Friday, April 24, 2015

My Old School

I am the mother of a college graduate. The kid still gets on my nerves but objectively, he has made the most of the college experience. I think, with degree in hand, he will be able to land somewhere that is interesting and satisfying to him. Even as far as raising my own hackles, I want to throttle him far less frequently than I did four years ago when I strong-armed him into enrolling at my own alma mater. I've yet to hear those most elusive words, “You were right, Mom.” But I was.

Johnston College is sort of like an eccentric uncle. You love him to death but he embarrasses you. The graduation is typical. No caps. No gowns. No Pomp nor Circumstance. I notice couple of wild outfits, including a few dresses that make me regret that slips are no longer a standard undergarment. I ask about a bearded young man in a spaghetti-strapped floral sundress and Joe College just shrugs and gives me a look that says, “We're not judgey here.” The diplomas are presented by persons of the graduates' choosing. There are parents, grandparents, faculty advisers and friends. Given that there are fifty-five graduates, some of the presenters blather on for way too long. Parents go way TMI with recollections of in vitro fertilization and childhood medical catastrophes.

Many of the presentations are beautiful and paint a vivid picture of the kid and what he or she has accomplished. Joe College has his diploma presented by all of his former roommates, starting with Spuds. Each shares the title of a life changing film which our boy introduced him to. It is very fitting although apparently the films are intended to be ironic and I don't quite get it. Still, it is better than some of the endless weepy homilies delivered by other conferrers. One of the girls has her diploma presented by her stepmother. I find out later that the girl's mother is also in attendance and apparently this choice of presenter causes a big and very public family squabble.

I was twenty when I graduated. Because I majored in film, I asked my dad to present my diploma. It's hard to remember what went on in my twenty year old brain but I honestly don't think it occurred to me in advance how hurtful this would be to my mother. I rationalized it to her with the film thing but she didn't really understand. This decision is very high on the list of things I would do over. I recount the story to Joe College and he asks if Himself and I are hurt that he didn't choose us. We tell him it's fine because at least he rejected us both equally.

At occasions like this I appreciate very much not being divorced. My own parents split up when I was seven and every celebration was fraught. I complicated this myself by neglecting my mother when I graduated but most of the time I was innocent.  I was very young when left to run interference and it was always difficult for me to experience complete happiness in the celebration of a milestone. Joe College's Bar Mitzvah was the last event that both of my parents attended. My stepmother, who had boycotted my mother for years, was even present and everyone was incredibly cordial. This however, was a rare instance. Nevertheless, I am thankful that the last big occasion with my parent was a purely happy one.

My parents never got it about Johnston, or why a girl would go to college at all. I rushed through and half assed a lot of my classes. In hindsight, I should have been a more diligent student but still, something sticks. Both of my kids would face a lot less student loan debt had they opted for pubic colleges. I doubt it, but at some point they might regret the decision. I have never regretted my own. My classes seldom had more than ten students and I formed relationships with faculty who would nurture me emotionally and intellectually for years after graduation.

Joe College loves his adviser and in addition to studying, he enjoys hanging out and socializing with him. He has a group of wonderful friends many of which I presume he'll remain close to for years to come. It is noted at graduation that of all of the experimental colleges that sprang up in the sixties, Johnston is the only one still in operation. This impresses Joe College and he asks who the major contributors to Johnston are. My classmate Kathryn Green is the first to come to mind. She sponsors a lecture series and has been incredibly generous to the college for decades.

I've reunited with Kathryn lately at some alumni events. We have a couple of meals and walks together. As a fellow introvert, she notes her similarity to Himself and suggests that he'd be her perfect husband. They could both stay in separate rooms of the house and never go out. Kathryn connects with me I guess because I understand the care and feeding of her ilk. Introverts do not (necessarily) hate people. They just value solitude and require a greater proportion of it than others do in order to offset human interaction. Kathryn was also, like Himself, a very picky eater and appreciated my equanimity when she grilled a waitress for twenty minutes.

