Friday, December 7, 2012

We All Do Better When We All Do Better

Without kids to micromanage and playing the Hebraic persuasion card to avoid Christmas excess and hubbub I find, for once, a dearth of personal problems to moan about. So, instead, although the insightful and pessimistic Himself will undoubtedly find my observations simplistic and Pollyanna-ish, I'll tell you what's wrong with the world. First of all, I don't wake up in a cold sweat worrying about the national deficit. We take on huge debt when we purchase a home but if we if we manage our money wisely and keep the property in decent condition this is inevitably a good investment. Often the equity homeowners have in a property help their kids purchase their own homes. We shouldn't be so terrified about investing in our children and their children.

Having faith in future generations' ability to manage the debt they inherit does not mean at all that we shouldn't aspire to bust up the oligarchy and make sure that the super rich pay their fair share of taxes. It's time to figure out an end to the political Catch 22 that makes it impossible for any candidate to prevail without big bucks from groups or individuals buying largesse for their own special interests. There was a modest proposition on the California ballot two years ago that outlined experimental public funding for a small number of state elections. Big business made sure this didn't pass. But a smattering of grass roots campaigns have been successful even though the causes were not friendly to monied special interests. If a clear explanation of why publicly funded elections would be preferable and how they would work was widely disseminated I imagine that most voters would see the light. Particularly if the public was reminded that over 2 billion dollars were spent by the Obama and Romney campaigns.

I'm not sure how one would go about organizing a grassroots organizing campaign to promote compassion. I was saddened but also fascinated that a ballot initiative to abolish capital punishment in California did not pass. The initiative was of course underfunded and the one TV spot they were able to pony up for was the testimony of a former death row inmate who'd been exonerated by virtue of DNA evidence. I saw the spot and knew immediately that a simple graphic stating only that the death penalty costs California 184 million dollars a year would have been much more effective.

Romney was caught off the record attributing his loss to ne'er-do-wells trying to protect their free stuff. It is remarkable how much disdain many of our wealthy have for the less fortunate. Most western European countries have pretty much eliminated poverty and yet the rich are still rich (enough). We awoke and discovered that manufacturing has dried up in the U.S. Our educational system has declined and even if it were properly funded there is no real clear vision as to what we should be actually educating people to do. Even with Obamacare, health services, particularly mental heath, will be limited not only because of exorbitant costs but also a shortage of providers. Approximately 53% of recent college graduates are underemployed or unemployed yet there are kids failing in schools, people sleeping in the streets and thousands languishing in prisons. Technology indeed has eliminated many jobs but we've done little to redirect our workforce towards work that augments technology and requires compassion and creativity.

Spud's school is unable to afford a language instructor so he has to take Spanish independently from an online program offered by Brigham Young University. It is terrible and while he might be able to eke out the course credits he needs, he will never be comfortable speaking a word of Spanish. Technology creates wonderful possibilities for education but research on how it can be used effectively is pathetically underfunded. Teacher training hasn't really kept pace with technological advances and the integration of computers into the classroom does not necessarily correlate with better instruction.

We don't need our kids at home in the summer to harvest our crops. We live decades longer then the denizens of the 18th century yet we still ascribe to their educational model. Teachers are viewed by many as coddled babysitters. Why does high school have to arbitrarily end at age 18? Why are those who are failed by our traditional system and seek remediation at adult school programs deemed less worthy of having a subsidized education than younger kids?

Human resources are being shamefully squandered. It's time to rethink what education should mean in the 21st century. How do we build a workforce that is proficient in the specific people skills that elude technology? How can we envision educational priorities that actually support making people's lives better instead of making things? Romney isn't the only American who writes off the struggling as lacking in character. No one sets out to fail but we conflate success with wealth and define values as that in which we personally believe. The educated among us scrape and claw and adroitly work the system on behalf of our own children. Is it any wonder that the children of less sophisticated parents, stuck in an archaic labyrinth simply give up? We take the lazy way out when we presuppose a lack of character. When there actually is a lack of character we need the courage and compassion to take that on too. We have the resources. We just need to allocate better and keep in mind that there are deficits a lot more scary than monetary.

I'm one of those moms who worked the system on behalf of my own kids. I feel shame when I admit that this was inevitably at the expense of others. I would have done nothing differently but atone with tiny contributions towards a future when there is enough to go around. My older son loves college and I believe he will use what he learns there to do well in the world. Spuds too seems to be panning out in the mensch department. He will likely attend Bard College which is pretty hoity toity and has a mile long list of illustrious faculty and alums. Himself and I got a little squirmy in this rarefied atmosphere of the parents session until the provost addressed the school's commitment to social responsibility. “We are,” she explained, “a private institution dedicated to the public good.” It seemed then to be a better fit.

Wishing you all some quality time with those you love and also out in the world during this season when we remember miracles.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Special Edition

Call me smug and superior but I feel thankful every single day. Thanksgiving is just the year's best opportunity to quantify my thankfulness with off the charts caloric value. I get up early to start cooking and set the table.  We’re having a small gathering this year. The kids will linger around the kitchen, trying to snatch a taste of something when I’m not looking.  Much of the menu can't be prepared in advance and I’m in the steam of it all day.  I go upstairs to shower before the guest arrive. The explosive aroma doesn't really hit me until I return to the kitchen.  The kids grouse about peeling potatoes but it is pro forma.  The potato job signifies that the meal is imminent. Spuds (the tuber—not the boy) will be boiled, pushed through a ricer and then slathered with cream and butter, just like my mother taught me. Although, if he doesn't clean up his friggin' room it might be tuber AND boy.

 My mom was only interested in dessert. She started clearing plates when you were only a few bites in. At my house we take our time, don’t save room for dessert, but eat it anyway. Perhaps my mom behaved badly at every Thanksgiving she attended at my house because she missed getting well deserved accolades for food well prepared.  I do love it when every dish comes out perfectly and people eat happily.  I have retired after twelve years running concessions for Children’s Theater.  I am disappointed when my offer to help out for a night or two is rebuffed.  When I attend the play myself and notice that the concessions set up has a completely different face, I annoy Himself with a litany of criticisms.  I do not miss the work, which is tantamount to setting up a small business twice a year, but I do miss being appreciated.

The essay submitted with Spud's college applications described Luke, a boy at school who was considered troublesome.  Staff and students kept their distance.  Spuds discovered Luke’s extraordinarily sophisticated tastes in music.  Luke had a great ear and his observations were articulate. They burned CDs for each other and shared music magazines. Spuds wrote in his college admission essay that the “can’t judge a book by its cover” revelation about Luke was influential in his creation of believable teenage characters for a play he wrote under the aegis of a teen playwriting mentorship. 

The good news from Bard letter comes in thick red folder with gold embossed “Congratulations.”  Spud's play debuts the following night.  He is anxious, having missed a number of rehearsals due to his trip to New York. Opening night at the children’s theater is fraught anyway with the high anxiety of fifty teenagers and their parents.  Spuds is to perform in the one act he’s written and also star in another one act that's being presented.  Just before curtain Spuds gets a text message informing him that Luke is dead, a suicide. Spuds gets through his performance.  I am so devastated by his loss that when he gets home I am ineffectual and as broken up as he is.

Spuds attended the funerals of both of his grandfathers.  He was old enough to remember both of them. He was truly saddened by these deaths but neither was a surprise. Old men dying fits in with the universal order.  The loss of a 16 year old friend due to suicide is Spud's first real slap of how truly fucked up the world can be.  Spuds delivers a eulogy. He paints a warm portrait of the troubled boy.  He notes that his essay about Luke was probably instrumental in cinching his own admission to college.  He concludes that he will benefit from the positive force of his friendship with Luke for the rest of his life.   I cannot imagine anything better for the young man’s parents to hear but I don't imagine that they are able to drink it in.  The Unitarian minister, a Garrison Keiller sound-alike, tells me the Spud’s tribute to Luke was beautiful.  He sighs then and wipes his brow. “God, how I hate this.” He puts his hand on my shoulder and looks me hard in the eye.  “Keep him close,” he admonishes. 

