Friday, December 31, 2010

Our Lot

We observe a traditional Jewish Christmas. The Islamic Chinese restaurant is packed and overwhelmed servers pant as they dart about. The place roars with Asians and Muslims in burqas and nappy haired Jewish children prancing about and I feel a warm camaraderie, as one with the infidels.

Himself is persnickety about anything that involves the expenditure of monies and/or leaving the house so it turns out that the only movie the three men can agree on for the rite of Jewish Christmas is 127 Hours. I have a sort of numerical dyslexia and also lately trouble remembering the precise names of things. I request four tickets for 128 Days Later and while the box office girl is nonplussed my family subjects me to several days of ridicule. I see lots of films that I know are disturbing and manage. Heck, Himself and I saw Dead Ringers on our first date. I think I’ll survive the film but as soon as the titles are over I cannot watch. James Franco is going to fall into a in a crevice and get his hand stuck between two rocks and he’s going to end up cutting it off and even though it’s just a movie, I know it’s based on a true story and the imagining of this is just unbearable. I cover my eyes and do my best to jam my thumbs in my ears to block the sound. Himself would be somewhat sympathetic if I wussed out on the scene where he actually cuts the arm off but is annoyed and befuddled that I am unable to endure a single frame of the film. I hope when Himself sees The King’s Speech on DVD he finds it a magnificent film and feels real sorry that he wasn’t amenable to seeing it on Christmas.

The kids ask us when the last time we did anything on New Year’s Eve was and neither of us remember. This will be our 25th New Year we’ve seen in together although at the end of 1999 I was at a cool house party and Himself was stuck sitting with his ailing father in a cluttered stifling condo. Spuds became a bar mitzvah early in 2010 and despite our tenuous connection now to organized Judaism it does feel like an official passage from childhood. My own final and irrevocable passage to adulthood came later in the year when what was left of my mother slipped away and the meager remains dispersed without fanfare. I used to make a big deal about finding the perfect designy calendar because I would have to look at it all year. These days I pick up Mexican presidents from a Guadalupe restaurant or cute kittens from the 99 Cent Store because now a year doesn’t seem very long at all.

My father was frugal and would have blown a gasket about a twenty dollar calendar but he had a strange attraction for bad deals. It seemed he even knew when he was being had but I guess never really gave up hoping that maybe once he’d stumble on a truth that seemed too good to be. I’m not sure if it was with my current stepmother or the one before but an invitation was received for a free visit to what was purported to be California’s next big resort area and sure thing goldmine, The Salton Sea. He was dined and apparently over wined and ended up with a lot and promises that the value of the property would escalate thousand-fold. Dad would often joke about this folly and the land was left to us, a sort of gag gift. Our plans to escape Los Angeles for a few days are foiled, so on a whim, we decide to check out our inheritance in Salton City and cruise down to the Imperial Valley and through the nearby Anza Borrego Desert.

There is no edict that contentious subjects will be avoided during our day on the road but there seems a tacit agreement. As usual the kids pay inadequate notice to spectacular scenery and my prattle about the wonders of nature further incites them to ignore it. But Himself and the spawn take turns sharing music. Himself evokes some sweet nostalgia with REM and Camper Van Beethoven. I ask for some U2 as the natural soundtrack for the California desert but the greatest hits haven’t held up that well. The songs are overly familiar and almost cloying in a Beatles sort of way, stuff you know is good but that you never need to hear again. We switch to the IPOD of our young adult son and he shares some newer music. It is remarkable how accurately he is able to hone in on stuff because the subset of music Mom and Dad both appreciate is a very narrow one. He chooses a San Francisco band Weekend and we both cotton to it immediately and our affinity will always be enhanced as the sound will always remind me of our December drive through the desert.

Himself is too high strung to take pleasure in games so I play a car game with the boys. A film is named and then you have to name another film that starts with the last letter of the previous one. It is a stupid game. The kids and I play for two hours. The frequency of the letter “e” becomes an annoyance but the kids are like machines and I am blown away by the breadth of their lexicon.

The Salton Sea was formed accidentally in 1905 when the Colorado overflowed. Until it became obvious that the sea is evaporating there were sporadic rumblings about grooming the area into a prime resort. The result of these flurries of ambition is a couple generations of decay. Our lot is on the wrong side of the road from the “sea” but a number of cheapola brown stucco unlandscaped houses dot the vast nothingness. At first blush it is an awful place. The air reeks with ammonia and piles of rotting tilapia line the shrinking shoreline. But there is something large and poignant about this worst of California that I struggle to express in words.

Himself returns home from our hajj (there is even a sign on the highway “5 miles to Mecca”) unusually eager to get a book about the Imperial Valley. I pick it up from the library and he is nearly giddy when I present it. It is 1300 pages which make me feel less inadequate for failing to summon a pithy description of the region. This fatness of the tome does bode however for another less than scintillating New Year’s Eve.

I spend the rest of the week mostly at the office by myself. I fulfill a couple of orders and spend a few minutes creating invoices and licenses. Some of my first work there nearly forty years ago was typing invoices on what my father considered a newfangled electric typewriter. This was in the days before the proliferation of video and the only way one could really see a film was to rent it on 16mm. The old office was purchased by the city via eminent domain and torn down. The city had been busted for tossing obsolete light posts into the Pacific and now our old 15,000 square foot building is a storage lot. We stored about 30,000 films there on steel dowelled wooden racks.

