Thursday, December 24, 2009

Jesus Died So We Could Eat Chinese

Jesus Died So We Could Eat Chinese
Being Jewish is always particularly more in my face at Christmas time. As a child on Fulton Avenue, we celebrated Christmas and never Hanukah. In junior high a friend whose mother has converted to Judaism and is being raised with Jewish oomph is disgusted by this and gifts me a menorah and candles and teaches me the prayers. During my childhood we always have a Christmas tree and stockings although in teenhood my mother fusses about the mess of a tree and expense and my sister and I have to guilt her into it. My mother always rhapsodized about mantillas, midnight mass and all things Catholic although she never attended church and I suspect that if she’d had her religious bearings straight she would have more likely coveted Episcopal or even Congregational over papist. So even though she is too cheap to spring for a tree, the menorah isn’t a great hit.

Himself and I have a tree our first years together, the last of which was at our Owl House cottage in Echo Park. We join a synagogue, known to be friendly to intermarrieds but I have a ton of cool ornaments and I love the smell of the tree. Himself, as I recall, is like Grandma in his reticence to drag a messy, expensive tree down our little walk street but I insist. I don’t remember whether we actually get through the holiday or not before our galloping Airedale Andrew gets tangled in the lights and topples the thing which Himself says is a sign and who am I to argue? I suspect this message from on high may have merely been an opportunity to indulge his cheap, lazy assed self. I still miss the smell of a tree.

My sister, fourteen years older, does Christmas stuff before she’s completely immobilized by multiple sclerosis, sort of trying to fabricate a memory to sentimentalize. There were different boyfriends/husband over the years but an artificial silver flocked tree, red table linens and Honey Baked Ham always figure into the festivities. She has fourteen Christmases with both of my parents before I am born. They divorce when I’m seven and I can’t excavate even a faint sense memory of Christmas with married parents on Fulton Avenue. All I remember is waking up to a stocking and presents and a nagging inside that something fundamental is missing. I think it is the first Christmas after the divorce and my father arrives in the morning. I am sitting by the tree and have opened board games and Barbies. My dad presents me with a big box, professionally wrapped with sheer paper and I see right away that it is a Creepy Crawlers kit. I wonder then, as I still do, who would be stupid enough to wrap a kid’s gift in such transparent paper. A big metal mold is filled with a liquid and placed on a heating element to produce realistic looking insects. It is quite sensational and the burning rubber smell of the thing makes me feel very grown up to be playing with heat and electricity and all.

The 17 year old is looking at colleges where Jews are likely to be very sparse. There were a few at my college and even though I’ve been raised as nothing with a mother you yearned to star in the remake of Song of Bernadette in a largely Jewish neighborhood, in the face of a student body so largely comprised not of Jews, I feel, if no particularly strong affinity, a certain comfort zone with my landsmen. A lot of our friends are not Jewish but they know Jews and other people who do not celebrate the birth of the purported savior. Nevertheless, here in Los Angeles there is no shortage of people, when the kids are littler, to ask them what Santa was going to bring them. We teach our kids not to lie but I feel uncomfortable with them revealing their Jewishness to all and sundry and the “no Christmas, I’m Jewish,” will inevitably make the asker of an innocent question feel bad and guilty. And if they simply answer that Santa’s bringing them “nothing” I look like a total asshole. People wish me Merry Christmas all the time and it’s “back at ya” but there is a nonce of weirdness. Slaves of political correctness will say “Happy Holidays” but there is always that extra beat before the greeting for the wink wink nod nod “Goddam those friggin Jews and Arabs for messing with our Christmas.”

Having a kernel of residual unhappiness from my own childhood holiday experiences makes me hyper conscious about what I contribute that may imprint my own kids’ psyches. I feel sort of guilty that I am depriving them of the American peace love and wonder experience of Christmas. My mother-in-law thought I was a bitch because I never sent her pictures of the kids with Santa. All this and I’m not even such a big deal Jew myself. I buy the kids too much stuff for Chanukah early on and unfortunately for them, it dawns on me that this is stupid and hollow long before they get the message. A couple years ago, on a whim, I decide to indulge and diffuse their giant Christmas jealously by surprising everyone with a stocking. I remember always particularly liking the stocking part, overflowing with little sweets and goodies but the ones I assemble for my boys are met with indifference. Spuds grouses about his Christmas envy and I remind him about the stockings and how everyone in the family was nonplussed by them. I’ve taken this to mean that it felt unnatural and not particularly good and with our having been there/done that, now we could go acceptingly back to being Hanukkah people. Spuds corrects me. “I would have liked getting the stocking if there’d been more than gum and flashlights and crap in it.”

When Spuds is about three months old and the 17 year old is three and both are in diapers and I am nursing Spuds, which makes his sibling mad as all get out, we drive to Las Vegas to spend Christmas with my sister. There is a snow storm and we are stranded in a coffee shop in Baker. Two ladies in saris help me change Spuds in an acrid ladies room without a diaper table. It takes about twelve hours for us to reach Vegas and we notice immediately the casinos are jammed with Asians and Indians and if a non-Jew says Jews I would scream “HOW DO YOU KNOW THEY ARE JEWS?” but they are Jews. Oddly in this disparate mishmosh of cultures, having only in common nothing particular to worship on this national holiday, there is a sense of belonging.

My sister Sheri is near the end of her life, but, a compulsive gambler, she loves the casinos. We pay one of her nurses to accompany us out to dinner at a surprisingly fine restaurant at a tawdry downtrodden downtown casino, filled on Christmas Eve not with infidels but hardcore drunks and gamblers, a number of which we see thrown out the front door by security. My father makes some money on a building purchased via eminent domain and we send my sister a big check for a customized van. Ostensibly, she should have been able to drive it herself with hand controls but her muscle control has deteriorated to the point where this isn’t possible.

The van does have a ramp and grooves to lock a wheelchair in place. The attendant drives Sheri in the van and we follow behind with the kids in their car seats. The van pulls off the road and we stop behind it. The straps haven’t been fastened correctly and on a curve, they give way and Sheri flies from her wheelchair. She is crumpled helpless on the floor of the van. We hoist her back into the chair and continue on to downtown Vegas.

My sister is separated from her husband but clings to him. He moves in with a girlfriend miles from her huge Sam’s Town adjacent apartment complex although my sister believes he still lives nearby. He takes all the furnishings they amassed in their marriage and my sister’s apartment contains a hospital bed, a motorized scooter she is never able to use, a card table and three folding chairs, the fourth of the set is poised by the backdoor for the nurses’ smoking breaks. Her husband sells the van and buys his girlfriend a sportscar and my sister is relegated to Dial a Ride.

Last year we travel again, north this time, to help relations make a Merry Christmas but while no one ends up splayed like a ragdoll on the floor of a van, things get all bollixed up. Birthmother plans an extravaganza to introduce her long lost son to friends and family and informs Himself right before the event, that, by the way, no one is to know that you were adopted. Again, there’s the lying thing we’ve been teaching the kids not to do. Not to mention the disrespect to the only parents he ever knew, who while flawed, did adopt him and rear him so she could live unencumbered. The party is cancelled when Himself gently refuses to capitulate and participate inthe charade she has orchestrated but by her command we are forced to join her for several meals. so we stay in a dank apartment in a shitty part of San Francisco and endure two days of psychological torture.

This year Chanukah is low key and over and done a full week before Christmas. I make latkes and donuts and complain about the greasy smell that permeates everything in the house and don’t weigh myself for a week. The kids get modest gifts and my Turkish stepmother brings us a carload full of the same discount house gifts she gave us last year and some baked goods. I like the fried stuff and am too old for presents, being almost phobic now about the accretion of things. Birthmother, like Himself’s late adoptive parents makes, not the first, hostile response to our Judaism which harshes the little Chanukah gumption I have going. I light the candles and know about the miracle of the oil but also that really, the holiday celebrates the triumph of inflexible doctrinaire Jews over more moderate kinsmen, who while still affiliating themselves with Judaism, had assimilated and were starting to toy with Greek innovations like democracy.

I often feel that I’m just a Jewish poser and unworthy to rail against what I perceive of as slights and hostility. As Jay Michaelson writes in "The Myth of Authenticity," the Orthodox seem to have commandeered the market. I have not taken the plunge into the separatism and rigid proscriptions of Orthodoxy although I always felt a twinge that by not doing so I don’t really deserve to call myself a Jew. That we belong to a temple but only go once in a while and light candles most Friday nights makes me feel like a dabbler with no right to take umbrage with those insensitive, indifferent or hostile to my faith.

We usually do the joked to death Jewish Christmas of Chinese food and a movie, as the cavernous Chinatown restaurant on Christmas day has sort of that same community of outsiders feel as the big casinos on the Strip but there is always that outsiderness that resonates more than the communal aspect. This year we are attending a Christmas Eve soiree hosted by gentiles who spend lots of time with Jews and will not look askance at our strange dietary habits. On Christmas Day we will wake before sunrise and bundle up and head out to the men’s prison at Tehachapi, to visit our penpal Alan who we connected with via a Jewish social service program. The relationships I have fostered with Jews in prison makes me feel more Jewish I think than shaving my head and wearing a wig in public or kashering the stove at 500 degrees would. I don’t think the 613 Mitzvot say anything about prison penpals but gradually I’ve started to feel less fake and inauthentic and at my most Jewish when I am at my most human.