Spuds might not be with us next Thanksgiving as most kids fly home from the East Coast for Christmas break. Two round trips will likely not be feasible. Number one son is bringing a college friend from Connecticut, a freshman, and probably away from his own family for the first time.  I want the kids to grow up and have their own lives. But even before the death of Spud's friend I never feel completely settled and at ease unless both of them are physically present. I don't expect to recover from my near constant fretting about the sprats. My mother in her final days forgot my name but even her rotting brain didn't lose the sense memory of her love for me. Her ramblings grew more and more inchoate but whenever I kissed her goodbye she said, “drive carefully,” loudly and clearly.

I interpreted my mother's constant fretting about my safety and well being as a lack of confidence in my ability to navigate the world. My kids become more and more effective navigators. They even demonstrate occasionally that they've actually absorbed stuff I taught them. The minister reminded me to keep them close. Inevitably my opportunities for physical proximity will diminish. I know from my own experience that the expression of my incessant worry will be construed as a lack of faith in their competence. I try to keep my trap shut. I text them a lot.

My brain refuses to shift into neutral and I can't fall asleep. There is rustling downstairs. It is past midnight. The kids and a bunch of friends are in the kitchen making quesadillas. One of the girls is a freshman and has been on campus since August. “It's so nice to be in a house,” she says. “It's great to have real food.” The kids are sweet. I love how easy they are with each other. Even Spuds, who has been so shaken, laughs with his brother and kids around. I can't bottle this but through force of will I'll turn off the “what if?” voice I've honed for fifty five years. I understand and the kids are starting to learn, the world's horrifying capacity for random fucked-upness. I was a few years older than Luke when I felt the weight of a world that had no love for me.  I took a couple fistfuls of pills but providentially a friend found me.  I woke up a week later in a hospital. Even then it took years to feel fortunate to have miraculously awakened.  I will think of Luke's family while I put the finishing touches on our meal.  The world is capricious. Folly.  Bad luck.  Tragedy. Love. Miracles.  Our thankfulness today is ratcheted up by pounds of butter, pints of cream, and a full house.
Wishing you happiness.

Friday, November 9, 2012

That Time of Month

Not writing weekly is maddeningly frustrating and thrillingly liberating. How can I appreciate my life if I don't spend every waking moment mining it for inspiration? How can I appreciate my life if I DO spend every waking moment mining it for inspiration? I worry that the rhythm of devoting most of Thursday and Friday writing is lost now that I've pared down from weekly to monthly postings. Any breach in my rigid self-imposed discipline, be it keeping the house tidy, eating sensibly, walking daily or writing 2000 words a week, suggests always that all is lost. My house will appear on Hoarders. I'll become one of those ladies so obese that they have to hoist her out of bed with a forklift. My brain will turn to such jelly that I won't even be able to compose a shopping list.

Today is my mother's 92nd birthday. She has been dead now for two years. I was on the Ventura Freeway on my way from a meeting. The owner of the board and care called and said that Mom was unresponsive. I didn't get that this was a euphemism. I thought Mom was just lethargic. I said that I was busy but would stop by tomorrow. After her condition was described more bluntly I went to the office. It took me about 15 minutes to make arrangements for cremation and the scattering of ashes at sea. I told the petite ladies at the board and care that they could keep Mom's clothes. My friend Richard stopped by and picked up a small box of photos and knickknacks. I brought flowers and cookies over to the board and care a couple of times. And that was it.

I've spent many thousands of words memorializing my complicated relationship with my mom. She was always proud of me but seldom for things that I was proud about myself. I wonder how she would feel about the manuscript I recently completed. This material is what I consider my inheritance. My mother would likely take exception to my characterization of her as being vain and bitter. But she would revel too to know how much delight I took in her mordant humor. She would be happy and perhaps surprised to learn how very indelibly she is etched on every facet of who I am.

Spuds has applied for an unusual “Immediate Decision” program at Bard College in New York's Hudson Valley. Applicants visit the campus, attend a seminar, are interviewed by an admission counselor and then are notified of their acceptance or rejection within 48 hours. We spring for a trip and arrive in Hurricane Sandy ravaged New York. We rent a car and travel to a bed and breakfast on a pond a couple miles from Bard. Spuds is aware that we are taking a big financial risk although we do try not to rub his nose in it. I explain to him too that it is much easier to be judged myself than to see my kid on the threshold of judgment. He is patient when we yammer on about his interview strategy and readings he was to complete for the seminar. I think back now on how insane we must have been and marvel at the boy's patience.

When Number One Son flew the coop I didn't take it well. He returned from his first year of college and spent an incredibly indolent summer during most of which I felt like throttling him. Nevertheless, when he packed up and took off for his sophomore year I wept when I returned home and the dinner table was set for only three. My eldest is only an hour away from home but Spuds is determined to move across the continent. We help him with his college essays and pay for tutoring to prep him for the ACT test. We travel to New York for the “Immediate Decision” program. I have given my all to help my kid get what he wants. I have never once forgotten though that I don't want him to go.

The school is spectacular. The faculty is renowned. The information session is fascinating. Himself completed his undergraduate work at Loyola, directly in the LAX flight path. Redlands, my own Alma Mater, is not without charm but one has to do far less ferreting there at Bard to drink in the beauty of the environs. If there were a time machine we'd both apply for admission at Bard ourselves, rather than tipping Kennedy off to skip Dallas or killing Hitler. If we are obnoxious before the interview, the things we whisper during and after border on despicable. “Most of the kids are white. There are way more girls. A lot of the kids from California canceled because of the storm. The East Indian girl looks sullen. I hope the admission counselor notices the mom who's wearing real fur.”

Spuds meets a friend from L.A. at the student center. Himself and I wander the campus. Trees still bear red and yellow leaves. The Performing Arts Building is a shimmering Frank Gehry design. The Economics Department is housed in a turn of the century manor. We kill some time in the art gallery. There is an exhibit of student work called “Anti-Establishment” and another of agitprop work by an apparently well known artist. Except for a poor work study student, who sits in one of the galleries reading aloud as part of an exhibit, the museum is pretty empty. This is good because Himself and I are reminded of SNL's “Sprockets” and are both unable to contain derisive laughter. This is the memory we agree to file away in the event that Spuds is rejected for admission.

Having sprung for fare to New York we spend a few days in a microscopic Lower Eastside Apartment. The close proximity to Russ and Daughters, the purveyors of smoked fish; Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery; and Economy Candy is practically my undoing (note forklift concerns above.) We revisit the nearby Tenement Museum. We were there in 1992 when it first opened and we are amazed by the ambitious expansion. Building codes changed in the 1930s and fireproofing was required. Tenement owners in many cases were able to generate sufficient income from street level storefronts and opted not to make these improvements. Residential tenants were evicted and apartments boarded up. The building at 97 Orchard Street was built in 1863 and through the years housed over 6000 different immigrants. Through census records and other research, the lives of several families have been reconstructed and their apartments recreated. My mother lived around the corner on Delancey Street in early childhood. We visit the apartment of a Jewish tailor named Levine. This was my grandmother's maiden name. I know this is a very common Jewish last name but still it makes me feel somehow very connected.

The Museum of the City of New York has a video presentation that traces the city from the infamous $24 in trinkets trade to the present. All compressed into 20 minutes. When I'm not watching Honey Boo Boo I try to imagine the scope of the universe and the beginning and end of time. I struggle with the notion of infinity but neither can I envision any limits to time and space. My forebears walked this same island of Manhattan. My youngest son yearns for these same streets. I have only a glimmer of what went before. I am overwhelmed by the thought of what will come later. Where do I fit when I cannot conceive of a beginning or an end?

Half a pound of Norwegian smoked salmon and a kasha knish distract me from my existential morass. We manage to catch a plane home minutes before a second storm hits and all flights are canceled. I am jet lagged and wake up at 3 in the morning, unable to get back to sleep. I return to the office and learn that the production company we rent half of the building to is moving out. An audiobook I've had on reserve from the library for over six months finally arrives. I eagerly stick in the first disc to discover that the CD player in my car has bit the dust. The trigger for my car alarm disintegrates in my hand.

Spuds meets me at the door. The mail has just arrived. He is accepted to Bard. I sob and wail while I lug in groceries. Himself whispers to Spuds, “Mom's freaking out. Just steer clear of her a while.” Spuds will most likely be heading east in about nine months. He will make visits to Manhattan and while he has yet to develop a taste for smoked fish or knishes, he will undoubtedly walk the same streets as his grandma and her parents and their parents, if not to visit the Tenement Museum, to stock up at Economy Candy.