We rented films to schools and churches and often to the studios which frequently had no prints of their own titles. The 1970s were a boom time with college film departments, film societies and revival houses springing up all over the country. The Budget Films catalog was legendary and the size of a phone book. It was filled with typos and some really bad writing which I wince to realize is my own. It was laid out painstakingly by my dad at a drafting table with carefully clipped photos from reference books and press kits and thousand of typeset descriptions affixed to boards using rubber cement and a straight edge.

The customer would usually mail in an order form. There were order forms in the back of the catalog and we would mail a new one with every confirmed order. Local, profligate or in a hurry customers would telephone. We would check the availability of prints in enormous black leather books. Each print of a film had a unique yellow page with a calendar grid. Full length films were stored in fiber cases and bound with green cotton straps that were tricky to make taut. Features were categorized by number and kept anonymous because break-ins were common. Early prints had three digit numbers and later ones four and eventually five. The print number was noted in marking pen on the case. Black and white films were marked in black ink and color films in red.

Short films were stored in cans and according to length and category. For example, there were 20 minute comedies which were labeled in black Dyno-Tape, the individual letters were punched out on the hard plastic gun whenever new prints arrived. Labels indicated also whether a film was silent, in a foreign language or bore a music track. There were educational, cartoon, sports and a number of other sections.

Features were shipped, mainly by UPS, in their own cases. 1600’ reels were housed in either single or double reel cans. The average feature fits onto 3 1600’ reels and when shipped with cans and case weighs about 18 lbs. Short films were removed from their cans and packed into fiber shipping cases, which came in a number of different sizes. Sometimes a customer would require that a cartoon or newsreel be mounted at the beginning of a feature or that a number of shorts be mounted together. The film staff hated this and we charged 50 cents per title to remount films on larger reels and splice titles together. We often had will call customers and the film handler would have to drop everything (ballgame on radio) and sometimes even stay late to assemble an order. Once I typed up a fake invoice about five minutes before closing on a Friday. I listed about twenty very short films with the instruction that they be mounted together. The joke was not received in the good natured manner intended.

When a film was reserved, it was marked in #1 pencil ONLY on its booking sheet. Each side of the booking sheet represented a calendar year. We allowed 14 days transit each way for bookings on the East Coast or in the South, 10 days for the Midwest and a week for Western orders. For very heavily booked films we’d have to replace the yellow page every two years. This entailed removing the huge book from its mount and prying the jaws open to fit in a new page. If a film had only a few bookings it was much easier to erase them then to insert a new page. We lived in a sea of eraser dust and our hands were always gray with soft pencil lead.

When a film was booked a 5 part invoice was typed. If there was more than a single error bearing an x-over you had to throw it away and start a new one. A single mistake was permissible but two or more was sloppy and unprofessional. The top white copy was a remittance and mailed when the film was shipped. The next white copy was for our bookkeeper. The yellow confirmation copy was mailed when a film was reserved. The green copy, with a shipping label affixed went to our shipping department. The pink copy was sent as an overdue notice when necessary. Each customer had a file with handwritten booking records and all correspondence. Pending invoices were stored in metal bins according to shipping date.

Checks were all printed on an enormous check printing machine which embossed the amount in bumpy red ink. The bookkeeper would also go through each client’s invoices at the end of each month and type up a statement. If a client was extremely delinquent for a large amount we might resort to a long distance phone call but usually collections were in the form of a “friendly reminder” rubber stamp.

When a film was returned from a booking it was checked back in with a huge steel inspection machine which sped the celluloid through a sort of Mousetrap game. It counted the footage so we could tell if anything had been excised. There was an ongoing problem with collectors removing dance numbers or other favorite scenes. We dealt with a number of creeps. There was the Sally Rand guy and another with a thing for b-movie star Vera Ruba Ralston who once returned a whole print, absent of reels, in a trash bag. Inspectors would remove sections of film with torn sprockets and splice tears by using a razor poised to remove a thin layer of emulsion and applying a tiny brush of cement.

I have about one tenth of the films we had in the old building. Most of what we need from them is digitized but every so often we get an unusual request and end up looking at film either on a projector or throwing a reel up on a rewind and cranking it through a viewer. When we transitioned from rental library to footage achieve we could not afford equipment to transfer film to video and all of our research entailed using prints of film. We’d mark clips with slips of paper and go sit at a laboratory for hours and guide the technician through a transfer. When transfer equipment became affordable, we combated film deterioration by transferring materials to ¾” tape and then we upgraded to beta sp. Now, the beta sp is showing signs of deterioration and we rush to digitize hours of material. We have thousands of hours on hard drives that fit on a small shelf. I can create a demo for a client in a couple of keystrokes but most of the films are labeled in my father’s hand and we have made only a small dent in transcribing thousands of pages of his written notes.

When we bought our first fax machine and installed the roll of photosensitive paper my dad and I stood and watched in awe as test fax from a colleague slowly fed through. We bought our first computer, a Tandy, from Radio Shack and it cost about $5000. We could print letters on dot matrix printer and we finally figured out how to use a very basic accounting program.