Merry Christmas and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Choice of Weapons

Choice of Weapons

We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows.
Robert Frost

I feel like a real writer doing some back and forth e-mails with an award winning genuine published novelist on the topic of suicide. We both admit to yearning every so often to simply not be and agree that having children removes that option, at least for both of us, from the table. My father’s father committed suicide. I never got the straight story but I believe it had to do with financial pressure. Sometimes here the weight of payroll is crushing but the lights are on and employees come to work every day so even though I have signed in blood to slog through no matter what, the checking-out ideations are fleeting and infrequent and far less dangerous than a lot of the other crap I think about.

When I was in my early twenties I was trying to hang onto a boyfriend just for the sake of having a boyfriend, so fat there’d be no one else in line if he slipped away. I was working at a methadone clinic and moved in with another counselor there. She was a former heroin user several years sober and had a three year old son whose custody she shared with the father. It turned out she had only been sober very briefly when she lied to get the job. I had lied to get the job too by saying I was half Guatemalan in the salad days of affirmative action. Things fell apart, she started using, the landlord called us sluts and I moved out. She ended up in Orange County and got pregnant by a guy who seemed really respectable to me but turned out also to be an addict. I was asked to be the witness at their wedding and the boyfriend I was so desperate to keep in the picture agreed to accompany me. He was living by himself in a Culver City apartment and I was living at my mother’s in the valley. I went to pick him up and he wasn’t home and I might have had a key but more likely the door had been left unlocked. On his dresser there were snapshots of a cocktail waitress from some new wave club. She was about a decade older and had kids and was posed naked with sagging breasts on sheets that I had purchased. My recollection is that they were taken with my camera too but I would not swear to that.

I returned to my mother’s house. She‘d been a medical secretary for many years and wherever she was employed she compensated for the overwork and low wage by helping herself to samples and office supplies and small appliances. In a strong box in a cabinet behind the bar was a huge stash of Miltown, which probably wasn’t even being manufactured anymore. I took a couple of fistfuls, washed down by a fifth of vodka. I woke up the following week at Cedars under the assumed name of Sue Martin, protected, per my mother’s friend Tess who was director of public relations there. This was coincidentally the name of my friend to whose wedding I’d been AWOL, having overdosed on outrĂ© 60’s tranquilizers instead. I never saw Sue again but she’d call occasionally in dire straits over the years and I’d wire her money, guilty at having stood her up, even though the marriage lasted only a few months.

I was told there is a suicide note and I am sure it is filed with my mother’s papers which molder now in my garage and explains why I’ve yet to go through them. My mother held on particularly fiercely to stuff like this. Several years before the obvious brain erode, she gave me a fat envelope and incessantly pestered me to give it to my father. I kept forgetting and finally looked inside. My father had a big legal catastrophe in the 70s and I would be untruthful if I said it was undeserved. The envelope contained a thick stack of thirty year old newspaper articles she’d clipped about his trial and I threw it away.

I came to pretty addled and with a lousy sore throat on the private floor at Cedars. This was also arranged by Tess. I used to housesit for her frequently. She had three dogs that weren’t housebroken and because I was willing to clean up after them I was hired to stay repeatedly even though I’d ODed and even after her snoopy housekeeper found my pot. Tess was dying of cancer and had no dependents so she maxed out her credit cards travelling first class all over the world. I found this out after the fact but was always curious, given her high powered job, about the number of bill collectors leaving messages on her machine.

I was questioned after I woke up by a mean woman psychiatrist who asked me to count backwards from 100 by seven which I am unable to do in the best of circumstances. It was too humiliating to say I found naked pictures of the boyfriend I am petrified of losing’s slatternly new girlfriend so I made up some cockamamie story about being secretly addicted to pharmaceuticals, in cahoots with a gang of degenerate psychiatrists from the Thalian’s clinic right there at Cedars, which, in retrospect wasn’t all that shabby on the spot and after a week long coma. Of course my mother never bought into it and told everyone I had been dumped by my boyfriend.

I returned to Fulton Avenue and saw a couple of shrinks but grew bored with both the story I’d fabricated and the truth so I threw myself instead into an orgy of reinvention. I got a teaching job at a Compton middle school. I was completely unqualified but I would pick up a gaggle of kids on the weekend and take them to museums and movies and restaurants so maybe I did more good than harm. Afraid of empty time I also accepted a job teaching in Lincoln Heights at night. This was ESL for adults and I had no training but a good instinct for it and I met Bob, one of the greatest friends of my life. I took classes for my credential on Saturdays. Sunday mornings I would lie on the couch in the dark den on Fulton Avenue and grade papers. Then I would make a cup of strong tea and watch repeats on PBS of a Welsh series called When the Ship Comes In because I liked the accents. I’d fall asleep for a few hours on the ancient loveseat and that rest from pure exhaustion is one of my best memories of that house.

I moved from there to an apartment adjacent to the Benton Way off ramp of the 101 and the freeway hum became like flowing water. This is where I mark the beginning of adult life, a not too unhappy blur of friends, music, movies, diets, pot and religion which culminated in my shacking up with Himself who married me and, although I never asked it of him, took on the onus and threw down the gauntlet that we should be Jews.

We are planning now a day late/dollar short bar mitzvah for fourteen year old Spuds. The seventeen year old had a more elaborate affair which was the last big social event for both of my parents and one they enjoyed. Himself’s father was invited and never acknowledged the event in any way. An unquestioning, devout Catholic we thought it best not to tell him about Himself’s conversion although we were clear that the kids were being reared in the Jewish faith. I reminded my own father prior to infrequent visits with my father-in-law that this was the case and that he should find other topics for conversation. I should have known this was folly because prior to his first meeting with my future in-laws I warned my dad off telling dirty jokes to the prim couple and of course he let loose with his filthiest. So it wasn’t a big shock that on one of Himself’s last visits with his father, a few days before his death, it was revealed that indeed my father had spilled the beans.

My father-in-law was probably wounded to learn second hand of his former seminarian son’s conversion and having raised him to believe what he believed I think he was entitled to these feelings. Himself’s birthmother, whose collection of framed snapshots suggests, unhindered by child, that she’s lived a glamorous and sophisticated life while Himself altarboyed and shoveled dog shit at a kennel in Temple City, also has an opinion, and not a good one, about this choice of religious affiliation. I take this personally and whine to him about it and then feel like an asshole for dissing the woman he waited his whole life to find and making it, like everything else, about me. But frequently she makes it clear that she doesn’t much like who we are. I get my hackles up although I know that having kept her secret from every soul in the universe for over forty years who it really is that she doesn’t much like.

Perhaps the longer we carry our secrets, the more punishment we expect them to exact. Maybe it is cruel and unrealistic for me to expect birthmother, despite her seemingly carefree life to ever cleanse her soul of what must seem to her a great mortal sin. I think about LAPD Detective Stephanie Lazarus who is accused of murdering Sherri Rasmussen 23 years ago and what it would be like to carry a secret for so long. As I write this I receive an e-mail from my friend Jayne, Sherri’s roommate, reporting that bail for Lazarus has been set at 10 million dollars cash. I am fascinated about how her defense will be conducted as incontrovertible DNA evidence makes it seem futile to even bother. I wonder, if despite being faced with inevitable life in prison, Lazarus doesn’t feel a kernel of relief at having been freed of this weight.

Birthmother wrestles with her oppressive inner regime and it seems perhaps she’ll never allow herself to feel proud or good about the two generations that through her have come to be. She will go to mass on Christmas Day and I hope she finds comfort and feels forgiven celebrating the birth of the savior she believes was sent by God to die for her sins. If there is no quarantine we will drive on Christmas to the men’s prison in Tehachapi and see our penpal Alan who hitchhiked cross the country by himself at age fourteen but has since had travels curtailed due to a draconian prison sentence.

Alan has disabused me of my romantic notions of prison as zen retreat and the more I learn about real life inside an institution crammed with twice as many men as it was built to house, the more in awe of him I become. Birthmother has traveled the world seemingly carefree but broken by her secrets; Alan, decades behind steel bars, has grown strong by mustering the strength and courage to break free of his own. He was elected to the prison advisory council and I am pleased but not surprised that he has been recognized for his intelligence and character, both of which he’s nurtured in tragically inauspicious surroundings.

This piece is winding down and it isn’t even three p.m. and it is Friday. My last two entries were hard. I returned home Friday night to make Shabbat without having completed or posted my weekly writing and was cranky and unsettled until I woke before sunrise on Saturday morning to complete and publish. This week I dodge bill collectors and know that neither suicide nor terminal illness will get me off the hook. I am devastated yet again by birthmother whose response to the bar mitzvah invitation Spuds requested we send is nasty and am afraid I am reacting out of ego and selfishly and that my posture poisons my marriage and then I get even more angry at her for threatening the greatest accomplishment of my life. I am afraid Himself will feel betrayed by my writing this here but hope he understands my desperation to make sense of it. It is a heavy week and Shabbat and the final night of Hanukah will be sweeter for having pushed the publish button and posted this. I have written today of things I’ve never told a living soul and while this writing here of late has been a struggle, today it flows, almost easy, propelled as I chew over the ruinousness of secrets and the blessing of freedom. A gift.

