Friday, June 26, 2015

Today in America


The Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, where nine were murdered, is located on Calhoun Street. John C. Calhoun was a staunch champion of the succession movement that resulted in the Civil War. He stated that slavery was not a necessary evil but “positive good.” I'm not sure why the response to the particular murder of nine church goers has been the removal, or attempted removal of a single, but potent symbol--the Confederate flag--from statehouses across the South and Walmart. It is extraordinary that this didn't happen right after the Emancipation Proclamation. Thousands of Germans suffered and died for the sake of the Reich but as far as I know there is no public nostalgia for Nazi imagery. It would be unrealistic, this late in the game, to remove all references to the Confederacy from the South. For any African American person with a knowledge of history though it must be like if I had to contend with living at the intersection of Goebbels Street and Himmler Avenue. Still, the recent cry to eliminate the flag of the Confederacy seems an insultingly small gesture towards reparation. For the nine lives lost we'll finally get around to removing a symbol of hatred we've displayed for over a century too long.

Obama had to do some major back peddling with regard to his apt observation about small town Americans,who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy for people who aren't like them.” Many on the left believed that the first African American president would be a giant leap forward towards eradicating racism in America but in many ways I believe the result has been the opposite, bringing white American fears to a head and creating an impediment to more enlightened attitudes about people of color and sane gun controls.

My own single foray into the deep South included a visit to the Holly Springs Mississippi Historical Museum. Our docent, a retired history teacher, apologized that there was inadequate representation of the black community. One exhibit had a hand written display card which alluded to the equal rights movement but included the phrase “colored people.” The top floor of the museum is dedicated to local education and has local high school class pictures dating back to the 1920s. Class pictures from the white high school. A separate wall has a couple of 1960s photos from the all black high school.

I guess this is what's to be expected for the most part in the South but it is surprising how pervasive racism still is, even where one would least expect it. African American comedian W. Kamau Bell lives in Berkeley. His wife, who is white, was sitting in a cafe with three white girlfriends and a gaggle of small children. Bell arrived and showed the group a book he had just purchased. A restaurant employee assumed he was trying to sell something and told him to “scram.”


Despite the incessant shrill rhetoric of Christian wingnuts, the Pew Foundation polls report that the number of Americans who identify as Christians has markedly decreased. Perhaps this is in reaction to religion being evoked repeatedly as a rationale for hatred and discrimination. Here on the left coast many of my peers use the term “Christian” only pejoratively and synonymously with narrow mindedness. In the wake of Emmanuel AME slaughter, the survivors of the slain offered forgiveness to the murderer and prayed for the redemption of his soul. While membership is decreasing, Christianity remains our nation's top banana religion. I hope the compassion and spirit of the Gospel that imbue the grieving congregants of Emmanuel AME is an inspiration to adherents of all faiths and the faithless as well.


As we are being reminded yet again of a chasm that should have closed generations ago, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution to affirm the right of marriage equality. The Christian right is going full throttle strident about the prospect of gay weddings. But generations from now it will be inconceivable that LGBT people had ever been denied this right. However, in 2008 Obama said that he was opposed to gay marriage on religious grounds. I suspect that Obama's personal and religious beliefs were more moderate than this would indicate but as recently as this, one supported equal marriage at the risk of political suicide.

Why has the cause of gay equality progressed in the country so much more swiftly than racial equality? Because perhaps, for appearances, LGBT people are different from the majority only in the bedroom. There is of course a long history of hatred and persecution but discrimination for reason of sexual orientation has never been as institutionalized like discrimination against people of color. There are, to my knowledge, no monuments honoring proponents of the enslavement of gay people.

Even given this remarkable triumph, I know too that while LGBT Americans are at last free, like the rest of us, to fall in love and marry, there still will be bullying and discrimination to contend with. It may be heretical to say this but perhaps racial tensions will subside when Obama completes his term. Unless of course Ben Carson wins in which case we'll have way more than a racist backlash to worry about.

