Friday, September 24, 2010

Too Much T.V.



The chain of ownership on the seventeen year old's Volvo is a nightmare. I buy it from some Chassids at a body shop who say they are selling it for a friend. I spend hours on the phone with the Auto Club and it seems like most of the week on hold for the DMV. I arrive at the actual office to register the car and receive officiously delivered and completely conflicting information and they’ll only issue a temporary registration. I’m not sure how the Chassids got involved and despite my urgent faxes and phone calls, obviously upset about the title on the car I bought from them, they do not contact me. I look for some quotes about business ethics ascribed to their Rebbe Schneerson whose portrait sneers from above as we conduct the transaction. My intention is to fax the Rebbe’s pearls of wisdom along with the DMVs report regarding the problem title to the Chassids but I can't find any appropriate attribution regarding cheating and lying that I can attribute to Schneerson. I’m not sure of the Chassid connection but the problem with the car seems to boil down to a conflict with the original Greek owner and an Armenian body shop owner and six unpaid parking tickets. The Greek guy calls me and prefaces the conversation by saying, “I hate doing business with Armenians.” I refrain from adding, befuddled even further by the Lubbavacher missing link, that I hate doing business with Jews.

After I get the temporary tags the car needs a visit to the mechanic for a few tweaks and it takes over a week from the date of purchase until I permit the seventeen year old to actually drive his very own first car. There are a number of prescriptions to be delivered for my mother, newly returned from hospital to board and care. I deliver other meds in the morning and adapt a late to the office countenance so I'm not expected to stop in for a moment to see her, although no one cares when I arrive at work. I decide the seventeen year old can test drive his first car before driving it to school by delivering my mother's medication and therefore avoid a second opportunity for a visit. To not be a complete a-hole I slip the kids a few bucks for a frozen yogurt afterwards, naturally requesting one for myself.

The keys to the new car are missing. My mental lapses grow more frequent and egregious as I pass the half century mark but I am pretty good with keys. The kids dump the contents of my briefcase and purse, sneering at the candy wrappers. We clear off the kitchen counters. We fear the puppy Oprah may have snatched the plastic coated key and we patrol the yard with a flashlight. The only unexcavated area is the trashcan and I remember that I’d thrown out some papers from the car and there amid the coffee grounds and carrot peelings I find the keys. I probably unconsciously sabotaged the seventeen year old’s efforts to get his license by arriving at DMV without the right documents again and again and now the car keys are in the trash.

It seems like the kids are gone forever on the new car expedition and I am going to call Spuds and ask what’s taking them so long but Himself yells at me that they’ve only been gone ten minutes. It seems like a very long time until I hear the car on the street. There is a grinding of gears and a thud and the screeching of brakes but the boys enter nonplussed and deliver my yogurt. I ask Spuds what the noise was about and he reports that his brother has had a bit of trouble parking and that he’d backed into the hill and the lady from around the corner who plays the mom on Everybody Hates Chris advises him tocheck the tail pipe for dirt clods. I go out to inspect. The parking job would have been better accomplished by Stevie Wonder and the interior light as been left on. The yogurt however is very delicious.

I complain to Lito about how nervous I am when the seventeen year old is out with the car but also note the advantage of retirement from my nearly eighteen year long chauffer stint. He has three young adult daughters and while he owns at least a dozen cars, that he admits to, none of his girls has a driver’s license. All three of them are in the military though so he gets the parental panic thing. He asks me what I was doing with the extra not driving time. I rack my brain to present him the my meaningful alternative use of the freed up hours, but the truth is it makes for more t.v. time.


Himself for some reason prefers my seafoam fluffy bathrobe to his own grey plaid masculine model and I hold my tongue when I find it flung over the bathroom door with used kleenex in the pockets and spattered with stains from the strawberries he eats, with yogurt, for his breakfast every single day. He is fussy about his own things and discourages borrowing. Before the seventeen year old receives his own wheels he uses Himself’s car to get to school. He reports returning home to find Dad waiting in the driveway, hose and rags at the ready, and in a big hurry to wash the vehicle before taking off for his own night class. Himself soaps up his car several times a week but becomes annoyed with me when I request that, after spending the day barefooted, he wash his feet before climbing into bed. Himself is ever vigilant with regard to food wastage or recycling indifference but while I can’t imagine he doesn’t think less of me for it, he never gets on my case about the amount of t.v. I watch. He grumbles at the kids and the boob tube but I’m not sure whether he considers me a lost cause or he appreciates that when I am engrossed in a show I am less likely to blab at him and interrupt his reading.