My relationship with a calendar is briefer these days and I know how my dad must of felt as the world progressed beyond his comprehension. He made the conversion of his music collection from open reel tape to cassette but when CDs came in, he threw in the towel and just listened to the radio and complained about all the crap they played. Towards the end of his life I couldn’t really explain to him about our digital conversion of the film library. He did like that we sold a lot of films on what he called “The Ebay” but never quite got the connection between the rows of film and those tiny keyboards we all pecked away at. My kids tease me when I try to navigate my computer or smartphone and so much of what they know is forever beyond my grasp. Tons of moldering films and sheaths of lists and notes and a parcel of spectacularly bleak land would seem a scanty legacy but my earliest memories are of Ella Fitzgerald on a brand new stereo hi-fi and Around the World in 80 Days in my pajamas in the backseat of a pink and black Dodge at the Victory Drive-In. There are no fat trust funds on my kids’ horizon but I hope memories of films and music and drives through the desert linger and enrich the swiftly flowing time.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year

Friday, December 24, 2010

Oy Vey in a Manger

One of my young adult son’s favorite possible colleges is in Portland and people look at me like I’m the world’s most overprotective mom when I express my concern about the copious rainfall. The random shuffle on my Internet radio station, with no way of knowing my location or the weather situation plays a sad beautiful Blue Nile song called “Tinseltown in the Rain” and it pours for the third straight day and proves to me that seasonal affective disorder is not a myth. Work is slow as it always is this time of year. I keep the office open “just in case” but mainly do crossword puzzles and cruise Facebook. A lot of my three dimensional and Facebook friends are busy with Christmas related activities and even though my family was totally indifferent the one year I made stockings to assuage a bit of Santa envy, I feel left out.

We visit Alan, our friend who’s incarcerated at a correctional facility in Tehachapi. We wake up at 5 a.m. and don our black sweat clothes. I don’t bother with earrings and leave my wedding ring at home. The clouds are backlit with a tentative dawn when we arrive at the prison. I am more matter of fact and feel less anxious and humiliated by the entry process. The visiting room is not as crowded as usual although many visitors are sent back to return umbrellas to their cars and return soaked to try again. We are processed for the first time without any misteps that lead to our separation. My plastic hairclip has a tiny metal spring that sets off the metal detector but this is dealt with expeditiously and we hold cold hands on the old school bus from the visitor center to the Level two visiting room. We know to present our wrists for ultraviolet stamping and how to hold our green permits and driver’s licenses up to the camera before the entry gate slides open. We are regulars.

Alan looks well despite a recent diagnosis of hepatitis C and subsequent Interferon treatments that leave him exhausted, covered with a rash and suffering from neuropathy. Screening for tuberculosis and syphilis is mandatory but despite being equally contagious and life threatening, hepatitis C and HIV tests are optional even though a large percentage of the population is undoubtedly positive. Alan is tested when symptoms warrant it but it seems that testing the entire inmate population could certainly reduce the spread of disease and the attenuate suffering and expense.

Saturday is preferable to Sunday for a visit because there are fresh salads and yogurt available in the vending machines. With my ziplock full of quarters I score a grilled chicken salad, a fruit bowl and a carton of yogurt for Alan. The vending machine company has a suggestion box and I suggest last visit coffee and lo and behold, a styrofoam soup bowl labeled this and priced at $1.50 is available from the machine. I purchase it to discover it contains a tiny packet of Starbucks instant, a packet of sugar and one of creamer. This necessitates the additional $1 purchase of a bottle of water and a long wait at the instructionless microwave trying to figure out how to boil it. Alan says it is better than the instant Folgers he gets from the commissary and he also enjoys a real Coke. Soda with sugar is not available to inmates outside the visiting room because it can be used in the production of a jailhouse moonshine called “pruno.”

The guards in the visiting center who check us in are usually pretty nice. There is an occasional asshole but the staff is generally hospitable. The converse is true at the actual Level 2 visiting room. There are a few guards, particularly two women, who are pleasant and seem to get it that visits from the outside increase morale and make their jobs easier. Unfortunately most of the guards are older men who spend a lot of time at the vending machines, gut over belt buckle. Any attempt at civil discourse is met gruffly and every response, no matter how inconsequential, is delivered with snarly officiousness. Himself thinks I am silly to expect otherwise and I guess I am but this degrading harshness seems out of step with the rehabilitation mission.

A bathroom break is called for inmates once an hour. They line up and are admitted in pairs for supervised use of the facilities. We are deep in conversation and may have not heard the announcement or perhaps there wasn’t one. There are four inmates still waiting in line and Alan excuses himself. The guard won’t let him join the line because he doesn’t hop to attention at the first announcement. Even if we’d heard it, due to his weakened condition waiting until the line dies down is prudent, Alan does not argue and steels himself to wait an uncomfortable hour until the next bathroom break is called. We remind ourselves again that most prison guards are would be cops but for failing the psychological examination. I think about the decades and lifetimes for which inmates are subjected to near constant power tripping and how difficult it is to leave prison without a hatred of authority.

We talk about the seemingly inevitable recidivism and how the system not only does little to prevent this, the sheer meaness that is tolerated probably insures it. Alan has a good handle on prison dynamics but his survival tactics of self examination and spiritual surrender have helped him flourish in a system that otherwise operates to fully crush those who are already laid low. Alan thanks us profusely for taking the time to write and visit him but as one of the least complaining, self pitying people I have ever found, he is a rare hero and I am blessed to know him.

Nuala O'Faolain in her memoir “Almost There” observes that the difference between happy children and unhappy children is that peak satisfactions for the parents of happy offspring involve the children and the parents of unhappy children aspire to escape the tyranny of the kids. The author, daughter of miserable broken alcoholics, falls into the latter category but I think her fantasies about happy children have led her to a simplistic conclusion. My mother made it clear frequently that I was an impediment to her self-fulfillment but also, albeit when no better offer presented itself, had real fun with me, both of us being fond of the Ontra Cafeteria, Orbach’s and just driving around and being envious of homes nicer than ours and snobby about those more modest. Although this was less frequent as she grew older, during my childhood she was staunchly committed to seeking satisfactions from which I was excluded but relented that I was sometimes the next best thing.