Shabbat Shalom

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Get Over Your Self

Get Over Your Self

Bay area writer Elizabeth Weil, in the NY Times piece “Married (Happily) with Issues,” describes a revelation in the night. She and her husband have not approached their essentially happy marriage as ambitiously as other of their life projects like gourmet cooking and physical conditioning. Consequently the couple seeks out all manner of therapy, psycho and sexual, towards a more perfect union. This seems merely to ratchet up the power struggle. These are competitive people and while perhaps the therapy orgy expands their insights into the dynamics of their marriage there is not much in the essay that suggests an actual increase in intimacy or substance.

Weil notes several times in the piece that she is repulsed by French kissing. She and her husband make lists for a therapist of things each wants from their partner towards improving their marriage. Her husband asks that she submit to a daily French kiss. I love Brussels sprouts and Himself finds them disgusting. There are other vegetables though that I like and he at least better tolerates and I can live without Brussels sprouts. I mean, how can he get off on jamming his tongue down her throat when he knows it grosses her out? Perhaps my partner and I fool ourselves and therapy would reveal that we are a time bomb, but we amateurs slog through, into our twentieth year, by our own wits alone and sans professional intervention. Such self conscious dissection of a marriage seems, as Weil describes it, a morass of narcissism.

Stephanie Lazarus, the LAPD detective accused of murdering my friend Jayne’s roommate Sherri Rasmussen will stand trial but not face the death penalty. Jayne uses precious vacation days to spend the week in the courtroom accompanying Sherri’s parents to the hearing. The judge rejects the prosecutor’s arguments that Lazarus was lying in wait and that the murder was committed during the commission of a robbery (all that was taken was newlywed Sherri’s wedding license) which would have provided the special circumstances necessary to invoke the death penalty. Lazarus had dated Sherri’s husband and previous to the murder was known to have broken into her condominium and stalked and threatened her.

I have not spoken to Jayne about Sherri’s parents and her own reactions to a death penalty sentence being removed from the table. Sherri, murdered at age 29, would be 52 now. I am 52. In the twenty three years since Sherri’s murder I have met and married my husband, borne my boys and comforted and ministered to my aging parents. We will never know what Sherri would have accomplished in the last twenty three years. Forced to visit their unbearable loss again, do Sherri’s parents sit in the courtroom, see Lazarus led in, shackled, wearing a Day-Glo orange jumpsuit, and wish her death? Would sitting behind the witness window to see Lazarus being strapped to a gurney, hooked up to an IV and executed by lethal injection ease the pain of enduring the loss of a child?

Lazarus married and adopted a daughter. This daughter will bear the weight and stigma that her mother is a murderer. Were she to become the daughter of an executed murderer would that somehow balance the Rasmussen’s grief? An DNA expert testifies that the chances that saliva gathered from a bite wound on Sherri’s body is not that of Lazarus are 1 to 400 quadrillion. Unless there is a legal breakdown or jail escape of unprecedented proportions, it seems most likely that the forty nine year old Stephanie Lazarus will die in prison. I hope that in some measure of atonement she will strive to be as good a mother to her daughter as her circumstances permit.

Circumstances unfortunately will not permit us to rise at the crack of dawn, don sweatpants and sports bra and travel to snowy Tehachapi to visit our penpal Alan who will also be 52 when he is released from prison in 2017. We visit in the spring and spend several hours in intense warm conversation. We plan a visit in September which is cancelled due to a Swine Flu quarantine at the prison. This time it’s chicken pox. The facility, designed to house 2781 men, holds 5758. They have to be careful.

I think our connection with our inmate penpals is more enriching to my marriage and our family than the most rigorous of therapy would be. The prison visiting room is perhaps the most emotionally intense place I have ever been in my life. Harrowing, yet the urgency there to nurture human bonds is exquisitely poignant. Most California prisons have visiting hours on Saturday and Sunday. There used to be Friday visiting hours too but these were eliminated in a round of cutbacks. Morale, never very high in any prison, is particularly low now.

Prisoners have a natural animosity towards those who imprison them. They have no Internet access and no reliable consistent source of news. They depend on what is sardonically called, a quintessential example of which is one of Roger Avery’s alleged Tweets from jail noting that inmates believe a dangerous substance intended to shrink their genitals and reduce their sex drives is laced into their food. I am told by a penpal that the daily food expenditure per inmate has recently been decreased to $1.75, apparently another example of I call the press information office at the Department of Corrections to find out what this amount has been reduced from. I have several conversations with a very friendly young man. According to this spokesman for the Department of Corrections, the daily food allotment per inmate is actually $2.57, which still, for most of us, is morning coffee with a crappy tip. This was increased in 2005 from $2.53. The diminishing quality and quantity of food, as reported by all three of the inmates I correspond with, might be due to increased food prices and/or a decrease in staff available to oversee the preparation.

The Correction’s spokesman is very interested in what I am writing and makes me promise to tell him when my piece is published. I am awkward and feel sheepish about pretending to be a real writer and wasting his time gathering information for something as trivial as a blog. I feel like a spy because, while the information I am provided by my penpals is sometimes inaccurate, my personal feeling is, that in ways significantly more fundamental than food, the Department of Correction’s philosophy guarantees degradation and recidivism. Corrections, I will add, is subject to pressures from a very powerful guard’s union, and also overcrowding attendant to a widespread and politically expedient “tough on crime” stance in California.

My spokesman offers to provide me with information whenever I need it and I will avail myself of this. He asks me, “Have you ever visited and had lunch with our inmates?” and I answer that I’ve visited Tehachapi and Frontera, omitting that it really wasn’t for lunch, unless you count candy from the vending machine. I presume he has in mind some sort of formally sanctioned event. There is a provision of my corrections codebook for providing a guest with a meal and I expect it’s a public relations thing they set up every so often with a group of hand selected inmates. My first response is to recoil at the way he says “our inmates” but it may just be a knee jerk reaction that this is patronizing because maybe it isn’t. Accepting a luncheon invitation might clarify the nuances of “our prisoners.” I wonder if the invite will still be extended when I am revealed to the writer of only a lowly blog.

The seventeen year old has lost his Ipod and Himself and I “tsk tsk tsk” at his lack of responsibility. This means though that while Spuds, who has about a 100% failure record at being the first to call “Shotgun!” hip hops headphoned in the backseat, my elder son and I can actually converse on the way to school. We meet with a college counselor and I get all overwrought at the thought of him leaving us to live his life and embarrass him and his father. He takes a second driving lesson and then guilts me about not practicing with him, although I explain quite firmly that I am not as emotionally sound as many of his friends’ parents. I feel bad though so when we are about a block away from home-just a single downhill curve with no parked cars on it, I let him take the wheel. It doesn’t occur to me when I turn over the keys that it is also a blind curve and that the car he’s had lessons in is about a fifth the size of my big wagon. I need a stiff drink when I get home and I silently toast my mother who somehow survived me and a learner’s permit. Dementia’s silver lining for her is that she is very young which makes me slightly younger. She often asks me if I am driving now and is always surprised that I am indeed old enough to be licensed.

I have been a licensed driver for thirty six years and with no net at all I married and procreated. The seventeen year old will perfect his driving and may log many miles chauffeuring me in my decrepitude. French kissing is not a contentious issue in our marriage. It would be cool if he didn’t fold laundry like an ape or could discern a dessert plate from a saucer but I do not look for him to make compromises or sacrifices to enrich my marriage on any meaningful scale. Once a basic compatibility has been determined maybe marriages flourish most, not through compromise, sacrifice and endless dissection but when the “me me me!” is turned off and we dare to see ourselves as citizens of the world. We continue to want what we want but it is in the nanoseconds when we transcend this that we feel most palpably the grace of our union.

I feel squeamish more and more about using the word “God” because it sort of connotes Santa, or the Tooth Fairy and we rail against anything that is unknowable and are unsatisfied with a mystery until it is solved. “Higher power” conjures images of recovery and this notion for many has made recovery a feasible thing, but the “higher” and the “power” parts sort of miss the mark too. The twenty three years I have had , unlike Sherri, to live, and unlike Alan, in freedom, are due to something so sublime and unknowable that to ascribe the worldly concepts of height or force would diminish my awe at what has been, and of what is, and what will be. There are no words.
Shabbat Shalom

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Eat, Love, Die

Eat, Love, Die
I bring my mother a bag of miniature dark chocolate bars and she lights up and I give her one and help her remove the wrapper and she eats it with relish. I put the bag and the crumpled wrapper down on the coffee table in front of her. She picks up the bag and asks if she can have one. I help her choose another and open it for her and she eats with pleasure. I put the bag and the crumpled wrapper down on the coffee table. She picks up the bag and asks if she can have one. We perform this routine a dozen times. Finally, she chooses a candy from the bag and then puts it back. “Maybe later.” She points to the pile of candy wrappers on the table and hisses “Look how many you ate, Layne.” I wonder sometimes if Mom had known the extent to which dementia would rob her of memory and dignity she would have preempted this decline by taking her own life. However, if she known she’d eat twelve candy bars in a single setting, that would have been a clearly compelling cause for suicide.

I have a literally captive audience with my inmate penpals with regard to my personal problems. I write to one that my mother introduces me to her caretaker as her little sister. This to me is a sad indicator of her decline but my penpal’s take on it is that at least she recognizes me as someone very important to her and I chew that around and indeed find comfort there.

