Friday, July 30, 2010

Walking Mom

Michael Kinsley writes for the Atlantic Wire that a story about the death of Silver Lake’s Walking Man in the New York Times is one of the most boring ever published. He notes that Walking Man Marc Abrams garners so much attention by his presence in our streets because he is an affluent physician firstly and an eccentric secondly. Kinsley speculates that the death of an equally present person who rails at the universe and pushes a shopping cart will not be noted. Perhaps the story is only of interest to locals but the seemingly harmless nut, who was sighted so frequently as to become local lore, leaves a complicated and mysterious story.

Reports have surfaced that the Walking Man is being investigated for unlawfully prescribing schedule 3 drugs. He is vilified and suddenly our sorrow at his passing feels icky. Is he a greedy narcissist who works only nights and gouges addicts so that earning a living doesn’t impinge on his compulsion to exercise? I work with drug addicts in the 70s and a number of years later, after a series of surgeries, I find myself quite hooked on opiate pain killers. I pay big bucks for phone consultations with specious doctors all over the country. It is three years next month since I took the last 1/4 of a Norco pill after detoxing myself over a period of several months. I will never be able to refer to this period without reference to Himself’s steadfastness and bravery. I still receive calls from pseudo pharmacies on a regular basis trying to sell me expensive opiates shipped via Fed Ex. Drug addicts are treated first and foremost as criminals but after years of counseling addicts in withdrawal and ironically years later experiencing opiate withdrawal myself, I know how cruel this is.

Perhaps the Walking Man is a sympathetic practitioner who knows the degradation that addicts endure. Maybe I don’t have an inkling or it is somewhere in between and the Walking Man does have compassion for patients but he also enjoys the spoils of profiteering from our country's ass backwards attitudes about drug addiction. We are all saints and sinners. Perhaps the Walking Man’s compulsion to exercise was some sort of mortification. Maybe in the moment in the hot tub, before the self administered overdose kicked in, came his final cleansing.

My mother is still of the earth but cleansed and at peace. The attendant at the board and care asks that I have her skirts all shortened so she can attend to her personal needs more efficiently. She also asks that I buy an eyebrow pencil and some new earrings. Even though my mother is so ravished by dementia that she cannot form a cogent sentence and most of the time when I visit she does not know my name, the caretakers have a strong sense of her former person.

I notice that the bibs four lady residents wear for mealtime are faded and well worn. I search for adult bibs on EBay and find some that are bright and cheerful and I order four although my former mother would be irate that I am including the other three ladies. The current vestige of my mother won’t know the difference. I will bring the new bibs and a chocolate bar for her and she will be childish in her pleasure. I visit every Saturday. I cannot go alone and sucker the kids or my friend Richard to accompany me. I hate that there is so little I can do beyond bibs and chocolate and that the moment I leave the board and care brings a sense of extraordinary relief.

The seventeen year old has a less than salubrious relationship with the Department of Motor Vehicles, as did I decades ago myself when attempting to qualify for a license to drive an automobile. We make many trips to the DMV due to his similarity to his mother in not testing well but also a number of purely abortive missions. Not once, but twice, the seventeen year old is all geared up to take the test and the current registration is left on my desk. Of course, being the DMV they have no way to verify that the registration is renewed. Another time we are refused the test because, while the website indicates a two week wait is necessary between tests, it is actually two weeks and a day. Everyone to whom I’ve recounted my screw ups has made reference to Sigmund Freud and sabotage.

He is driving very well and can park and drive on a very busy freeway and I am pretty much not frightened. Budget cuts make it even more difficult to schedule an appointment for a driving exam. When we are sure the 17 year is ready, the Van Nuys branch lists an available appointment two weeks earlier than any other branch in the county. I failed the test there on Vanowen street, the Valley at its bleakest, three times before the examiner finally took pity on my tears and issued me a license.

We head off early on the big day. The seventeen year old has been expressing anxiety about the test for weeks although he is at ease behind the wheel. On the way to Van Nuys his driving is erratic though. He merges beautifully onto a crowded freeway but then starts to make a left turn into oncoming traffic. Apparently the reason the Van Nuys DMV has a testing appointment available so much sooner than their counterparts is that they overbook. The wait of over two hours ratchets up our anxiety.

