Friday, April 26, 2013

Funeral Crasher

I have sought out some memorable childhood friends on Facebook. There have been some pleasant interactions and the satisfaction that former acquaintances will be able to glean from my postings that I am married to a professional, have two presentable offspring and am not, despite what they might have predicted in high school, a bag lady. About two years ago I requested the friendship of David, a boy I remember as being particularly warm, funny and wildly creative, definitely on the short list of people I still feel fondness for. I forgot about it. There are a handful of people I have asked to Facebook friend without response. It's no big deal because it can possibly be ascribed to an indifference to Facebook in general and isn't necessarily evidence of dislike. Plus, at the age of 56 I don't even remember who may have drifted into my consciousness while I'm tooling around so I am oblivious in the case of Facebook, unlike real life, to the possibility of a slight.

About three weeks ago, out of the blue, David accepted my friend request. He'd obviously not been very devoted to Facebook as there were scant postings and only a few pictures. The most recent one showed his recent marriage although the photo of bride and groom was taken from a strange angle. This week David's death is announced on his Facebook Page. I see that his list for friends is comprised mainly of people I knew from Camp JCA and high school. Weird how this rekindles those adolescent era feelings of being an outsider. What was so wrong with me that kept the twenty five or so people whose names I recognize from staying in touch? One of my neighbors is on this list. I run into her and am told that David died after suffering for over five years with brain cancer. He was married in a hospital bed which accounts for the odd photo.

I guess we were about thirteen and sitting in front of the old lodge at Camp JCA Barton Flats. David's sister was about two years older and David read a letter from her out loud. The letter was hilarious and we laughed our heads off. He was obviously delighted by it. She signed off by saying she had an annoying booger and her nose now required a good “pick job.” The memory of this crass humor and intimacy and the pleasure that these siblings clearly took in one another has obviously stayed with me.

An e-mail announcing the funeral was forwarded to me. One negative is that attendees were instructed to eschew usual somber funeral attire and don festive colors. The usual upside of attending a funeral is that black is so slimming. And the prospect of attending oddly evokes my high school awkwardness. I feel like I'd be crashing the cool kids' party. But David was wicked smart and also kind to me. Even if I don't belong I am very curious about how he's spent his life since high school. Maybe my attendance, even on the periphery, will add to the mere mass and a good turnout will comfort his family and close friends.

It is ingenious to suggest that crashing the funeral of a friend I haven't seen in nearly forty years is an act of selflessness. I guess I will always consider myself too young to die but when I do embrace the inevitability it reminds me to turn off the dumb noise I generate and just be. In addition to a funeral, my social calendar is unusually flush this week as Joe College has returned for a few days. I take both of the kids to a movie. Spuds moves east in August and the opportunities to hang with both of them grow fewer. The kids do their usual shotgun routine and as usual, Spuds is slow on the uptake and winds up in the thick-with-dog-hair back seat. We sit through trailers for the summer blockbusters and simultaneously burst into laughter at some particularly ham-fisted dialogue. The rest of the audience glowers, presuming that I shared a bowl with the sprats before the show. We go to dinner after. The boys have their own private jokes and special shorthand. I am left out of a lot of their conversation but their connectedness makes the mortality issues du jour less distributing.

My stepmother calls me. She tells me that my father is looking down on me and protecting me from heaven. This strikes me as more creepy than implausible. I believe that death absolutely brings an end to consciousness. But in a sense, my stepmother isn't entirely off base. I worked side by side with my dad for thirty years. I look around the office and his tidy printing is everywhere. It's on rows and rows of film cases and thousands of pages of hand written film descriptions. Often the researchers use these notes and come to me and ask how Al would have classified a tea ceremony (see “Oriental”) or making tamales (see “Spanish food”). Dad taught me how to negotiate and run a business and leave the office at the office. Every few days I talk one of my competitors down from a freak-out. Dad isn't looking down from heaven but his gifts to me are much more evident now, long after his death, than they were during his life.

