Friday, April 30, 2010

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

I may have yelled at Spuds a couple of times that his pants are too low or about not wearing a sweater but the center of my universe is the seventeen year old’s behind the wheel driving examination, which having been postponed once due to lack of readiness, is now scheduled. Over the weekend, ostensibly to see wild flowers, the seventeen year old drives us to the Antelope Valley. I sit in the back seat and Himself rides shot gun. I have been warned off, by both of the parties occupying the front seat, backseat driving.

Himself counsels driving behind a truck in order to prevent speeding and conserve gasoline. We choke on fumes, tailing a gravel truck for about thirty miles. We overshoot our destination and Himself instructs the seventeen year old to perform a U-Turn. I pipe up that he has never made a U-Turn. Himself reminds me to not interfere with the two males in the front seat and says, “He’s got to learn,” while giving the new driver no instruction. The intersection is undershot by about 200 feet which results in beached car, facing the curb and occupying two lanes of traffic for an uncomfortably long period of time.

I receive a letter from my penpal Alan, who is incarcerated nearby in the grim Tehachapi fortress, noting that he can see through the fence that the hills are brilliant with poppies and lupine, and it reminds him of the beauty of the world outside. I am not comparing my circumstances to Alan’s, as he serves a draconian sentence in a prison crowded to more than twice its capacity, except to say that there are mitigating circumstances that keep us both from fully appreciating this rainy year’s riotous explosion of flowers.

I watch all ten titles in the collection of videos entitled THE TOP TEN REASONS PEOPLE FAIL THE DRIVING TEST. I pour over the DMV’s Your Teenage Driver booklet. I sweet talk a colleague into taking the boy out to practice parking. Driving in reverse seems particularly confusing. My friend returns relatively unfreted and lays 50/50 odds on the kid passing the test. The seventeen year old drives us home and nimbly controls the car and gauges distance better than I ever have. Then he makes a left turn on a green light right into oncoming traffic, heedless to and confused by my screams of “STOP!” He shifts the car from drive into reverse or park without coming to a complete stop. He has trouble backing out of the home driveway without going off the curb.

He gets annoyed when I grip my seatbelt and pound the imaginary brake and I remind him again and again that I’d been in a bad accident. I point out repeatedly that he can kill someone or himself in the blink of an eye. He asks me when it’s safe to turn and I tell him he has to gauge for himself, perhaps not sounding sufficiently compassionate given how long it takes for that judgment to become automatic. I ask him what he thinks about driving by himself and he says he would only be comfortable going to places he has driven to already and will not feel up to the hillside homes of many of his friends for a while. Based on the ravage I wreaked on my mother’s behemoth Pontiac, I suspect I was less realistic about my own limitations when I was newly licensed.

I pick him up early from school and he drives via surface streets to the DMV. I remind him about all the cretins driving hither and yon and that the driving exam is not an assessment of intelligence or of anything else that’s of genuine value, but merely an instrument to determine if one has had sufficient practice driving. I tell him that he’ll be driving the rest of his life so a couple weeks isn’t going to matter that much. I remind him that I failed the test three times myself and then barely squeaked by on my fourth attempt.

The lot is jammed and the seventeen year old is still nervous about parking. He manages with great frustration to find a spot on the street and maneuver the car into a position that is at least at less than a right angle with relationship to the curb. We register and then he feels too overwhelmed to extricate the car and I maneuver it into the examination line for him.

The examiner arrives and seventeen year old is ashen and sweaty and I am stricken that my laziness about transporting him has literally driven him to the brink of freak out. She gets in the car and I watch him drive off. The DMV is jammed with people. There are no paper towels in the bathroom. There are no benches outside so I wait on the sidewalk. I pace, too distracted for novel or crossword puzzle I keep in my purse, mulling the significance of what the next twenty minutes may bring. My car returns. The examiner speaks and taps her pen on her clipboard and the seventeen year old slumps over. He misses a stop sign on a residential street and drives right through it, considered a critical error and resulting in immediate failure.

I can tell from her initial presentation that the examiner lacks the warmth of the other two testers we observe in action while waiting his turn. Apparently her accounting of the boy’s errors is harsh. He is angry. Too angry to drive. I suggest he might want to drive his dad to pick up Spuds in Altadena later so he can get back in the saddle. He does not want to get back in the saddle, not only disheartened by the licensing defeat but by the notion of having a mother who says things like “get back in the saddle.”

There is a door slammed. He disappears to his lair and then reappears at dinner, apologetic for having become overwrought and is genial for the rest of the evening. We sit on the couch Himself, the seventeen year old, new puppy Oprah and I. Three out of the four of us are relieved that he hasn’t passed the test. We finish the third season of The Wire, Himself and I very much benefiting from the seventeen year old’s far superior grasp of this astonishing and complex drama.

I endured humiliation while mastering the art of driving in Van Nuys, Hooterville compared to the traffic challenges the seventeen year old faces in 2010 L.A. I do not remember practicing with either of my parents but perhaps I did. I had an instructor named Mr. Lampke who picked me up in his un-air conditioned Datsun, emblazoned Valley Driving School. His baby blue polyester shirt clung to his chest with sweat, accentuating his nipples. He had a slight speech impediment and a pronounced short fuse. As far as he was concerned, I was hopeless. Three different DMV examiners arrived at the same conclusion. One tester asked if I were from England. I thought it was because I seemed sophisticated but it was just that I seemed to be driving on the left.