Himself and I deliberate about refilling an expensive prescription for Fido which we can tell makes her more comfortable. The choices are a thirty or a ninety day supply. We opt for the latter although it is a few weeks longer than the vet’s prognosed life expectancy for her. We watch a documentary about the Baroness Rothschild’s relationship with Thelonious Monk and footage of her family manse reveals an enormous taxidermy collection, including dogs. I imagine my husband trying to jam the last of the expensive pills down the stuffed poodle’s throat. In a way I wish that Himself had decided to put her down right away when the terminally ill diagnosis was announced because every time I look at her I know she is going to die soon and that we most likely have to make the decision as to when.

I sing to her “Fidy Idy Oh” like I always have and she wags her tail which is nice because any human being I ever sing to tells me to shut up. I sneak her a larger portion when treats are dispensed. I am trying to enjoy her final days but it is hard to get around the sorrow of what is to come. It is not that much different than going to visit my mother but at least in the case of the dog, it is within our realm of possibility to act humanely. My mother’s fate is out of the realm of human kindness and while we can put a swift end to a dog’s suffering I can only pray that my mother is spared.

Several months ago I pasted all of my blog entries since I started to write in 2006 into a single document, numbered the pages and printed out over 350. I began to read it, towards editing it into a cohesive publishable manuscript and then set it aside. I return to it this week. This enormous printout chronicles the decline of my mother, the death of my father and Himself’s dad too, and our first meeting after decades of search, and subsequent relationship with Himself’s complicated birth mother. Chances are that I will outlive my mother and my little family will be all that’s left to mourn her and her only legacy. I wonder if I can cobble some sort of memoir about her last journey and write the final chapter after her death as a tribute to her having lived and given birth to me and because my diapered mother puts lipstick on her eyelids and doesn’t remember how many chocolates she’s eaten but still knows that I am someone very important.

I get through about 150 pages and circle paragraphs pertinent to my mother and realize why this ream of paper has collected dust on my desk for so long. My early blogging is hard for me to read, disjointed, coarse, sort of boring and often angry. When I get to the more recent writings I hope, actually am desperate, to find it less embarrassing to slog through. I am pretty sure though that the process of having written so much and for this long has been instrumental in how these four years have played out. I feel more chill than when I started writing here. I don’t know if the living is better because of the writing or the writing is better because of the living but I suspect it’s a bit of both.

I receive an article, from one of my penpals, clipped from U.S. A. Today, about the Correctional Facility at Plainfield Indiana. For budgetary reasons the facility no longer serves lunch to the inmates on the weekends. Breakfast is served at 6:00 a.m. and dinner 10 hours later at 4 p.m. Indiana Department of Corrections spokesman Kevin Mulrooney responds to questions about the propriety of this, “Inmates can always get chips, cookies and Ramen noodles in the commissary to tide them over between meals. You’d be amazed what prisoners can do with a bag of Ramen, it’s as good as anything served in a restaurant.” Of course commissary items are only available to inmates with private funds and because huge restitution fines are often levied against inmate trust accounts, many are completely indigent and have no access to commissary and the purchase of fine, restaurant quality ingredients.

One of my penpals actually sent me a recipe using ramen noodles of which he is very proud but it saddens me that this aging population is so reliant on a product that contains more than 35% of the recommended daily consumption of sodium in a single serving. I understand that since the budget cuts, the daily food allotment per inmate here in California has been cut from over $3. to $1.75 and my penpal reports a recent weight gain as additional starch and fat have been added to the menu to meet caloric requirements using cheaper ingredients.

Because of reduced manpower to inspect incoming mail and the cramped quarters, most prisons no longer allow inmates to purchase, with their own monies, hobby kits. This is a shame because this kind of soothing focused work can prevent a lot discord and friction. Visiting centers at California prisons used to have gift shops selling crafts made by prisoners. The monies raised went into special programs, helping indigent inmates and to local charities. Hobbywork was a great source of satisfaction and pride for inmates at no cost to the institution. I am sure the little bit of time used to inspect hobby packages isn’t worth the huge loss to morale that results in the prohibition.

Our dining table has become a bit of a battlefield. Himself’s new schedule has him home for dinner a few more nights a week so my meal preparation is a bit more ambitious. I wish I could cook a good meal for the simple pleasure of doing it. I love my kitchen and cook with joy there but I get snarky when the meals I proffer are not received with the reverence befitting such love offerings. Himself can’t be bothered with conventional table manners and what’s worse, upon finishing a meal, even with guests at the table, tears up scraps with his fingers and divides them unto three dinner plates which he puts on the floor for the dogs. We are spared this on Thanksgiving but I’ve given up on the other 364 days a year.

Jonathan Safran Foer visits the kids’ school and talks about his book Eating Animals and both of the kids have now gone vegetarian. Similarly, I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle when I was twelve and stopped eating meat for years. I have tried to interest the kids in fish and they doggedly refuse it. Both dislike vegetables almost as vehemently as Himself so with all forms of animal protein removed from our diet, all that they’ll really eat is pasta. I was a vegetarian when I met Himself but reintroduced beef and poultry to my diet upon recognizing that he was conditioned to eat little else. He stopped eating pork and shellfish upon conversion to Judaism 17 years ago and I took his lead. Three years ago in Ireland he had some sort of vision or epiphany and stopped eating beef and lamb and I pretty much have too.

I cook a lot of chicken. It’s cheap and the dense protein agrees with me and up until the Eating Animals lecture at their school it was a good alternative for kids who refuse fish. The boys announce that they will no longer eat chicken. They become very angry at me when I make them taste some fish which I suspect they really like but lie and say they don’t. Apparently Safran Foer not only equates eating cows with eating dogs but makes a case for fish as well although a fish is a helluva lot less like a dog than cow. I do not point out to them that the production of eggs and dairy products results in animal cruelty similar to the farming of animals for slaughter. The sprats would perish as vegans and anyway, commercial soy and rice farming is just as deleterious for the planet as beef ranching.

What it boils down to is that there are too many people on earth to feed without causing environmental damage. I vacillate about the ethics of eating animals. We cannot afford free range organic chicken and I often buy the cheapest available at the market. Now that the kids have forced my attention to the inhumane conditions in which these chickens are bred and killed, I most likely won’t buy poultry again, although chicken is the protein best tolerated by my quirky surgically altered digestive tract.

The shenanigans the Kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa has made the whole issue of Kashrut seem specious. Furthermore, animal rights activists claim that while the ancient ritual was believed to spare animals undue suffering, modern science disproves this. Nevertheless, Kashrut at least requires a mindfulness about taking the life of another creature for our own sustenance. I struggle with whether I can continue eating a cheap food that I can dependably digest while knowing that doing so condemns another creature to suffer.

After decades of deprivation my mother can eat chocolate until she’s full of it. Fido too is on a completely unrestricted diet. While I’ve been dogged my whole life by too strong an equation with food and love, I know no better way to comfort my mother and Fido in their final hours. I am part of a society that locks away thousands, many for petty drug offenses, in a cruel environment that exacerbates mental illness and provides a diet that will undoubtedly cause physical illness for many. Himself’s table manners apparently are informed by his medieval scholarship. My kids’ journey to independence seems to have something to do with rejecting my cooking. I am struggling with this chicken thing but it doesn’t seem like that big a deal in a world where human inmates are fed on $1.75 a day and wait 10 hours between meals.

This is the second week in a row that I’ve failed to post here in time for Shabbat and I will feel incomplete and profligate until I push the publish button. This weeks’ excuse is my concessions duties for the childrens’ play where I don my apron and peddle brownies but I talk with Himself about how difficult this writing has become and think sometimes maybe I’ve exhausted the possibilities of this venue. My father came to Los Angeles to be a screenwriter and my mother took a number of creative writing classes over the years but neither’s ambition amounted to anything.

I never remember my dreams, which to me are meaningless white noise, like when a computer hibernates. I find the subject of dreams very boring and dread listening to the recounting of anyone else’s or even reading about them in the finest of literature. I wake though at three a.m. from a dream of hosting a party at my mother’s beautiful cherished home on Fulton Avenue, where she lived alone for 35 years. I dismantled the home, peddled her precious belongings for pennies at a garage sale and sold it, only to find that the new owners paved over the front yard with concrete and covered the charming used brick exterior with thick stucco. In my dream I am pouring drinks from behind the bar and mother enters through the front door, barefoot, in a thin ragged nightgown. Himself stirs in the bed and I am thankful he is awake although I am so unsettled I probably would wake him anyway. He holds me and I think about my mother lonely for years in that big house. I see her now at the board and care, dressed in her fine clothes, sitting primly erect, purse in her lap, ready to go. I drift off to sleep and when I wake up we are still sprawled together and my first thought of this new day is that I am the luckiest person alive.
Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, November 29, 2009

2 Days Late, 1200 Words Short

2 Days Late, 1200 Words Short
I reread the entry here from last Thanksgiving weekend. The big t.v. was new then and the kids and I spent the weekend alternating between lolling on couch in our skivvies or standing in front of the refrigerator with a fork. Now I have nearly mastered the three separate remotes but still marvel that nine hundred channels offer so little worth watching. This year again we are spending the long weekend in indolent overeating sprawl. This weekly posting is late and brief. There are leftovers, three episodes of Mad Man the 17 year old is pressuring me to mail back to Netflix so he can order another title and I am afraid to lose my spot on the couch.

