding it is weird, but also comforting, that such a substantial audience is eager to sign off from Facebook and commit a couple of work weeks to losing themselves to these triumphs of plot, character and performance. We still go to the movies once in a while but I hope the kids remember with equal fondness the hours our family has invested in a number of excellent cable series and the time we’ve spent together in the dark and riveted.

When I was Spuds age All in the Family was groundbreaking and Mary Tyler Moore was funny but it is films like Harold and Maude, Carnal Knowledge, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and the Last Picture Show that better represent to me an embrace of the downbeat and a more apt reflection of the time I’m from. Perhaps when he is my age, shows like The Wire and the Sopranos will be regaled for their contribution to our culture and Spuds will sense that these are of his time and feel proud.

In a slow news week I bitch about tyro driving and tyrannical tantrums and blather on about the boob tube. I am thankful to be occupied with small concerns and distracted momentarily from Armageddon scenarios. I wonder a lot how my children will remember these times. I vaguely remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, but other than that, compared to the world my kids navigate my child and teenhood days were quite blithe. Yet, while he’ll scare the Bejeezus out of me in the process, the seventeen year old will get his driver’s license. Himself will moan once or perhaps twice again about his workload. The sprats will make more jokes at his expense and more doors will be slammed. We will watch more episodes of the Wire and Breaking Bad. I will kiss my beloved every morning, and glory that this, and so many other small sweet things, matters.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Jesus is Coming. Look Busy.

Jesus is coming. Look busy.

I read a lot of Christian stuff. I will break challah and make Shabbat at sundown but the only Jewish writer I read regularly is Jay Michaelson. Jay maybe doesn’t count because he’s also a Buddhist and of course, except for particularly dense book reviews, I read the writings of my Jewish husband, who I suspect also of Buddhism. Lots of Jews would get freaked out about it but by definition, God is unnamable so Jesus is ok by me. An interview with William Stuntz appears on a Christian website.
He’s a professor of law at Harvard, is 51 years old and he has cancer. He is not expected to survive this year. He says that he is surprised that he is not less sad. He is saddened by the inevitable sadness his loved ones will suffer but he is not sad about ceasing to be. He adds that his children are grown. When asked if he is pleased with the way he’s lived his life:
What I am displeased with is my own living of life. I feel an acute sense that I ought to have done better with the circumstances I was given. This is one of the reasons why it cut me so deeply when people suggested that suffering is God's discipline -- because I find it so very, very easy to believe in a God who is profoundly disappointed in me.
It seems utterly natural to believe in the Disappointed God, because I myself am disappointed. He must be even more disappointed, I think, because his standards are so much higher than mine. How could he not be disappointed? That makes complete sense to me.
It's the other God, the God who does not experience that kind of disappointment, the God who sees me the way that Prodigal Son's father saw him -- that is the harder God for me to believe in. It takes work for me to believe in that God.

The harder God is elusive to me, some weeks more than others. To compensate for irksome things I can’t control, I become more focused and sometimes a bit freakish, about the things I can. I leave the office on Fridays after I have published 2000 or so words here on this blog and the few times I’ve gotten stuck and haven’t finished I feel antsy and failed. Some weeks I am able to shut out the voice of the disappointed God and in the temporary brush with the hard one, my words flow.

I am a judge of a fiction writing competition, which means that for prison wages, over the course of two weeks, I am committed to read 15 pages from the beginnings of 40 different novels of all genres. I read the submission and then I am required to write a 25-300 word response addressing the piece’s strengths and then another of the same length with respect to its weaknesses and finally a concluding paragraph containing an overall appraisal. Then, the sample is evaluated in a number of categories on a numerical scale of 1-5, 5 being the highest.

I think this will be fun and the critical analysis will be a good exercise towards improving my own writing. I am not expecting Proust but the entries have made it through an initial round of evaluation so I assume that at least the manuscripts scrawled in crayon or bodily fluids will be weeded out. Once I begin the slog I try not to be incapacitated by terror at the thought of the many pieces that were rejected before they got to me.

Lots of entrants write young adult fiction. A lot of young adult fiction suggests it may have been written by well meaning junior high history teachers trying to conjure a lively creative lesson. The premise is always a socially isolated kid gets boinked on the head and wakes up or is transported via magical amulet (amulets are big in young adult fiction) to the civil war, or the Lusitania or the reign of King Tut. The inhabitants of the storied historical epoch converse in a strange hybrid of Shakespeare and Jersey Shore. There is one sample of Christian young adult fiction where an isolated kid happens upon a glowing cross and wakes up in biblical times. He is immediately arrested and thrown into a prison cell with Paul. He helps the apostle find some ink so he can attend to some correspondence.