Driving for me, from the very first time I stripped the gears trying to turn the key in the ignition of Mr. Lampke’s car, has always been terrifying, and magic. Sepulveda Blvd. was daunting and I would drive a square mile of right turns to cross it. Now still, if someone I know is observing me, I am unable to parallel park. But even under the influence of sodium pentothal I would still aver that I am able to back into the tiniest of spaces perfectly well when I am by myself and the dog is lying down. I find it satisfying, in the right circumstances, to crank up The Replacements and exceed the speed limit, for which I’ve had run-ins with the law.

The seventeen year old drives us to school every morning now. We listen to the first Arcade Fire album, after not having heard it for a couple years. Now that all the hype has died down, we both decide that it stands up. I do not recount the story about playing as a child at the home of guitarist Alvino Rey, the grandfather of frontman Winn Butler. Rey was married to one of the King Sisters and my best friend’s father was their manager. The seventeen year old is unimpressed by my degrees of separation at the first telling so I don’t bother bending his ear.

I tell him that I am working on an essay about women in rock ‘n roll and why there are so few female musicians and that most of those seem to have arrived on the coattails of a boyfriend or sibling or spouse. He rattles off a list of rock women, most of whom I’ve never heard of. He promises to make me a CD. We talk about comedy. He is not impressed with my tenuous connection to Arcade Fire but he is envious that I saw the first season of Saturday Night Live, if not live, with only a three hour delay from the East Coast. He knows about John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase and then there’s the black guy who became a heroin addict (Garrett Morris), the blond who still works (Jane Curtain) and the skinny one (Laraine Newman) who sort of looks like the one who was in all those Altman films (Shelly Duvall).

He muses about what it would be like to describe “seeing” to someone who’s been blind since birth. I suggest he read Raymond Carver’s Cathedral. He reports that he just has and this has inspired the question. I notice that a copy of Fires, a posthumous collection of some unpublished Carver works that has been in the bathroom for as long as I can remember is turning up in other spots. He asks for my copy of Where I’m Calling From. He hears me wax on about Carver ad infinitum and doubtless I have recited the story about meeting Carver’s wife Tess Gallagher as many times as the Alvino Rey one or even the one about being fed canned soup by Gale Storm’s maid. I am pleased that for once perhaps my slavering has sunk in. Alas, he reports that he was led to the book in the bathroom by a reference to Carver on the show Californication.

As both of the boys have become more independent, I’ve had more time to pursue areas of personal satisfaction, as well as profligate time wasting and self examination on such topics as, “Am I a Good Mother?” In the neighborhood patter I hear accounts often that suggest other moms live their lives through their children and their accomplishments. Other tidings imply that sometimes moms blindly neglect their children’s needs in order to fulfill their own personal aspirations. I struggle with the needs to get a life loser/selfish bitch thing myself but it is easier to pass judgment on other people.

I guess I’ve read some articles and books about parenting but even after seventeen years in the trenches, I ‘m still clueless. I am thankful for my parents and I know that both often put my needs above their own. Perhaps the umbrage I cling to about the other times distorts their frequency. I asked my father to attend a school event with me once but his wife had made previous plans to dine with another couple that night. My school presentation was a once in a lifetime thing but he refused to attend, noting that a man’s wife always deserves precedence over his children. He also admitted to me once, and I do not remember the context, just the confession, that he should never have had children. In the seventies I ODed on sleeping pills but he was unable to meet my mother at the emergency room because the new Cadillac he’d been waiting for was scheduled for delivery. But he filled the house with glorious music and he ran movies for me and wept when my dog died and when he held my sons for bris.

My mother kept my report cards on the refrigerator. When I got my teaching credential she was very proud but when I had a personal essay published in a local paper she wrote a letter to the editor refuting it and then began vigorously sending off pieces for publication herself. Should any harm befall me she was there like a bullet. She almost always came through for me when I needed her but she’d make a big deal about it, and her tenacious ingratiation, ironically, sometimes compromised her karma.

It was a sign of my mother’s precipitous decline when recently she stopped asking me if I were driving yet and being delighted that yes, indeed, I have accomplished this. Then, later she’d admonish me, looking stricken, to drive safely. My son will drive the car by himself soon and there will be fewer opportunities for me to excoriate myself for being too needy or too selfish. Will I ever not think about this with pride and terror and wistfulness about my seventeen year chauffeuring stint? Soon both of us will drive mostly to our own soundtracks. I’m thankful for the few extra weeks of riding shotgun.
Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Marriage ala Mode

What a happy and holy fashion it is that those who love one another should rest on the same pillow. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Himself wears noise cancelling headphones to listen to music. I call them the “wife cancellers.” They provide him refuge from the triple whammy of noise pollution induced by my ample body stomping, the groan of the machine and the TV on maximum volume while I exercise on the treadmill. He rates the treasured devices highly on Amazon. I road test them myself when I disembark the treadmill by screaming things like, “When I come home and see you’ve already set the table it feels like a royal edict to cook and by the way, you set it very carelessly considering the amount of the time and energy I devote to shopping for and preparing your meals. The napkins are often very sloppily creased and the forks uncentered, just thrown down there. Why must you, ordinarily so punctilious about language, stubbornly refer to saucers and desert plates and dinner plates and soup bowls all as ‘dishes?’ I feel trivialized when you call my briefcase a purse. I wish you would stop saying ‘What?’ instead of ‘Pardon?’ I hate it when you wear socks in bed.” He smiles sweetly, blissed out, listening to obscure Irish punk while I spew my litany of complaints. Himself thinks that I resent the wife cancellers but once in a while, they’re a cheap alternative to marriage counseling.

