Friday, August 26, 2016

Kimchi Free Zone

Number One Son and Girlfriend-in-law have landed in the Windy City. They proudly send me photos of their apartment as it comes together. Girlfriend-in-law gets a job at a pizza joint within 24 hours of her arrival. The boy is busy furnishing the apartment. He is like me in that way, fussy about how things look and needing to act on every idea immediately. We are hoping that the idea of employment emerges shortly as the Bank of Mom and Dad is out of business. I do miss our lively dinner conversation and watching movies with them. Girlfriend-in-law is nimble and creative in the kitchen and Number One Son smokes a mean salmon. Himself is, of course, companionable but has no interest in domestic matters and no patience for chit chat. When it's just the two of us, Anderson Cooper usually joins us for dinner.

Last week is spent converting the boys' basement dungeon into a space suitable for a teenage girl. I hang prints of old fashion magazine covers, add jasmine scented softener to the washer when I launder the linens, provide ceramic containers with q-tips and cotton pads and arrange a big bunch of roses. I think I remember every detail, and then some. The only hitch is that the full length mirror I order arrives shattered. The final step prior to our foreign exchange student's (I will call her Ji-Woo—a popular Korean girl's name, but not hers) arrival is a thorough cleaning by our bi-weekly cleaning crew in order to remove carpentry litter and any schmutz I've overlooked. I send the cleaning boss a text asking her to pay extra attention to the basement bedroom and am eager to see the results when I get home. I scurry down to the basement and discover that it hasn't been touched.

When the kids are home the space is so hopeless that I have the cleaners either do a cursory sweep and dust or nothing at all. Apparently my text is unnoticed and when the cleaners ask Himself about the basement he instructs them to leave it alone. We've been married so long that we rarely bother to summon the steam required to get angry at each other. I make an exception. I beg the cleaning lady to return, which she does, without crew, and insist that Himself pay her. The money of course comes from our joint account but replacing it will require Himself to either figure out how to use an ATM machine (unlikely) or ask me to get him some cash, which he knows will remind me of his remarkable lapse in judgment.

Ji-Woo has been with a family in Glendora while attending Citrus College. I know that she is nineteen years old. I try to get a little information from the current host family but they only share that she dislikes carrots and celery. She arrives with a retired couple who have hosted foreign students for years. They look around the house and notice a menorah, which I guess, as they've been corresponding with the Murphys, is a big surprise. It turns out that they are Jewish and Ji-Woo has had Shabbat wine and challah with them. I assume that the woman is a bit older, bigger and louder than (at least as I perceive myself) I am but I would imagine we would be considered the same “type.” In that only about 2% of the U.S. population is Jewish I wonder how this might skew Ji-Woo's perception of Americans.

Himself says that I come on too strong and risk overwhelming the girl but I've been ruminating for weeks about this stranger from a strange land who is to join our family and am insanely curious. After Ji-Woo unpacks I offer to take her for a ride around the neighborhood, which I presume is more interesting than Glendora, where she's been. After I worry that her English might be minimal she explains that she attended a Catholic high school in Utah where she boarded with a Mormon family. I ask her if there's anything she needs for her room and without hesitation she requests a full length mirror.

We purchase the item at Target and walk around the Galleria and the outdoor Americana. I note that the only shopping I do is on-line and explain how she can get to the shopping center herself if she's interested. From there we go to a nice Korean market. She confesses that she dislikes kimchi. Fortunate, for while I am indifferent to the stuff I know that the aroma alone would be Himself's undoing. She helps me select some products and patiently corrects about fifty times my botched pronunciation of “panchan” (little side dishes accompanying a main course).

Not only does Ji-Woo hate kimchi, she has no interest in science or math. She's gravitating now towards psychology and is sure that the major she eventually chooses will definitely be in liberal arts. Her familiarity with western culture is scattershot. She loves Adele but hasn't heard of Elvis or the Beatles. Number One Son has an affinity for Korean films and texts me the name of some favorite directors. He mentions that Hong Soo is the Korean Woody Allen and Ji-Woo notes that Hong Soo is currently out of favor for cheating on his wife. She hasn't heard of Woody Allen but when I explain that he married his stepdaughter she knows immediately that it's the Korean girl Soon Yi.

Ji-Woo likes musicals and says that Grease is a favorite. I show her Bye Bye Birdie. The art direction and costumes and super-saturated Technicolor are as I remember and she likes the film. On a whim, and as it's considered one of the best American comedies, I show her Animal House, which I haven't seen myself in years. I am surprised at what a big unbearable mess it is, more Three Stooges than cunning farce. The Fawn Liebowitz and dead horse business are still funny but I am embarrassed at how few and far between the other laughs are.