Fido’s appetite is enormous and as dog people, we know that a terminally ill dog will stop eating when the time has come. Fido enjoys Thanksgiving preparation, refuses no scraps that are offered and helps herself to snacks from the counter and trash can. She continues to pant and spends a lot of time sleeping but gets up and wags her tail when Himself arrives. When she was adopted from Poodle Rescue she was allowed to sleep in our bed with the cats who, separated from their mother too early, would nurse on her for hours. When Rover, overenthusiastic about cats, arrived, dogs were deported to the main floor and issued dog beds, eschewed for the couch. For old time’s sake, I sneak Fido into the bedroom for a cuddle with Himself. I cook and tear up thinking about them curled up in the bed together, a sweet experience for her final days. Several hours later I head upstairs to find Fido wedged miserably between step and door waiting to be released from verboten bedroom. Apparently a dog, after six years of banishment, has no sense of nostalgia.

The yard on Fulton Avenue had a smooth pelt of dichondra encircled by hearty rose, camellia and gardenia bushes. When company was coming, or sometimes just for fun, we would create a small floral arrangement to adorn a coffee table or the enormous highly finished knotty pine t.v. cabinet. I loved the splash of color in what was otherwise a somber darkish room. Roses still had a sweet scent in those days and on warm nights I would lie on my bed delirious with the thick scent of gardenia in full bloom wafting through the open window.

Once, in college, on impulse, I purchased a bouquet of cut flowers for my mother and she did not conceal her sheer disgust at this near criminal extravagance, spending money on something you could not eat and would inevitably die. I began to gift her houseplants which would wilt in the dark den and remain there, desiccated and dusted thrice weekly.

When I first moved out on my own I made a vow that I would always have flowers in my home and even now, despite our austerity budget, with an untended backyard that yields no blooms, I have not begrudged myself a modest weekly bouquet. I wonder if my kids will remember that their mother always, except for the week of Mother’s Day when they are ridiculously expensive, had flowers in the house. I ask Himself if he likes an arrangement I find particularly beautiful and he admits not having noticed and to never actually noticing flowers at all. It makes me sad he feels no magic and I offer to teach him the names of the flowers I bring home and he agrees to this when I tell him that flowers give me as much pleasure as food and music. This is like him teaching me to say “I love you”(Mo gra ho) and other brief phrases in Irish, as I try to keep my own heart open to his peculiar passions.

This week I visit the flower market and there is little comparable to the delight I feel in the middle of the vast warehouse brilliant with scent and color at the crack of dawn. I find blue hydrangeas and tuberose and a green puff thing I have never seen before that the salesgirl tells me is called tree bush but maybe I didn’t hear correctly. I hold my twine bound newspaper bundle to my chest as I weave through sidewalk carts and hand trucks and importuning homeless, on Wall Street, a block from the Midnight Mission. Early morning Skid Row and I walk quickly, holding on tight to my Thanksgiving flowers, beautiful but perhaps only to me alone.

Thanksgiving is with friends I’ve known so long we are conscious of the irony of finding ourselves focused on kids and health problems, The year has held loss and disappointment but there is a sense of triumph and comfort at having kept friends so close for so long and having created a warm place, despite the flowers no one notices, where we can come together. After decades forging lives and families, our youthful sense of invincibility has been replaced by decades of experiences that confirm again and again how vincible we really are. The giving thanks part is more poignant and the coming together part more blessed with every passing year.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Put Upon

Put Upon.

I write to three Jewish inmates in California prisons, each once a week. When one of my pen pals learns I write to other convicts too, he suggests that I just change the name on the word processed letter but I do not. I dedicate the time necessary to write three separate letters and it is satisfying to me to keep this connection. Most of what I write is about my workaday life. I wonder if my pen pals are not bored to tears with the banality of my carrying on. If I were sentenced to life I wonder if the description of someone outside’s trivial day-to-day would quench some vicariousness or salt the wound. I make mental notes for my pen pal letters as the week glides by and perhaps the responsibility of recounting my activities to the inmates makes me more mindful of my freedom and what I do with it.

I try to ask non-controversial questions so my correspondents have something to write to me about. One sends me an old photo of himself with a white poodle on his lap. He explains he’s crossed out the dates on all of his pictures because he cannot bear to note the time elapsed. I write him about our half breed poodle Fido. He writes back that although it wasn’t a manly dog, he’d loved his poodle. I don’t know if his prison uses dogs for contraband detection, but chances are with a life sentence, he will never pet a dog again.

Himself says that one of his early indicators of his true love for me was my ability to identify so many different breeds of dog. Of all the canine companions we’ve raised together, Fido is the most Himself’s dog. When I come home from work she raises an eyelid to indentify me and then returns to her nap on the couch, never condescending to use the dog bed. When she hears Himself’s car from blocks away she dashes from window to door frantically whining and has torn many garments in her enthusiasm to greet him.

I write my pen pal that Fido has been panting and we are waiting for some lab results. In my next letter I will share the sad diagnosis that eight year old Fido has rapidly metastasizing lung cancer and a life expectancy of about two months. Because the cancer has spread to her liver a special bland food is recommended. This reminds me of my mother’s boyfriend Charles back when she lived at the steaming cesspool of now we called “the hotel.” He wears bib and diaper but his daughter is slavishly committed to reducing his weight. His lunch, seven days a week, is non-fat cottage cheese and sugar free canned peaches. I don’t think there’s a state of dementia advanced enough to induce me to eat non-fat cottage cheese. My mother would steal food from the kitchen for him. I sneak Fido hunks of chicken when the other dogs aren’t looking.

Fido has a prescription for 60 daily pills. The vet says we’ll know when the time is right. We’ve known in the past although we were a few hours too late for the ancient scruffy little terrier Bingo. I’m afraid in Fido’s case Himself’s judgment might be clouded by his desire to get his money’s worth out of those 60 expensive pills. This prognosis is not what we expected and it is sad to lose a good dog but it a comfort that this is another sorrow my beloved and I will endure together.

Since my kids began at the far-flung charter school and it seems the only time I don’t have to pee is when I’m peeing, it is my mission to identify conveniently located, clean, uncrowded bathrooms between school and office. The quest leads me to a small family run bakery in Altadena. I stop there just about every day and buy a coffee so they don’t think I’m a bathroom mooch, although this pretty much guarantees another pit stop at the resplendent Gelson’s bathroom before I hit the office.

I overhear snippets of the bakery owner’s conversations with a couple of regulars. They talk about how easy teachers have it, only having to work until 3:00 p.m. and what with summers off and all. They go at weird movie stars on talk shows with bad posture and messy hair. They chastise Johnny Depp for hating America but living pretty high on the hog with U.S. dollars.

Another morning’s topic is the Dave Chappelle Show. Unless you are a professional comedian yourself, if you really love a comedy show, you do it no justice by attempting to reenact your favorite skits for others. Three white men, slightly older than I perceive myself to be, but probably close in age to me, chatter back and forth delivering Chappelle gags, all heavily peppered with the word “nigger” which they abbreviate to “n.” I wonder if this would have transpired if a black customer were in the store. I suspect these guys are tapping into Chappelle’s self deprecation in order to rationalize their own deep seeded fear and contempt.

The bakery has easy parking and only once have I found the restroom occupied, whereas Starbucks is always dicey. The pastries are of the high end sort and excellent but at $3.00 an item, out of my price range. Unfortunately, the little shop has not only given me an oasis for my weak bladder and a tiny window into the mindset of the Altadena menfolk, it has enhanced my anticipation of TGIF. On Fridays, the week’s leftovers, which have been frozen, are displayed on the counter, all individually wrapped in Saran and for $5.00 you can buy as many as you can fit into a bag. The one branch of math I excelled in was geometry and it may not be my imagination that the proprietor eyes me funny as I carefully piece pastry in until the bag is overflowing. So even if they are clueless about teachers and probably worship Chappelle for the wrong reason, the anticipated baked goods bargain makes it easier to foist myself from my warm bed on Friday mornings.

My mother never remembers having eaten and is issued a dozen or so small meals day which she scarfs with vigor and relish. Perhaps it is a reward for a life of privation that she remains tiny thin. Nevertheless, if not for her dementia she would remonstrate me for buying bags full of pastry, while also trying to horn in on the bargain. She tells her caretaker that I am her little sister. When I introduce the boys as her grandsons, it doesn’t register. Ditto when I wish her a happy 89th birthday.

I complain about a weird psychic dissonance I am unable to shake and Himself suggests that what’s left of my mother wears on me more than I realize. She is suddenly old and withered and the dementia carries her farther and farther away. But she can eat as much as she wants and she is young and now, after living how she lived and being dogged by the things she feared, she is free. She is the center of her universe, and it is always now.

Himself, I guess, grayed quickly in the course of two or so years whereas my hair’s faded over the course of two decades. I didn’t really notice. When he calls it to my attention I observe that the lighter hair softens his face and brings out the blue of his eyes but he thinks I am just humoring him to shut him up from grousing. The body my mother took excruciating pains to maintain has withered and she is all purple-black veins and ancient skin and I am her daughter. I will not go lightly into decrepitude but neither do I dread the prospect of growing old. My body will show its years but for every joy and dog we bury and puerile joke, our union is burnished by what time and fate mete out, as we grow old together my gray husband and his gray wife. And it’s good that I’m able to tap into that because in this economy, cosmetic procedures and plastic surgery are out of the question.

