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.