Friday, December 30, 2011

Lucky Genes

My sister Sheri, fourteen years my elder, gave birth to a baby girl when she was 19 years old. Sheri was unprepared to parent and the child was given up for adoption. My sister named her baby Erica but this was changed to Carolyn by her adoptive family. When she was about 18 Carolyn, called Cari, initiated contact with her birth-mother, my sister. My sister's daughter has been a part of my life for over twenty five years now. I hope my love for her atones, on behalf of my family, for the childhood she spent questioning.

Cari tested positive, several years ago, for a gene mutation that effects the body's ability to fend off tumors and is often found in women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. It is generally agreed that women who suffer from the mutation (BRCA 1 & 2) are about 87% more likely than the rest of the population to contract breast and/or ovarian cancer. My niece was advised to undergo a prophylactic mastectomy, which, I think, she postponed because other medical issues arose. This year Cari is diagnosed with a malignant tumor and undergoes a mastectomy and will soon begin a regime of chemotherapy. She suggests that I undergo the blood-test for the mutation myself and my first response is that I'd rather not know. I mention this to my general practitioner and he seems surprised that I'd want to remain in the dark but he respects my wishes and doesn't push.

I tell Dr. Connie, my OB that my niece has tested positive and that there was a high incidence of breast cancer in the rest of my family and, never a master of delicacy, she responds “Fuck!” Dr. Connie has no patience for stupidity and when she tells me to take the test it is pointless to argue. My niece, within five minutes of my request, faxes me a copy of her own test results which save me the expense of a full panel and my OB arranges to test me only for the same single mutation.

If the result is positive I will schedule a prophylactic mastectomy immediately and while I'm not jumping for joy, I know that if this is indeed the case I will have greatly reduced the probability of contracting breast cancer. I realize that if my niece hadn't had the courage to seek out her birth mother or had lacked the motivation to stick around after doing so, I would not have the opportunity to preempt breast cancer. I have two close friends who've undergone mastectomies and ravaging chemotherapy. They are both eager to hear my test results.

I give the employees time off but go into the office myself over the holiday weeks, mainly for peace and quiet. I arrive on Boxing Day and my voicemail light is on. Customers seldom call and communicate mainly by e-mail. I assume it is a sales call or bill collector and decide not to play the message until after the holidays. The red light starts to get on my nerves though so I push play and hear Dr. Connie announce that my test for the BRCA mutation is negative. The same doctor who announces me free of genetic mutation also informed me seventeen years ago that I didn't have uterine cancer. “You're pregnant, you idiot.” Now she tells me I don't have the breast cancer gene. My breath quickens and I go a little shaky. The enormous relief is clouded by the clobber of some huge karmic debt and a twinge of sheepishness about telling my niece and my two breast cancer survivor friends that, for God knows what reason, I've been spared. Also, given my faith in irony and movies, upon learning that I don't have the Ashkenazi breast cancer mutation it seems inevitable that I will shortly be decapitated in a fiery crash or, while waiting in line to buy stamps, caught by a bullet sprayed by disgruntled postal worker.

Enough time is passed so that my sudden death wouldn't be the ironic denouement of genetic good news. But, my chronic wrestling with karmic obligation and mortality is still ratcheted up a bit. My college son is home and for a few weeks we are four again, but next week back to three, and before I know it, two. Things are so light at work that it's easy to knock off early and I make special dinners or take afternoon jaunts.

Spuds and I are taken with the L.A. art extravaganza Pacific Standard Time. We attend the California Design exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There is a Barbie Dreamhouse with a real closet, gift-boxes from Joseph Magnin and a Studebaker Avanti. I am in heaven and vindicated for my dogged California boosterism. It is thrilling to look, with my son, at things that were beautiful to me when I was a child and still are. Spuds is polite but withholding as I incessantly point out objects that resemble things in my own horde. He knows I am fishing for, “Yes, mom. Your taste is museum worthy cool.” He does not bite. Nevertheless we are both overwhelmed by the dazzling display of furniture, fabric, floor-plans and ephemera that gives perspective to the Golden State's enrichment of the mid-century design canon.

I envision a leisurely weekday visit to the Getty Center but all hell has broken out there. Fortunately Spuds has the book Everything is Illuminated and I am listening to Philip Roth's Nemesis on CD so the hour from Getty Drive to a narrow parking place on level 6 passes not unpleasantly immersed in Jewish-American literature. The wait for the tram up the hill is estimated to be 30 minutes. We walk, which I am thankful about when the restaurant server informs me that the powdery substance with the distinctive taste that I'd inhaled from the edges of my spartan lunch entree is the molecular gastronomic creation “dried butter.” We take pictures of each other in the garden and Spuds notes my ineptitude with my Iphone as I inadvertently capture on video, for several minutes, my own feet.

The photography represented for Pacific Standard Time feels skimpy but there are scads of big important oils by heavy hitter painters. There is a small exhibit in the Research Center Gallery that traces the paper trail of 1960s L.A. artists. There are postcards with 6 cent stamps, posters, publications and Polaroids. I spent hours, in the 60's spirit of craftsmanship and generosity, on handmade correspondence. I find in my own box of adolescent memorabilia, thick bundles of hand written or typed cards and letters, many bearing decoration. The only correspondence in my childrens' memory boxes are birthday cards from grandparents. The folks who were making all the 60's stuff that seemed so magic were all older than I was. I was frustrated at being too young to make something new and beautiful and important. Now I am too old to operate an Iphone.

The wait for the tram back down the hill is long. We take the footpath. The clouds glow hot pink over the ocean as the sun sets. The traffic is light and we make good time home. I throw together dinner and all four of us sit at the table then, after the three clean up inadequately, we watch a documentary. This is the last work day of a year when one friend died too young and another friend's robust mother died in a freak accident. There was a time in my life when I felt too young to be relevant and now suddenly I am too old. But my family is near and my home has objects that please me and although I'm the only one who gives a rat's ass, some are of museum quality. I've dodged the bullet on the Jewish gene. It would be a slap in the face to those who were not as fortunate to waste a moment immobilized by looming eventualities or wanting anything more than what I have right now.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Eat, Fry, Love

About five months ago I joined Weight Watchers with two of my girlfriends. It takes us a while to find a compatible meeting but we've settled in now with a group of Sunday morning regulars moderated by a sardonic woman a few years our senior. She's been at the gig so long that she trains other lecturers and doesn't necessarily ascribe to the party line. The home office sends out a weekly topic and guidelines for discussion. Our current leader may brush on the proscribed theme but mainly she free styles and it is a smart group and a number of salient subjects usually arise. I've been at this weight loss game for as long as I can remember and it surprises me when there's a fresh revelation or insight.

We arrive for a meeting with one of the less experienced leaders and there is a post-it note on each chair. We were divided into groups and instructed to brainstorm about social activities that don't involve food. My African American girlfriend rolls her eyes and I mutter, “this is bullshit,” a complete cultural anathema for either of us. Why would you even bother hosting or attending a social event without food? Years ago I attended an early afternoon birthday party for one of the kid's classmates at the Jewish Community Center Nursery School. While many non-swarthy types buy into the advantages of Jewish pre-school education (potty training is not requisite for admission) this family was waspy to Nordic proportions. There was punch and white wine and baby carrots and I huddled with a group of my coreligionists on the patio noting that it was about time for the host to get that barbecue firing. The Costco cake appeared and the party bags were distributed and after this bum's rush a few of us repaired to a coffee shop to marvel, over patty melts, at disparate cultural social mores.

After losing about twenty pounds in around three months I've hit a long plateau. Even when I'm fastidious about what I eat and walk the hills for an hour each morning I seldom lose more half a pound in a week. Weight Watchers works on a point system that's designed just like a financial budget. There are weekly bonus points in addition to the daily allotment plus extra points for activity. But the few weeks that I've actually availed myself of the extras I've gained weight. I don't mind the long slog. There are absolutely no forbidden foods but I'm getting a real education in portion control. This feels different than my usual lifelong state of either being “on a diet” or “not on a diet” and the psyche of “not on a diet” was conditioned by a lifetime of deprivation and long fasts. I have also developed a taste for whole grain pasta and breadstuffs so along with getting a grip with regard to serving sizes there are some healthful changes of habit. I feel that there's a good likelihood that I'll reach my goal and for the first time in my life I think I have a realistic notion of what it will take to maintain it. I'm in no hurry. My weekly meetings are followed by breakfast with the girls. Perhaps it attests to the staggering dullness of my life, but Sunday morning Weight Watchers is the high point of my week. Which brings me to the Festival of Fried Foods.

The big holidays on Fulton Avenue were Thanksgiving and Christmas and I loved the smell of sage and pie spice. I held the turkey (always a hen, never frozen) in my arms and waltzed around the kitchen. The bird was basted with real butter every twenty minutes. The cranberries were fresh and the mashed potatoes oozed butter and warm heavy cream. This is one of my least complicated memories of my mother's love.

Latkes and particularly homemade donuts don't figure prominently in my catalog of childhood food memories but I've made up for lost time. The family expects, and I know it is fully my own damn fault for starting the tradition, a minimum of two meals with latkes and donuts on the menu during the 8 nights of observance. I am aproned at the stove, testing the temperature of the oil. I throw in a few shreds of potato and there is a sizzle and the foreboding of how the house is going to stink for a week. I make applesauce with a bit of agave to replace brown sugar and it tastes fine. I will not stoop so low as to purchase non-fat sour cream and go for the real stuff. This meal requires that I man the stove until the last latke is fried and the family is told that they should go ahead and start eating, as I undoubtedly will catch up.