I prepare him a special omelet the morning after the good news from Bard. I slice turkey bacon into long strips and spell out “BARD” on top. It doesn't come out like I wanted it to but he takes a picture of it. He looks at the crudely formed letters and then at me. “You're lucky I didn't get into Wesleyan.”

Friday, October 5, 2012

When I Was Not Writing

I don't know about you, but I missed me. After having done so weekly for about six years, three weeks have now passed since I've written here. My decision to scale down the blog from weekly to monthly was ostensibly to allow more time for other writing projects. But, except for a couple of postcards, the additional writing I'd envisioned is, as of yet, unwritten. My usual writing days have been spent in Hawaii and then in a dental chair having some teeth yanked. Despite having good excuses it does feel weird not to conclude each Friday by posting a piece of writing.

I bring a manuscript about my family on the plane and get through about a hundred pages of a final edit. I've done lots of piecework but it has been many months since I considered these 160 pages as a whole book. When the plane lands at the Lihue airport I feel the presence of my parents and sister more than I have in a long time. Our trip is to join my niece Cari in celebrating the successful completion of a grueling course of chemo and radio therapy for the treatment of breast cancer. She has rented a large comfortable house right on the ocean, and very eager to please us, has carefully planned an itinerary. Cari is the daughter of my sister Sheri. She was adopted and raised by another family and came back into our lives about thirty years ago. She lives in Gold Rush Country and we only see her and husband Mike a couple times a year. Their daughter Marlene and Kevin join us in Kauai. Now that both of my parents and sister are gone and other relatives have drifted away, my kids, Cari, and Marlene are the only blood relatives I have in my life. I step off the plane with the tale of my parents and sister very fresh and then spend a concentrated few days with my sister's daughter and granddaughter.

Cari and Marlene have felt like family for a long time but it is nearly Gothic, how thrown together in a big house this intensifies. How right it feels to be with people whose mealtime conversation is devoted mainly to planning the next meal. I am hard on my sister Sheri in my manuscript and the time with Cari inspires some adjustments. Sheri loved to eat and she loved to drive. Where I am more conservative and timid, like my Mom, Sheri lived to have fun. There were many times she'd swoop down on Fulton Avenue and rescue me. We'd have a meal and drive around. I am a terrible car passenger, always pounding an imaginary brake until my leg is numb. Sheri, however was an incredibly confident driver. I was always safe when she was behind the wheel. I don't think I'd ever driven with Cari. She's rents a ginormous van and takes us all around the island. She maneuvers it expertly, just like her birth mother Sheri. How grateful I am to have been able to sit in the backseat and totally chill, cruising through some of the most beautiful scenery the planet has to offer.

Himself has covered the Hawaii trip in exquisite detail on his own blog so I haven't much to add except for my own take on the epic kayak trip. We discover we've been enrolled for a prepaid excursion. Himself, having always had a fear of sunshine is stricken and in a state of grim resignation. Anticipating that during five days in Hawaii, particularly as house-guests, it will be difficult for him to avoid the sun as assiduously as he does at home, I purchase Neutrogena 100 SPF Sunblock for him. My beloved pessimist is convinced that the lotion will prove ineffective and he will be hospitalized on life support with third degree burns. Just to make clear that Himself holds no hegemony on neurosis in our relationship, I have a lifelong aversion to any physical activity other than walking on a flat, smooth surface and also to wearing a bathing suit.

Our kayak trip and waterfall hike has been advertised as fine for toddlers and grandmas. My niece Marlene is more than a little pregnant but this too apparently is no counter-indication. The kayaks are unloaded at the pier. Instructions on piloting a kayak are delivered at a speed that would have give a run for the money to that fast talking guy who did the old Fed Ex commercials.

Marlene and I relieve our (pregnant and old, respectively) bladders and some of the kayaks have already launched when we return to the pier. Cari and Mike have already embarked. Instantly, they capsize. The kayak floats down the river and Cari and Mike, up to their necks, tread water. A staff member on the pier muses, “Gosh, we haven't had one tip over in about six weeks.” Marlene's husband Kevin reports, that for him, the image of the calamity that's most resonant is the expression on my face. Himself confesses to me later, that despite his concern about Cari and Mike getting dumped into the river, he harbors a ray of hope that now the whole mission will now be aborted. I am absolutely on the same page.

Cari and Mike are intrepid and undaunted though. I am not being hyperbolic and it has been borne out by experience, again and again; I am the least coordinated person on the planet. Himself, for all his intellectual nimbleness, comes in second. Cari and Mike, who are at least cheerful and enthusiastic about the activity, can't manage to stay afloat. We are so fucking doomed. My inner voice screams, “Moron, just bow out now and you won't die,” but we are guests and I am determined to be a good sport. I am in a bathing suit (God bless Land's End for designing a suit bottom that is closer in design to shorts, not one of those skirt things that bisect your thighs at their flabbiest point) and about to get into a kayak. We have been instructed that the heavier person needs to sit in the back and take responsibility for steering. Guess who that is. Every aspect of this situation is tantamount on the humiliation scale to farting loudly at the communion rail. Himself, who does not pride himself on his athletic prowess and is still almost catatonic in the anticipation of fatal sunburn, is equally glum.

We are guided into the kayak and handed an oar. The little bit of instruction we were able to absorb is mostly misheard and I have the impression that only a portion of the oar is to be immersed in the water. We are stuck in the bushes a number of times. Voices are raised. A fellow kayaker instructs us how to brake. Then, we brake repeatedly and are never able recover any sort of momentum. Marlene and Kevin glide ahead of us. Very soon the six other kayaks in the group have long passed and are out of sight. Only Cari and Mike are behind us, under the close supervision of the leader. They capsize two more times. Cari begs to be allowed to swim and is refused. Mike ends up riding with the leader and Cari and her kayak are towed behind. They are much better sports than we would have been.

The plan is that the brief kayak trip is followed by a short hike to a waterfall. The river seems endless and when we finally reach the trail the other kayakers have been waiting about an hour. The waterfall stroll is actually through pretty dense jungle and requires wading over slippery rocks to cross, what the same people who invited toddlers and grannies refer to as, a “stream.” Again, we are at the end of the pack and require a disproportionate amount of the leader's attention. The leader is a native. She has no body fat that I can discern and is barefoot. I hate her. I suggest on the ride home that anyone so buff and beautiful must be stupid. I am corrected by Mike and Cari, who having spent a lot of time with her as she propelled them up and down the river, learn that by day she teaches Algebra and Music. Two other things I suck at. My antipathy exceeds hated.

The waterfall trek is five miles round trip. Due to klutz-related delays the picnic/waterfall swim portion of the journey is abridged although I do manage to make it over some very treacherous rocks and swim a bit under a waterfall. Himself stays on the shore, drinks a beer and applies another heavy slather of sunblock. The swimming hole risk is totally gratuitous and I am emboldened by having taken the plunge. On the hike back to the river I keep up with the pack by following a young guy and mirroring his every step. Helen Reddy belts “I Am Woman” in the back of my mind.

There are headwinds and the kayak trip back down the river is arduous. We have learned however how to work in rhythm and as exhausting as the return journey is, there are fewer terrifying moments this leg.. We even relax enough to take in the spectacular scenery. We remain behind the others and toward the end fatigue sets in. The pier comes into view and by then we are just too exhausted to steer. The rest of the group think we backed the kayak into the slot on purpose but it is just dumb luck we make it there at all. We never would have agreed to participate in this trip if we'd known what was entailed. But having survived and actually pretty much enjoyed the experience, is a memory I will always cherish. Plus, the sunblock is 100% effective as Himself is still as pasty as ever.

The rest of the trip is less dramatic, having survived the ordeal we happily succumb to good food and beautiful scenery. I return to spend two days in the office and then travel to Loma Linda to have some teeth extracted. This is a few miles from Joe College's college and he is my designated caregiver. He drives me to my motel, fills my prescriptions and picks up provisions for a liquid diet. I am acutely aware of the role reversal and delighted by his graciousness and competence but I keep my trap shut. The boy hates it when I blather on about stuff like that. I spend two nights at the motel. One night actually would have sufficed but as I am unable to wear a front tooth flipper for two days so I decide to lay low. The second day the boy and I do some shopping in Redlands where missing front teeth are less conspicuous.

