Friday, May 31, 2013

Pack Up Your Sorrows

Once I've thoroughly excoriated myself for a misfortune or humiliation, my next reaction, is “Goddammit, now I have to think about this even more so I can write about it.” The stress of running a small business has dogged me for over thirty years. We've scaled down to the extent that our excellently located building it too large for us. I've had a series of pending deals that fell apart and have been living with anxiety with regard to the property for over a year now. The latest deal looks so much like it's going to stick that my realtor kisses me and says, “I really think this one is really going to go through,” and then, laughing, says “unless there used to be a dry cleaner or gas station on the property.”

The potential buyer does some cursory research on the property. There was a gas station on the site in 1916. The deal that boded to stick has come unglued. I am faced with horrendously expensive environmental testing and possible off the charts remediation before I can market the property. Most likely I will have to convert it to a rental but this creates another huge catalog of hassles. A week ago I was fantasizing about writing checks to pay off credit card debt and the new car that even my mechanic says I desperately need. Himself and I find a tiny cabin in the mountains we were going to make an offer on. I've hired a crew to break down the film library and cleaned out my own office. We've negotiated a lease on a very nice space in the neighborhood. The promise of less financial pressure and complication made me so giddy that I could actually think about Spud's departure without breaking down.

After being atypically buoyant for a couple of weeks the gas station news wallops me into despair. Due to oral surgery I am on my second week of a liquid diet. With my go-to solace unavailable, I decide, even though it's barely eight, to take an Ambien(s?) and hit the sack. I'd totally forgotten plans to go to a concert with my friend Broderick. He arrives and I have probably never been so happy to see another human being in my life. I can't think of another person on the planet capable of distracting me from this epic disappointment. We drink at Mohawk Bend and we talk about music and film and people we know. We stand in a long line for a concert at a club on Sunset Blvd. and after an hour realize there's no way we're going to get in and it completely doesn't matter. I realize too that I am very drunk.

When my dad saw that 16mm film was on the way out, he turned the library over to me. He couldn't keep up with the new technology and didn't want to. With the sale of the building I decide it's time to do some future thinking. I put an ad on Craigslist for someone to mastermind a social media campaign and help us monetize our library beyond the realm of clip licensing. I receive nearly 200 responses. I am so overwhelmed that Spuds helps me vet them. We immediately delete inquires containing an excessive use of exclamation points, resumes that say “team player” or with links to videos that start with a closeup of a sad girl. I cull the list down and ask about 20 potentially good candidates to make a short video with footage from our website. The results are astonishing. I choose the best of the best and schedule five interviews. When the real estate deal goes south I don't have the heart to cancel. The interviewees are young and completely delightful. I would hire all of them. I am honest that the hiring has been postponed, perhaps forever. I do offer them footage and a link to their work on our website. They are gracious but I am heartbroken with disappointment.

This is short today due to hours on the phone with the State Water Board, orphan tank specialists and geologists. An attorney friend has made some referrals and I am elucidated by a number of patient professionals. I've discovered Sanborn maps which have existed since the 19th century. These are intricate hand drawn street maps made for the purpose of fire insurance. It is a 1916 map that reveals my tragic gas station. If I weren't in the midst of potential financial Armageddon this foray into geophysical and environmental sleuthing would be fascinating.

My sweet boy Rover's eyes have grown rheumy and I know his hearing and vision are poor. I have to help him into the car but can't bear how sad he'd be if I left him home. At age fourteen he is two years beyond the life expectancy of a dog his size. I take him out to walk as often as I can but when I've been stuck on the phone trying to figure out the fate of the building, he's peed on the floor a couple of times and is sheepish and embarrassed. It is harder and harder to look at him and not see the inevitable.

Spuds is off to the prom in a white dinner jacket. He is the first Murphy to attend such an event. He graduates in two weeks and then his departure is imminent. The status of my building and my financial future feels precarious. My doggie is on borrowed time. It is hard to do my usual spin thing here and conclude on a purely positive note. I did interview five wonderful young people, kids a bit older than mine. The job applicants and my own fine kids bolster my faith that the next generation will get it together. Standing on the sidewalk, more than a little tipsy, in a long line of what I believe are referred to as millennials was totally pleasant. It evoked my own twenties spent in Echo Park. It occurred to me that before the kids were born, I used to have fun. Disintegrating underground gas tanks, kids leaving the fold, decrepit dogs and all, this is the beginning of my Part Two. I might not be relieved of financial stress as I had envisioned . The completely empty nest will be an adjustment. I'll be a basket case when the dog goes. But there will always be someone to have fun with and help me step out of my worries for a little while. And thank you God for hard cider.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Places I Have Worked and Lived