I know that when I describe Kathryn's contributions to Johnston, Joe College is feeling strongly that he too hopes to be in a position to make a substantial contribution to this little engine that could. The few days after our chat about Kathryn, it is announced on Facebook that she was struck, while walking, by a bicycle and killed. Another of my classmates finds a photo of the school in its original location and adds the caption “Kathryn Green College.” Perfect.

Kathryn, although she could only tolerate it in small doses, loved the community. And the expressions of grief certainly demonstrate that it loved her back. Himself, as a spouse, dad and participant in alumni seminars is an honorary Johnstonian. He too had parents who were befuddled by his hunger for book learnin' but his college experience took a very traditional turn. He is jealous that the kid and I lucked out and has become a serious booster. Joe College and I appreciate our good fortune and know that we will reap then benefits of our short time at Johnston for the rest of our lives. The loss of Kathryn Green is a huge blow. I hope we can honor her memory by digging a bit deeper.  

Saturday, April 18, 2015

All and Nothing

It's a big month for Alex Gibney and his Jigsaw Productions. The documentaries Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and Frank Sinatra: All or Nothing At All both premiere on HBO to critical, and more importantly, my own, acclaim. I will add that my company provided archival footage for both films although realistically, our small contribution has little bearing on the quality.

My pop would have gone apeshit over the Sinatra doc. He loved the guy. When I was very young, a mutual friend brought Frank Sinatra Jr. to our house. The friend, knowing that my father's filters were often faulty, drilled him to absolutely not mention the kidnapping. For once, my dad followed instructions. He commented to Frankie Jr. that he thought that Nelson Riddle's arrangements on the most recent Sinatra albums were superior to those of Axel Stordahl. Frank Sinatra Jr. turned and left the house without saying a word. I'm not sure if it was that was offended by the suggestion that any of his father's work was less than excellent or if he was sick of people talking about nothing other than his old man.

The documentary covers the kidnapping briefly. Originally, Sinatra Jr. was thought to be complicit but the true story is a quintessential example of truth being stranger than fiction. Barry Keenan was a junior high classmate of Nancy Sinatra. He became very successful in business and real estate while in his early twenties, and was even the youngest member in the history of the Los Angeles Stock Exchange. Keenan however became addicted to pain killers. His judgment grew clouded and his investments began to tank.

He created a business plan for the kidnapping, although he never referred to it as such. It was an “operation.” Along with two accomplices, Keenan snatched Sinatra Jr. from Harrah's in Lake Tahoe. Frank Sr. offered to pay a ransom of one million dollars but Keenan insisted that he wanted only $240,000. His business plan included some prospective investments and a schedule to repay Sinatra. Keenan was apprehended and sentenced to life plus 75 years, but he was released after just four years after a psychiatric evaluation concluded that he was legally insane at the time of his crime. He went on to achieve great financial success, and if indeed he had been able to invest Sinatra's $240,000 as he'd planned, the profit would have been astronomical.

There have been rumors that Sinatra's mother was an abortionist, a fact that was often evoked in the interest of disparaging Sinatra. The film confirms that Dolly Sinatra did indeed perform abortions but it is explained by Frank Jr. that she was actually a midwife who would occasionally help out girls who were in deep trouble. Gibney also verifies Sinatra's connection with organized crime and the influence, at the behest of Joseph Kennedy, he wielded in delivering union votes to JFK. Apparently though, Joe Kennedy insisted that Bobby Kennedy be appointed Attorney General. Bobby came down hard on organized crime, leaving Sinatra in an awkward position. Jack Kennedy was scheduled to visit Palm Springs and Frank had a lavish building erected on his property which he called “The Little White House.” Despite Sinatra's slavish devotion to the Kennedy campaign, JFK opted, due to Sinatra's mob connections, to stay instead with Bing Crosby, a Republican.

