Friday, December 26, 2014

2014's Last Bad Poem

Another year through which we've slogged.
The homefront loses cat and dogs.

The world's sorrows too increase.
We tortured for the sake of peace.
I only hope we see a time
to try Dick Cheney for war crimes.
November elections sure weren't mobbed
by folks who work at minimum wage jobs.
Cynicism it seems trumps fear
in the worst voter turnout in 72 years.

Worldwide tragedy, turmoil and crisis.
Fear of Ebola, ISIL (or is it ISIS?)
Putin's gone postal and insane in Ukraine
and will the Malaysians ever find that plane?

Robin Williams and Phil Seymour I miss a whole bunch.
Mr. Mickey Rooney, not so much.
But worst of all, I have to swear,
What will I do without Colbert?

Clamor and paranoia about cyber attacking.
But is Kim Jong Un smart enough for that hacking?
The Interview though is back down from the shelf
but would have been funnier had Un played himself.

There's freedom to marry in 34 states
but if you're black don't go out in a hoodie too late.
And if you want to study or learn a vocation,
don't be a girl in a number of places.

But here in the States we educate girls and they think.
Just don't let Bill Cosby prepare you a drink.
And if you're of color and don't wish to offend,
Don't pose for pictures with Donald Sterling's girlfriend.

A tough year, leaves us scarred and battered,
we grieve and chafe at a world in tatters.
A new age harkens, a change in the climate.
Now, inside your head is the only place private.
But for self-comfort, we don't have to go far
to score Denver pot and Cuban cigars.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Passing, Pets and Potato Pancakes

My senior employee Bryce's mother passes away and I attend the service at Forest Lawn. There are wakes, viewings, novenas and other events I'm invited to but I opt only to attend the service with another of my employees. I contrast the extravaganza of this death with the simple service held for my dad. After my mom 's slow unraveling the connections she'd had were either dead or distant. I marked her passing only by sending a few notes informing the last vestiges of friends and relatives that she was gone. My employee is Filipino and my colleague and I are the only white people in the crammed chapel. The casket is open but fortunately not visible from my seat in the back row.

Bryce has worked for me over 25 years. We like each other just fine but I have never been to his home. His free time is devoted 100% to family, which is huge, extended and primarily comprised of households of three or more generations. We understand that this is not necessarily harmonious but just the way it is. Bryce never reports, “I saw a friend from high school” or intimates any social interactions with non-relatives. The SRO service is led by a Filipino priest. One of Bryce's daughter's sings and the other recites a psalm. Bryce eulogizes his mother. During her medical decline and after her death, Bryce is absent from work many days. I confess to being a bit resentful about this but when he speaks, through tears, about his mom, I feel guilty for having begrudged him this time off.

The parents move to Los Angeles from the Philippines when Bryce is a toddler. His mother doesn't drive and newly arrived in Los Angeles she is dependent on public transportation. When Bryce is five or so he accompanies his mom to run errands and she takes the wrong bus. They end up stranded at the freeway bus stop on the 101. Mom has no command of English. She holds Bryce's hand tighter. He senses how frightened she is as she tries to hold back tears and reassure him. She closes her eyes, prays and determines to try to walk home. Despite feeling his mother's fear, Bryce remembers feeling certain and secure that his mom would take care of him. Her prayers are indeed answered and a lady stops for them and offers to drive them home.

Bryce's mom undergoes a number of procedures before it is concluded that further life saving efforts are futile. Still stifling sobs, Bryce goes on to describe his mother's last days in the hospital. He holds her hand and encourages her to be strong and fight for her life. Finally, he has a sad epiphany. His desire for his mother to soldier on, despite the odds, harks back to her clasping his hand on the freeway. He is accustomed to his mother's firm grasp and her prayers but he realizes that his pep talks come from a selfish place. It is time for his mother to be at peace and time for Bryce to let her go.

