Friday, April 27, 2012

More Songs About Money and Food

Years ago when I was teaching an adult school English Composition course I was having trouble with a rather arrogant Chinese student. He had insisted on taking a higher level class than he was ready for and he was keeping the rest of the students back. I wasn't doing the best job of concealing my annoyance. He approached me after class trying to make nice and commented, “You fat. Like to eat a lot, eh?” I was mortified until I realized that from his cultural perspective he was noting my prosperity in a complimentary fashion and perhaps trying to illicit a bit of compassion for his less privileged skinnier self. Despite my cultural sensitivity I think I probably savored a sense of comeuppance when I failed him.

When the Volvo was new and didn't stink of dog and I could still afford to shop at places where's they'd put the groceries in the car for you, a box boy asked me what I'd paid for the car. I knew within a dime but he may as well have asked me what I weighed. I would have flat out refused to answer the poundage question but in the matter of the car I just muttered inanely, “I don't know. My husband bought it for me.” It was easier to sound like a helpless pathetic ninny than provide a dollar figure or get on some high horse about the vulgarity of asking about what things cost. Although the price of a Volvo, unlike my weight, is not exactly a closely guarded state secret. Thank God they don't have scales at the DMV to nab those of us who interpret “weight” to mean “what I wish I weighed.”

“See a Little Light,” alternative rocker Bob Mould's memoir, ain't Proust but Mould is remarkably candid with regard to money. I am always curious about dollar amounts pertinent to fields other than my own and Mould is very frank about how recording deals are structured and how much he's earned for his music. I wonder if Mould set out intentionally to defy this long standing taboo against being frank about money or if he is naïve to the extent that he just doesn't know it's not done. Nevertheless, he's made more money than I would have thought, even being rock royalty and all.

I am culturally predisposed not to discuss fat and money although I am finally getting it into my head that a surfeit of the former and shortage of the latter do not evidence a lack of character. I inherited from my mom the association of feelings of self worth with thinness. Dad's Depression survivor message was that a person's worth to the universe is calibrated based on his bank balance. I mastered the art of making excuses to bill collectors lest I not be perceived as a loser but have recently discovered that the simple response, “I don't have the money,” doesn't garner any disrespect. And even if it did, does it really matter if a debt collector thinks I'm a deadbeat? Still, my weight is known only by me and the lady who weighs me at Weight Watchers.

Despite being able to disentangle my self image from issues of fat and finance to some extent, I'm putting a lot of energy into losing the fifteen or so pounds that will render me normal on the BMI scale and I did buy a mega-millions lottery ticket. I do not consider myself a bad person because I weigh too much and earn too little but there certainly is lingering neurosis on both fronts. I try not to lay this on the kids but I embarrass them by loudly reading nutrition labels for fat and carb content whenever we go shopping and morph into Ilsa She-Wolf of the S.S. when a light is left on in an unoccupied room. So many of the little thrifty gestures my mom made, and I ridiculed, I've now adopted. I am a coupon fiend and will shop with four or five different purveyors in order to get the best available prices.

For all the hangups regarding fat and money that I've inherited from my parents, I have also inherited the firm belief that hospitality always trumps all and that anyone who visits my home will find a nicely set table and copious good food. This is has always been non-negotiable, much to the chagrin of the introverted Himself who claims that he cannot remember his own parents ever serving a meal to a guest. This strikes me as unbelievably weird but probably also for the best because his mother's idea of a vegetable side dish was to open a can of peas, stick a spoon in it and throw it on the table. While I cannot overstate Himself's distaste for entertaining, I will add that after over twenty years the gigantic force of my will has prevailed and he adroitly runs through the motions of a genial host.

Joe College was unable to make a meaningful connection with the work-study office at his school. He tries to be frugal and apologizes often that we still have to subsidize him. There have been school and car repair expenses though and I have been quite unsubtly sending him summer job listings from Craig's List every day. Actually, a couple times a day. He is off school this week and reports to me that Redlands is dull as dirt, which having spent four years there myself, is not an astounding revelation. The boy intends to stay on campus and work on a project with some friends but the dining hall is closed, the dorm is empty and they are all broke. He asks if he can come home with a friend for a few days. Later in the day this becomes two friends and he shows up at dinnertime with two boys and a girl.

