Friday, December 27, 2013

The Corporeal Fallacy

Joe College is accepted for a creative writing program in Salzberg Austria. He receives a well meaning note from my stepmother reminding him the Hitler was Austrian and admonishing him not to wear the Star of David medal that he inherited from his grandpa. Even if the Nuremberg laws were still in force, there would be little cause for concern. The piece of jewelry is huge and gaudy and I presume the boy would rather appear in a bustier and feather boa. The Mogen David would probably be worth a few shekels melted down but Cash for Gold would likely present an ethical conundrum for the boy. Perhaps a solution more passive in origin may have come to fruition.  I suspect the medal has long been lost.

More and more though, Joe College has defied maternal expectations. A passport is required for his journey. I print out the renewal forms, a copy of his baby passport and instructions on getting passport photos and a passport appointment in Redlands. He procrastinates for several months and arrives home for winter break and schedules the process at our local post office. My children have picked up where their summer sleep schedule left off. They are shuffling around, eating and playing video games when I get up at 5:30 in the morning and waking up and making coffee when I return from work in the afternoon. I am not working on the day of the passport appointment. It's in the morning and I inform him that he'll have to wake himself up. “Of course,” he snaps. “I'm twenty one years old!” There is no stirring on the morning of his appointment. Even though I promised myself I wouldn't, I yell down to the basement to make sure he's in motion. Then, it occurs to me, there's no way he would have remembered to get the photos. I work myself into a genuine froth about this and go round and round about how to play it. Should I send him to the appointment anyway, and let him suffer the consequences of not following my meticulously rendered instructions? I decide to spare the wear and tear on his old car. “Do you have the passport pictures?” “Yeah,” he responds. He is bearded in the photos. And handsome. And a man. A man who has it together enough to have gotten the photos.

I feel like an asshole. When I was the boy's age I'd graduated from college and lived relatively independently. The world however was less complicated to navigate then so I really have to be pushed to the boiling point to throw this in his face. We're going to live longer than our parents did so maybe our kids staying young longer is just natural evolution. Plus, the younger the kids seem, the younger I feel. I guess the boy can't win. I want him to be an actualized independent adult as much as I want him to always be the first baby I ever loved.

The boy asks if he needs his birth certificate and I confidently tell him that the copy of his old passport should suffice. I wouldn't want to trust him with the original passport and birth certificate anyway. For all of meticulous adult-ness I can be remarkably stupid, and inexplicably stubborn about it. Anyway, the passport appointment is indeed rescheduled. I will however make it a point to retrieve his old passport and birth certificate from him the instant he gets home so I can return them to my orderly files. You never know.

When we are in England, we are asked at every museum we enter, “Are you over 60?” My response is likely more indignant than warranted. I'm not sure if it's the gray hair of if they just ask this of everyone who doesn't have acne. When we return to the U.S. there is a miserable customs line. It is finally our turn and the agent looks at our declaration and passports and then at us. “Honeymooners?” he quips. If he wasn't a federal agent, I would lose it completely. The “tee hee hee Granny and Gramps making whoopie” subtext is so obnoxious I want to throttle him.

Little Penny, born almost a year ago on her great great grandpa's birthday visits with her parents. She is an incredibly cheerful soul, the least angst-y baby I have ever seen. She is walking now. The family resemblance is by now is pretty watered down but I can still see it. Penny toddles through the house remarkably agilely. My sister Sheri, gone now for over a decade, had just a brief glance at her daughter and barely knew her granddaughter. Sheri will never know her great granddaughter Penny at all. How sad this loss or actually, and perhaps even sadder, the never having had. But I am grateful for the worthwhile-ness Penny, her mother, and grandmother confer upon my sister's sad sad life.

This is my last entry of the year, another year of change.  My company is celebrating its 50th year in 2014.  I have relocated and now it feels like my own.  There are floral curtains and a pink paisley chair.  The last of my dad's practical (ugly) furnishings are hauled to the junk yard.  His copious hand written notes are being transcribed and shredded.  I'd stored some of my mom's belongings at the old office but there is less space at the new place and another couple boxes of my mother's life are relegated to the dumpster.  A floor lamp I've always loved becomes the focal point of our redesigned bedroom.  My dad's collection of celebrity stills and 1950s animation cels decorate the new office.    As I purge myself of their possessions perhaps my parents die a bit more. I remember both of them now by those objects I love best. When I look at their grandchildren, great grandchild and great great grandchild I sense their life eternal and so my own.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Awkward Unison

Joe College returns for Thanksgiving break with Roommate and Girlfriend. I am able to indulge my daughter envy when Girlfriend ecstatically accompanies me to the downtown flower market at 6 a.m. Additionally, she masters the piping bag after a brief lesson and produces a tray of charming girly hors d'oeuvres. Spuds returns from Bard on the first night of Chanukah. There is bad weather on the East Coast and I am frantic that his flight will be canceled. I envision him spending Thanksgiving curled up on the floor, using his backpack as a pillow, at  JFK. I log onto the Jet Blue website a zillion times. His flight is delayed. Finally after an hour the website indicates that his flight has flown. I've had a week long cooking orgy. Roasted tomato soup, potato latkes, homemade applesauce and Nutella donuts are served and the menorah is lit at 10 p.m. when Spuds arrives home. The next day, it's Thanksgiving for 20 guests. Last year my stove was broken and I cooked the meal in a tiny convection oven. About an hour before the turkey was done, a fuse blew and we had to farm out the components of the meal to be warmed at the homes of friends and neighbors. This year the old stove has been replaced with a yellow enameled Italian job the size of a Fiat. In addition to the Chanukah grease fest, a Thanksgiving feed is pulled off hitch-free the following day.

Spuds' visit home is a brief one and at eighteen his first trip home since August entails places to go and people to see. Our time together is limited. Joe College and his crew head back to Redlands and I repack (unbidden) Spuds' backpack. Himself and I are leaving for London ourselves the next day. After a couple of frenetic days Spuds and I loll on the couch and channel surf to kill time before we drop him at the airport. . We happen upon Denzel Washington's FLIGHT. The crash sequence is harrowing and beautifully edited. Spuds notes, “We probably shouldn't be watching this,” but we are both too inert to change the channel. It has been one of the best Thanksgivings I remember. I love having a house full of jocular enthusiastic eaters. However, being sprawled on the couch with Spuds by the glow of the TV is the moment that the whole Thanksgiving raison d'etre really sinks in.

I have chronicled here previously a wondrous week spent in London during the summer. Himself and I learn that some WW1 paintings by Stanley Spencer from the Sandham Chapel are being displayed in London. Himself is not a spontaneous person and motherhood has pretty much beaten that quality out of me as well. The decision however is made in about fifteen minutes and a flight is booked for the following week. Stanley Spencer served in Macedonia and then later at a mental hospital that had been partially re-purposed to treat wounded veterans. The themes of the series are nearly mundane. Orderlies mop the floor of the hospital. Soldiers rest and water their horses at a fountain. The central alter-piece mural has not been removed from Sandham but it is projected at the London show. The war is over. Soldiers, resurrected, rise from their graves. There is no trace of horror in any of Spencer's work but the banal tableaux evoke what has gone before. The exhibit is aptly titled Heaven in a Hell of War and is a testament to survival predicated by steadfast belief in a comforting God.

We visit Heaven in a Hell of War twice and also my old favorites (The Tate and the Victoria and Albert) and the new to me (Courtauld, Museum of London and The Museum of Transport). We see a mediocre play (Mojo) with a great cast and also The Curious Case of the Dog at Midnight which blew me away during the summer. I note in August and also during our recent visit that The Apollo is particularly funky, even by London Victorian era standards and am shaken to learn of the ceiling collapsing in the middle of a performance so soon after our own visit. We take a brief train trip to the village of Cookham where Stanley Spencer lived and worked. We spend several hours in a tiny gallery and chat with the enthusiastic curator. Many of these paintings are landscapes and small glimpses at domestic life.  My favorite is of a couple searching through a chest of drawers.  Their bodies in awkward unison navigating a tiny space. Tea and scones are taken at a twee tea shop and we take a walking tour of the church, bridges and gates depicted in Spencer's paintings. I gorge on Kendall Mint Cakes, Wine Gums and Marmite flavoured Twiglets. Indeed, this is the upside of the empty nest. The icing is the spontaneity of a pilgrimage to indulge our mutual love for a wonderful painter and Anglophobe Himself's admission that London is, despite his hostility toward the Brits, pretty damn swell.