After two weeks of liquids, my stitches are removed and I am given the green light to return to solids. I have salivating dreams about hamburgers, although I almost never eat beef. I head straight from the dentist to The In-N-Out and order the #2 combo. I've done stuff like this before and still haven't gotten it through my head that food that I don't make myself is almost never as good as I imagine it. The burger is gristly and the fries are lukewarm and limp. Fortunately, it is Hanukah. Although I hate making them and particularly spending a week cleaning the grease out of the kitchen, homemade latkes and donuts do not disappoint sense memories and I will likely pass on the Weight Watcher's scale this week.

Joe College is home. This is the first time he's been there without Spuds or Girlfriend In-Law in many moons and he is quite chill and remarkably studious, working arduously on some paper with Himself, having made it clear that the subject matter is well beyond my meager grasp. I ask him if he wants to learn to make latkes and he is indifferent. “But who,” I ask, “is going to make them when I'm dead?” I'm not sure if he's just trying to placate me or if he realizes that there might be a point after I am gone that he might actually want some latkes and in that the current inamorata is a shiksa, it might be prudent to learn. He peels and grates the potatoes and pays attention to the frying process and confers in me a slight sense of immortality.

In his first concentrated time stuck with us, the boy is getting a sense of our devolution. I don't think Himself has left the house in over two weeks and I often work from home for a couple days in a row. We hardly ever go to movies or eat out. We watch a lot of TV and dote on the remaining dog and cat.

The last couple of weeks are dedicated to encouraging Gary the cat, who has been relegated to our bedroom for over a decade, to come downstairs, despite the presence of Opie, the dog. The cat sequester was due to Rover and Taffy's failure to master cat etiquette. With the two elder gents gone, we decide that perhaps gentle Opie is young enough to learn not to chew up a cat. At first I bring Gary down and hold him swaddled in a blanket and let him and the dog sniff each other. We leave the door open and after about a week, Gary ventures down to the living room on his own volition. We talk about this for days. Even more miraculous is the day when Gary not only descends into the living room, he actually jumps into Himself's lap. Joe College is indifferent to the cat/dog integration project. A friend comes to watch a movie and sits in Himself's chair. Gary not only comes downstairs but he jumps into our friend's lap and cuddles. Himself and I shriek like little girls at this miracle. Joe College rolls his eyes and suggests that perhaps we should get out more.

Bryce is back at work now. He's been helping his dad go through his mother's stuff. Someday I guess my kids will be going through mine. I have a couple of big purges every year and try to get rid of that which is neither functional or beautiful, but there is still a lot of crap. I remember my irritation at my own mother's accretion of junk. I try to be a better steward but there are all those nearly empty bottles of shampoo, underpants with stretched out elastic and funky little jars of makeup. Who will discard these sad worn vestiges? I grow more and more mindful about making my passing less of a nuisance for the sprats. I don't want to cloud their memories of how much I love them. I hope the dumpster full of my garbage is disposed expeditiously and that the kids never have a Chanukah without latkes, despite the greasy mess.

Illustration by Paula Rego (again...)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Cookie Momster

All I have to look forward to is the removal of stitches from my gum and the green light to eat food. I want a hamburger. I don't usually eat beef but I may stop at In-N-Out and yes, I'll have fries with that. I suspect being unable to eat solids is more traumatic for me than it would be for most people. It's such a stupid thing to feel sorry for myself about and I attribute this to a lack of character and willpower. How many people go from a Weight Watchers meeting directly to a restaurant to order flan AND ice cream? Despite this little spree, essentially I subsist on fat free yogurt, sugar free pudding and jello plus mashed sweet and russet potatoes.