By chance, on another L.A. tour I take her on, we pass a number of Korean mega-churches. I have already sussed out that Ji-Woo is a Buddhist and am relieved that she has no mandate to convince us to accept Jesus as our personal savior. After the forth giant church, Ji-Woo confesses that the Korean evangelicals really get on her nerves. She's not crazy about Mormons either. She thinks that people should keep their religion to themselves.

When we cruise through Silver Lake Ji-Woo notes that she likes little neighborhood shops better than big chains. She even asks for a good place to score used clothes. I realize that my kids would like her but it will be awkward for them to come home while she is staying in their room. School for Ji-Woo doesn't start until Monday. She's been lolling about the house, watching TV and YouTube. I tell her that she can help herself to anything in the pantry and she's not shy and our reduced provisions indicate that she's indulging in some bored eating.

Ji-Woo's outstanding English is a relief. While I teach ESL I just don't feel like taking on that role at home. I admit that my other trepidation was fomented by stereotype and I feel like an idiot that it didn't dawn on me that not every Korean loves Kimchi, algebra and luxury retailers.

When I announce to the kids that we're hosting a foreign student the first response of both is, “You always wanted a girl.” I know that we're still in the honeymoon period and that it's inevitable that at some point a nineteen year old will get on my nerves. For now though, she loves flowers and musicals and is excited when I teach her to bake chocolate chip cookies. The bonus is that this relationship is not likely to be as fraught as real motherhood. Nevertheless, I like Ji-Woo and I think she likes me. With Number One Son and Girlfriend-in-law thousands of miles away I am fortunate to have a low risk outlet for my maternal instincts. Perhaps foreign exchange students will be what tides me over until grand-motherhood for which there is absolutely no hurry at all.  

Friday, August 19, 2016

Stuff and Nonsense

Our young travelers, after five days on the road, reach Chicago. We receive photos from the UFO Museum, Carlsbad Caverns and a shot of an Oklahoma steak the size of a mature cow.  After a week of fretting about the boy's tiny car, laden with boxes and a giant roof bag, making it from here to there, I breathe a colossal sigh of relief. Now if he can just get a job.

I spend all week converting the boys' dungeon to a space appropriate for a nineteen year old Korean girl who arrives Saturday. The boys from my office haul a big truckload of stuff to the thrift store and it will be weeks until we manage to dispose of all of the trash and recycling left behind. The room, finally, looks quite nice. While I am fascistic about coaster use upstairs, I realize that the attitude in the basement area has been more cavalier. I strategically cover stains with doilies and place mats. I notice too that there is a burn hole in a sheet purchased recently but waive prosecution.

Clearing out their room has me conflicted. I am happy now that the space is clean and attractive. It is hard though to think about the extent to which this change completely displaces our kids. Their accretion of things seems extraordinary. After contending with huge cartons my mother's yellowing steno pads and forty year old dermatological samples, I've been pretty diligent about getting rid of my own possessions which are no longer beautiful and/or useful. I started doing this way before that Japanese book came out. I struggle to impart this philosophy to other family members. I am impressed however that when Number One Son is informed that everything left at our house has to fit in a small cupboard he effectively prioritizes and selects objects for cupboard or car and jettisons the rest.

I think I'd already had children when I finally got the last of my crap out of my mother's house. It seemed that it shouldn't be a problem given that it was a huge house, occupied by a single person. Mom pestered me constantly about taking my boxes but I ignored her. I resented that she was trying to get rid of me. My rationale was that she never would have ended up with the house after the divorce if it hadn't been for me, the kid, so I felt entitled. I hope that I never expressed this sentiment to her aloud, but I probably did. Now that all that remains of my kids' belongings is out of sight, in a small closet, I realize how complicated and fraught the homes and artifacts of childhood are.

When I went out on my own my mother gave me some furnishings. I don't remember exactly what. Years after we'd split up I went to visit an ex-boyfriend in San Francisco and noticed he had one of my mother's tablecloths. I'm not sure why I even wanted it, but I took from Mom a hideous early American rocking chair that she'd allegedly rocked me in when I was an infant. It got left at a house in Crestline that we sort of got evicted from. Even though I'd considered the ugly rocker a gift, Mom was devastated that it was gone. I think she may have actually wept. I had other stuff on my mind and probably screamed at her about her pettiness and the fucking rocker. After seeing how my own kids thrashed stuff that has sentimental value for me, I understand now how she felt.

