Friday, November 26, 2010

Inventing the Parachute

G.B. Stern said, “The optimist invented the airplane and the pessimist, the parachute.” Himself, who is not only of the glass half empty persuasion but also confident that it teeters precariously close to the edge and will inevitably crash, break in slivers that will be stepped on leading to infection and fatal sepsis, is headed for Ireland. As usual, he has a number of books to deliver and undoubtedly a number to receive. Propose checking a bag at your own peril. Because a purse is so essential and sometimes woman’s lib works both ways, in airline-speak it is referred to as a “personal bag” and even though this connotes tampons and sex toys and Preparation H, he is entitled to tote one, in addition to a carry-on. He worries that due to the Thanksgiving holiday permission to carry a personal bag on International flights might be rescinded. I threaten to confirm this Thanksgiving Penalty Policy at the airline website. He agrees to carry Spuds’ small messenger bag.

Even with the controversial personal bag, it is clear that the lunchbox size case he usually carries is going to be too small to contain obscure tomes and cool weather garb. We have a number of other bags that could probably meet carry-on criteria but I know he will deem them too large. I see some nice backpacks on-line and convince him that this might be a good anecdote to the weight of the books. He also requests some long underwear which is a specialty item here in SoCal. He freaks out when I tell him the closest retailer, Patagonia is in Old Town Pasadena. PARKING!! We find a fifteen minute spot on the street and Himself makes Spuds sit in the car to feed the meter again ONLY IF NECESSARY. The transaction is a quick one.

We don’t eat out much and my chances are better when I can tie it into an errand, when we are “out anyway.” Sometimes we go to Whole Foods because Himself likes the fish and chips, cheap beer that meets his standard, plentiful free parking-albeit in a subterranean lot that aggravates him-and no tipping is necessary. The kids and I have eaten a couple of times at an amiable Thai Vegan place. It meets some of Himself’s criteria, being reasonably priced and I recollect that the service is affable enough to temper his grudging of gratuity. The deal breaker though is the lack of a beer and wine license. I telephone and ask if we may bring wine. I don’t want to say beer because, although the particular bottle in question costs more than most plonk, beer sounds low class. There is a moment of hesitation and then it is agreed, we may bring wine.

We hungry and winded from our Patagonia sprint. The parking lot is quite full. The car ahead of me takes the last good space. Himself sighs. He is leery about parking but I have no memory of ever in the last 20 years giving up on a destination because we are unable to park. The restaurant is crowded and there are people waiting for tables. Himself rolls his eyes. Waiting for a table is right up there with parking and checking luggage. The host relocates a couple though so that he can join two tables and accommodate us. He asks if we want ice for our beer. Himself twists the cork from the Belgian ale and it explodes violently and soaks both of us, the floor and table. About six ounces of beer remain in the quart bottle. He grouses about this and the dry cleaning bill and I don’t mention it to him that I leave a 30% tip, as recompense for our stinky sticky mess.

I am given detailed instructions for ministering to Brother Juniper, a bonsai that arrived from Chris and Bob at the time of my mother’s death. Himself, who I have never known to name plants before, has taken a shine to it. I have never given much thought to bonsai. Sparse, carefully composed Japanese floral arrangements, like bonsai have always underwhelmed me. My aesthetic is more rooted in the Latinate and I like my flora more in your face. Big bunches of it. Because the tree is a gift from dear friends and because Himself is so enchanted by it, I pay it a visit on the deck. It is more than just a sprig of cypress thrown in a pot. It is an exquisite and perfectly realized diorama, a slip of forest and while I still bring home a gaudy bunch of flowers every week, through his eyes I see the delicate fineness of the bonsai.

The quality of family life hinges on acquiescence and compromise. With Himself gone, approximately 25% less of this is required. I presume that when I am absent they eat without napkins and put Tupperware containers right on the dining room table. If they use the dining room table. When Himself is gone we have a veritable orgy of one a.m. trips to Chinatown, not recycling and watching even more crap TV than we do ordinarily, down to Jersey Shore and Dancing with the Stars.

Spuds and I discover Bait Car. On one level it is funny in a Candid Camera kind of way. The police take to the meanest streets, in what I gather are exclusively black and Hispanic neighborhoods, and perform an elaborate charade to convey that a car is being left unattended with the keys available. The rouses are cunning and clever. A guy is picked up for a DUI and the cop, distracted by the arrestee fussing with his partner, leaves the car keys on the roof. An ample black officer pounds down the street in high heels screaming into her cell phone. “You can come get your own god damn car!” There is a camera inside the car. The vehicle is controlled by remote and those unable to resist the temptation find themselves locked inside when the car comes to a dead halt. Some argue that this is entrapment but it really isn’t because there is always clearly the choice not to take the car. It’s worse than entrapment though. It is terrible to indulge our appetite for the prurient by inducing people to be bad. A much less cynical and practical use of these resources would be an inducement to be good. I guess that wouldn’t make for very good television though.

