Friday, June 28, 2013

Semper Fido

A week-long seminar on the subject of Death in Philosophy and Popular Culture is sponsored by the Alumni Association of Johnston College. I graduated from Johnston in 1977 and Joe College is currently enrolled there. I had hoped to attend this event myself, along with Himself, but am unable to get away. Himself's employer actually coughs up the dough for him to attend. He heads off to the Palisades for a week. Attendees include my own former classmates, a kid who just graduated and alumni from every decade in between. Himself is the only non-alum but being of Irish-Catholic descent and a diehard bookworm he immediately connects with the facilitator, Johnston Professor emeritus, Kevin O'Neill.

One section of the seminar requires each of the participants to detail their own experiences with death IN DEPTH. To Himself's surprise I ask him if he's going to talk about Fido and I hit the nail right on the head. I tell Joe College that Dad is going to have to talk about his personal experiences with death and before I even complete the sentence the boy concludes, “Fido.”

I've had a few friends pass away well before old age but no one I would consider a “best” friend. The loss I cannot imagine is the death of a young child but I can relate to my husband's experience that the loss of a beloved pet is more devastating than the loss of an elderly parent. Over the last decade all four of our parents have died but each death followed an illness that greatly diminished life quality. I would characterize our reactions to these losses as wistful relief. My own sister was about the same age that I am now when she died. In ordinary circumstances this is “too young” but she was so ravaged by multiple sclerosis that her death only meant an end to her suffering and to our own suffering at seeing her suffer.

When it was time for my beloved Bowser to ascend to doggie heaven, we called a vet who specialized in making house calls to euthanize pets. Even though she daily interacts with grieving pet losers, our reaction must have struck her as over the top as she voiced an earnest concern about our mental health. Fido, half poodle, was supposed to be my dog. Himself wasn't that wild about poodles but from the moment she arrived at Casamurphy, she established herself as Himself's. She was diagnosed with cancer and when the time came, I totally wussed out and wasn't present when she was euthanized.

My boy Rover is hanging in. He still expects his 10:30 walk and has a good appetite. He is rheumy eyed and it takes him a while to get up and I have to help him get into the car. He is two years past the life expectancy for a dog his size. Oprah, our alpha female is a sweet dog but she cannot control the herd instinct to weed out the weak and infirm. She has attacked Rover a couple of times and therefore she is kept separate from him most of the time. When she is in the same room, she is muzzled. She cowers and cringes when she sees the muzzle or is put behind the baby gate. I hate that she has to endure this and hate knowing what will bring the muzzling and separation to an end.

I was too intimidated by Kevin O'Neill's erudition to enroll on one of his courses but the impression he made on my nearly 40 years ago is still vivid. I was driving down Colton Avenue in Redlands and saw a man stomping down the street. When I passed I saw in the rear-view mirror that it was Kevin, and that he was reading a book while he clomped down the sidewalk. This was extraordinary to me and it wasn't until years later when I met Himself that I began to understand the compulsivity that drives someone to spend as many waking hours as possible devouring written material.

Our anniversary and Himself's birthday fall during the symposium, which is being held at a Methodist Retreat House. There is a scheduled field trip to Forest Lawn, to be followed by a discussion and take-out dinner at Kevin O'Neill's Carthay Circle home. I volunteer to surprise Himself for his birthday and show up with dinner for the group. I have already been apprised via phone conversations with Himself that none of my classmates remember me although I myself do remember the half dozen attendees who were on campus when I was. I do have a handful of friends I've had since college but I think that during this period of my life I was definitely an acquired taste.

I find some nice Copper River salmon and bake some cupcakes and dip them in green coconut to look like grass and then plant each with a little shortbread tombstone with “RIP” in icing. It's very Suzy Homemaker but I like doing stuff like this more than just about anything. The group has been let in on the secret but Himself's jaw drops and his eyes bulge out when I waltz in with baskets full of food. I don my apron and busy myself in the kitchen but overhear snippets of the conversation. “...and then, minutes after being born, the infant expired...” and am relieved I've relegated myself to a purely domestic role.

The group is friendly and I have some pleasant tiny interactions. One woman confesses, that she too had been too scared to actually enroll in one of Kevin's philosophy courses. Kevin and I correspond all through the week in preparation for the surprise. In every communication he notes how fond he is of Himself which doesn't surprise me, given the walking and reading thing. At one point in the evening he asks Himself to stand next to me and just drinks us in. “I just wanted to see the two of you together...” and he nods in approval at the vision.