When I was in my late twenties Mom loaned me the down payment for a tiny cottage in Echo Park which at the time, perhaps like Downtown or Boyle Heights now, was edgy. I do not remember paying my mother back or whether or not this had been expected of me. The property, a 1924 cottage on a walk street about as long as a short block, was kind of a hard sell even to, in the argot of the era, “urban pioneers.” It was the first place I could make my own. The kids call the house on the walk, the Owl House because it reminds them of the Winnie the Pooh illustration. I could see my neighbor's living room from my kitchen window. She was a handsome, sophisticated woman, about ten years my senior. I was intimidated by her. One night I saw her alone in her living room and emboldened, called and asked her to join me for dinner and was surprised when she happily accepted. I found her more accessible than I'd imagined. We'd both grown up in the valley but she was from south of Ventura raised by artsy educated bohos in a beautiful modern house. The stuff I grew up with is now back in style but in my college rejection of the bourgeois I just loathed it. I copied my neighbor's color combinations and then she'd repaint her place using even better colors. She inspired me to amass Mexican masks and California pottery. The first blank canvas I had was thrilling.

My friend Larry and I planned an elaborate scavenger hunt through L.A. The list of items is in a box in the garage but I remember that the first clue was placed in a locker at Union Station and at the finish-line was an elaborate party on the patio of the Owl house. We spent months planning it. Larry had necromantic predilections but also an affection for whimsy. He collected skull and Scottie dog ephemera. He referred to his Fairfax area 30's Spanish apartment, chock a bloc with cherished items, as the Casa Del Muerte. He wanted a live Scotty dog to name Mrs. Danvers, a wish eventually fulfilled. He was an audio engineer and painstakingly made a cassette of all our favorite songs from lps which he labeled “Shock the Geezers.”

My favorite picture of my friend Frank, who died of AIDS, is taken on the porch of the Owl house. He is thoughtful and gorgeous. Later he became an encyclopedia of physical maladies. I grew impatient with him and pulled away. I had not realized, nor had he until he was much more symptomatic, that he was stricken. I did not talk to him for about two years before he died. I learned of his death much later and felt ashamed but I cherish the photo that reminds me of the happy times we had in my first house.

My elegant neighbor taught me about genteel poverty and well cut clothes and Mac makeup. She knew Ed Rusha personally and edited an extremely high tone big budget scholarly magazine. We took two trips to Mexico together. She had a moody, fragile side. I pulled away a bit when her mental health began to fray. I failed to support her in a battle with a neighbor, who was indeed provocative, that sent her into a tailspin. I wrote a letter to the neighbor suggesting that he be more considerate of her but I would not take part in a law suit she instigated and from what I am told lost. She stopped returning my calls about ten years ago and I hear she is living off the grid in New Mexico. Larry died, still in his forties, of diabetes complications. My memories of different phases of my life are tied into buildings I have lived and worked in. Earlier homes are recalled in monochrome but the Owl House is vivid color.

When I became pregnant I was concerned about the walk. Even in the earliest stages of pregnancy, I was at least a hundred pounds overweight, and the walk became challenging. My first “grown up” reading was Jack Smith's daily column in The L.A. Times. His description of the Mount Washington hillside neighborhood enchanted me and I decided at about age nine that this is where I wanted to live. We looked for days at houses with a portly realtor who sported a gigantic diamond crusted wedding band and referred to his boyfriend as his “spouse” which was not that common in early nineties. We had a couple of offers rejected and lost out on a few others. We agonized about one house that was out of our financial range. It had a pool. There was urgency. The realtor was patient and comforting. The cheapest house on his list was in lower Mount Washington. Every room was painted a different shade of red. There was shag carpeting and furniture that looked like it came from government surplus. The owner was a sex therapist. We removed many mirror tiles. My neighbor from the walk street helped me with the colors. Casamurphy is now the house I have lived in the longest. I've chosen the colors for the last couple paint jobs all by myself and am satisfied with the results.