It is theatre week and I am determined to make it a happy experience but there is already a screaming fight with the kids as I rush to set up a spaghetti dinner I’d prepared for fifty in time for it to be eaten before dress rehearsal. The sprats are indolent and unlistening and I am a hysterical psychotic freak. They don’t get what the big deal is to feed fifty people and I don’t get that they’re facing a dress rehearsal of the play they’ve worked so hard on. At the theatre I notice someone has gotten into the sodas I’d purchased to sell and nearly blow a gasket. I am bossy with the kids as they congregate hungrily and get in my way as I try to set out the food.

I find some notes from nearly a decade ago when we were planning concessions for another play, three single spaced pages addressing such minutiae as napkin brand and ascribing cute Monty Python inspired names to menu items. Now that I’ve served as concessions queen for some twenty plays, I barely need notes and I have figured out that Rice Crispie treats inevitably sell way better than anything I’d prefer to eat. My sense of accomplishment over such an insignificant realm in vast universe embarrasses me and perhaps leads me to be a self righteous asshole about it. I am determined to chill and take pleasure in this small good thing I do well and amid and for people I care about.

I bake all week and more baking and cooking is in store for me in preparation for Thanksgiving. It is wonderful to work in the remodeled space and remember all the years I cooked in lesser kitchens. Growing up with family gravitas in the valley the holidays usually brought out the worst in people. I remember the last time my mother cooked Thanksgiving dinner. I’d wanted to host it myself but she was determined and cinched the deal by reluctantly agreeing to include a family of three we knew who had no other invitation. On Thanksgiving morning she called and said she’d changed her mind and that they couldn’t come.

There was a Christmas party held by my sister at a time when my father and his wife maintained a cordial relationship with my mother. My mother always bought cars with two doors so she wouldn’t be asked to drive anyone in her backseat. Even before the early signs of Alzheimer’s might have made her afraid to drive, my mother always wanted to be picked up and driven. I don’t know if it was a cheapness or if she just wanted to feel taken care of. My sister’s was only a mile away but my mother called my father and asked if they could pick her up. My stepmother said no. Neither my mother nor my stepmother’s motives are clear with regard to the asking or the refusing. My mother drove herself to the event. My father and my younger than my sister stepmother entered, both wearing red sweaters. My mother rolled her eyes and said in a stage whisper, “Father and daughter.”

Himself may be right about my mother. I get an urge to call her sometimes and it makes me sad when I realize that this is no longer an option and that even when it was an option it wasn’t really. My mother loved me more than I think she loved anyone on the planet but she was crippled in a way I have struggled for years to understand. What Himself sees wearing me down is not the loss of my mother, it is the loss of the idea of mother. I scream fiercely at my boys and am terrified by my potential to disenchant them. I know someday they will most likely mourn the loss of me, their mother, but I pray that the idea of mother endures for the rest of their lives. I married without knowing how to be a wife or what to expect from a husband and Himself was just as clueless. We are still figuring it out. The seventeen year old was the first baby I ever held and I was so undone by this that I was still in shock and not much wiser when Spuds came along. We’re still figuring out the parenthood thing too. I pray that my sons’ memories of me are mostly sweet ones and I hope when I’m gone I will have lived my life in a way that my children are spared the onus of reckoning with my bitterness.
Shabbat Shalom. And break a leg.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Luggage Tags

Luggage Tags

My mother and I achieved a warmth in correspondence that we never quite replicated in real life. When I broke down her house I discovered she’d saved everything I’d ever written to her. When I came home from summer camp, the trucks with our luggage arrived before the buses of campers. Parents had to locate our duffels in advance of our arrival, via a buff tag on a wire twisted round the strap. I wrote on the back of mine “Hi Mom! I love you!” and it remained stuck up with yellow tape inside the knotty pine dish cupboard on Fulton Avenue for decades.

Mom turns 89 this week. Her toenails, always impeccably shaped and polished now have a persistent fungus that is impervious to everything the podiatrist prescribes. I arrive for her birthday celebration and she’s wearing a black skirt, and short socks and wool slippers, something out of Potemkin’s Odessa Steps scene. The last time we took her out she freaked when we tried to leave her back at the house, screaming for her brother and my father. It disturbed me so much that since then our visits have been confined to old movies on t.v. from the plastic sheathed couch at the board and care. I determine for her birthday to regale her with the Mexican food she loves so we venture to a neighborhood restaurant.

Mom has no idea she is at a restaurant. Now she is always just some place and it is always now. When I first take her from Fulton Avenue she is distinctly conscious of not being at home but now even the notion of home has faded. We slide into an ample booth and a big bowl of dark thick spicy salsa and some chips grace the table. Mom immediately jabs a jalapeno with her fork and chomps it down, only to be shocked by the heat. I ask the waitress for water. We move the salsa and my mother grabs it back possessively, stabs at it greedily and then screws up her face in discomfort. Groundhog Day until some water finally arrives to distract her while the salsa is discreetly moved out of her line of sight.

The birthday girl inhales a plate of enchiladas and half of my quesadilla and I treat her to a couple cups of her favorite strong black coffee. I know the jolt will make her, not having had caffeine for months, totally hyper and drive them crazy after I drop her back at the home. We return and serve a cake and she eats two large pieces, eyes the last remaining slice in sad hopefulness and denies having had any at all. I leave some gifts, a few colorful skirts and a new handbag, in bright gift bags on her bed. The caregiver takes Mom to open the presents and we sneak out before she realizes that we’ve left without her. She floats through another birthday, oblivious to the decay of her mind and body. I do the best I can.

I send the seventeen year old e-mails. I am not sure that he reads them, as he uses texting and Facebook more for communications these days. I think maybe he does but I’m embarrassed to ask him and suspect he’d be too embarrassed to tell me. There is a friction often when we are face to face. Our pace is so rapid that so much of my conversation with him pertains to logistics, as in, telling him what to do. When I am not barking orders, I struggle to keep my narcissism at bay but sometimes he competes unfairly with my memories of myself at seventeen. One of the weird things about being a parent is trying to keep in perspective the inevitable comparison and hashing over of our own childhood as our kids reach parallel milestones.

In my e-mails I try to tell the boy about me so he gets a bit of why I am the way I am. This, I hope, will instill him with a bit of compassion, but if he is capable of the same treachery that I was at the same age, it could come back to bite me. I write to him to remind myself that he is not me. I assure him that while I am often proud of him for things he takes little pride him, and may diminish or not fully appreciate what he feels are his best accomplishments, that I really am proud of the whole picture. He is mostly at ease in the world while I remember myself and my rash conjectures and social desperation and feel embarrassed for my poor awkward teenage self.

I wrote last week about my husband’s mad dash for the lint filter upon returning from a week abroad without intending to ascribe to this to any meanness on his part, just innocent weirdness and cluelessness. Nevertheless, while I am unable to proffer “kudos” because he viscerally hates this word, I will note that since my posting, he is particularly generous with his attention, even shockingly agreeing when I ask him to watch t.v. with me. I scan the gazillion channels and there is nothing much we can agree upon.

While my husband has devoured his share of literary filth he has no appetite for what my father referred to as “stag films.” Once though, while channel surfing in a hotel room we came upon the HBO series Taxi Cab Confessions and it held our interest. This show is no longer listed on the HBO After Hours menu but in mutual agreement we select a documentary called Hookers and Johns: Trick or Treat: America Undercover, intrigued perhaps by more than just the use of two colons. Prostitution isn’t something I think about very much except to note that prohibitions against it suck up a lot of law enforcement and corrections resources.

I had always presumed the raison d’etre of HBO after hours programming was cheap thrills but, except perhaps for the fiendish gynecologist film, Dead Ringers, which Himself and I saw on our first date, I can think of no sexually themed material I have ever partaken of that was less titillating. Some scenes are shot in strip clubs where the dancing is nothing like the demure burlesque of Gypsy Rose Lee and instead of tucking dollar bills into panties, men rub their credit cards against young women’s wildly gyrating genitals. What’s weird is that men actually participate in this in the presence of other men, and in this instance, in front of a camera, and no one seems embarrassed. Himself and I though are beyond mortified when the seventeen year old walks in on us to retrieve a DVD and catches us watching on t.v. an act for which a $20.00 payment has been negotiated being performed in the front seat of a car. He leaves our room wordlessly, another sign of his quality that makes me proud.

One interviewee quips that a hooker isn’t paid for sex, she’s paid to leave. One fifty something client avers that he is sexually attracted to women in their twenties and money is the only inducement he has for them to have sex with him. The working girls interviewed have no lofty ideas about being sex therapists and express no professional pride, and only a desire to earn money. There isn’t a single frame suggesting that the modern incarnation of the oldest professionals and the oldest consumers are ennobled by this commerce in any way.

Government interference over the choices a woman makes about her body, i.e. prostitution and abortion, doesn’t seem to have done anyone any good. The feminist movement is mostly unified with regard to abortion rights but polarized about the possible legalization of prostitution. I am disappointed that the issue of abortion has become a pawn in the universal health coverage debate but I would feel better about throwing my energy into decreasing the need for any abortions at all. I can envision a methodology towards preventing many of the abortions that will be inevitably be performed, legally or illegally, but it seems that there has never been, and never will be, an anecdote for prostitution. Some feminists claim that performing sex for hire is an expression of a woman’s control over her own body but the HBO film we thought would give us a thrill or a chuckle put me on the side of the woman’s movement that views the performance of sex for money as degrading.