The Supreme Court makes me feel, for the first time in a while, proud to be an American. This sensitive, compassionate, and fair decision gives me hope that common sense is not dead and perhaps, despite setbacks we are indeed on the road to justice for all.



Friday, June 19, 2015

Dear Old Dad


I've now had nearly a decade now of fatherless Father's Days. I am surrounded at the workplace by my father's meticulously hand printed, if often politically incorrect, sheaths of film descriptions. I scan photos of him, handsome, in natty garb. His physical and psychic resemblance to Joe Workplace is uncanny, and unsettling at times. My dad loved having parties and playing projectionist, carefully considering the crowd as he spliced films together. He did show a cartoon at the nursery school where an exploding cigar leaves Bugs Bunny sporting an Afro but generally he aimed to please. My son, social like his grandpa, likes throwing parties and painstakingly choosing appropriate music. Pops however was addicted to hard work. That is where the similarities between my father and my son diverge. The boy, I will add has indeed toiled long hours these last weeks. Although not without complaint. Some of his characteristics are inherited from his father.

While married to his second of three wives my father was forced to participate in Sierra Club activities and to camp. He hated this. I am not camper either. But even fifty years after the fact he described with detail and passion the natural beauty of his childhood home. Blackberry brambles and the ice blue water and emerald shoreline of Lake Washington. I myself reminisce about Jewish sleep away camp in the San Bernardino Mountains and the intensity with which I anticipated to my annual three week session. In hindsight, I was treated badly there, and the loyal friendships, that the other campers cultivated, eluded me. Still, inevitably I would cry when it was time to go home. Now that I spend so much time tromping around in the great out of doors I see that while I was socially isolated at camp, I took enormous pleasure, in the reprieve from the smoggy furnace that was Van Nuys, basking in the cool pine air. Dad and I eschewed anything outdoorsy that is strenuous or involves not sleeping in a bed, but we both reveled in being outside.


My kids were able to spend time with my dad and he regaled them with stories about his childhood which emphasized the physical beauty of the Seattle terrain but also his own resourcefulness and scrapiness. Once in a while and usually inspired by an abundance of food, he would allude to the poverty that his family suffered during the depression, particularly after my paternal grandfather took his own life. Except I guess for some high falutin' intellectuals, the Greatest Generation didn't have the luxury of hashing through childhood trauma and adversity as they segwayed from the Depression to the Second World War. Not that I necessarily do anything about it, I am aware of the potential that childhood miseries have to impact my adult life. There is still “baggage” but for the most part I've headed in the direction of getting over it. While I have a glimmer, I'll never get the full picture of what formed and shaped my dad. He worked tirelessly at business. Overcoming poverty was a stronger motivator than healing childhood wounds. Today, it is inconceivable that a ten year old child whose father had committed suicide would not receive any sort of psychological support.

Sometimes my kids recall to me some horrible thing I said or did that fomented a childhood trauma. I never have any memory of said infraction. I do not doubt the children's veracity but am suspicious about their sense of context. My father had no filter and in his stream of consciousness musings. He told me a long yarn about trying to shoot a "blue movie" and hiring a prostitute to pleasure herself for the camera. He said to me things like, “I should never have had children,” and “A man's wife (I forget whether he was referring to #2 or #3) should always be more important than his children.”  Perhaps there is some context that has faded from my own memory but given what I know about my dad's childhood I am aware he had no model for what a father was supposed to be or do or say. I am sure that my kids might address my own lapses some day in therapy but I like to at least think I was more scrupulous about their emotional vulnerability than either of my parents were about my own. I've been a broken record about admitting that while my parents were clueless in many respects, both had pretty miserable childhoods. Mom and Dad's labors facilitated for me a childhood, which was, while far from perfect, way more comfortable than either of them had enjoyed.

There's a big controversy now about what's called the “free range parenting” which encourages greater independence and describes pretty much how I grew up. Walking places. Using public transportation. Bike riding. Not being under intense parental scrutiny for every nanosecond of the day. An article about Millennials in the work place describes the other end of the spectrum. HR managers describe parents accompanying their kids for job interviews and actually phoning to negotiate salary. Sometimes I worry I'm a bit too hands on and straddle the line between showing the kids how to do something and the more expedient, just doing it myself.