One of my girlfriends has two kids by a guy who is unable to apply for employment because he has a couple of outstanding warrants and even if he could, the wages would be garnished for child support of the two children he’s fathered by two different other girlfriends. Another friend lived with a guy for two years and bore his son. Unbeknownst to her, he was involved simultaneously with and knocked up another woman. After both baby mamas found him out and told him to kiss off, he impregnated yet another woman and now has three children and zero wives. He works close to where my friend lives with her son but only sees the boy a couple times a year. These are respectable, intelligent women, not bar floozy slatterns. The women’s movement has helped confer more societal acceptance for motherhood sans marriage but hasn’t seemed to have enough salubrious affect on men being assholes.

My parents always said that my sister Sheri, also an intelligent, attractive woman, had terrible taste in men. She glommed onto felons, drug addicts, alcoholics, compulsive gamblers and batterers who sent her to the hospital. To add to her humiliation, they were always the ones who dumped her and memories of her self abasement in struggling to hang on to one loser after another make me cringe. Sheri was fourteen years older than I was and I wonder if she’d come of age in the 1970s like I did, rather than the late fifties, things would have been different.

My mother had one long term boyfriend after her divorce from my father but wasn’t rescued by him. She did a lot of dating but never found the wealthy generous man who wanted to devote his life to worshiping her beauty. During marriage, my father never changed a diaper, washed a dish or shopped for groceries, as was typical of husbands and fathers of this era. Is it any wonder that my mother looked for something different in a mate than what I found in my dish washing, diaper changing but too dense to grocery shop beloved?

I sometimes research footage of feminist protests from the early 1970s. The outfits and the shrillness of rhetoric make me laugh. I often have the same reaction to vintage civil rights footage, and early gay rights parades are pretty colorful too. But it was those courageous enough to be in your face and obnoxious that paved the way for the gentler, reasonable voices which affected genuine social change.

When I joined the workforce in 1975, a woman couldn’t open a credit account or purchase a car without her husband’s permission. In 1975 women’s salaries averaged only 58% of men’s earnings but by 2009 this had increased to 80%. I suspect some disparity is inevitable because women often lose seniority in the workforce by taking maternity leave. Now, there are 2.1 million women with unemployed husbands who are sole family providers. The disproportionate hit men are taking with the current employment crisis will probably help narrow the gap between women and men’s earnings over the next few years. The stresses of unemployment will sadly tear some families apart but I hope too that unemployed fathers seize the opportunity to become more involved in parenting.

I am still catching up with classic novels by listening to CDs in the car. I reported here recently about my disappointment with Moby Dick and all the boring whale minutiae. I loved Mill on the Floss, and like other works by Brit chick writers of the era, it sheds light on the status of women during the late 19th century. In many ways with regard to property rights and sexual freedom, the wheels for the advancement of the fairer sex spun excruciatingly slowly from George Eliot’s era until the 1970s when the civil rights movement made parity of the sexes seem possible, at least in the U.S. Maggie Tolliver, of Mill on the Floss, bristles at the inequity of social and financial conventions but she nurtures her own intelligence and has sophisticated insight into the moral and social conventions of her time and class.

I find two earlier works by British women less satisfying. Mansfield Park is not considered Jane Austen’s finest novel and while published 46 years earlier than Mill on the Floss, the heroine Fanny Price is spineless and simpering, particularly when compared to Elliot’s philosophical Maggie Tulliver. I complete the triumvirate with Wuthering Heights which is my least favorite of the three. I guess the gothic milieu isn’t my thing and I hated all the characters and felt them overwrought. Therefore, I wasn’t much affected by the physical and psychic brutality meted out and/or endured. As in Mansfield Park, Wuthering Heights chronicles the romance and marriage of first cousins which was commonplace and encouraged, particularly among the upper classes in Britain.

U.S. physicians began conducting studies on the progeny of first cousin marriage at asylums in the 1840s and states began to ban it in the 1860s. The marriage of first cousins is currently illegal or restricted to couples unable to bear children in 24 U.S. states. The practice was more prevalent however in England and in 1875 it is estimated that 3.5% of the middle class and 4.5% of nobles were married to first cousins. By the 20th century this decreased to 1% of the entire population and the practice continues to be legal throughout Britain today. Recent genetic studies report that there is virtually no greater risk of abnormalities for children conceived by first cousins than for those born of non-consanguineous unions but to me it just seems icky. Although, if I discovered that Daniel Day Lewis is my cousin I might be less repulsed.

I do not know if it’s corollary to the general change in the status of women and the resulting expectation of self containment, but having read recently three 19th century novels by women writers it becomes glaringly apparent that there has been a sea change in attitude about heartbreak. The sufferings of unrequited love are portrayed as noble and romantic and lofty in most fiction of the era. Even in the golden age of Hollywood movies, like Casablanca and Gone with the Wind, there is a moral elevation ascribed to those who endure a broken heart. Suddenly, there’s the woman’s movement and we have Fatal Attraction and love sickness is now dangerous and self indulgent and indicative of a lack of character. We want and we should strive for relationships that we cherish so much that their cessation would result in heartbreak but we have no patience for those with broken hearts.

When I was in college we watched again and again the film The Story of Adele H, based on the true story of Victor Hugo’s daughter who driven mad by impossible love, ends her days filthy haired in a wretched asylum. We started a whit fund. “Whit,” is like the sound of a match igniting a flame. Whitting is stuff like arranging “accidental” meetings or calling and hanging up on (in the days before caller i.d.) the subject of an obviously doomed relationship. Penalties paid into the fund were based on the gravity of the infraction and if we’d had any integrity about ponying up we all would have had enough to fly to Europe.