I read in the dentist’s chair a People magazine feature about a little girl who knowing she was dying of cancer, left so many notes for her parents hidden around their home that they continue to find them several years after her death. Something that happened before I was born left my mother hard and angry and grudging yet every word I wrote to her she kept. Sometimes, in myopia, I see myself so closely in my seventeen year old son that I lash out and then find myself too weak to atone in three dimensions and manage only e-mails he may or may not read. I know though that his father reads my words, emails to efficiently deal with household management to conserve precious face time, angry rants, misguided tangents and love letters full of things I am too shy to even whisper.

I am a few hundred words short to be starting the last paragraph but this week’s writing has been in fits and starts and for the last entry I spent so long memorializing another week that by the time I arrived at the bakery all of the challahs were gone and we had to substitute a beigey Russian bread to conjure vaguely shetl images and a sickeningly sweet mushy Hawaiian round that at least was the same pale yellow color. I will be quick here, in order to snatch a proper challah, to tie it all together. I realized when I cleaned out my mother’s house how long I’ve been at this writing thing. I am reminded though that given my Fulton Avenue legacy and being my mother’s daughter that I am blessed to love a husband I can be myself with and to belong to the first generation of women for whom marriage is not a form of commoditization. The writing is hard but I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’ve been living a bit longer than I’ve been writing but I do it with less confidence. In recognition of this, just for today, I will end my piece a bit abruptly and with no rock solid conclusion and buy a braided bread and try my best to make a real Shabbat of peace with the real people who I love.
Shabbat Shalom

Friday, November 6, 2009

Love and Time and the Lint Filter

Love and Time and the Lint Filter
My prison penpals are generous with their time. I sense how strongly they want to give us gifts but they have little more than time. There are birthday and holiday cards and complex drawings and thoughtful letters and one guy even sends me a book and I feel bad that the postage for this must have depleted his trust account. He is in his sixties and works at the prison laundry for a few cents an hour. He asks me to print a calendar with all of our birthdays and I print one for eighteen months and include all holidays, Jewish and secular. I marvel now at how close my appointment book is to year’s end but when I mail off the eighteen pages, with notable days noted, I wonder what the receipt of this calendar will mean to someone serving a life sentence. He is funny and considerate. I do not know the details of the crime he is convicted of nor have I asked about it. There have been some inconsistencies on other topics in his letters which might be just absentminded or sloppy but sometimes give me a sense that he is less than forthcoming. I avoid any judgments about whether he should be in prison and deal only with the reality that he is and that he will die there. I know he will keep careful track of our birthdays and diligently send us cards and notes but I am haunted by the vision of this lifer holding a calendar in his hands, knowing that at the end of these eighteen months, he will be alive or he will be dead and that not much else will change. Ever.

Himself is returned from a strenuous but satisfying trip to Eire. We communicate sporadically via e-mail during his weeklong journey and I learn that he is caught in a terrible storm and is soaked to the skin, long underwear and all, and with this pathetic picture in my mind’s eye, his return has an added urgency for me. I shop for his favorite food and make a special trip home before going to fetch him at the airport to drag in the trashcans, and make sure Fido, his half-breed poodle, who has learned to operate the foot pedal on the trashcan, hasn’t strewn garbage through the house. I check again for messy remnants of the Halloween party we held and for any dead rodents deposited on our bed by Gary the cat. I properly position the Day of the Dead marigold and cockscomb bouquets to show off the psychedelically bright purple and orange flowers and do my best to make sure that his first visage Casamurphy is pleasant and tidy.

My car is on the fritz and I am reduced to driving his, which he does not like although I don’t particularly like him to drive mine either. I actually hate it when he drives my car but of course cannot fathom why he would object to me driving his. We meet him curbside at the airport after being hassled and rattled by storm trooper like airport traffic cops. His flight has arrived half an hour early but having no cell phone, he is unable to notify me. He stands slumped against a post, wan and exhausted. It takes a second for him to recognize us in the unexpected auto and when he does, he goes to deposit his tiny valise in the boot. I am unable to figure out how to release the lock from inside of the car and he pounds the trunk in tired frustration before I am able to come open it with the key.

The kids honor his return by not listening to their IPODS for the first ten minutes of the ride home. He has heard nothing but Northern Irish accents all week and regales us with a cunning imitation, so dead on that I realize in a way, he is coming home from home. I am grateful to find our house undisturbed, cozy and warm, just what I’d yearn for after a strenuous trip. He greets the dogs first thing. The poodle is beside herself, having no affection for any human being but him. The canines receive treats and hugs. I think then that I might get a compliment about how nice the house looks or perhaps even a hug myself but he immediately goes to the dryer and removes the lint filter. As is often the case, I have forgotten to clean it after washing many loads of his spawns’ dirty duds. He looks at me accusingly, disposes of the lint, gives the kids their usual airport purchased t-shirts and me two bags of wine gums and then excuses himself to check his work e-mail.

My niece Marlene gets me and Spuds on the guest list for an informal comedy show by Jeff Garland of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Patton Oswald, who is known for his standup but also is a regular on the “United States of Tara.” We wait in line for an hour in front of the club and I try to remember the last time, besides taking the 17 year old to the DMV I’ve waited in a line. Most of the fellow waitees are groups of twenty something guys. I drink in the rhythm as they interact with live friends while also texting and conducting cellphone conversations. There are detractors who say that the constant communication via Internet or texting has diminished the generation’s capacity for genuine face-to-face interaction. I’m not sure to what extent the real human dimension has been compromised because it seems that what has been honed is an ability to multitask.

My kids used to spend their school days cut off from me. Now, we text back and forth several times a day. Lots of logistical things but also “A on Algebra Test” and “Is your stomach better?” Nothing worth an immediate phone call but just a second of connection. Sometimes the race to make the long drive and arrive at school on time rankles and a brief text later in the day can undo a lot of morning nastiness. They are sick at school and I go to fetch them. The campus is hilly and sprawling and I have not mastered the layout. The school administrator says it will be difficult to contact the boys because there are no phones in the high school classrooms. I tell her that I will text them. She raises her eyebrows. “Are they able to receive text messages during class?” I mutter something noncommittal and sneak out sheepishly to wait for them in the car.

The comedy show is very loosey goosey. Spuds is the only kid. The performers are surprisingly genteel, but with a show built on improvisation and audience participation, the audience is rather coarse. Garland warms up by giving away a number of his superfluous personal possessions which he pulls from a crumbled Trader Joe’s bag. Spuds raises his hand and is brought on stage. Garland asks him whether Halloween had been a social opportunity or if he’d trick or treated. Spuds affirms that he’d collected candy door to door and Garland bestows him with a handsome graphic novel series of a dozen volumes. Spuds is thrilled and I mime, hysterically from my seat, “Say thank-you!” even though none of the other recipients of Garland’s castoffs ascribed to this nicety. I finally catch his eye and he turns and thanks Garland, who takes a beat, looks Spuds in the eye and says, “You’re welcome.” My kids say that I am an insane freak with regard to manners but they are starting to see the more accurate picture and getting that it’s not snobbiness but making people feel good and respected. I do not imagine that I am the only one in the world who is friggin’ needy and buoyed by the tiniest of such considerations.

I love the movie Diner although the 17 year old is not as smitten as I. There is one scene when the two newlywed characters have a fight. He is a diehard record collector and has his collection excruciatingly categorized and organized. She misfiles a 78 and he explodes. She sobs, “I just like to listen to the music.” I have always loved this scene and it is the only part of the film that struck a chord with the 17 year old, but while I sympathize with the girl who just wanted the music, he relates strongly to the husband, whose record collection was thrown cavalierly out of order. I guess it’s a guy thing but the 17 year old is addicted to film and record “best of lists” and details and minutiae when all that’s really of interest to me is whether I like a film or a song. Because of his frame of reference I often get bored when he tries to engage me in conversation about what he is watching or listening to. I salvage our relationship by text messaging, the message field being too small for him to respond with a list.

The comedian Patton Oswald does a wonderful bit about his father being sympathetic and warm but never quite able to fully conceal that he finds his son’s teenage concerns trivial. I am guilty of this too because I just don’t give a rat’s ass if the fourth cut on a CD is eight minutes long and I just don’t have it in me to pretend that I do. A conversation begins,
“You know the TV on the Radio album Dear Science?”
“No. I don’t really know albums.”
“Well, you’ve heard it and you’ve liked it.
“What do you think about the name of the album?”
“I haven’t thought about it.”
“I like it. Dear Science. Get it? Like ‘Dear God’, except ‘Dear Science.’”

It is good that he is going deeper than production details and best of lists. And maybe he senses that in his time this “Dear Science” thing might be where we are heading.

From the Pew Institute:
“A survey of scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in May and June 2009, finds that members of this group are, on the whole, much less religious than the general
public. Indeed, the survey shows that scientists are roughly half as likely as the general public to believe in God or a higher power. According to the poll, just over half of scientists (51%) believe in some form of deity or higher power; specifically, 33% of scientists say they believe in God, while 18% believe in a universal spirit or higher power. By contrast, 95% of Americans believe in some form of deity or higher power, according to a survey of the general public conducted by the Pew Research Center in July 2006. Specifically, more than eight-in-ten Americans (83%) say they believe in God and 12% believe in a universal spirit or higher power. Finally, the poll of scientists finds that four-in-ten scientists (41%) say they do not believe in God or a higher power, while the poll of the public finds that only 4% of Americans share this view.”