What I've learned is that it's not just my kids who don't care about stuff. Most kids are pigs. So was I. It is sad to realize how they'd trashed or discarded things we paid for using money that we earned. Our twenty-three year old is now on a weening schedule and the timer is ticking on car insurance, cell phone and gas card. I suspect that when he's a completely free agent he will better value and care for the things he buys with his own dough.

Part of me longs for the bunk-bedded childhood room with Rugrats, DragonballZ and Pokemon. I remember the days when most problems could be resolved with a hug and a kiss. But, when I discover that Spuds has written his name large in Sharpie, on a perfectly nice birch closet, I snap out of my nostalgic reverie. I miss them powerfully but I also enjoy the absence of their mess and stuff and feel bad about leaving my own crap in my mom's rumpus room for decades. I feel guilty about trivializing my mom's concerns when I get more of a sense of what it's like for a kid to grow up and away. The older I get, the more like her I become in many ways. Still, my mom attached too much importance to possessions, perhaps as a substitute for satisfying relationships with people.

I am pleased that Number One Son and Girlfriend-in-law stay in touch during their cross country journey. Spuds however has been rather incommunicado. He knows however that when I text him “Yo!” that he'd better get in touch. It turns out he's been distracted as his girlfriend has returned to Tivoli.  He is making her hummus. I'm relieved that he's fine and imagine what the kitchen that I spent days scrubbing is going to look like when he finishes making the hummus. “I love you,” I text him before I turn in for the night. I wake to a message in the morning, “I love you more.” And things kept, and things cast away, and their now frilly bedroom, seem inconsequential.  

Saturday, August 13, 2016


The boxes and bags of my sons' childhood will be hauled away this week. Both have a couple of cartons stowed away in a cupboard but everything else is being carted off to the St. Vincent De Paul Society, not out of any sort of religious fealty but because they'll take anything. I know that both kids will return home but I don't know if it will be for short visits or more extended stays. Nevertheless, all vestiges of “childhood bedroom” are being stripped away and the space is being converted for the comfort of paying guests. Our first is a 19 year old Korean girl who arrives next week.

Not to be judgmental, but the priorities of a twenty-three year old are very different than those of his parents. To be fair, lists have been made and packing started well in advance but there have been last meals in restaurants all over town and visits with friends, but, the boy is leaving without a fully operating phone. No job applications have been submitted despite a number of positions that I've found which sound promising. I confess to having poured over job boards, as I worry that he'll run out of money, and know that it won't be easy to find something that he likes as much as the one from which he just resigned. I am also very hands on with the packing and while the employment suggestions are ignored, I am called upon to assist with the departure arrangements. The little Toyota is jam packed and a giant canvas bag full of vacuum compressed clothing and larded with pairs of tiny shoes is ratcheted to the roof. The departure is delayed by 24 hours as there are still errands to run. I admit that my first thought at learning about the schedule change is that I have one less day to clean and repurpose the room. Also, as what became the penultimate night celebration involved several quarts of bourbon so I expect no early risers and I write this in a rather foggy state myself.

We gather for the last Shabbat we'll have together for a while, with a handful of the kids' friends and their parents. At first, like in the olden days, the kids cluster together, separate from the old farts. When we come to the table though I realize that while they haven't learned as much from experience as I have, they are adults and hold their own with bon mot and trenchant observation. Funny that it takes seeing them interact with other “grown ups” to realize how grown up they've become.

One of the sacrifices of moving half way across the country in a little car is that Number One Son has to leave the film books and items of furniture that he inherits from Richard. The surrogate dad stayed with the kids when we traveled and was always the emergency contact for the whole family. It's eight months now since his death and I am surprised at how fresh the wound remains. His empty place at the table is glaring and when guests start to reminisce, Number One Son breaks up and has to leave the room. My impulse is to run to comfort him but I stop myself and he returns, composed, a few minutes later. He is capable, now I see, of self soothing.

The older among us disseminate a lot of advice for the trip. “Drive SLOWLY. You're carrying a lot of weight.” We warn the kids about unscrupulous mechanics and speed traps. I remind him that he has an upgraded Auto Club membership with a big towing range. He says, “I lost my card.” All of the old folks at the table are aghast. I am slack jawed myself until the boy reveals that the card is safe in his wallet and that he's just fucking with me. Even though he has the AAA card I will be on edge until they reach Chicago. And after. My mom was always wracked with worry about me. It made my angry because I thought that she perceived me as incompetent. Now I see that this maternal love thing may be habit forming. I don't (for the most part) doubt the boy's competence but having lived for nearly six decades I have a large accretion of bad experiences. The boy is smart but just by virtue of having spent fewer days on the planet I know how vulnerable he is.