Theoretically I hate the idea of competitive cooking but despite the dripping artificiality, the seventeen year old gets me hooked on Top Chef and subsequently the Great Food Truck Race. The Top Chef candidates are obviously all goosed up to fabricate tension and mean spirited competitiveness, but as a pretty ambitious amateur cook, I get into figuring out what I would do when faced with the same challenges. I also score good points with both of the kids because I am able to indentify, in advance of the judges, blunders like storing raw tuna in a metal bowl overnight or using store bought puff paste. I prefer the challengers who try to rise above the fray and avoid bad mouthing, baiting or shoving the competition. The three remaining finalists are whores to reality show conventions and play for high entertainment value. The few candidates who manage to avoid manufacturing drama are eliminated. I tell the kids that I that I don’t get caught up in the pumped up personality aspect and am drawn to the creative preparation of food but truly, the formulaic reality show crap has become a guilty pleasure.

The Great Food Truck Race is really fun and has a lot less sniping then Top Chef. Success is not only based on cooking skills but requires business acumen and it is cool to sit with the kids and speculate on what is smart, like scouting good locations sales spots in advance and buying provisions directly from restaurateurs to save time and money and what is stupid, like forgetting to fill a propane tank. Top Chef shows the kids a lot of cooking technique and raises their consciousness about what they eat and it shuts them up about asking why dinner is taking so long. But, behind the fun of the Food Truck Race are some good lessons about logic and organization and many of the basics of running a business are beautifully illustrated.

We are also all hooked on Entourage but because it pushes the acceptable limits of cable sexual content we usually don’t watch it together. This is probably the most satisfying half hour cable show, and one I’d mention in the same breath as shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, the Wire or the Sopranos. I watch some half hour premium cable dramadies all by myself. It’s just as well. Nurse Jackie. Weeds. The United States of Tara, Hung, The Big C. All of them are way better than most of what I grew up on but they’re all sort of lost. They have good premises-a perfectly ordinary seeming person with a dark secret, stellar talent and the freedom of cable but the need to proceed from one season to another, or sometimes even to get from one episode to another, seems daunting and all consequently, all suffer a lack of credibility.

Edie Falco struggles to make Nurse Jackie believable and it is pretty much her efforts to connect with broadly drawn supporting characters that keep me watching. I watch Weeds, despite the ever growing more ludicrous and over the top plot because the ensemble casts connects as such a real family that it is delicious to watch. Originally a sardonic look at suburban life it’s morphed, probably not for the better, into a violent tale about a family on the run.

Toni Collette is a tour de force as a victim of multiple personalities in The United States of Tara. When she’s on her meds and doesn’t transition from uptight 50s housewife to hard drinking butch biker dude to teenage slut, everything else is predictable. Patton Oswald is remarkably sweet as the husband’s business partner, but the plotlines pertaining to Tara’s teenage daughter and son are icky and embarrassing.

Hung is another example of a cable perfect idea: a dynamo cast in a show about a male hooker but it doesn’t add up to much. Jane Adams is the pimp and her bug-eyed, unsettling intensity compensates for the implausible character (who may hold the record for a woman using the word “fuck” on cable) foisted on her. Although I really do watch a lot more hours of t.v than movies, I will add, that Adams performance as the blind date in Little Children is one of my favorite of all time.

A newcomer, The Big C, was originally titled “The C Word” which shows that Showtime does have some limits. Laura Linney is far too radiant to be dying of cancer and her madcap/secretive reaction to the diagnosis is hard to buy into. Nevertheless, Linney is so deft with nuanced and complicated emotion she is more true to her character than any of the writers. Oliver Platt is given the cartoon role of kicked out husband and poor Gabi Siddoubey is stuck in a thankless part that proves only that she speaks King’s English and that she really is fat.

There is a lot of crossover in our television watching but there are several taboos. Spuds knows not to watch football while I’m in the room. In The Deadliest Warrior, the superiority of, say Navy Seals vs. Israeli Commandos or Ming Warriors Vs. Musketeers, is determined via scientific simulations involving a lot of ersatz blood and bone crunching sound affects. It’s a brilliant concept I wish I’d thought of but it must be watched after my bedtime.

Himself will pay half attention to Colbert but I am forbidden Jon Stewart, whose shrillness my husband cannot abide. I too wish Stewart would take it down a notch but the show is usually quite funny, except for Samantha Bee. No one explicitly, out of some perversion of political correctness I suspect, asks me to turn off RuPaul but since I’ve been watching the spinoff, Drag U, in which drag queens makeover straight women to look like drag queens, Ru can really clear a room. I have stopped watching it myself because there is a pathos about a good drag queen which renders the whole makeover thing pointless and not fun, even as camp.