Rover, to everyone's surprise, has outlasted his car. Mechanic Jimmy pronounces that after 200,000 miles, the wagon is DOA and not even worth selling. It is donated to charity. I clean out the detritus of twelve years. The kids' old school assignments, chargers for ancient cell phones, and CDs that are thrashed from frequent play and a decade in a hot car. Both of my kids learned to drive in the old Volvo. It made countless trips to the cabin we retreat to in Felton. A pop-up trailer was hauled up Highway One to Big Sur. Spuds puked copiously through its open window on an immoderate New Year's Eve. I purchase a new tiny Volvo named Blueie over the summer but hold on to the the old wagon exclusively to transport, the sheddingest of all dogs, Rover to the office. The wagon's upholstery is ripped to shreds and the passenger door won't open from the inside. Even the headliner is thick with Rover's white shed. The door handle is gone, the radio erratic and the air conditioning hinky. Still, filling a carton with all the old junk it's amassed makes me wistful. I've solved the Rover dilemma by proffering my beloved, pristine Blueie to Himself to use on the two days a week her reports to teach and his Volvo, less-old-than-the-wagon-but-less-new-and-way-less-cool-than-Blueie, has been commandeered for Rover transport. I drove that wagon longer than any car I've ever owned and take enormous pleasure in driving its replacement. The carton of its contents remains in the trunk of Himself's car. Himself will get on my case about it undoubtedly but as happy as I am to have the new car, there is something that saddens me about sorting through the contents of the old one.

The day we return from London I head off to Loma Linda for the second of three necessary oral surgeries the precise nature of which I tune out because I am squeamish. I am forbidden any solid food for three weeks and my face swells up like a pumpkin. I have a black eye and a huge black bruise at my jawline. I am so stoned after the procedure that I'm not sure whether my dentist actually told me that she's gotten engaged to be married or if I've hallucinated this. I am afraid to ask her the truth for fear that she'll withhold drugs for the third surgery. I look at my scary self in the mirror and suddenly feel less guilty for having traveled and upgraded vehicle and kitchen appliances.

Joe College is back home for vacation. He watches movies in his underwear and drinks a lot of beer. Girlfriend is in Florida. I return home and find him shaven and dressed. I ask why he's all dressed up and am informed that he has been Skyping with Girlfriend. Tonight Spuds returns although his vacation is truncated due to a January freshman seminar. I fill the cupboards with food the kids like even though I'm still on the soup and mashed potato diet. Fortunately, my return to solids coincides with Jewish Christmas. Himself is balking about seeing Wolf of Wall Street and Joe College is complaining about my choice of Chinese restaurants. The swelling has gone down. I can cover the shiner and other bruising with concealer. I've lost back most of the weight I gained by gorging on British crap food. The kids will be here for a while. Rover snores in his bed. I'll get around to going through that carton of crap from the old Volvo. Compromises will be made regarding Jewish Christmas. I will never experience atrocities in Macedonia but I know my doggy's days are numbered.  I am still honing the appreciating quality over quantity thing with the kids and it is painful still when they leave. Table debates about film and food and music grow less frequent.  I know though that the sprats, like me, will drop anything for a concert, meal or movie. Sometimes I can persuade their father to do the same.  Losses and joys and infinite tiny resurrections.

Friday, November 22, 2013

This Week in Haiku

Fretting about the drought,
on a freeway in the rain,
everyone's an asshole.

Lean Pockets are gross
but lower in calories
so I eat seven

“I hate vegetables,”
says vegetarian spouse.
Make your own dinner.

Son at twenty-one
can buy liquor and gamble.
Still, life skills suspect.

Short line at Costco.
Rude lady fights with checker.
No time for hot dog.

Must scroll back to where
I last left off on Facebook
Seldom worth the time.

“Selfie” word of year.
Too embarrassed to take one
plus it's sure to suck.

Micromanage kids.
I am a Jewish mother.
At least I can cook.

I'm no heat lightweight
but I can't stand Sriracha.
Spicy dead body.

Drank too much coffee.
Gelson's on way to work.
Bathroom very clean.

Husband is miser.
Hides napkin to use again.
I throw it away.

Kids are coming home
I miss them so much that I
will gladly wash clothes.

Appointment canceled
with quarters placed in meter.
Husband is bereft.

With no GPS
my kids would surely perish.
Maps like ancient runes.

Drinking with girlfriends,
technically we're women.
We cackle like hens.

Confluence of holidays.
Lots of potatoes.

Cheap flights to London
Empty nest not so tragic
See you in two weeks.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Part Two, part three

We spend a few days in Annandale at the Bard College Family Weekend. It is nearly three months since we've seen Spuds. Despite a post-Katrina dorm room he is intact. We are stimulated by mini-courses which we attend along with other New Yorker reading-NPR contributing parental units. I shop at a farmer's market and cobble together a meal for Spuds and some of his friends in a little rental we've taken a few miles from the campus. It seems to me that in attending a college like Bard, and having a group of genial, witty friends, our eighteen year old has won the lottery. Knowing how clueless my own parents were about my own state of mental wellness, at least it seems that the boy is very happy.

In twenty five years of traveling together we've done California and Ireland voraciously. We've dipped into bits of Europe and I've probably seen more medieval altarpieces than most Jewish girls from the Valley. The East Coast is fresh territory. We visit the Montgomery House near the Bard campus. Janet Livingston Montgomery purchased 242 acres in the late 1770s, shortly after the death of her husband, General Richard Montgomery who became the first casualty of the Revolutionary War at the Battle of Quebec. The house was in the family until the 1980s and it appears always under the aegis of strong women. The restoration captures a little bit from each era in tribute to this family. We stop by the Berkshire Museum which is old school, sort of woebegone and full of taxidermy. I indulge Himself in some Herman Melville tourism and he reciprocates by escorting me to The Mount, Edith Wharton's impeccable homestead. We encounter George Montgomery several more times in our wanderings and Melville, Wharton, Benedict Arnold and Ben Franklin also pop up unexpectedly in multiple locations. I overdose on colonial furnishings but start to drink in the flavor of places that began to flourish so much earlier than my own stomping grounds.

It is not too hard to say goodbye because Spud's flight home for Thanksgiving has been long booked. We set out from the Hudson Valley with a rental car and Himself's determination to avail ourselves of the contracted unlimited miles to the fullest extent possible. We hit the road to Montreal. We stop en-route in Saratoga Springs to sample the water (putrid) and meet up with our friend Jerome (hilarious) for a quick lunch. During a brief walk through the town I spy my dream dog, a chocolate brown standard poodle. When I have to rationalize my twenty five year bond with a man who is my polar opposite, love of dogs is high on the list of commonality. When we run into this spectacular poodle a second time I cannot contain myself. I extend my hand palm down for her to sniff, the correct way to connect with a canine for the first time. Miss Poodle rears up and growls. Female poodles are often shy but Jerome quips, without missing a beat, “Show us on the doll where the bad lady touched you.”

We bid Jerome adieu and continue north. For nearly two weeks, it occurs to me,we'll have no contact with friends or acquaintances, just each other. It been years since we were stuck alone together like this for an extended time. I am self conscious about my need to eat three meals and a few snacks every day. Even though I am in pretty good physical condition, Himself's legs are longer and unless I make a big fuss, he walks ahead of me, leaving me in his dust like an endomorphic geisha. I can tell he dislikes it when I see him exercising each morning. I'm happy listening to crap on local radio but when Jack and Diane comes on for the umpteenth time I fear Himself is going to blow a gasket.

I am impressed by underground Montreal, 20 miles of interconnected walkways underneath the city. Himself dismisses the feat as simply a huge shopping mall but it pleases me that there is this vast refuge from winter cold. It's Halloween and raining hard when we arrive in Quebec City. The Museum of Civilization provides a typically balanced Canadian viewpoint of the county's evolution. I still resent Himself's refusal to indulge me, decades ago, in a carriage ride through Central Park on a Valentine's Day. The horse-drawn carriages in Quebec City are covered and after a bit of inveigling, Himself agrees to a Halloween spin through the town. The rain is fierce and the driver's French accent is nearly indecipherable. We are given blankets to cover ourselves but they are damp and down by the river my toes begin to go numb. Nevertheless, Quebec is picturesque and charming and I finally get my romantic horse and buggy ride. A drunk lady in a restaurant wears devil horns. This is the closest thing to a Halloween costume that we identify. The large bowl of candy at the reception desk at our hotel is untouched until we make a huge dent in it.