Spuds and I go to see the newest Harry Potter at the Vista Theatre. The Vista was originally Bard’s Hollywood Theater when it opened in 1923. It was a porno theatre through much of the 60s and a first rate revival house, I believe a member of the Landmark Group in the 1970s. It is where Himself and I saw our very first movie together, Dead Ringers, a real date night flick where Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologists, one of whom is a sexual sadist. The Vista is one of the last single screen theatres left in town and a real ornate beauty. The 5th Harry Potter is a loud mess except for some clever art direction and a gorgeous animated sequence reminiscent of the silhouette animation of Lotte Reiniger. I love the Vista and it makes me sad that my kids largely see films in shopping mall multiplexes. It is a treat to be there with Spuds and we even splurge on the fresh popcorn with real butter.

It is nice not to have to cook Thanksgiving just this once. The puppy Oprah has made the house look even more squalid and we still have the ongoing problem of Rover’s excessive shedding. We’ve made a bit of progress with Oprah’s destructiveness by keeping her amply supplied with bones and rawhide chews but her deportment is a work in progress. We are seated at the dining table and Oprah stands, two paws on the table. She watches the food action and listens to the conversation. Himself and I, beaten down by bad dog behavior, ignore her. My young adult son glowers at us and then goes into perky self help voice, telling the dog, “It’s just fine that you do that. Yes, it’s perfectly ok.” He seems to be the most acutely aware of how unsuitable we are for company and is relieved that his father’s absence resulted in our invitation to Scott and Julia’s.

The kids are all a dither about the new Kanye West album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I love a lot of Graduation but Kanye is so obnoxious, what with replacing his teeth with diamonds and all, I am indifferent about the new recording. I agree to give it a listen in the car on our way to the valley, something else we wouldn’t have been able to do with Dad around. I have listened to it now about 2 ½ times now and I suspect I will not be as enchanted with it as I am with Graduation. But it is groundbreaking and West’s musical lexicon grows more and more sophisticated. There is a really filthy diddy performed by Chris Rock that the kids skipped. I’ve heard it now and henceforward will skip it myself. I still think Kanye is obnoxious and this record is crude and vulgar but parts of it are complex and beautiful enough perhaps to give the anger and crudeness context.

Scott and Julia have a short guest list, Richard and me and the boys. We all remember other Thanksgivings that were marred by family crap and are happy to be in the easy company of old friends. Richard remembers that my mother was always eager for desert, immediately followed by clean up and get rid of the guests. He always notes that hers was the only Thanksgiving from which he’d left the table hungry. Mom would rush the meal at my house too and while the guests were just tucking into second helpings, she’d try to clear people’s plates. We remember her squawking “Layne, do you have a cake server?” and Richard and I always use this line when faced with dessert. I bring some vegetarian gravy to Julia’s and there is a conundrum about serving it and the real stuff. Richards accuses, in a stage whisper, “She only has one gravy boat…” The second gravy is served in a pyrex measuring cup and how fine it is to be in a place where this is fine.

Just before sunrise, the air is cool I roll over to Himself and wake to realize he’s gone. I grab the cats but under the warm covers they purr too loudly for me to get back to sleep. I think about what good cats they are and if there will be other cats for us. I have fun with the kids and enjoy a Thanksgiving with dear friends of many decades but I am thankful Himself doesn’t have to travel more often than he does. He returns to home turf on Sunday and while he will probably never find a place to park again in his whole life I am certain that the thought of our good cats and the tiny tree on the deck and our cluttered funky life will inspire a bit of optimism.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, November 19, 2010

Blog is a Four Letter Word

When I don’t have a pretty good handle on what I’m going to say here and maybe 500 words written by mid-morning Thursday I get anxious. I’ve been at this “Friday thing” for over four years. I avoid the word “blog” because my kids say it with such lacerating scorn, perhaps even more embarrassed by this than my AOL e-mail account. I make no plans for Fridays and leave the office only after I have posted an essay and subsequently look forward to going home, and having accomplished something, feel deserving of Shabbat chill. When I turn down an offer, usually to go out to lunch with a girlfriend, on Friday I never say that it’s because I’m writing my blog because it sounds stupid. While the Friday posting is mandatory, I make no conditions as to word count, but, with few exceptions, pieces end up in the area of 2000 words.

I run my own business and make my own hours. There is no one in my household, although they claim otherwise, who would perish if bereft of my ministrations. There are no more mandatory errands to run on my mother’s behalf. Very little is required of me. While I spend a lot of time in front of the television and working crosswords and bemoan my own sloth and lack of self discipline in a number of other areas of my life, I manage to write a letter each week to each of my three penpals in prison and post an essay here pretty much without fail.