Spuds tells me about spending the night at a friend’s and hearing the parents arguing in the middle of the night. His friend confessed that his parents seemed destined for divorce. “What would you say about our marriage?” I ask him and he reports that he considers it good. “You guys argue sometimes but it’s always about really stupid stuff.”

My own parents divorced when I was seven. In the San Fernando Valley of 1963, this was an aberration and I was a curiosity, cross examined by friends and their parents. I visited homes where the mom and dad and kids all sat down together for dinner and felt a sad longing. But, when I was about 13, around 1970, all hell broke loose in the valley and suddenly the families whose togetherness had made me so wistful began to disintegrate and mothers traipsed off to lesbian weaving communes and fathers packed up for Sedona with blonde undergrads. I find myself the divorced parents maven but I can’t imagine what good advice I could possibly have had to proffer.

We inevitably will do lots of things to screw up our kids but I know our good marriage will help counteract some of the harm we unwittingly inflict. I moan and groan about Himself’s profound weirdness. He suffers in silence my self righteousness and control freak fussiness as I have no “husband cancellers” to shield him from my wrath should he wish to enumerate his issues. It is the final night of a brutal teaching schedule which marks the beginning his eight week sabbatical. I am delighted by this prospect, practically walking on air, but when I mention this he just grouses that it’s not long enough. We’ve duked out stuff like this out for over twenty years but nevertheless have built something substantial considering that all we really had in common before we started breeding was a perverse sense of humor and preternatural curiosity.

I am in bed and Gary the cat is on my stomach. I say to him, “I wish Daddy would come home,” (An aside here, and a bit of advice based on my experience with my mother, if you refer to yourself as Mommy or Daddy to the cat do not tell your human child that the cat is her sibling.) and at that instant I hear the front door open. I will add that this was within the twenty minute frame during which he ordinarily returns and I do not ascribe any magical powers to the cat unless dropping a partially disemboweled living rat on our bed at three a.m. counts. Himself performs his nightly ablutions and having wound up a particularly trying semester is about as light as he gets. It has taken me twenty years of astute observation to be able to discern between lightness and his usual state.

We curl together in the bed as we do every night and every night in that moment between wakefulness and sleep, no matter how shitty the day has been, if I could be anyone in the universe, I would be me. He has the friggin socks on again but still, I know that if he left me I’d go all Adele H for sure.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, April 16, 2010

Oprah is in the Building

When my sister Sheri was thirteen, a lot of parakeets began to appear on Fulton Avenue. My parents questioned their provenance and were told the birds were ailing and that the clerk at Quigley’s, the neighborhood five and dime, was letting her take them home to nurse. My father noticed that a big jar in which he threw the change from his pockets every night was nearly empty and put a stop to the parakeet acquisition.

Sheri always had pets. There was an exotic jungle cat she called Sabu. She claimed to have found it but I suspect it was a high ticket purchase. It ate only raw meat and growled when it was eating and also when it wasn’t and it shredded every curtain on Fulton Avenue. When my sister came home one day it seemed that the cat had escaped. In a way, this is true. Sabu the jungle cat escaped when my mother opened the front door and applied her foot to its posterior.

There was a silky terrier named Alfred. He would barricade me in my bedroom by standing in the doorway growling ferociously and gnashing his teeth when I tried to exit. Sheri subdued him by throwing my blanket over him and scooping him up and locking him in the bathroom. I found a bloody tooth in my bed. Sheri made a gift of the dog to a lonely elderly woman. When I later questioned the propriety of this she said that she’d spoken to the woman who’d reported that she loved Alfie dearly and didn’t really much mind staying in her room.

There were two different rodent phases. The first were piebald rats and I still get the heebie jeebies when I think of Rat Fink perched on Sheri’s shoulder, its gnarly tail coiled around her neck. Then, there were the teddy bear hamsters, which while lacking repulsive tail, were no less disgusting. The only thing that protected this vermin from mysteriously escaping ala Sabu the jungle cat was my mother and my paralyzing fear of the species.

Sheri took up with Tony, an ex-con who purported to be related to Henry Mancini and they moved to a house in Chatsworth. She acquired cowboy boots, an El Camino and a quarter horse she named Dago. She inveigled some money from my dad to further Dago’s racing career. The horse was apparently so slow that when the IRS audited my dad’s tax returns the huge horse investments were disallowed as a business loss because such a pathetic endeavor could only be considered a non-deductible hobby.

After she split up with Tony she returned to Fulton Avenue which mercifully was not zoned for livestock. She began to raise schipperkes, a black tailless breed that Colette was partial too. She had a couple dogs on the show circuit and there were always puppies underfoot. Occasionally I would accompany her to shows or to visit other breeders. The maven of all things schipperke was the three hundred pound acne scarred Eileen. I don’t remember the name of the inincorporated area where she lived, just that it was far and that she was not a stellar housekeeper. There were a number of slack jawed children clad in ill fitting stained garments lolling in front of the t.v. and the reek of dog excretions, sour dairy products and fried foods. Nevertheless, as far as my sister was concerned, Eileen was an unimpeachable authority and my father knew in advance that the thousands of dollars channeled to her via my sister for the purchase of more and more dogs would not be tax deductible.