I tell Kevin about my vivid memory of the walking and reading and how extraordinary this seemed to me until I met my husband. Kevin talks about his own curiosity and photographic memory and then he says something that will probably be as indelible as catching him in the rear-view mirror. “I never wanted to do anything,” he says. He explained that his only desire is to learn and he requires nothing by way of publication or prestige to show for it.

My real estate dilemma seems perhaps to have taken a positive turn and I will have some preliminary environmental reports in a few days. I've gone back to carving out some sort of writing career beyond my weekly blather here. I get a particularly nasty rejection of my memoir from a publisher. The next day an agent sends a polite and friendly rejection saying that while the writing is “poised and polished” it's just not his kind of thing. I am a little bolstered until I read on an Internet bulletin board for writers seeking representation that this “poised and polished” thing is just a form letter. I write a nice little piece for Weight Watchers Magazine which I think is a sure thing and exactly the kind of piece they'd want. They don't even bother responding with a rejection.

I have always considered myself somewhat lazy but writing is one worthwhile thing that I've applied myself to and really worked at. The rejections are starting to get to me until I think about Kevin doing what he likes to do. I like to bake and watch crap on TV. I like writing here once a week, or like Dorothy Parker said, “I like having written.” I'll continue polishing my query letter on the memoir and sending the thing around. No doubt other non-blog pieces will take shape. But I've been thinking about the ambition that drives me and a lifetime of trying to prove something to someone else. So much of what gives me satisfaction is stuff other people wouldn't necessarily find productive. The older I get the more losses I will inevitably stack up. I'm letting Rover eat whatever he wants. Oprah will soon be free of muzzle and baby gate. There are fewer days in my future than in my past. I look forward to living the rest with nothing to prove.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Roof Landing

Himself is packed up and headed off to the Palisades for a week. My alma mater is hosting an alumni seminar on Death in Philosophy and Popular Culture. Himself isn't an alum but as the husband of one and the father of a current student he is welcome. Himself's dissertation was on the subject of purgatory in Middle English literature. The professor emeritus who's designed the program writes to tell me that he can't wait to discuss purgatory. Bully for him. I planned to attend myself, as some of the less arcane content (the popular culture as opposed to the philosophy) is quite up my alley, but I am unable to leave town due to my ongoing real estate negotiations. The final schedule arrives this week. For the first sessions participants will discuss their own personal experiences with death. “At length” is emphasized. Another session is devoted to Derrida and Foucault. Hours on the phone with the realtor suddenly doesn't look so bad. Himself will be gone for our anniversary and his birthday but celebrating these occasions a few days late is no real hardship. It's been a while since we've had a break from each other. The dynamic changes when the household shifts from four to three and it will be nice to have some time myself with the kids, especially with Spuds outbound in fewer than six weeks. Himself and I are both so beaten into submission it's nice once in a while to have a few days apart and reunite reminded anew of why we got married in the first place.

Richard, one of my closest friends, is a necrologist, keeping careful records of celebrity deaths. He scrupulously maintains a Last Gasp list of movie stars over age ninety and those rumored to be terminally ill. My competition has dwindled over the years, down to just me and my own kids, but anyone who is the first to announce the demise of a personage on the last gasp list earns a prize of one dollar. This week I leave a message regarding Slim Whitman. Joe College texts me in a panic. “James Gandolfini died and I can't get in touch with Uncle Richard!” Neither Whitman nor Gandolfini are on the Last Gasp list but even when there is no dollar on the line, the glory of being first informant, in and of itself, is gratifying.

I believe that death is the end of consciousness and the potential to experience joy or suffering or anything at all. I am afraid of experiencing pain. I am afraid of inflicting pain on loved ones. I am afraid that unlike my meticulous mother, my own affairs are in nightmarish disarray. I won't know what I'm missing when I'm gone but I feel obliged to get it together and make preparations to insure that aftermath of my demise is as uncomplicated as is possible for the sake of my survivors. I am devoted to postponing this inevitability in any way that is in my power. But my power only goes so far in a mercurial and random universe. It especially unsettles me when someone younger than I, to wit Gandolfini, suddenly drops dead.

My mother referred to her own death constantly and in a threatening manner. “You better treat me right or you'll be mighty guilty when I kick the bucket.” I think she would have been felt dealt a short shrift with the amount of guilt I actually did suffer when she passed away. Four years of navigating her dementia balanced out my youthful cruelty a bit. I never did have a chance to tell her that I understand now about the constant worry a mom has about her kids. This doesn't really diminish with age. I always felt her cautions implied I was incompetent. Now however, when I remember my young adult hubris and know how much lousiness there is out in the world, I get it. Writer Sylvia Boorstein, Zen practitioner/Jewish mother describes how easy it is to become wildly uncentered when there is a call on in the middle of the night and the quavering voice on the other end begins, “Mom...”.