J. Edgar Hoover ordered a dossier on Sinatra, likely due to his support of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his early civil rights advocacy. He remained a Democrat but perhaps because of his betrayal by the Kennedy family he stumped for both Nixon and Reagan. Spiro Agnew as a particularly close friend. The film also confirms Sinatra's ceaseless womanizing although it doesn't take on Kitty Kelly's claim that Frankie once ate fried eggs off the breasts of a prostitute. Perhaps Sinatra's musical gift to the universe diminishes a bit the abhorrence of some of his personal behavior. I always knew that Sinatra wasn't the greatest guy in the world but that he was indeed a genius. Gibney's film paints Sinatra as both less great and more genius than I'd realized.

It's almost too easy to weave the events of the week together here. A few days after I watch the Sinatra doc my friend Patty and I head over to the Palladium to catch a performance by what, even those who are familiar with me only casually will know, is my favorite band, The Replacements. The Sinatra film is called All or Nothing. The two album retrospective of The Replacements is called All for Nothing, Nothing for All. Cool huh? Otherwise I guess the only, and really stretching it, comparison I can make of frontman Paul Westerberg to Old Blue Eyes is that both sing with the combo of intelligence and fragility that I'm a sucker for. When I enter Sinatra and Westerberg into the online rock music version of the Kevin Bacon game I get:
Frank Sinatra has vocals on the track "A Foggy Day".
The track "A Foggy Day" also has vocals by Willie Nelson.
Willie Nelson composed the track "Opportunity to Cry".
The track "Opportunity to Cry" was mastered by Bob Ludwig.
Bob Ludwig mastered the album "Eventually".
The album "Eventually" was produced by Paul Westerberg.
Given this I'd say I'm pretty damn lucky about the All or Nothing/All for Nothing connection.

The Replacements were broken up for over twenty years. They reunited for Riot Fest in Denver and I wrote about attending this show in honor of Joe College's 21st birthday. Months later I drive with my friend Marion (who only admitted once we were on the road that she's never heard of the band) to Tempe for another festival performance. This fortuitously resulted in Marion's conversion. Now the band is doing a regular tour. Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson are the only original members. Tommy was 14 when the band formed. In Tempe he played about a third of the show in a Teletubby costume. I notice lnow that Tommy not only looks the same now at age 50 as he did at 14, but also that he very much resembles a Teletubby.

The Palladium is as lousy now as when I saw The Replacements there in 1991. It's hot and crowded and the floor is sticky. John Doe opens but the sound is bad and I am fixated on the girl singer, sporting Exene bangs and despite the extreme steaminess of the room, a leather jacket. Some college age kids stand behind me. A girl taps my shoulder and offers me a joint and the kids are surprised when, without hesitation, I accept. They are delighted when I take an extra long drag. I know the big yuck is a “Grandma getting high” kind of thing but at least they have good taste in music. Their weed (I know not to say “pot” these days) however is mediocre. I didn't think it was possible to get bad marijuana anymore.

I notice at the two festival shows that there was a lot of genuine affection between Paul and Tommy. Apparently the split was acrimonious but the last shows had a definite “all is forgiven” vibe. Not so much at the Palladium. They are no spring chickens and have played shows in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco over the last week. Paul's voice is pretty thrashed. The delivery of what is considered (correctly) their best song Alex Chilton is lackluster. I imagine that the experience of touring again after all of these years is bittersweet and perhaps the blush is off the rose now with Paul and Tommy and they are getting sick of each other. They grumble about recording some new material but none is presented during the show except a silly bit of a song about Whole Foods. Otherwise they play what people want to hear.

Perhaps the most thrilling thing about this last show is the two new additions. Josh Freese is on drums and Dave Minehan plays guitar and offers an astonishing vocal on the T Rex song “20th Century Boy.” It seems that during the festival shows both of the newbies were still in awe of playing with such legends. Now they've settled in and are not only part of the band, they're perhaps less jaded and more joyous than the founding members.