My next real estate transaction was when the city bought the huge office warehouse via eminent domain. My dad fought so long on agreeing to a price that by the time he finally settled we only had about two months to find a place and move 10,000 films. Which is a number an employee threw out twenty years ago so I just always say theatrically ten THOUSAND films but the truth is I have no idea of how many films I have. My dad and I looked at a number of commercial buildings and we couldn't find anything that would work as an office/warehouse. A sign went up on a building two blocks east. We had sold off and shipped batches of films back to the distributors, as the non-theatrical business faded away in the advent of video. The building was smaller than anything we'd looked at but it was cheap. It was a divided office with a jeweler on one side and a collection agency on the other. It is devoid of charm but Dad had very little use for aesthetics when it came to business. We shed a bunch more prints. The employees had to cut huge racks down for the much lower ceilings. We were jammed in but made it work. It was a cash transaction so there was no big negotiation drama except for the daunting move itself.

My mother was no longer competent to live alone at my childhood home. She was placed in a facility that was as nice as these institutions can be, although none of them are really never very nice at all. It seemed nice to her though and after a rocky week or two she adapted gloriously and nabbed a boyfriend and I was even notified by management about some hanky panky. Simultaneous to relocating my mother to the home we had to clean out the house she'd lived in for over fifty years and the phrase “depression child” should give you a clue as to the volume of its contents. My friends Dan and Nancy handled what was an incredibly emotional sale. I met Nancy because one of my children was struggling with the flute in the elementary school orchestra. When asked what instrument he wanted to play and he impulsively said flute only to learn later that 10 year-olds are not often familiar with James Galway or Jean Pierre Rampal and the flute is considered a girl's instrument. Nancy nevertheless instructed him patiently for several years until she finally accepted the futility. Nancy and her husband Dan are musicians. I have always considered myself first and foremost a writer but have accepted the need to ply another trade to earn my keep. Spuds says that it's fine to train for a profession, even if you have the soul of an artist. If you really love doing something you will continue to do it. For me, giving up the notion of supporting myself by writing has freed me up to do the kind of writing I find most satisfying. I have made the most of running a business and often have actual fun with it and have made many wonderful acquaintances. Faced with two kids, a mortgage and the rapidly changing music industry, Dan and Nancy became licensed realtors. Nancy continues to teach flute and play with a few small orchestras. I suspect she gets more pleasure from making music now that her livelihood is less dependent on it. Like I have made the best of running a business and pretty much enjoy it, Nancy and Dan have taken to real estate. My mother's home was one of their first listings and I am forever indebted to them for shepherding me through one of the most difficult things I have ever done.

The business has changed again in the fifteen years we've been in our smaller office. Digitization means that our work is less labor intensive which has spawned more competition and caused us to be less profitable. The building that once seemed so tiny is suddenly too big. I interviewed a number of cheap-suited commercial realtors. Dan and Nancy did some research and found me Bruce, sort of a commercial version of them. He loves the wheeling and dealing but also takes satisfaction in seeing that his clients better themselves. Bruce used his imagination and encouraged me to lease out half of the building rather than sell. We kept the big open room with film racks and a little storage room became my office. Bruce found a nice production company to lease the other side for two years. The tenants left and the economy has improved to the extent that now it's time to sell. We've had several offers that have fallen apart for one reason or another. I know we're going to have to move but I don't know when or where. It's crazy making but when I mentally remove myself from the equation it is remarkable to see Bruce in action. I don't know what, if any creative aspirations he started out with but he writes with a clarity and eloquence that elevates his avocation to the stratosphere. He was a gymnast in an earlier lifetime. I think with Bruce as with Dan and Nancy the experience of intense and exhausting practice has informed their approach to other endeavors.

Last week I had some gnarly dental surgery done. If you like gross out stories I will tell you in person but I'm going to spare the more delicate readers. This happened while I was texting back and forth frantically with Bruce the realtor madly trying to salvage a deal the ultimately fell through. Joe College was my post-surgical caretaker. Duties included a 2 a.m. emergency room visit. We still have issues, like in any parent/child relationship but as he drove me back to my motel in the middle of the night I felt enormously safe with him. He returns for summer break tonight with a bunch of great kids that I've come to love over the last two years. Himself's reaction is as you'd imagine but I love having a house full of kids. In September when I return from dropping Spuds at Bard I'll return to a new office and the house will seem incredibly empty. The kids are moving on and before long will have their own homes to furnish and decorate. I hope though that their memories of our house are always in vivid color. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

I've Got It.