I apologize in advance to faithful readers who will groan at the repetition of this self aggrandizing anecdote. My firstborn returned from a playdate with another nursery school chum, and full of wonder, asked me if I knew that you could get soup in a can. The kids do get sick of my cooking, as I do myself. The truth though is what they get from my kitchen, given their budgets, might be a mite better than the grub they scrounge up elsewhere. Several weeks ago, too lazy to cook, I set an array of leftovers on the table with instructions for the family to fill and nuke their own plates. There are about eight small containers of stuff I'd made and a Styrofoam box containing a very bland and dry “chicken fajitas light” leftover from a restaurant meal. Spuds, bored by Mom's palette, opts for the doggie bag.

The Chanukah meal makes them all forget how tired they are in they are of my weeknight dinners. The three of them polish off a dozen latkes and then a dozen donuts and they are unstinting in their praise of the meal. I fail so much with all of them given our complicated relationships, baggage, ego. We misread signals or ignore them all together. It was mostly just me and Mom growing up and that was fraught enough but we are four four people living in one house together and are often conflicted by personal needs vs. the good of the family unit. The clearest and purest memories I have of Mom's love hark back to holiday meals. She was at her most effective and at her happiest. I flip the latkes in the hot oil and, with no tinge of the relief I felt when she died and I was no longer burdened by the ravages of Alzheimer’s, I miss her. I watch my own family eat and I hope that for the rest of their lives that smell of Hanukah foods frying will evoke, purely and without complication, Mom's love.

Friday, December 9, 2011

It's the Inequality Stupid!

After breaking down the concessions area after the final weekend of children's theater I make my way home through Skid Row. I've visited the Flower Market for decades and seen lines in front of the Midnight Mission, people crashed in doorways and I've been hit up for change. The desperate and the destitute have congregated here for as long as I can remember but now the visage is a dystopian post apocalypse tableau, as block after block are lined with tents and the streets teem with men and women who have nowhere else to go.

The missions can only accommodate a small percentage of the needy and many who live on the street are so far gone psychiatrically that it's unsafe to house them in an overcrowded dormitory. Some of the homeless end up in jail and may even receive a psychological evaluation but even if a mental disorder is identified there are virtually no services available. Further cuts to California mental health programs are announced this week. 587 million has been slashed over the last few years from a program that was already tragically inadequate. It is estimated that 8% of the population suffer from some form of mental illness but the medieval notion that psychological disorders are rooted in a lack of character seems to persist and treatment has always been a low priority.

I'd had the impression that most of L.A.'s homeless had gravitated to Occupy L.A. where there was free food and medical care but driving down Central Avenue, there is an ocean so vast it couldn't possibly be contained on the steps of the City Hall. I presume that most of the street people who found refuge at Occupy L.A. did make their way back to Skid Row before police raids of the encampment.

Patrick Meighan, a writer for Family Guy describes his arrest at Occupy L.A. in a disturbing piece He is able to make bail but many of the other arrestees are still in jail. The bail is set at $5000 for those arrested at Occupy. Bail in cases of violent crime and serious felony is often much lower. Meighan describes watching from behind the cyclone fence that was erected at City Hall the tents and other possessions of the occupiers being tossed by hazmat clad workers into dump trucks. The windstorm whips through Los Angeles the night after the police action. Clothing, tents and medical supplies are destined for a landfill while thousands, exposed on dirty downtown streets, brave the wicked Santa Anas.

Meighan also points out that while peaceful protestors at Occupy L.A. are treated more harshly than hardcore felons, the former CEO of Citigroup, Charles Prince, maintains a lifestyle worthy of his regal moniker. In reference to the firm's dangerously leveraged lending practices, Prince said, “When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you've to get up and dance. We're still dancing.” Under Prince's stewardship the market value of Citigroup declined by $64 billion. Instead of an lengthy incarceration Prince receives $68 million from stock and options, an exit bonus of $12.5 million, a $1.7 million pension, and an office, car and driver for five years.

The streets abound with crackheads and folks who have gone off their meds but the ranks have swollen as more and more of the working class lose jobs, homes and health coverage. The kick in the balls to the middle class is a direct result of the callous manipulation of the world's finances by the big banks and instead of exacting penalties from the major players, we set bail at $5000 for those who have the temerity to call the bankers out.

I cannot say that our finances have flourished in the last few years but we are blessed with work, a home and health insurance. Our policy, like most, has scant provisions for mental health and only slightly better for physical health. I receive frequent calls from a collection agency all year when our insurer fails to pay a provider for a clearly covered expense. This is resolved after I write over a dozen letters and finally enlist the help of the State Insurance Commissioner but I imagine that many don't clearly understand their coverage or are cowed and frightened by collection agency calls and simply capitulate.

The OB who delivered both of my kids has an office in Beverly Hills. She does not accept insurance and my carrier only reimburses me for a small portion of her fees but she has always charged me fairly and reasonably. There is usually a bit of a wait but I never feel rushed as I often do when seeing other physicians who are preferred providers and have to squeeze in a ton of patients. The examination gowns are made of flimsy pink paper but while the décor is not to my taste, efforts have been made to make it as comfortable and homey as a room with a focal point of metal stirrups can be. Due to my family history my doctor prescribes a genetic test. She advises me to pay cash for the test and not to use my real name. She feels that what's left of a nationalized heathcare plan is sure to go by the wayside and it's best to have no record of a pre-exisiting condition.

I have a few hours between medical assignations in Beverly Hills and being in weight loss mode I take lunch at the macrobiotic joint M Chaya. If I lie on my bed and flail a bit I can triumph over pair of size 12 jeans and it is worth the impossibility of sitting or breathing. I will note here that my current weight is approximately 150 lbs lower than my highest and yet, I have never felt as fat and cumbersome in my life as I do in Beverly Hills at M Chaya. I rattle the table of two regulars attempting to finesse myself into the tiny booth. I am not only ginormous, I am wearing a red sweater in room full of black clad, Alexander McQueen boot wearing, health food eaters. The women at the next table note my reading of Jeffrey Eugenides “The Marriage Plot” and say they'd read it in their book club and really liked it. The book parodies post modern criticism and quotes Derrida and Barthes extensively and it seems impossible to me that anyone wearing size 0 skin tight Lycra leggings and toting a Birkin handbag around Beverly Hills could possibly have really liked it. Nevertheless, they do not expound and continue their conversation about a new diet. “I eat three ounces of protein in the morning and then only fruit and vegetables the rest of the day, but I still haven't lost any weight.”

My appointment at the Beverly Hills Women's Center follows my spartan lunch. I made a big fuss about the mammography place I was sent to in Burbank being a pit and have been sent now “over the hill.” This place makes the crappy place in Burbank look like the most exclusive Baden-Baden spa. I call a few days before my appointment to confirm that my primary physician has submitted a referral and after endless muzak and three different annoyed workers I am assured that he has. The waiting room has the ambiance of a Greyhound depot except for a number of the Georgia O'Keefe prints which must be included free with the purchase of specula or mammography equipment. I am called to the desk three times and grilled about the referral from my physician and I indicate that I have confirmed its arrival. “Oh yeah. Go sit back down.” A woman in a wheelchair is parked in the middle of the room. She stares into space and chews. Old women hobble down the hall with walkers and a young woman directs, in Spanish, three small children to sit quietly. An obese bleached blonde argues in Russian with her diminutive husband, conspicuously the only man in the room. Westside matrons, in their discomfiture at being marooned among the proletariat glower and pester the girls at the desk about the long wait.

Women are called in groups of two or three and shown to changing rooms with doors that have taken so much abuse they don't close fully and issued pink ( apparently the AMA mandated color for all accessories pertinent to women's healthcare) smocks. The lockers have no locks and we are commanded to carry our bras, blouses and other belongs while we wait our turn, standing in a hall, for a mammographer. I've had a variety of laboratory tests over the years and it's always like being on the peoplemover but the mammography clinic is the most degrading. The technician is obstreperous and refuses to refer me for the ultrasound that my physician prescribes. I hover near over-the-top in my campaign make them provide the services for which I've been referred. I am told the ultrasound technician has gone home for the day and I ratchet up the assertiveness to a point that in retrospect I feel a bit sheepish about. Somehow a technician and even a radiologist materialize. What happens to patients who don't understand what tests have been ordered or lack language skills or the nerve to speak up?

Near the clinic is a trendy bakery filled with fashionable tweens who scarf down $7 red velvet or carrot mascarpone cupcakes. It is dark and the crosstown streets are jammed. I make my way down 3rd and notice Short Order, the new restaurant that serves $18 hamburgers that just opened next to the Dupar's at the Farmer's Market. I reach Hancock Park and notice that the dozens of David statues that once graced the front yard of a stark white 60s house have been removed. The owners of the nearby mansions must be relieved. Past Western there are Hispanic shops and salons, brightly painted and glowing eerie with fluorescent light. Women, who probably feed big families each day on less then the price of a Beverly Hills cupcake, wait in line for tortillas. A mile or so east thousands of homeless people huddle in tents. The steps of City Hall are empty now but many of the 99% trudge on hoping, if they still have the wherewithal to hope, that the Occupy Movement is a catalyst for change.