For all of my dad's naive ineptitude, he taught me how to run a business. I believe in giving employees vacations and holidays but otherwise I pretty much do what he did. While perhaps I've helicoptered my own kids way too much I see that they've honed reasonable coping skills. I never really conveyed to either of my parents how grateful I am. My own children are gracious and express their appreciation effusively. It is bittersweet to recognize that my kids treat me way better than I ever treated either of my own parents.




Friday, June 12, 2015

Be it Ever So Humbug...


During the two week period I spend driving to New York and helping Spuds set up his Hudson Valley residence, Joe Workforce's plan to spend the summer in Redlands falls through. While I head east the young college graduate and girlfriend-in-law drive several loads of their stuff west to my recently renovated and uncluttered basement. No one is happy about this.

I return home expecting to find my best dishes growing penicillin, dead batteries in the television remote and my newly reordered Tupperware cupboard in complete disarray. This is not the case. The round Tupperware lids are still segregated from the square ones. The house is tidy, although Himself's effort to launder the sheets and make the bed isn't up to even the dog's standards, everything else is in perfect order. I have not visited the basement/post graduate dormitory but at least my own space is as I left it.

College graduates moving back home is loaded for everyone. Our house has a complicated history and despite the fact that we are all different people than when we started out here, the ghosts of old business can evoke bitterness and tension. The graduate is defensive in the anticipation of a bossy neat freak mom who herself has her hackles up with the expectation of an indolent petulant teen commandeering the couch and TV when Judge Judy's on. Although I've been home for less than a week, it seems like we are all acting and reacting in a reasonable adult fashion and thus far, the homefront vibe is quite pleasant.

After having micromanaged the organization of Spuds' new household, upon my return this busybody energy is transferred to Joe Workforce's search for employment. I peruse Craigslist and entertainment companies that might offer entry level positions. The boy however responds to every lead I forward to him with, “I already applied for that Mom.” Girlfriend-in-law is interviewed by a high end bakery and is offered a full time position on the spot. She returns from her first day on the job as happy as can be and laden with day old (but still divinely delicious) pastries. I am so fucked.

Joe Workforce applies for a position as sort of an assistant manager at a local caterer that also operates a super swanky event venue right in the neighborhood. The owner is one of those visionary Eastside mover and shaker types and has a number of other ventures, including a cocktail bar in the works. Our boy receives an immediate response and an interview is scheduled the following day. He is cautiously optimistic after the meeting. They are impressed that he has managed the campus coffee house and that he is a native of the neighborhood. He is told to report over the weekend for a trial run and to decide whether it is a good fit.

While girlfriend-in-law is offered a position after only a single interview, it would be uncanny if the boy has the same good fortune. He continues to send out resumes and complete applications. There is a deep cupboard in his room that would be a good location to store some of his gear except that Himself has been stuffing it with old electronics that I guess he thinks may some day be of use plus the empty cartons of computers that were junked decades ago. I ask the boy to take advantage of one of Himself's long days to clear the shit out and hide the evidence at my office to send off for recycling, before Pops is any the wiser. The boy is in the middle of the project when he receives a phone call from the catering company he's applied to work at. Apparently a dishwasher has gone AWOL and perhaps he can give them a hand in an emergency, so work on the cupboard clean-out is suspended as he rushes off to make a good impression.

Last summer Joe Workforce returned from his doggy daycare position depressed and exhausted. Physical labor is not exactly the boy's forte. Girlfriend-in-law and I are eating dinner when he returns from dish duty. I see his car pull up and expect he will skulk in spent and cranky. Instead, he is happy to see dinner on the table and completely devours a meal that I'd anticipated would provide leftovers sufficient for the next night. He reports that he actually enjoyed using the big professional dish washing machine while a wedding rehearsal was in progress and that everyone was really nice. We are just finishing and he is about to continue the cupboard cleaning ordeal, in order to complete the task before Himself returns, when his phone rings. It is the manager of the catering company. “Hey man. I know you live in the neighborhood. My car won't start. Do you happen to have any jumper cables?” The boy is out in a flash and gets the automobile started. His efforts are appreciated. “I owe you a beer!” he is promised. He should have responded, “I have beer at home. My mom buys it. Give me a job!”

