Thursday, January 29, 2015

Consider the Lobster

This is being written on a Thursday. Tomorrow, my usual writing day, I will be driving to the Bay Area to visit the Ai Wei Wei exhibit at Alcatraz. This is not my first trip to Alcatraz but it is my third prison museum visit in the last couple months. I learn that there is another in Angola, Louisiana which is now added to the list. My writing time is shortened as I prepare for a day off work and also because I am busy photocopying a writ of habeus corpus for one of the inmate pen-pals I was assigned by a Jewish agency. I am down to two prisoners now. George died last year in San Diego. It took me about a month and a call to the prison ombudsman's office in Sacramento to verify this. Then my cards and letters began to trickle back stamped “Inactive.”

Today's project is on behalf of Jim, incarcerated in the same San Diego facility where George expired. Jim is my least favorite of the three. There isn't much one can do on behalf of an inmate but he often requests stamps and magazine subscriptions and isn't all that appreciative when I oblige. I guess Miss Manners isn't in residence in the Donavan Correctional Facility. Writing to Jim is a commitment I took on and really has nothing to do with whether I like him or not or my own feelings. There is nothing to be gained in getting a man sentenced to die in prison to send thank-you notes.

Jim won't win any congeniality awards but despite the huge improvements purported to have been made in the California Corrections medical services, Jim is being fucked over. He is 58 and suffers from mycenia gravis as well as a number of other health problems, including cataracts. He is confined to a wheelchair. During the eight years that I've written to him I can see that his penmanship suffers more and more as his vision declines. The writ I xerox for him is about 125 pages. It is full of medical notes, including numerous recommendations from the prison optometrist that he receive cataract surgery. Three times he has been sent, shackled, in a prison van, from San Diego to Riverside for the procedure and three times he arrives and is told that the paperwork isn't in order and he is returned to San Diego. I have issues with Jim's veracity but the medical records certainly support this. He also says that on one trip the guard drove through Burger King and sucked down a burger in front of him but there is nothing in the writ to verify this.

The 125 page attempt to force the cataract surgery is mailed in duplicate to San Diego County court and another copy is mailed to the warden. Since most of our work at the office is digital, we have a rinky dink copying machine and it takes me most of the day to copy and collate. I expect no thanks but I do hope the guy gets the surgery before he goes completely and irreparably blind.

Spuds has returned to Bard. The night before he leaves we meet Joe College and Girlfriend-in-law in Rowland Heights (sort of mid-way between L.A. and Redlands) for a big Chinese feed. Our temple membership has lapsed and for the first time I can remember we don't attend services for the High Holy Days. In many ways Spuds' Israel Birthright experience backfired as the Palestinian situation certainly conflicts with the Jewish tenants of social justice.   Even my penpal thing has devolved away from Jewishness. The penpal program is under the aegis of a sweet elderly couple in New Zealand and as it is such a tiny project, they function autonomously from the larger Aleph organization. The umbrella entity has refused to provide religious literature or ritual items to my inmates because they are unable to prove their “Jewishness.” Specious Judaism is indeed endemic in the prison community because there is a myth that Kosher food is superior to the regular offerings. This is a big fallacy as the kosher provisions are all shelf stable, brown and chewy. Anyway, it bugs me that Alelph makes prisoners jump through hoops in order to receive a Torah or yarmulke.

For the most part, the Jewish chaplaincy in the prison system is a joke too. Most of the rabbis are Lubavitcher and won't travel to conduct sabbath or high holiday services. They earn about 70k a year and from the reports I've heard, are seldom at the prisons and when they are, their only purpose is to interrogate prisoners who claim to be Jewish in order to quality for kosher meals. As so much of the satisfaction of living a Jewish life is gleaned from community it seems rather pointless to encourage inmates to strive for it.