I prepare a big Mexican feed and it is obvious that the kids have been on limited rations for a couple days and plates are heaped high. The guests are gracious, funny and highly appreciative of homemade eats. Knowing that the dining hall on campus doesn't open again until Monday I presume our houseguests will be with us for the better part of a week which means assembling a big meal every night and making sure that breakfast and lunch supplies are in the larder. With three guests, Spuds is displaced from his bed and relegated to the sofa until I get up at 4:30 and he is sent upstairs to take my spot next to his dad. Due to the limited capacity of our refrigerator I shop for a dinner at a time and after taco night comes an enormous bowl of pasta and a platter of Italian sausages and I mentally plan the feed for the next night. However, during the slurping up of spaghetti it is announced that the crew is returning to Redlands directly after dinner. They are terrific kids and it is a pleasure to have them around. It is wonderful that the boy, who wasn't sold on college at all, has made such wonderful friends. I hope his manners are as nice as theirs when he mooches off their parents. Running the crash pad is a nice distraction from my careful eating plan (I am too tired to prepare a different meal for myself and just eat the cheesy/carby stuff I make for the kids) and my worries about scant receivables at the office. Still, I am only slightly less relieved than Spuds and Himself when they hit the road.

I've had a hard day and am driving Spuds home and griping about a big order that's fallen through. Spuds sees a grossly obese woman at a bus stop and says, “For all of the things you worry about, at least you're not fat.” I'd actually been thinking the same thing myself but how lucky I am to have someone who wants to make me feel better and understands what's important to me, even if it is shallow and superficial. I am reminded of the need to keep my fretting in perspective by another loved one too. My lovely niece is enduring chemotherapy for breast cancer. She has lost her beautiful hair but has amassed an enormous collection of wacky wigs. She reports on her blog that her doctor is pathetically lacking in bedside manner and that the side effects of the treatment are ghastly but she poses daily for a portrait, modeling a different wig, which is posted to Facebook. Who'd have thought anyone would look so adorable and serene in a blue wig?

Although I've gotten better at it, it is a challenge still to remain mindful of my blessings. I end another week with the lights on at the office and a Body Mass Index just a nonce away from normal but best of all is that I have heroes like Spuds who knows what makes me tick but does not judge. And his big brother who was apprehensive about starting college but stuck it out and flourishes. Plus there's niece Cari in Grass Valley who's turned unimaginably bad fortune into wig flipping fun. I'm winding up here now and heading home for the first real Shabbat after a few weeks of travels and other obligations. The table will be set although the meal is mainly college kid leftovers. Number one son is back at school and number two is planning to beat it as far away as humanly possible next year. I'll still entertain, and although it bristles every fiber of his being, Himself will be the gracious host, indulging me in this and in so many other things that must rub him the wrong way and try his patience. Someday I may be a size eight. Maybe my ship will come in and there will be extra money to throw around. And, yes, I would be relieved and happy but now, when I take a moment to drink it all in, even pudgy and poor I must be the luckiest person on the planet.
Shabbat Shalom

Friday, April 20, 2012

Next Stop Greenwich Village

Spuds is a good traveling companion. He is an adventurous eater, can read a map and was easily able to schlep our luggage up to the 4th floor walk-up apartment we rented in Greenwich Village. Our accommodations belong to a young family with two children. Based on the décor, book and magazine collection they are obviously kindred spirits. There is even a framed photo of Paul Westerberg prominently displayed so I was more than at home. The apartment can't be more than 600 square feet and the use of every square inch is cunning. One of the kid's beds is hoisted on a pulley to fit flush against a wall so you can get to a stack washer and dryer. The building was originally home to some sort of nautical supplier and there are ancient metal portholes in the apartment. The neighborhood is sophisticated and hopping with tons of bars, cafes and swanky markets. The theater district is ten minutes away by subway. We have gorgeous spring weather and ironically Himself reports thunderstorms on the homefront in L.A. Bleeker and Christopher streets. Washington Square. It is one of the coolest places on the planet but I can imagine what it's like to be reliant on public transportation in bad weather or to constantly have to haul provisions for a family up four flights of stairs.