For the last eighteen years indeed many of my happiest moments are kid centered but I do not think being honest about the need to occasionally get away from them makes them any less happy. My mother often made me feel that my birth had ruined her life but I think my own kids get that I love them like crazy but that once in a while, them included, or maybe even particularly, we all need a change of cast and scenery.

The only notification I am required to make regarding my mom’s death is a relative who visited her occasionally during her first year at the facility. There was a grudgingness about my mother that made it hard for her to keep people in her life. While I suspect this was exacerbated by the ravages of dementia, her history of problematic relationships well predates her affliction. The seeds of the pain that caused my mother to live cut off and lonely really have nothing to do with me but the rare times I remember her brimming with joy inevitably do.

For most of my adult life, no matter how much time I spent with my mom, it was never enough. I see less and less of my own children now and recently I find myself actually lonely for them. But, in silent house and horrified as I am at the kids driving around in bad weather and likely absent of raincoat, the thought of how much fun they have with their friends warms me. My mother resented relationships I made with others and while I guess I’m at the point now, that however much time the kids do condescend to spend with me, will never be enough, I love that they have friends. It seems impossible as a parent not to unwittingly damage our kids. I am sure that they are in some way scarred for life but I am glad that none of the wounds I have blindly inflicted has hindered them from happy relationships.

Christmas is not my holiday and even though it is Christmas eve I feel manacled to the obligations of spending some time in the office and publishing some sort of essay here before it is Shabbat. We will have the typical Jewish Christmas observance of a movie and Chinese food. There is an impasse as to the movie choice after an hour long dinner table debate but I will probably be the one to capitulate and see the movie where James Franco cuts off his own hand. The rain has ended but more is due. Our bedroom roof leaks terribly and the room is soaked for days even after the boys from work affix a blue tarp. This morning I step onto a dry floor. The dogs are stretched out on rays of sun. Spuds has a busy social schedule and school work. My young adult son is tearing his hair out with college applications and the looming deadlines have not made for much cheer on the homefront. He juggles his essay writing with visits with friends, now home after a semester of college. Next year he will probably be one of the returned and it will be hard for us to share him with his friends during the short vacation.

The sky, insanely blue and branches heavy with tangerines reflect on the laptop screen. Although it makes no difference to anyone in the universe, I will fulfill my obligation to check in at the office and post my weekly piece. But the office time will be brief and my piece is short. I’m taking the kids to lunch and a movie. The sun is warm. The kids are here but more rain and change are predicated.
Shabbat Shalom, and really, Merry Christmas

Friday, December 17, 2010

I Told You at the May Company

My mother died in September and my primary reaction to this has been relief which makes me feel guilty. I am at Costco where for the past several years I buy for her Depends and dark chocolate and find myself, two months after her death, weeping for the first time. Witnessing my mother fade these past years is harrowing and the pathetic diminishing mother distracts me from the perplexing real mother.

Now that the vestige of mother is gone I worry that I mistook signs of Alzheimer’s for chronic nastiness and was mean to her between the onset of dementia and the time when it didn’t matter what I said or did as long as I brought candy. Maybe the dementia started to take hold about ten years before I recognized it and what I interpreted as selfishness and meanness was merely a response to her terror at her diminishing memory. My attempts to assuage my guilt lead me to mine ancient memories for proof of my mother’s selfishness decades before the dementia could possibly have taken hold. As if forgiving myself is contingent on blaming my mother.

Being what my kids used to refer to as a “Hanukah person” and particularly when the Festival of Lights comes early (although it actually is always on the same dates it’s just that we use the wrong calendar) I feel a little weird the weeks before Christmas. I am relieved at not having to do much but it also feels kind of bad assed and subversive not to. We observed Christmas when I was growing up but I don’t remember a lot. Family lore has it that there was a visit with Santa at Valley Plaza and then another the following evening at Fashion Square. The Bullock’s Santa asked what I wanted and I snapped, “I already told you last night at The May Company.”

We had a Christmas box stored in a shed on the patio. My mother painstakingly repackaged the tinsel so it could be used again the following year. There were a couple of pretty glass ornaments that I looked forward to unwrapping from yellowed tissue. There was a chipped tree topper and a Styrofoam star with glitter and pipe cleaners that was attributed to my sister and labeled “Sheri, 2nd grade.” We never used the fancy living room unless we had company or a Christmas tree.

I am sitting Indian style and opening presents. It is probably the first Christmas after the divorce, I am about seven, and my dad enters. Mom and Dad exchange a few tense words out of my direct earshot, a bag of gifts is deposited and my father is gone. This is the earliest Christmas memory I can conjure but due to my vantage point I can only picture my father’s gray slacks and Florsheims and the hem of my mother’s pink terrycloth robe and her mules glittery with sequins and marabou feathers.

My cousins who lived in the preferable valley location, south of Ventura Blvd., always had a tree larger and more ornately decorated than ours. We would count the presents and evaluate on a numerical scale the quality of the wrapping. Bright pop-art boxes tied with thick day glow yarn from Joseph Magnin rate way higher than thin dime store paper and tacky ribbon that curled when scraped over the blade of a scissors.

Santa would fill my argyle knee sock with packs of Juicy Fruit gum, one of those Christmas Lifesaver assortments that looked like a book, burnished leather hair barrettes with a stick stuck through and later Camel cigarettes, encouraged to help with weight control and purchased from the V.A. commissary for 35 cents a cartoon. When I was about twelve I started making my mom her own stocking with Uno Bars, black licorice, Loreal nail polish, martini olives and Stimudents stuffed into a pair of pantyhose.

When there was no more child support to squabble about my parents settled into cordial relations. My mom and her boyfriend would double date with my father and stepmother. They went to Disneyland and to the track. Both men had enormous white Cadillacs and would take turns driving and compare features. My mom would still disparage my dad and his younger-than-his-daughter wife but with less venom.