I have spurts of reworking some of these essays and submitting them for readings or publication but I don’t stick with it. I threaten to enroll in an MFA program for creative writing ostensibly so I can teach college level writing but also because perhaps that would help me get unstuck from this rut. But then maybe I don’t want to be unstuck. My readership creeps up a tiny bit each month and I do watch numbers but am more gratified by the amount of time the average reader spends here than the little uptick in actual hits. I mostly believe this. Eventually another form of writing may provide the same satisfaction as publishing here Friday evening and then walking out the door does. For now though I’ll keep at it here. I work hard, which you’re not supposed to notice, and, at least by my own criteria, my writing gets better, which you are.

This is a slow week in getting this thing started. It is 11:27 Thursday and the word counter says 300 words so I am behind schedule. Plus a lot of times in response to the scourge of the blank page I’ve started carrying on about my magical blogging process and then the next day cringe and in revulsion delete the self serving blather. Once in a while I face Friday morning with nothing at all written and I almost always am able to cobble something out by the end of the day but I get agitated by the possibility that I may not pull it off. Once in a while things get bollixed up and I don’t publish until Saturday but when this is the case, I am grumpy and distracted until the piece is complete. I like it best when I arrive on Friday morning to about 1500 words I feel are solid and I have time to tweak and polish and relax into an ending but this only happens a couple times a year.

I write last week about my boys’ great experiences with the children’s theatre. I lay it on pretty thick about the kids but as it turns out, after two additional performances of Virginia Woolf, unprecedented honorifics at the cast party, and a screening of the LACHSA winning film I spend a whole second week focused mainly on being soppy with pride in my boys. But I hate it when parents go on about their kids so I suffer a shortage of appropriate material.

I will note a non-offspring related milestone of this particular theatre season. Parent participation is mandatory but because Virginia Woolf has such a small cast, we are short of help for concessions and in desperation I conscript Himself. He sees I am wearing myself out and truly wants to help but selling cupcakes to a crowd heavy with teenage girls of the shrill and theatrical persuasion is a bit outside his comfort zone. Buyers’ enthusiasm and indecisiveness discombobulate him. He keeps cheerful for the customers but glowers at me, wild with panic, as he struggles to make change from the cash box. A twenty dollar bill towards a $3.50 tab nearly puts him over the edge. He opens a roll of quarters and they explode all over the floor. He flails on all fours scooping up coins and I wonder if preparing his own dinner on the nights I sell concessions is perhaps the best sacrifice he can make on behalf of the theatre group. Later though, he is sent to sweep the dark empty theatre and the house manager notes that he sweeps like a Buddhist monk. He also helps break down our truck load of concessions gear and spares me the lifting of pallets of soda. I presume there will be a better selection of parent volunteers for the spring extravaganza, and as sweet as it is that my beloved lends a hand, I hope next season I’m able to leave him home to struggle with the microwave.

10:18 Friday. I call it a day yesterday with 1000 words and arrive today to a hectic office. Some technical problems complicate a decent and much needed order from one of the most popular shows on television, one that I have written about derisively here. I have also put off all week reading a stab of writing sent by one of my pen pals. It is either fiction or memoir, although the distinction is sort of irrelevant because I suspect that he is a pathological liar. I devote half an hour of what should be writing time to the story, which is about polio. I write back to him about some of my memories of seeing kids a few years older than me in leg braces and standing in a long line with my mother for a big public vaccination event. I encourage him to keep writing but will also enclose crossword and Sudoku puzzles to distract him.

It is almost time for Rover’s 10:30 walk and I have only written one paragraph. I have delegated one employee to have tires (much cheaper via internet than Costco) installed on my car and another will be making photocopies of my penpal’s polio story which he has asked for and also print 14 L.A. Times crosswords for him. The crossword puzzle site was down all last week, so I owe him seven and to feed my own jones I waste a number of NY Times puzzles from my hoard. The dog is starting to whine and even though I have shirked chores that I would have performed myself were it any day but Friday, unless I want to have a real rocky afternoon, I’m going to have to go with the” I blog therefore I am” material I started in on yesterday. This is about as naked as it gets. I am embarrassed at how important to me these weekly musings are. For as long as I’ve been at it and as entrenched this writing is in my routine I am still pretty mystified myself by the process of how it comes together.

Back from Rover’s walk and I write a paragraph I suspect I will delete. There are business matters to attend to and if I am to savor my lunch and leave at five I have four hours and 1300 words to work with. I am about to reread what I wrote yesterday and earlier this morning and then I will check back in here as to my level of exasperation. I will make a note to myself here, per revelation while walking, that even though I’ve said it before, and it will take a deft hand to make it not syrupy, as Thanksgiving approaches I have a lot to be thankful for. So, if I’m lucky and can tie the giving thanks stuff into the first paragraphs all I have to do is think of a title and find a piece of art and there might even have time to do a few crossword puzzles and end the week smug and satisfied.