I understand why so many native New Yorkers migrate to Los Angeles but also why most of them constantly sit shiva for Manhattan. We are blessed with amazing weather for our trip but the coldest I've ever been in my life was a long ago winter night in Chinatown when we were unable to snag a cab. Moving briskly through streets jammed with pedestrians and pretending to be a New Yorker is a fun novelty but I am reminded that when rats are crammed together too tightly they start to eat each other. I love the energy, in small doses. My friend Steve from college evolved into the quintessential sophisticated Manhattanite with a purposeful step and a rent controlled apartment but now he's flown the coop to Asbury Park New Jersey. He drives into the city and we stroll the Village, center of the grubby fifties beatnik universe, in search of a restaurant with entrees that don't run into three figures. Exorbitant prices weren't a big shock but I learn that restaurants don't offer complimentary refills of soda and ice tea the hard way. Furthermore, self service lightening and sweetening of coffee is rare and I feel like a ninny requesting “not too light with ¾ of a pack of Splenda.”

Nevertheless, I love running around for a few days and feel smug and satisfied as my skills at navigating the streets and subway improve. Spuds and I compete to get our subway passes to release the turnstile on a single swipe. I also entertain fantasies about having oodles of money and living in Manhattan for extended stretches. Spuds and I see the Cindy Sherman retrospective at MOMA. Her Civil War and also broken doll series aren't shown but otherwise the show chronicles some early college experiments through her most recent eighteen foot murals. For all the hundreds of portraits I never get a clear idea what Cindy Sherman actually looks like but all of her photos challenge our perception of womanhood.

Edith Wharton also had a fascinating take on the female species and this year is the 150th anniversary of her death. Wharton was a pal of Henry James and some of her writing is sort of a quick paced version of his and Wharton demonstrates a keener insight into the female psyche than James. I learn about an exhibit of some of Wharton's papers at the New York Society Library. My friend Rosemary is one of the best footage researchers I know and astoundingly knowledgeable about NYC offerings and how to partake of them. It is through Rosemary we've found the Greenwich Village digs and she has, with that librarian thoroughness and comprehensiveness navigated us expertly now through two visits to the Big Apple. I am delighted that Rosemary has never even heard of the Society Library and I drag her to the exhibit which turns out to be an underwhelming three display cases. We are alone. The private lending library that was established in 1754 is exquisite with dark paneled reading lounges with big upholstered chairs and an enormous old fashioned card catalog. The children's room has a huge display of vintage picture books and sweet tiny furniture. Plus, after visiting MOMA and the Whitney, where the crush of the crowd make it challenging to actually see the art, it is comforting to have the wee display in the hushed library all to ourselves.

When we reach Greenwich Village, the last stop of six in a miserable Super Shuttle from the airport, Spuds immediately spots Andrew Garfield, of The Social Network, who is appearing here in Death of a Salesman. Minutes later we spot Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of Spud's favorite actors, who stars in the show which is sold out for months. I talk reluctant Spuds into some theater. We see The Best Man, Gore Vidal's political satire about a presidential convention. It is in previews and not yet reviewed but I choose it for Vidal's pedigree and a stellar cast including Angela Landsbury (who first appeared on Broadway in 1957, the year I was born), Candice Bergen, James Earl Jones and John Larroquette. The play was written in 1961 but is creepily prescient. Convention hopefuls deal with the threat that revelations about extramarital and gay hanky panky will be leaked. There is disagreement as to the efficacy of contraception. Copies of medical records of a candidate who was treated for mental illness are being distributed, this presaging the Thomas Eagleton debacle by over a decade.

Spuds nearly blows a gasket when I say I've landed tickets for How to Succeed in Business but that Daniel Radcliffe has been replaced by teeny bopper idol Nick Jonas. The choreography, costume design, art and set direction are extraordinarily clever and sumptuous. And, the adorable Jonas absolutely holds his own and ten million preteens in his case are not wrong. Beau Bridges is hilariously funny and even lumbers through a few dance numbers more surefootedly than you'd expect. The drollness of the material is not obscured by the lavish high roller production value.