My mom always said my sister had a “goyishe kopf” and “kopf” means brain and for my readers who have little contact with people of the Hebraic persuasion, the first Yiddish word is derogatory and used to describe people such as yourself. Even though Mom had a tree herself she found Sheri excessive in her observance, as Mom, who eschewed any garment suggesting novelty, was not a big fan of Christmas sweaters. About thirty years ago my sister hosted a Christmas extravaganza replete with aforementioned sweaters, Honey Baked Ham and red and green plaid everything.

My mother never purchased a four door vehicle in order to discourage people from asking for rides and she avoided driving herself as much as possible. It may have been that the beginnings of Alzheimer’s reduced her confidence behind the wheel or just her child o’depression thriftiness. My mother lived less than two miles from my sister but called my father and asked if he could pick her up for Sheri’s party. It would have been just a few blocks out of his way but I think perhaps Mom, had inveigled less convenient transportation in the past a few times too many and my stepmother put her foot down. My mother blew her stack but made her own way to my sister’s. My father and stepmother arrived a few minutes later, both in red sweaters. My mother glanced at them and hissed, “oh, father and daughter.” My stepmother never spoke to her again although she felt guilty when my mom was laid low by Alzheimer’s and sent her many gifts signed from my dead father. I tore off these “Love, Al” cards thinking they might open a can of worms as, even though 45 years divorced, my mom would try to escape from the board and care and scream for my dad to rescue her.

I attend a wake at the Echo Park Film Center for Kodachrome which will no longer be processed after the end of the year. Three projectors are set up and Kodachrome films and slides are shown. I think about bringing a few minutes from the many hours of Kodachrome my dad shot of the family but it doesn’t happen. My parents wore insanely bitchin’ clothes. My Dad wore blue to match his eyes rayon shirts with hand stitched details from Desmond’s and slender mom wore sailor pants or bright sundresses and Bakelite sunglasses. But the thought of seeing them so young and in such vivid color gives me the heebie jeebies. Others bring home movies from the 1930s and footage shown that is shot by a pair of young filmmakers who are racing across the U.S. to shoot as much Kodachrome as possible by the deadline, in less than three weeks.

In a home movie found at a garage sale someone’s mom swigs gin from a bottle and brandishes a hunting rifle. An elderly man shows vivid films of his boys paddling a boat at Lake Havasu. He shakes his head again and again and says, “That little boy is 50 now.” One girl shows some slides unearthed from a great aunt’s apartment. The aunt emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines after losing both her husband and son in World War II. She earned a masters degree and settled in Manhattan. Her whimsical photos are from the late 1950s and show dressy social gatherings and fantastically elaborate Easter bonnets and children in bunny costumes at a parade. After a few days, when the lab in Kansas closes, we will never be able to make anything look quite like that ever again. We note sadly that home movies and family photos end up end up at garage sales and thrift stores and while I was merciless with many of my parents’ cherished possessions I saved the reels of film, slides and scrapbooks.

Now that my young adult son is in charge of his own transportation and also that of his brother I am even lazier about leaving the house on a weeknight. But my niece Marlene Maginot didn’t really have to entice me with grilled cheese night at The Oaks next door or free tickets to attend a sketch comedy show she’d co-written at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater. I understand that about 40% of a person’s capacity to experience happiness is hard wired and the rest is nurture. I suspect the same is true with humor because my parents and sister are redeemed for fomenting drama and acrimony because they made me laugh. Marlene’s mother Cari was not raised by Sheri, her birth mother but she makes me laugh too, particularly with her gleanings from small town police blotters and accompanying droll commentary. Marlene’s dad Mike also has deep roots in funny business. He teaches Improv and as a cinephile, has a remarkable collection of comedy, giving Marlene a double genetic predisposition to be a crack up.

Marlene’s sketch is about an over-protective Hollywood mom and the result supports the advice that you should “write what you know.” Marlene has done a good deal of babysitting to subsidize her career in comedy and has obviously done a good deal of listening. The piece was written for comedienne Lauren Lapkus who I could watch forever. Lapkus appears in a couple of sketches and she uses her face, voice and body with a remarkable fearlessness and imbues her characters with weird and distinctive quirks and mannerisms. Marlene, when she performs herself, also demonstrates a remarkable physicality, sort of channeling Judy Holiday with a gangly clumsiness that is counterpart to a naïve sexiness. Marlene’s sketch really showcases Lapkus’ offbeat talent and makes for a serendipitous combination of writer and performer jibing successfully and without a net.

The evening is a family affair and the second half of the show is directed by Marlene’s fiancé Kevin Pederson. There were a number of very good sketches but a parody of “16 in Pregnant” with a guileless girl taping a PSA, designed to encourage girls to protect themselves from pregnancy, waxing on about the cool attention she gets from the kids at school, the lowered expectations of home schooling freeing up time for video games and Facebook and how much easier it is for teen moms to get their figures back. It is one of the most fun evenings I’ve had in ages and the only bummer is that Marlene’s folks weren’t in town to see the show.

My mother’s wicked sense of humor, which I and the generation after me, seem to have inherited, tips the balance in her favor. I do worry that some of my other memories may do her an injustice. She is beautiful in Kodachrome and would be sad to know that I can’t bring myself to watch the films or pour through the old albums. But I saved them and, unlike just about everything else, they will never fade.