I don't expect to look down at my sons from heaven but when I cease to be I hope a kernel of what was good and right in me remains within them and that they long enjoy the pleasure and comfort they take from one another. I will join my peers, say goodbye to David and be reminded that we are never, any of us, too young to die. We will celebrate the life David had and leave reminded to celebrate the life the rest of us are still blessed with.

Friday, April 19, 2013

My Temporary Gig

Hey God. Thanks again for the generous financial aid award Spuds got from Bard. And the two pound weight loss is appreciated too. The offer on the building I've been trying to sell is the icing on the cake. Please do watch my tax hit. Lots of personal stuff I'm totally thankful for, but on the whole, I'm thinking maybe you haven't had the greatest week. Look, I've raised two exceptional (not in the euphemistic way) kids and stayed married to an introvert without killing him for over twenty years. I've run a business and even have a valid teaching credential. Maybe God, you'd like to take a leave of absence. I'm not saying you're incompetent or anything but maybe you're a bit burned out. I've got your back.

I get it with the low profile thing, all that less is more stuff. But it's been eons since Moses stood at Sinai. People have been waiting forever, just like season 6 of Mad Men, for a sign from God. I promise I'm going to keep it tasteful but I'm planning to have a little more presence during your mental health break. You did the stone tablet thing. Really classy. A nice nod to the era's medium and all. I'm thinking Twitter.

@TempGod Old God on vaycay. Filling in. Even if u don't believe in me u must chill. Atheism OK. There is no 1 true faith. Tolerance. B BFFLs.

@TempGod Stop w the weapons. I mean it. Find environmental expert to advise re: disposal deets. Pussy rifles for herd thinning & eating OK I guess.

@TempGod Quit it with fancy shit to honor me. I don't give rat's ass about lavish worship places. Lay off spendy kitsch. Do good deeds.

@TempGod Elijah not coming to ur Seder. No need 4 folding chair. Also, no virgins 4 u in heaven.

@TempGod Yo! I mean it re: churches & temples. No ecumenical outreach for good of all=no tax exempt status.

@TempGod Ixnay on national borders. Work to make places peeps want escape from fit 4 live in instead playing Farmville on ur phone @ Starbucks

@TempGod Re: Starbucks, bag grande, venti crap unless u r in Italy. Small, medium, large just fine.

@TempGod No more corporation/union controlled elections. Public funding. W less power & money, who will run? Talk about thinning herd.

@TempGod Make cars less boring. Always solid colors. Oy. Wm. Morris or Marimekko patterns & print upholstery please. Plus cuter shapes.

@TempGod Do not say “It is what it is,” “At the end of the day” or “Bring it” or whine about long dead father even if u r on cooking competition show.

@TempGod Do not tell fat girl she has pretty face. Subtext obvious.

@TempGod Auto turn signals not just decorative.

@TempGod If u rummage through desk to find pen & pen is out of ink do not put back in drawer.

@TempGod If u r actually going to eat McD.’s park car & get off ur ass & go in. Do not idle in the drive-thru line 1/2 hour.

@TempGod Do not manufacture more Rolex til dent made in world hunger. Ditto Birken bags & eradicating preventable disease.

@TempGod OK with tattoos tho u might regret later. But, all ear gauging to cease immediately. Stretched lobes very gross.

@TempGod Literally means “literally” not “really.”

@TempGod Do not telephone if u have just e-mailed. One or other. E-mail preferable.

@TempGod Undergarments means under garments. No need to see bra straps nor waistband boxers or briefs.

@TempGod Straws, napkins & ketchup packets r free but take just what u need. OK to snatch a few Splenda to stash in purse for emergencies tho.

@TempGod Asian people bored by jokes re: eating dogs. Also, do not ask people named Lee or Nguyen if related to ur friend w same name.

@TempGod Tho people named Patel likely to own motels & Cambodians run donut shops.