While there is art and theater and of course, food, the raison d'etre for the trip is college tour, so lest we be accused of vacationing, we make two visits. Eugene Lang College at the New School has an edgy, sophisticated feel. The students, who hale from all over the planet, move and dress like New Yorkers. The dorms are several blocks from the campus building and for the price of nine months of housing you can buy a whole house if you don't mind living in Detroit. Our tour guide jets around so quickly that some of the moms and dads are huffing and puffing and after having visited a number of colleges, I am surprised that the admissions folks haven't figured out that if you're old enough to have a college bound kid, you're gonna need a bathroom break at the midpoint of the tour.

We research public transportation to Middleton Connecticut, the home of Wesleyan but it turns out that the least expensive option is renting a car. My automobile anxiety, having been subjected to two potential drivers, is ratcheted way up and terror about driving in Manhattan makes for a fitful night.
I am offered a Prius as a complimentary upgrade but even with the agent's remarkably patient instructions, after ten minutes I am unable to get the thing move. I sheepishly request a downgrade and manage to get us out of Manhattan and on the road. Wesleyan is a graceful, classic New England campus that has no physical borders with the town of Middleton and I don't think anyone will argue that this is the middle of nowhere. The students seem much more relaxed and less sophisticated than their counterparts at Eugene Lang but when they open their mouths it is obvious that they're scary smart. Our tour guide is from Barbados and he's greeted warmly by just about every student we pass on campus. Having lost a bet, he unzips his sweatshirt to reveal that his t-shirt, specially created for the parent tour says, “I Dig Cougars.” I ask Spuds to take a picture of me with the guide and he reacts like I'd loudly farted.

I'm at that age, where I spend more time with my dentist than with my husband. I notice the day before we depart that I have two loose crowns. One is a molar that I've already been told is a goner but of more concern is a front incisor. In the Wesleyan dining room I am grudgingly given a Passover lunch by an Asian server in the cafeteria, even though I don't have the special ticket. Later I grab a chocolate cranberry bar which I hope will help get rid of the taste and mouth feel of stale matzoh. My mom would say, “God's punishing you,” often when some misfortune befell me and these words come back to me when I bite into the chewy morsel I have no business eating and my front incisor attaches itself to the sticky baked item. With five minutes until the orientation session is to begin I try to jiggle the crown back on and Spuds spits, “For God sakes, go do that in the bathroom!” Fortunately the crown slips back into place. It is wobbly but at least I don't resemble Mammy Yokum.

The information session has started and we make an awkward entrance. The room is filled with parents but Spuds sits next to me. The admission counselor pauses and notes for late arrivals that the student session is next door. Having driven nearly three hours from Manhattan and faced with the prospect of having a front tooth missing for the rest of our trip, I am even more dull witted than usual and begin to rise along with Spuds. The boy barks, “You stay here!” with such great authority that the room errupts into laughter.

I get confused between the JFK and FDR toll bridges returning to Manhattan and end up in an EZ Pass lane without an EZ Pass. Fortunately, the car has Georgia plates and despite my ineptitude no one has flipped me off or honked all day. There are cars behind me and they wait with astonishing patience until a guard appears, notices the out-of -state plates, shakes his head, takes my cash and admonishes me gently to read the signs. Then he smiles and waves as the gate lifts. Henceforward I will always request a rental car with out-of-state plates.

My dentist, aware of the volatile state of my teeth and my lack of compunction about calling him at home, informs me that drugs stores sell a special cement for do-it-yourself dentistry. I am pleased that even in New York I am able to use my Rite Aid Rewards Card. I decide that while I am cementing the front crown, I might as well attend to the molar as well. I follow the instructions on the kit carefully but when it comes time to put the front crown back into place it absolutely will not fit. I struggle with it, perspiring and in tears, for nearly an hour,. In my frenzy, I knock the molar crown down the drain. Finally, I am able to get the front crown to stay put although it will not fit flush with the gum and extends about a quarter inch longer than my other teeth. My speech is slightly impeded and the fang sort of reminds me of those long pinky fingernails people use to snort cocaine.

I am dead asleep but Spuds hears some shouting in the street and, because we seldom hear anything at home much more thrilling than coyotes, except for fireworks on the 4th, he rushes to the window hoping to soak up some urban color. “Mom!” he cries, “I just saw Philip Seymour Hoffman get mugged!” The initial scuffle involves a man and two women arguing with a cab driver. The cab speeds off and Hoffman is on the sidewalk, oblivious and texting. One of the women grabs his phone.. Hoffman assumes she's playing around and yells, “Hey, give that back. It's important” but the woman runs off with the phone. Before Hoffman can give chase, he is tackled, thrown down and his head is smashed against the sidewalk before he is relieved of his wallet.