Friday, December 2, 2011


We are promised another night of fearsome winds but all is still. Waiting for the shake and squeal that doesn't happen is almost as eerie as enduring it the night before when we are fortunate to make out the sound of gushing water through all the wail and din. The branch of a pepper tree thuds again and again to activate a spigot on our deck despite our efforts to secure it. The wind blasts us as we fumble with the errant pepper. Himself, Ph.D and all, makes some suggestions towards correcting the problem that are so staggeringly stupid I attribute the lapse to some sort of Santa Ana phenomena related aberration. He is relieved when I have the presence of mind to suggest bungee cords.

I double my morning walk to compensate for a day skipped due to the storm and make a giant circle through Mount Washington. Most of the power is restored and the streets are largely unobstructed but for a giant fallen elm on Quail Way, which having crushed a car and someone's living room, still blocks the narrow road. Fallen branches that carpet the steep streets emit a sweet aroma and dawn breaks to reveal an electric blue sky.

From the top of Kite Hill City Hall is still illuminated and glowing at sunrise. Occupy LA is broken up by the LAPD the night before the deathly Santa Ana's. I hope that the energies harnessed here are a catalyst for good but if nothing else, candidates in the next election are now obliged to address the issue of economic disparity. The message is articulated most effectively with the coinage of the phrase “the 99%.” Occupy L.A.'s mission was complicated by its attractiveness to a large number of substance abusers, mentally ill and just plain homeless folks. This is a voiceless segment of 99% and while their presence at the Occupation isn't particularly photogenic, people sleeping in boxes in the shadows of the opulent offices of hugely profitable but tax exempt corporations is just as salient to the movement as the thousands of unemployed graduates with no means to pay off their college loans. Inevitably any assembly will attract its share of crazies as is evidenced by wacko Tea Party signage that's nearly as popular on Facebook as kitten videos. But the far reaching impact, of what I would have dismissed as a mobilization of right-wing crackpots, is impressive, viz a viz, the Congress. Perhaps there will be a formidable Occupy ticket in the 2012 election.

Spuds visits Occupy L.A. with us a number of times but while a large group of students from his college are regular participants, our elder son is dismissive. Number One Son is the kid who attributes his lack of enthusiasm for moving away to college to the happy childhood he was provided and his distaste for involvement in shaping his future is perhaps another attempt to postpone the encroaching demise of carefree youth. Sixteen year old Spuds takes a bus and two trains daily to my office so I can drive him to his tutoring job which is a bit off the public transportation grid. He arrives late, having made solo a detour to City Hall where a cyclone fence has been erected and we watches while former occupiers fruitlessly plead with the police to enter and prevent their possessions from being loaded onto huge dump trucks by workers clad in hazmat suits. Spuds muses whether in three years anyone will remember what happened here but I think O.W.S. will have traction. I look at iconic images daily as I search for footage, and even though I've seen them all a million times, frames from the 60s, of little black girls in church dresses being fire hosed in Selma and college students being shot down at Kent State, I am always gobsmacked by how much of the positive change that I've witnessed is fostered by protest. I suspect that old pictures of the tent city on the steps of City Hall and students in Davis being pepper sprayed will evoke the same awe for Spuds and his big brother too some day.

I have vivid memories of civil rights and peace protests only via photos and film but Spuds has taken part and himself delivered food and medical supplies. He discounts his energies but still I think his involvement entitles him to really own a bit of any salubrious results. It's this “at least did more than nothing” self satisfaction that makes me particularly ebullient about Hillary Clinton's trip to Burma, even though the press still uses the name Myanmar, a name coined by despotic leadership in an effort to completely denude the nation of its heritage. It isn't like I am single-handedly responsible for freeing Aung San Suu Kyi but I did give her a nice birthday party which unfortunately, due to her house arrest, she was unable to attend. Some monies were raised for the cause and the handful of people who slog through my rantings here week in and week out were informed a bit about the ruling military which seems recently to have loosened its grip. There is still a long way to go but the image of the recently free Aung San Suu Kyi dining with Hillary Clinton and the documented release of other political prisoners is reason for cautious optimism. The U.S. Campaign for Burma and similar organizations in other nations doggedly kept the dictatorship on the radar and I think, this group, of which I am a card carrying member, is entitled to take a little credit for the current shift in the right direction.

I have also written here extensively about the plight of inmates incarcerated in California prisons and shameful overcrowding and inhumane conditions. I wish I could say, that like signs of hope emanating from Burma, there has been progress on this other issue that is important to me. The state is complying with a federal court mandate to reduce prison overcrowding by sentencing non-violent offenders to county instead of state facilities. This is just a cynical numbers game but given the current political clout of the guard's union and the continued hacking away at the already pathetically miniscule budget devoted to rehabilitative programs in penal facilities this truly might be the only way to comply with the order to reduce the prison population. The bottom line is that nearly nothing is being done in prisons, county jails or aftercare to prevent recidivism and the guards union is well aware that a high census preserves hefty salaries and pensions and to them the cycle is more cash cow than vicious. I would love to add the issue of California prisons to the short list of things I've ranted about that have actually gotten better but unfortunately it seems the rush to comply with the Federal court bodes only to make the situation far worse but I am a lowly blogger and for a number of reasons, prison reform just isn't very sexy right now. My sense of impotence is dually exacerbated and diminished by correspondence I maintain with three Jewish California inmates.

Two of my pen pals are lifers. One has been incarcerated near San Diego for many years and another, after stints at Mule Creek and Pleasant Valley (!) is now at the same facility. Both of these men are smart and funny. They probably find my letters vaguely amusing but look forward most to the ones that contain legal pads or stamps which, except for paperback books sent directly from Amazon, is all that can be sent to a prisoner. I have no details about their crimes. I don't ask and they don' t tell. I feel no strong connection to either and suspect too that neither is a paragon of honesty. I know that in some odd way the human contact I maintain with them is important and it takes me very little time to dash off a letter once a week.

The man moved recently to San Diego is wheelchair bound now due to a neurological condition. He reports that the move to San Diego is scheduled after he is hospitalized for a week. He returns from the hospital to find his possessions all packed in preparation for his transfer. He is kept in a holding cell for several days without even shoes or a toothbrush. He is awakened at 3 am to board the van and the officer in charge instructs him to walk from the wheelchair. The prisoner indicates he is unsure whether he is strong enough to ambulate. The guard says he'd seen the inmate walking on the yard within the last few days and turns a deaf ear when the prisoner explains that this is impossible as he'd been hospitalized. It is determined that another vehicle will be necessary to transport him in a wheelchair but the irritated guard refuses to remove the man's belongings from the van so he is left without his bundle until a wheelchair equipped van can be engaged. It takes a week for the transport to be arranged and then after he arrives in San Diego it is several days until he sees his stuff. I am aware at this population's propensity for exaggeration and the prescient inmate includes with his letter a copy of a prison generated report that seems to corroborate this story.

I wish this were an isolated instance of petty-assed punitiveness but the third inmate I correspond with, and the one I consider a lifelong friend and not a mitzvah project commends a number of prison staffers for being professional and compassionate but notes too that bad-assed power tripping is rampant and seldom checked. The right is tough on crime and the left is reluctant to take a stand in opposition of any union, even CCPOA, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Officers have the option of choosing a badge that says Dept of Corrections or one that says Dept of Corrections and Rehabilitation and almost all opt for the former, at least honest about their lack of motivation to rehabilitate anyone.

The L.A. Occupiers have been dispersed through the city. Perhaps some of the more effectual members of the movement will be a voice for not only underemployed college graduates but also for the very bottom rung of the 99% who eke out a survival on the streets or languish in prisons due a society that values tax loopholes for the wealthy more than providing the most basic services for the destitute and mentally ill. The world is watching Burma for signs of genuine change and proof that Clinton's visit and other gestures towards improving international relations are not just a grab for more foreign monies. We are promised another severe bout of merciless wind and yet the air is still. Sometimes human goodness prevails and sometimes storms that we expect just don't arrive.

Friday, November 25, 2011

New Day Rising

The spawn endure another concert seated next to me when I spring for “See a Little Light: Celebration of the Music and Legacy of Bob Mould,” at Disney Hall. Number one son suggests that the music is better suited for Al's Bar but to me Mould's three decades of work merit the grand setting. For once, I am not conspicuously old. It's the kids who are conspicuously young at this tribute to the front man for the seminal punk band Husker Dü. I saw the band in the 80s at the Variety Arts Center and was happy to find standing room close to the stage. It was only when the show started that I realized that I'd planted myself directly in front of a speaker the size of a double-wide. About ten minutes into the concert the sound took on a muffled quality and everything has been a bit muffled for me ever since. Whenever anyone screams at me for having music or the tv on too loud I think “Husker Dü.” I will note that while the band was loud, it was not particularly animated and my stageside vantage afforded the disappointing view of the trio attaining impressive volume while remaing completely motionless, like stiffs. The band busted up and Mould went on the form the band Sugar and later to craft a number of praiseworthy solo albums. Mould has recently published an autobiography and Himself will here paste a link to his review of the "See a Little Light" as well as to his reviews of a book about "the noise-pop band that changed modern rock" and a collection of essays “This Band Could Change Your Life” that has an excellent piece about Husker Dü written by the co-writer of Mould's autobiography.