I've heard the part of your life after the kids leave referred to as “Part 2.” This does glide over the tongue better than “lonely decrepitude.” Spuds is all wrapped up in his final childrens' theater performance and I barely see him. He has a night off from rehearsal. Himself is teaching so for the first time in a while it's just me and Spuds sprawled out and eating on the couch. I know that human contact is something you can't bank but I still try to drink in my time with him in deeply and consciously, remembering that he's leaving in August and I'll only see him a couple times a year. We talk about people we know and his observations are razor sharp yet compassionate. Himself can talk about ideas until the cows come home but he, unlike me and Spuds, isn't much interested in people. I confess we do our share of gossiping but we are both intensely curious about why people are the way they are. We have such a nice talk.. I realize how much I will miss this and turn away so he doesn't see me tear up. How sad it is that when your kids reach the point when they're low maintenance and interesting that it's time for them to leave.

There are other changes afoot. I will be moving my office shortly and have no idea where. The mover comes to make an estimate. I open the door, he sees the film racks and he gasps, “Oh my God!” My sentiments exactly. Come autumn there will be no breakfast to prepare with vitamin and Xyrtec neatly arranged on the napkin and no oatmeal ever. Most likely I won't be crossing the Hyperion Bridge into Silver Lake. I don't know where I'll be going in September and it's been over three decades since I was able to say that.

I guess to heighten my sense of drama with the pending big shake up I decide to try a trail near the house that I've always been afraid of. I've turned into a really good walker and have no trouble with stairs or hills. But, I totally freak out walking on loose ground or rocks. The path is steep and narrow and really rocky but I cover some distance, steadying myself with my hands a couple times. I must have taken a wrong turn because it ends abruptly. I try to traverse the brush but it is too dense. The thought of returning the way I've just ascended is terrifying. I think of calling Himself on my cell phone but it is 6 a.m. and short of ordering a helicopter, there is nothing much he can do. Finally, in desperation, I slide myself via derriere down to the street. The early hour I think is to my advantage because I'm pretty sure there are no witnesses. I guess the lesson is that I need to be more selective about which fears I struggle to conquer.

Today is my sister Sheri's 70th birthday. Joe College has shadowy memories of the the two trips we made to visit her in Las Vegas. Spuds has no memory of her at all. Sheri's daughter Cari is staying at my house, in town to visit her own daughter and granddaughter. I make her breakfast. It pains me that she grew up with the at sea sensation of having been surrendered for adoption. I was only 7 when the decision was made but as the last man standing of the family I still feel culpable. I do have happy memories of my sister but if I were to characterize her life, I would say it was a sad one. Sheri sacrificed everything for men who did not deserve her love or even love her in return. She never got to prepare her daughter breakfast, or teach her to drive or watch her graduate. My sister's granddaughter Marlene only vaguely remembers her and her great granddaughter Penny is born 14 years after her death. It is Cari's first Mother's Day as a grandmother, Marlene's first as a mother and Penny's first as a person. Sheri's life seemed to overflow with pain but her good is memorialized in this equation.

I am fearful about Part 2 but oddly some of the terror was assuaged at a Yo La Tengo concert. I've blathered on too much about why and how I love the band. The truth was I was tired and seldom go out during the week these days. But with YLT it's sort of like the High Holidays. I just can't not go. I even forgive them the show where they spent half an hour reading a Spongebob script and the fact that Ira never changes out of that striped Linus t-shirt. The show starts an hour late. Himself is grousing. I am not enthralled by the new album but they rework a couple of the songs to good effect. My favorite song (Stockholm Syndrome) is omitted but there are soaring moments during the show that reinforce how music for me is inextricably bound to faith. It is a revelation and a reminder of how sublime I can be made to feel. .My boys will be with me for Mother's Day and the anticipation of this is another reminder of how good it is possible to feel. I don't know when I'll next spend another Mother's Day with both of them. Part 2 approaches. For the first eighteen years being a parent is pretty compelling and absorbing business. I can't minimize how much I will miss the kids but I've gotten complacent, just sitting on the couch and being with them. I'm not up for any more rocky trails but maybe I'll walk on the wild side and once in a while drag myself out on a weeknight to hear a band.

Happy Mother's Day!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Greetings from Mount Washington

Johns Hopkins sponsors the world's longest running longitudinal health survey called the Precursor Report. The study started in 1948 and most graduates of the medical school from 1948 to 1964 participate. Information is gathered regarding the incidence of heart disease and diabetes as well as mental health issues. In recent years, as the participants gray, research has broadened to include end of life topics. The responses of the physicians does not surprise me. Most, if terminally ill or permanently mentally incapacitated would refuse feeding tubes, ventilators and other life prolonging measures, preferring only palliative treatment to remain free of pain. This is my own choice and was the choice of my parents who both died peacefully and without discomfort. What surprised me however is that the general public answered end of life questions completely differently, the majority indicating they'd opt for attempts to prolong life by any means. Perhaps it is the doctor's more accurate knowledge of how these invasive measures often play out. Non-medical folks may have no accurate conception of what use of a ventilator or feeding tube actually entails. Yet, I find something sweet, if not naive, in the “never give up hope” persuasion. But I just can't roll with life for the sake of life itself ethos.