I've spent so many hours of my life playing Replacement albums. Over and over and over to an extent that my family considers psychological torture. I am so moved by Paul's songs that I try sometimes to imagine what it's like in his head. The band never achieved what it should and could have. They made some bad business decisions, particularly in rejecting the music video medium, which catapulted other alternative bands like REM into the stratosphere. And of course there is the traditional bane of rock, drink and drugs, of which the Replacements zealously partook.

Paul has had a respectable solo career. He's composed film scores and regularly released albums. He's written some beautiful songs but nothing that ever really approximated the raw naked yearning and brilliant wordplay that characterized The Replacements at their best. He's 55 now and touring with a band he founded some 35 years ago. Maybe he's finally getting the respect he's always deserved. And perhaps he's mature enough now not to fuck it up. My friend Patty, who'd never seen the band live before was astounded by how hard they rock. Even the recent lesser performance was ebullient, raucous and fun. I'm glad they're making money. I hope there is a new album and that its brilliant. If the dumb Whole Foods Blues is an indicator of what's in store, I fear that this won't be the case. Perhaps it doesn't bother Paul at all but I worry that it hurts him to know that he never really done anything that even approaches the creative genius of his twenties. But perhaps, the best is yet to come. And babe, won't that be fine.

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Jewish Mother's Wet Dream

We make the familiar drive down the 10 freeway to Redlands. I'd taken the trip in my 1967 Dodge Dart countless times between 1974 and 1977. We'd passed through Redlands a couple of times with the kids to visit the apple orchards in Oak Glen or on the way to Palm Springs. For the last four years though the trip becomes a regular one once again, as my eldest son enrolls in my alma mater, Johnston College. The school is now known as Johnston Center for Integrative Studies but I'll never get used to that.

This trip is to attend Joe College's graduation review. The scenery hasn't changed all that much since the 70s. I know the towns by heart, West Covina, Ontario, Claremont, Colton, Rialto... I will attend the official graduation ceremony next week and after that, this poignant trip and my visits to the campus will likely be very infrequent.

I graduate in 1977 and have no recollection my own graduation review. Having however reconnected with a number of my former classmates I am gobsmacked by the surfeit of memories that I have no memory of. Whatever did transpire in preparation for my graduation was certainly not attended by my parents. For us though it's a command performance and the lad asks me to provide beer and refreshments. At some point after my tenure there, the school goes buffalo berserk. There are buffalo emblems all over and at most public events there is much shouting of BUFFALOOOOOO. My own contemporaries share in my distaste for the buffalo thing. Nevertheless, I put my crotchety old fart feelings aside and produce a batch of buffalo shaped gingerbread cookies and purchase four cases of beer.

The room is jammed for the boy's committee. All of the amazing kids who have stayed with us over the last four years are present. The thought of being separated from this group is hard on the boy but I too will miss having a houseful of these smart sweet kids. The review process is sort of a combination of a eulogy and a roast. I understand now why the boy is so apprehensive about it. The session begins with his adviser summing up four years of Joe College's progress. Then the lad is grilled by members of his committee about his accomplishments and plans. Finally, the commentary is opened up to the community at large. It's unspeakably weird to experience this when it's your own kid on the hot-seat.

There are a handful of kids who pipe in just for the sake of feeling a part of things but most of the contributions are remarkably thoughtful. It is agreed that the young man is opinionated and doctrinaire. I worry a lot, and I'm sure that Himself does as well, that our kids have inherited the same negative attributes that dog their parents. It is no surprise to hear that Joe College is rigid in his opinions. What is comforting however is that his peers perceive him not as a know-it-all asshole but as someone who challenges them to think more deeply. Many report the boy has introduced them to a seminal film or musician. The director of the college refers to my boy as “smug and sweet.” Most of the speakers acknowledge his crustiness, but each and every one also note that a deep well of compassion and empathy bubbles underneath this.

