Friday, July 31, 2015

An Offer I Can't Refuse

I assiduously avoid the basement area which was remodeled earlier this year with the comfort of visitors in mind. While I am in NY Joe Workforce's summer plan to remain in Redlands fall through. He is all moved in back home by the time I return. I am home for just about two weeks with him and Girlfriend In-Law before I leave for England. Girlfriend In-Law leaves for Prague on the same day I return from England. Now, for the first time since before the birth of Spuds, it is just Him and Myself and our first born. I caution my son that the first job after college will be extremely hard to land and undoubtedly menial and beneath his perceived station. The boy however is hired in a management capacity after his first interview. The boss turns out to be a handful and there is little intersection with the boy's real interests so he applies for other positions. He is interviewed twice by a film lab I do business with. Ultimately, someone already intimately familiar with their software is hired instead but it comes back to me that the lad has made a great impression.

He applies for a position in the audio restoration department of one of the industry's largest lab and post production facilities. I imagine it is a real long shot and am pleasantly surprised when he is called back for a second interview. We are all over the moon that he is actually offered the position and starts there next week. The boy is not at all smug about having disproved my theory as to the inevitability of difficult to land, shitty first jobs.

I have some oral surgery this week and return home still quite sedated. I discover some correspondence I'd completed while under the influence that I have no memory of writing. I am surprised and relieved by the cogency. After I've poured my coffee and I realize my computer is not in its place. I venture to the basement, for the first time since the prodigal's return. Messy would be an understatement. I wake the boy and he assures me that my laptop is not under his rubble. I locate my laptop in my own bedroom and try to decide how I should feel about the condition of my son's quarters.

I was on about the same messy trajectory when I was in my twenties. Close friends automatically volunteered to come clean my place before any party. When I lived at home with my neat-aholic mom the chaos of my belongings was a constant source of friction. I realize now that every garment I threw on the floor was a slap, a reminder to her of my lack of respect for her support and subsidy. But I was too self centered and immature to empathize so it's hard for me to blame my own kid for just doing what most kids do. Still, what is it to fold a load of laundry or throw one's dirty underwear into the perfectly adequate hamper that your mother has provided?

During dinner Joe Workforce tells a guest about his new job and describes how satisfactory it is for him to live at home. I am not particularly happy when I learn of his plan to return. It is quite an adjustment to have him back at the ranch. He comes home very late. He won't abide the spartan vegetarian meals I'm used to making for just the two of us. Sometimes he disconnects the TV in order to watch something from his computer and forgets to reconnect it. His clothing is removed from the dryer garment by garment as needed for wearing. I focus a lot about the extent to which my style is being cramped but I realize too what genial company the kid can be at this phase of his life.

Joe Workforce does make an effort to confine his clutter to his sleeping area. He supplies his own beer for the most part and even shares it with us. And he as been better about turning off lights. Himself has a particularly heavy workload, and even when this isn't the case, has a minimal television endurance. The boy however takes after me and appreciates a lot of R&R (Remote and Refrigerator). He turns me on to a lot of indie stuff that doesn't make my radar. I share with him stuff that I find seminal and we discover what has stood the test of time and what is hopelessly dated and no longer relevant. He asks if I want to watch The Godfather and I agree. I saw the whole Godfather Saga about fifteen years ago and have little memory of the free standing Part One, which I don't think I've seen since its release in '72 when I was fifteen.

The page, from the paperback edition of the novel that circulated at my junior high, that was dog-eared had the scene of the legendarily well endowed Sonny loudly schtupping a bridesmaid against a door. The most vivid scene from the film I guess is the bloody horse head on satin sheets. Everyone's favorite line is “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” The Nina Rota score is often evoked as a shorthand to suggest the Italian Mob or sometimes more crassly just to suggest Italians. But in context the combination of menace and solemnity makes it one greatest scores in film history. So often, now that everything is high def, even the most accomplished cinematography from another era seems almost crude. The restored version of the 1972 film makes clear the sharp, masterful work of cinematographer Gordon Willis.