I chastised Mom for being hung up about tidiness and the Joni Mitchell line, “Papa's faith is people. Mama, she's always cleaning,” played on a mental endless loop during my adolescence. Now I understand how much more time I have to stretch out on the couch and watch crap TV when things are put back where they belong and I don't have to waste time tearing up the house looking for stuff. I appreciate how nice it is to return to a pleasant and orderly home. I return from a workday to a living room strewn with shoes and empty glasses. The TV is cranked up and summertime kids loll on the couch. My own mother screamed when after working all day she returned to find me lazing around, having trashed the house. I say nothing, remembering the deliciousness of teenage summertime chill. The kids will have many years to clean and fuss. But honestly, what is it to put your friggin' shoes away or rinse a glass and throw it in the dishwasher? And Joni, I also have less faith in people.

Rover approaches my desk and pats my thigh to announce it's time for his walk every morning at 10:30 sharp. It takes him about a week to adjust to Daylight Savings Time but then he gets right back on schedule. He will keep patting me until I take his leash and follow him to our research area. He approaches a researcher and then pats his thigh. Then Rover turns around and waits for his butt to be gently scratched with a pair of scissors. Sometimes the boys can't lay hands on the scissors and will use a letter opener or screwdriver instead but this is not acceptable and Rover stands glowering until the scissors are located, he is scratched properly and we can head out on our way.

We walk the same route every day. Usually this is a pleasant time for a bit of reflection. Lately though I am all consumed by environmental inspections and contingencies. My mother told me never to wish for time to pass more quickly. I believe this is good advice but it is difficult these days to heed. I can't wait until I can let go of all the underground storage tank and geophysical survey information that crams my brain. I am desperate not to have to think about carrybacks and triple net. Rover's pace is slow now and I have more time to chew around these problems. A helicopter hovers low and lands on the roof of the Children's Hospital. I don't believe in a God that showers me with signs and symbols. I do think that if I retain faith in and respect for whatever the heck it was that made me be, I am better equipped to make interpretations that meet my needs. Humbled, the real estate noise in my head becomes muted. There is no more potent symbol of fear and misery than a helicopter on the roof of Children's Hospital.

Nevertheless, the realtor calls when I return to the office. Strategies. Compromises. Counter offers. After over two months we are both weary. He senses how brittle I've become. He's taken to texting me, “Try to get a good night's sleep. Everything will be OK.” I know that everything will be OK but the fact that decisions being made right now will have a huge effect on our future is scary and agitating. I do try to sleep and my activity monitor has me at well over five miles walked nearly every day. My dad used to say, “The most important thing is your health,” and I'd call him an old fart. Now I take fistfuls of vitamins and supplements and walk and watch what I eat. Despite the crisis du jour I feel stronger and more fit at age 56 than I ever have in my life.

Tuesday morning I find an enormous hard lump in what I will demurely refer to as gynecological territory. Farrah Fawcett immediately comes to mind. The only thing worse than cancer I guess is cancer emanating from an embarrassing body part. My doctor squeezes me in and I drive through rush hour to Beverly Hills, mentally composing instructions to the family about managing various affairs, including the conclusion of the nightmare building sale, in case the news is bad. The diagnosis is a cyst and if my longtime doctor and friend wouldn't have teased me unmercifully I would have wept with joy at this news. Rather than face another interminable trip to Beverly Hills, I ask her to excise the lump on the spot without anesthesia. This sounds very butch but the pain is minimal. I return home and continue to talk late into the night with the realtor. The parents of the kid in the helicopter on the roof of Children's Hospital would switch places with me in a heartbeat. My own problems rate very low on the worldwide scale of woe. Nevertheless, these negotiations will effect my own family and my employees and their families too for years to come. I strive for perspective. How different tonight's Shabbat would be if my doctor had ordered a biopsy. How thankful I am not to have this to distract me from the building sale. I will, as Mom advised, not let myself wish for time to hurry on. I have both kids at home. This will be rarer and rarer. Even the most convoluted real estate deal ever in human history would make me want to accelerate the time I have being a mom with the kids, sloppy and lazy as they are, close at hand.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Permanent File

Bruce, my commercial realtor, calls as I am putting dinner on the table. I tell the family that I'm not hungry and go outside and sit on the step. Everyone is sick of hearing me talk about real estate. I am sick of hearing me talk about real estate. I'm really not hungry. My head is spinning when I sign off and we've just made a tiny dent in the talking points. Bruce sighs and says that it has officially become the most complicated transaction he has ever negotiated. The meal is eaten and the dishes are almost done when I go back in the house.