There are some popsicles and ice cream in the freezer but this appliance has been an ongoing source of frustration since its purchase last year. Helpful hint: It is not prudent to purchase a refrigerator only because it's a cool color (Wasabi). We've gone round and round with different service companies. The retailer we purchased from has been more than supportive. They've even offered to replace the unit with a brand new one but Wasabi has been discontinued so my only option is stainless steel. Nope. The problem du jour is that the freezer won't close unless we prop the bottom up with tuna cans and books. This means that in order to fetch a popsicle I have to jam objects under the heavy door in order for it to shut fast. This requires Himself's grudging assistance so I limit my popsicle intake to one a day.

Working at home is very easy these days so I decide to stay there for the service call. Himself could likely handle it but because he has so much less invested in the refrigerator than I do, I don't entirely trust him. As we've had so much trouble with the fridge, a service supervisor directly from the Viking Company has been summoned. I wax on a lot about the advantage of being old is that you no longer are bound to give a rat's ass what anyone thinks. The anticipation of a service call proves how full of shit I am. First of all, I notice that there are smudge marks on the fridge and fingerprints on the handle and take to it with a sponge. But the interior too has remnants of little spills so I move stuff around and clean the shelves. A lot of the jars and containers look less than pristine so I wipe these down too.

There is an accretion of dog hair, dust and popcorn kernels jammed underneath the freezer which I lie on the floor and dislodge with a toothbrush. I mop the area and while I'm at it, scrub down the rest of the kitchen and then the living room floor. I spy some coffee stains on the counter adjacent to the fridge and end up cleaning all of the kitchen counters. I worry that the serviceman will think that we're pigs or worse, that our lack of cleanliness is somehow at fault for the appliance malfunction.

When I stay home I wear a house dress, rubber flip flops and eschew makeup and a bra. I have a prosthetic front tooth that fits over an incision site. I only wear it when I'm out in the world in order to accelerate healing. The TV is usually on while I sit on the couch parsing through business e-mails. My inclination, when someone is expected, even a service person, is to put on real clothes-including bra, apply makeup and fake tooth and turn off the TV. It occurs to me that even if the repairman were to cast judgment on me, it doesn't matter. It is not a social interaction or a job interview. It is an accomplishment that as the hour of the scheduled appointment approaches, I remain on the couch in my schmata, sans bra and tooth. At least the kitchen is clean. There is a knock at the door and I make a split decision to turn off the TV. It is Forensic Files and experts are discussing DNA evidence gleaned from a rape kit. Fortunately, it's a rerun.

The repairman informs me that mainly his job is advising other repairman and it's been a long time since he's been out in the field, implying how special I should feel to merit his personal service. He goes to work confidently on Wasabi, all the while grunting, panting, sighing and talking to himself as he dismantles the freezer and diagnoses its problems. His vocalization is so continuous that I miss the cues as to when he expects me to respond to his patter. Nevertheless, the repair is complete and there is no comment about the cleanliness of the kitchen or the slovenliness of my person.

I can have a popsicle now whenever I want but I am still deprived of chewable food and am not finding much equanimity regarding Spuds departure next week for Israel. Yes, I traveled a lot and to more remote places when I was younger than he is. There were no cellphones or ATMs in those days. He will be on a Birthright program for the first ten-days so it is likely that a potential Jewish parent will be keeping an eye on the lad. After though the boy will be traveling and staying with a friend's family for ten days. He assures me that he will be fine but when I ask him to call me he says his phone is dead and he's been sending text messages via his laptop (which I confess I wouldn't know how to do.) BUT, the kid who is traveling half way across the world and will be at least on the periphery of dangerous territory and he doesn't even have it together enough to keep his phone charged. And if I didn't have concerns about his competence, Spuds has been gone since early August. He was absent for his birthday and Thanksgiving and will miss Hanukah, Jewish Christmas and New Years. I know that the kids will spend more and more time away but this long stretch is radical. I expected to ease into this new life stage more gradually. No, I don't want them home still when they're in their forties, cutting up my food and trimming my nose hairs. I've just spent over two decades in the frenzy of raising them that it never really dawned on me that I wouldn't really know what to do with myself when they left.