Gasoline is more expensive in Canada and we coast into Maine on fumes. We are blessed with unseasonably warm weather in Bar Harbor. The fall color has lasted longer this year and Acadia National Park explodes in orange, red and yellow. I drive into Boston which I hope I never have to do again. We take a spirited walking tour of the Freedom Trail, the climax to our Colonial immersion. At the Boston Museum of Fine Arts we marvel at John Singer Sargent's spectacular murals which adorn the rotunda. A large collection of his watercolors are on display. Sargent is known mainly for portraiture but he created over 2000 watercolors, mainly during travels through Europe and the Middle East. In one of the works, Corfu, A Rainy Day a couple share a sofa. The woman sleeps, most of her face eclipsed by a pillow. The man reads. The woman's bare feet rest in his lap. Her shoes are strewn carelessly on the floor. We are reminded of ourselves.

We spend a night in Newport Rhode Island at the Grace Vanderbilt Mansion, now a spiffy hotel, within our reach off season and thanks to a Restaurant Week package. The room is giant, with high ceilings and 19th Century oil paintings. The famous mansions close early in the autumn so the only tour we manage is of the local historic museum. But a night in our hotel certainly conjures the zeitgeist of the Gilded Age. Our trip ends anticlimactically in a huge sterile corporate hotel in Jersey City. We do spend a few hours in Greenwich Village, joining our friend Rosemary for a cozy Indian dinner before we dump the rental car and take to the air.

I return home and by the time I've unpacked the “what am I going to do with myself now that the kids are gone” malaise creeps up again. I read a collection of short stories, the first published work by Southern writer Jaime Quatro (I Want to Show You More). I am blown away and humbled. Quatro evokes favorites Alice Munro, George Saunders and Flannery O'Connor but her works are truly original. The bio indicates she's been married twenty four years and has four kids. Even if she was a teen mother, Quatro is no spring chicken. I notice that a number of the stories have been previously published in obscure literary journals. My own writing success has been particularly disappointing recently. It occurs to me that Quatro has worked harder both in honing her writing and particularly in pitching it than I have and she has twice as many kids. I admit I am jealous of her talent and work ethic but it is comforting to see an older writer's first publication and the astounding quality of her work.

During the big epiphany about what the writing requires, an opportunity arises to do something else that I am ostensibly good at. Nancy, my friend the realtor, asks me to prepare some baked goods and appetizers for a realtor caravan and open house at a home they're selling. Unfortunately, Joe College and his retinue have returned on the weekend leaving an empty refrigerator and cold germs. I am sick. I do some baking but I forget to use a ruler when cutting and the result is bar cookies of irregular size. I plan some easy hor d'oeuvres that I've made a million times before. Slices of baguette brushed with butter and toasted until crisp topped with a spread and then garnished. I opt for par-baked bread to save on slicing elbow grease but the result is rubbery and tough, unlike the nice crisp results achieved with fully baked bread. I am behind schedule on assembly and ask Himself to spread some hummus on some of the crostades for me. Often I get comic mileage from Himself's ineptitude at various manual tasks but with my little hummus appetizers he has outdone himself. They look like a crime scene. I decide to redo them at the event and pack up the car. Actually, Himself packs up the car while I change my dress only to discover hours later that I am wearing it backwards. I am late. Ice spills. A dozen blue cheese toasts end up in the gutter.

I make a prototype and assign Nancy the task of reworking the hummus platter. I am shocked when she too has Jackson Pollack-like results. “Do you want me to put these on the table?” she asks. “NO!” I shriek and confiscate the tray. Visitors are starting to arrive. I make a sticky mess assembling a jug of Sangria. The house has been carefully staged and it is essential that all of my paraphernalia be stowed in the car. It occurs to me that I am literally (in the correct usage of the term) running. I am not doing the quality of job I'd hoped but there is something satisfying about running. I confirm to myself that I have high standards and I take my responsibilities seriously. I manage to revise the hummus and visitors seem to enjoy the offerings. Nevertheless, everything is a bit off kilter to my eye. Nothing is cut quite precisely enough and it is clear to me that my efforts are amateurish.

I tell Nancy that I'm not thrilled with my results. I don't chide her about the hummus debacle but she can tell by my interception of her work that her efforts are substandard. She explains that her parents didn't entertain. Like Himself, no one ever came to her childhood home for dinner. “I never learned how to do any of this,” she explains. I feel chastened and reminded what a haughty bitch I am but neither Nancy nor Himself will ever again be engaged by me for help in food preparation or assembly. Both however are useful for loading, unloading and cleanup.

I like my own writing better than a lot of what I read and my own cooking better than much of what I eat. But there are better writers and better cooks. I rationalized my dilettantism for years because mothering was always so demanding. Perhaps this blog will be my only published work. I may never have the chops to be a professional caterer. But it feels good to demand of and for myself. It is satisfying to try hard and expand my identity beyond motherhood. I am gradually becoming accustomed to the quiet of the house. Himself reads. I doze on the couch. That part is easy.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Looking Now

A week ago, to the minute, I sit at this same keyboard and confess that the only really significant events in my life for the past seven days are seeing a movie and taking the dogs for vaccines. This week has been an improvement. I see yet another film and instead of waiting in line with the dogs for shots, we dress Taffy up in a hammerhead shark costume and take him to Corgi Day at the Huntington Beach dog park. Himself is not a beach person despite having discovered that 100 SPF sunblock is indeed effective, even after five hours in a kayak under fierce Hawaiian sun. His attendance at the corgi soiree is just to humor me and perhaps a trump card to reprieve him from some even more odious social event, one where people, not dogs, are the main focus. Since joining the corgi society I have learned that Taffy is not unique in his imperiousness. Corgis are dignified, serious little dogs and not particularly affectionate. A friend rode in a Sacramento elevator with Sutter Brown, California's first dog, and noted that despite his high public profile, Sutter is haughty. I only subject Taffy to the costume briefly and he is surrounded by paparazzi. Removed from his outfit, Taffy strolls, sniffs a few butts and pees on every picnic basket and beach chair he passes. A few corgis take to the water but the breed seems largely landlubber. Taffy growls at a wave that has the temerity to roll in and dampen his tidy white paws. Himself remains hunched in a big hat, struggling to keep his neck covered by his shirt.

Joe College returns home hungry and toting laundry. His girlfriend as of one month is in tow. I have weaned myself from doing the kids' laundry but I remove a load of my own from the dryer and load in the boy's freshly washed duds. There is a wee little bra. Fortunately, MTV has a marathon of “16 and Pregnant” which I have on for the duration of their visit. I take them to the romantic comedy Enough Said which is urbane and hilarious. One of the themes explored is the anticipation of kids leaving for college. The film is dead-on regarding the anticipation of the empty nest that at one point it's so raw that I consider walking out. The subplot of the main character bonding with her daughter's friend and all the awkwardness this foments is also resonant. My kids often resent relationships I form with their friends. I have a magnetic type of attraction to sweet kids who suffer with what I sense is sub-par parenting. Perhaps this because there were a number of righteous adults who surrogately parented me when my own family fell short.

Joe College and a small entourage return again this weekend to celebrate his 21st birthday. Himself is excited because now the boy will be able to purchase beer for him at a good brewery near the college. Remembering my own behavior at the same age and the things my parents never knew, I have other concerns which I try to keep to myself. My dad had no filter. I remember telling him a million times, “Just because a thought drifts into your head doesn't mean you have to say it out loud.” I am pretty good at knowing what not to say but when Joe College leaves I blurt out, “I'll see you next Sunday for your birthday. It's the only thing I have to look forward to.” When my own mother said things like this it felt guilt inducing which infuriated me. I wish the second the words leave my mouth that I could suck them back in. The boy looks stricken and begs, “Please don't say that.”