Himself is working and the kids drive themselves to rehearsal. I am unsupervised and alone with the remote. Carpe Diem. Glee! I have heard the word “seminal.” Smart people I know slaver. There are two episodes back to back and I tune in midway through the penultimate show of the season and watch the concluding one too. Jane Lynch is a cheerleading coach with a burr up her ass and out to abolish the glee club. The glee club is mortified when Lynch, who’s blackmailing the married principal of the school, having had an illicit liaison with him, is chosen to judge the state glee club competition. One of the singers goes in to labor during the finals. She delivers what appears to be an eight month old baby. The teacher in charge of the glee club cries a lot. There are a lot of Journey songs. My sons return home and are appalled that I am watching Glee. The seventeen year old goes downstairs, disgusted. Spud joins me on the couch. The Glee teacher sings Over the Rainbow to the Glee Club to comfort them after losing the state finals. The singers cry and hug and hold hands. Spuds and I hug and simper and feign weeping. The seventeen year old screams for us to turn down the volume and of course we crank the tv up full blast. The seventeen year old storms upstairs. Spuds and I are still doing our Glee impressions of the wacky gay guy with the sailor cap and the kid in the wheel chair fawning over each other when the seventeen year old furiously switches off the set. I retreat to bed and try to sleep as the echo of skulls being smashed and vital organs being penetrated wafts from downstairs.

MTV, the people who bring us Jersey Shore also airs 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom. These are reality shows that feel much more like cinema verite and social guidance is primary to entertainment value. Some of the kids are nice and smart and others are dullards but they all feel real. The show is cut with a steady hand. It’s never didactic or moralistic but never fails to hammer in how a teen pregnancy changes a girl’s life in profound and in sadly disproportionately negative ways.

I happen on a new MTV show called Jenk’s World. Andrew Jenks, Room 336 is a documentary Jenks made while a sophomore in college. In order to better understand his grandfather’s plight, he moves into a nursing home. The film is widely lauded but the institutionalization of the elderly theme is a turn off, for obvious reasons, so it never made my list. This new MTV project has Jenks living for a week with a young person whose life experience is out of the mainstream, this season a rap star, a boxer, a cheerleader and an animal rescue activist. Jenks, who looks Shaggy in Scooby Doo, in episode one, moves in with an autistic teenager. The kid is sweet but obsessively attached to ritual. Jenks takes the kid to visit Manhattan and the honking traffic noise causes him to freak out. Jenks begins to unglue but he sings to the boy and you can almost see him blasting out love and ultimately getting the kid to chill.

Jenks is not a simpering twat like the glee club teacher but I am stymied to name another person, living or dead, real or on the television, who exudes more love for his fellow man. Jenks sleeps on concrete beside a homeless girl Danielle on a cold San Francisco night but questions the extent of her own culpability for her condition of destitution. The girl describes a troubled childhood. Jenks helps Danielle collect recycling in order to purchase a bus ticket to travel to Oregon and see her family. They futilely attempt to hitchhike the final leg and end up in the production van. The parents are indeed dissolute and when Jenks confronts them about Danielle sleeping in the street they reply that she’s better off homeless than in the bosom of her family. Jenks tells them that Danielle is his friend and he is worried about her but they resist his efforts to compel them worry about her too. Jenks is somber on the way back to San Francisco but Danielle glows when she asks Jenks if he meant it when he told her parents that he was her friend. Maybe it’s my used kleenex in the pocket of the robe.

There is still a real snobbery about television among certain film people, but having been born a film person I am delighted that television has come into its own as an art form and some of the great cultural masterpieces of my life time have been produced for t.v. This of course helps rationalize the enormous amount that I watch. I’m too lazy to go to the movies much these days anyway. I’m thankful that I can loll on the couch in my night dress and be distracted a bit from the anxiety of having teenagers out on the road. It’s nice to know also that when they do get home they’ll be watching pretty good stuff.

Friday, September 17, 2010

First Cars and Kaddish


I like the idea of taking the train to the office but actually riding the train messes with motivation to improve my character. I find the signage and bustling rush hour crowd bewildering. There is a central casting wild eyed guy stretched out in the back of the car. The six rows of seats around him are empty and people are crammed like sardines toward the front. My kids ride the train a lot more than I do and would laugh at my befuddlement. They are card carrying urbanites, even derisive about the provincial character of Altadena, the location of their school, just ten miles from Hollywood. One of Spuds's classmates has never been on Hollywood Blvd or to Silver Lake. I rode the bus all over town when I was their age and was usually nonplussed by the parade of creeps and what we called “derelicts” back then. I know my kids are accustomed to city sights pathetic and ugly. I guess it is inevitable that they to see how the world really is, but to their mother they will always be too young for hard reality.

I probably could manage taking the train to work. It really doesn’t take all that much longer than driving and when I transfer to the Red Line at Union Station I usually snag a seat. Often though it is inconvenient not to have a car at the office and always, it is sad to leave Rover at home. He is crushed when I leave without him and missed by everyone at work. I am tempted to have a green “mental health dog” vest made for him so he can accompany me on the train, but we decide that it’s time to buy a third car.