Friday, December 10, 2010


I have a couple dozen stalwart customers that help keep the lights on. In the 1960s around the holidays you sent and received booze but the seventies saw the shift to See’s Candy and Harry and David gift baskets, both of which I’ve resorted to sending for Christmas when my imagination failed. I’ve also had local purveyors make baskets of cheese and cookies but given my budget, the results always seemed skimpy. Despite all the whining I do about my weight, I am on an experimental candy making jag. This starts after a local artisanal food fair where I sample a lot of delicious stuff that is shockingly expensive but didn’t seem that hard to make. I make a batch of fleur de sel caramel and it turns out as good as the chichi stuff. I try my hand at marshmallows and have good results so it doesn’t seem that big a deal to whip up a couple of big batches of each and a few slabs of fudge for my own custom baskets.

I shop for ingredients on Friday before work and from the time I arrive home that evening until I arrive at the office the following Monday it is candy every single second. I love working in the kitchen but after standing for hours boiling sugar it feels like every pore in my body is oozing stickiness. Himself tries to wrap caramels but rips the expensive custom wax wrappers to shreds. The kids help with the marshmallows but smash them into the bags with such vigor that I have to untie each one to refluff. I have been warned that marshmallows are vulnerable to humidity but they turn out fine. The problem is the second batch of caramels, which after a night of rain, refuse to set. I whine bitterly and get on everyone’s nerves. I try a third batch and now have about twenty pounds of gushy caramel bagged in the fridge tormenting me.

I give up on the friggin’ caramels and substitute peanut butter fudge and arrive at the office Monday morning with all the candy bagged and labeled by Himself with fountain pen and green ink. Unable to wrap candy or fold a t-shirt, he has gorgeous penmanship. This reminds me of the line from The Heiress. Olivia De Havilland’s father is certain that a suitor is a gold-digger. De Havilland pleads that he is sincere but her father posits that it has to be the money because she so lacking in attributes. “With one exception my dear…you embroider neatly.” I arrange the baskets and the boys at the office box them and wait in line at the post office. The baskets are beginning to arrive at their destinations and I read out loud to the kids effusive notes of thanks. As resentful as they are of their indentured candy making servitude they are pleased that at least the family effort has resulted in a good bit of happiness.

The candy making extravaganza makes a crimp in the already minimal fanfare we afford Hanukkah. I promise an additional batch of latkes and one of donuts which I put off making until the last night of the festival. I return from a long day and the kids have peeled the potatoes and the dough is rising in the fridge. I am tired and lazy and it occurs to me that the kids should know how to make latkes anyway so that if I am struck by lightening they will have something to live on besides cold cereal and grilled cheese. I’ve made latkes for decades and try to translate the pinches and handfuls into more accurate measurements. They turn out fine but I think the boys still need a few years of practice until they advance from mere apprenticeship.

I take a day off of work and even though my dad has been dead for three years I am still hostage to his work ethic (Monday-Friday 8:30-5:30, Saturday 10-2, only holidays observed by UPS and a one week vacation) and feel guilty. I purchase a discount voucher for the Pacific Dining Car which has always been our favorite locale for special breakfasts but has gone from being a fine occasional splurge to wildly and stupidly expensive. The coupon is about to expire and I use this excuse to pry Himself out of the house and from his usual breakfast of yogurt and strawberries.

Himself recognizes political perennial Gloria Molina dining in a little alcove. The staff is deferential to her while, after presenting our coupon, my coffee cup remains empty throughout the meal. I eavesdrop as much as possible and while I have no context I can tell that much of what is said is extremely off the record. I realize how important overpriced clubby restaurants are to the workings of our government. In a week where tax cuts for the very rich are maintained as a bargaining chip to extend benefits averaging $293 a week for 15 million unemployed Americans it seems perhaps that the beauty of democracy is purely theoretical.

Having already dragged Himself away from the comforts of books and ‘puter I wheedle too a visit to LACMA. We haven’t been for ages and are disoriented by the recent reconfiguration. There is a retrospective of the work of photographer William Eggleston, who using dye transfer developing, elevated color photography to the same artistic stature as black and white. This is a large representation of Eggleston’s works from the late 1960s through the present. There are a couple of remarkable photos, particularly a series shot at Graceland. But, while the black and white photos of Diane Arbus are disturbing they are also imbued with Arbus’s compassion, many of Eggleston’s hyper-saturated color prints feel snide and cynical.

The permanent collection of American art has been moved to Siberia, and incongruous groupings of paintings inhabit the better real estate. Donors, whose name figure prominently are the only unifiers. We find a compressed version of the permanent collection in another building. I am happy to see George Bellows’ Cliff Dwellers and Winslow Homer’s Cotton Pickers, paintings I remember from childhood. I ask a guard and am informed that Julius Stewart’s huge canvas, The Baptism, is in storage. My dad, master of the malapropism and teller of filthy jokes, was enchanted by this painting of a genteel and gentile subject matter. He would visit the museum just to sit and look at it, marveling how every person present at the 19th century rite had his own story which the painting challenges you to ponder. It reminds me of the best things about my dad and that his story too is more than one of a pugnacious Jew who built from scratch the business I inherited.

I attend the annual Attack of the 50’ Reels screening at the Egyptian. This is an annual event for Super 8 filmmakers who are assigned to shoot a roll of film, edit it in the camera and send it off to the festival. It is processed and the filmmaker sees the work for the first time when it is screened for an audience. Kodachrome film, as Paul Simon noted, gives you the bright bright colors and unlike most other film, the color never fades. Dwayne’s, in Kansas, the only laboratory left in the world that develops Kodachrome is going to stop at the end of the year. Kodak discontinued making the film but the organizer of the event, Norwood Cheek has managed to score a few reels of Super 8 and the theme of this year’s festival is RIP Kodachrome.