1589 words at 11:49. I go back to yesterday’s writing and spruce and trim a bit but evidently this week’s piece is to be about the creation of this week’s piece and as noon approaches there is no turning back. During my first reread I rework the part about Himself helping with concessions. It was sort of mean, even though watching him sell cookies during intermission is pretty hilarious. But he really isn’t an asshole. He has an introverted personality and will post a link to the explanatory article inevitably with his commentary on this piece. The concessionaire gig is tortuous for him. I tweak toward sounding a little less hard edged and mocking and a little more grateful that he loves me enough to sacrifice himself to children’s theatre concessions duty.

Also, there are some disjointed ramblings with more gushing about my kids, stuff that I excise alot of, because I really do hate it when people go on about their kids. I have reached 1700 words which is the lower limit of publishable but will need at least three hundred more words here to tie things up. I am going to read again and polish what I have so far. I will make consistent my habitual use of the present tense to describe things that happen in the recent past and the past tense for memories older than a year or two. I’ll fix up some punctuation and break down some long sentences. I suspect I’ve got some transitions to refine although I have once or twice, come back from lunch, decided that everything I’d written sucks and started from scratch so until what I’ve written already inspires a worthy conclusion, I’m not out of the woods.

It is nearing lunch time and while I cut out quite a bit there are still two paragraphs about the kid’s theatrical triumph and the effect this has had on the college application process that are problematic and I either need to effectively integrate them into rest of the piece or delete all together. I guess I can sort of tie it together by getting at how the kids and I all work really hard at something we love and are subsequently blown away by the results. The logical thing would be to pat us all on the back for perseverance but I hate to mess with the illusion I like to give that I just toss these essays off in a couple of minutes and they’re really just a lark.

I am returning now after lunch. Juevos ala Mexicana and corn tortillas. I could probably have made the perseverance thing work but even though I’ve already blown my cover and revealed that these writings are not casual to me, I dislike the two paragraphs pertaining to college applications and bad charter schools and even though it is late in the day to diminish my word count so substantially, I did say I wasn’t going to go on too much about the kids and it feels better not to. I delete two additional paragraphs. It is 2:10. The word count is 1826. I am still feeling sort of cheap for resorting to the blog deconstruction exercise and I have to read again to make sure it’s not self indulgent and/or boring and towards gleaning a fitting end.

Note to Himself about usage of word deconstruction: the narrow definition, ascribed to Derrida and referring to a purely post modern pursuit of meaning, has broadened now and it is acceptable (but maybe pretentious?) to use in the much broader context of “picking something apart.”

The summation should note that my beloved is leaving for Ireland and this, except for when the kitchen was being remodeled and we took my mother for Chinese, will be the first year in decades that I haven’t cooked a Thanksgiving meal. The sprats and I are joining the lovely Wayne/Wirtz family in their gracious home and my anticipation of the holiday is for once not marred by panic at how cluttered my house is. I will miss my beloved but he will be celebrating the holiday at an ex-pat celebration near Dublin. This is where I should lay it all out that while I will miss my husband it is nice to think of him back on the old sod. He always returns better for having been there and better for arriving home. While I finally do chop the paragraphs about the kids, I grow more thankful for them as more and more they reveal who they are going to become.

Last year I stopped by and brought my mother some desserts for Thanksgiving but she didn’t know I was there. For five years I have been buying Depends and filling prescriptions for what had become of my mother. That mother died a month ago and I am glad to be rid of her. What’s left is the mother that was before, funny, grudging, vain beautiful and complicated. It is a lot to process but with her death, once again, my mother is a real human being. The day is growing late as I sit here and list the things I’m thankful for and I worry some that somehow taking note will jinx it all. Still, I risk tempting fate and note that I am grateful for this period of abundance, the anticipation of Shabbat and an essay of 2347 words.

Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hollywood Kids

Each morning I drive past the Jewish Community Center preschool, attended by both of my sons over a decade ago. Tiny tots dwarfed by lunch boxes and stuffed animals are marched in by weary parents. As a toddler my young adult son preferred being barefoot. I am reminded how difficult it is to get a child and attenuate child related accoutrements in and out of the car, always complicated for me by having to struggle to stuff his tiny feet into his tiny shoes. He is over 6 feet now and his feet are larger than his dad’s. I have commandeered a nice pair of black loafers he wore in elementary school. Apparently they’d even been used for children’s theatre productions because the insoles bear his name on masking tape. The shoes are very comfortable and even though it’s so sappy it would make him puke, wearing them makes me feel close to him, as sometimes I barely see him for days.