The screenplay is a collaboration between the novel's author Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola had originally turned down the project and only accepted it because his finances were precarious. The transition from novel to screenplay is remarkable. The first hundred pages of the novel are dispatched incredibly efficiently in the first ten minutes of the film. The next 165 minutes maintain the brisk pace. Not a single frame of the three hour film is extraneous. Other of my teenage favorites haven't worn so well but it is great to share The Godfather with the kid. I imagine that it will always be considered among the greatest films ever made. It's nice to have made a big dent in the “best of” lists with my son.

It's been nearly two weeks since I returned to husband and son. When Girlfriend-In-Law is here there is a tacit regulation to remain polite. Now that it's just the three of us there is a long history of incivility. At first I have my hackles up expecting strife and disruption when stripped of the need to maintain decorum for Girlfriend's sake. But there's been a lot more quality dinner conversation than there has emotional pandemonium. I know that the boy will and should move on but at least today, it is actually quite cool to watch him transition to full throttle adulthood and keep me company on the couch.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Left Side of the Road

I return after three weeks in the U.K. and am issued a landing form on the airplane. Was the trip for business or pleasure? “None of the above,” is not an option so I check “pleasure” as the closest approximation. There was the trip to Chipping Norton for the live video feed of the National Theater's fantastic production of Everyman starring the spellcheck baffling Chiwetel Ejiofor. Plus, we make a field trip to Cookham to visit the Stanley Spencer Gallery. But even the recreational diversions require assisting my surgery recovering friend in and out of the car and lugging around two large cushions and a rolled towel for her to sit on.

A visit to the nearby Rollright, sort of a mini-Stonehenge is ruined when I receive a call from Joe Workforce indicating that at 1 a.m. and then later that morning at 9 a.m. Himself and his car are absent from Casamurphy. There is no explanation for this except a bad one. Himself is excruciatingly regular in his habits and only amnesia, grave injury or worse would account for a full night away from home. I tell the boy to phone the CHP, LAPD and local hospitals. Then, although he never answers it, I dial Himself's phone and miraculously he picks up. He'd been required at the last minute to attend a far flung school meeting. The electric car was low on juice so he ended up spending the night at a colleague's. It takes about twenty minutes to get from AWOL to explanation of freak circumstances. I will unfortunately always associate the Rollright Stones with a dread of widowhood.

I am apprehensive about driving in the U.K. I make sure to reserve a small economy car with automatic transmission. When I arrive at the agency, the only car without a stick shift is a behemoth Mercedes. Before setting off I post a sign in the rear window, “American Driver.” Given that I'm in a big Mercedes and not a wee economy car I wonder if this foments more antipathy than compassion. The highways are clearly marked and even have demarcations in the road to prevent tailgating. Driving on narrow country roads and faced with oncoming traffic however is scary until I figure out how to gauge distance while driving on the left. City traffic also proves a bit unnerving even though the cities of Whitney and Chipping Norton are not exactly metropolises. I am ashamed too, that even with a pretty reliable GPS I am confounded by roundabouts. The problem here is that the GPS description frequently doesn't gibe with the signage.

I advertise in the local newsletter for a dog to walk. There are four candidates but I elect a sweet old black lab mix named Fizz. Oxfordshire is a walker's paradise and the pedestrian trails are well marked and bear many designated dog poop receptacles. Fizz and I traverse field, stream and forest. The rest of my days are spent shopping, cooking, and transporting my friend to medical and dental appointments. Although my surroundings cannot be considered primitive, for me, I am roughing it. And my friend is a bit rigid with regard to her household management expectations. I am extremely unaccustomed to being bossed around and given my current lifestyle I am very rusty in area of self assertion. Dishes are washed by hand. Solid food waste is sorted into compostible bags rather than disappearing down a garbage disposal. On sunny days, clothing is hung outside to dry and more usually, inside on the radiator. I rebel and take my own laundry to a laundromat in a nearby town. I buy rubber gloves for dish washing. Apparently there is not an abundance of Vietnamese nail technicians in the U.K and a gel manicure would be a major financial setback. With only basic cable full of lousy summer reruns and no DVR I spend my evenings catching up on work and chatting with friends and family on Facebook.