Nevertheless, he is scheduled for two more days of work this weekend and as unlikely as it is that a college graduate snag a decent job after his first job interview, we are keeping our fingers crossed. The detritus from the cupboard is still evident when Himself returns from work earlier than we'd expected. He is grudgingly accepting that the outdated electronics be hauled off for recycling. What upsets him however is that the pure trash that has been generated will fill the receptacle. He will often pronounce that the garbage can is full, like an injunction that we are not to generate any more refuse. Don't use up the last of the milk because with overflowing trashcans we are unable to dispose of the carton. It is unacceptable to hold a couple bags of trash in the driveway until the next garbage pick up but it's fine to leave a huge cupboard filled with antiquated electronics and decaying cardboard boxes for two decades. Still, as our 24th anniversary looms I admit that still, his good qualities far outweigh the weird. It's just that the quirks are so eccentric and inexplicable that they're unlimited comic fodder.

I return from a pretty exhausting journey expecting household disruption. Who knows, things might still blow up but at the moment, the kids are alright, the cupboard is clean and eventually we'll get caught up with the garbage men. The third season of Orange is the New Black is out. The challah's in the oven. Girlfriend-in-law is off today so the pastries I polished off won't be replenished before my next Weight Watchers meeting. Joe Workforce is working a trial shift. Himself is reading a book and grumbling about the accretion of trash. The new normal and the old. Perhaps.

Illustration: A House in the Woods—Humphrey Jennings, 1950

Saturday, June 6, 2015

LA to NY and In-Between




I find myself in a Time's Square coffee shop with a line out the door. And the people are waiting “on line” and not “in line.” Plus, the mayonnaise here is “Hellman's.” Not that they have it at the coffee shop but I always notice at the supermarket. We are staying in a thimble sized hotel room and Spuds asks me to vacate so he can catch up on some sleep. I, on the other hand, wake up early, no matter when I go to bed or what time zone I'm in.

I set out nearly two weeks ago. The first day I reach Flagstaff in the early evening, unfit to drive any further. Unfortunately, hotel prices are inflated about 300% on the Sunday evening of a holiday weekend and I end in the most squalid place I've ever stayed. The next day I press on to Albuquerque where I crash a family dinner with my friend Rachel and enjoy meeting her mom, brother and sons. What tickles me the most is that the father of her sons remarried and his second wife is a beloved stepmother. That marriage ended also but Rachel and her ex-husband's ex-wife/kid's stepmother are close and she is another member of the family. After experiencing a few acrimonious incidents involving stepparents and complicated family configurations this makes me happy.

The drive from Albuquerque to Dodge City Kansas is beautiful. The roads are empty as I cruise through tiny towns, all with their water towers and historic main streets. I try to visit an historic house before I hit the road but it is closed so my only memories of Dodge are a generic motel and a lousy Mexican restaurant at the end of a bedraggled shopping mall.

My next stop is Kansas City to spend two days with my old friend Bill who was transferred there from L.A. for work over twenty years ago. Bill lives in a striking blue modernist condominium smack in the middle of blocks and blocks of perfectly preserved mansions. It rains intermittently but spring has definitely sprung and the stately city bursts with greenery and near-lurid flowers. We dine alfresco in a neighborhood cafe and the next night at a clubby hotel restaurant with a singer who does a dead-on (as good as David Sedaris') imitation of Billie Holiday. Bill is an aficionado of popular vocals and we listen to a number of his favorite popular singers in his perfectly appointed condo. He plays a CD of rare recordings of Black singers performing Jewish songs including Lady Day's rendition of My Yiddishe Momma. I confess that a little of this goes quite a long way.