So, the only remnant in the formerly quite Jewish household of Casamurphy is that we light shabbat candles, albeit hurriedly, and we don't eat pork or shellfish. I have abstained for so long that I don't even question my rationale. We wait for an hour and a half at the joint in Rowland Heights. We order and the waiter is mystified that we don't ask for lobster, which is what the place is famous for. I glance at Girlfriend-in-law and she looks sad. “Do you want lobster?” I ask. She perks up and the boys, never having tried it, excitedly agree. Spuds, I believe has never eaten any form of shellfish. I'm pretty sure that Joe College has indulged in shrimp and am certain that he is a regular imbiber of pork. Once while he is helping at the office, two pizzas are delivered, a vegetarian and a pepperoni. Joe College grabs a slice of the pepperoni and I raise my eyebrows. “I'll take it off,” he promises. He peels the pepperoni slices off and creates a neat stack which he pops into his mouth.

Tiny Girlfriend-in-law is actually a very impressive eater but when the enormous lobster arrives at the table I know that it beyond her realm of possibility and my kids dig in. I even taste a piece myself for old time's sake. It's good but, even though my long abstinence is no longer really grounded in anything, I feel so weird eating it. Himself doesn't touch the flesh but picks at the onion garnish. The kids gnaw and struggle to wrest the meat from the shells. We ask for several more supplies of napkins as grease and juice drip down their faces.

I am questioning things I never thought I'd question. Growing up only a generation removed from the Holocaust and meeting people in the neighborhood with concentration camp tattoos there was an implicit mandate to BE Jewish and replenish the Six Million. Without going all Christopher Hitchens, it is clear now that this sense of religious superiority and entitlement is perhaps the greatest force of evil in the world.  The fervor to BE Jewish, or Christian or Muslim or whatever, at the exclusion of all else,  foments a lot of very bad things. Given how we've drifted, it is likely that my children will not have Jewish partners and any grandchildren I have will be raised only very nominally Jewish, if at all. This thought would probably have bothered me when the kids were born but now it doesn't matter much to me what they eat or how they pray. Maybe succumbing to my own disillusionment has done them a disservice. In many ways, the secular world is harder to navigate. There are no strictures about what to eat or what to believe. My hope is for a world that evolves to a place where people don't have to BE anything but good. But I still don't think I'll eat lobster.

Illustration-Charles Collins "Lobster on a Delft Dish"  

Friday, January 23, 2015

There Are Places I Remember

Spuds returns to New York on Sunday and the two week bacchanal of food, movies, art and food concludes. We discuss his return to Annandale. I start to say, “When you get home...” He interrupts balefully, “I am home.” A few days later I tell him how mortified I am to have said this. He shrugs and says flatly, “Yeah. Sometimes I say it too.”

We share the couch with Opie and watch Selma. It is not very good but as it is the 50th anniversary of the March, I've been seeing lots archival footage of the Civil Rights Movement. I do not remember whether I saw actual newscasts when I was seven years old but it has the look of TV that I remember and feels very much to be a part of my childhood. Holocaust footage evokes my parents. They reminded me that it had happened in their lifetime. Watching Selma, it is astounding to Spuds that such barbarism took place in the America of my own childhood.

As penance for too many tacos I have upped my walking. It seemed the hills would be dusty brown forever but voila! A bit of rain and bright green abounds in the fantastic light of now clear mornings. I explore the trails of Elyria Canyon and see for the first time a worn barn-ish house down in a hollow surrounded by several acres of shimmering field. I ascend a few feet and there is the evolving skyline of downtown and the ashes of the DiVinci apartment buildings, the fire attributable to a “crime of aesthetic passion.”

Despite his traffic apoplexy, Himself agrees to head west and attend a Hudson River School exhibit at LACMA. One of my empty nest consolations is that Spuds gets to live in the Hudson Valley and see the seasons change there. We cherish our memories of our own visits there. A couple of the paintings are of places the three of us have seen together. My highlight of the show is “The Course of Empire” by virtuoso of American Edenic, Thomas Cole. The quintet of paintings chronicle an imagined city. The first depicts the “Savage State,” followed by the “Bucolic State,” “Consummation,” “Destruction,” and finally “Desolation.”