It is hard for me to think about anything but this. I have done some cursory clearing of my office but until I know where it's going to be I don't have much gumption. Joe College and his friend are helping out sniffing films and disposing of prints that have succumbed to the vinegar syndrome. Spuds is suffering from terminal senioritus and attends school sporadically. He is chosen valedictorian and the loosey goosey school is holding the graduation at a private home. Per usual, there is no formal communication regarding the event but Spuds says he has the address and that the ceremony is at 6:00 p.m. Thursday.

Early Wednesday afternoon finish a protracted conversation with an environmental inspector. Spuds calls and says, “You know, graduation is tonight at six, not tomorrow.” He's misread the e-mail. His valedictory speech is unwritten. Himself is scheduled to teach a class at 6:30. I seldom weep at the office but the confluence of real estate woes and the probability of Himself missing Spuds' graduation puts me over the edge.

I try to reach Himself by phone, email and text to no avail. I return home to help Spuds with his speech and finally Himself, fresh out of his afternoon class, calls me at 4 p.m. In eighteen years of teaching he has never canceled a class. I am corrected by him on this in front of one of Spud's teachers. “I have canceled classes when I've attended conferences.” So to be precise, Himself, for the first time in eighteen years, canceled a class for personal reasons. We are all thankful.

The printer is on the fritz so Spuds is condemned to read his speech on his Iphone. Himself gives it a cursory tweak and we help him polish the conclusion about two minutes before the ceremony begins. Fortunately, the school principal sets a precedent by reading his own speech from his phone. Spud's speech is smart and free of cliches. He suggests how the school's philosophy of encouraging independent thinking and leadership might serve the graduates well in the years to come. Joe College is acknowledged as an alum along with one of his former classmate's who's arrived with a baby in tow.

After the ceremony we dine at a place in Altadena that's so new there is no sign out front. I visit a liquor store a few doors down and pick up a good beer for Himself and a bottle of champagne for the rest of us. The server opens the bottles and happily serves Spuds although we'd announced he's just graduated high school. I do keep his dosage to a thimble-full. The food is excellent and the restaurant is a happy place, the server is genuinely delighted that we like our food. As a control freak it is challenging for me not to know where my office will be when I return from taking Spuds to Bard. I also accept that there will be more long phone chats and e-mails with Bruce the realtor and environmental folks plus a shitload of stuff to pack up and haul off to wherever we're going. Whenever that is.

One of the offices has been designated the paper room. All of the steel files and bankers boxes have been assembled. There is one file marked “important” and a big carton relegated to the shredding service. The canceled class, the hastily written speech and the happy family at dinner always be in the “permanent” file and before I know it the whole real estate nightmare will be consigned to the shredder.

Friday, June 7, 2013

State of Grease

Spuds attends the prom with a breathtakingly beautiful girl. We rent the dinner jacket and shiny shoes and order a corsage. He stumbles upstairs bleary-eyed the afternoon following the soiree and mutters that it was OK. I decide not to press the subject. I gave up long ago trying to access my children's inner lives but I imagine that all the hubbub has raised expectations sky high, into unrealistic territory.

I attend a going away party for a younger friend who's moving far away. I pick up another friend on the way because the neighborhood is a notorious parking challenge. We park several blocks away and I stagger up a hill carrying a giant cake I've spent most of the day assembling. After oral surgery I am instructed to refrain from solid food for three weeks. The post operative instructions also prohibit carbonated beverages. There is no mention of alcohol but the dental school is affiliated with the Seventh Day Adventist faith and perhaps booze was not even in the lexicon of the author of these post op admonitions. I know beer is lightly carbonated but someone helps me figure out how to operate a keg and I have a few sips as an anecdote to social awkwardness. I polish it off quickly. I am unable to figure out how to operate the keg so I pour a bit of wine into the same cup. Meat revolves on a huge spit and guests line up for tacos. I know the hostess and the friend I arrived with. There are a couple of people I'm acquainted with casually but none well enough to glom onto while they are in the middle of a conversation. I ask my passenger if she can find another ride home and sneak away. I forget where I've parked and wander the hills for about half an hour until I find my car. The prom Spuds attends is under the aegis of his date's school and not his own. He only knows a few of the other kids. Prom is held on a small yacht. I castigate myself for being unable to find my car and am relieved to be cocooned there with my own thoughts when I finally do. I wonder if Spuds felt like I did at the party and his only viable escape would have been to swim.