A number of artists perform a variety of songs spanning Mould's career which results in some mind blowing interpretations and a shamelessly gushy love fest. When I see Margaret Cho's name on the roster I presume she is slated to master the ceremonies but instead she effuses a bit about the succor Mould's music afforded during her years as a teenage misfit. Cho is joined by Grant Lee Phillips for a version of the Sugar tune “Your Favorite Thing.” Her pure passion for Mould's oeuvre overshadows any limitations she may have as a singer. My kids hate Craig Finn of The Hold Steady and sneer that Darby Crash, who made the mistake of committing showy suicide on the same day as John Lennon's murder, did it first. While Finn's herkey jerky physicality bears some similarity to Mr. Crash's, Finn is less a nihilistic punker than a teenage fan letting every nuance of a song take deep root in his soul. His performances evoke the most nerdulent kid in high school letting it rip in front of his bedroom mirror. Finn's performance of Mould's "Real World" and "A Good Idea" is as exciting as his interpretations of his own smart moody songs.

My kids turn me on to the spectacular No Age, a ubiquitous rag tag local duo. They are as ebullient as any performers I've ever seen as they play with Mould and the elder statesman makes it clear that the love and respect is mutual. The burning question of the evening is “Where have you been all my life Dave Grohl?” I was never a big Nirvana fan and may be the only person in the universe who doesn't own Never Mind, which apparently at one point Bob Mould had been slated to produce. Grohl's next project, The Foo Fighters, can be credited with some good commercial songs but have a sound I imagine appeals mostly to teenage girls. When Grohl accompanies Mould on a couple of tunes I am fearful that the 51 year old Mould is going to keel over with a heart attack trying to keep up. Mould, however, holds his own and it is remarkable to see two performers so thoroughly bring out the best in each other. Grohl takes over on drums for New Day Rising and the result was so blistering that even my “came only to see No Age on Mom's dime” companions are on their feet.

Ryan Adams, a singer song writer is the only performer at the tribute to perform Mould's songs acoustically. An old friend who attends the tribute only to hear Ryan Adams, is almost 60. He says that the six year difference in our ages is the reason why none of Mould's music is familiar to him. He complains too that the show seems to be a commercial for Mould's book, which indeed is being sold in the lobby. Britt Daniel of Spoon opens the performance with the confession, “I have the book but I haven't read it yet.” I am in the same boat, although I did read Himself's excellent review (see link above) and Himself boinks himself on the head quite smartingly when he goes to retrieve the tome from the garage at my behest,

The autobiography “See a Little Light” recounts Mould's father's alcoholism and his own struggles with substance abuse. He details the perils of the music industry and his personal difficulties navigating it as a gay man At the end of the show I am elated to see that after over thirty years in rock Mould is respected and adored not only by his peers but by a younger generation as well. Mould admits he is not much of a speaker but also recognizes that the occasion requires a few words. He steps up to the mike and notes that his book chronicles the struggle with his ordinary mindset of alternating between rehashing the past and agonizing about the future. “I have some trouble being in the present,” he goes on and then is silent. He stands in the footlights, looks out to the crowd and drinks in that 2000 people are blissfully in the now with him. A now I am delighted to have shared with my boys, who for all of tsuris they cause me, need music like oxygen and doughnuts. Maybe someday they will tell their children that Grandma has partial hearing loss due to a band called Husker Dü.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Day Trip

We make a pilgrimage to Johnston College which is now known as Johnston Center for Integrative Studies but that's too much of a mouthful. Himself has yet to visit number one son at the institution of higher learning and Uncle Richard comes along for the ride. The familiar landmarks on the 10 evoke my own college days although the big blue barn painted with, “Colton-Hub of Industry, Center of Progress” is gone. Sometimes in the middle of the night we'd visit the Terminal Inn truck stop at the Waterman off-ramp. We'd swill burnt coffee and send the boys into the men's room to verify that there really was a machine that sold French ticklers. We marched in braless in our hippie garb and whispered about what pigs the truckers were when they ogled us. Thirty five years later the truck stop is gone. The kids at Johnston seem to have fallen into a time warp and my own college wardrobe would fit right in. There was recently a “slutwalk” on the University of Redlands campus. I get it that women should be able to wear whatever they want and not be subjected to male sexual aggression but I get the heebie jeebies when I see girls done up like slatterns. Naturally, anyone should be able to dress as they choose and not be victimized by predators but girls wearing slutwalk appropriate garb seem to be demeaning themselves. I'm glad I have boys.

We call our college boy and wake him when we are about fifteen minutes away. When he admits us to the dorm his hair is wet from showering and he is barefoot. “You'll get athlete's foot,” I warn him. He says, “we all go barefoot,” and I stop myself from explaining that's all the more reason for him to wear shoes. I realize that as the parent of a college freshman I have lost my clout with regard to informing his behavior. The little that I had. We arrive at about 12:30 and the dorm is dark and silent. Roommate is still in bed when we enter the cluttered room. I start to say that if I were expecting visitors I would at least have made my bed and ask what's become of the top sheet but remember that I am even more impotent now than when his bed was under my own roof.. It is decided that Roommate will join us for lunch and we agree to wait while he gets himself ready. Himself, who cannot abide waiting for anything, rolls his eyes, but our freshman placates him by proffering that the lobby holds many books.

The lobby is a sea of clutter, including a half eaten cake that has been sitting out so long the pathogens are visible by naked eye. I wonder what is so difficult about putting books neatly on a shelf rather than cramming them in willy nilly stacks although there are a few titles interesting enough to keep Himself from complaining about killing time waiting for Roommate and the inevitability of paying for his lunch. By one pm there are a few more lights on in the halls and a few students in boxer shorts pad drowsily to the coed bathrooms. Barefoot. We are informed that few students rise before noon and Roommate notes that our own scion is a campus sleeping champion, often logging fourteen consecutive hours.

When I arrived on campus with the boy back in September, Roommate, from a private school in the hoity toity part of Pasadena was clean shaven with a fresh haircut. He wore a pastel polo shirt, freshly ironed khakis, Bass Weejuns and something I'd not seen in ages, a ginormous class ring. Fewer than three months have transpired but Roommate's gone native with hair grown out to near Angela Davis proportions. He has a full beard and sports tattered cut off sweat pants and rubber flip flops and he's bagged the class ring. He is, as obviously as my own progeny, hungover. My college boy reports that Roommate's sheltered high school years included few parties. After imbibing from what is described an awesome sized bong in a neighboring room Roommate awakens my own sophisticate at four in the morning in an apoplectic panic as he is unable to feel his tongue.

We set out for a coffee shop in Mentone. I point out a few vestigial orange groves that have somehow survived the epidemic of endless cul de sacs crammed with huge brown stucco houses. I remember distinctly that the street behind the campus runs directly into Mentone Blvd but we wind up at a tiny airport I didn't even know existed. I see Himself's eyes flashing daggers in the rear view mirror. He hates wasting gas as much as he does having his six foot frame jammed into the back seat. Roommate's Iphone navigates us to the restaurant and I note that a number of charming field-stone houses still line Mentone Blvd. We arrive at an old school diner and are seated next to a group of adipose tattooed locals in Valvoline caps and wifebeaters. I posit, as I face them from behind that it might be a back fat convention. Uncle Richard is included in the field trip not only because he is cheerful and keeps Himself on good behavior but also because he shares with Roommate a common interest in the Academy Awards and an intense discussion ensues. Our neighbors glance our way when Roommate squeals loudly “It's gonna be Meryl Streep in Iron Lady” and Himself gives me the stinkeye, like it's my fault.

I've eaten in my share of coffee shops and I know that it is foolhardy in these establishments to order any food that is available in canned form. Himself and I are happy with toast and an omelet. Mr. College asks for 2 sides. Corned beef hash and home fried potatoes. The waitress brings two plates of hash and a third with a plate of undercooked spuds and we are puzzled. I start to say that the boy had wanted two separate side orders, not two of corned beef, but Uncle Richard takes the waitress' side that it sounded indeed like two orders of hash had been requested. I wonder if he would have defended her if he'd intended to pick up the check himself but alas, this is something we will never know.

The hash is definitely of the Dinty Moore variety and is uneaten, as is Roommate's homemade biscuit which drowns in a thick beige gravy of the same provenance as the hash. My boy comments that the hash tastes like store brand cat food and I say that I'd expected a canned product. “Why didn't you tell me not to order it?!” “You don't like it when I tell you what to do,” I reply. He can't argue with this but shrinks a bit, realizing how many more shitty meals he is condemned to.

We continue up the mountain to the apple growing area of Oak Glen. It is a tourist trap with petting zoos and tractor rides but there are fresh apples and cider presses. The air is clean and thin and there are maples and oaks gone autumny red and orange. The boy has come home almost every weekend and rarely leaves the campus during the week. After a lunch among the meth lab haircuts and a short ride to mountain orchards 5000 feet above sea level, it dawns on him that where he lives now is someplace else.