The weekend is all movies, all the time. Spuds and some boys from school are completing a project for their physics class. I’m not sure what the premise is but one scene involves Spuds, face smeared with my schmancy artisanal cocoa to resemble dirt- although living like we do on Tobacco Road, he certainly could have found a lot of the genuine article in the yard-swinging by a rope from our rickety deck. I offer to cook dinner for his crew and am refused and firmly admonished to do nothing an iota more momlike than buying frozen pizzas. I hope the boys don’t tell their mothers what they ate.

Another filmmaking extravaganza is also taking place at the home of my colleague John Cannizzaro. John lives at one of the last vestiges of ranchero that conjures the rural valley, Fulton Avenue in Van Nuys, of faint early memory. John’s Tarzana home has a large garden, stables and an apiary. John is a filmmaker, animator and archivist and I have enjoyed a number of screenings of films he’s made and others he’s collected. He used to come and hang out with and sometimes buy a few films from my dad. A check John gave us for a film purchase was misplaced and he mentioned to my dad that it had not been cashed. My dad often remembered John’s honesty with regard to this check in a hushed, reverent tone, like he was talking about Rosa Parks. John endured long coffee shop lunches with my father and his cronies and kept his cool dispite being the frequent object of impolitic remarks. My dad was harmless but on certain topics, particularly race and gender, he could be wildly embarrassing. But Dad was also the last of the last movie oldtimers and John is one of very few repositories of his sort of, now nearly arcane, film knowledge.

John’s films are subversive but never inaccessible. I am uncertain after seeing a lot of artsy films whether the filmmaker really is smarter than I am or just a poser but there is a charming vivacity about John’s oeuvre of handmade films. He participates annually in The Attack of the 50 Foot Reels, a Super 8 filmmaking event. Filmmakers shoot a single reel (2 1/2 minutes) of film, edited only by stopping the camera, although John elects to shoot his in a single take. The unprocessed film is sent in, processed and shown to the festival audience exactly as shot.

This year’s event is dedicated to Kodachrome, known for its rich color and its resistance to fading. Kodak doesn’t manufacture it anymore and after the new year will no longer process it either. John scrounges up two rolls of Kodachrome from Ebay and despite the complications of shooting a film in a single take he plans an ambitious project inspired by St. Anthony, sometimes spelled sans “h,” and not to be confused with the other saint of the same name whose parvenu is finding stuff that’s lost. John’s Anthony is the one who sequestered himself in a cave and experienced horrific visions. He emerged invigorated and went on to promulgate monastic life. John builds the sets himself and recruits a cast of fifty. John’s partner Anne, her mother and a number of volunteers make amazing costumes out of scraps and found objects. The monkey falls through but John manages to snag a snake and a miniature donkey for the shoot.

Fifty people volunteer a day of their time to help make a 2 ½ minute film. Shot on Super8. There are nursing babies and elderly folks and an actor’s wheelchair is disguised as a liter. Without even having seen the final project I am blown away by John’s ambition and particularly that there are so many people who like him enough to actually change into a costume. We are manacled to children’s theatre and unable to participate. I would have even surrendered creative control on the costume but I would have done my own makeup. John, with a few drinks in him, admits to being sort of post partum and also apprehensive about seeing the film for the first time. John’s extraordinarily accomplishment, more significant than whatever’s on one of the last reels of Kodachrome ever to be processed, is that he is able to assemble a large and diverse cast of friends, all happy to indulge his crazy vision . We look forward to seeing the opus for the first time, at the Egyptian theatre on Dec. 9 with John and fifty other close friends.

I have lizard paws after compulsively using hand sanitizer between every transaction of cupcake and cash at the Children’s Theatre. Two plays are being presented in repertory. Spuds, per usual, plays a cop in the play Nature of My Game, which his brother co-wrote. I have pointed out to the director, despite the moniker of Murphy, Spuds is genetically half Jewish and therefore should also be considered for a part as a physician or attorney. Nevertheless Spuds gets to fire a gun and pound a bit on some of the other characters. He started in children’s theatre as a tiny mascot but now is the tallest kid on the stage and completely convincing as an adult.

Inspiration for what was to become The Nature of My Game, came from my young adult son and his co-writer/mentor watching The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Seventh Seal, and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Adventure. This led to the creation of a drama set in purgatory. Himself is a real purgatorian, having done a doctoral dissertation on the subject and often sporting a countenance that would make you think he’s doing time there. The play really riffs on a lot of the afterlife territory the old man is drawn to. In a nod to mom, who writes articles about prison reform and drags him to Tehachapi to spend a day visiting an inmate, a prison warden is really God and I am surprised at the agility my boy shows, at age eighteen, at sustaining this metaphor.