I love cars but far too infrequently am I in a position to shop for one other than via window. I flirt for a long time with a 1972 International Scout II at my mechanic’s and it is deliciously butch, roll bar and all. It is rusty but savable and I mentally paint and reupholster it again and again. I do some financial calculations pertinent to the restoration I fantasize and cannot sanction the extravagance. I like vintage trucks and sport utility vehicles and every once in a while get the notion to buy one. But Jewish girls seldom haul anything. To buy way more vehicle than one really needs because it looks cool is profligate. At least until the kids graduate from college.

I wouldn’t buy one but I love riding in German cars, even if they are owned by Jews. Most of the German manufacturers, and Swedish cousin Volvo, build cars that last forever. It is remarkable how many Mercedes and Volvos from the 1980s and 90s thrive and drive. American cars of this vintage are seen less frequently, obsolescent pretty much from first manufacture. Based on the quality and design of American cars produced during the period it is surprising that the industry didn’t go belly up a lot sooner than it did. There are a couple recent American models that are better reviewed and much more presentable than the cars of yore but Japanese and European cars are still generally way more stylish.

I love the Volvo C30 which pays homage to the toady 60s models with the cute rear window. There are very few used ones available and they are way out of our price range. Rover, who the kids, despite my ire, now call “Gramps,” would find the backseat way puny. By the time I can afford a used one, I fear that will no longer be an issue. I’ll keep the wagon for now. Sherman tanks have some practicality issues so my second choice for our new driver is a third Volvo.

I find some cool 1980s warhorse models on Craig’s List but the ones that don’t have bad transmissions or salvage titles are snatched up almost immediately after the listing is posted. I find a new ad for a 1998 S70 with very low mileage at a fair price. I rush over to claim it with my best carhead friend Lito along to check out the car and help negotiate the sale.

Lito has been with the company nearly 25 years and until my father’s death three years ago they were cheek to jowl. The car is being sold for a friend by the purveyors of a body shop on Pico and La Brea. Sans glasses, I see a woman of indeterminate ethnicity, but it appears that she may have dreads extending beyond her waist. I tell Lito she is either a Rasta or one of my people. As I approach she morphs into an Orthodox Jew, clad in a long veiled head covering rather than braids. Even in the heart of L.A.’s most Orthodox neighborhood it just doesn’t occur to me that an Orthodox Jew would own a body shop, but her bearded, yamulked husband runs the show and a portrait of the glowering Lubbovacher Rabbi Shneerson graces the wall. They speak in Yiddish to each other. They pass four phones back and forth and converse in urgent Yiddish and English. They converse with employees in Spanish just about as rudimentary as mine.

The car is covered with dust but seems in good shape. Certain that the seventeen year old will not go near this blog with a ten foot pole, I will note that this is perhaps the ugliest Volvo model ever manufactured, almost Soviet in its affect. Lito drives it and it checks out. The negotiation is pro forma. I think we both know the figure we will agree on. It is the exact amount of money I have in an envelope in my purse, but I do have a couple hundred tucked deep in my wallet, just in case. I accelerate our arrival at the magic number by shamelessly adding that it is my son’s Bar Mitzvah money, which it is but sort of indirectly. “Oh, you’re Jewish…?” The deal is done. Lito rolls his eyes. He has spent most of his adult life manacled to a Jewish business. Nevertheless, he appreciates a good bargain and suggests we tint the windows on the car and resell it at a big profit.

I tell the seventeen year old that I am looking for a car but that I haven’t had any luck and that it will take a while. He is fearful I will keep the new car for myself and that he and his black wardrobe will be relegated to a dog hair infested, reeking of Mom, station wagon. I have the car washed and bring it home as a surprise. On the cusp of eighteen, nothing is really all that much but the sight of his very first car, shiny and black and through his eyes magically not ugly, melts his fa├žade. He will drive himself now wherever he wants to go.

He says he is starting to like driving more and more. I love to drive. My mother loved to drive and often recounted that a man yelled a compliment after driving behind her to the bottom of the series of hair-pin turns that comprise Coldwater Canyon. He said she drove like a man. Decades later she obfuscates about a few fender benders and I had her license revoked. She was more relieved than angry. I hope it is a long time before I beg my sons to drive me where I want to go.

I like my mother’s physician who specializes in geriatrics and palliative care. He is amused by Mom’s flirtatiousness, deep seeded and Pavlovian I guess in the presence of a male. We talk about the way dementia has of boiling people down to their essence. He calls with a conundrum. When I decide not to approve the broncosopy procedure originally, he agrees. He’d forgotten that my mother lives at a board and care. The broncosopy is necessary to diagnose the cause for her pneumonia and subsequently treat it and she cannot return to the board and care until it is certain she is not contagious. Two nurses call at midnight for me to “witness” via phone my consent for the procedure. The following afternoon she is wheeled in from surgery, a murmuring wet rag, as the hospice social worker arrives with a stack of forms. I authorize sanctions, which will most likely hasten my mother’s death, focused only on the hospice worker’s crooked lower teeth.