I guess one good thing about not writing so regularly is that there's more to write about when I do. And when I was not writing I spent time with Cari and her family. I am reminded that the turmoil and grief my sister caused shouldn't overshadow what I loved about her. And when I was not writing Himself and I rowed in rhythm and traversed the jungle, all without sunburn. And when I wasn't writing I was nursed and cared for by my own son. And when I wasn't writing I felt so incredibly lucky that I couldn't wait to return to my keyboard here and express my gratitude.
Shabbat Shalom

Note: Himself is always scrupulous about crediting photos and artwork he uses.  I am too lazy but I will note the photograph I used above, and so many other wonderful family photographs we've treasured over many years, was taken by the talented Mike Maginot.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Accentuate the Obvious

It's a Loma Linda week. My last appointment at the Implant Clinic at the School of Dentistry was comprised of a long photo session. My mouth was pried open with metal hooks and it seems like every one of my teeth was photographed from several different angles. Then I got to pose full face, smiling, pouting and baring my teeth for several dozen pictures. Anna, my lovely Spanish dentist is sensitive to my vanity and apologized for needing to take a number of photographs of me without my fake plastic front tooth. The Mammy Yokum series. This week each of my teeth is analyzed for gum recession and how profusely each tooth bleeds when poked with a sharp instrument. The patient in the next room blathers on in detail about his dental history including where each service was performed and what it cost. “That molar was crowned in Honolulu in 1973. It cost $600.00. Then in 1994 I had to have it done again in Tucson. That ran me almost a grand.” He attempts fruitlessly to explain to his dentist the meaning of the expression “third time's a charm.” My own dentist is quick on the uptake when I introduce her to the English expression “windbag.” “It's a good match,” she says. “That dentist is from Taiwan and he barely knows a word of English.” Other than dissing her colleagues and their patients, we talk about food, as I do also with Nick, my regular dentist. Anna, in fact is a hardcore foodie, having driven to Las Vegas and back in a single evening for what she reports was an outstanding dinner. Nick is very eager for Anna to call him. Not to discuss my treatment plan but so she can tell him the name of the restaurant.

I schedule some extractions for the end of the month. I will be unable to wear my fake front tooth for a couple of days so I will be hiding out at a motel in Redlands with Joe College ministering to me. Anna also drops the bomb that after the actual implants are placed I will be unable to wear fake tooth for at least two weeks. Seeing that I am starting to blubber she promises to try to figure out some sort of fake apparatus that won't interfere with the implants. If that fails I'm considering going Muslim for a couple of weeks.

Dismissed from the dental school I text Joe College to warn him that I'm on my way to campus. I arrive to find his room spotless. Last year's roommate's mom sent a maid down from Pasadena every week but apparently the boy is now managing on his own. The dorm itself is incredibly funky, built in the 1920s and last renovated in the 1970s but there's a good vibe. Most of the kids keep their doors open and wander amiably in and out of each others rooms.

The boy chooses a Thai restaurant that's not particularly good but it's the designated establishment for taking parents. We had an up and down summer due chiefly to the boy's under-occupation. Now however something about being with him, on what is now his turf, improves the quality of our interaction. We are far from the scene of his childhood and free of this baggage there is a pleasant ease between us. My soon to be 20 year old son is an adult, albeit a young adult. I feel no compulsion to parent him and can sit back and just enjoy who he is.

Joe College takes me to place that makes ice cream on the spot using liquid nitrogen. Redlands, utterly instant mashed potatoes, canned gravy and Republican during my tenure there, now has little pockets of hipness. Lest I think it's San Francisco, the boy takes me to the largest thrift store I have ever seen. It's the size of several football fields and well organized. We are both thrift store aficionados but the huge array of merchandise is sad and charmless. The cavernous store evokes the Redlands of my college years and also the essence of the true Redlands, despite the liquid nitrogen, as it is now. There are still blocks of lovely Victorian and 1930s Spanish houses but the orange groves of my own college years have been bulldozed and replaced by acres of identical stucco homes, many now in foreclosure. The boy keeps his eye on the clock. I drop him back on campus and he trots off on time for his afternoon class with my leftover ice cream.

The next night Himself is working. Spuds has a hard schedule and I think he needs a little midweek treat, my rationale for being too lazy to cook dinner. I read on Yelp about a Georgian restaurant in Glendale and we both study the menu online and decide to give it a shot. It's in a strip mall but there's a colorful paint job and lots of folk-art. The only other party is a group of middle aged men who get up between courses to go outside to smoke in the parking lot. The place is run by two middle aged men and a young waitress all of whom are either using their cellphones or smoking in the parking lot when not directly involved in serving food. The waitress teeters on impossibly high heels. She hands us the menus and asks if I speak Russian. “No.” “Armenian?” “No.” She looks annoyed. “Is that OK?” I ask. “Yes. OK,” she says without much conviction. “To drink?” “Diet soda?” “No.” “OK, just water then.” Spuds asks, “Coke?” and she shakes her head. One of the men seems to have a slightly better command of English so I verify with him that there is absolutely no soda. I think about explaining that soda has a huge profit margin. I also think about offering to teach them English. I think a lot of stuff but I've learned to keep my mouth shut.

The food is actually delicious although Spuds gets his entree about twenty minutes before I get mine and he gets my rice and I get his french fries. We are given some complimentary potato salad which I command Spuds not to let me eat much of so he polishes it off dutifully. Spuds notes that the menu is written in flawless English so we think maybe that there are English speaking employees on duty for the more busy weekends. The waitress is flummoxed when I attempt to pay in cash and I can see through the window to the kitchen that there is high tension with regard to making change. Some would probably have found the whole experience crazy making but Spuds and I aren't in a hurry. The enjoyment of the food for us is actually enhanced by the authenticity. Five miles from home but it feels like we've spent an hour in Georgia except for there I imagine people can smoke inside restaurants. So it's kind of the best of both worlds.

I elevate myself from empty nest morass with the realization that my time with the kids will improve in quality as it diminishes in quantity. My other epiphany as a new Jewish year begins is that after six years of writing here religiously it is time to redirect my energies. I love this format and can't imagine abandoning it all together but I'm going to reduce my postings here to once a month. I've proven to myself that I have the self discipline required of a productive writer. The blog is a fantastic format for me because I can sort stuff out. I'm able to weave together disparate ideas into weird sense. Now it's time for the final purge necessary to complete a full length manuscript that's been dogging me for nearly two years. Then I hope to use what I've honed by blogging to take on some more focused non-fiction essays. Plus I have a couple short stories outlined. And of course there's the novel which I'd better get started on while I can still form cogent thoughts.

It always surprises and delights me to tell someone something and get the response “I know. I read your blog.” It's those folks who read weekly, or even once in a while, who make me feel becoming a real writer is within my reach. Next year at Rosh Hashanah Spuds will be away at college. I hope by the time he goes my immersion in writing will fill some of the gaps left by my transition out of the hands-on mom phase of my life. I can't imagine ever not missing the kids but I will always be buoyed by knowing how much fun it is to be with them now that they require less full throttle mothering. It's time to really write now that I can't use the kids' neediness as an excuse not to.

It is strange to think about not posting here every Friday and returning home eager to read Himself's response. Often people intimate that they enjoy Himself's comments more than the blog itself. “It's so obvious how much he loves you,” they say. In a time of transition this brings me back to what is constant and solid. The house will be quiet and I might become so frustrated by a spate of rejection letters that I retreat to re-runs of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. I have let myself down so many times and even after posting at least 1000 words every week for over six years I still don't entirely trust myself to persevere. But even if my grand writer's life I envision doesn't come to fruition, I am loved obviously.

Look for the first of my now monthly posts the first week of October. May you be inscribed upon the book of life for a good year.
Shabbat Shalom and L'Shana Tova

Friday, September 7, 2012

Turn on Future Street

After more than twenty years of marriage Himself and I have a list of subjects we know better than to talk about. I usually don't broach these topics here at Casamurphy either. Knowing the political predilections of most of the mutual friends who read this, I protect Himself from their censure. However, because it is a good illustration of our half empty/half full dichotomy, I will provide a single example. I am watching a program about the ease with which automatic weapons can be purchased from unlicensed dealers at gun shows and the attenuate carnage that results when these guns are smuggled into Mexico. Himself has sequestered himself in his office during the recent heatwave. It is the coolest room in the house and as it is the end of his teaching quarter he has legitimate reason to hole up there. I guess a squabble is better than no attention at all so when he comes up for a snack, anticipating the response, I posit, “You don't really give a rat's ass about gun control, do you?”