We return to campus and he takes us to the library and checks out a book on Buddhism for Himself to borrow. He treats us to a coffee at the student union and we meet a number of his friends and an instructor and Mr. College is poised and friendly and obviously well liked. We leave him chatting with a group of pals and head back on the 10. The kid is 19 now. I wish he'd wear shoes and keep his bed clean and take it easy with the partying. I no longer have the power of enforcement but I hope what we taught him while he was with us will serve him well. My 19 year old accepts more and more that he lives now in another place. I know sometimes he feels like there is no net but with every passing week this grows less frightening. He is settled in and I am proud and maybe seeing only three place settings at the dinner table someday won't make me weep. Someday.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Siri, My New BFFL

I noted the one year anniversary of my mother's death a couple weeks ago. This week would have been her 91st birthday. My dad would be 93. My imaginings of my parents' lives before I was born are in black and white. Airplanes and automobiles were newfangled contraptions when my parents were children. My father told my children about barnstormers or waiting in line at the Madrona Theater in Seattle to watch a talkie for the first time. Dad, after reminiscing for the boys, added, wistfully, “I wonder what you'll see.” The “after I'm dead” part was tacit. When I was six I found a giant appliance carton and painted dials and lights on it and precociously was a computer for Halloween. Later, at Grant High School only boys were in the Computer Science class and they made impressive pictures of Alfred E. Newman or Keep on Truckin' dot matrix printed on green and white fanfold paper.

I bought my mother her first computer which she used to play solitaire and to write e-mails to me. She pushed send and then called me to report that she'd sent me an e-mail and relate the information it contained. I was required frequently to “fix” the computer for her which usually meant plugging in the mouse or opening a window she'd closed inadvertently. My dad was suspicious when I purchased a $4000 Tandy for the office in 1988 and doggedly refused to learn to use a computer. He grew to appreciate the rapidity with which I could alphabetize lists and later the steep prices commanded for16mm films we sold on what he referred to as the“The Ebay.”

My children tease me about my stalwart allegiance to AOL and my slower than molasses, indecipherable texting. Spuds patiently teaches me the bare rudiments of my new I-phone and I know he's thinking about how wasted the sleek device is in my feeble hands. Himself is more than a little miffed when I take advantage of my cellphone upgrade eligibility and trade my Droid for what is my first Apple product, except for a used computer untouched by me but used at the office to operate Final Cut Pro. Himself is also apoplectic when I purchase a $20 dustpan that has a built in brush to clean the broom from the neat inventor's website I silence him by pointing out his own lack of investment or participation in house cleaning. I have no retort for his remonstrance about the new phone because my rationale for buying it is purely covetousness of cool. Himself glowers at the sight of the new phone and notes derisively that the screen is smaller than a Droid's, but I permit him to hold it. Upon examination he discovers that there are many more Irish language (!) applications available for Apple products. I haven't even shown him the Shazaam gizmo that identifies case I fall in love with a song being piped in at the Gelson's. For all of his grousing about my extravagance I suspect his Droid too will be put out to pasture in a few months when his own upgrade eligibly rolls around.

My friend Richard and I struggle to remember the name “Christopher Guest” although we can list his complete filmography. I finally consult my new friend Siri who came into my life when I activated my I-phone. She names the director instantly. She has some trouble later with “Pollo Loco” (had a coupon) and she admits that she can't find it but adds, “Layne, I'm terribly sorry.” I wonder if Siri will help me conceal signs of dementia longer than my mother was able to mask her own intellectual decline.

I have an hour to kill while Spuds rehearses and decide to visit the Big Lots on Vine which sometimes carries a tea that Himself likes. I drive through Hollywood for the first time in a while. I spent many childhood hours with my father walking the Boulevard. Dad would quiz me on the stars and we'd visit Pickwick Books and Burt Wheeler's Magic store. Now there are slick new buildings and businesses and whole blocks that are totally unfamiliar and I am at sea as to what was there before. The Big Lots is not where I remember it on Vine, near the Greyhound Station. The bus station closed years ago. I would sometimes go there with my dad to send off a film bound for Stockton or San Ysidro, and stowed in the luggage compartment of a big silver bus. Now the Big Lots appears gone as well and Siri confirms that the closest branch to my location is in Burbank. My Hollywood has been desecrated and I feel, irrationally, disrespected and unimportant.

I trod valley cul de sacs in my refrigerator box ENIAC and I guess I sensed what the future held. I have Siri now to guide me through Hollywood but so much of what is natural to my kids baffles me. The city will grow and change and there will be new inventions the likes of which I can't imagine. More and more I get a sense that things are passing me by. My parents too felt like they couldn't keep pace and now they are ashes and the world stumbles on without them. My children will be adults in a world I wouldn't recognize but through them and their children, my parents and I will always be a part of it.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Brat Race

I haven't taken a writing breather for about three years but last week, in a well-lived-in cabin nestled in the Redwoods of Mount Hermon, I give myself permission to slack off. Reading, fortunately, is essential to good writing, or at least my (whatever you think of it) writing. While not writing, I finish two novels and a collection of short stories and bask in a lot of graceful prose and permit myself to feel smug about some that is pretty clunky. I devour Jennifer Egan's sly and subtle Visit from the Goon Squad which nails the 80s and 90s and flows from a free form La Ronde to a dazzlingly effective PowerPoint presentation. A collection of stories, The Empty Family by Irish writer Colm Toibin is harrowing, exquisite and rich with elegant sentences. Toibin is a master at evoking heartbreaking bleakness of loneliness counter-parted by quiet, tender redemption.

Steve Job's sister Mona Simpson's latest novel, My Hollywood has a few trenchant observations about children but is hard to follow as characters appear out of nowhere and then recede abruptly, never having furthered the plot. The novel is praised for Simpson's bold stab at capturing the inner-life of a Filipina nanny but I am consistently aware that a privileged white woman is doing the channeling. The plotting is plodding and it is remarkable that an editor didn't note that two separate episodes of children drowning might make an already iffy plot line even less credible. In interviews Simpson admits that her work is chock-a-block with autobiographical elements and perhaps consequently there is distinct quality of self righteousness, bordering on hubris, in her heroines.

Unlike Himself, I am no book reviewer and there are many astute reviews of these three popular works so I won't go into any more depth about my vacation reading, except to note it, lest you think my time was completely frittered away watching Storage Wars and working crossword puzzles. Which is not to say that I completely abstain from the latter two activities. Were I to fully embrace the avocation of critic I would laud the works of Jennifer Egan and Colm Toibin and further excoriate Mona Simpson but I would also have to give my highest praise to the Herculon recliner from which I do most of my reading, watching and puzzling.

Those familiar with the dynamics of Casamurphy are aware that for the most part, Spuds is the family member who best approximates an actualized human being. I remind readers of this in case anyone is tempted to contact the authorities as I confess that Himself and I head north for over a week, and leave Spuds with his brother home from college only on the weekends, a drawer full of cash, a fridge full of food, a written list of instructions and a bus pass. That we leave for our trip on the morning of Joe College's 19th birthday, having underwhelmingly regaled him with a Groupon dinner the night before, is a further example of parental neglect, approaching malfeasance.

The birthday boy asks if he can host a small soiree in his own honor during our absence and I relent, knowing that, as I will be 400 miles away, my verdict is likely irrelevant. Himself paces and growls on the day of the party. I am asked to make many calls and remind our budding entertainers to insure that the dogs don't escape and that the garage where Himself has secreted our liquor remains closed. Himself logs on to Facebook at the onset off the gala and notices immediately that Spuds has posted a picture of two boys roughhousing in front of the open garage. I am on the phone immediately and that I'd discovered the open door freaks the host out so thoroughly that I break down and disabuse him of the fear that we've engaged professional surveillance.

When we return from the north the house looks OK nevertheless. There are a couple of beer bottles (a brand so cheap that Himself wouldn't consider serving to company he dislikes) in the recycling bin so they are ecologically responsible and never figure out where our own liquor is hidden. I learn later from other parents, arriving to fetch their own progeny, that there is quite a crowd, replete with scantily clad teenage girls slugging Colt 45 stumbling in the street. I am pleased that number one son has inherited his mother's social inclinations but, despite no police presence, irate calls from neighbors nor breakage as of yet discovered, it will be a while before we put our facilities as his disposal again.

Spuds survives a week of parental abandonment, feeds himself, takes care of the pets and attends school and play rehearsals and reports for his tutoring job with a better on-time record than his mother/chauffeur usually attains. Spuds inherits from a college bound friend a position tutoring a set of twins who like him about as much as he likes them. Not very. We never employed tutors until a middle school geometry crisis and both of our boys always completed school assignments without supervision or anyone hovering over them. The fourth graders are tutored daily for two hours in order to keep up on their homework which Spuds says really should require no more than a half hour a day. The twins mother is single and holds an extremely prestigious position at a local university. I have never met her but we have a complicated relationship.

My own development was arrested and it took me longer than many of my contemporaries to transition to true adulthood, the point at which I stopped blaming my parents. This perhaps contributes to my strong desire to think of myself as a particularly good mother and I have always pumped my kids for dirt about their friend's moms, hungry for choice examples of mothering inferior to my own. Having recently, for example, left a sixteen year old essentially alone for over a week and consented to an unsupervised teenage party, the pickins' are usually quite slim. With Spud's employer, my contempt fomented by my jealousy at her professional position, I've hit pay dirt.