@TempGod “Ur welcome” is correct response to “Thank you.” “No problem” implies I should think it might have been.

@TempGod Do not call ur mother “dude.”

@TempGod Trader's Joe's Hyperion has large parking annex ½ block away. Use instead of tying up traffic 4ever.

@TempGod Dirty pool to record hearing aid commercials at lower volume.

@TempGod If ur dog calls you Mommy do not refer to ur human child as his brother.

@TempGod Nauseous is what makes u barf. When tummy upset u r nauseated. Good food healthful not healthy.

@TempGod I am all that is good about u. 4Realz. TTYL

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Light From Home

We have been in anxiety-about-college mode for nearly a year. The first choice of Bard College is made back in November but financial aid is a huge issue. Applications. Twenty page financial aid forms. Schools demand copies of bank statements and my business tax returns. Spuds endures being wait-listed and flat out rejected. Bard, due to some internal issues, mails aid letters later than all of the other schools. We do have a nice safe harbor of two other great schools offering generous aid but Spuds sees himself at Bard. Instead of “How was your day?” it's “Did the letter come?” for days. Spuds grants me permission to open it if he isn't home when it arrives. Yesterday a thick letter from Bards is in the box. I hold it close for a while drinking in the gravitas. I putter around and unload the dishwasher before I have the courage to rip it open. The offer is better than I'd hoped for and Spuds adds to his Facebook profile to “Bard College, Class of 2017.”

Spuds is not exaggerating each year when he says that all of his friends are going to Coachella. He has never been but it is agreed back in February that I will purchase tickets for him and be reimbursed from his tutoring wages. The moment the tickets go on sale I attempt to log onto the site via every computer in the office. The first weekend sells out but I am able to purchase passes for the second weekend. When the lineup is announced I am nonplussed but figure the tickets will be easy to sell if he decides not to go. With admitted freshman programs at various colleges Spuds remains uncertain about Coachella until he announces that he doesn't want to go to the second weekend because all of his friends are going the first. I figure the 2nd weekend ticket will be an easy sale but apparently I'm not the only one who is less than ecstatic about the lineup. There is a glut of tickets on E-bay and Craigslist selling for less than face value. I list the tickets on Ebay and they do not sell. I list daily on Craigslist, reducing the price a few bucks each time. Spuds decides he really wants to go the first weekend with all of his friends and I tell him if I can sell weekend two I'll try to pick up a ticket for him.

As a regular watcher of both Judge Judy and People's Court, I am terrified of Craigslist. I get a couple inquiries but no one follows through. Finally there is a text and the sender agrees to purchase. I tell him he can pick them up before I leave the office. I find a ticket for the first weekend in the neighborhood at well below the original price and negotiate to pick it up for Spuds at a nearby Starbucks right after I sell the others. I race to Staples, heart pumping, to pick up one of those pens that detects counterfeit bills. The buyer says he's sending a friend. A half an hour later the friend texts me and says he's having his car washed. I remind him that I need to leave. There are several texts back and forth and I get a sinking feeling that they're going to flake out. Finally, the buyer's rep calls, lost. I direct him to my office. He arrives in an obviously altered state of consciousness with a fist full of crumpled 20s. He wobbles as I check them with the counterfeit pen. Having a generous birthday gift card, I never pass a Starbucks without caffinating, but I am so wired that when I arrive to pick up Spuds' ticket that I just get a limeade. The seller shows and I check her id against the ticket receipt before I fork over the dough. Even though I'm dealing with legitimate tickets it feels sleazy, like I robbed a bank or something. I have to close my eyes and take deep breaths before I feel ready to drive home.

Spuds thanks me but at age seventeen I don't think how fully he grasps how nervous making two consecutive Craigslist transactions are for his AARP eligible (for a number of years) mom. I can remember a number of examples of my mother's mean spiritedness but as I race around trying to get Spuds his ticket, I remember too that my mother took pleasure in bending over backwards for the sake of my pleasure. So many examples of her pettiness are technicolor vivid but I'm unable to remember a specific instance that I can parallel with my Coachella negotiations. I know that she did things like this and I can almost channel the satisfaction that it gave her.