The kids mark their stops on a map. The UFO Museum in Roswell. The neon signs of Route 66. Carlsbad Caverns. Precious Memories. Furnishings are being ordered for their Chicago apartment. I would do things differently but the conservatism that comes with age means that for me there will be no more great adventures. Just maybe some little ones. For the kids, the road awaits. I am demoted from my managerial position to mere consultant. I try to tamp down the the fretting born of wisdom. I often wish that I'd known in my twenties what I know now but in fact I would never trade away that ebullient optimism. Tomorrow the kids set out to invent their lives. And here at Casamurphy, we begin to reinvent our own.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Indignant Righteousness

 I'm in neutral this week, as next weekend I'll have to shift into overdrive and start converting the basement boycave into a bedroom suitable to a teenage girl. There might still be a call from LAUSD to return to teaching when school begins, August 16, but as the summer passes, without any response to my messages, I grow less optimistic. Nevertheless, I know that a flurry of activity and enormous change kicks off next weekend when Number One Son packs up his little Toyota and sets off for the Windy City. Our Korean exchange student arrives the following weekend.

Even though I know I'll be busting my butt in no time I feel slothful in my prone position, remote at the ready. I've experienced other spells of indolence and for as long as I remember, there have been few couch-ins where the line of a John Prine song hasn't wafted through my mind. “There's flies in the kitchen. I can hear 'em in there buzzing. And I ain't done nothing since I got up today...” As the kids are less than scrupulous about leaving the doors open, there are actually a handful of flies which drive Himself apoplectic to the point of smashing a window. I usually do manage to make it into the office most days and behave like a reasonably responsible business owner. I make dinner just about every night. Laundry is washed, folded and put away. Linens are changed. Floors are swept. Trader Joe's and Sprouts are patronized. I even see my first theater movie of 2016 (Indignation-good) But an inordinate amount of the summer is spent wallowing in the guilty pleasures of Trump and murder shows.

The TV does stay off when I force myself to write a few words here each Friday, although of late occasionally I let it slip into Saturday. Another surcease in the self loathing accretion is writing letters, just about every week, to two prisoners I was connected with nearly ten years ago by a Jewish prisoner support agency. Alan is actually being released in July of 2017, about a month after Spuds graduates. He is studying laptops and cellphones and the DMV manual. We are trying to decide where to eat when we pick him up in Tehachapi and help him get home to his mom's in Oregon. The other inmate is Jim. Letters from him mostly complain about the inadequacy of prison medical care. He refers to his East Indian physician as Dr. Bombay. In his mid-sixties, Jim struggles with a number of health problems. He can be somewhat amusing although there is an occasional racist joke. His sentence is for life but I have never inquired about his crime, nor has he volunteered this information. I have not seen a picture of him. At times he mentions that he is ordered by the guards to trim his beard so that's all there is for my mind's eye. I think he enjoys my letters, or at least appreciates the regularity of them. I print out the annual NFL Schedule (including pre-season), pay for his TV Guide subscription and supply him with stamps and stationery which I assume is his main motivation for maintaining our correspondence. He knows that I know this and we're both ok with it.

Perhaps none of my readers ever faces the dilemma of selecting a birthday card for a person serving a life sentence. “May your birthday wishes come true?” “For all the special things you do, we're wishing you a special day?” “Here's wishing your celebration brings many happy times to remember?” “I hope your special day is filled with fun and happiness?” There are no cards like, “Hope that despite the lack of cake and gifts and only the shitty food that you will eat until you die and the grim surroundings that you will die in, that your birthday is slightly less depressing than the other days.” Also, I think there should be Mother's and Father's Day cards without the word “love.” Maybe there's a niche market.