Spuds is typically greeted by the boys running away from him as rapidly as they can. I proffer diagnoses. Autism. Aspergers. Dyslexia. Aphasia. Spuds rolls his eyes and says that their resistance to completing homework is attributable only to their hostility for their control freak mother who arrives at their school, where Spuds works with them, and interrogates Spuds fiercely about the completion of every speck of homework. The kids have no video games or television so it seems to Spuds that a little homework might even break the tedium of home but if Twinmom's regular backpack excavation reveals a stray assignment Spuds receives a strongly worded text.

Spuds requests an afternoon off to catch up on his own homework, and offers to put in some extra time the next day. He reads me Twinmom's snippy response stating that the boys have homework due every day but we agree it it might be ill-advised to send the response: “I have homework due every day too. BITCH!” Spud's does go to tutor the boys and stays up late to complete his own work. He knows from listening to his dad gripe and hanging out at mom's office that often in the course of earning a living we have to kowtow to people who in real life we would assiduously avoid. Plus, Spuds has decided that he prefers the garments of Urban Outfitters to the Target store brands and sibling hand-me-downs that his mother provides.

Spuds texts Twinmom that he has to leave for a rehearsal and that one of the boys will need to spend a few minutes on an incomplete assignment when he gets home. Twinmom texts back furiously that this is impossible because after dinner the children have to play with their kitten. Spuds screams at his cell phone and I note that some psychiatrist will probably name a yacht after this family...”but,” I start to add. Spuds interrupts me by holding his palm in “halt” position. He finishes my sentence. “Take the money.”

Friday, October 21, 2011

Seeds of Change

I wrote lots here about ceaseless visits to the Department of Motor Vehicles with number one son, who like his mother, encountered some hurdles on the path to becoming a licensed driver. Now it seems like the boy has been driving forever and when he leaves for college I am demoted back to chauffeur duty for Spuds who it seems has an inordinate number of places to go. When it is determined that proximity to my office is insufficient reason for him to remain at the behemoth and miserable Marshall High School Spuds is told that he can return to the far flung charter in Pasadena with the proviso that he become self transporting as soon as possible.

I hadn't hustled Spuds off to the DMV when he is first eligible for a learning permit at age 15 ½, thinking he'd be at school near my office. He is fully 16, plus three weeks, on the day of his appointment. I navigate the Lincoln Heights office like a pro. I know the short cut and the location of street parking. I have our documents in perfect order. I quiz Spuds on the sample test and he seems to have mastered the material. I am chill and thinking maybe that history won't repeat itself. Spud's number is called and the clerk is astoundingly spaced out and wearing the tightest pair of black spandex pants I have ever seen. I presume that processing a learner's permit is not outside of the usual parvenu of clerical functions but our lady is utterly stymied and asks other employees for assistance, which is provided, albeit noticeably grudgingly, several times. She remonstrates me and says I shouldn't let Spuds drive until he is eighteen and asks for payment twice and glares at me suspiciously when I tell her that I've already paid.

The application is finally complete and Spuds is sent to be photographed and tested. His hair is sticking up and I feel bad that he'll be stuck indefinitely with this photo but I keep my mouth shut. He passes the exam and is issued a permit. He notices his name is spelled incorrectly and returns to the window. The application is voided and then corrected and he is photographed again before I get a chance to address the cowlick. We are almost home when he notices that his permit indicates that he is a female. We return to the DMV. The original clerk chastises Spuds, who being stressed out about the pending test, did not check the application for errors, She tells Spuds he'll have to return another day and begin the whole application process again but a supervisor steps in and helps a different clerk override the archaic software. They spend about forty five minutes processing the application manually during which time I am able to discreetly smooth Spud's hair with some spit. He notices himself that the third photograph is far superior.

We are encouraged to fill in a complaint form and I get the impression that there have been other issues with the befuddled clerk. I describe her incompetence but do not mention the camel toe. I request an additional form to file a compliment for the two employees who take it upon themselves to rectify the problem and commend their courtesy and professionalism. It seems labor unions make it just as difficult to acknowledge a superior employee as to fire an incompetent one. Unions still play the proletarian card and have concertedly maintained visibility within the Occupy Movement. The embrace of the Occupy Movement may just be a smokescreen to conceal organized labor's culpability for the number of politicians who are beholden to union coffers. Still, there is a ton of documentation, particularly in the food service industry, that workers who are not protected by a union are exploited appallingly. It is unfortunate that the funds and energy that are expended ostensibly for the protection of selected groups of workers can't be spread equally to insure the protection of all employees. I am unsure about the future of organized labor in this country but I do know with great certainty that lessening government regulation of business does not bode well at all for union members and non-members alike.

Finally, Spuds has a legitimate and accurate learner's permit and the ramifications of this start to sink in. I love it that his older brother can drive and I have availed myself of this as much as possible often as shamelessly as “Go pick up a gallon of milk so I can remain prone on the sofa watching Teen Mom.” My mother admonished me to drive safely even when she no longer remembered my name. I doubt I will ever be at perfect peace when I know that one of my sons is behind the wheel of a car. I remember squeezing the shoulder harness strap until I lost feeling in my hand while practicing with my previous student driver and here I am again. I do love the freedom of not having to transport them hither and yon but I dread hours in the passenger seat training another new driver and the doubling of the “kid out driving among the potentially insane” angst after he gets his license.

Joe College returns for the celebration of his 19th birthday for which we will use a Groupon and not buy his preferred Baskin Robbins Ice cream cake because the icing has the mouth feel of Crisco. I still can't get used to the table set with only three places. When Spuds starts motoring the house will be even emptier and I won't be able to beg him as frequently to neglect his homework and watch TV with me. While I am a prime candidate for major maladjustment to empty nest it does warm me to witness the satisfaction and increased self confidence they reap from their growing independence. When I dropped the boy at college I was elated but felt also an undercurrent of fear about what will await him in four years. I envisioned him returning defeated, with a degree, debt and no prospects, to Casamurphy like so many of my friends' kids who have ended up back at home post-graduation. Now I'm a bit more sanguine as it seems the world is waking up to what's really wrong. The message widely disseminated and is apparently sinking in, proving that Facebook is good for more than stalking ex-boyfriends and looking at cute pet tricks.

The boy's birthday present is a contraption that will play the hundreds of our old vinyl records that he rescued from our garage sale and transfer them to his I-Pod. The boy is cynical about the newly burgeoning protest movement and while he is mad about vinyl he is unsentimental about schlepping back to Redlands crates of the same records I dragged there when I started college myself. I don't really miss albums. They scratch and warp and take up a lot of space although I did gift a comedian friend with the observation that it is difficult to clean a lid on an MP3. I hauled my records and stereo to college in 1974. The Vietnam War had just ended, largely due to a grassroots protest movement similar in origin and spirit to the Occupiers. We met every Wednesday at Johnston College for community meetings. We'd ended a war. Well, in truth it was folks a bit older than I was, although having co-opted their fashion sense and music so I thought I could take credit for the war too. We thought we could do anything and that what we said was important. During the eighties I was embarrassed by this hubris but having a kid who feels ineffectual and hopeless I guess it wasn't really so bad to feel that way. I hope my son's sense of possibility is kindled. I've tried talking to him about the significance of the Occupy movement and how genuine change could brighten his own future but as a parent I have no credibility. Maybe some of my old Dylan and Phil Ochs albums will do the trick. If nothing else he'll make the discovery that marijuana used to come with seeds.

Friday, October 14, 2011


I visit Occupy L.A.and while the message is muddled, the assembled masses and the mastery of social media give me a major rush. The closest occupiers come to a unifying issue is disgust with banks but a virtually unregulated financial industry is the consequence of the repeal, in 1999, during the Clinton administration, of the 1933 Glass–Steagall Act which prohibited any one institution from acting as any combination of an investment bank, a commercial bank, and an insurance company. This enabled the greedy money brokers who crashed the mortgage industry. Conservative pundits on Fox News shrilly demand less government regulation. It's no wonder as this has certainly paid off for them. Fox News itself exists and is able to disseminate disinformation due to the deregulating Telecommunications Act of 1996, passed under the aegis of Bill Clinton, which allowed for cross media ownership. Because there is no limit to the number of media outlets that a single corporation can control, most Americans now get news that's skewed and filtered to serve the interests of a corporate behemoth. Last year the Supreme Court gave another huge boost to corporate hegemony by ruling in favor of the Koch Brother's PAC Citizen's United, agreeing that restricting corporate political contributions is a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. An article in the New Yorker “State for Sale” is a wonderful and sickening illustration of how this has played out in North Carolina.

The Occupy movement has been more peaceful than the antecedent civil rights and anti-war movements. The Los Angeles City Council passed, unanimously, a proclamation supporting the demonstration and a number of unions have a big presence. It is certainly favorable to have this support but I can't help but question the sincerity. Maybe the politicians and unionistas are just bet hedging as a buffer from scrutiny, as it appears that the times may finally be a changin.' Political and union participation in the Occupy movement might indeed stifle any discussion of publicly funded elections, which based on where we are now, seem to be an essential ingredient for a true democracy. The legislative and executive branches stand, if the civil rights and anti-war movements are any example, to be altered by the seeds the Occupy Movement are propagating but the judicial arm is (almost) forever. The court as a whole is among of the most conservative in American history and also one of the youngest; the average age of the current justices is 53 so probably, unless there's some sort of global pandemic, there isn't going to be a lot of turnover.