I finish the forty samples. I give two 4s, a handful of 3s but mostly 1s and a few pity 2s. The minimum of twenty five words of positive comment is a challenge with regard to most of the pieces. I hone, over the course of the forty readings things like, “The author obviously put in a tremendous amount of energy into the creation of the piece about an isolated teenager transported to ancient Peloponnesia,” or “The writer writes enthusiastically in this tale of an isolated teen who narrowly escapes being eviscerated for a human sacrifice in an ancient Aztecan ceremony,” (Both exactly 25 words).

I am polite and upbeat in my comments but I fantasize about writing, “Couldn’t you be making better use of your time?” When the judgmental God is more palpable than the hard one, I ask myself the same question. I have two small writing projects with deadlines approaching. Neither have earth shattering requirements and in the eyes of the judgmental God, both would serve, at least in the conventional way, to further my writing career. The research is complete. Notes are made. Yet, I have missed my self imposed deadlines by days, and now the genuine ones now loom ominously.

Every week I write an entry for this blog and also a letter to each of three Jewish inmates who have been penpals now for over a year. There is a lot of other writing I could and should be doing but there is little steam and tiny potentially productive cracks of time are spent on crossword puzzles and Chowhound. The two essential writings of blog and prison penpals will do nothing to advance my writing career. I am spinning my wheels as a writer and the judgmental God is disappointed.

My penpal Alan, in Tehachapi writes about an interaction with his mother recounting words that sting in that unique and excruciating way that only a mother can wound a child. My first reaction is to gasp at the meanness but then I laugh, realizing that the conversation he describes is a replay of so many of mine with my own mother, before dementia left her fangless. Alan writes about what our letters and visits mean to him and I will not be falsely modest and minimize what, after more than twenty years in prison, our reaching out to him has meant. But his letters laud a selflessness, a one-sidedness I am unable to persuade him is shortsighted. Living for years in a punishing place and where any natural reaction to the inhumanity is perceived as weakness, Alan has found the hard God. In the past year, his letters, as much as any other thing in my life, have made knowing the God who cherishes my promise as opposed to the false idol of self recrimination and disappointment, less elusive.

I drive the kids to Altadena every morning and having finished Moby Dick, I am back on NPR but I need another audiobook pronto. It is hard not to listen to the news and not think of how what’s unfolding now will effect the future of my blissfully Ipodded teens. My guilt at having brought them into this world just increases my commitment to inspire them to better it. We are planning college for the seventeen year old and I tell myself it is time he learns to cook his own breakfast and do his laundry and I yell at him to get his lazy ass off the friggin’ couch but I cannot bear the thought that he won’t need me.
Spuds, at age fourteen, has been urged to use his brother’s Stridex pads and has dark fuzz over his lip. He is mistaken for me when he answers the phone less and less frequently. Knowing that he is my baby, he handles his requests for increased independence nimbly and with great sensitivity. Based on a number of years of experience dealing with adolescents, I am accustomed to arming myself for a hell storm when my answer to a request is a negatory. I am programmed for an emotional altercation but Spuds, in the face of my refusal is cool and cunning. One eyebrow rises nearly imperceptibly, he looks me straight in the eye and says, without emotion, “May I ask why?” Hackles already up and poised for confrontation, this rattles me and not quite being sure what hit me, I am at a loss for rational explanation. Humiliated and discombobulated, I capitulate.

God is everything we know and everything we can’t imagine knowing. God is all we are capable of, the atrocious and the sweet. Elohim. Buddha, Allah, Jesus. The world explodes with the violence of those who believe they own the only true name, their armies ever marching farther astray from the hard God. We are easier with punishment than love and our Land of the Free incarcerates a higher percentage of its countrymen than any other nation on earth. In a dystopia of gray steel where nothing is soft my friend Alan has found the hard unnamable God and this opens my eyes to possibilities and imperatives.

My beloved comes home late and gets in bed with hands so cold they make me weep and we spoon and I feel his hands slowly warm as I hold them to my heart. I am shattered when I think about the world my children will inherit and I know my struggles will not shield them from their own. I hope they are not weighed down by the same doubts and cynicism that plague their mother and that they remain confident that it is well within their power to make the world a better place.

William Stuntz will most likely die before the year is out and I pray, freed from pain, he rests in the soft bosom of the hard God. None of the 40 writers I have read will win a prize but the grammatically challenged, syntax confused words they’ve cobbled together are at least inspired by other words, undoubtedly more eloquent. I cross Hyperion, named for the god of the sun and I fret about the pieces for real publication that I should complete yet it is this piece here, that very few will read, which I must finish before it is Shabbat. I see a bumper stick that bears, what I know immediately will be the title of this week’s blog entry. I do not even open the files of the speculative writing I have promised myself I’ll finish but this piece here I think now is almost done. It did not flow easily this week and came in fits and starts and while the judgmental God would disparage my accomplishment, the hard God graciously accepts my offering.
Shabbat Shalom.