In addition to his play writing responsibilities, my young adult son is cast as the lead in the other play in repertory, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? When the choice of play and casting decisions are announced I am nearly apoplectic. A children’s theatre production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with George in braces could be a scream for the likes of Saturday Night Live but this production is to be dead earnest. The kids go once in a while to see a film called The Room. The filmmaker has made a bundle but I still feel sort of sorry for him. This is really one of those transcendently awful films. After it developed a cult following for being hilariously bad, the filmmaker started showing up at the screenings and claiming to be in on the joke. I am mortified that my kid is being set up. I cannot think of any material less appropriate for a children’s theatre production. I panic too because the kid is in the middle of his senior year of high school and has college application deadlines and pressure to maintain a decent grade point average. The character of George is on stage for 90% of the play and has several long monologues. The director of the play wishes his leading man a happy birthday on Facebook but adds GET OFF BOOK!

My young adult son attends the opening night performance of the play The Nature of My Game, which he co-wrote. Virginia Woolf is to open the following Sunday. Two of the other Virginia Woolf cast members attend a performing arts high school. Our theatre opening weekend coincides with an annual filmmaking project. The students leave school on Friday and must return on Monday morning with a completed film. It turns out that the lead actor has dropped out at the last minute and my young adult son has been asked to replace him. For my boy, helping out on a friend’s (or friend of a friend’s) film is an inviolable obligation.

My young adult son leaves the theatre after the performance on Friday night to go help his friends and I do not see him again until he arrives at the theatre for his Sunday afternoon call. He and his castmates have been awake for most of the past 36 hours. They beg for concealer and Coca Cola. There is a not unrespectable audience for a children’s production of one of the most adult plays ever written. For this production we ascribe to the Jewish tradition that lacking a minyan, a torah will count as the 10th, and we count in the crew and cast. Liz and Dick chewed a lot of scenery and pretty much own Martha and George. My son could be stepping on to the stage to endure one of the great humiliations of his life. I hope that he has mastered the script and is able to pull off a passable aping of Sir Richard Burton to compensate for the lack of maturity he brings to the part. But he creates a different and perhaps more nuanced and fragile George. Himself and I are blown away. I still think the notion of a kid's theatre production of Woolf is a clear sign of insanity but the quality of the production drives home too the genius lurking in that disordered psyche.

I cut our George some slack during the week between performances but he takes advantage of our largesse. Some parental advice is ignored which leads to a bad outcome. Some instructions are forgotten which consequently result in the wasteful expenditure of MY time/money. The hours the young thespian spends reclining on the sofa watching films has long been a topic of contention. I did the same thing as a teen, keeping the living room dark and watching 16mm films on a rumbling projector. My mom didn’t like it very much either and in terms of how my life has panned out sometimes I think that the thousand of hours I’ve spent escaping in films and t.v have indeed had an underwhelming payback.

I would like my young adult son to find a way to balance his insatiable appetite for films with taking the measures necessary to insure that he won’t be spending the rest of his life on our couch watching them. But I will be a bit more circumspect about calling him lazy and useless now that his film obsession seems to have inspired a script and a performance we are all proud of. My dad fell in love with silent movies and an uncle in L.A. worked at Paramount and would send him film trims. He’d splice them together and show them for a nickel in his Seattle backyard. It wasn’t just the legendary uncashed check that made my dad love John Cannizzaro. He loved his passion for movies. I have put in my share of sofa time and also most of my twenties were spent in the dozen or so revival houses that thrived in L.A. before home video made them irrelevant. Even though my livelihood is dependent on my memory of films that I have seen, and I would choose watching a movie over just about anything, indulging in this passion still feels profligate.

I watch the children’s theatre production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and my young adult son achieves a remarkable otherness in his portrayal of George. He hasn’t seen a lot of theatre so I know his performance and approach to acting and writing is largely attributable to the many times he’s succumbed to a movie when his homework wasn’t finished. He arrives at the theater exhausted because there was a film to be made. The film ends up winning the first prize in the competition. I see the performance of a play he co-wrote and his take on the dissolute college professor George and realize how his compulsive watching has honed his sensibilities. I think it started almost ninety years ago in Seattle, with film ends and a sheet nailed to a fence.

Friday, November 5, 2010

In the Afterglower

I’m not sure what exactly Obama could have done differently. Was change ever really possible? If he hadn’t feigned ignorance that elected officials are essentially little more than indentured servants to corporations and special interest groups and said, “I’ll try” instead of “I promise,” John McCain would have certainly prevailed. With McCain in the Oval office I imagine that the recent election would have seen the weeding out of a lot of Republicans instead of Democrats.

As a supporter of Obama I am particularly disappointed that inadequate progress has been made towards insuring the liberty of all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation. Good God, you’d think a black man at the very least would be able to make the civil rights thing work out. I am however, confident that during my lifetime there will be effective legislation to guarantee equal rights for the gay and lesbian population and I take a bit of grim satisfaction in considering how those who sought to impede this will be remembered by history. Niggling progress in the area of gay rights and a namby-pamby healthcare plan were a huge let down to many Obama stalwarts. Maybe more headway on a lot of social issues will be made if and when Obama is elected to a second term.