I guess most parents think that their kids are slackers and wonder how they'll ever get anything done. During the grad review however the boy's tenacity and academic rigor is lauded. I promise that it will be many months before I brag about my kids again. And if you've read this far you're likely a friend so I will add that my son wins a Phi Beta Kappa award for an essay. None of the adjectives used during the grad review are synonymous with lazy. My adjusted thinking is that the kid is only lazy with regard to things that are important to me but inconsequential to him. He is tireless however with regard to his passions. And he is a passionate person. One kid recounts a road trip through Tahoe. Joe College is driving and it starts to snow very hard. He's never driven in the snow. But he has to play a certain song. “I've always,” he says "wanted to hear this song in the snow.”

Before starting college Joe College is a member of a theater group and certainly one of the stars. He's been part of this community for over ten years and it anchors him through childhood and adolescence. I drive him out to begin college in Redlands and remember making the drive by myself when I was seventeen. I share with him the exaltation I felt as I left Los Angeles to begin college. He shakes his head, unconvinced. “Maybe it's because I had a happy childhood.” He does return home on the weekends frequently during the first semester and I am in constant fear that he'll show up for good. But it clicks. He makes friends and thrives academically and grows to become an integral member of the community and an effective residence adviser.

Girlfriend in-law has a hard time expressing herself through tears. But, she gets it probably more than anyone else in the crowded room. Just like when he stepped away from the bosom of the theater group, leaving now this community where he is loved and respected must be terrifying. “But you can create this anywhere you go,” she assures him. “It is you and who you are.”

The day culminates with a student art show in downtown Redlands. We kill some time first walking the dog through the Thursday evening market on the main street. There isn't much produce but there's an illuminated sparkly Cinderella carriage drawn by two long of tooth white-ish horses. If you're in the market to join a church or pick up a belly ring or Tupperware and Avon products it's the place to be. The lots are crammed with SUVs and vans. Not a Prius in sight. A bumper sticker says, “ACLU—Enemy of the State” The “C” in ACLU is shaped like a Soviet hammer and sickle. Another car bears a sticker with a cartoon of a child praying. It says, “God always answers knee mail.” I think about the 5000 mile road trip we made last year, in search of America. Perhaps we needed only to travel an hour east to Redlands.

The student art show is fancy. The organizers are in a high state of agitation. There are passed hors d'oervres and local beer on tap. Our own Joe College is DJ and the cavernous room fills with sophisticated electronic music. Girlfriend in-law has knocked herself out creating an intricate audio/video installation which by far is the most ambitious work in the exhibit. Most of the pieces are fueled by the instinct to create and make a statement. The kids like photographing themselves and their friends naked. Twenty-something kids at a private liberal arts college, for the most part, come up a bit short on gravitas. There are some really nice pottery bowls, purportedly for sale. We are introduced to the jibbering potter who is so stressed by the event that she is unable to negotiate a sale. I made some videos, when video was a very new thing, back in my day at the college. They are stashed away somewhere but I'm sure the format is too arcane to digitize and it's just as well. I doubt that in forty years any of the kids will remember their contributions to the art show. They will, I'm sure, remember their friends and professors. The thing about college I guess is that the input is far more important than the output.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

A Different Night

The way things are going here, we might be serving pork loin and shrimp cocktail at the next Seder. There was a time when I admired Orthodox Jews and envied their singularity of focus and cohesiveness of community. I was appalled when the French banned yamulkes and headscarfs in public schools and was of the mind that freedom of religion trumped any other liberty. From infancy, Joe College attended synagogue with us weekly. This dwindled when we had Spuds but the temple still remained central to our lives. Both boys celebrated Bar Mitzvah. Mandatory temple attendance for the High Holidays was present on the list of their teenage complaints but in college both gravitate towards Jewish friends and participate in Jewish activities. Spuds calls me this week for a brisket recipe.