Himself reports that one of the reasons he fell in love with me is that I could name so many breeds of dogs. He was raised at a boarding kennel and his parents raised many different breeds that, with the exception, of boxers, I dislike. There are a number of breeds that I don’t care for: shelties, collies, Dobermans, Dalmatians, Yorkshire, and to a lesser extent, silky terriers, greyhounds, whippets and Chihuahuas. The truth is I haven’t had extended contact with any of these breeds and their offenses are too fleeting to really merit my prejudice. Also, much of my animosity is probably fueled more by encounters with the owners of said breeds, rather than the dogs themselves.

A particularly ugly Chihuahua with the ludicrous name of “Little Bit” is in attendance at my office for several months while its owner serves our country in the armed forces so I feel compelled to be nice to it. It gets into my grocery bags and eats more than its body weight of a Shabbat Challah. A tiny dog, I am able to slice off the chewed portion and serve it to the kids. Unlike Little Bit and my children, Himself and I prefer the raisin variety. I call Little Bit “Little Bitch” when out of the earshot of its custodian. She tries to bite the mailman and snarls fiercely at Rover. Her owner returns unexpectedly from Afghanistan (for security purposes families only know within a one week range when their enlisted relatives are returning to the U.S) and I arrive at work to discover that Little Bit has returned to her home in Las Vegas. The little beast has all of the odious attributes that are stereotypically associated with a Chihuahua but I am crestfallen to learn she is gone, having grown strangely attached to the vile thing.

I have always had a dog, and when I think of all the stupid and embarrassing things I did in my youth, I am proud that, despite being ostracized, I stood up for my little toy poodle Gladys while I attended the hippie college where she was unfairly ostracized for not being big and unkempt and sporting a bandana. Just like I have sort of overcome my Chihuahua prejudice, although I would never adopt one, Himself, under my tutelage has come to appreciate, despite the social stigma, the superiority of the poodle breed.

Since the loss of half poodle Fido, the corgi Taffy is bereft. Some friends have a snowy poodleish Maltese that they are trying to hide from their landlord. We take her and she spends most of the weekend sitting on Himself’s lap. Our friends call on Sunday and report that they can’t bear losing the sweet thing and risk of eviction be damned, they come to fetch her. Even though it’s only been a weekend, Himself reports this with such sorrow that it breaks my heart.

Although our yard is perfectly fenced and my kennel reared husband relates to dogs better than humans, we have over the years for a number of specious reasons been turned down for adoption by various dog rescue organizations. One woman refuses us a dog because we allow our cats out of doors. Our six foot high chain link fence is deemed an inadequate enclosure for a teacup poodle. The Pasadena Animal Shelter rejects us because succumbing to intense interrogation I break down and admit that Rover may possibly have a teensy tiny bit of pitbull in him.

We are dog people. But this just means that we really love dogs, my beloved more than almost all people and me more than most. But the rescuers all have this weird power trip thing going and dating back to watching my sister deal with the schipperke lady Eileen, and my sister herself, I have always wondered about the pathology that seems peculiar to certain animal enthusiasts. While Himself is introverted and will undoubtedly post in his comment here a link to an article that elucidates the condition of introversion which he forwards to all and sundry to persuade them that he isn’t just an asshole, he does have normal and good relationships with a (limited) number of people.

The thing with my sister and the breeders and most of the rescue people we have dealt with is different. I am curious as to whether there have been psychological studies of those who use animals to compensate for their inadequate relationships with human beings but the closest I can come are a couple of articles in psychiatry journals about animal hoarders. The type of folks you read about in the newspaper, who are discovered with several hundred cats, have definitely upped the ante on mere breeders and rescue people but they do seem to be pathologically kindred spirits.

Many of the collectors emphasized that their animals gave them "unquestioning and uncritical love." They tended to personalize and anthropomorphosize their pets and viewed themselves as rescuers of suffering or unloved animals (Worth and Beck, 1981).

“---in nearly 60% of cases the hoarder would not acknowledge the problem In 69% of cases, animal feces and urine accumulated in living areas, and over one-quarter of the hoarders' beds were soiled with feces or urine. Hoarders' justifications for their behavior included an intense love of animals, the feeling that animals were surrogate children, the belief that no one else would or could take care of them. (Patronek, 1999).

The Maltese, having been rescinded I set about finding a new companion for Himself and the corgi. It seems righteous that the part poodle vacancy created by the passing of Fido be filled with another part poodle and I start scouring the Internet. We decide that a young female would best fit in with two adult male dogs. I look at rescue sites like Fairy Dog Father and the cryptic H.A.L.T. (Helping Animals Live Through) Pet Overpopulation. I am not surprised that there are many Chihuahuas listed. I find a small female poodle mix available for adoption. Even after swearing never to deal with another rescue group again, I complete the five page application thinking about how much easier it would be to adopt a child, well, maybe not a Russian one.

The application passes muster. The next step is to visit the dog. This is followed by a home inspection. If the home is deemed suitable, after forking over a large check, we would be allowed to pick up the dog. I schedule a visit with the dog and realize the dog is being housed on a tiny street at the very top of Laurel Canyon. Having already broken the etched in stone edict against dealing with rescue people, the truth is, I am too friggin’ lazy to drive up Laurel Canyon.

I go to the city animal shelter website. There is only one female puppy. It is a cute little black Staffordshire (euphemism for pitbull) terrier. My beloved Bowser, one of the greats, looked similar and was adopted twenty five years ago from the same Lacy Street shelter. Just like I wimped out on taking Fido on her last ride, I also feel emotionally unable to visit the animal shelter and this is another errand I foist on Himself and the kids. The seventeen year old calls me on his cellphone and I can barely hear for all the yapping.
“Dad wants a poodle.”
“Is it a female?”
“Is it a puppy?”
I remind the seventeen year old about the integration issues and he relates this to his father. The female terrier puppy is adopted but at the end of the procedure Himself is informed that the dog, at only eight weeks, is to be transported to East Los Angeles the following day to be spayed and he would have to pick her up there.