I get the answer I expect. The culture is just too far gone. It won't make a difference. Outlawing weapons will just lead to a greater black market and probably even exacerbate the violence. I relent that this may be the short term result. But, I add that, despite the immediate consequences, at least giving lip service to getting automatic weapons out of distribution might serve to shape a vision for future generations. European countries with strict gun control laws experience far less violence than we do in the U.S. It's not like they don't have their own blood soaked histories, but a conscious decision was made to change the mindset a generation ago and it worked. He shrugs, finishes a tangerine and skulks back to the basement. He knows that his pessimism keeps me on my toes and that he'd actually hate it if my outlook were as dark as his own.

Bored, with the kids at the FYF festival and Himself sequestered in his office, I accompany a friend to see Robot and Frank Coincidentally, this film, as well as two novels I'm reading, “Arcadia” by Lauren Groff and “True Believers” by Kurt Anderson are all set in the not very distant future. All three works are too character driven fall into the category of speculative fiction but there are hints about what the world might be like a few years down the pike. In Arcadia, a character stricken with ALS uses a device that can simulate speech based on the movement of her eyes. In Robot and Frank, a robot replaces a home health care assistant. Both of these technologies are actually in development now and these fictions suggest how life improving these and other technological advances will likely become.

The two novels and the film also suggest that our dependence on technology will compromise the quality of human interaction. Himself would be all over this. Plus throw in invasion of privacy, identity theft and cyber-warfare. As stoked as I am about the promise of the new I admit I'm sometimes disturbed to find myself forgetting that Siri is not a real person. And when I ask her to find a nearby Von's Market the stupid bitch keeps trying to direct me to a bail bondsman.

My dad caressed his infant grandson's head and whispered, “I wonder what you will see in your lifetime.” The kids are totally nonplussed by advances in technology. My boys don't want to hear about black and white TVs and only seven channels. They mistakenly read a subtext of criticism, and complaint about how much easier they have it, into my awe at the modern world. In truth, I don't think they really have it that much easier. The economy was more stable when I was their age. Himself and I both applied to a single college to which we were accepted and subsequently attended. Now the stakes seem way higher and the process requires spread sheets and professional intervention. Our college educations pretty much guaranteed us work of some sort. My kids' educations insure them nothing but debt.

When there was nothing I liked on TV, I was too lazy to go outside and didn't have anything I felt like reading I was, for better or worse, alone with my thoughts. I complained about being bored all the time. My cousin and I had an exchange that was so frequent it became a comedy routine. “Whaddaya wanna do?” “I dunno. Whaddaya wanna do?” With so much stimulation available on immediate demand I don't remember either of my kids ever whining about boredom. They do have social interactions but don't have to aggressively seek them out because they connect via social media and have infinite entertainment options. Are they ever, I wonder, just lost in their own thoughts?

Given the polarity of their folks, my kids are coming up in the best of times and the worst of times. I think that ultimately technology will make the world a better place. Himself sees Armageddon around every corner. Like my dad, I wonder what the kids will see in their lifetimes. I worry for them. We both do. But our divided partnership is united in our sureness that no matter what, our kids are good. This fills us both with optimism. I drive down Cypress Avenue and need to cut over to San Fernando before it turns into Eagle Rock Blvd. There are two streets where it is easy to turn. One is Division and the other is Future. Division is a little quicker but I always choose Future.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Motherboy Dance

Both of my kids still eagerly anticipate the arrival of summer. I have grown out of this myself. Still, Labor Day always comes with a kernel of sorrow that the promise of another summer has gone unfulfilled. Joe College packs his stuff, five boxes of vinyl records, a turntable and a few garments, and returns to school. He has discussed the possibility of living off campus. He is intrigued but Himself and I tell him that he will have his whole life to worry about running a household so there's no reason to rush into it unnecessarily. I struggle all summer not to lash out in disgust at his indolence but when I return from work the day he's left, I weep a little. He is indeed returning home this weekend for a music festival but nevertheless, I get caught up in the symbolism and the knowing that each leaving brings me closer to the final one.

The night before Joe College returns to school I tell him that the dinner plan is up to him. Instead of dining out he requests a steak (which no one else in the household eats) and mashed potatoes. I sear the steak to a perfect medium rare. I press the potatoes through a ricer until my hand aches. My mother taught me to melt butter and then gradually heat it with whipping cream and I present a big bowl of perfect fluffy spuds. Spuds (the son, not the potatoes) needs to rush out and Himself is working. This leaves Joe College in charge of clean up. I sweat in a hot kitchen making foods I don't eat, so last night or not, he can clean the friggin' kitchen. Despite the obvious pleasure he has taken in his repast, he is not enthusiastic about the attendant KP. He has inherited from his father an uncanny ability to convey disgust through body language and facial expression. I mention that his distaste for kitchen chores is perhaps a good example of why he's not ready to live off campus. My recollection of this comment is that it is stated mildly but perhaps my irritation at his monopolization of couch and television all summer has seeped through. The boy explodes.

I am so gobsmacked that I am unable now to accurately recount the entire profane exchange but the gist of what the boy says is “Do not mother me!” and my fumbling, inarticulate response is to the effect that this is my job and that he will be better for it. The words “fuck” and “lazy” figure in the conversation but I do not recall the exact context. The boy stomps off to the basement and slams the door. Our plan has been to watch Breaking Bad together. I watch it by myself but crank up the volume extra loud so that he is well aware that I am watching without him.

He calls before he hits the road the next day. He says it's been a rough summer, returning to the parental home after a year of quasi independence. The “mothering” thing is troublesome he says but he doesn't want to leave with ill will. It's not me, he says. He apologizes. I acknowledge the weirdness of this in-between time. I am proud of him for reaching out. I am disappointed in myself for behaving so childishly.

While writing this I get a call from the boy in Redlands. His debit card has mysteriously disappeared from his wallet. He is broke and his meal plan doesn't kick in for a few days. I give him the number to call the credit union so he can cancel the missing card and order a new one. I tell him there's nothing else I can do and that he'll have to borrow some money from one of his friends until his card is replaced. He's waiting for me to yell at him but I don't. My calmness unsettles him more than if I'd gone off.. I refuse to remonstrate him so he makes himself feel more like an asshole than I ever could have. Undoubtedly there will be more screw ups but his reaction suggests some maturation and the experience perhaps will lead him toward increased mindfulness.

I recall a humiliating incident that never made it into the manuscript I am completing. I am sitting at the special 6th grade table, under a big umbrella at Riverside Drive Elementary School. The conversation is lagging so I mention that my mother has just been prescribed glasses. One of the girls snarls, “Who cares? You're always going on about your mother.” The other girls taunt me. “Mama's girl! Mama's girl!”

I was at the center of my own kids' universe for so long. They are becoming themselves now. More and more they will be called upon to take on the adult world. I shift from the role of dictator to adviser but they're at an age when any authoritative voice can feel grating and belittling. There is huge internal and external pressure not to be a Mama's boy. The inevitable detachment is always fraught. The summer is really over and in less than a year Spuds will leave us too, most likely for the East Coast. My boys will require less of me and fend more and more for themselves. It takes real maturity not to conflate dependence with love. I'm working on it.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Blubber Soul

 When I was growing up there weren't many other fat teenagers. Now I see fat girls all over. Fat jokes are still OK. Obesity, in popular culture, seems to be one of the few human conditions that is exempt from the rules of political correctness. Still while there's lots of evidence of fat bashing on TV, real life seems more accepting of the overweight as there are so many more real fat people. The obesity rate in the U.S. was about 17% in 1962. It's over 35% now. Fat teens wear the same fashions as thin girls, have boyfriends and get knocked up even. During high school I yearned for anything other than the matronly apparel that was available in large sizes and for a boyfriend. I would have known better however then to get knocked up. Because nearly 1/3 of teenagers are obese these days it's sort of Darwinian that sexual proclivities have adjusted to compensate for the mathematical imperative of lowered standards. Sadly, my own aesthetic,shaped by a lifetime of self hatred, hasn't evolved. When I see a fat girl I think exactly the same unkind thoughts that I always suspected people were thinking about me. Especially if she's wearing shorts.