Ten 2 ½ minute films are shown. Given the myriad of calamities that are possible when projecting a film sight unseen, it is remarkable that none of the filmmakers is embarrassed. There are a couple of dropouts, a sound glitch and a few frames out of focus but I consider each work a success. In "50" Peyton Reed, a maker of Super 8 films since childhood, trots out all of the toys that were the heroes of his early movies. Another film by John Schultz (Taking Stock of Your Stock/Stock Footage 2010)features the filmmaker’s infant daughter Harriet. Both of his paternal grandfathers shot Kodachrome home movies early on. Kodachrome became available in 1935 but wasn’t used much by home photographers until after WWII. The baby is shown with her grandmother and then is placed in front of a screen to watch projected Kodachrome home movies of the same grandmother, circa 1935. Baby Harriet’s grandma appeared in some of the first Kodachrome films ever created and tiny Harriet herself, appears in one of the very last.

The tour de force of the evening is the world debut of my friend and colleague John Cannizzaro’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony which takes my breath away. My dad always did business with film collectors and while there are scads of interesting characters if I should ever actually write that novel, these transactions were not exactly life affirming. Even thinking about some of the old creeps makes me want to take a shower but there are a handful of exceptions—sane, reasonable people who bathe regularly but just love film. John is the best of the collector legacy and his love of film reminds me again and again, that despite the travails of making a living at it, I love film too.

While none of the films at the festival are disastrous, and each in its own way pays appropriate tribute to Kodachrome, I don’t think any of them require more than an afternoon to produce. The Temptation of St. Anthony however is exactingly planned over the course of several months. Sets are built. Fifty actors of all ages and races are cast. Festival rules permit in-camera editing but John shoots the film in a single take. The results are spectacular, even though the film runs out about 5 seconds too soon. In a vision, Anthony is tormented by fornicators, flagellants, crucifiers and their crucified. The camera travels through the scene as eloquently as any I’ve ever seen. The color is remarkable and the attention to detail, particularly given the scope of the undertaking, is mind boggling. The last of the last Kodachrome fittingly is a glorious spectacle.

We drive down Wilshire Blvd, The Miracle Mile poignant and vivid in both of our childhood memories. I ask Himself if he lately thinks about death more often like I do. He says he does although he is inclined towards the morbid so this might not be conclusive proof that it is normal that I should be doing so with such frequency myself. I teach the boys to make latkes matter-of-factly so they can make them for their own children when I am gone. The death thing is different now and instead of grief or panic there is a serenity that comes with ideations about ceasing to be.

My father was mentally alert until just a few days before he died. I know he was frightened. His father died by suicide and this left him peculiarly weird about death. But I also think ultimately he had no regrets at the end of his life, having loved and been loved, created something enduring and entertained a lot of people with his movies. If I were able to catch my mother at the exact moment before the dementia began to break her down and ask her about the life she’d led, I am afraid she would have expressed bitterness and dissatisfaction and it makes me sad that having loved me hadn’t been enough. Would it comfort her or merely salt the wound to know I am not bitter and have now more than I could ever have imagined wanting?

Just before her death this week, Elizabeth Edwards posted on Facebook:
I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times, and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that."

John Lennon also died prematurely thirty years ago this week. I was at my desk at the methadone clinic and another counselor rushed in, hysterical and it took several minutes for us to calm her down enough to relate the news coherently. I remember the Kennedys and Dr. King but this was more personal. This was music. At my 7th birthday the boys sport Beatle cuts and we dance wildly to what I recall was “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” in a silent Kodachrome film shot in the backyard at Fulton Avenue, Van Nuys, 1964. This will never fade. Lennon said “God is the concept by which we measure our pain.” But is it a mere concept that compels us to make music or paintings or movies or candy?
Shabbat Shalom

Friday, December 3, 2010

Collegiality, Candles and College

It is Chanukah. I fry latkes for the first night and the house still stinks. I make yeast dough for a batch of donuts but after frying the potato pancakes I am too grease weary to stand at the stove. Experimentally, I bake the dough in muffin tins. The response is tepid so inevitably I will return to the vat of hot fat before the holiday is over. Even though I railed against it, when the kids were little our Chanukah celebration aimed to give Christmas a run for the money. It sickens me to watch fights break out at the Toys’R’Us but I too am a sucker for a kid unwrapping a coveted present.

Our Chanukah becomes more and more toned down. I present everyone with a Snuggie™ , purchased with my 20% discount at the Rite Aid, and wrapped in some old Christmas paper from the zillion rolls I have left over from an elementary school fundraiser. My young adult son feigns a tantrum when, while he receives the deluxe Leopard skin Snuggie™, little brother’s Snuggie™ has pockets and his doesn’t. They are gloriously hideous, but I suspect Himself, short on body fat and stuck in a drafty house, thinks it’s one of the best gifts he’s ever received. He accuses me of staging the whole Snuggie™ episode and the attendant photo session in order to have a topic for blogging and I chew this around a bit because the notion of orchestrating life experiences in order to have material to write about is a disconcerting one. I do not purchase or photograph the Snuggies™ with blog on the brain but it is true that my imperative to produce 2000 words more or less every week, does make for more observant living, which has the added benefit of enhancing my appreciation for the rich pageant.