I visit my mother without an escort several times. I am self congratulatory and treat myself to fattening snacks afterwards. Mom is in a brand new enormous room in a recently completed wing. There is a flat screen t.v., computer and a huge built in couch. The nurses are friendly and efficient. Because my mother looks so good a number of them note that she’s doing really well but add that she’s awfully confused. Instead of “duh,” I reassure them that the onset of severe dementia preceded this recent hospitalization. I work a crossword puzzle and make what I hope are comforting responses to my mother’s inchoate jabber.

I am informed she has been moved and the letter “B” precedes the room number and I surmise she has been transferred to a double room. At the board and care she has attempted in the middle of the night to foist her roommate from her bed toss her to the floor and alternately has climbed into bed and fallen asleep beside her. I arrive at the hospital to find that she has been transferred to the old wing of the hospital. Half of the ward is taped off for construction. The halls are narrow and ancient fluorescent lights cast a gray pall. My mother’s new room is half the size of her private one and there are two beds crammed in. A shriveled woman in the other bed writhes and groans. I take the only chair and utter some platitudes while my mom stares blankly. An LVN enters, navigates roughly around my chair and snaps, “Move, you’re in my way.” The cries of the woman in the next bed grow louder. My mother becomes agitated.

I locate the nurse station looking for Mom’s R.N. A tiny Asian woman emerges. In broken English she explains that the ward is full and that the roommate has the same type of infectious pneumonia as my mother, hence the decision to place them together. I explain that my mother is afraid. I do not mention that she may become so perturbed by the noisy roommate that she’ll get out of bed and clobber her but I do encourage them to keep an eye on her. I attempt to get information about my mother’s condition but the nurse doesn’t understand me and points to various lab numbers on her chart. I give up. The new wing is almost churchlike but here in the old building it seems that there are moans and screams emanating from every room. I am reminded of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and I leave without returning to my mother’s room to say goodbye.

I feel guilty when my mother, with her “do not resuscitate” order, is in the opulent room. Medical services are rationed but care during the last year of a patient’s life accounts for 26% of U.S. medical expenditure. I am sickened by the grim tiny new room and my mother suffering with a moaning roommate. I presume Mom will be cured of the pneumonia in a few days and after over three weeks of hospitalization will return to the board and care home where she will continue to decline and I hope that her death there is a peaceful one. In Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut describes Howard Johnson’s like chains of “ethical suicide” parlors and for the most part, the notion of assisted suicide is relegated to science fiction. For all his genuine compassion, the real life advocate of euthanasia, Jack Kevorkian, comes off as a crackpot . Furthermore any serious discussion about helping the terminally ill end their lives pertains only to patients who can call the shots themselves. The issue of euthanasia for patients who are non compos mentis is rarely discussed.

Advocates of assisted suicide often present as analogous the naturalness with which pet owners have put down a suffering animal. While there is something distasteful about this comparison, it is nevertheless telling that thousands of ailing elderly patients suck up a hugely disproportionate percentage of medical resources and endure painful treatments even when no possible improvement to their quality of life is foreseeable. We manufacture and distribute weapons designed to kill and so as a society we have no blanket policy with regard to the sanctity of human life. Is a dementia ravaged nonagenarian more precious than a teenager on a battlefield?

I could do some boning up at the Hemlock Society in the name of my mother’s dignity but I am a coward. I am even more cowardly because I have tried to exact a promise from my own children that they don’t let what’s happened to my mother happen to me. It is Yom Kippur and the third anniversary of my father’s death. My mother’s name will be included on the list of ailing folks and the congregation will pray for her. I will call out my father’s name before the mourner’s prayer for the dead is recited. Then, I will whisper my mother’s name to myself. L’shana tova. Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Mother. Less or More


The phone rings at 6 a.m. on Saturday. It’s the director of the board and care. My mother is having a seizure. Three years ago during high holidays, I met with a team of palliative care specialists and decided to authorize no futher measures to prolong the life of my father, who was a few months shy of 90. The machines were unplugged. It took him about two days longer to die than was expected. My mother will turn 90 in November. I arrive at the board and care just as the paramedics are driving away with her.

Spuds accompanies me to the hospital to see her on Saturday. She is not awake and I sit for a while and watch her sleep. Four days have elapsed and while I call and inquire of the nurse on a daily basis, I do not return. The director of the board and care visits her daily and brings her clothes and fixes her hair and applies makeup. I am ashamed but there is no one available to accompany me to visit, and just like going to see her at the board and care, I am unable to bring myself to visit the hospital alone.

The cause of the seizure is still undetermined but it is discovered she is suffering from pneumonia and that one of her lungs is badly congested and partially collapsed. I am asked to authorize a bronchoscopy which is dually a diagnostic measure and will also serve to suction off some of the mucus in her lungs. Because she is nearly ninety years old and suffers from pernicious dementia I do not authorize the procedure, promising to think about it.