The why of skyrocketing obesity is controversial, as is the cause of obesity in general. I know intellectually that karma is not a factor but have trouble accepting this on an emotional level. Genetics, brain chemistry and lifestyle all make good cases. In 1962 however there were indeed far fewer fast food franchises, portions were smaller and there were no drive-thrus. I drive home past a big McDonalds on San Fernando Road. Usually the parking lot isn't very full but the drive-through line overflows into the street. Gas is more than four bucks a gallon but people will idle in line for twenty minutes rather then get out of their friggin' cars. I managed to get fat without drive-thrus and supersizes but I imagine that these luxuries would have made me even fatter.

Theoretically, I laud the fat acceptance movement and find much of their work affirming and comforting. Unfortunately, my own life as a very fat person has conditioned me to look at a fat person and feel pity, revulsion and moral superiority. When I see a fat woman at the supermarket I always sneak a judgmental glance at the contents of her shopping cart. “Coke! Ben and Jerry's! Milanos! Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. What a weak and pathetic person you are. I bet that jumbo bag of M&Ms won't even make it home...” I suspect too that very few advocates for the Fat Acceptance movement, despite their professions of being fat and happy, would reject a magic thinness pill.

I have not been thinner in my adult life than I am now. I am about 15 lbs from reaching my Weight Watchers' goal weight. I've been dicking around with the same five pounds up and down for about three months though. Weight Watchers encourages you to track what you eat and ascribes a point system. I am lazy about tracking. I don't eat anything, except perhaps a taste from someone's plate, blatantly junky but I sometimes overdo it with “healthful” food. Weight Watchers has also introduced a sophisticated sort of pedometer called an Active Link which tracks activity level. The device costs about $40 and the monitoring service is $5 a month. It's been quite hard sell. I attend a weekly meeting with a group of girlfriends, all of whom have had life long struggles with weight. We have all decided, for different reasons, that we are not interested in purchasing the Active Link. Meetings however for the past six weeks have revolved around the product and the minutiae of operating it. I walk for at least 8 hours every week. I don't want the damn contraption buzzing at me every five minutes to remind me that I have a weight problem. I've wasted enough of my life on that already.

I like our Weight Watcher's leader. She is smart and funny but she toes the party line,  an employee but also a sincere and true believer. She reminds us frequently that we can eat as much fruit as we like. I don't buy this and weight gains on the weeks when I have overindulged are a testament. I am shot down when I mention this at a meeting. Our facilitator has lost only 30 lbs. Chump change. She has no idea how very much fruit a person with a history of super obesity can consume. I know that the Weight Watchers Points Plus Plan is based on scientific investigation. I suspect though that research subjects were overweight but not morbidly obese. I further antagonize our leader, when after endless discussions about the Active Link, she asks the group if anyone has any questions about the device. The room is silent. I gleefully high five my girlfriend. The leader's peripheral vision is way better than I'd estimated. My punishment is another twenty minute spiel about the Active Link.

One might wonder why I pay for my Weight Watchers membership and slavishly attend the weekly meetings if I don't fully adhere to the program. I go back and forth on this myself. I admit that breakfast with the girls after the meeting is one of the major selling points. I walk a lot. I consume, and enjoy, for the first time in my adult life, breakfast. I eat what I like and eat frequently. I am not completely cured but I have made headway with regard to mindless eating. I may or may not buckle down for a couple of months to reach the higher end of what Weight Watchers considers my ideal weight range.

I struggle to straddle the line between being comfortably full vs. too full. A lifetime of radical dieting makes this really challenging. I worry sometimes about going completely out of control and gaining back weight. My current regime is tolerable. I don't have ESP but it seems realistic for me maintain my current exercise and diet routine indefinitely. Because it's been a life long pattern, I'm concerned that an even stricter routine might make me snap. Maybe if I can keep it together within a five pound range I shouldn't waste additional physic energy on my weight. So much of what I lost out on in life was because I was fat and maybe it's OK to accept a few extra pounds and get on with it.

The editor revising a manuscript advises me to downplay the family saga and focus on the degradation I was subjected to as a fat person. I tell him that I hate writing about this which convinces me that he is right. Tapping out this current piece makes me uncomfortable. Before my enrollment in Weight Watchers I ate a protein bar mid-morning, in lieu of breakfast. The Think Thin is reputedly developed by a bariatric surgeon. The bar is very low in calories but loaded with enough protein power to produce a feeling of almost uncomfortable fullness. The bar is filled with a coarse powdery substance that tastes like glue and carob and coated with an emollient intended to resemble chocolate only in appearance. I forced one of these down every morning. I figured out pretty early on that that filled me but didn't satisfy me and that as soon as the fullness wore off I'd do some serious damage. Unfortunately they were purchased at Costco so I had to choke down the whole big box before swearing off the disgusting things. I see a mom, and her teenage daughter who appears dangerously anorectic, at the protein bar section of Fresh and Easy. The teen points her spindly arm at the Think Thin bars. “Those are absolutely fantastic.” Anorexia was never my problem but I used to wish it were. I have no worries about becoming too thin. I do relate however to all of the girls and women who undergo surgery, starve, binge, purge or exercise themselves into a coma because they hate their bodies.

I've lived most of my life knowing that the first thing about me people would register is “fat.” Now I am only about fifteen pounds overweight so this is probably not the case. Of course, now for the first time in my life when the quick read on me isn't “fat,” it's “old”. This makes the quandary, about if staying thin will seize as great a hold on my life as being fat did, even more poignant. Obesity, I try to tell myself is not a due to a deficit in character but a disease. But will being a slave to managing the symptoms guarantee the best outcome? Will I really live longer if I start tracking my food meticulously and hang a device that measures my activity around my neck? Or will it just seem longer?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Writer's Splotch

I face the blank page at 11:18 Thursday morning. Except for two or three vacations a year I post at least 1000 words every Friday before I leave the office. In an interview, a writer I admire was talking about motivation. He said that he completed his first novel by setting a deadline and deciding he'd commit suicide if he hadn't finished the manuscript on schedule. Personally, I won't eat dinner until this piece is posted, which for me, is just about as extreme. Usually by Thursday morning the lightening bolt has hit with the topic for my week's musings. Now however I am forcing myself to write about not having anything to write about. It is hot and my office is not air conditioned or even ventilated. We are prone to blown fuses so I use only a tiny personal fan clipped to my desk that blows hot air in my face and causes the images on my computer screen to vibrate a bit. I have a heat rash, and despite frequent colloidal oatmeal treatments, the itch at times becomes unbearable. My body is a lattice work of red splotches and scratches. The only place I am comfortable is immersed in a cool bath with a thick paste of fine oatmeal slathered on my skin.

Because I correspond weekly with three prison inmates I feel obliged to appreciate how fortunate I am not to live my life behind bars. I slap myself around when I begin the descent into self pity. Often when I'm in the middle of a soul deadening task it occurs to me how many others would envy my drudgery. Now though even this sense of obligation can't lift me out of my morass. I have another uncontrollable fit of scratching and find tiny dots of blood seeping through my white top. I long to go home and take a much higher than recommended dose of Benadryl and crash but my colleague is on vacation so I'm stuck at the office. Unfortunately it seems that everyone who might need stock footage is on vacation too so there is nothing to distract me from writer's block and unbearable itchiness. Plus there are no witnesses around the office, except Rover, to prevent me from scratching and ruining a perfectly nice peasant blouse.

I haven't been a student or even a teacher for decades but I still get wistful and disappointed at summer's end. In childhood the anticipation of summer is so blown out of proportion that the fulfillment of expectation is nearly impossible. Now summer means only not making the boy breakfast, yet as I see kids return to the neighborhood schools I still sense the sad undercurrent of unrealized promise. Spuds still has two weeks off and is working on college applications and preparing to take the ACT test again. He's returned to his tutoring job and is co-writing a play. Joe College is in night owl mode, socializing with other home from college kids into the wee hours. He returns to school in a week. I resent his indolence now but when he goes I'll miss him something fierce.