Himself named Taffy “Taffy.” I am not crazy about the name, finding it too common. I was also annoyed when another kid named Leo turned up at the nursery school. I determine it is my turn to name the dog. We are out of the old fashioned dog names I am partial to, having used Bowser, Fido and Rover. Spot, unfortunately is not appropriate so I propose Bowser Jr. and nearly incite a riot. I suggest we contact godfather, major domo, oldest friend Richard for an impartial verdict. I know the deck is stacked because he actually named Bowser “Bowser” and up until bonding with her had been mortified of dogs. I am therefore very surprised when he too vetoes the name.

After much more heated discussion we all agree the association with fame and fortune makes Oprah a good name for the puppy. Poor Oprah, talk show host Oprah, was bashed recently in a Kitty Kelly biography. Apparently Oprah’s mom lives high on the hog but has not been given Oprah’s phone number. She is only able to contact her via one of her assistants. I bet the reason people are condemning Oprah for this is out of jealousy. Who wouldn’t want an assistant to field Mom’s calls?

As I write this, my family, with the seventeen year old behind the wheel, is taking surface streets from Altadena to East Los Angeles to retrieve our new animal companion. Himself has lamented a number of times about the pound poodle which we all hope finds a happy home. When I return to Casamurphy with the raisin and the plain challahs to light the Shabbat candles there will be a new dog to love. Dogs are easy to love and easy to be loved by. People are a much greater challenge. I love being a dog person but am thankful to be a people person too.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, April 9, 2010

And Everybody Says Amen

The seventeen year old rises from the sofa every afternoon to hike to the mailbox and retrieve his Netflix. His plan to clean out the garage and sell off the contents on Craigslist to buy a Coachella ticket has not come to fruition. Other objectives like registering for an SAT preparation course, searching for a summer job and memorizing his lead role in a play, as of this last week day of a two week vacation, are yet to be ticked off the to-do list. At his age I was motivated to get myself out of the house so I did the SAT and college application thing but if there’d been a genial home, a comfortable couch, a grilled cheese machine and frozen treats in the freezer I would probably still be sprawled on the davenport at Fulton Avenue watching movies.

Spuds comes to work with me during vacation. He keeps up on Facebook and fantasy baseball and orders himself a good lunch but most of the nine hour work day is spent on schoolwork. Once in a while I do a crossword puzzle or cruise Chowhound while on the clock but when I hear Spuds footsteps in the hall my screen is minimized. He has the same teachers as his brother but I do not ask him why he seems to have so much work to complete while his brother appears to have none. Nor am I comfortable asking the 17 year old why his brother’s workload seems so disproportionate to his own. I suspect there will be frantic flurry of homework completion on the Sunday evening preceding the Monday return to school.

One of Spud’s assignments is to write a report about an ethnic restaurant. I do not know why he chooses Ethiopian, which requires a trip to Fairfax, when there are dozens of different cuisines represented much closer to home. He pours over restaurant reviews and settles on a vegan place in the heart of Little Ethiopia. He is superior to me in work ethic but he proves that he is the flesh of my loins by noticing that the place serves an all you can eat lunch.

My only other foray into Ethiopian food was about thirty years ago and I distinctly remember the taste of dirt. Fortunately, the vegan place is quite good and the authenticity is enhanced by the staff’s distinctive lean, delicate facial features. Spuds, per his research, recognizes and tells me the name and ingredients of everything we eat. We are the only diners except for two artsy looking women in their seventies, kind of Joan Didion and Ruby Dee. A handsome black traffic cop arrives and makes herself so at home that we immediately recognize her as a regular. Spuds is at the buffet and she asks him why he’s not in school. He explains that he’s still on vacation and she asks from where. He tells her he goes to school in Altadena and she asks him how he likes going to school with all those black kids. I would have been discombobulated by such a question but Spuds, ever politic and poised, responds that he enjoys the diversity.

She comes over to our table and asks me if I am Spud’s mother and when I respond affirmatively she says, “You must have started late.” “I’m not that old,” I squeal. “I guess it’s the gray hair,” she muses. I tell her that I’m fifty three and she says, “Oh, my mom is fifty three.” She continues to chat. She draws us and also the two older diners into a conversation that extends for about an hour after we finish eating. The ladies are long time vegetarians and we reminisce about LA vegetarian restaurants of yore like the Source and the SRF place on Sunset wistfully.

The cop is of Nigerian descent but I refrain from bitching to her about scam e-mails addressed to “Beloved” or Himself’s nincompoop supervisor whose degree is from some specious online diploma mill. She says she’s a credentialed teacher and still paying on her student loans. She hates being a cop but says there are no teaching jobs. She is on her second marriage and pregnant. She describes her husband as “one of those black men who is so gentle and refined, you’d think he’d be married to a white woman.” She knows I know exactly what she means and I laugh. Perhaps this reflects badly on both of us but even though she rubs in what was stamped on my medical records: “ADVANCED MATERNAL AGE,” Spuds and I are both captivated by her.