Spuds texts me that he has received his first college grade on a research paper, an A minus. I've attended a gathering of parents here in Los Angeles and I know that Spuds is the only kid from the East Side and one of very few who's attended public schools. I've scanned the freshman Facebook page and see there are kids from Oakwood, Choate and Miss Porters. Spuds is definitely one of the more urban kids at Bard. I text him back “Fuck those rich prep school assholes,” and his deadpan response is “Thank you for your support.”

Next week this time we will be at Bard, drinking in Spuds, after a nearly three month separation and what he says are spectacular fall colors. It is family weekend and wild horses couldn't keep me away. I struggle, like the heroine of Enough Said, to live meaningfully when the kids are gone. It is true that what I have to look forward to are Joe College's birthday celebration and Family Day at Bard. This sounds pathetic and I will not say that this isn't a challenging time but the things I look forward to are not my only conduit to pleasure. I like my new office and after the complications of selling the old building it is gratifying to work every day in a homey space. The neighborhood is new to me and I discover charming cottages and secret stairways when I walk Rover. I walk early in the morning too. Until the time changes in November I walk mostly in the dark and dawn breaks as I head toward home. This morning a huge yellow moon hangs low, silhouetting the foliage on the trail. Illegal roosters start in. The new sun illuminates a sprig of fescue. A dried out thorny weed twists up the hillside, delicate and intricate, tiny blossoms perfectly preserved. Humble things majestic in the break of dawn. I do so look forward to time with the kids but am as content looking now as I am looking forward.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Dog Save Us

These pieces turn out better when I write about an experience rather than blather on pontificating and regurgitating the bleeding heart liberal party line. I am enjoying a couple of weeks at home before we take off on yet another trip, this time to visit Spuds and attend Family Day at Bard. I rationalize having a relatively uneventful week because I am not exactly aspiring to have writing worthy experiences. Like most ordinary weeks, I walk, work and watch an embarrassing amount of TV. This week I am disturbed by Right Wing Republicans, duped by big business into doing its evil bidding and making mischief, but Himself is so cynical there can be no dinner table discussion. The government shutdown being verboten chat fodder, the only two events outside the norm for me are seeing a movie that I probably wouldn't have agreed to see if I had remembered its provenance when I was invited and taking Taffy and Rover to the low-cost vaccine clinic at the Animal Shelter.

Wajda is the first film ever made by a female Saudi Arabian filmmaker. The movie receives tons of praise but I am suspicious it is being overly celebrated by critics striving for political correctness. I anticipate a couple hours of bombast and amateurish film-making. It is an understatement to admit the film defied my expectations big time. Wajda joins the pantheon of poignant bicycle themed films like De Sica's Bicycle Thief and Truffaut's Les Miston. A bicycle is so much more modest a vehicle than a car and the main character, Wajda's desire to own one provides a glimpse into Saudi Arabia that feels tender but very authentic. Wajda wears high-top sneakers and jeans under her hijab. She records mix cassettes of rock music but she is admonished for appearing in public without her face covered or for playing on the school playground in sight of some workmen on scaffolding. Wajda's mother is at the mercy of a irascible driver to provide transportation to and from her distant employer. Her father is largely absent and it is revealed that he is in the process of marrying a second wife to bear him a son because Wajda's mother's difficult pregnancy has made it impossible for to conceive again. The direction is understated and this light touch makes the glimpse into a land that is very modern in so many ways except that for women, it might as well still be the Middle Ages.

For the most part, American dogs garner more respect than Saudi women. Our Taffy in fact has a better social life than we do, being a member of a Corgi meet-up group. This weekend we will chauffeur him to a beach picnic in Orange County. There are fancy dog boutiques where a box of gluten free treats costs more than the weekly Food Stamp allotment for a family of four. Our dogs suffer through on store brand kibble but nevertheless we are hardcore dog people, I do see though why people hate dogs. Our three bark when another canine has the temerity to pass the house. My constant reminder that the street is a public area and not private property has no effect. Himself, despite his devotion to the practice of meditation which I think is, if not truly Buddhist, Buddhist-y, has a short fuse. Added to the dogs' incessant barking is Himself screaming at them to stop barking which of course only incites them to bark all the more.

My boy Rover (who farts loudly the moment I type his name) seems to have stabilized and while he remains a little creaky he is more animated than he was early in the summer. He is adjusting to the new office and is back on his must walk promptly at 10:30 schedule. His appetite is excellent and several times an hour he shatters my concentration and pats my thigh with his rough paw inveigling for a treat. His fuzz already wafts through the new office and he is banished from my new little Volvo Blueie. I keep my ancient wagon for the sole purpose of transporting him. My tolerate-the-dog-because-it-is-the-boss's otherwise dog-hating employees marvel that Rover has his own car.

I put off rabies vaccines when it looks like the oldest canine will no longer require a license. When Rover shows signs of a second wind I decide to spring for the shots. I guess if you aren't a dog person, this dilemma seems preposterous but the logistics of transporting both Taffy and Rover is complicated. Oprah and Taffy will not be separated. They have no problem when Rover leaves for work by himself every morning, as long as they get a treat. I can take Oprah and Taffy in the car together. Taffy likes riding in the car although he occasionally shifts gears or turns on the wipers. Oprah hates riding in the car so it is not practical to take her along for the shots merely as a field trip. I choose the vaccine clinic that is only five minutes from the house in order to minimize the duration of Oprah's howling when separated from Taffy.

I expect a quick trip but there are dogs (and a few cats that people haven't had brains enough to put into carriers and will therefore deserve the permanent scarring to face and neck areas) lined up around the block. I am tempted to bail and take ours to the private vet but I've already gone to the trouble of getting them in and out of the car. There are puppies and wobbly oldsters, pure-breds and mutts, dinky Chihuahuas and behemoth Rottweilers. There are also a number of Cholos with unneutered pit-bulls who get dirty looks from the crowd. The wait turns out to be over two hours. Finally, Taffy and Rover lie down on the floor, immobile, as people step gingerly over them. It certainly isn't worth this much of my time to save a few bucks on shots but there is something reassuring that after a long day's work, so many people will patiently wait so long to do the right thing by their pets.

I am out of the closet about the amount of TV I watch and despite being an ardent pacifist, a lot of the shows I watch are Grand Guignol violent. I have no trouble when a character on one of my programs holds a revolver to an infant's temple but I bury my head when a gunman, who typically wastes half a dozen people per episode of Boardwalk Empire, is unable to end his dying dog's misery and put him down. I will add that while it is repulsively slothful, I enjoy stretching out on the couch and watching a show at the end of the day. When Oprah entered the house for the first time at age eight weeks she jumped immediately up on the sofa and has rarely surrendered it since. So, when I am stretched out usually there is a seventy pound dead weight pinning me down and numbing my limbs. Opie didn't like the dying dog scene either.

My misanthrope husband will happily discuss ideas but is largely apathetic about politics and particularly indifferent with regard to people. This challenges me to lay off the TV a bit but given my mental sluggishness I am able only rarely to provide him with a modest amount of satisfying discourse. He condescends to watch a couple of shows with me. We've been doing this give and take thing for over twenty-five years now. For over twenty of these years the kids have been a constant distraction but also kept us grounded in our commonality. The boys are both gone now and the intersecting slice on our Venn Diagram is a bit thinner. I read so I can make conversation with him and he watches TV to keep me company. We accept that now that just the dogs, and not the kids, are the reason that we can't have anything nice. Barking wakes us in the middle of the night. I always have to share the couch. I drive a thick with dog hair, un-air-conditioned, door-handle-broken jalopy to work every day. Yet, we both sneak the dogs special treats and talk baby talk to them. The love of dogs was one of the first things we loved about each other way back when. Now that there are no kids to distract us, despite the downside, it is nice after all these years that we still love dogs together.  

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Supposedly Fun Thing That I Will Probably Do Again

There are more than a few rolled eyes when I announce that Joe College and I are headed off to Denver for a reunion performance of The Replacements. I am sheepish about my passion for the band until I see the documentary “Color Me Impressed,” the title borrowed from a Replacements song. When I hear about the film in pre-production, I cringe to learn it isn't really about the band, but instead a portrait of die hard fans of The Mats. I avoid it when it's released, fearing that all the dorks, losers and geeks spouting minutiae about the band would embarrass me. One night however, perusing the overpriced wasteland that is Amazon on-demand I come across the documentary. I am left buoyant, as articulate and learned folks put into perfect words everything I love about the band. Even without having been vindicated by the film, I would travel to just about anywhere on the planet for a reunion of the band that hasn't played together for twenty three years.