I call Jayne and Mike Goldberg, mavens of all matters medical, dog and automobile. Jayne tells me that nurses refer to pneumonia as the “old man’s friend.” Patients dying from pneumonia can be prescribed strong pain killers which do double duty in slowing respiration, essentially making for a peaceful and painless death. It is possible that my mother will survive this bout of pneumonia but Jayne suggests taking more aggressive steps to cure it, particularly when she has suffered a seizure, might eventually result in a more painful death, as dementia and age are capricious and irremediable.

I send Himself and the children off to Rosh Hashanah services and sit on the couch in a ratty nightgown and wait for the doctor to call. I try to watch live Rosh Hashanah services on the Jewish t.v. network but can’t engage. I watch a cooking show and some reruns of The Office and stare at the phone, willing it to ring. When it finally does, the doctor explains again the possible benefits of the bronchoscopy but when we discuss the actual individual who, while treated with warmth and compassion at the Board and Care, is maintained by strong sedatives and has no quality of life, he agrees with the decision to withhold all but palliative treatment. He arranges for hospice care. She will return to the board and care and hospice staff will monitor her and provide necessary services on a daily basis.

After the doctor and I agree to provide only palliative treatment I call the board and care to explain that my mother will be returned there by ambulance within the next few days and that she will receive hospice services. The caretaker is angry. She doesn’t even know that I haven’t visited my mom in the hospital and I am thankful for this. She says that once the pneumonia clears up my mother will be fine. But fine to her, is the vegetative state she has been in since her arrival at the home. She agrees to cooperate with the hospice service but I can tell she is distressed. The board and care is run by a Filipino family. The house is filled, not ironically, with Catholic kitsch. I suspect the objection to my decision is rooted in religion and culture. I believe that if my mother had foreseen her fate she would have opted to die about three years ago but I still I am stung and wounded by the caretaker’s disapproval.

My mother looks far younger than ninety and is one of those old ladies you can recognize as having been a great beauty but there is nothing left of her anymore. I am disturbed by the thought of her languishing and I imagine she would be disgusted at the picture of herself in diapers and gibbering incoherently. I think she would agree with the decision to discontinue life prolonging measures but the truth is, death for her won’t vary much from her current life. I am the one who stands to be most changed at her passing. Her death will make me an orphan, although perhaps it is tacky for someone in her 50s to wallow in this designation. She has been absent for so long that while her death will be sad, foremost, it will bring relief. The caretaker’s shocked response trips the switch of perpetual guilt and exacerbates my fear that my primary motivation for eschewing life extending measures, towards almost inevitably hastening her death, is that my mother is an inconvenience.

Spuds returns from services which I glean he finds boring and volu
nteers again to accompany me to visit my mother at the hospital. We are stuck in the hall behind an enormous man with a walker being led by a tiny nurse down the hall. He wears pressure stockings. His head is wrapped in a thick bandage and with each tiny step he emits a moan of exhausted pain. It is terrible to witness Spud’s witness of this but I cannot imagine this visit without his comforting presence.

My mother stares vacantly at Tyra on the overhead t.v. Her arms are black from IVs and blood draws. I bring her favorite dark chocolate. The hospital bed tray is cluttered with applesauce and medical food thickening agents. I break off a tiny piece of chocolate and stick it in my mother’s mouth. At the board and care she’d easily polish off an entire bag, regarding each new piece I offer with surprise and delight. She chews and swallows the tiny piece. I offer another. The voracious love of chocolate has been one of the few human qualities left to my mom but now, her mouth clamps shut.

We leave the hospital and Spuds says he is hungry. He deserves a special snack but reports that the hospital cafeteria is yucky. I don’t feel like taking him to a restaurant but I stop at Trader Joe’s hoping there will be a sample of something to tide him over but the offering is pork shu mai. Despite temple, grandma and gnawing hunger he doesn’t complain and even unloads the groceries when we get home before preparing for himself an elaborate snack which I accurately predict, but refrain from pointing out, will spoil his dinner.

Himself deplores the telephone. This will elicit a “duh” from anyone who reads here with any regularity. He answers the home phone in such a tone as to insure that no one ever wants to call again. It is remarkable the mileage that he can get from those two syllables of “hell” and “o.” The phone rings and Spuds identifies “Market Research” on the caller i.d. Himself’s posture stiffens and he rages, “DO NOT ANSWER IT. THEY HAVE BEEN HOUNDING ME FOR DAYS,” and then he segues into his usual rant about the corrosion of personal privacy with some sort of overpopulation subtext. Himself is hunched over his laptop, his back to the phone as the seventeen year old picks up the receiver and stealthily disconnects the call. He answers the dead line, “Hello? John Murphy? Yes, just a moment.” He extends the phone to his apoplectic father and says, with an Oscar worthy deadpan, “It’s for you. It’s Market Research.”