Spuds calls the police and gives a report. He shouts down to Hoffman that he's called the cops and asks if he's ok. Hoffman thanks Spuds and enters his apartment, directly across the street from ours. Four police cars arrive but the muggers are long gone. Just as the police leave we notice Hoffman coming out of his building and staring out into the street. “He looks real out of it, “ says Spuds and he gets dressed and goes downstairs. He stands for a bit with Hoffman who says that the two girl muggers are actually transsexuals. Spuds notes the less than optimum timing but that he can not bear missing the opportunity to tell Hoffman how much he admires his work. Hoffman is gracious about the compliment and again expresses his appreciation to Spuds for being such a good citizen. The first thing I say to Spuds when he comes back upstairs is that he can forget about applying to the New School and living in the heart of Manhattan. “It's not up to you,” he responds and perhaps it takes this little sojourn away, just the two of us, for me to notice how the mother/son dynamic has morphed and changed.

On our last day we visit the 9/11 Memorial. I circle the two pools and read to myself the names, etched on the perimeter, of the 2983 victims. There are a lot of Murphys and many Jews. Nearly 3000 names from all over the world, a Brotherhood of Man stock footage montage of peoples and places. This will typically fade into a few hopeful final frames of the Statue of Liberty except the end in this case is monstrous rubble and a name on a fountain. Sometimes “and unborn child” has been added and I ponder how profoundly the consequences of 9/11 will resonate into the future.

I wonder too about how our little college visits will impact my own life and my family and perhaps ultimately the destinies of generations to come. This time next year we'll know where Spuds will be attending college and if it's up to him, it will be on the East Coast and the nest will then be very vacant. Joe College returns home now less frequently but shows up this week. It's the end of the semester and he has some essays to complete for which perhaps his English PhD dad might prove helpful. Plus he's exhausted his campus food plan, supply of clean underwear and money. Immediately after his interaction with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Spuds calls his brother. Ditto when the older boy has an experience he deems earth shattering, little brother will be the first to hear. It's been a while since big boy's been at home. I fall asleep, as usual, with my glasses on but am wakened later in the evening. The boys are watching something, undoubtedly puerile, on TV downstairs and they are laughing their heads off. They've been laughing at things together ever since Spuds could crack a smile but I realize it's been a while since I've actually heard the sound, perhaps sweeter now as it is so fleeting.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Time Zones

Every weekday I wake up at 4:30, walk the same route, eat the same breakfast, drive Spuds hither and yon, work and return home to make dinner and set up my coffee on a timer, and dole out the many vitamin supplements I take into a chipped shotglass that says “Janet” which Himself picked up when he gave a paper, my mother's affected naming of me forcing him to resort to my middle name. Then I lay out the implements and ingredients for my morning meal, fall asleep reading with my glasses on and then wake up and do it all again. It is exhilarating but a bit unsettling to be in a different time zone and stripped of this routine. My friend Randi is on a short term assignment in Honolulu and finding a cheap fare I take her up on her invitation, which may have been merely polite, to spend a long weekend.

It has been over 40 years since I've been to Honolulu and I remember primarily the Dole Pineapple Plantation, the Kahala Hilton Hotel and the Ala Moana Shopping Center. I am greeted by Randi with a tuberose lei. The aroma makes me nearly delirious and I sleep with it next to my bed on the twenty fifth floor, overlooking Magic Island. The condo is across the street from the behemoth Ala Moana mall which I remember as being much smaller. It seems like 90% of Honolulu's commercial property is retail and it is hard to tell where one huge crowded shopping center ends and the next one begins. The population of Honolulu is under a million yet there are six Coach stores and a lot of folks must be forking over for spendy handbags.