Deprived of kids and food and travel plans I seldom make it off the couch. It takes enormous will to get myself off the sofa and upstairs at bedtime. The effort required to wash my face, brush my teeth and change into my nightgown is daunting. I wake in the middle of the night unable to turn off lists of possible catastrophes. My phone whines with an emergency flood alert at three in the morning. Rain is pounding. I commit to not getting back to sleep and drink coffee. It is cookie baking season. For years I've sent my best clients and business associates baked good for the holidays. While the kids were home I handled concessions for their theater group and did large scale baking several times a year. Now the business baking is my only big kitchen project.

I did a complete kitchen remodel about eight years ago and I still appreciate how lucky I am every time I cook or bake. I throw an apron on over my nightgown and arrange all of my ingredients and bakeware on the counter. The rain doesn't let up. The oven is pre-heated. Butter and sugar are creamed in the mixer. Dry ingredients are sifted. Cookie sheets are lined with parchment. In an even rhythm I shape cookies and roll them in sugar and line them up in even rows. I have baked so many cookies in my life I don't even need to use a timer. The aroma tells me when the trays need to be rotated in the oven and when they're ready to come out. Cooling racks laden with warm cookies, even if I can't eat them, the familiar repetition of the baking process, knowing that something I do well makes people happy...This simple, trifling thing restores my soul and the dark clouds are only outside. But I'm still pretty set on that burger.

Friday, December 5, 2014


I transition from road trip aftermath into Thanksgiving mode. Both of the two families who usually join us are elsewhere so our event is scaled down. Nevertheless, I make the same stuff I always make in smaller portions and the week is absorbed by cooking and shopping. Spuds spends the holiday with a friend's family in New York. He describes a bustling houseful, including a high maintenance toddler. I am tempted to pry from him for every detail of the experience. The exact menu. The layout of the house. The guest list. He has been at home for eighteen celebrations. I am nervous that the food might not be very good or that there might be an awkward family scene of the sort that it is not uncommon this time of year. Perhaps this first elsewhere Thanksgiving is not as monumental for Spuds as it is for me. But, there is a tiny pang of wistfulness in the boy's voice so perhaps he too senses the shifting sands.

I soften now when I remember my mother watching me set out myself into the world. At least I have Himself. My mother had intermittent boyfriends and intermittent contact with my sister but I was the only constant. She watched me travel alone to Mexico and Europe back before cell phones, e-mail and ATM machines. I always interpreted her worry as a lack of confidence in my ability to navigate the world. Such a misplaced fear, as I knew everything and more. In guilty hindsight, had she known my actual travails she should have worried even more. She was cowed by the force of my will and my demand for, what I perceived in the day, as freedom. Now I see that I was just another fat girl trying to create allure and mystique. I was hellbent, relentless to mold an image that would combat my real sense of myself. I even manipulated Mom to bankroll some of my adventures. How often did she lie awake fretting about where and how I was? Yet she never discouraged me from traveling off the beaten path. When I think back on all the trips I made my memories of scenery and people are scant. Returning I recounted wild adventures but I see myself sitting cross legged on a bed in a crappy room in London or Guatemala or Amsterdam and feeling desperately alone.

Unlike my poor mother, I have instant contact with both of the kids, and can put money into their accounts via my phone. Still I am ill at ease when they are in transit or somewhere that is unfamiliar to me. They create and amass indelible images that I am no longer a part of. I changed their diapers and now they are the captains of their own fate. Except for cellphone, health and auto insurance and tuition. Sometimes they gang up against me and recount something awful I said or did that I have no memory of. My own mother plays the heavy in many of my own memories but as I watch my own kids and experience their different phases I suspect that the woundings have historically and unfairly been given more weight than the warm and fuzzy. Sorry Mom.