After a summer of sleeping until most people have finished lunch, my seventeen year old forces himself out of bed on the first day of school. He grabs a cup of coffee, ignoring my raised eyebrow. A senior now, this is his last first day of school, at least the kind of first day of school that starts with Mom yelling at him to wake up, a hot meal and a packed lunch box. This is also the first day of school on which car keys are placed next to his vitamin on his breakfast napkin. We make a dry run to the school and scope out the parking situation on the weekend but as I hear the engine turn over I am knocked silly by a huge rush of love, pride, relief and acute terror.

I badger Spuds relentlessly to text me every time they arrive at any destination. I pump him about his brother’s driving prowess. I remember how I drove for the first few years after being licensed and a serious accident I caused. The last time I visit at the board and care my mother eats half a pound of chocolate and jabbers forming no intelligible words. I wipe the smeared chocolate from her face and kiss her goodbye. She calls out “drive carefully.” How indelibly etched that terror is.

I have chewed around for years my mother’s brokenness and the complications of my relationship with her. I was angry for a long time but over the last dozen years I’ve gotten over it. I turned out ok after all so there’s no point in ascribing blame. As dementia peels her down, like a brittle onion, what is left at the tiny sliver of withered core is her love for me and she is, above all things, rightous. Now she is ashen and tiny in a gigantic hospital bed. She gazes blankly at the comically insipid Tyra. My children drive away from me now and I text and call and wait in the driveway for them to return. In the end we can’t even hold on to what we cherish the most but we will fight like mad before letting go.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Doing Time

For as long as I can remember I always get the blues at the end of the summer and have the sense that I’ve squandered the season. It’s over 35 years since I was a student and as a teacher I always worked summers but I still cling to the childish expectations of thrill and ease and romance. Summer never really pans out.

After two years of driving lessons and futile trips to just about every DMV in the county, the eighteen next month year old is licensed. I drive nearly 3000 miles in a ten day period. The plan is that the new driver will take over the wheel for parts of the journey but after about an hour he is bored and tired and I don’t bother. He sleeps in the backseat most of the time. I listen to books on tape and make his brother poke him to wake up when there is particularly splendid scenery.

We visit some colleges in Oregon. I am reminded that admission and financial aid applications and deadlines are going to be a nervous making pain in the butt. I applied, was accepted and then moved away to college when I was younger than my oldest son. My mother filled out a financial aid application but otherwise I completely made it happen. I realize how far out of the realm of possibility this would be for my own child. The college admission process is more complicated than it was in my day but truly, we are also way more hands-on than our parents were. For the kid’s sake I know I must campaign for him to become less helpless but finesse it so he doesn’t mistake my effort for the withholding of love.


Back home he is less indifferent to driving, as there are films to see and friends to visit, in the waning days of summer. It is really amazing not to have to chauffer him but despite my lobbying for his greater independence, turning the keys over to him induces anxiety of near vomit proportions. He is permitted to drive from home to my office, the route that is most familiar to him, to pick up his brother. They drive to a theatre three blocks away. I order him to call me as soon as he arrives and pace like a caged animal waiting for the phone to ring. Finally, I call him. The movie has just started. They are fine. He has forgotten to call. I return home and they are due back from the theater shortly and there is a palpable physical relief when the dogs, who recognize the sound of the car from half a mile away, begin to bark. My mother seldom remembers my name and no longer forms coherent sentences. The last time I visit though, as I kiss her goodbye she says “Drive carefully.”


At the bleakest point on Interstate 5 we pass the Pleasant Valley Correctional facility where one of the prisoners I write to is transferred recently. I send him a birthday card from Mount Hermon but otherwise, I do not write the inmates their weekly letters during my vacation and as we pass the off ramp to the prison in 100 degree heat, I feel sheepish. The last letter from Pleasant Valley describes how several years ago the writer had a toothache and his request to visit a dentist was ignored for months. He lanced the swelling with a razor blade and worked the tooth loose and pulled it out by himself. He attached the tooth to his request to see a dentist and was finally given an appointment.

The dentist noted that the infection was so pernicious that all of his upper teeth would require extraction. Perhaps this is exaggerated but several days after receiving his description, a report on the state of medical services in California prisons since they fell into federal receivership recounts the case of an inmate who died of sepsis due to an untreated abscessed tooth. My pen pal was fitted with dentures but because he is indigent, it is difficult for him to get denture adhesive which is usually provided to prisoners only through the canteen. Because his sentence included a large fine, funds in his trust account are garnished by 33%. After a lot of red tape, the fixative is provided but this and all medical visits are subtracted from the already negative balance of his trust account and he is unable to order hygiene or food items from the canteen.