I've always created at least one real and sort of elaborate Seder each year, nights of remembrance that differ from all the other nights. I'm not into it right now. Seven children are burned to death in Brooklyn because in adherence to the Sabbath their dinner is left to warm on a hotplate. I drive down Fairfax on an unseasonably warm March day and see women in long skirts with wigs and men in black wool coats. Perhaps, refusing to switch on an oven or cleaving to 18th century Polish fashions in the middle of a heatwave makes one feel closer to God but maybe it just makes one feel more detached from people who are not the same.

I tell Joe College that I want to keep it simple this year and that he and Girlfriend In-Law should just come up for a Passover dinner. “Really?” he asks, disappointed. I agree to host a scaled down Seder and tell him that he and GF In-Law can invite three guests. This grows to eight. I'm o.k. with this although my usual week of Seder prep is condensed to two days. However, the anticipation of guests does not exactly transport Himself to his happy place. When the little Seder blossoms from seven to fourteen he is mopey, his misery abject.

Joe College and I hash an April Fool's prank. We know that while Himself's work space is right next to the answering machine, but unless a call is from a number he recognizes he will not answer the phone. Joe College borrows a friend's phone to call and starts speaking into the machine. I am reminded what a talented actor the lad is, so good in fact that despite the lousy odds of success in the field, I wouldn't discourage him from pursuing this as a career. “Mom,” he starts. “I'm in a sort of awkward situation...” He goes onto explain that there will be six additional guests at the Seder, including a particular big personality-ed kid who has a way of sucking the life out the room.

When, in this long marriage, we actually refer to one another by name, the situation is dire. Himself bolts down the stairs screaming, “Laaaaaaayne!” He is ashen and unable to form words as he thrusts the phone in my face. He threatens that he'll get me back good next year but this one will be hard to top.

While I assemble the traditional Passover foods the TV news shows footage of the massacre at Kenyan Garissa University College. In an interview, the owner of an Indiana pizza joints says they'd refuse to cater a same sex wedding. Because so many gay couples are clamoring to serve pizza at their weddings... Business at the pizza place diminishes after this but a crowd funding campaign raises a nearly million dollar contribution for the restaurant. Islamic extremists behead aid workers on TV. Never in my life do I remember news of such barbarity and hatred in the name of faith.

The Seder is the annual Jewish celebration commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, which freed the Jewish people from slavery. The story is that God subjected the Egyptian people to plagues which grew more brutal, culminating in the death of the first born son. The tears of thousand mothers finally softened the Pharaoh’s heart.

Jews are commanded to tell the tale, not once, but twice. We have done so dutifully for a quarter of a century. We clean the house and get rid of bread and noodles and cookies in order to simulate the Jews hurried Exodus from Egypt. We do this though because we've always done it. We our proud that at this time Jews all over the world are reflecting on their freedom but the story we're commanded to tell might as well be Cinderella or Hansel and Gretel. We celebrate, with four glasses of wine, the violence God wreaked on the Egyptian people to secure our freedom. The token nod the Seder makes to the grief of the Egyptians is a tiny drop of wine we spill to represent each one of the plagues. The fairy tale trivializes our wonder at our own blessings and brushes the struggle of those less fortunate than we are under the rug.

We go free form this year and encourage our guests to envision his or her own celebration of freedom. Spuds sends from Annadale a picture of his friends preparing for their own seder. The kids here aren't wildly enthusiastic about the non-eating parts of the evening, more hungry for food than meaning. All of the kids have been at the house before. We've known most of them for four years and many will be graduating, along with Joe College in a couple of weeks. All are polished and interesting to converse with, after four years of college. Even Himself, King of the Introverts, enjoys their company. Now most will move away and find jobs. They will have their own homes and no longer seek refuge from a dormitory at ours. It is bittersweet to think that now they will have their far flung lives and there will never be another Seder with the same guest list. Indeed, the night is different from all other nights.