The long term parking is crowded on market day in Chipping Norton, although the actual market is only three stalls. Seeing my friend struggling with her crutches the traffic warden says it's fine to park for as long as we need on the street, even though the parking is usually limited to half an hour. When we return several hours later, another sign, on cardboard, is taped next to my “American Driver” sign. It says “Who doesn't know that this is a thirty minute parking zone.” I had permission dammit! Although I guess it's sad that someone doesn't have anything better to do...

We circle heavily trafficked Oxford at rush hour. There is one roundabout after another and all bear different labels than the GPS describes. My friend has never driven before and her efforts to override the GPS sometimes exacerbate my anxiety. While I navigate the series of confusing roundabouts my friend reminisces about having nearly purchased a flat in Oxford. It was on the market because the owners had been visiting America, entered a freeway in the wrong direction and were instantly killed. For all of my avowed of late agnosticism, I am still extremely superstitious. A few days after recovering from the certainty of widowhood I am faced with the even grimmer prospect of Himself as widower. I still can't get images of bloody mangled metal out of my head.

I leave Charlbury and spend a day with my friend Kim in Bath. We visit the Museum of Costume. Our catching up is apparently too loud and American and a European tourist tells us to quiet down so she can hear the audio tour. Embarrassed, we reduce our volume but continue to yack through bustles, petticoats, corsets and on to mini skirts. After the museum we treat ourselves to a real tea at a fancy hotel, replete with scones and finger sandwiches but bereft of clotted cream. We linger for hours in huge upholstered chairs overlooking a pristine manicured garden. Perhaps it's karma that I forget where I've parked and we end up putting in a couple of calorie burning miles before we find the car.

The next day I head to Gatwick and happily rip off the American Driver sign and return the car. I spend the night at a generic hotel that leads right to my terminal, too exhausted even for a thirty minute train ride and an evening in London. I buy a sandwich from an airport concessionaire and watch a weird comedy show called The Last Leg, hosted by three disabled comedians. A brunette Amy Poehler is a guest although I sense that she is unfamiliar to the audience. She is far from the squeaky clean character she plays on Parks and Recreation and is so funny that the crowd quickly warms to her. The next day I complete my online Italian lesson and the L.A. Times crossword before catching my 12 hour flight on Norwegian Air. My long-haired seatmate chats with one of the attendants in what I presume is Norwegian and over the course of the flight she brings him at least a dozen bottles of gin. When I ask for a Diet Coke I am told to purchase it. When the duty free cart is wheeled down the aisle, the long-haired probable Norwegian asks me the price of cigarettes in L.A. I guess about $5 a pack but maybe it's more and he'll be pissed that he didn't buy them from the plane.

I arrive home to weird July rain and Opie in the backseat, squealing with delight and bashing me with her big hard head. There are flowers for me although not much food in the fridge. Joe Workforce picks up some tacos though and doesn't even take the money from my wallet. I revel in the little American conveniences I usually take for granted. Dishwasher. Garbage Disposal. Clothes Dryer. Real bed. Shower. DVR. And, even jet lagged, I appreciate my house, my rules and that I still have a couple of Ambiens left. Not to mention the appointment for the cheapo manicure. 

Friday, July 10, 2015


I have been in the Cotswolds for nearly two weeks, helping a friend who is recovering from surgery. The scenery is green and spectacular. I borrow some local dogs to keep me company on my morning walk. The weather is a crapshoot. Some bright and brilliant days and others grim and gloomy. Yesterday, we are caught in a fierce downpour with wild wind as I help my friend, who relies on crutches, navigate a busy street. Today the sky is brilliant blue and we visit a lavender farm and an lovely, albeit “new agey,” eccentric organic garden, cafe and gallery with proceeds dedicated to the nation of Nepal and under the aegis of a jocular Frenchman. Two European women interrogate the gift shop manager about cleansing rituals and Nepalese singing bowls. The groovy karma is compromised a bit as the aroma from the neighboring pig farm wafts in the breeze.