Twenty years ago this week we toured the Gold Rush Country in a rental car listening to the unprecedented senate confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas which inspired several seasons of Long Dong Silver Jokes on SNL. Despite Anita's Hill's testimony, Thomas was confirmed. Joe Biden led the confirmation committee and he elected not to call witnesses who were willing to corroborate Hill's claims that Thomas was a sleazy perv. Thomas, who has always been virulently opposed to Affirmative Action and has often expressed his contempt for Yale Law School, claiming his admission there was mere tokenism, played the black card and responded, “...from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.” However perhaps he made an even bigger footprint on the landscape by claiming to have no opinion about Roe vs. Wade and other controversial issues that boded for the court. Thomas set a new precedent for court nominees, “taking the 5th” on inquiries regarding judicial philosophy during confirmation hearings.

Thomas was nominated by Bush the Elder to replace retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only African-American justice on the Court. Thomas was considered the only viable conservative black candidate even though he had never written a legal book or article and had served as a judge for only sixteen months . The American Bar rating of Thomas was the least favorable of any confirmed nominee since the Eisenhower era. Candidates are almost always rated “well qualified” but Thomas was rated only “qualified” by a 13 to 2 vote.

Thomas is considered to be one of the most conservative justices in the history of the court, an “originist” who sees that his responsibilty is only to literally interpret the Consititution regardless of the relevancy, and feels strongly that the court should play no role in the creation of social policy. Thomas' opinion on whether lethal injection consitutes cruel and unusual punishment reads, as Jeffrey Toobin refers to it, “like a slasher movie.” Thomas states that the provision must be “understood in light of the historical practices that led the Framers to include it in the Bill of Rights.” He cites all manner of 18th century execution methods like burning at the stake, gibbeting, and “embowelling alive” as being what the framers meant by “cruel and unusual” and implying that our modern methods of execution are quite civilized.

Justices Thomas and fellow ultra-conservative Antonin Scalia appear to be in the pocket of the Koch brothers. Thomas denied his affiliation with their Federalist Society but his financial report reveals that they reimbursed him for four days of “transportation, meals and accommodations” over the weekend of a retreat. Justices are free to lecture and attend seminars but they are prohibited from engaging in partisan activities. The Koch shindig in Palm Springs, also attended by Scalia, and billed as “an opportunity to review strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it,” doesn't sound very non-partisan.

Clarence Thomas's integrity is also questionable in other areas. He neglected to report income his wife Jinni earned as a lobbyist for the conservative Heritage Foundation. Between 2003 and 2007, Ginni earned $686,589 and Thomas failed to note the income in his Supreme Court financial disclosure forms for those years, instead checking a box labeled "none" for "spousal non-investment income." He did file amended disclosures but it is puzzling that 689k would slip his ostensibly great mind. Jinni Thomas is now campaigning fervently against President Obama's national heath care plan and there is pressure on Thomas to recuse himself from the pending case although he has indicated he doesn't consider hearing the case a conflict of interests.

If the Occupy Movement sows a more compassionate government and is a catalyst for a more equitable tax structure and reform of the financial industry it will have conquered a lot. I hope the dialogue branches out to include our scanty regulation of giant corporations and the beholdeness of our politicians to them. The Supreme Court is quite an obstacle however. A justice can be removed from the court for a criminal offense but it has never happened. In 1804 an attempt was made to impeach Justice Samuel Chase, one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence for his “Federalist leanings” but he was acquitted and continued to serve. In 1957, at the peak of McCarthyism, there was a movement that emanated from the South to impeach Earl Warren, Hugo Black and other liberal justices on the grounds that they were communist sympathizers but this never amounted to much more than a few billboards.

It is unlikely the Clarence Thomas, or any other member of the Court will be found guilty of a crime severe enough to provoke an impeachment hearing so we may be condemned for decades to a one of the most conservative courts in history. This is particularly distressing when this year's docket includes cases not only pertinent to national healthcare coverage but also the right to marriage and immigration enforcement. Anthony Kennedy is considered a swing voter, although more often than not his decisions reflect a conservative sensibility. The Supreme Court may be a genuine impediment to the return to a government that is truly for the people but there are tent cities all over the country that I hope herald the end of apathy and feelings of hopelessness. The Judicial Branch is probably beyond the realm of possibility but there are other channels. Let's hope the occupiers get the message that Wall Street is just the tip of the iceberg.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, October 7, 2011

Cheap Spate

My mother was a coupon fanatic. Before they were bar-coded she would sneak coupons that had expired or for products she hadn't purchased into the giant stack she foisted over to the checker at the Ralph's (double coupons!). On April Fool's Day once I had a friend call her pretending to be the Ralph's manager and ordering her to cease and desist with the coupon shenanigans. She hung up in his face and took her business to Von's. Mom always kept a special stack of things she accumulated waiting for me on Fulton Ave. There were samples, junk mail and coupons which I'd sneak around the side of her house and dump in the recycling. I knew that my parents thrifty habits were a result of coming up during the depression. Up until a couple of years ago our income increased a bit each year and we assumed that this would always be the case. We discovered with a big bang that it is not. The new frugality has become tres chic but for us it's a necessity.

While I don't clip coupons from the newspaper I get a thrill when Fresh & Easy and Costco coupons arrive in the mail. I'm an avid user of Groupons and the similar Amazon connected program called Living Social. I pick up ten buck Groupons for a lot of neighborhood ethnic places which are great for the kids to use. I also purchase Groupons for a few sit down restaurants for family outings. I snatch a Groupon to an Indian restaurant in Pasadena after confusing the name with one we'd been to before and liked but it turns out to be a different one. Why are there so many Indian restaurants in Pasadena?

Spuds and I head to Akbar in Old Town on the day the Groupon expires. I suspect a crowd on the last day the coupon's good so we arrive before 6 p.m. and snag the last table in the house. The lady at the next table starts talking about the death of Steve Jobs and says she is waiting for her son and seeing Spuds says that it must be a mother-son dinner night which conjures the “Motherboy” episode of Arrested Development. Her son arrives, a big blond brute, much older than Spuds and he demands vegetarian food prepared without onions and not hot. He orders, “mango milk” and when the waitress suggests he means “mango lassi,” he snarls, “whatever.” When the food arrives he asks if there's some sort of sauce for it, maybe curry but not spicy,” and becomes sulky when the waitress says that they only have chutney which has chile. I think I got the better deal in the son department. By the time we finish eating there is a long line out the door. It was obvious that the staff is slammed and it takes quite a long time to get the food, which is edible but average. I paid $20.00 for a $45.00 Groupon. From what I understand, Groupon gets about half of that so the restaurant take is about $10.00. The staff works their tails off and the till is probably empty at evenings' end.

Groupon is one of the fastest growing companies in history and a spectacular IPO was anticipated. I would be very surprised, now that the data is in, if the stock offering actually comes to pass. I have picked up a few Groupons for places I know and like and would return to regardless. Most of the others were for restaurants that have decent reviews on Chowhound or Yelp. I purchased one for a natural foods market that I found to have grossly inflated prices and complained to Groupon and promptly got a full refund. With regard to the untried restaurants, I enjoy the cheap meals but have no incentive to return and pay full price when I can just use another Groupon for another new place. I think a lot of merchants participating in these coupon offers aren't building from them the loyal following they'd expected. Research shows that Grouponers also tend to be Yelpers. Perhaps it's due to mediocrity, or maybe the surge of customers a Groupon creates overwhelms a restaurant and food and service fall apart, but there is a definite correlation between Groupon offers and negative Yelp reviews.

I'm not sure how long Groupon, at least as it is now, will last but to my kids Groupons are more familiar tender than the green stuff. I was derisive about my mother's use of coupons but my own kids are accustomed to relying on Groupons and it is normal to be thrust one when they ask for clothes, shoes, electronic and food items. They are also used to helping me split orders at the Fresh & Easy so I can make use of additional $10.00 coupons for $50.00 purchases. There are usually union representatives in front of the Eagle Rock store. Fresh & Easy is owned by the huge British conglomerate Tesco. The union states that they have an employee majority in favor of joining the United Food and Commercial Workers Union but Fresh & Easy claims their workers are happy and has one standing in a kelly green Fresh & Easy shirt at the door, right next to the union organizers, handing out $5 coupons. While my parents were paragons of thrift, neither would ever cross a picket line. They were pretty apolitical but I think the legend of the Triangle fire and other labor horror stories recounted by their elders insured that their generation of Jews were unquestioning union sympathizers.

Unfortunately, I am able to stretch my own food budget by shopping pretty exclusively at non-union purveyors because the prices are dramatically lower. I feel guilty to some extent but I also can't ascribe to my parents' blind obeisance because it has become clear that the efficacy of unions is now suspect as they wield, and frequently abuse, so much political power. That said, I wish all workers in the U.S. had the same protection that most unions afford their members.