Now back to the inordinate of time I spend supine. I have become a total Trump junkie, constantly scanning The Times, Slate, Huffington Post and even lately the Daily News trolling for reports of more deliciously vulgar, almost camp, shenanigans. I'm loving the lies and outrageousness and how the line you'd expect him to cross just drifts father out of his orbit. In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Neil Postman posits that as television images replace the written word, exposure to serious ideas is diminished. Postman accused television of undermining political discourse and turning complex issues into superficial images. I guess it's best that Postman died before the genesis of Twitter and the presidential candidate it spawned. News and issues are more and more conflated with entertainment and Trump is the personifcation of this. The Donald, like Ol' Blue Eyes (who slurped fried eggs off a call girl's tits) is one of the great entertainers of all time. Reprehensible, but captivating nevertheless. He doesn't bother anyone with substance or ideas but I listen 24/7 just to know what shockingly inappropriate thing he'll say next. I cannot look away.

One exception to my fare of Trump and murder is the extremely dark comedy“Unreal” which chronicles the production of a show like “The Batchelor” and the ruthlessness with which ratings are pursued. Just as Trump seems to lack boundaries, the show runners of the show-within-the-show “Everlasting,” are unscrupulous in their efforts to manufacture watchable TV. Off the charts on the Bechdel test, Unreal's two female leads, Quinn and Rachel, have a relationship that's as fascinating and complex as that of Walter White and Jessie Pinkman.

My other summer discovery is a “real” reality show, “The First 48.” The show follows homicide detectives and ascribes to the theory that progress made during the first 48 hours of a murder investigation is a huge determinant of whether or not the crime is solved. Detectives in Detroit, Houston, Miami and other big cities search for clues and interrogate witnesses. There are a handful of white victims and white perpetrators but mostly it's (young male) blacks killing (young male) blacks. It is remarkable how many suspects ignore their Miranda rights and incriminate themselves. Some of the detectives are aggressive and there are frequent examples of dishonesty and questionable ethics. Other cops seem compassionate and tenderhearted. Some suspects are bad liars and others blurt out confessions and are obviously relieved and unburdened, even as the cuffs come on. The show captivates me as it seems that in these particularly taut circumstances suspects, witnesses, families and detectives seem less aware of the camera and the intimacy is often very powerful.

Unfortunately, this exceptional reality show is not as real as it seems. I learn that in one instance the show's producers are so eager for big drama that riot police use battering rams and grenades to raid a suspect's home. It turns out, its the wrong house and a seven year old girl, asleep inside, is killed. One of the First 48's line producers is convicted of perjury for lying about the footage of this. The episode is never broadcast. In other instances, feeling rushed to comply with the show's 48 hour formula, there's sloppy police work and innocents languish for years awaiting trials. Still, the show serves to humanize young kids for whom a split second rash decision results in a life imprisoned. And it shows too the human capacity for staggering hate and anger, unlikely to be ameliorated during the course of a draconian prison term.

I have lunch with a lovely colleague who is a hardcore Hillary-ite. Knowing the Bern I feel, she asks immediately if I'm “with her.” I have to assure her three times that I don't intend to vote for Trump. Lest she get too complacent, I add that I think that Hillary needs to stop taking credit for the accomplishments of Bill Clinton's presidency. She wasn't president. And I presume that in future she intends to hold the office by herself. Not only does resting on her husband's laurels feel somehow retrogressive, “the woman behind the man” and all, but when she does take credit for his presidency, there's a lot of stuff that makes me like her less. Drug policy and welfare “reform” have led to the festering cesspool ghettos and the highest rate of incarceration of any nation in the world. The First 48 shows the hopelessness and descent into addiction and violence that besieges these impoverished communities. Ditto, the middle class, still scarred by the economic crash and rampant foreclosures now suffers from stagnant wages and enormous college debt. The catalyst for this catastrophe was the deregulation of big banks during Bill Clinton's watch. I'm cautiously optimistic about the Bernie inspired platform but I'm still curious about the content of Hillary's pricey Wall Street speeches. Nevertheless, if anyone's concerned that I'm not over Bernie, I firmly believe that Hillary is far and away the best option.

I will likely watch the election by myself. Himself is too principled to vote for a lesser of evils and will likely sequester himself in his office with some unwieldy tome while I am glued to CNN (Does Anderson Cooper ever sleep?) Spuds will celebrate his 21st birthday and Number One Son his 24th, far from home. When I write about my discomfiture with regard to the impending midwest transplantation there are two schools of reaction. Many friends comfort me and understand my devastation about what seems to me an enormously risky decision. But there is also a contingent who encourage me that it's time to give the Jewish mother thing a rest and have some confidence that the young man who we've raised will have an opportunity to grow up and find his way. It's all true, Everyone's right. I am thankful however that there will be a new houseguest and circus-like election to distract me from the reality of what bodes to be an everlasting empty nest.