The venue is May Farm, about an hour outside of Denver. I call the day before to ask how much mud remains from the flood and the lady informs me, making it obvious that she's already informed scads of others, that there is no mud. Not only is the May Farm mud free, it is hot and dusty. Extremely so. There a three stages and the day begins with a lot of bands we've never heard of and one we boycott because the lead singer was mean to Spuds. Joe College is more familiar with a lot of the groups than I am. When he counsels me not to bother I walk around and people watch. Colorado is reportedly the thinnest state in the union but all of the food available is greasy and many of the customers in line are light years from buff. It is also remarkable that with weather in the mid 90s, many concert goers don jackboots and leather jackets.

I am disappointed by the performance of Guided By Voices but enjoy Super Chunk and am particularly blown away by L.A. locals Airborne Toxic Event who demonstrate great verve and athleticism. Other than that, I do quite a bit of walking. There is a VIP area which has several benches, the only seating available in the huge venue. Joe College and I nab a seat. A guy about my age sits down next to me. We fist bump when he announces he's come from Ohio and I report that I've traveled from L.A. to see The Mats. I believe this is my first fist bump. As Himself predicted there are far more 50 something men than women there to pay homage. My phone alarm pings every day at noon to remind me to swallow a fist full of iron supplements and probiotics, sort of the baby-boomer equivalent of Geritol. I pull out my little Ziploc bag of pills and Mr. Ohio starts to salivate. He asks if I have anything to trade. “Dude, these are friggin vitamins and my kid is sitting right next to me.” He is so embarrassed he gives up his prized seat and trods off into the dust. The penultimate act is Iggy and the Stooges. I skip this in order to stake out a position close to the Replacement's stage but I can barely decipher anemic versions of Stooges classics. I am not surprised when Joe College reports that while Iggy displays remarkable energy, the Stooges are many miles over the hill.

The Replacements are as legendary for their brilliance as for their capacity to be the biggest fuck ups in the history of the planet. They appear on stage in Western shirts, huge cowboy hats and long pink skirts. From the first note until it becomes clear there will be no second encore I am spellbound. Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson are the two original band members. One original member died and his replacement is recovering from a stroke. The original drummer has ardently disassociated himself from the band for years. Now it's just Paul and Tommy backed up by Josh Freese on drums and David Minehan on guitar. They play almost all of my favorite songs and a few that I've never liked. Songs aren't completely reworked nor are they note-for-note replications of the originals. The thread that runs through the whole show is that Paul and Tommy and the rest of the band love the songs they're playing. They have fun and it is abundantly clear that, after an acrimonious split, Paul and Tommy are happy to be on stage together again after over two decades. They mix up a bit of the introduction to “Alex Chilton,” my favorite song of all songs, a song about loving music. When I identify what's being played there is a physical rush that's hard to describe. Joe College pats me and his look says he is pleased to see his mom just about as blissed out as I'll ever be.

I feel that after listening day in and out to Himself's litany of complaints about his employer that I am entitled to freeload once or twice a year when they spring for him to attend a conference. This year we land in San Francisco's Union Square. I am bored by San Francisco, having visited so many times. I never get the big deal about the Ferry Building. None of the museums have exhibits that interest me. I've seen the permanent collections many times. I schedule one lunch with a colleague and otherwise am left to my own devices. After having had a wonderful experience with a walking tour in London I poke around on-line and discover that there are a number of free walks lead under the aegis of the Public Library. It takes me nearly an hour to walk from Union Square to Coit Tower, perhaps one of the steepest ascents I've ever attempted. The guide is magnificently knowledgeable about the Coit's WPA murals. As participants in the tour, we are permitted, in groups of six, to visit the second floor, which is generally closed to the public because the stairway is so narrow. This room too is filled with gorgeous murals which beautifully illustrate San Francisco life in the 1930s.

I take the Filbert Steps down to the Embarcadero. There are dozens of small cottages, former homes of Irish longshoremen accessible only by creaky wooden stairs. The guide informs us that the average sale price for homes in the area is three million dollars so I guess owners can afford to hire someone to schlep groceries for them. I join another tour that meets in front of the, still unremarkable to me, Ferry Building. This tour covers the history of the sea trade and the Barbary Coast. We are shown the site of the boarding house from which the term “Shanghaied” originated. I return to my hotel and check my pedometer. I've clocked over ten miles, most of it uphill but don't feel particularly achy or weary.

My walking pal Dianna says that I'm an athlete. This is specious but I do find myself looking forward to actually walking rather than looking forward to being done with walking. On the strength of my good experiences with tours in London and San Francisco, I sign up for a Sierra Club walk, exploring the stairways of Eagle Rock. I can't sucker anyone into going with me but I decide to go for it. About thirty people have assembled. We have to sign in and provide the license plate numbers of our car and emergency contact information. The leader refers to the event as a “hike.” We are read a list of rules and regulations. I fear I am in way over my head. The walk commences and I chat with some of the participants. Apparently, stair-walking is a thriving cottage industry. We are introduced by our leader to two luminaries, one man who has written two books about LA's hidden stairways and another who leads a weekly stair-walk through Silver Lake. We are instructed not to pass the leader nor straggle behind the co-leader who wrangles the end of the line. There are frequent calls of “car front!” or “car back” and we all have to squeeze unto the sidewalk. I am asked for my credentials. I report having walked up and down staircases in Mount Washington and Silver Lake but I reveal myself to be a total greenhorn when I am unable to name their specific locations. It is astonishing how many folks are so seemingly single minded and fanatical about stairs. Nevertheless, I see parts of Eagle Rock, which despite years in the vicinity, I never knew existed. There are charming little cottages and spectacular views. The others are serious and scrupulous about making sure we achieved the 328 steps we are promised. The zealousness borders on creepy. Even though it's been billed as a hike, I don't break a sweat. There are walks scheduled at stairways throughout the city that I would never discover on my own. I suspect there are more stair walks in my future but my inner geek will always belong to The Replacements.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Another disruption

It would be reprehensible to blog while my employees are schlepping films up the stairs of our new and yet to be air conditioned office.  I likely will not post on the following two Fridays either but for a more fun excuse.  Back soon.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Part Two, Pt 2

The temple is filled with young families. Parents convey their superior child-rearing skills by over-enunciating and speaking more loudly than necessary to their kids. A group of Occidental students arrive in two vans. A pretty girl carries a biography of Hannah Arendt. I blurt out that I just helped my son do a project about Arendt who taught at the college he attends. I babble on and tell all the kids to call their parents to wish them L'Shanah Tova. I guess now that my own kids are no longer around to embarrass, I'm reduced to embarrassing myself. Spuds reports that he's attended a service at Bard which he liked except for the rotten food. Joe College and his handful of Jewish friends probably gave at least a cursory nod to the Days of Awe. I suspect the Awe-someness may have been enhanced by liquor.

Spuds has been gone less than a month but I am already amassing a list of firsts. The first Shabbat without the kids. The first time I couldn't figure out how to operate the TV remote And now, the first Rosh Hashanah without my boys. The adjustment to what's referred to as Part Two will come, I know. It just hasn't happened yet. I mope around and Himself chastises me for watching too much TV and not reading a single thing. I binge on Downton Abbey and the sappy score nearly puts him over the edge. I do read magazines while I eat my breakfast and if Himself didn't sleep so late he would witness this. I explain that I am depressed and he is genuinely surprised. “Do you miss,” he challenges me, “the 24/7 throbbing sub-woofer?” “I wouldn't mind it,” I say only to myself, not to provoke him when there are no kids around to give us a reason not to fight.

This first week of the Jewish year is my last week at an office I've owned and worked out for nearly two decades. Thousands of pages of my father's neatly printed notes are transcribed and relegated to the recycling bin. Huge film racks are ripped off the walls and broken down for scrap. Boxes are stacked with tiny snippets for film, lenses for projectors we're not sure we have anymore, rolls of powder blue leader labels and stuff that may be important but we don't know what it is. The new owner has dismantled what was left of our air conditioning. It seems that wherever we are and whatever we need it's always at the other office.