We visit the Nelson-Adkins. I am non-plussed by an, excruciating with detail, exhibit glorifying Spanish chef Ferran Andria but enjoy a showcase of American Folk art. We walk through a plate glass labyrinth, notably treacherous but less fearsome for us as the panels are spotted with rain. The permanent collection is impressive, particularly with the work of native son Thomas Hart Benton. We are intrigued by a large group of school girls. All are wearing mid-calf length plaid skirts and ballet slipper type shoes. I wonder what kind of a school would eschew as too provocative a shoe with a heel. Even the chaperones wear longish dresses and flat shoes. We try to read the emblem on the girls' blazers to figure out the school but are unable to do so at the risk of appearing pervy.

We visit the Thomas Hart Benton home and studio which is left marvelously intact. The dumb-ish college aged guide talks mostly about herself but we still get a good feel for the place, homey and almost militantly un-grandiose and smack dab in the middle of a meticulously groomed old residential area.

I leave Kansas City and drive drive drive. I manage to get through two enormous audio-novels: The Gold Finch and The Confederacy of Dunces before hitting Annandale. I am nervous driving a ten year old Corolla three thousand miles but the little car is spunky and reliable. I land someplace in Ohio at a cheap motel filled with skeet shooters and set off early the next morning and make it through Pennsylvania to the Taconic Parkway and up through the Hudson Valley. Spuds and I stay at the little Red Hook cottage filled with ephemera and antiques that we usually rent. Spuds has been couch surfing for two weeks and appreciates a clean bed and some meals by mom. He works full time the day the house he is renting becomes available so I make a number of trips to Kingston to acquire provisions.

Kingston is the original capital of New York state and there is a charming historic section but my activities are confined to a strip of chain stores on the outskirts of town. My days are filled with The Dollar Store, Builder's Emporium, Goodwill, Target and I confess, for the first time in my life, the politically incorrect Walmart. Setting up Spuds' first household is a daunting proposition and I am enticed by the low prices. Chances are I will never shop there again, but my God, stuff is cheap. I will note that the corporation did recently increase wages and that I very much enjoyed their nice art museum in Arkansas. While Spuds is working I set up his kitchen and then when he is off, we make another trip to Kingston to visit a U-Haul storage space and miraculously we are able to fit the entire contents into the little Toyota, thus avoiding yet another journey to the edge of Kingston. I notice that one of the storage spaces is double locked and there is a note that says, “Due to delinquent rental on this unit you no longer have access to it,” which makes me feel embarrassed about the things I fret about.

Traveling from drought stricken California through quite a bit of rain is refreshing at first. By the time I reach the Hudson Valley and after three days of shopping and moving in pouring rain I am sick to death of the stuff. My final day in Annandale is clear and blue however and I meander through Poet's Walk, one of the most beautiful paths along the Hudson before dashing off through another trip to Kingston.

Spuds, with two good friends, has rented a large old house in the village of Tivoli. The landlady is a local mover and shaker and herself lives in a nineteenth century church which she has painstakingly and sparing no expense converted to her private residence. One of her business endeavors is to rent half a dozen or so houses to Bard students. The rent seems incredibly high to me but after pricing other local possibilities (including a three bedroom property that is inhabited by Bard students, each of whom pay $3000 a month!) it's in the average range. The house is serviceable. Not filthy but a far cry from pristine. The landlady brags to me that it comes with some furniture. This is true. There are two threadbare couches that emit a pungent aroma, a beat up dresser—drawers sprinkled with marijuana dregs, a broken mirror and a particle board desk. With every step through the house I envision the landlady squawking at her carpenter, “Do it as cheap as you can!” She's cornered the market, apparently, on vinyl. Window dressings. Floors. Panelling. Counters. The kids say she drives around the town a lot inspecting her holdings. The zealous cheapness raises my hackles but when I observe the move- in process, replete with giant trash bags of who knows what left for days in the middle of the living room, I get it.