I swore off Queer Eye for the Straight Guy ostensibly because it reinforced stereotypes about gay men but there was also the excess of product placement. I am conflicted about my fascination with RuPaul’s Drag Race which also hawks a lot of crap plus contains oodles of ratcheted up reality show style cat fighting. I went to a couple of drag shows in the 1980s. At a particularly memorable one on San Francisco’s Mission St., after the de rigeur fruit braed Carmen Miranda imitator, the emcee announced that there was an unusual act that night, Bobby, a new boy in town. A young man in street clothes took the stage and to some disco ditty, performed a clumsy striptease until the unimaginable was not left to the imagination. A pre-nose-job Barbra Streisand came out and attempted, and failed, to resuscitate the audience. Drag queens lip synced in funny parodies of iconic performers but there was a grotesque and tawdry quality (even if rough trade Bobby hadn’t bared all) and some feminists claim, perhaps correctly, a palpable misogyny.

In the most recent episode of Drag Race some older gay men are trotted out and the twenty something participants are assigned to transform them into “drag mamas.” One of the old guys is a teacher I taught with many years ago. He was the first person I ever saw use a cell phone, which was the size of a shoebox. The drag mamas are incredulous that the contestants don’t know who Oscar Wilde is. Nevertheless, the drag daughters are self assured and regale the drag mamas with tales about coming out while still in high school. The guy I knew from teaching shows off his pierced navel replete with a dozen shimmery objects threaded through it. Another one of the old gents sports a red white and blue bikini. One has an excruciatingly mincing affect. The younguns are taught a lesson about the gay liberation movement and proffer thanks to their drag mamas for their courage to have stood at the forefront, but in some ways they are also deeply embarrassed by the product of a very different time.

I am captivated by the extraordinary quality of some of the performances. These creations are sui generis, more than diva imitations, and refreshing as so many diva personas are just imitations of old school drag queens. One of the contestants addresses the evolution of drag, and how now drag is drag, not female impersonation, “What women do you know actually wear 6” heels?”

The teacher’s drag name, in a nod to his Jewish background, is Golda Lamé and he’s paired with Raven, a front runner but also the Alexislike bitch of the season. The contestants use “she” and “her” with each other and because their drag personas are so fully realized I suppose this helps them keep in character. It is icky to hear this though when they are not made up but I guess it would be confusing to switch back to “he” and “him.” When one of the women judges compares herself to Raven, he bristles and observes, “Look, you’re a woman. I’m a man in a dress.”

Golda and Raven win the competition, which is judged by Debbie Reynolds and Cloris Leachman. My favorite, Pandora Boxx, a brilliant comedian is selected, quite unfairly, to “sashay away” and I am shocked and deeply disappointed. I run down the stairs to inform my sons that Pandora is eliminated only to meet callous indifference. Himself however is very partial to Drag Race and applies the same critical eye to legs and posteriors as he does to the Western Canon. He is very upset when two Los Angeles teachers are disciplined for including RuPaul and O.J. on a poster celebrating Black History month. He gets it about OJ but takes great umbrage on behalf of RuPaul.

I really don’t remember, but I doubt if I ever spent most of a vacation completing school work. I watched a lot of movies and I think probably more than I should about how my life might have been better if I’d been more ambitious. We worry about the seventeen year old but when I glance at his Netflix queue, I see it is filled with difficult and challenging films like the Decalogue and L’avventura and it shuts me up when I’m tempted to inflict the “Why don’t you study more like your brother?” inquisition. When I do get on his case he just throws RuPaul in my face anyway. I will probably break down and enroll him in a SAT preparation course by myself because ultimately, no matter how nice it is at home, he’ll want to watch movies somewhere else eventually. I hope.

I like the black cop I meet in the Ethiopian restaurant and although a sociologist might label her self hating, she seemed to like herself just fine. I like watching RuPaul but I bet some folks probably find it disgusting and think that drag is as offensive as blackface but I see a liberated joyfulness in this new incarnation of the art form. Maybe I should make the seventeen year old cold turkey his Netflix and make something of his life but Days of Heaven is on his queue and I’m dying to watch it with him. Maybe I really did watch too many movies and should have been more focused but when I watch a film I love with my boy, I see in his face the same spark I felt a lifetime ago. Who needs ambition when there’s cable television and NetFlix? At the end of each show RuPaul says "If you don't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?"
Shabbat Shalom

Friday, April 2, 2010

On Bad Authority

Letters from prison overflow their folders and a high stack of runoff nearly obscures my computer screen. These handwritten pages from my inmate penpals are filled with warmth for me and my family. There are handmade cards and clippings and cartoons. And because I ask, there are details about prison life. I am also asked to perform small tasks like ordering books or Internet research. I print crosswords and Sudoku every week for one inmate. I print patterns for paper models for another penpal. The plans are extremely intricate, often 15 pages for a plane or car. He traces each small piece onto cardstock before he is able to cut and assemble the model. He notes in his letter that he has time to spare. I am able to send the inmates stamps, paper and envelopes so I send the model builder a stack of cardstock, which to my mind is only thick paper. I receive a note that this, sent in via private individuals, is prohibited and the shipment has been destroyed. Inmates at certain prisons and in lower levels of security are issued hobby cards and thus permitted to purchase certain art supplies via mail from a few approved vendors. Unfortunately, prison wages are about twelve cents an hour and connections with family and friends outside who might provide monetary assistance often whither over the course of a long sentence.

Most of the Jewish chaplains serving California prisons are Orthodox Chabad rabbis. My penpals report that most of the Jewish chaplain’s time is spent interrogating prisoners who apply for the kosher meal plan to determine if they are truly Jewish. Actually, because there are no kosher kitchens at any of the state prisons, all of the kosher food is shelf stable and my penpals report, pretty vile. Nevertheless, the myth persists that kosher food is cleaner, and more healthful and better and apparently there is a considerable number of inmates who claim adherence to Judaism in order to qualify for the program.