On paper, the first of the empty nest era, referred to as Part Two sounds pretty good. I return from an excellent couple days in New York with Spuds and old friends and a mind blowing trip to London. I only have to cook for one fussy eater who can be placated with leftovers more readily than his spawn. TaskRabbit is a new discovery and for $15. a nice young man arrives promptly to diagnose my pathetic error in attempting to operate the television and does not shame me as others have. The new office, when I'm done with it, will be homey and elevated from my dad's utilitarian workplace ethos. And there is a landlady to call when anything breaks.

I have a new (to me) car, a bright blue C30 Volvo. I fell in love with this jaunty little model, which resembles the froggy Volvos of the '70s, the first time I saw it. I haven't had a car I loved since before the kids were born. I've had two Volvo wagons. Nice, powerful, well designed cars but militantly not sexy. I call my new baby Blueie. A sucker, I am charmed by contraptions enhanced with human qualities. Blueie has Bluetooth and says his own name (in my voice) every time I start him. ( I also have personal relationship with our Neato Vacuum who refers to himself as “I”and “me.” I call him Robo.) The first time we take Blueie for a spin Himself asked me why I kept patting the steering wheel. I am not really aware of doing this but I am insanely over the moon for this car. So over the moon, that Rover, the best but also the shedding-ist dog ever born, is banned from Blueie. I've kept the wagon, with it's headliner of white fur, broken door handle, torn seats and old car aroma to transport Rover to the office. Blueie is my weekend car and the old wagon, Rover's limo. Note: Illustration is a representation of Blueie.  Too hot to go outside and take real photo.

Joe College calls. He is down. Dorm living was preferable to living off campus for his first two years. Or at least, tolerable. Now, most of his friends are living off campus and he is among the older students still in the dorm. The younger students are needy. It gets on his nerves. He says he doesn't have a quiet moment to himself. I'm sorry the boy is frustrated but it is good to feel mom-ish. I was reluctantly approved for off campus status at Johnston with a cockamamie story about the mail room screwing up film shipments from my dad which I needed to screen for my studies. This is why no one recognizes me or even my name at reunions. Looking back, I should have stayed in the dorm but I completely understand Joe College feeling disgusted. I explain that chances are that his scholarship can't be converted to subsidize off-campus housing but advise him to verify this. I tell him that although he is sick of hearing about my office problems it is the last week in the old office and it is so hot and there have been huge complications so I don't feel up to giving him good advice. He asks then about the move and says he's sorry for bothering me. “You're not BOTHERING ME! I've just had a hard week,” I start to wail. “Plus I've been really sad. And lonely! I know! Instead of moving off campus, just come home after your Thursday morning class and stay until Sunday night every week. You'd have peace and quiet and we can hang together!” I suspect any further discussion about moving off campus has been nipped in the bud.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Life Sentence

Spuds and I will board a plane to New York during the first week of August. I will drop him in Annandale, spend a few days in Manhattan followed by a week in London with a girlfriend. The trip is booked way back before real estate negotiations go south and I am sure that everything will be completely sewn up before my departure. I am sheepish about going to London while in the middle of the great building farrago but everyone says I deserve to go and Verizon only wants $30 for a global data plan. I'm starting to buy in. Joe College asks what “ascetic” means and I want to blurt out “Dad, and after twenty-five years it's rubbed off on me.” I certainly am less profligate due to the influence of Himself's monastic inclinations but I do have a dozen pair of shoes, that my closet can't accommodate, annexed under the bed.

The day after I return to L.A., Joe College will pack up and take off for his junior year. We have his friend from school, a fabulous kid, staying with us for the summer. We all love him but observing him at the table it occurs to me that all he really likes to eat is meat and that he really hates fish. My kids aren't crazy about fish either but Himself doesn't eat any meat at all and Spuds won't eat beef. Often I end up making three separate entrees, and no matter what, there always seems to be something that someone doesn't like. My children are fussy. You reap what you sow.

I do enjoy the conviviality of the table and with our summer guest, we are all on particularly good behavior. Himself has the table set when I return from work which means that if I suggest we go out he can say, “but the table is already set.” I love to cook but sometimes the effort and the attempt to satisfy so many disparate palates is tiring. One night this week with the kids gone, I throw some leftovers together for Himself and eat a bowl of popcorn myself, sitting on the couch watching Colbert. The shape of things to come.

Towards transitioning less pathetically to the soon to be empty nest, I socialize a bit. When I go out for the second night in a row this week Spuds asks why I suddenly have a life. Nancy, my friend the flutist, and I head up to the Hollywood Bowl to hear what one of our fellow passengers on the Park 'n Ride bus refers to as “The Rites of Spring.” Nancy arrives to pick me up with a bag of stuff from Trader Joe's, including a salad for herself. She asks if she needs to grab a fork and Joe College is certain that TJ's salads come with forks. She is ravenous by the time we get to our seats. The salad has no fork. Fresh and Easy salads come with forks. NOT Trader Joe's. We are in the nosebleed area and the only open food purveyor is down at the bottom of the hill. The concert is about to begin. I would suggest that she eat the salad with her fingers but it is beets. Some Israelis are eating enthusiastically and yacking it up in the seats behind us. I ask if they have an extra fork and they present one from their overflowing picnic hamper.

After having eschewed the escalators to arrive at our high altitude seats, we resent having to stand for the National Anthem. You don't have to stand when there's a rock concert at the Bowl. You don't have to stand when the Philharmonic plays at Disney Hall. I'll probably get on some sort of government list but I hate the Star Spangled Banner. No one remembers the words which are stupid anyway and the melody isn't exactly a toe tapper. When the program starts the fork donating Israelis continue to chat and seem to crumple an interminable number of paper bags and seemingly Costco size rolls of aluminum foil. I blame Joe College for the incorrect lowdown with regard to the Trader Joe's fork because now that we've partaken of their largesse we can't tell them to shut the fuck up.

Unfortunately, there are other distractions this evening. Why would someone bring a newly ambulatory baby to an evening classical performance? The tike toddles up and down the dark steps and Mommy and Daddy takes turns calling her back and trying to chase her down. I feel guilty and politically incorrect with regard to my final complaint. A Tourette sufferer, whose vocal tics are mostly profanities, is seated several rows behind us. I mostly go to rock 'n roll concerts where this wouldn't be an issue and given the Israelis, struggling to converse with each other over the music, and the wayward baby, poor Tourette is actually the least annoying of annoyances.

My piece of several weeks ago mentions those phone calls in the middle of the night that start out with a wobbly “Mom...” and can throw even the most mellow and enlightened of us into apoplexy. Did my mere mention of this make it come to pass? This time, the shaky “Mom” is followed by, “I'm ok but I've been in a bad accident. My car is totaled.” I scream for Spuds to come with me to fetch brother but when Joe College pops out of the basement, I realize that it is not Joe College but Spuds stuck at one a.m. on the 101. I can't distinguish their voices from their father's either but Himself was sleeping in bed next to me so it was only a 50/50 guess. Joe College forcefully tells me to stay home and that he's better off handling it without me. I text Spuds frantically and then realize his phone seems to have died. Joe College calls, lost on the wrong freeway and then again to tell me that every freeway is closed. I find myself standing in front of the open refrigerator door, my historic source of comfort but I slam it shut. I pace. I text Joe College with instructions until he texts back “STOP!” Two hours later they return.

The next morning Spuds, who often watches Judge Judy with me, e-mails me the pictures he took at the accident scene to send to the insurance adjuster. There are a couple of things in my life that I wish I hadn't seen and these pictures are high on the list. I notice a huge bruise on Spud's knee and whisk him off to Urgent Care. The diagnosis is a torn meniscus and the prognosis is that given his youth it will likely heal without surgery. The doctor looks at the pictures from the accident and tells us that we are incredibly lucky. As I write this Spuds indicates the pain is gone. He is breaking down shelves and heaving films to the new office. There is only liability coverage so his beloved Volvo is a goner. We are waiting for the police report but based on the fact that the 58 year old woman who rear-ended him with a Corvette too new to be classic but not new enough not to be crummy, didn't have a credit card to pay the tow driver, we're guessing, no insurance.

I decide to post one photo on Facebook of the Corvette smashed underneath Spud's behemoth Volvo to encourage people to buy heavy tank-like cars for new drivers and to warn their kids against driving with a battery depleted cellphone. Seeing the photo there on my Facebook page reminds me about all the parents who get calls with much more terrible news. A childless friend writes that our experience is unimaginable. He adds that he freaks out if one of his dogs falls off the couch.