God it seems has punished me for my slovenly early years. I drove my mother insane. I thought she was neurotic and had fucked up priorities. She thought I was a pig. And during the time she was subsidizing me, it broke her heart that I was so careless with things that the sweat of her labor provided,
Spuds and his roommates are nice kids. Actually, I was impressed that when we opened Spuds' storage vaults, his possessions were packed and categorized neatly. I suspect he will be the tidiest of the three but I am also relatively certain that by the time boys are done with it, the house will be quite thrashed. And while the landlady is indeed raking in a bundle, her cheapo d├ęcor choices are truly the most practical.

Spuds is set up now with an organized kitchen and a tidy bedroom. That done, we escape for a few days in Manhattan. The week has been tough on both of us. Our big treat for the weekend is some theater tickets. At the last minute I switch our Brooklyn reservation to a hotel in Times Square. I have received two e-mail reminders from the Circle on the Square Theater that there will be absolutely no late seating for Fun Home. When we miss the train from Rhinebeck to Manhattan, despite my abhorrence of the Time Square area I realize this is a prescient decision. We arrive at Penn Station at the height of rush hour and know that the fastest way to travel the half mile to the hotel is on foot, and despite my embarrassingly heavy suitcase, we set out. I have a real JAP thing about walking around city streets toting luggage.

When we first visited Manhattan about five years ago, Spuds was immediately smitten and it seemed New York City was his destiny. Now, leaving the pastoral Hudson Valley and stepping of a train in Penn Station we both realize that Manhattan has lost some magic. For long established residents, ensconced in rent controlled neighborhoods I'm sure it fine and the cultural and gustatory offerings are unparalleled. But dragging luggage over pedestrian thick sidewalks, festering bags of garbage stacked high, every driver on the horn and having seen here pretty much what I want to see, I suspect now that unless there's an extraordinary play or art exhibit I probably won't visit Manhattan just for the sake of visiting Manhattan. After having grown up in L.A. and spending two years in the Hudson Valley, Spuds is all over the fantasy of settling in the Big Apple.

When we arrive at the hotel there has been some confusion about the booking and simultaneously, we both lose it and I find myself close to tears. We are cutting it close for the theater curtain so we accept the not-as-described tiny room. Spuds, bless his heart, despite having had a really rough couple of weeks, returns to normalcy first and actually, brings things back to perspective, puts his arm around me and talks me down from my brittle strident place.

Five minutes into Fun Home, the musical based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel, I am back in love with New York. It's a terrific theater-in-the-round production. The songs are beautiful and poignant and the show never crosses into schmaltzy territory.

The next morning we make our usual Eastside food rounds with lunch at Russ and Daughters and stops at Economy Candy and Yonah Schimmel knishes. Despite this we are hungry when it's time for an early dinner with our friend Rosemary at the hip and hoppin' Standard Hotel. As much as I grumble about being crammed onto a muggy subway at rush hour, having consumed raw onion, struggling to breathe only through my nose (not that any of the other passengers are as considerate) I can't be too hard on a city with museums that stay open until 10 p.m.

We start on the eight floor of Renzo Piano's spectacular new Whitney Museum on the High Line. The inaugural exhibit for the opening is American Is Hard to See which showcases the permanent collection both chronologically and thematically. We descend each floor to a more recent era via outdoor balcony stairs with a breathtaking view of the New York skyline, growing darker as we move from the late nineteenth century down to works created in the last few years. We go our separate ways on each floor, my philistine taste gravitating toward the more representational. Both of us pull the other over once in a while to show a favorite work. Spuds understands why I like what I like and it is astonishing that my youngest, can so eloquently express why he likes what he likes.

Today, we see The Curious Episode of the Dog in the Night, which I love so much I saw in London twice. Tomorrow Spuds returns to Annandale. There are clean sheets on his little bed and the kitchen stocked with basic needs. He has wheels. His swell roommates will return and they'll figure out about living on their own. I fly home on Monday, wistful but holding in my mind's eye the competent compassionate person I leave here in New York.