The test goes badly although the examiner is incredibly nice about it. I am devastated. I am looking forward to not driving him and having him run a few errands for me to compensate for my nearly 18 year chauffer stint but it is awful to see him fail. He is wounded and frustrated but he does not blame the examiner or the route through an unfamiliar area. I am proud at his maturity and we drown our sorrows at Corky’s, a valley coffee shop I remember from childhood that recently reopened.

There’s a Roseanne bit about fat moms being better than thin moms because when you’re devastated the thin mom suggests you run a few laps to work off the tension and a fat mom shares a two pound bag of M&Ms with you. The chocolate cake at Corky’s is excellent and we talk about how when something you’ve been afraid of really happens it always turns out that the anticipation is worse than the actual experience. Returning from the DMV, we see a terrible accident which I think is only by coincidence in front of the Braille institute. As anguished as I am by the young man’s anguish, I am relieved to not have that to worry about that for a bit longer.

My own mother was less of a micromanager of me than I am of my kids. This was typical of the era, but she did go to bat for me a number of times. I was sick at middle school, and while waiting for Mom to fetch me, the tight assed spinster girls vice Principal Miss Heinmiller noticed I was wearing jeans with patches, all the rage in 1969. She went ballistic and said I should be ashamed of myself for coming to school dressed like a hobo. "If your pants rip, there is nothing to sewing a neat seam!" My mom arrived, dressed quite casually herself, and let into the v.p. for hounding me when I was sick and for her blindness to current teenage fashions.

I also remember taking the bus by myself at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to Barnsdall Park in Hollywood when I was about twelve to wait in line to register for free art classes. I have no memory of discussing college or any other educational or professional aspirations with either of my parents. I called the admissions department of a college that my high school counselor told me offered early admission in lieu of 12th grade. I drove myself to the campus and spent the night in a dorm. I applied by myself and was accepted. My mother filled out a financial aid application and I packed up my car and took off. I have no memory of either of my parents visiting my college campus in Redlands, about an hour from L.A. until my graduation.

Towards fulfilling the requirements of graduation I held a screening of some videos I made, shot with a video camera the size and heft of a steamer chest filled with bricks. One was a series of interviews with women in their thirties. I wanted to know how it was to have missed out on the Age of Aquarius. I knew them to be tragically bereft of the heightened consciousness I’d attained. I’d glommed unquestionably to a lot of hippie mumbo jumbo at age twelve, and clung to it for about five years too many, as typified by being in London in 1976 and seeing an incredibly unctuous folk band with Breck girl hair called Tir Na Nog instead of the Sex Pistols.

The first woman I interviewed was the founder of a large successful teen rehab program. She grew inpatient with the vacuity of my questions. The next was with my sister Sheri and I don’t know if I would play this tape if it should surface. I chew around Sheri’s life for the decade since her death. It is only very recently that I’ve begun to process the extent of her brittleness. I might have really been terrible to her on camera. I don’t recall what I asked only that we sat on my mother’s big fancy couch under a bright light. All I remember of the video itself is that her face looks very sad. I spend a lot of time speculating about my mother and my sister and the demons. I obfuscated my real self from them and then blamed them for not loving me right, just like they taught me.

The senior project presentation is a big event and I designed invitations which included a suggestive photo of me with an ex-boy friend, the posing for which I hoped would lure him back to my ample bosom. I sent these invitations to friends and family. My parents did not attend the event. Unfortunately I do not remember if there was nipple showing which would have been really bad if I’d sent it to various and sundry aunts and uncles. If this indeed was the case, then I certainly forgive their boycott of my show.

Himself and I talk a lot about how much our kids have it better then we did and we wax smug about how much better we are as parents. We took charge of our own educations early on and got a pretty indifferent response when we excelled, as in his case, or did ok, as in mine. Neither of us can remember our parents much interacting with our teachers, at least on our own behalf, as one of my teachers did become my mom’s drinking buddy. I think we are less hands-on than many of our friends are but we are much more engaged in advocating for our children than our own parents were. We, however, were born at a time when the neighborhood school was a fine and only option. In my 1960s a kid’s life could pretty much be accomplished within walking distance. I worry about the inevitable consequences of our generation’s adaptation to parenting.