Sometimes I wring my hands because we put so much steam into two Bar Mitvahs and now we almost never attend synagogue and more and more we seem Jewish only by food. We do almost always light the candles for Shabbat. I try to make a special meal although sometimes when I’m beat I pick up frozen crap from Trader Joe’s which they seem to enjoy more than most of my ambitious cooking. We have a challah, sometimes even baked from scratch. When the kids have friends over on a Friday I offer to skip the blessings in case their guests will think it’s weird but they always say it’s ok. My young adult son lights the candles and Spuds passes the challah and shows his friends how to rip it up with their bare hands and devour it. My uncle often told a story about speaking only a bit of Yiddish and being invited to dine with some hoity toity synagogue machers. They apologized for being slow eaters and he urged them not to worry. “Go on,” he said, “fress, fress,” which indeed in Yiddish means to eat, but to eat like wild starving animals. I remember this anecdote far too frequently when beholding my family at the table.

The boys are shooting a movie the second night of Chanukah and a troop of kids march in and out and in again. I have five loads of laundry on the dining table. I make some burritos, leave them on the stove and announce it’s every man for himself. Cast and crew departed, food partaken and laundry dispersed I am ready to sink into an evening of lassitude when the kids ask about Chanukah. I haven’t given it much thought on a laundry night absent of fried food or gag gifts but this is something we’ve done as long as they can remember and even without any of the accoutrements, the lighting of the candles, in and of itself, is essential to them.

We are in college application mode and I create a color coded chart with deadlines, essay prompts and audition schedules. My management gig is both appreciated and resented. I like to think I am being a role model for the organization of projects such as this but perhaps I am just a facilitator of perpetual dependence. I am afraid also that my dedication to his educational future is confused as a desire to get rid of him. I am way more involved with the boy’s college admission process than my parents were with my own. I applied for one school with an un-proofread application and was accepted. I drove off myself and moved into a dorm at age seventeen. I suspect that my parents were less in oversight mode than many of my friends’ folks but in general, we are more dedicated to micromanagement than our parents were.

I am disturbed a bit by how this college thing has gotten to me and find it curious that the definition of parenting has changed so much in 35 years. Despite working mothers now being the norm, statistic show that for both moms and dads, time spent with children has increased. This is from the NY Times, Surprisingly, Family Time Has Grown
By Tara Parker-Pope
Before 1995, mothers spent an average of about 12 hours a week attending to the needs of their children. By 2007, that number had risen to 21.2 hours a week for college-educated women and 15.9 hours for those with less education…Although mothers still do most of the parenting, fathers also registered striking gains: to 9.6 hours a week for college-educated men, more than double the pre-1995 rate of 4.5 hours; and to 6.8 hours for other men, up from 3.7…

I figured it out. I graduated college, supported myself, married a man with post graduate degrees and bore two above average kids. How would my life be better now if my parents had parented me like I parent? Will my apron strings strangle the kids as I overcompensate for what I perceive as my parents’ indifference? Or is it that each generation comes of age and lands a bit higher on Maslow’s scale than the one before? Compared to my parents, I started out with my basic needs more adequately met. Am I a over-compensatory control freak or do I just have more luxury to concern myself with personal fulfillment which includes advocating for the kids?

We visit the Lewis and Clark campus in Portland and it is so beautiful and the kids seem so great that I wish for a time machine, thinking how cool it would be to start college, knowing what I know now. I worry the boy isn’t ready for college but his recent triumph in Virginia Woolf increases his own self confidence and also suggests to me that he is ready to succeed. Now that the kid has more than proven his mettle, I visualize him being at college instead of a younger version of myself. I’ll buy him bed linens and towels and I remind myself to impart some basic laundry skills. I imagine him holding forth and delighting a circle of bright and funny friends. He will call frequently for money and perhaps for advice about a hostess gift for a tweedy professor who invites him and a few other favorite students for a home cooked meal. I’ll continue with my whack fantasies but it just boils down to remembering what college can be at its best and thinking about my fabulous kid being fabulously happy, and really, by his own definition, and not mine, although I do hope he changes his sheets a couple times a year.

My beloved Catholic/Jewish/Buddhist Catholic husband has never bought into the happy thing. I do notice once in a while that he is actually happy, at least until I draw his attention to it. Himself and I are the poster children for opposites attracting. But we not only share a sense of humor rooted in the dark and/or puerile, but we have a common savior. We are both peculiarly curious and grew up taking refuge in books from families who perceived us as freakish aliens. Himself escaped early on at a parochial boarding school and I found my own salvation via early enrollment at a tiny hippie college where for the first time I felt almost normal. It is obvious that our eldest is not as eager to fly the coop as his parents were and maybe we can credit that to the extra parenting hours our generation puts in.

I guess it is weird to have your mom so devoted to getting you out of the house. I see college as a good transition to the real hard knock world and as a time to hone not only intellectual but social skills. I had an enormous amount of fun in college and built relationships that are still important to me. I hope my boy has as wonderful experience and also that, as it did for me, college serves as a net for some of the inevitable profound stupidity that seems essential to finding oneself. Himself has no patience for the good times and mirth I envision for the boy. No party animal, Himself’s hopes and expectations are more grounded in intellectual satisfaction and accomplishment but he’ll bawl as hard as I do when the kids clear out.

It used to be a big deal for us to hire a babysitter and get away from the kids for a night. Now I encourage them to postpone doing homework and watch t.v. with me. I see how the tables are turning when I am barely awake when Spuds turns off the set. He rises and announces, “I’m going to bed and I suggest that you do too.” I try to savor Chanukah and Shabbat and Snuggies™ and watching t.v. with a flatulent dog sprawled on top of us. My boys will leave to live their lives and I will miss them. They are good and smart but that and even all my love will not protect them from sorrows and disappointments that devastate and ultimately build character. We do the best we can and pray it is good enough and that when they are men and out in the world that the memories of the funky house will sometimes make them warm.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Chanukah.