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