In the adjacent gallery, a gigantic multimedia exhibit by Pierre Huyghe is alleged to have a live pink-legged dog. I am asked for my first and last name as I enter and it is announced like in a royal receiving line. Spuds spots the dog briefly but she eludes me. I ask all of the guards and they point me in different directions but I keep missing her. Finally I am told that the dog is having a rest in a private area. While looking for the dog however I encounter all sorts of grand scale modern-arty stuff. There's a buzzing beehive. Real falling snow. Big aquariums filled with symbolic objects. Production value! Gravitas! But no dog.

Photographer Larry Sultan was born in my Valley. There are the sixties stills with cocktails and Madmen spectacles. Sprinklers. Golf courses. Pools. Low slung ranch houses. I left in the seventies but Sultan stays to capture his polyester resplendent parents in Valley retirement. Then there is a series about porn production in Valley homes, each named for a street near where I grew up. Is it late stage “Consummation” or the beginning of “Destruction?”

When I was gone from the house on Fulton for any period of time I always expected it would appear exactly as it had in my earliest childhood. It never seemed right that the loveseat had been reupholstered and that my father's projection booth was given over to the blender and the Farberware Broiler. Somehow, I guess the most primal memory is the most resonant. It is jarring for my the kids to return and find changes or improvements. The aroma of gardenia and Myer lemons on the patio and the sparkle of tiny perfume atomizers on my mother's dressing table are permanently vivid.

The kids are pissed about traveling to a lot of different places that they have no memory of. Spuds asked if we hadn't seen a Beatles show when we were in London. He was around five. The show, Himself reminds me was called “All You Need is Love.” I do remember taking them to “The Lion King” and “Starlight Express” but not the Beatle show. My theatrical choices reflect the downside of having small children and but with regard to Spuds in London, except for a fleeting sense of a Beatles musical, he could have been watching TV or taking a nap.

We leave behind writings, photos and video but with the possible exception of some Facebook over-sharers this represents so little of what is felt and remembered in a lifetime. Memories waft through consciousness, so many glimmers of sense and feeling that will die forever when I die. My Valley of unpaved streets and walnut groves is dead. The camilla bush and ancient rosebushes of my childhood yard are ripped away. But Elyria Canyon and the Hudson Valley and so many places still in the “Savage State” are loved by me and also by people whom I love. It eases the hardness of the loss a life's memories to think that these savage places may be cherished too by my grandchildren and theirs. And so on.

Illustration: Thomas Cole-"Savage State" from "Course of Empire"

Friday, January 16, 2015

That Thing We Always Do

Spud's flight from Tel Aviv from New York is delayed for twelve hours. He is issued a meal voucher and a booklet of Sudoku puzzles. I go into full throttle Jewish mother mode. Through whining I am able to get his non-refundable ticket from JFK to LAX switched without penalty. I am unable however to get him on a direct flight from Tel Aviv to LA. Also, my efforts to use my overpriced American Express card to get him into the first class lounge at Ben Gurion are futile but I give it the old college try. At first I encourage Spuds to get a room near the airport but the lady at American Express, while unable to cut through lounge red tape, advises me to have him stay at the airport in case the flight departs early. She says this is common with Delta airlines and that the change is only announced at the airport. This is prescient, as indeed the flight does depart a bit ahead of schedule. The picture of Spuds trying to sleep in an airport lobby torments me but he is nineteen years old, strong, and there's wi-fi. This is the culmination of a friggin' month exploring Israel, not an Ebola diagnosis. People are stranded in airports all the time. Except for that Tom Hanks movie about the guy stuck for 17 years at DeGaulle, it doesn't mean much in the large scheme of things. Still, when the boy texts that he's arrived in New York I feel my blood pressure drop back to the normal range.