Now that Spuds is actually going to be attending college on the East Coast and spending a weekend in Coachella, I recall not only my mother's love but also her terror about me navigating out in the world. I always bristled at this and was petulant, thinking that she was accusing me of incompetence. How amazing to think about Spuds tooling around the gorgeous Hudson Valley campus and attending tiny classes with illustrious professors. But, New York is unimaginably far away. I love the picture of the boy grooving to the music all weekend with friends he's had since nursery school. But I obsess about transportation and accommodation issues. And sunburn. Pickpockets. Dead phones. Dehydration. I drive him to catch a ride to Coachella. I tell him that after months of college stress it will be nice to just unwind and listen to music with his friends. I give him a little practical advice and insist he checks in regularly. My own poor mother had to rely on letters and collect calls when I left the nest. I didn't know about the gruesome scenarios that must have plagued her imagination until I had my own kids and these same horrors began to invade my own.

I left home at seventeen and there is a long list of things I did I pray that my own children are smart enough not too. I didn't live at home again but the memory of the house on Fulton Avenue is one of my most resonate. Things changed very little from my earliest memories to when, nearly fifty years later, I stripped it bare and sold it. The house was done up by a decorator in the early 60s, a couple years before my parents divorced. But for a bit of paint and re-upholstery it remained comfortingly unchanged. The contents were sold, trashed or given to charity but I pulled out some choice objects for myself. I integrate what I can into my house and store a few larger items that I can't bring myself to get rid of at the office.

After twenty years and a major roof leak that resulted in a peeling ceiling, we decide to have our bedroom painted and spruced up. The closet doors are broken and the shower doesn't work. The ceiling fan makes an unbearable groaning noise. It takes about a month living with beer swilling painters and our clothes scattered in boxes all through the house until the bedroom is completed. There is a pole lamp at the office that stood next to the fireplace on Fulton Avenue. Himself has cited the lamp, as well as a couple of other items from Fulton Avenue, as being particularly ugly. As with other décor related issues, he is ignored. I think it will be great in the bedroom. Himself is working the day the painters finish. I manage to put everything back into place before he returns home. The pole lamp from Fulton Avenue is installed. The room is just the way I wanted it. The lamp casts rich light on salmon colored walls. Himself gasps at the reveal and says that it is beautiful.

With Spuds at Coachella we face a childless weekend. The first of many. I have a good book and a lovely room, illuminated by the same lamp I read by as a child. Unlike my divorced mother, I have Himself who tolerates kitschy 60s furniture and will prevent the nest from ever being completely empty. Faced now with the prospect of my own kids spending less and less time with me I finally get how much my mother loved me. I regret that I was unable to partake of it when it was proffered. Yet I know for my own children it is best that they feel my love, but at their age, be spared the complications of it. Maybe decades from now some object they pilfer from Casamurphy will help them get a sense of what it's like facilitating departures that cause your heart to break.  

Friday, April 5, 2013

Citizens of the Future

A couple months ago I scaled back the writing here. I've been posting only once a month after about five years of weekly entries. At first the absence of bilious dread in the pit of my stomach, after pecking away on Wednesday and Thursday and producing nothing but drivel, was a huge relief. But back in the weekly post days, after I suffered with writer's block and own capacity for inanity, somehow I was always able to throw something together by Friday afternoon. I always felt good coming home for Shabbat and knowing that in some sense I had sewn up the week. This grind was abandoned because I thought it would free up some time for other writing. I do have a novel in the works but my progress has been erratic. The weekly struggle to make my concerns interesting enough to read about must have been a panacea for more than just keeping up writing momentum. Since there's no self-imposed mandate to give them a writerly spin, my problems have become incredibly boring. I find myself in a melancholic fog.