For the first time in twenty one years there won't be a kid in the house. I did have fun before I had 'em. I'm trying to relearn that. But despite the empty nest, there is no going back since the breeding that commenced back in 1992. I had no idea what I was in for. The love I have for the kids sometimes feels commensurate to the horror I experience as they navigate the world. I don't worry about myself much at all. Having kids though makes fatalism utterly untenable. I truly am seeing the up side of the empty nest but I never imagined 22 years I ago how inextricably and how permanently I will be on the hook regardless of the nest's physical population.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Four More Years

Perhaps it's a psychological smoke and mirrors trick to pay attention to real suffering and injustice in the world and make my own woes seem trivial. We are back in “all real estate, all the time” mode as the sale of our office building has gone all Chinese puzzle again. I was hoping the deal would be done before I leave in early August to take Spuds to school but it appears the negotiations will be protracted and my trip won't be distraction free. I prepare dinner with my shoulder hunched to hold the phone in place. The realtor and I go back and forth. I convey my frustration and he volunteers a story about another transaction that has dragged on for over nine months. I hang up. I call a friend who it turns out is apparently bored by my whining. He changes the subject. “How is Rover?” “OK,” I respond. The ancient dog's decrepitude has plateaued. He still eats and can manage to get into the car. My friend goes on, “Well, I hope he just goes in his sleep, rather than, you know...” I hang up and take a sleeping pill.

A week long binge on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black is a good distraction. Set in a Federal Women's Prison, the show is riddled with inaccuracies, the most egregious is that many of the crimes that inmates are purportedly sentenced for would have landed them in state, not federal, prison. The show is based on the story of Piper Kerman, a former debutante and Smith College grad who spent a year in a Federal Prison for smuggling drugs at the behest of her girlfriend. It is not a perfect show. Friends and family outside of the prison are portrayed as callow to the point of stereotype. Most of the inmates are victims of circumstance but the flashbacks to their crimes are, if implausible, incredibly satisfying. The showrunner is Jenji Kohan, whose Weeds jumped the shark about four seasons ago. Orange is the New Black, like Weeds, however is impeccably cast. I've never watched a film or series that's motivated me to check out each and every performer on IMDB.

We pay a visit to a real prison. There is a hunger strike in progress throughout the state. Governor Brown has requested a Supreme Court stay of the Federal Court order to reduce the prison population by 10%. Funny how Governor Moonbeam becomes Governor Law and Order when he is facing a reelection campaign, that will require heavy duty largesse from law enforcement unions. We have visited the men's prison in Tehachapi at least a twenty times. It is always a strange and unsettling experience to enter a situation where it is presumed that you have bad motives. We have made a couple stupid dresscode screw ups and have had to borrow appropriate clothing from the charitable “Friends Outside” which keeps a trailer near the visiting center. Typically from the time we arrive at the visitors center it takes about an hour and a half to reach the actual visiting room where we meet our friend Alan. The wait this time is much longer. Witnessing the release of three inmates is the silver lining. Two are in prison sweats and one wears dress-outs (clothing sent from home.) I wonder how many years of their lives the crumpled little trash bags they carry with them represent. They are greeted by family. The odds are very much against them but the real life emotion of this moment is more potent than any TV drama.

The climate is palpably different this visit. I attribute it to the hunger strike and perhaps the job loss that will result as mandatory census reduction is closer to becoming a reality. It seems a combination of ultra-heightened security and retaliation. I am turned away when the muslin blouse I'm wearing is deemed too sheer. The guard says, “You can see your undergarments.” I know better than to ask if he's wearing x-ray specs. I change into a black t-shirt.. Many more visitors are turned away than usual. I am permitted to keep a single car key but others are forced to surrender theirs. Attire that is typical of the waiting room is suddenly too tight or too short. Almost everyone, including the elderly, is patted down after passing through the metal detector. A mother is carrying five bottles of baby formula. She is only permitted to enter with four. She has to return to her car with the fifth. Visitors are allowed to carry $40 in either quarters or dollar bills for the vending machines. Ordinarily the officers flip through the singles quickly. Today each bill is carefully examined.

We finally arrive at the visiting room. Alan is surprised that the kids are with us. He hasn't seen either for several years and he is blown away that both are tall young men. We first visited about five years ago. Alan's scheduled release will coincide with Spud's graduation from college. Now, the release is four years away and after having served nearly twenty years, to Alan it doesn't seem that long. He has completed an A.A. Degree in business and also holds certificates in heating and air conditioning as well as welding. He is an assistant teacher for a welding class and plans to parole to Las Vegas where his finance lives and his skills will be in demand. Like the women in Orange is the New Black, Alan's sentence is due to an extraordinary stupid choice, but there were indeed extenuating circumstances. The Three Strikes law mandates a 23 year sentence. In states with no three strikes law the same charge would likely result in an absolute maximum sentence of five years. In California, prisoners sentenced under the Three Strikes Law are only eligible for a 20% sentence reduction for good time and educational accomplishments. Those not sentenced under Three Strikes are eligible for 50 to 66% good time reduction..

If Justice Kennedy doesn't grant Jerry Brown's request for a stay, the state will have to release 10,000 inmates. Actually, in order to keep pace with newly sentenced prisoners and relieve the current overcrowding in the county jails, the number will probably be closer to 20,000. If Kennedy upholds the court decision, there is an excellent chance Alan will be released. His mother is in Oregon and his fiance in Nevada. I promise I'll make a beeline to Tehachapi if he has the good fortune to be freed early.

Visiting ends at 2:45. At about 1:15 a guard announces that all of the inmates must leave for an emergency count and that visitors have to remain seated. Alan wolfs down a yogurt, his favorite treat from the vending machine and tells us that he probably won't return. The prisoners file out and it is announced they will be strip searched. The guards assure us that the inmates will indeed come back and tell us again to stay put. Spuds, unused to rising at 5 a.m. has chugged a couple of Red Bulls. Because he is a minor I must be at his side at all times. I go to ask the guard if we can be released from the visiting room for him to use the bathroom. Request denied. We are told to return to our seats. It approaches 2 p.m. It is clear that the inmates will not return. Spuds is squirming and miserably uncomfortable. I approach the exit door again and ask quite adamantly. Spuds is accompanied to the bathroom by an officer who watches him pee. After another half an hour we are permitted to leave and board the bus back to the visitor center.

Alan writes this week about the pending verdict and goes on, “I do stay focused on what I'm doing here. If it happens, great but I'm not going to be disappointed. I only have four years left to go regardless of all else. Sure, I hope for the best and yes, it's a total dream to think I could go home this year or next. It's like dreaming about hitting the lottery. It would be cool, but the odds are 7 billion to one...”

I feel guilty, given the bigger picture, fretting about money or office space or an old rescue dog who's had a wonderful life. After over twenty years in prison, to Alan, four doesn't seem like that long. I'm not saying I'm never going to stress again because I have a friend who is sanguine about the prospect of four additional years (he doesn't deserve) in a place that is difficult for me to spend even a few hours in. Alan is happy to have to serve ONLY four more years. There is a good chance that Justice Kennedy will uphold the court's decision regarding prison population but Alan tries not to think about it. Myself, I fantasize about meeting him at the gate and welcoming him to the new millennium.

I am emotionally exhausted and wish my brain had an “off” switch. Alan's serenity about facing four more years of time if Justice Kennedy sides with Governor Brown does remind me that what plagues me in recent weeks will inevitably come to an end. It won't take four years and through it all I get to go home each night to a bowl of popcorn, infinite TV channels, Ambien, and I guess, smoke and mirrors.  

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Challenge of Compassion

I attend a panel, sponsored by the Pasadena branch of the ACLU, on the subject of California Prison Realignment. The speakers are the ACLU Representative who serves L.A. County Jail, the leader of the faith-based Justice Not Jails group and a woman who, motivated by her own brother's brutal attack by guards at the County Jail, has formed a coalition to institute citizen oversight at the facility.