While the countryside is picturesque, after being marooned in Charlbury I realize I am not cut out for small town life. I prefer the brisk anonymity and commercial options of a big city. The only, and very crummy, market in town closes at 9. Although if you've got a yen for a“bun burger” that's been under a heat lamp for a couple days, I can make a referral. The three pubs all have one star ratings on Trip Advisor. The coffee house is closed indefinitely. People seem to loiter in the street ceaselessly talking to their neighbors. Clerks and customers chat away and either no one in the queue has anything better to do or it's just that dogged British politeness. At home, on the rare occasion when you do bump into someone you know there is no expectation of protracted conversation. I am, I suppose, too citified to endure the obligatory cheerful friendliness that a small town requires. The smallness induces, in fact, profound loneliness and hopelessness. I long to return to the brusk unfriendly bustle of the city where people talk to me because they want to and not out of small town convention or propriety.

There are many footpaths along rivers and rolling green hills surrounding the city but I find that even being here for just two weeks I am unable to walk through town without meeting some acquaintance. These are decent friendly people but I'm awkward now and rusty at chitchat. I wander one morning into the Charlbury Cemetery. It is very quiet indeed although probably not a great idea given my own morass. The inscriptions have worn away and moss and lichens cover rows of ancient tombstones. There is not a lot of history of the town available on-line and the museum is hardly ever open but I presume that some of the graves are from the 17th century, or perhaps earlier.

Newer sections of stones date from the World War One and up to a freshly dug grave that is yet to bear a headstone. Many of the graves are elaborately decorated. Some have carefully cultivated, perfectly groomed flowers. Others are graced with sentimental objects. Figurines. Garden gnomes. Football memorabilia, Stuffed animals. Plaques with platitudes and inspirational messages. A photo of a little terrier in a sweater. A number of the more recent places of repose are overgrown with weeds or bear withered bouquets. However, there are graves of those who died before my own birth that remain manicured and fastidiously attended to.

Many couples are buried side-by-side with tombstones that note “reunited” or “together again.” “Went to sleep” frequently replaces “date of death.” I imagine there is comfort in tending these graves and believing that death is mere sleep and that happy couples beam down from on high. The sky is threatening, as it often is. I stand in the middle of Charlbury's dead citizenry, sorrowful and jealous. I hate the certainty with which I know that there is no heaven. My ashes will likely be tossed somewhere that my children will think is meaningful to me despite the meaninglessness of ashes. When the sun shines, the widows and widowers and orphans of Charlbury come sit over the bones of departed loved ones and plant new flowers. They believe in souls and an idyllic hereafter. I believe that there is nothing. Nothing but those who will choose to remember me.

Myself, in a sea of the Charlbury dead. No one will tend a grave for me. I will not go to sleep or be reunited with Himself in heaven to watch and protect from a little cloud those loved ones who still walk the earth. It is this life and this body and that is all there is. There is so little fucking time and despite having tried, I do not believe that my soul is eternal. Life's brevity is right up in my face as I stand above this rotting flesh and bone. Knowing this I still can't help myself from wishing days pass quickly. I long so to be with the ones who make this one, and only, and infinitesimally short life count and matter.  

Friday, July 3, 2015


It pleases me how much my sons love their college friends. Upon graduation Joe Workforce is wistful, knowing the reality that only a few of these friendships will endure. This has certainly been my own experience but now I value quality over quantity. While driving cross the country I visit an old college friend and another pal I have known since my twenties. I realize now how rare the occasion is for me to reflect back on who I was and what I valued at different stages of my life. With reminiscence I start riffing on how the eighteen year old became a fifty eight year old who is essentially the same person and yet also a completely different being. Ancient friendship revisited brings a bit of focus to the strangeness of this evolution. Although there is also the sense that everything which was once pressing and urgent is now long forgotten. And that inevitably my current concerns and obsessions will soon lose resonance.

I write this from the attic of a cottage in Charlbury Oxfordshire. I met Rosemary when I was seventeen and a student at Johnston College. She was my professor and she has gone from Redlands on to live and study in Africa and South America. Her home base is now a little Cotswald's berg where I have come to look after her as she returns home after recent surgery. I've visited here before but taking up residence I see more clearly what attracted me to Rosemary and why we remain friends after so many decades. The house is filled with folk art and colorful textiles. I was delighted when told to make my bed with linens from The Designer's Guild. If Rosemary weren't much smaller than I, I'm afraid a couple of her beautiful print blouses might end up “accidentally” in my suitcase and if only I could cram my feet into a pair of buttery petite leather Mephisto shoes she might not miss them. The house I live in now is fewer than ten miles from where I grew up but this cottage, 5000 miles away and filled with color and the bounty of travels, is much more in the spirit of my own.