When I learn a new word it invariably appears then a couple times in what I'm reading. In the same vein, Himself is reading a piece by our hero Jay Michaelson and asks me who Tim Minchin is. I am clueless. I listen to podcasts as I stomp around the hills in the early morning and the first I tune in is a New Yorker profile of Minchin. He's been around a while but is better known in his original home, Australia, and current home, the U.K. He indeed has a following in the U.S. too and is perhaps most famous for having written the lyrics for the musical Matilda, based on the Roald Dahl story. Minchin has also acted. He played a rock star on the series Californication which I find vile but his character's name was Atticus Fetch which I have to admit is pretty swell. Minchin is also very popular for his performances which are I guess what Richard Dawkins would do if he wrote funny songs instead of books. Minchin sings a song about how much he loves his wife, who he's been with since age seventeen but as the song continues he adds that if he hadn't met her he inevitably would have met someone else to fall in love with. He tackles the hubris of superstition. Do we actually think we are powerful enough to impact the force of nature by knocking wood? In one routine he states, “I hope my daughter is killed in a car crash” just to prove that we humans really lack the power to tempt fate. I appreciate the clarion call for critical thinking but I still can't totally surrender my sense of the ineffable. While I accept intellectually that I just boil down to a lump of carbon I still throw spilled salt over my shoulder and would never put shoes on a bed.

I attend the funeral of a friend I was close to in high school but haven't seen in about 40 years. There are two old friends I've had contact with but otherwise I don't recognize a soul. I am disoriented thinking everyone around me is the parent of a high school chum, unable to drink in that I am among peers. The service is good but weird as my friend David's family and friends tenderly express their love for him but also don't stint on venting their frustrations. David was an artist but not very commercially successful. His aversion to full time work has obviously long been a sore point. I think David, a sweet gentle soul, would have been pleased with his eulogies. He accepted his own imminent death with equanimity and grace. I sit in the very back and watch the mortuary personnel do their thing and usher us in and out as efficiently as possible. Staff members are somber and sympathetic in their dark suits. Wide brimmed straw hats which suggest luau, worn when outdoors, directing parking and processions are a concession to the California sun. Because of course it's always about me, I think of how I would be eulogized. My smart friends would figure out a bang up send off but given my druthers I'd like to hold off for a while and give them even better material. The mystery, absurdity and business of death.

After twenty five years it all boils down to the same fight and we are bored with it and have it far less frequently these days. Sometimes though Himself's pessimism so harshes my optimism that I just snap. It is always over something stupid. This time it is particularly stupid. I am Pollyanna and spin everything into a delicious confection. Himself, is intractably Catholic, assured of a lousy outcome and apt to downplay his own accomplishments. After twenty plus years of hard work we find ourselves in what I consider to be a really nice home. We are members of the Mount Washington Association and while I sometimes refer to our exact location as “Baja Mount Washington” I feel connected with this graceful old neighborhood with its first rate public school, noted architecture and the lovely historic Mount Washington Hotel and its stately grounds maintained by the gentle and non-cultish Self Realization Fellowship. Our home is toward the bottom of the same hill and I walk to the top of every morning. Himself refuses to accept that our home is in Mount Washington and instead doggedly refers to our residence as being in Glassell Park, famous for being birthplace of the Avenidas, one of L.A.'s oldest street gangs, now controlled by the Mexican Mafia. He says that Mount Washington is only the top of the hill. I show him a map that shows clearly that our home is within the borders of Mount Washington. “Nah,” he brushes it off, “it's just some real estate boondoggle.” I note that the map is not published by a realtor but by the L.A. Times but he still insists we live in Gangland and not Paradise.

Still, Himself reins me in from airy fairy calamity and I keep him from opening a vein. The sliver where our Venn diagram intersects is our curiosity about how and why we live and die. We are both adherents of critical thinking and paradoxically in constant awe at our own existence. There will be the same boring inevitable fight but the tiny place where our two circles meet is strong cement.