I don’t know how many rabid Obama supporters actually went Tea Party but I think a lot of the fresh faced believers in the candidate’s possibility have gone sour and cynical and couldn’t muster the gumption to refute what seemed, even in a big election, an inordinate amount of disinformation. According the Poltifact website, respected across the whole political divide for accuracy and objectivity, Obama has kept 122 of the promises he made as a candidate. 40 promises resulted in compromise; 85 are stalled; 234 are considered “in the works” and only 22 were outright broken. I realize the numeric values do not reflect various promises’ disparities in magnitude, when, for example, the acquisition of a puppy is counted in the “kept” column.

Obama’s record really isn’t that bad and yet his former acolytes just shrug when he’s referred to as the “worst president in history.” Democrats failed to make clear that what the bailout averted would have been cataclysmic and that more than half of the TARP money has already been repaid. The truth is more private sector jobs have been created in 2010 than in the entire eight years of George W’s reign. No one had the balls to say that the voices disparaging national health insurance emanate from puppets of the healthcare industry, fueled by greed, all the more venal as it hides under the wooly fleece of humanitarianism.

Much of Obama’s army went AWOL in the recent election and indeed there is much to be disillusioned about but it is unfair to attribute all that is not right here to Obama. There are some largely symbolic gestures that at least indicate a palpable change in attitude. For the first time in U.S. history the list of all visitors to the White House is made public. A Latina woman has been seated on the Supreme Court. The “global gag order” which prevented U.S humanitarian dollars going to groups that funded or performed abortions is rescinded. Restrictions on stem cell research have been lifted. Enhanced interrogation is no longer sanctioned. Benefits for same sex partners are available for federal employees. Obama appointed more openly gay officials than any of his predecessors. The media is no longer barred from photographing the returning coffins of fallen soldiers. The Lilly Ledbetter Act, prohibiting pay discrimination was signed into law as was the Matthew Shepherd Hate Crimes Act.

Obama has been accused of not standing up to malfeasance in the banking industry and indeed a lot of the guilty will escape punishment. Much of the financial collapse however was due to legislation that deregulated a lot of the financial industry and dating from way back in the 1980s. I disagree with the decision not to bring some of the worst of the worst down but I can see why it was felt best not to open this can of worms. Obama has made progress with tighter regulation of the banking and financial industries and the protection of consumers. Certain risky activities of the nation's largest financial firms will be curtailed and the way Americans obtain and use credit cards and negotiate mortgages is changed for the better. There were a number of dispiriting capitulations to the finance industry but the legislation still has some teeth.

I will not underestimate the potential damage the conservative backlash will do in terms of progress on climate and environmental issues. I do think that perhaps a conservative congress might be more receptive to encouraging the development of safe, clean, efficient, renewable nuclear energy as exemplified in France and Belgium. Like the weird myth that a microwave oven saps vegetables of nutritional value (au contraire) a lot of lefties are unable to make the distinction between nuclear energy and nuclear bombs. Although probably a lot of conservative folks who support nuclear energy can’t either and maybe that should be a concern but popular wisdom is that we are far more technically prepared to prevent nuclear energy calamities than oil spills.

There probably won’t be a lot of other good news on the environmental front and Obama’s progress, even with a Democratic congress, was disappointing. But, the stimulus package does include $71 billion for energy and environmental initiatives and another $20 billion for green tax incentives. There is a 10% increase in federal subsidies for national parks and forests. Passenger car fuel economy standards will require 35.5 mpg (up from 27.5) by 2016. The importance of these accomplishments pales to the looming inevitability of climate change but I will give Obama at least some credit for trying to dispel the myth that global warming is a myth.

Reagan and Clinton were also humiliated at mid-term elections in their first terms but both survived, governed and were reelected. There is, I think, good work that can be in the spirit of bi-partisanship. I cannot imagine that true fiscal Republicans will let our trillion dollar military budget remain hidden under the rug like it was for the entire election. The U.S. picks up the tab on 46% of the world’s military spending. China is number two, responsible for less than 7 percent of the expenditure. Our annual budget for the military is over a trillion dollars. The shrill Republican rhetoric about reduced spending, it would seem, obliges the party to take this on, if not to prevent the further loss of life, to make sure that the war doesn’t come back as a bite in the ass to the “reduce spending” party in 2012.

Perhaps one of the less controversial issues facing a congress that has just taken a giant step to the right is the crisis in education. Unfortunately, this should have been indentified as a crisis twenty-five years ago. Job loss is being attributed to the bad economy and certainly the numbers shot up as confidence went down. But, no matter how much cash we infuse into stimulus programs it won’t compensate for our failure for over two decades to groom a workforce for new millennia. Under Obama’s watch the country’s first Chief Technology Officer was appointed and inevitably this Department will more than cross paths with the Department of Education. In the last 2 years Pell grants for college students have been increased. Middlemen can no longer profiteer on student loans. There is funding for the recruitment of math and science teachers. There’s a long way to go and I hope the irrefutable connection between education and unemployment stimulates some good bi-partisan legislature.