Helen Gurley Brown and her advice for smart women on how to snare a prosperous man resonated with my mother—born in 1920. I read Ms. Magazine, which was first published while I was in high school and my horizons were expanded but the message to “find a man to take care of you,” was so ingrained that finding a boyfriend was more important to me that equal rights. Despite the sugar daddy thing, there was a lot of other stuff my mom taught me that did stick and continues to serve me well. But there were a couple of high school teachers, and then later a few college instructors who encouraged me to value my intellectual abilities and got across the message that a man who is intimidated by a smart woman is quite a useless thing.

My seatmate on the twelve hour Norwegian Airlines flight from LAX to Gatwick doesn't so much as grunt at me. He gobbles his vegetarian meal and then passes out until the flight attendant shoves him awake upon landing. He has bad dandruff but doesn't snore or violate my personal space. I do resent that he is able to sleep soundly while I peruse the selection of bottom feeder films. I start with Reese Witherspoon in the Hallmark-y Wild and work down from there to reruns of sit coms. As usual, the meals I eagerly anticipate arrive and make me nearly weep. It is nearly an accomplishment to create these meals, starting out with ostensibly edible ingredients. I always bring something from home but then feel guilty eating it while those around me are stuck with gristle-y chicken and stale rolls.

The customs agent at Gatwick seems to function more in the interest of nosiness than national security. He interrogates me about my business and the friend I am visiting and why I am staying three whole weeks. The car rental agency is quite disorganized and weary travelers sit on benches waiting hours for cars. I am told that the only car with automatic transmission that's available is a Mercedes but that I'll have to wait fifteen minutes for it to be cleaned. An hour later I am given the vehicle only to discover it lacks the GPS I'd prepaid for. In the confusion of this I somehow drop the case with my travel itinerary and more importantly my passport. Finally, my passport is located and I am given a tiny GPS which I am expected to install myself. I have taped on the rear window a sign that says “American Driver” but make it quite easily onto the highway which is wide and much more clearly labelled than those at home.
By the time I approach Oxford though, fatigue sets in and the country roads and roundabouts confuse me. I drive too close on the left a couple of times and hit shrubs and gravel. There are thousands of motorcycles on route to some event. I get so flustered trying to make a u-turn after missing a turnoff that I am unable to shift into reverse. I suspect that my “American Driver” sign combined with the Mercedes inspires more antipathy than patience and understanding.

Over six hours after landing I arrive in Charlbury and to a relieved hostess. Here I am cooking and tidying and supervising expeditions up and down the stairs. I've chatted up the South African pharmacist and we've compared the National Health program to Obamacare and discussed the evils of the pharmaceutical industry. My American accent has led to curiosity at the local market and they are nearly giddy to learn I'm from L.A. Coinage has changed quite a bit since I lived here in the seventies so, trustingly, I just open my wallet and let my checker figure it out.

There is a heatwave that has even caused some rail lines to suspend service. Shirtless men and women in short shorts complain about the sizzling temperature. The high is ninety four, which is about an average temp for L.A. late summer but here residents are advised to stay indoors until 4 p.m. It cools down the next day. I walk in the morning. Gardens burst with flowers, aromatic like a perfumer's counter. Green fields roll on forever. I take sunny days for granted but revel in the explosion of color that results from the frequent rain the locals suffer through.

I communicate with Himself and boys daily but I miss my dog so much it aches. As if my “American Driver” sign isn't eccentric enough, I advertise in the local newsletter for dogs to keep me company on my walk. I have three responses. My first companion is Riley, an eight year old with a dachshund head and a spaniel body. She is chipper and sweet natured on the footpath. Somehow the presence by my side of another living being enhances my solitude as I amble by ancient stone walls through gentle green hills. Next week there will be Fizz and Dorrit. If I play my cards right I'll have a daily dog and perhaps I'll garner a bit of compassion as I try to remain on the left side of the road in the behemoth Mercedes.