Himself and I spent some time up north but neither kid has been anywhere this summer. The air conditioning in the house isn't worth a damn so I decide on a weekend escape. My criteria is cheap and well air conditioned and I find a great bargain in Palm Springs. We stay at a Holiday Inn that's done over in Pantone colors with retro desert flair. The air conditioning is great and there is a poolside d.j. The kids swim and Himself and I read in the room. We have a couple of good meals and no family drama. I slaughter the kids at Scattagories and number one son accepts his defeat rather ungraciously. “You just win because you're so old.”

L.A. is just as hot when we return as when we left. There is no maid to make my bed and leave fresh towels. There is no restaurant in the lobby. I itch like crazy and the oatmeal bath product I use leaves the tub gray and crusty. I spend two hours in the steaming kitchen preparing a casserole with salmon, kale, potatoes and onions. Himself gets a stricken look he gets when he tastes something he dislikes. He says he can't control this response but I'm skeptical. Number One son says, “You didn't actually think we would like this, did you?” Spuds is silent but takes one bite, silently rises and nukes for himself some leftover chili.

Joe College has been commanded to at least put an appearance at the office daily to help defray a bit the expense pertinent to his education, transportation and existence. This bores him although I do not take it personally, as this state reflects his summer experience as a whole and not just the being stuck at Mom's office part. He blows in and announces that his old Volvo has failed the smog test twice. He is irate at having to take it back to the mechanic and then for another smog check. I start to say that this is a small price to pay for having a car, such as it is, all expense paid. I stop myself. I wouldn't like going back to for a third smog check either. I don't want to have a fight. I just want him to get out so I can scratch in peace.

I am preparing to close the office and return home to my gritty bathtub when Spuds calls. He's on his way to his tutoring job and his car is acting up. He manages to make it to the mechanic around the corner from my office and takes my car to his job, stranding me at the office for another couple of hours. I try to force myself to write instead of scratch. I actually make some headway on a big manuscript I am struggling to revise. I come to a natural stopping point and text Spuds to find out when he's coming to fetch me. “Another hour,” he responds. I decide to comfort myself with a New York Times Saturday crossword puzzle but find they are no longer available free to subscribers of the paper. I switch to the L.A. Times puzzles which are still free but you have to watch a 30 second commercial for Ford Taurus before the crossword opens. The L.A. Times puzzle only takes about 5 minutes. A new spot of rash erupts on my back and I slide a ruler down my blouse.

Facebook seldom provides more than a minute or two of distraction but this week I've been logging on way more than usual. Writer Michael Santos was released, after 25 years in prison, on Monday. Miraculously he has mastered an iPhone and is posting pretty regularly from the free world. He's in a San Francisco halfway house. He describes the sensation of walking down the street as a man and not a prisoner for the first time. The wait at the DMV office is three hours but the office closes before he has time to take the driver's test. A Burger King Whopper is his first restaurant experience. I know Santos only from having read his writing but still I get a physical rush reading each of his postings.

The heatwave can't go on forever. I imagine my itchiness will subside in a day or two. And if not, it's the weekend so I'll have no compunction about altering my consciousness. Maybe if I'm real doped up the kids will play Scattagories with me again. If nothing else, Michael Santos is starting an office job today and I can't wait to hear about how that goes. Plus dithering around I've managed amass about 1314 words so I can eat dinner.
Shabbat Shalom

Friday, August 10, 2012

Found and Lost

My friend Alan, an inmate at the California Correctional Institute in Tehachapi writes that his life is so monotonous that it is challenging for him to think of topics to write me about. I send letters to him and two other inmates weekly. It is difficult for me too sometimes to dredge up letter material because, although by design and not circumstance, my own life is just about as uneventful.

Michael Santos has been incarcerated in federal prison for over twenty five years. He is due to be released on Monday August 13. He was twenty three when his term began. He is 48 now. Santos has written eight books and is a contributor to the Oxford Handbook on Sentencing and Corrections. He's completed two masters degrees and was thwarted in finishing his PhD by prison red tape. His wife posts his writings at the website Santos chronicles his day-to- day activities, the daily prison menu and his extraordinary exercise schedule. He runs more than 20 miles daily and hasn't missed a day in many years. In addition to his seminal writings about the criminal justice system and guidance books about surviving incarceration he meticulously chronicles every facet of prison life. These accounts demonstrate an amazing self discipline that he's harnessed and enabled himself to grow and flourish during twenty five years of confinement.

I haven't logged anywhere near the mileage that Santos has but walking is integral to my own health and sanity. I walk daily except I usually skip every 10th or 11th day. I take the same 3 ½ mile route Monday through Friday. Our street becomes a dirt trail. I follow it to the end and then ascend a steep incline to what the kids used to call “the top of the world.” It's actually known as Kite Hill and once in a while there really are kites. The view from one side is downtown L.A., the rail yards, Dodger Stadium and the palms that surround it and the Hollywood Hills. The panorama of Mount Washington, green and dotted with cantilevered homes can be taken in from the other side of the street. The ground is usually strewn with trash because, despite the no parking signs, this is what my parents used to call a “make out” spot. Most mornings there are beer bottles, marijuana detritus, used condoms and fast food wrappers. I have mixed feelings when I see discarded used condoms. I also scratch my head when some of the empty beers are actually decent brands. You'd think someone with a discerning palate and the wherewithal to buy good brew would know better than to throw crap around, particularly in such a pretty spot.

There was a decision to isolate Mount Washington proper from the riffraff that assembles late at night on Kite Hill. An iron gate has been installed. For the twenty years we've lived in the area, the gate has been chained open, some free thinking Mount Washingtonians unwilling apparently to create a gated community. This shady street leads to San Rafael, the main drag. I pass the stately Self Realization Fellowship Center, which used to be the Mount Washington Hotel. Originally there was a funicular that ran from there to Figueroa Blvd. SRF adherents wearing saris or long skirts of the Orthodox Jewish persuasion sweep the sidewalks every morning. The sweepers are always women. They do seem very peaceful and self realized.

On the other side of San Rafael is the Mount Washington Elementary School. There is a large modern library and community center on the campus that was financed by neighborhood efforts and named in honor of Jack and Denny Smith. Jack wrote for the L.A. Times for 37 years. His daily column marked my transition from kiddie to adult reading material. Based on his description of his neighborhood, the verdant, quirky Mount Washington I decided at age seven that this is where I wanted to live.

During the week I turn around in front of the community bulletin board which usually has a lot of pathetically optimistic fliers (coyotes...) about missing cats. On Saturday and Sunday I continue on to the Seaview Loop. I pass a number of modern case study houses, and also some unfortunate new construction, to reach a trail that skirts the hillside. In clear weather, Catalina is visible from several vantage points.

I recognize dogs and walkers. I notice new cars and home improvements. Tuesday is trash day and I know which neighbors are boozers or are slipshod about recycling. There are people with shopping carts who trudge up the steepest hills and rummage through recycling bins for cans and bottles. The dogs nearly pull my arm out the socket when they see other dogs but are indifferent to possums, skunks, and squirrels. Once I spot a deer. I remind myself of my own good fortune, the childhood dream of living in such a rustic area, just spitting distance from downtown, realized. I do not vary my route for safety's sake. Sometimes I am hyper-alert to my surroundings but often the rhythm of my steps lulls me into a trance-like state and it is good that my route remains on auto pilot.

On New Year's Day I find a laptop in a case several yards from the top of Kite Hill. Halfway down the next block there is a canvas bag with books and clothing. I assume there's been a car break in and lug the computer and heavy bag of books back home to do some forensic work. I find some invoices and business cards in the laptop case and some bank statements in the bag with the books. I surmise there was no car theft involved, just two separate incidents of New Year's Eve drunkenness. I'm not home when the laptop owner arrives to fetch it. Spuds says he's an old weird guy with a ponytail, still befuddled at how the laptop ended up in the street. He gives Spuds $10 which I let him keep, although I am the one who dragged the thing home. The book bag has tacky coffee table books with wizards and unicorns, and ever judgmental I procrastinate about taking it back to the address on the bank statement. If had been art I liked I probably would have been Johnny on the spot about returning it. Walking one morning I notice a sign on a telephone pole. “My book bag with art books was left beside my car. Please return it. No questions asked.” I make Spuds leave the bag on the door step at the crack of dawn, lest I be caught, despite the promise of no questions.