Prison chaplains earn about $60,000.00 per year. My penpals report rabbis are seldom seen in the units more frequently than once a week. Our friend Alan at Tehachapi opts out of the kosher meal plan because the quality of food is so poor. He is pressured by the Orthodox chaplain to reinstate kosher meals and he capitulates. There are no holiday celebrations or Seders conducted at the prison because Orthodox rabbis will not travel on these days.

I suggest that perhaps a Reform or Conservative congregation might be willing, as a mitzvah project, to conduct holiday services and celebrations for inmates but the rabbi vetoes this vehemently stating he will not condone or authorize with the prison the defiance of the travel prohibitions on holy days by any Jew. Alan reports that at least his conversion back to the kosher plan entitles him to receive some matzo and grape juice for the celebration of Passover. Sadly, the real obligation attendant to the observance, the telling of Exodus tale, which might offer more succor and sustenance than matzo and grape juice, seems destined to never be fulfilled there behind the walls.

Spuds is visiting the office. He is offered a donut by the six year old son of a colleague. I’ve told both of my kids that they can make their own choice regarding the observance of Passover although my own crude version is to be respected at the house. Spuds looks at me to gauge if my office is considered a loophole or merely an extension of home. I cannot bear to see him eat a donut. I give him a stricken look and he tells the kid, “My mother doesn’t want me to,” lest the little guy take his spurning of the donut personally.

I pack in my briefcase a matzo with peanut butter and jelly and a bag of macaroons. I am accompanying Spuds to a large Hollywood soundstage so he can compete on a children’s game show. We sign off on a sheath of waivers and releases which, to an extent nearly laughable, hearken point by point back to the quiz show brouhahas of the 1950s. Many measures are taken to insure that there is no hanky panky including escorting contestants and their parents to the bathroom. There is a big table laden with snacks. Spuds refuses my proffered matzo. I tell him he can have some chips. He does and soda with sugar that he knows I don’t like him to drink plus a lot of candy which I can’t say much about, being afflicted myself with a lust for licorice, wine gums and Dots. There would have been a time when I would have been wounded if he hadn’t played the valiant Jewish boy, proudly choking down his matzo. Now I get it that he would feel like a freak (not to mention the inevitable mess of matzo) in front of all of his competitors. Spuds already has to deal with his weird name and this is not a Jewish crowd.

Spud’s rivals include two kids who have flown in from Texas and one travelling from New Jersey specifically to appear on the show. The mothers of the acting kids, although this is most decidedly not an acting gig, compare notes about agents, auditions, home schooling and frequent flyer miles in the green room. When our episode tapes I am jammed behind a small partition crammed with metal chairs among other parents to watch the competition on a small monitor.

I am seated next to a fat woman. The greatest sorrows of my life, my Egypt, to use the parlance of the season, tie into being fat. A fat writer in New York finds it remarkable the lengths people will go to in order to avoid sitting next to her on the subway. She designs a book jacket and uses it to cover whatever she is actually reading while travelling. The title of her fake book is “Fat is Contagious. Sitting Next to a Fat Person will Make you Fat.” I admire her guerilla consciousness raising but still I resent the fat mom’s hot hips pressing against me in the stifling space.

The kids from Texas and New Jersey are eliminated early in the first round and gifted a large bag filled with something green and gelatinous. Spuds is enthusiastic, without humiliating himself, and he tells a funny joke. It is a memory game and for me pretty impossible to keep up with. Spuds rebounds, after a buzzer gaffe, to reach the finals. He comes in second. The first place winner is the daughter of the fat woman.

Spuds rides down a huge slide filled with goop. He showers and changes into the clean garments we are instructed to bring. We sign for his prize, a Dance Dance Revolution type gizmo which we are informed is of insufficient value to be taxable. We are escorted off the lot. We both agree that it’s been pretty fun. “Yeah.” says Spuds, but those kids came all the way from Texas and New Jersey. We wouldn’t have come from Santa Monica.”

We have loosened up more and more on Passover dietary taboos every year and this year it occurs to me that maybe the food stuff is a distraction. Maybe I am ineffectual in the annual self examination towards escaping my own metaphorical enslavement while gorging on matzo with butter and macaroons. This year my Passover diet is comprised of protein drinks and fruit.

A girlfriend loses and maintains a great deal of weight. She attends Overeaters Anonymous. She eats three meals a day and no snacks ever. She does not eat anything containing sugar or flour ever. I know that such a program would be a remedy for something that has and continues to cause me great pain and anxiety. I would only have to surrender and not fall off the wagon.

Maybe this is the core of what’s wrong with me. The tenets of Judaism are all laid out and for many there is a huge fulfillment in the strict adherence to all of them. Part of me yearns for this surrender but it requires more of a separation from the Jewish neutral world than I am willing to make. There is a comfort in my little Passover protein diet, because I don’t have to make any choices but I cannot imagine any permanent abstention from many foods that I love. In matters of faith and diet I cobble my own path, albeit a shaky one. I have thick stacks of letters from a world bereft of choice. Maybe my choices are lousy but they are at least mine to make and anything else smacks of Egypt.
Shabbat shalom, good Good Friday and Easter Tidings.
Note regarding the illustration: Several weeks ago I used a 70's photograph of a teenage girl soaping the front end of a Dodge, sure that the turned up nose would make it quite clear that it wasn't me. Himself was able to ascertain that the photo was another girl due to lack of bushy hair and Bob's proof is that it has never been in my nature to wash a car. To avoid however any possible confusion, I will state that this week's illustration is indeed of someone other than myself.