We skip the pineapple plantation but have dinner at the Kahala Hilton, now known as the Kahala resort. I expect it will trigger some memories but nothing is familiar. I ask to see any old photos and am led to a wall adorned with pictures of celebrity guests posing with management. There's the Obamas, Burt Reynolds, Michael Jackson and Jim Nabors seems of have been a very frequent visitor. Disgraced Alaska Senator Ted Stevens appears embracing Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye but there is no photographic evidence of Imelda Marcos who decamped there after her exile from the Philippines. Out back there's a small pool with dolphins which I must have seen 1969 but I have no recollection of. The most expensive rooms abut this pond which seems so tiny I'm surprised there isn't a 24 hour PETA vigil.

We order tropical drinks on the beach at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. It is gorgeously restored and every surface, uniform, curtain and linen is pink. There are a number of lady guests who promenade about in pink muumuus and straw hats. We tour Shangri La, repository of an astonishing collection of Islamic art, the Hawaiian retreat of heiress Doris Duke. Miss Duke outbid the Metropolitan Museum of Art on several items. Bold colors and the intricate symmetry of ancient tilework and painting are set against an extensively tended tropical garden, overlooking the turquoise sea. This is one of the most spectacular dwellings I have ever seen and it is beyond the realm of my imagination that the owner went for as long as ten years without visiting the property.

We have to put on tissue booties to enter the Iolani Palace, which is particularly tacky when compared to Doris Duke's masterpiece. Many of the Hawaiian royals visited Europe and there are photos of garden parties with guests wearing top hats, ballgowns and the other trappings of a much cooler climate. The Palace is done up in gaudy imitation of European glitz and its creation threw the Hawaiian kingdom into great debt. Until the 1890s, the Kingdom of Hawaii was an independent sovereign state. On January 17, 1893, the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Queen Lili'uokalani was deposed in a coup, led largely by American citizens who were opposed to her attempt to establish a new constitution. We visit the room where the queen was imprisoned at Iolani Palace. There's a spectacular quilt she made during her confinement, quilting a craft brought to Hawaii by Christian missionaries.

Across the street from the Iolani are the contrastingly austere Mission Houses. In the early 1800s Henry Opukkahai'ia, a sixteen year old Hawaiian, joined a sailing expedition and ended up in New Haven Connecticut where he learned to read, attended Yale, converted to Christianity and published an inspirational diary. Opukkahai'ia died of typhus at age 26 but his life and work inspired a group of 14 other missionaries to sail and carry on Henry's vision for his homeland, then called the Sandwich Islands. The Mission Houses could have been transplanted from Connecticut, with tiny windows that provide no cross ventilation. Visitors introduced influenza, smallpox, and sexually transmitted diseases to the native population. During the 1850s a fifth of the Hawaiian people were killed by measles. Yet, the missionaries also brought a printing press on which the first newspaper published west of the Mississippi was published. The founders of the Mission House community devised the first written Hawaiian language and two decades later Hawaii had the highest literacy rate in the world.

There is a casualness and easy warmth, even in the commercial district and among the many haole (non-native Hawaiians). I am on a very crowded bus, navigating heavy traffic. There is a violent scream from the rear, “Move it bus driver!” and I expect the bus will stop and there will be a big scene and perhaps the police will be called to remove the out-of-control ranter but the passengers laugh, the screaming stops, and we continue through the jammed streets. Most men wear aloha shirts and a suit and tie is a rare sight even in the downtown area. I visit Baily's , home to about 50,000 aloha shirts, many spectacular and some priced as high as $7000.00. Like the Kahala Hilton, there is a wall of photos of celebrities partaking of local culture, the most recent being Anthony Bourdain.

We eat a lot of sushi and have our nails done and everyone is nice to us. We climb Diamond Head, the path jam packed with tourists, some loud mouthed. There is an old lookout carved under the rock from the WWII era and the view of Waikiki is mind blowing. We cruise Waimea, a major surfing drag and pass shrimp trucks and long lines of tourists waiting for shave ice. We hike through an botanical preserve up to a waterfall. I adjust to the time change on the last day, having finished reading a memoir and a novel on the previous ones. Returned to Los Angeles I just want to sleep but Spuds and I are off for a college tour in New York and I will probably just be over my Hawaii jet lag when I arrive. I expect to be utterly thrashed by the time I return from the second trip and it will be a comfort to resume my rigid regular schedule. But the scent of tuberose and prowling Manhattan with Spuds will stand out vividly from the long blur of setting up the coffee timer and frying an egg.