I think a lot of intellectuals envision and yearn for a society that is more anchored in practical knowledge and provable facts then in the vagaries of faith. They see this as mankind’s true passage, rational and practical, into the new millennia and a harbinger for the defeat of all the ills associated with the defense of faith. Maybe we will arrive here and perhaps this will pave the way for a more peaceful world. The more I learn though about science and provability and perfection, the more obvious it seems to me that a universe this perfect and intricate, born of nothingness, demands the existence of a higher force. Apparently, the belief in this is out of fashion among many thinkers and I wonder if the total rejection of religion will ultimately make man’s plight more peaceful or simply, less rich.

Last Shabbat my beloved was far away and the 17 year old went to some experimental theatre thing. I envisioned an evening of Brickbreaker on the Blackberry for me while Spuds and I attended a potluck at his school but I was prescient enough to grab a stack of New Yorkers and able to make a dent while sitting in the chilly foothills on a concrete bench while Spuds enjoyed the school dance. Tonight the candles will be lit and there will be a raisin challah for him and myself and a plain one for the sprats. We will sip our wine knowing that all over the world Jews are breathing in and then out and sanctifying this time. Himself is jet lagged and the administrators at his college are shamelessly playing the “you’re lucky to have a job” slave labor inducer card. I romanticized him and slept with his pillow the week of his absence. His physical return to the household and beeline for the lint filter has induced a bit of “well, there’s that too.” He is distracted and I pause while writing this piece to e-mail him and beg for him to leave as much of his work at work as possible and to be present for me for the weekend. I cannot predict how much undivided attention there will be for me. Monday we will return to our offices and I hope we are fortified. The mailman will bring for me the inevitable thick letters from California prisons and I will do what I can to make three lives there more bearable and chew over how different my penpals’ experience of time must be from mine. I worry so much about fortune and karma and happenstance but realize that really, time made rich with caprice and unpredictability is a gift and not a punishment.
Shabbat Shalom

Friday, October 30, 2009


I am a single mom for a week. Himself, after delayed flights, is outside of Dublin, where due to his friend’s illness, he has been commandeered to babysit two squabbling tots. In his absence the sprats and I are enjoying salads, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, meatloaf and myriad other foods that induce a greenishness in my beloved should they appear on our table. Ironically, the night of our cauliflower fest, Himself reports he was served self same vegetable there across the sea by his hostess and he ate it, to be polite. Based on two decades of experience, I am concerned that his countenance, upon eating the vegetable, which is in the top ten of the phone book length list of foods he will not abide, may have frightened his young charges.

After his conference he will be hosted by an Irish writer that he’s corresponded with but has never met in person. He was graciously asked in advance if he has any dietary preferences and I wince upon learning this. Receiving an enumeration of verboten foodstuffs, before laying eyes on the man might plant the seed that my husband is a complete whack job. This isn’t really a false impression but there are good qualities that mitigate the whackness and I hope his host is able to appreciate these and also find something that he will friggin’ eat without looking like he is on the verge of hurl.

I have been bailed out of many a mess by my pals and particularly now with a partner thousands of miles away, it is nice to know that chances are there will always be someone I can call when I am stranded. I hope my friends feel the same, and while I wish no one adversity, it feels good to be able to swoop down for someone and make it better. My friend calls. She has left her car in a supermarket parking lot, thinking it would only be a moment, to pick her elderly mom up from a medical appointment. Unfortunately, the medical appointment is at the behemoth Kaiser and it takes far longer than expected to locate the old gal and navigate her and her walker back to the car, which they discover has been towed. I go to fetch them at about 3:30. Granny’s appointment was at 10:00 and she is frail, even when not out in the world. She hasn’t eaten, is wan and our windstorm has taken a cruel toll on her hairdo. Her daughter looks pretty thrashed too and having known her as cheerful and mild mannered for a number of years, I am surprised, when for a nanosecond, she expresses irritation at her mother who dithers over helping assemble the cash necessary to bail out the car.

It’s been a while now since I’ve had that flash of exasperation with my own mother. Per devastating hindsight, I realize she had been declining for years before the extent to which her cognition had diminished became obvious. I wrack my brain now trying to separate my frustration at what turned out to be early signs of dementia vs. her just being the way she was. Somehow the forgetfulness, self centeredness and confusion sort of morphed from narcissism into a terminal illness. It is better going to visit her at the little house, where she gazes at herself in the mirror all day than at the steaming cesspool of now that was her first post Fulton Avenue residence. I do not like it though and I avoid going alone, bringing Richard and or the kids. We sit on the couch and watch old movies. I try to hold out for at least forty five minutes once a week but if it’s a bad movie, I may only last thirty. I read an article about the physical deterioration that accompanies dementia. She seems ok physically to me but apparently, given the severity of her dementia, statistics suggest that she probably will not live for very long.

I clean over the weekend and store some old family photographs in the garage and find a case with a few silver serving utensils. There are a couple pieces of furniture in my house and some stuff at the office. She has a closet full of clothes, a purse with make-up and broken sunglasses and the napkins that she hordes. Every physical manifestation of my mother, except me and my children and my niece and grand niece, will fit, with room for the dog, in my Volvo wagon for the trip the thrift store. How this would have broken her heart. How it will break mine.

I have more childhood memories of being humiliated or screamed at than of having fun with my mom. But, I do not trust that this is true to the actual experience. I scream at my kids and the 17 year old goes at me about THAT voice I use and I wither. I wake up in the morning and the living room is filled with their cast off shoes, the lights blaze and the sink is filled with dirty dishes. I have a sense finally of what made my mother so angry so often and maybe it’s my comeuppance. I try to remember what was inside my head when I was fourteen or seventeen. I like to think I am more in touch with my kids than my own parents were with me but perhaps I am just as blindsided as they were. I do not remember my mother ever demonstrating empathy but maybe, this memory too is unfair to her. It terrifies me that my boys may become so beaten down by the weight of my decrepitude that any sense of my character and my love for them will fade and skew. Will I be reduced to harsh words said in exhaustion and a wagonload of clothes and knickknacks?

There will be no celebration of Shabbat a Casamurphy tonight. The 17 year old is off to the theatre and Himself is travelling by public transportation with only a thin raincoat and a single pair of shoes through Ireland, on the verge of a predicted torrential rainstorm. He is attending a conference on Alternative Spirituality in Maynooth and presenting paper on the invention of the concept of “Celtic Buddhism.” Spuds and I are attending a potluck dinner at the school where I anticipate sitting like a lump and pretending to be working on my Blackberry but really playing Brickbreaker because I don’t know another soul.

Spuds is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and now attends Saturday services at the little temple. We attended regularly for many years. I felt guilty about our diminished attendance for a long time and while I still realize that it’s not the best example for Spuds, I do accept being at a place in the journey where communal prayer is not as resonant as it once was or perhaps will be again. A student asks Himself about his belief in God and he responds that he is uncertain. I am suspicious of anyone who answers this question with unwavering confidence and yet I am wounded a bit to hear his doubt expressed so clearly.

I am weary of all of those who are certain they hold the only reliable understanding of something that by definition defies definition and is unknowable. It frightens me that more and more organized religious groups’ fiscal survival seems dependent on insularity and zealotry. The neo-atheists are just as scary, and just as insular and zealous, as they paint anyone with any degree of faith as a simpleton who buys into the old dude with the long white beard calling the shots from heaven mythology. It’s true that a lot of the faithful are in sort of an arrested development but even way back in the12th century Maimonides noted the folly of ascribing human attributes to God. I guess it’s good to be sure, but maybe not too sure or so sure as to denigrate the sureness, or the uncertainty, of others.

I fully accept the scientific explanation of how the universe came to exist but I believe that there is something vastly beyond my comprehension that caused the science to fall into play and for the sake of convenience I refer to this as God. I believe it is important to live in a way that respects this creation. I pray but perhaps referring to the thing I do as prayer might be lazy shorthand too. I guess many people pray expecting intercession from a force or being or THING outside of themselves. Wittgenstein’s analogy is kissing the picture of a loved one. With the possible exception of my stepmother, who kisses pictures of my dead dad all the time and dances around the house with the urn of his ashes, there is no expectation that the person represented will be effected by this, it is for personal satisfaction. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not read Wittgenstein, although I love to SAY Wittgenstein as Germanicly as I can, but am paraphrasing from an article from the far more accessible to middlebrow moi, New Yorker.

In my heart of hearts I am just a Jewish girl from the valley and no one I ever knew would have been surprised if I’d ended up married to an Encino dermatologist, living for annual plastic surgery and amassing Hadassah pins. Actually, this would not have surprised me, but in a world of karmic hilarity I ended up with a highly neurotic diehard intellectual. I am so good at being shallow and I would be excellent at driving carpool south of Ventura in my Escalade. This God and idea stuff is harder and not what I was bred to cogitate but my beloved has shown me that my ideas are worth nurturing and he loves that I struggle with them. I am his puppy and it makes me sad that tonight when I go home we will not be there and he will not have read these words and pat my furry head. It is also scary because he generally reads what I write here immediately after publication and identifies and corrects any egregious errors, so not only do I lack the immediate gratification of his praise, he is gone and I am writing naked.

We can eat whatever we want. Friends are coming for Halloween. I do not wake in the morning freezing with a snoring lump beside me swaddled in my covers. I hope that next Shabbat there will be Challah and my three men at the table. My next blog entry will be tidied up before you read it and when my beloved returns safely to my arms, perhaps he will believe, maybe just for that moment, with a bit more certainty.

Shabbat Shalom.