It's been nearly six months since I've seen Spuds. I meet him at the baggage claim and he is shockingly tall and grown up. Both of us are so pathetically close to blubbering that we crack up instead. We make the obligatory In-N-Out pit stop and for the second time in recent weeks I indulge in a burger. The last one was in Redlands following three weeks on a liquid diet and even in that circumstances it wasn't that delicious. This one is just to keep Spuds company and it's pretty good but I'm not sure if it warrants the line of cars around the block for the drive-thru.

Exhausted, the lad is nevertheless happy to be home. He completed the Birthright tour. In the introductory session the leader asks the group if they know how Birthright is funded. Spuds is the only one who has heard of Sheldon Adelson, the major donor and the leader is impressed. Spuds add however that he is cut off when he goes on to explain that Adelson's money comes from gambling and that he is a huge proponent of right-wing causes.

Following Birthright, Spuds and his Israeli friend travel through the country and visit his friend's family members. He is overwhelmed by Jewish hospitality and likes very much everyone he meets. One older male relative however is suspicious, given his appearance and his name, of Spuds' Jewishness and takes to calling him “Riverdance.”

Home now nearly for a week, Spuds is catching up on movies and with friends. I know that a nineteen year old has better things to do than hang out with his mom. He is down at Redlands with his brother now. I have to text the boys for instruction regarding the operation of the DVD player. When I indicate we are on the verge of watching Night Crawler Spuds texts back immediately. “You promised you'd watch that with me.” I guess it ain't much that he would rather watch a movie with us than by himself, but I'll take it. We end up watching The Imitation Game. It is such a penny dreadful film that it doesn't even bother me that materials from my library are used without attribution.

Both of the kids plus Girlfriend-in-law and a couple of other kids I haven't met are coming in for Shabbat dinner. Real Jews would be mortified by our observance of the Sabbath. We rush through the blessings and usually Diet 7Up or beer is substituted for the fruit of the vine. Still, we do the candles and challah every week no matter how half-assed we are in the practice. The night, twenty-two years ago, when Joe College came home from the hospital, after being in neonatal intensive care with an underdeveloped lung, we lit the candles. Tonight, both of these hulking, bewhiskered, beer swilling young men and one significant other will rush with us through the kiddush. It's been a long time since we've done this together. There are some kids I don't know coming. If they're Jewish, they might be offended that we can only manage this cursory nod. If they're not, they'll probably think it's weird. Many of the kids' gentile friends have joined us at the Shabbat table. I wouldn't say my kids have ever taken enormous pride in our tiny weekly gesture. But, knowing how self conscious kids are I also note that never has showed any embarrassment when we chant the blessings or barehandedly rip apart a challah. Maybe it's just that I usually try for a meal that's a bit better than average and that there's almost always dessert but I have a feeling that it's a bit more. Real Jews light the candles to mark the sanctity of time from one sundown until the next. We just sanctify just the tiny moment and I guess our whole lives too.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Auto Pilot

Spuds texts from his friend's cousin's house in Tel Aviv. He is sensitive about imposing on strangers anyway but now he has dysentery. He wants to come home. I know that he is in no shape to travel so re-booking his return flight is out of the question. I look into fares from L.A. to Israel, thinking to go rescue the lad, but the prices are stratospheric. I talk, er, text, him through it and now he is recovered and having fun exploring Eilat. Even though he is an independent 19, having booked his trip and planned his itinerary by himself, it is hard on me to have him sick and so very far away. I'm glad I sat tight and didn't play the “money is no object when my kid is sick” card. It's starting to sink in that the kids are now young adults and more able to deal with their own crap. I will be bailing them out with less frequency. It comforts me to know that while they need and are with me less often, that it is wonderful to spend the little time that we do have with the people they've become.

The New Year's resolutions are holding. I've eaten meticulously and logged about seven miles a day on the Fitbit. My writing project is taking shape and thinking about it is satisfying. It's sort of, “oh duh,” but I am reminded that when I exercise, don't eat like I'm headed to the chair and fritter way time with mindless TV, I am happier. Despite this awareness it puzzles me how easy it is to slip into a morass of gluttony and indolence. But of course I'm less than two weeks into the new year.