Perhaps it was my disciplined blogging that kept me sane three years ago when Joe College was in the application throes. Or maybe post traumatic stress syndrome has clouded my memory. Spuds is interviewed, due to his sixteen college applications, by the radio show Marketplace for a piece about college application and the Internet. He tells the interviewer that he, and most of the kids he knows, relied on ranked lists of the most selective colleges. We did some school visits and looked at class size, the percentage of students who actually graduate and naturally, famous alumni. Schools reported as being “need met” or generous with financial aid were given extra attention. Nevertheless, the choices available and the enormous amount of information disseminated via Internet induces vertigo. Spud's list is based partly on online research but also anecdotal reports from friends and gut feelings. One school, Rhodes College in Memphis, is chosen because the campus looks beautiful when visited by sex expert Dan Savage for the MTV show Savage U. There is a great liberal arts program at Rhodes so it wasn't just the sex show.

Spuds is wait-listed at four schools and gets the cyber version of the thin envelope from six others. He applies to half a dozen schools that are ranked as being among the most selective. The caché of selectivity generates more and more applications so the ante's up each year as naturally the percentage of admitted applicants decreases. Ultimately, Spuds is accepted at six schools and three of these he feels would be good fits. Spuds, however is stung by the rejections even though he knows that his chances are slim when he applies.  In his radio interview he acknowledges that people mainly apply to schools considered the very most selective with “feel good about self “objectives. He didn't mention that rejection by these “reach” schools, or any other school, foments a heavy duty “feel bad about self.”

I hate the thought of him feeling rejected. I blather on about the excellence of the schools that did choose him. One is a U.C. I point out that neither of his math challenged but not unintelligent parents would have been able to even consider applying to any of the Universities of California. But he hurts. All I can really do is remind him of how beloved he is, which probably makes the humiliation more bearable than if I treated him like shit. Still, I know that for the rest of his life the mention of one of the colleges that passed him over will produce a sting. I hope the tiny stab is followed a rush of glee at how well it all turned out.

I never thought when the kids were born that we'd be so reliant on financial aid. To tell my kid we can't afford to send him to any college he selects is not what I would have predicted. As I try to buoy Spuds' spirits I cannot help feel that to a large extent we are in this position due to choices I've made, some asinine, some selfish. It's just like the thin letter from an uber-selective college. If someone I know confessed to feeling this way I would shriek at the ridiculousness of equating financial success to self worth. Yet, after months of wrangling with financial aid forms and tax returns I feel small and pathetic.

Even if all of the 16 colleges he applied to accepted Spuds, Himself and I have our hearts set on Bard. Although Spuds suggests that our obsession with it is becoming a turn-off, it is his first choice too. We are invited to an admitted student meeting for L.A. kids with Bard president and cultural luminary Leon Botstein at a home in Beverly Hills. Spuds ignores my suggestion he wear a bow tie in homage to Botstein's trademark neckwear. My prospective student's only concession to the occasion is wearing clean shoes and pants without holes. The gathering is in the flats but there is no doubt about the prosperity of our hosts, whose son attends Bard. I note the cars in front, hoping for high end vehicles to connote no need for financial aid. There are some shiny status symbols but also a number of Volvos as battered as mine and a few Prius's so old they bear carpool lane stickers. I predict that perhaps a dozen kids will be there, considering the school enrollment is about 2000 but there are well more more than fifty. One boy wears a bow tie. Hor d'oeuvres are passed by uniformed servers. Several good wine choices are offered at the bar. It's been a long time since I was in a crowded social setting where I don't know a soul. Spuds and I whisper to each other about how awkward we feel. I remedy this by chugging a glass of good Cabernet and am emboldened to strike up a conversation with another mom. Spuds hovers in fear that tipsy mom will embarrass him. For some reason when I drink my volume tends to increase at the same rate as my inhibitions decrease. I hope the crowded room is noisy enough so this isn't too conspicuous. I can tell Spuds is pleased that his financial aid award won't be encroached upon when it's revealed that daughter of my acquaintance attends a hoity toity private school.