California did much better than a lot of other states in the mid-term. We’re probably in too big a mess for Jerry Brown to do a lot of good but at least I believe in his integrity. I am perhaps even happier about Meg Whitman’s defeat. I hope that this is a catalyst for the renewed support of publically financed elections where ballot eligibility for candidates and propositions would be based on a required number of signatures. Public monies would be equally divided and personal, corporate or individual contributions would be prohibited. Corporations, unions and other organizations would be unable to finance political action committees to further any cause or candidate.

Academy of Motion Picture Sciences members are only allowed to vote for short films or documentaries if they’ve attended screenings for all of the nominated films. I presume that voting will eventually take place via internet and perhaps viewing videos pertinent to candidates and propositions should be required. Given the trends I noticed in the California election, I suspect that Propositions 22 and 26 passed and Prop. 24 failed because corporately funded advertising was grossly misleading and voters really didn’t understand the actual propositions.

I don’t know how to break to cycle of political beholdeness. Politicians know in their hearts that our democracy would be better served if elected officials had no obligations other than to constituents. But, the enactment of any legislation to temper the political power of special interest groups is self defeating for any ambitious politician. My husband will be surprised by the cynicism I show in positing that favors were being repaid when the Supreme Court ruled that curtailing political special interest groups’ right to buy and own politicians is a violation of free speech.

Republicans, egged on by heavy hitting healthcare lobbies, are threatening to try to repeal national healthcare but most pundits feel this is beyond their reach. The health package is pretty lightweight but already there is a 50% Medicare copayment reduction for prescription medication and the Children’s Health Insurance Reauthorization has provided coverage for four million previously uninsured children.

The big plan has already been stripped of language regarding end of life care. My mother was institutionalized due to the onset of dementia about five years ago. No Medicare funds are available for residential Alzheimer’s care so this was paid for entirely with private funds. For the last six months or so my mom was able to ambulate and feed herself with assistance. Occasionally she would recognize me but the two women who had cared for her for two years were strangers. She would fuss and become belligerent at the indignities of being diapered and bathed. I was awakened by a call from the board and care reporting that Mom was having a seizure and that the paramedics had been called.

My mother spent a week in intensive care. There was no clear sign as to the cause of the seizure and it was brushed off as Alzheimer’s related but she was also found to have pneumonia. I didn’t authorize an invasive broncosopy procedure to clear her lungs and help diagnose if the pneumonia was bacterial in nature until her doctor realized that if she posed any danger of carrying infectious pneumonia she could not return to the board and care. I had already enrolled for hospice care but this entailed services performed at the board and care. Treating the pneumonia was presented by her physician, a specialist in gerontology, as the only option. The possibility of transferring her to a residential hospice was never suggested to me. She was nearly three weeks in the hospital and then returned to the board and care. She died two weeks later. The bill for the hospitalization alone is over $100,000.00. There are also laboratory, medication, and physician bills trickling in. Most of this will be covered by Medicare but the truth is I would have been happier if the Feds ponied up instead for the college education of one of my children.

Care during the final year of a person’s life accounts for more than 25% of all Medicare expenditures. Medicare will pay most of a 100k hospital bill for a terminally ill woman who had the cognitive abilities of a grapefruit but services to counsel me towards steering her to hospice will not be covered because the right has branded end of life counseling “death panels.”

It is ok to execute a prisoner, who given the choice would prefer to spend life behind bars with no possibility of release, even if the cost of carrying out a death sentence is significantly higher than keeping a inmate alive for his or her natural life. Lots of people of faith ascribe to this but would fight to the death to keep the likes of Terry Schivo or my mother, people doomed to have no further quality of life, alive. I’ve told the kids that if I am ever permanently non-compos mentis that they should pick up a pillow and a pair of rubber gloves at the Target and just be sure to pay with cash.

Why can’t we go beyond “Do Not Resuscitate” orders? If qualified medical professionals determine that by the standards I set forth to my loved ones, there is no hope for life with quality, please then give me a lethal dose of something that has a mindblowing high. This isn’t, as my mother used say, “everyone’s cup of tea” and there are those who would choose to remain alive no matter. I am not one of them and perhaps the most unsettled issue I have with my mother is that she would have detested everything about the last few years of her life. I do not ever want my children ever to regard seeing me as a dreaded obligation. I talk to them about this, probably way more than they’d like, but I want them to be clear about my personal definition of “quality of life” in the hopes they have a wider arena of choice than I had with my own mom. I hope I live my life in a way that helps them further grasp my own idiosyncratic take on “meaningful” so that the cessation of meaning will be obviously apparent. And I hope that there are death panels.

Shabbat Shalom