I touched last week about how adult happiness is so much more fleeting than grief. Our hurts are so concrete and the sting festers. Contentment is so much more ephemeral. Actually, I am comfortable most of the time but I am so routinized that I don't pay much attention. When the kid is sick or I'm about to miss a deadline on a tax return, it's big and in my face. The awareness of how agreeable my life is is less in the forefront than it should be.

We march through the rituals of an ancient marriage. The table is set. The floors are swept. Sunday is laundry day. Friday's there are candles and challah. For the most part we've learned to avoid provocation. The things we hate about each other are never going to change. Ever. Manacled together for a quarter of a century we are beaten down. We avoid conflict and take each other for granted. Perhaps this is the secret to a successful marriage but I don't think about it very often. I don't focus much at all about the familiarities and rituals that, for the most part, are my life. A bit of upheaval consistently usurps the undercurrent sensation of well being. Driving by the reservoir one day, out of nowhere, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of tenderness for Himself. If I'd ever felt this strongly before I think I'd remember but perhaps its been banished out of consciousness like all the other fleeting sensations of affection or pleasure. So I hope by recording this surprising blast of love that I can savor it a bit longer.

Illustration: A Machine for Living: Untitled Dan Holdsworth

Friday, January 2, 2015


Joe College has been home for two weeks. There is the fleeting smugness of one on the verge of graduating at the top of his class. Post academe, the world will kick the shit of the lad. Until them Himself and I exchange a knowing glance, remembering when we were smart and young and invincible. But I also see a thoughtfulness and maturity burgeoning in the boy. Our infrequent visits make it easier to observe his strides toward maturity. Since he's been back we've pretty much sat on the couch watching movies. We share a blanket in the dark and argue about Paul Thomas Anderson and Richard Linkletter. That's the thing with grown up happiness. With little kids it's Christmas presents or Disneyland. As an adult it's just these tiny moments. Grown up sadness though is another thing. Tragedies, losses, disappointments aren't at all ephemeral and the specificity gives these a lot more force then a glimmer of warm and fuzzy on the sofa during winter vacation.

Being relieved of most of my maternal duties threw me for a dastardly loop. It is over two years since Spuds started college and my television watching increased stratospherically. My weight has crept up in tiny increments. It is still way lower than it's been for most of my adult life but I am aware of bouts of mindless eating that keep me from getting down to my goal weight. I never miss a Weight Watchers meeting while I'm in town although this is mainly because we have a fun breakfast after. The leader made a point at the end of the year meeting that for some of us, which would include a lot of my Weight Watchers friends who have reached goal weight, that it is a revelation not to have “lose weight” at the top of the resolution list. I'm not as close as I've been but even with ten extra pounds, a normal weight is within my realm of possibility. I am realistic about resolutions but the thought of how close I am to being able to say that I am not concerned about losing weight is pretty awesome. I know that maintaining weight loss is even more challenging but this is a challenge I've never ever had in my life before and maybe I am up for it.

Realizing how close I am and how many habits have permanently changed makes for cautious optimism about reaching my weight goal. Writing every week is also habitual but after some huge disappointments it's been a couple years since I've been serious about anything other than this blog. I'm not sure if there was a favorable shift in brain chemistry, a gift from the universe or all those hours I've watched television, thinking about people and stories finally clicked but I started on a big project and I feel good about it.

It's finally kicked in that as the kids get older I will get to enjoy the fruits of two decades of helicopter parenting. They are fun to be with and quality over quantity is well worth ascribing too. I have figured out, finally, what to do with the time and energy I poured into being a mom. For now I am writing with a fire I haven't had in a long time. Previously when I was caught up in a big project I reduced my writing here to once a month. This go-round I'm going to try to throw something up here every week. But in keeping with the less is more thing that's resonating as I hurtle into 2015, I going to limit my pieces to 750 words, or like this 617 word piece here, fewer.

Illustration--A Greater Morning, Arthur B. Davies