I don't remember feeling uncomfortable in social situations years ago but there are so many other things that I forget I cannot aver that I was not. Most of my business is now conducted on-line and I have grown far more comfortable with written communication. My kids are derisive about my use of social media but for me there is often a warm and fuzzy feel without the complications of face-to-face interactions.

Three weeks ago, prior to the scheduled surgery, I eat a last meal of turkey burger and onion rings at a brew pub in Redlands. I subsist mainly on yogurt and Trader Joe's Parmalat soups. I never thought in this lifetime that I would be sick of ice cream. I fantasize to the point of drool about that turkey burger and am determined to head over to Redlands, right after my stitches are removed and I'm cleared for solids, to revisit the meal.

The surgery is evaluated as a success, sutures are snipped and I am give the greenlight for solid food. I head to Redlands and sit at the bar. I order the lunch I've been dreaming about. The man next to me has an erudite conversation about beer with the barman. I almost chime in to get some recommendations for Himself but I sit quietly. The burger arrives and it is beautiful with caramelized onions and oozy cheese. I bite in and instead of the deliciousness that I'd anticipated it is salty and mealy. The onion rings are panko crusted but I suffer from an emollient sensation, a coating of grease in my mouth, for hours.

I drive through Redlands and it is clear why Joe College refers to the denizens as “townies.” I think about my dentist who has come all the way from Spain for an intensive study of implant surgery at the Loma Linda school. She was expecting the Southern California she's seen in movies. Loma Linda on the map is less than an hour from L.A. but traffic is not factored in and even with an empty freeway, it is a universe away. La dentista must be surprised to see un-ironic mullets and cheap tattoos in what she'd expected was one of the most sophisticated places on the planet. A haggard sunburned man in a wifebeater stands on a traffic island maniacally attempting to direct traffic. A woman struggles with a toddler, two backpacks and a shopping cart. Homeless is my quick-read but perhaps this isn't the case. I know some people who would have pulled off the road and asked the woman if she needed some help but I do not.

I wish I could say that problems due environmental concerns pertinent to the sale of my office building that distracted me last week have been resolved. This week however, I find myself better educated and even more confused. I listen to a Podcast of On Being, a radio broadcast about spirituality. I am obsessing about building inspections and lease options but I figure the cadence of the chill voices of the enlightened will at least calm me a bit. Maybe my low opinion of myself for coming so unstrung about a real estate transaction and driving right past a human being who is most likely in trouble, of the sort and gravity I will likely never experience, will improve by at least giving lip service to matters spiritual.

The traffic on the 10 is thick. I suck on horehound, trying futilely to dissolve the greasy coating in my mouth. The list of tasks I need to complete when I return to the office is a mantra until the podcast captures my attention. The interview is with poet Christian Winan. Winan's mother, at age fourteen, witnessed the murder of her own mother at her father's hand. The grisly story catches my attention but it is Winan's acknowledgment of his mother's boundless capacity for love, and the strength in particular of her love for him, despite the experience of unthinkable trauma that makes the endless loop of real estate worries finally stop. Winan was raised in a small town in Texas where life revolved around church. He reports not meeting anyone who even questioned Christian doctrine until he attended college. Details spill out in the interview and I am unable to really ascribe an order of events. I know that Winan drifted away from Christianity and found his way back. He is a father of young children and the current editor of Poetry Magazine. Several years ago Winans was diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of cancer. He has undergone a bone marrow transplant which promises no cure but perhaps a period of remission. I don't know about the connection between diagnosis and renewed faith but Winan expresses that by definition God can only really exist outside of our consciousness.

The belief that there is a God beyond our realm of imagination does not necessarily confer serenity. It is not my lack of belief or lack of adherence to practice that causes confusion or disappointment. God is not a source of constant comfort. The notion of comfort or even constant is too human in scope to apply to a God that can only be described as ineffable. And even ineffability is a human construct. I am at the top of the trail I walk every morning. The hills are still green. Below, traffic hums on the Arroyo Parkway and people are eating breakfast. Boring proms, messy real estate deals,greasy burgers and social ineptitude have no relationship to faith or orthodoxy. I stand on Kite Hill most mornings as the day begins. People push the snooze button, pack lunches, watch the Today Show as I take in the city below me. God is when I stop expecting.