A few weeks ago there is money, fives and singles, scattered willy-nilly down middle of San Rafael. There is no wallet or anything nearby to identify the possible owner of what turns out to be $28 so I pocket it. My friend tells me that once she found $500 on the street. She left a note on a nearby car saying that if they'd lost some money they should contact her. A caller soon reported having lost $500 and the money was returned. I tell her she should have asked for the denominations because $500 might have been a lucky guess. As hard as I try to convince myself otherwise, I'm almost certain that I myself would have kept that money too.

A few days later amidst the leavings of what appears to have been a particularly raucous party night on Kite Hill I find the California I.D of a young woman from El Monte. I mail it off to her and don't bother with a return address. That she may have moved or already replaced it is really of no concern to me. I like to think that she is delighted to have it returned and therefore avoid a long line at the DMV but I'll never know how it played out. Addressing an envelope and springing 44 cents for a postage stamp isn't as noble as returning $500 but I hope this made the girl's life a bit easier and that if she returns to Kite Hill that she cleans up after herself. Condoms and all.

Sometimes when I walk I am hyper-aware of my surroundings and other times this is eclipsed by the voices in my head. The route doesn't change and whatever my mindset, I strive to keep the overwhelming vastness of the world at bay. Michael Santos has run thousands of miles and I presume that the voice inside, bidden by the rhythm of his feet, has led his mind to soar beyond the confines of a prison camp. On Monday he will step out into the vast world for the first time in over twenty-five years. I have never met the man but I am elated and frightened for him. While it is self imposed, the confined existence I've crafted for myself comforts me. Freedom, the infinite vastness and possibility overwhelms me. I wish Michael Santos all the best as he steps out into a the big world that I struggle to keep small. From prison camp to infinity. I pray he keeps on running.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Reality Blight

At a dinner party I confess that I love the reality show Teen Mom. Eyebrows go skyward and the host's college sophomore daughter goes “ewww,” and then, “ick.” She seems completely repulsed although when I go on to describe the tribulations of the young, fertile and unwed it becomes apparent that she is more than a little familiar with the show. Embarrassed, she confesses to seeing bits of the program when her “roommate is watching.” Himself, who thoroughly excoriates me for my addiction to reality shows, weighs in that, yes indeed, Farrah is a bitch to her mom. Himself reddens when the assembled turn to him in shock. The professional intellectual squirms and mutters, “I hear it when she has it on.” The word “she” is pronounced with a derisive edge. After making eye contact with Himself and enunciating a request that he perform a small household chore, I assume he is hearing impaired. I usually end up doing it by myself. Nevertheless, he is not a auditorilly challenged when it comes to the trevails of Maci and Amber.

There are so many reality shows that there are sub-sub genres. From a production standpoint and in a rotten economy with a zillion channels to fill, these shows are cheaper to make. But they are indeed made because we do indeed watch.  It started back in the 70s with An American Family. I loved the show but there was a Margaret Mead quality and PBS provenance that relegated it outside the realm of popular entertainment. During the writer's strike of 1989, the show Cops, the first successful mainstream reality show debuted and opened the floodgates.

There are very few facets of society that haven't been realitized. Even the technology shunning Hutterite sect has its own show. It's on the National Geographic Channel. The erstwhile bastion of intellectual edification has become quite the bottom feeder. The Hutterites don't have televisions although some of the sects, called colonies, have some cellphones and limited Internet access. The young folks have uncannily nailed the reality show convention. Nineteen year old Claudia is the colony rebel. She wants to wear modern clothes, date “English” (as non-Hutterites are called) boys and not be manacled to woman's work. She is sort of the Hutterite Paris Hilton and she plays to the camera. The older colonists are stiff and wooden. They repeat a mantra flatly. “You can't work with the men Claudia” More fascinating to me than the video of the Hutterites interacting in front of the camera is the obvious cynicism of the show's creators.

A lot of reality programming capitalizes on hard economic times. There are at least two shows that are set in pawn shops. Storage Wars is about the auction of lockers that have gone into rental arrears. Most of the units are chock a block with possessions, lost to auction speculators, because the owners are unable to keep up payments, which run about $50 per month. There is never a nod to the irony that this default on personal belongings has spawned such a profitable hit show. Operation Repo stays on only when I have my hands in meatloaf and am unable to change the channel. The show, by the way, has become a huge international franchise. It's such an enormous hit because the vehicle is never wrested from a mom driving her kids to school or some poor schlemiel trying to get to work. Cars are taken from the reprehensible, snotty debutantes and arrogant Hollywood types. Justice is served. Schadenfreude apparently translates well into every language.

The thirst for immersion into the lives of every day people seems insatiable. Movies and fictional television are escapist entertainment. Actors are more beautiful, better dressed, wittier than any creature of the real world. People spend far more time on-line or in front of the television than engaged in social interaction. The digital age has fomented a pervasive loneliness and we yearn to connect with real people. And it is comforting to companion with those who are less beautiful, less well dressed, highly stupid and who appear on camera to be staggeringly bereft of self awareness.

Which brings me to two favorite shows and a pending spin-off which are controversial, and I guess despicable because they involve children. Nevertheless, when channel surfing, Dance Moms and Toddlers and Tiaras trump all. I haven't watched any of the real housewife shows but I presume the boozing, sniping dance moms are cut from the same cloth. The daughters study at the Abby Lee Dance Studio, Abby Lee herself being a 300 lb harridan who heaps abuse on mothers and dancers alike. We forgive the mothers a bit for forcing their daughters to endure this. When the moms aren't going at each other they unite against Abby. On every episode the moms exact a comeuppance and Miss Abby is somehow humiliated. Nevertheless, Miss Abby's girls almost always beat the rival Candy Apples in competition so her tyranny is endured. While the moms on Toddlers and Tiaras are more low rent than the dance moms, the show actually springs for some music rights. Miss Abby's girls go through their paces to public domain production music while the toddlers rock it to Beyonce and Madonna tunes.

There are about ten reality shows I keep an eye on. Even though TLC ostensibly stands for “The Learning Channel” Toddlers and Tiaras is lower on the food chain than even Hoarders, perhaps even Animal Hoarders. This week though I learn of a spin-off that will make Toddlers and Tiaras seem like Proust. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo focuses on kiddie pageant queen, Alana Thompson, a stand out out on the last season of the show. The pudgy contestant swills a concoction of Mountain Dew and Red Bull that her mom refers to as “go-go juice” and is animated, to say the least, for the judges. Mom defends her use of the energy beverage. Most of the other kids get Pixie Stix, which are referred to as pageant crack, but Alana, it is reported,consumed fourteen with no sign of improved vivacity.

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo follows not just Alana, but the whole family. Certain motifs seem to be effective for reality show success. Poetic justice- like when the mean girl gets her corvette repo-ed-is is good. People also like to watch fat people. Really fat people. This makes other really fat people feel less freakish and less fat people feel thinner. I don't know how Honey Boo Boo is going to employ the device of justice being served but this family gives Biggest Loser a run for the money. As insurance that the non-severely brain-damaged viewers will feel superior to the Honey Boo Boo family, there are lots of arm farts, butt jokes and genuine mud wallowing.

I wish that this genre of television hadn't early on been dubbed “Reality TV” My kids frequently instruct me that the shows I watch are all faked. What kind of moron do they think I am? Maybe we wouldn't look down our noses so much if it were called“Manipulative TV” It's real life playing out a fantasy of itself in front of a camera. Everyone is acting. Most of the characters aren't very good actors. But it is fascinating to watch people create characters based on their selves. The choice to indulge in such exhibitionism is very telling. Who, with an iota of decency, would attempt to convince a fat family to wallow in mud? What, short of the threat of torture by starvation, would convince a fat family to wallow in mud?

There is a self righteous gratification that comes from being embarrassed for another human being. I am embarrassed for myself, having typed here several times. "Honey Boo Boo." Despite the association with ickiness, this genre's day will come. There is an art to this manipulation of reality. No cover is blown when we acknowledge the cunning, relying on non-professional actors no less, this manipulation requires. It takes is a special editor to manipulate the manipulation to its best effect. Just like in fictional TV, it's about character, tone, arc and setting. Even the most naïve viewers see the artifice. There's karmic justice and beau-coup blubber. Still, reality TV studies will inevitably become part of the cannon. Then maybe my family won't give me so much grief about watching crap.