I am more familiar with the state prison system than the county jail although both systems in common fall far short in providing any sort of true rehabilitative program and both are plagued by cadres of indifferent, and sometimes ruthless, guards. I have long been aware that novice sheriffs are first assigned to work at the jail. Up until there was a big stink about a year ago, the least experienced deputies were put in charge of the most volatile inmates. One of the speakers notes that Los Angeles County is unique in California, and indeed most of the U.S., in training sheriffs via jail duty. He points out that this sort of introduction to law enforcement work seems very “Southern.” There are scads of reports about abusive jail personnel but the victims lack credibility so much of the abuse goes unchecked. The ACLU jail representative on the panel recounts witnessing guards viciously kicking an unconscious inmate. She adds that there is other testimony, based on witnessing similar violence inflicted on inmates by jail staff, provided by a jail chaplain and also by a tutor.

It is interesting that much of the uproar about the abysmal conditions at the L.A. County Jail is fueled by the fact that most of the inmates are being held because they're awaiting trial and can't afford to make bail. Many of the ACLU members are particularly outraged that so many of the prisoners suffering in the county jail are innocent. Does this imply that it's OK for the guilty to be subjected to barbaric conditions?

As I write this we are in the third day of a hunger strike by some 13,000 state prison inmates whose major issue is the imposition of indefinite periods of solitary confinement. Prisoners who do not renounce gang affiliation are often subjected to years of solitary. For many inmates, “dropping the flag” potentially puts loved ones on the outside at risk. Many inmates languish in solitary confinement for decades in order to protect wives, mothers and children. The spokeswoman for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is quoted saying that strikers will be dealt with harshly. Visiting and phone privileges will be revoked and commissary items (purchased with the inmate's own money) will be confiscated. The Corrections Department declines to name the locations of the prisons where inmates are striking. Strikers face other punitive sanctions including lengthened sentences. Forced feeding will be instituted if the strike continues. One of this weeks viral videos is of the courageous rapper/actor Mos Def volunteering to undergo forced feeding to give the public an idea of what our government is perpetrating at Guantanamo and soon likely, California. I know better than to watch such a video but I understand that the procedure was so excruciating that Def asked that it be discontinued.

The news from Texas is that there's a good chance a bill that highly restricts the availability of abortions, despite Wendy Davis's epic filibuster, is destined to pass. Ironically, the purportedly “pro-life” state recently celebrated its 500th execution since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.
A newsletter I subscribe to chronicles executions and death penalty issues around the world. Often there are photographs and biographies of death row inmates. The preponderance are black, born of teen moms and often in the third or fourth generation to struggle with drug addiction and chalk up many more years incarcerated than on the street. I am saddened but each mugshot is just further evidence of the tragic and seemingly ceaseless cycle.

Some letters written by a prisoner on death row to his sister are beautifully written and moving. The writer, William Van Poyck is white and educated and was executed in Florida on June 12. His sister keeps a blog with his letters which provide an illuminating and harrowing description of his final days, which he endured with miraculous equanimity. William Van Poyck is more like me than most of the other 1329 inmates who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S. His articulate voice gives me a better understanding of what it is like to be on death row.

It is easier to punish those who are least like us. The earnest ACLU members are outraged that the innocent suffer in the hell that is County Jail. But what of the guilty? What about a gang member who spends decades in solitary confinement in order to protect his family? What about the man with a 76 IQ struggling to understand the process that will ultimately end his life? I think that people do have good inclinations. Good work is done on behalf of children and animals. But we slam on the brakes at the sign of any moral ambiguity. I would not want to be part of a community that did not strive to project innocent kids and puppies. I long though for a society with the courage and compassion to protect the guilty.  

Friday, July 5, 2013

Bet Hedging

God, in the idiosyncratic way I define God, is not hovering over me making sure the karma's balanced. Sometimes it just feels that way. After two months of complicated real estate deals blown to smithereens and research about underground storage tanks and soil contamination, a geophysical survey crew arrives at the office. Estimates for the removal of an abandoned storage tank range from $30,000 to $100,000 and this is just to remove the tank. Costs can radically escalate if there is any evidence of contamination. There are city, state and federal programs to help with these expenses but eligibility is not guaranteed and the process is complicated and likely to drag on for years. A device like a miniature steam roller is pushed over the lot and in about a half an hour I am informed that there is no evidence of a buried tank. Seldom have I waited for a result in such a state of agitated anticipation. The sale is still not a done deal. The perspective buyer can still pull out if he can't get financing or in the unlikely event that further environmental tests reveal traces of contamination from the gas station that occupied the site nearly 100 years ago. Nevertheless, there are a couple back up buyers in the wings. Things have looked very promising a couple of times before but seem perhaps but a bit more promising now. I am more sanguine than sanguinary.

When another deal seems like a sure thing we actually look at mountain cabins and I start research on cars. My Volvo has nearly 200,000 miles and even my mechanic says not to put another dime into it. When the deal falls through, despite the lip service I give to rationality, part of me suspects I've jinxed it by counting unhatched chickens. Even though there are good signs now I am superstitious and do my best to keep to an austerity budget and not daydream about cars or cabins.

We have moved thousands of films to a climate controlled storage space and now have to sort through what we need to take to our new smaller office and what we need to get rid of. There are huge binders filled with my dad's typed, and then later when he lacked the dexterity, handwritten notes. We have transcribed some and hope to have all of these notes in a database shortly. Dad also made photocopies of all his work, just in case. I clean out a file cabinet filled with his painstaking shot-by-shot descriptions of thousands of films. I fill ten shopping bags for recyling with his notes. I give myself credit for re-purposing the old film library as a stock footage archive. I've built a lot of good professional relationships and have managed to get our license agreement vetted by all of the studios and networks. I'm a good negotiator and have good radar for customers who will likely waste my time. I fill up bags of Dad's notes and despite all I have made of the business, I am struck that I have never worked as hard as he did.

I am so beaten down by months of all real estate all the time that while the results confirming the absence of a tank is a relief, it doesn't provide the rush of euphoria that I'd anticipated. Business is summer slow. We are paying rent on our new space and salaries for kids hired to assist with the move. A good customer requests a substantial refund on some materials that are cut from a project. Another client is slow to pay on a large invoice. There is a government warrant that's lost in the mail and will take a couple of months to replace. I've been juggling money for as long as I can remember. Probably, financial stress has been the most significant detriment to the quality of my life. When colleagues and competitors ask how we're doing I always say, "The lights are still on," but the confluence of this week's circumstances creates a potential calamity that keeps me up all night. I wander downstairs at 3 a.m. and the kids are watching a documentary about homeless Romanian kids huffing paint. This puts my own circumstances in perspective but nevertheless, I am uncertain how I will cover payroll and a number of overdue bills, including ironically the DWP which could actually result in the lights being turned off. I feel a physical shakiness and find myself babbling to no one. After my employees toil in a heatwave loading and unloading thousands of films the thought of not covering payroll is unbearable.

I can see no alternative but to borrow from a relative in order to stay afloat until the overdue checks arrive. The reception to the humiliating beseeching is easy, compassionate and affirmative. I'll be able to issue paychecks but the discomfiture of having to ask for a loan doesn't let me feel pure relief at being able to cover payroll and other critical expenses. I do not foresee my current emergency as having any repercussions regarding the relationship. Even though the deficit is due to circumstances beyond my control I feel low and failed. The boxes of my father's notes and hard work torment me. I haven't worked hard enough. I've slipped up on my resolution not to make any financial plans until after the real estate sale is a done deal by poking around on the net looking at cars. Albeit, used hybrids, but maybe my sophisticated perception of God is completely off. Perhaps there is a punishing God who knows that I've never worked as hard as my old man or that I'm researching cars before the money's even in the bank.

I take the kids to see the Bling Ring. They report that it as accurate a portrayal of teen vapidness as they've ever seen. It's also a pretty scathing indictment of parenting of the hands off variety. I think of how hard my dad worked but also remember that I my childhood contact with him was limited to spending Saturday morning with him at the office, eating lunch and then engaging in a recreational activity of three hours or fewer. I might not have worked as hard as my old man did at the office but I've been present for the kids. Both of them are people I would genuinely like if they weren't mine. I know, nature vs. nurture, but I like to think that there's some nurture in the mix there. I have people who love and trust me enough to transfer money into my bank account in the blink of an eye. And, there is no friggin' gas tank. My sense of my own fortune, good and bad, really is all about the spin I put on it. I know that there isn't a white bearded deity looking down on me from heaven. Still, I promise not to look at cars again until the building is sold and every debt is paid. Just in case.