I down another big glass of wine before the question and answer session is called to order although, given the prospect of standing through the whole presentation, Two-Buck Chuck and a couple of dozen folding chairs would have been OK too. Botstein is introduced. I've seen him several times on Colbert but extemporaneously fielding miscellaneous questions he is absolutely mind blowing. Hours of careful composition could not have yielded me responses as eloquent and honest as Botstein's off the cuff remarks. Botstein has been president of Bard for over thirty five years and also has an illustrious career as a composer and conductor. He is asked why he's stayed at Bard for so long. He posits that he gets more done by staying in the same place, liberated from distracting change. He adds, careful to point out that he is not eliciting pity but merely because he is asked and it pertains to his longevity at the school, that his young daughter died when struck by a car. She is buried on the Bard campus.

From the parent session we attended on the campus I remember the provost noting that Bard is a private institution committed to the public good. I ask Botstein how this vision is carried across the disciplines at a school where few of the students set out to be social workers. “We're not Quakers,” he responds. “If you want to be a do-gooder, go to Haverford.” Bard, he explains is more focused on the salubrious effects of finely honed critical thinking than on selflessness for selflessness' sake. Botstein's Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture summarizes the school's vision, “The university can be a center for and a model of cultural creation, debate, service, and political exchange among citizens of the future, one that is dominated not by commerce and a narrow definition of utility, but by a love of learning.”

Spuds other two college possibilities are outstanding too but we have a special affinity for Bard and all that it will nurture. The sound of the mailman closing the box induces palpitations. Spuds has received good financial aid offers from the other two possible schools but has yet to hear from Bard. The final decision about where Spuds will spend the next four years, a decision that will certainly resonate through his entire life, rests on Bard's offer. Spuds says the not knowing is hard. I cannot help but think that if I'd been a better financial manager he wouldn't be in this position.

I edit a year's worth of blog entries into a full length memoir. I spend a year editing it. It is the best thing I have ever done. Hearing again and again how impossible it is to get representation for anything other than young adult fiction and about the woes of the publishing industry I know it will be a slog. I'm not too disheartened by the first few rejections. Then, the complete lack of response and a couple form rejection letters correlate with a long writing dry spell except for monthly blog entries. Suddenly, a couple months in, there are two requests in the same week to look at the full manuscript. I go through it chapter by chapter, not having read it for a while. I still think it's good. Both agents respond favorably to the writing but don't think it's a good time to pitch a memoir. I continue to send it out and have made only a small dent in the list of possible agents but I send it out on automatic pilot and keep my feelings neutral. There is a steady stream of rejections and for each one I query yet another agent. Perhaps I'll run out of prospective agents and publishers and there will be no further interest in the work of which I am so proud. Sometimes I feel like a jerk for having spent so much time on it. Just like the list of selective colleges, the odds are against me. So much “feel bad about self” and so very little “feel good.”

I will remember my stack of rejection letters. Spuds will remember the schools that didn't want him. Spud's list is far shorter and his number of years to get over the slights are likely greater than mine. I remind him that the schools who turned him down knew him only from an application whereas after his personal interview at Bard he was notified of his acceptance just a few days later. I try to model resilience and perseverance although while Spud's life's work is far ahead of him, mine feels to be precariously on the line. But, I devalue the people who read what I write here regularly when I am made morose by the rejections of agents whose interest in my work is purely monetary. Even if it is more nature than nurture I discredit the people my children are becoming when I surrender to the “feel bad about self” inclinations. Ultimately my kids will be a better force in the world than any words I can string together. The prescription I think is to go back to writing here every week. I feel better for having written this. Perhaps this pep talk to myself will make someone else feel better too or my problems will be as boring to others as they often are to myself.

Shabbat Shalom.