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