The inmate was moved from Mule Creek Prison to Pleasant Valley because this prison is better equipped to treat a number of his medical ailments, one of which he has described to me frequently, is neuropathy. The point of the abscessed tooth story is that he’s seen a commercial on television about a class action suit pertinent to Polident, which apparently has caused Zinc poisoning related neuropathy. I am his only conduit for information about the class action suit and will research and print my findings to send to him. I’m not sure how a successful class action settlement would benefit a prisoner with a life sentence except maybe completing forms and writing letters might be a good time killer.

Last year, due to his indigence, I agree to order and pay for the quarterly shipment inmates are allowed to receive. When I receive the list of items he wants, I am a little surprised to see oysters, which are not kosher, as my connection with him is through a Jewish social service agency and he purports to practice Judaism to some extent. The real red flag is that he requests the items be sent to another prisoner and his rationale for this seems specious. I presume I’m being gamed and perhaps helping him pay off a debt. I am slightly miffed but not really surprised. The man will be in prison until he dies. I can’t change him. I continue to write him weekly, fulfill his research requests and buy him an occasional book. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter if he games me and lies. What matters to me, and I think, separate of his opportunism, to him too, is that I remember and respect his existence, something every human, no matter how fallen or ruined, deserves.

There are three letters, one from each inmate, when I return from vacation. I dread opening the one from Pleasant Valley because the last letter contained the graphic depiction of the dental problems and the class action lawsuit research request. The latest letter contains another request to order a quarterly shipment ostensibly for his new cellmate, a Dutch national with no outside resources to place the order on his behalf. If the order is placed directly from a prisoner’s trust account, a service fee is imposed by the prison. I am to receive a money order to pay for it but it feels more like a nuisance than a mitzvah.

The other lifer I write to is in the San Diego area. His letters are clever and funny but larded with requests for books and stamps. I sense with him too that my consistent weekly letters cheer him but he also tries to get whatever he can from me, the most recent letter containing a list of books. He also frequently alludes in great detail to the shortcomings of the prison medical care system. I sense he is also prone to exaggeration but indeed that report of the quality of services since the federal takeover indicates that medical care is still gravely inadequate.

My third pen pal and the one I genuinely consider a friend and not a mere mitzvah project is Alan in Tehachapi. Despite the grimness of his circumstance, he is always upbeat and while he does occasionally require a book or some research on the Internet he asks so graciously that I don’t mind. He makes far fewer requests than the other two pen pals and is the only one on whose veracity I rely. There is a difference in personality and character but also, Alan is the only one of the three inmates who will be released and perhaps he is the only one who really feels that cultivating integrity is worth the investment.

Alan’s last letter is a happy one and indicates some progress towards mending his marriage which has suffered due to his long incarceration. I am pleased for him but also have trepidations as the seven years until he gets out will pass differently for him in prison than for his wife navigating in the free world. Alan requests very little but he wants a book of guitar songs which I order for him on Amazon. I order a used copy from an independent seller, as I’ve done for other prison orders but apparently the packaging looks amateurish and the book is returned to the seller. Prisoners are allowed to receive books from bona fide book merchants but only stamps, envelopes and paper from individuals. I will have to order a new copy of the book directly from Amazon. It is remarkable how prison complicates even the most simple of transactions.

Card stock is a treasured item for many inmates. It is used for artwork, greeting cards and models. The pack I send to Mule Creek is rejected but I have good luck with Pleasant Valley. Paper models are a popular time consuming hobby. I print out patterns on plain paper for cars and planes and send them to Mule Creek and the inmate traces them onto cardstock. Now I can print these directly on to cardstock. I wonder how many hours it would take to trace a model containing oodles of intricate parts. I wonder how it feels knowing that every hour, day, week, month is essentially the same. How would you experience of the change of seasons and other markers of time? How is it when there is only an occasional letter or a piece of fruit on the lunch tray to distinguish one day from any other?

I am ritualized in my use of time. After tending to responsibilities at the office, I write Alan on Mondays. I send him my blog and Himself’s and other pertinent writings that will interest him. If it’s Tuesday, it’s a letter for the Pleasant Valley inmate. I also send him several pages of Sudoku puzzles weekly and often paper model patterns and football schedules. I write the San Diego inmate on Wednesday and include a week of L.A. Times crossword puzzles with solutions for the more difficult Saturday and Sunday puzzles and several pages of Sudokus. Thursday and Friday are reserved for the writing of the blog and while I am not doctrinaire about the word count, most pieces run in the area of 2000 words. While on vacation I post a piece to the blog, although somewhat shorter than my average. I do not write to the prisoners. Returning to the office on Thursday I decide to go a second week without writing them, putting my own writing and catching up at work first but I feel bad that they will go for two full weeks without a letter.

I look at the list of deadlines pertinent to college applications and other requirements for getting two teenagers through another school year. There is not enough time, although the little there is passes excruciatingly slowly when my Seventeen year old is out with the car. Mostly though, summer is too short but I am thankful for my full hours. It is good for me to devote a few of them each week to those for which time is just a sameness altered only by death.