My sister and I resented my parents parsimony and our attitudes about money were definitely shaped by this. The economy ebbed and flowed while I was growing up but my dad's business seemed to improve continually and my mom got a raise once or twice a year so it seemed silly that they'd drive an extra mile to save a penny a gallon on gas or rush to arrive in time for early bird specials. My own kids weigh even the smallest expenditure. They've seen their dad become a wreck as his employer downsizes personnel and relentlessly heaps more and more work on the remaining staff. They've seen me lay off employees who've been with me for decades and are as close as family. They are well aware that we are more fortunate than most but after witnessing our insecurity over the last few years there's nothing to make them believe that it's going to get better.

The conservative press has made light of the Occupy Wall Street protests and nationwide spin-offs, blowing the movement off as a rudderless pothead blip on the radar. Joe College indicates that some of his fellow students will be camping out over this holiday weekend at City Hall and I ask if he's going himself. He says those things never do any good and I tell him that those things stopped a war and while he didn't rush out to the garage for his sleeping bag, at least he chewed that around some.

It is Erev Yom Kippur and the beginning of my annual 24 hours without coffee draws nigh. I will attend services, perhaps accompanied by grumbling members of my family or perhaps as a solo agent. This is the day when if we come clean, and not just about our own shortcomings but on behalf of the whole community, we get sealed in the Book of Life for another year. In the middle of the whole shebang there is a Yitzkor service when we remember the souls of the dead. I'll try to catch the sermons and reflect on my many shortcomings as well as society's but this year, as part of the 99% and the mother of cynical children, the figurative beating of my breast feels inadequate. I live in a country where 1% of the population control more than 38% of the wealth and the chasm bodes only to grow larger as health, education and other social welfare programs are decimated. I will go to services, more than likely alone, but I hope my prayers and meditations are a springboard for some action that will counter my children's cynicism. This seems like a more fitting way to honor the dead than reading names off a memorial board and chanting the Kaddish. I'll break the fast with a cup of coffee so big I'll have to take a Xanax before bed. Then I'll join my work weary husband and my soon to be less cynical children for a break-the-fast meal. Thank God I have a Groupon.

L'Shanah Tova, Shabbat Shalom and Power to the People

Friday, September 30, 2011

Name That Tune

It is the first anniversary of my mother's death. Her material bequest to me is a few pieces of 50s furniture that Himself hates and a mountain of ephemera I culled down to a couple boxes of correspondence and photos strongboxed in the garage. I am finishing a manuscript about my childhood and this is what I consider my mother's true legacy to me. Mom doesn't come off too well sometimes in my description of my life before college and a lot of the response I've gotten to the writing is of the “Gosh, I never knew you had it so hard” variety. For me, with the telling of the story, it has become way less hard to think about those years and also clearer that my mother loved me fiercely.

Mom never really knew what it was she wanted or how to go about getting what she thought she wanted. She yearned to be admired and resented that her beauty was not the key to the kingdom. Some of her conduct was so outrageous that it's laughable and there are parts of the book she definitely wouldn't like very much. But I think too that she would glean from between the lines my gratitude at having had a mother who was able to fend off mortal blows by cracking wise. Having inherited Mom's mordant humor, I take delicious delight in chronicling her bad behavior. Throughout my life my mother was bitter that she wasn't a fairy princess and this was exacerbated by my own lack of the characteristics that she thought would insure me a life of ease. My failure to fulfill her archaic expectations broke her heart but she never gave up on me and scrupulously saved every word I wrote to her and many boxes of my childhood artifacts.

Joe College came home the first few weekends to assuage his culture shock. I think now he would be fine spending a weekend on campus but there are holidays and social obligations that will require his presence home just about every weekend for the next few months. This coming and going is hard on me as it seems like every Monday I have to get used to him being gone all over again. Again, I remember how clueless my own parents usually were to what made me tick, but his transition to college isn't, from my own vantage point, what I'd anticipated. I'd expected, after attending small charter schools that sometimes weren't as challenging as they could have been, that he might find the coursework a bit overwhelming but it seems that he is stimulated, working hard and doing well. I'd also assumed that having been a popular, outgoing theater kid for as long as he can remember that he'd immediately ferret out suitable friend candidates and be surrounded by a genial posse as he's been at home. He has reports about interesting students but doesn't seem to have really clicked with anyone yet.

I floundered myself the first year and pretty much felt like a loser but I pretty much was a loser when I arrived at college and my son has always been more adept at forging and nurturing friendships. After barely seeing him for five minutes the whole summer he calls frequently now about inconsequential things and I don't think I'm imagining a neediness. Part of me wants to say, “We were wrong. You aren't ready for this. I'm not ready for this. Come home.” But, when he is at home there is a maturity and reasonableness about him and I guess, unlike his mother, he is realistic in knowing that starting college is inevitably a challenging transition and he's confident that he will get through it.

I take the boys and their friend who persists in calling me “Mrs. Murphy” even though I've told him that this is kiss-ass, to the Hollywood Bowl for a five band concert featuring TV on the Radio. I fancy myself the hip parent at these things but there are a number of soul patched, balding dads in Hawaiian shirts. One of the rare moms sports a spray-on tan, ratted hair and a ripply butt crammed in Forever 21 leggings. I suppose my gray frizz and $7 prescription glasses make my own oldness just as conspicuous. The opening band, Smith Western plays pleasant Beatlesque tunes. They are very young and the Bowl is nearly empty for their set but they play earnestly and energetically. The next band, Warpaint, is the revelation of the evening. I presumed that the all female band was British because they remind me of another sophisticated girl band “Electrelene” but it turns out they're from L.A. It pains me, that while there female classical performers, women are under-represented in rock'n'roll. The members of Electrelene are all trained classical musicians and it shows in rock that has a discipline, elegance and is distinctly feminine. Testosterone seems to be a key ingredient in “below the waist”music and I guess it's tougher to tap the feminine counterpart. Warpoint isn't sugary but a satisfying sweetness rises from the darkness they fearlessly embrace.

The next act is Panda Bear—Noah Lennox, also a founder of Animal Collective. The sound is sacred/ electronic-meandering but intense. The yearning in Lennox's voice is raw and moving. Half of the crowd is entranced and the other half are waiting for the Arctic Monkeys. This hugely successful British band is the odd man out of this lineup and disruptive to the flow. In Britain people of all ages dance in pubs to pleasant but non-edgy pop like Elton John and Rod Stewart. The Arctic Monkeys are a good workaday and dance in the pub band but seem outclassed by the other acts. The portion of the crowd that is there only to see the Arctic Monkeys grow frenzied, evoking comparisons to Beatle and Biebermania, and then leave en masse after the set. The band is tight but the songs are predictable and the affected pugnacity of the lead singer is grating.

Tunde Adebimpe, the front man of TV on the Radio was born in Nigeria but raised near Pittsburgh. He worked as an animator at MTV and acted and sang in the film Rachel Getting Married. Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel are obvious influences but the layered music is a hybrid born of lots of eclectic listening and not public radio bland eclectic. The best songs have a driving urgency that builds you up to near bursting. I am very self conscious about embarrassing my children when I appear with them in public so I have always refrained from dancing at concerts but the boys leap out of their seats for the particularly infectious song “Wolf Like Me” and soon we are all moving with the music and there are no dirty looks.

Emboldened by having danced without incurring censure or vomit I start a conversation with strangers which is usually even more taboo than sending food back at a restaurant. We are filing out of the Bowl and there is a promo for an upcoming Bob Mould tribute and a cute girl asks her friend who Bob Mould is and I snap “Husker Du! Seminal punk band,” and some wiseguy behind me corrects my use of a short “u” in Husker. Spuds does admit subsequently to being the pedant who corrected my pronunciation of Husker Du. I blame his father. The girls are sweet, adorable and say they loved the show but that they thought the Arctic Monkeys played too long and I say that any Arctic Monkeys are too many in my book and they interrogate me about what I do like. Mr. College, instead of finding a rock to crawl under joins in the conversation and doesn't even give me the stinkeye when I ask their ages. They are 28 and too old for the boy but both weigh in positively as to his cuteness. I realize that now I am really able only to accurately estimate the age of people who are my age or older. The girls tell my sons their mom is cool and my jaw drops when the boys agree. One girl reports that her mom listens to the Mamas and the Papas. I proffer that I'm sure she has other good qualities and bask in a rare moment when my own kids recognize one of mine.

Spud's father will read here for the first time that in the anxiety of the big school change, Spud's IPod Nano-the size of a postage stamp-has gone missing. Fortunately a bit of manipulation of cell phone upgrade eligibility and some financial contributions by wage earner Spuds will rectify the problem when the new IPhone model is released in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, we make the long drive to Pasadena with my Droid and we take turns choosing tunes. He shares the upbeat electronica of Biblio and I play him some Sparklehorse and we are stunned by the shimmering beauty of the music, even more poignant as frontman Mark Linkous took his own life last year.

I've saved a small box of the kids artwork and letters but I am nowhere near the archivist my own mother was. I figure that an edited collection of well chosen items will suffice. I think the kids will be glad I'm not leaving them a mountain of crap to sort through like my mom left me. After I'm gone I'm sure they'll tell funny stories about my myriad neuroses that I wouldn't find particularly amusing but I know too that every so often they'll hear a glimmer of some music that we shared and be reminded for a moment of their mother's fierce love.

Shabbat Shalom and L'Shana Tova