Joe College returns with some friends for the holiday. He is graduating from college in May although we are not permitted to discuss this and I guess I don't blame him. Nearly forty years ago I was in the same predicament and my recollection is of very little mirth. Joe College is visited by a smart kid who graduated last year from a school better than either of my kids could have gotten into. Now he's settled in Brooklyn where he has some sort of gig that involves music criticism and undoubtedly hefty subsidies from home. He and Joe College drink beer and sit on the couch and converse for a couple of hours while I cook. They go back and forth trying to best each other with uber-obscure bands. Both however appear to have heard everything worth hearing and most artists are proclaimed as being,“tight.”

It sort of makes me want to slap my own twenty-something self. It was not relevant how my opinions were formed. They just had to be the right ones. I'd find an attraction that synthesized the aesthetic I could only vaguely sense but was unprepared expound upon. Everything overlapping in the Venn Diagram of the admirable talent was added to the list of that which was “tight.” But perhaps this was not shallowness, nor laziness but the right instincts minus the maturity required to give voice to gut feelings. I can't remember any of the bands that are mentioned as they go on and on well in my earshot. I am unsure of how my presence registers to them. Are they performing to remind me that I am an anachronism or am I completely invisible? I take a bit of comfort from observing that the friend, despite being a year ahead of Joe College and having a more prestigious alma mater, seems to possess no greater gravitas.

The fondest wishes my depression survivor parents had for me was to lose weight and marry well. I endured a lot of self destruction coming to realize that for all my hippie college aspirations, my own hopes for myself were more in line with my parents' then I could bear to admit. I do spend a lot of time imagining where Joe College will land post-baccalaureate. I am somewhat ill at ease as I recall the weird, and sometimes profoundly unhappy, places I slogged through in my twenties. Perhaps my eldest will learn earlier down the road than his mom did that the satisfaction of being curious is equal, or greater, to that of being an authority. I know that he has to make his own way but maybe having parents who root for him discovering who he is and what it is he does best, rather than becoming who we think he should be, will be to his advantage. Maybe though it's inevitable that kids perceive any parental input as controlling or belittling. Certainly, I will become more and more hands off and perhaps it will be a challenge to find the right place between indifferent and control freak. Having two kids who can be categorized as “creative types” I wonder if they are particularly susceptible to glamorizing angst. I guess kids of any generation are at the risk of succumbing to the affect of disaffectedness. This dark for dark's sake can sully what, particularly when you look back from your fifties, should have been a fucking fantastic time of life.

I guess it is unfair to the kids to expect that they'll inevitably flounder like I did. I do the sprats and myself a disservice by indulging in fixation on their futures. They are smart and resourceful enough to thrive without my micromanagement or perhaps despite it. The nest has been empty now nearly two years and I would have expected the fog of purposeless to have subsided. Indeed, there's been some amazing kids gone off to college travel, which has been satisfying and wonderful and lightyears from the lonely expeditions of my teens and twenties. The house however, is huge and quiet. It is not as clean as it would be if I didn't spend so much time playing Scrabble on my Kindle or watching tv. I make lists of things to do but accomplish only the bare minimum to keep us fed and clothed. I grouse bitterly when writers I deem lesser are published or win awards but I binge on crap TV or trolling Facebook instead of writing, or reading. I can tick off the phases and milestones the sprats pass through but as I approach sixty I am unsure whether I'm supposed to take a last grab at the gold ring or just enjoy my dotage and make sure there are fresh batteries in the remote. Back in my twenties I felt like I had become the person I would always be. I had no inkling as to what my 50s would feel like. I write this post oral surgery and all puffed out like a pumpkin and knowing that my teeth will continue to plague me and inevitably other body parts will start crapping out too. But for all my griping, it is better to be 57 and not giving a rat's ass what the world thinks than 22 or 19 and a slave to public opinion. I do not know if the next year will bring a magnum opus or a couple more HBO series binges. I'm old enough to know better than to make ambitious proclamations. As my memory goes sketchy and the body shows wear and tear, I know that whatever course Life: Part Two takes it is good to in a place where I can cultivate myself and not the image I present to the world.