I am committed to an all female novelist binge in an effort to find books worthy of shaming my misogynist, not one woman author on his ten top books list, beloved. I am winding down first from an orgy with the last star, ala Liz Taylor, novelist still alive and even writing, Phillip Roth. I am uncomfortably uncomfortable with much of Roth’s 1977 Professor of Desire except there is one scene that is now one of my favorite in literature.

Roth’s David Kepish, is an accomplished PhD in English and the son of a borsht belt hotelier. The typically thrifty old man, with much ceremony, presents his professor son with a gift. It is a set of silver medallions, produced by a company that’s similar to the Franklin Mint, each representing one of Shakespeare’s plays. The case has sections for Histories, Tragedies and Comedies. The elder Kepish is certain that his son will want to show it to his students but he is adamant that it only be handled by admirers wearing gloves.

Himself received a television from his parents when he graduated from college. My mother took tours of Europe with miles she accrued by strategic credit card use. Of import when travelling to most of the great cities of the world was first class air tickets and shopping ardent enough to locate atrocious souvenirs in even the most sophisticated of cities. On a trip to Germany she came back with a music box adorned with blond plastic Hummel-like dolls. I forget what song it played but it doesn’t matter because all I heard was Deutschland Deutschland Uberalis. On a trip to Israel she came back with a keffiyeh, just like Yasser Arafat wears and told me it was a tablecloth. Sadly, I was unrestrained in expressing my revulsion at these love offerings.

I like to think I am better in touch but sometimes my own loving gestures are met with disgust. It seems our children are strangers to us like we were to our own parents. Is it the curse of the generations that parents be perennially out of the loop and incapable of appropriate demonstrations of affection? Perhaps I'm destined to be as out of touch as Roth’s old man Kepish and his Shakespeare medallions. I hope my kids are gentler with me than I was with my mother.
Shabbat Shalom

Friday, July 23, 2010

People Who Needle People (are the luckiest people in the world)

There is enormous buzz this week with the news that our own local eccentric, Marc Abrams, the Silver Lake Walking Man, a very tanned physician, who shirtless and squinting at a newspaper, logged about 300 miles a week, was found dead in his hot tub. I seldom went a day without spotting him and according to the outpouring on Facebook, neither did any of the other locals. I was surprised to learn via the Times that the Walking Man was married. I’d known that he was a physician but apparently he sold his practice last year so he could devote more time to reading and fitness. His routine, it is reported, also included miles swam in a lap pool and thousands of sit ups. The initial report indicates his death may have been by suicide, which if true would not surprise me as behavior this compulsive, even in an ostensibly healthful pursuit, suggests some sort of emotional instability. Mentally ill or just a happy eccentric, the Walking Man is an icon of neighborhood culture, commemorated in film, photos and on a local mural. This weekend there will be a memorial walk in his honor which I imagine will draw epic crowds and whether the Walking Man was plagued by demons that led him to take his own life or he was just a happy weirdo whose death was due to something else, I love living in a place that so warmly embraces eccentricity.

I drag Himself kicking and screaming to the Hollywood Bowl with our musician friend Nancy to hear a Mozart program. The tickets are a gift but from my position in the backseat I can see the steam coming out of my beloved’s ears when the Park and Ride shuttle isn’t in operation and we have to pay $16.00 to park at the Bowl lot. The conductor is British flutist Nicholas McGegan and the pianist Labeque sisters are featured artists. The gals wear the same sexy, waist cinching costume except one is bright red and the other purple. They are tall and slender and exotically striking. I ask Nancy, “What kind of career would they have if they resembled Eleanor Roosevelt?” Himself in his ordinary state of not listening to me later asks Nancy, “Where would they be if they weighed three hundred pounds and wore muumuus?”

Conductor McGegan is not willowy or exotic but short and squat. But, I have never seen anyone, in what I presume is a non-chemically altered state of consciousness, display so much pure joy in the throes of music. McGegan grins wildly and practically dances and his exuberance brings to mind the film history teacher I studied with in London in the 1970s.

I don’t know what I was thinking but I applied and was accepted to a film school that specialized in Russian and Eastern European cinema and flew off to England for a year. I was just a bit older than my seventeen year old who just this week demonstrated by rinsing food laden plates in the wrong side of the sink that after living with one for nearly 18 years, he has no conception of what a garbage disposal is or how it functions. Perhaps I was just about as clueless. I stepped off the Tube with my book bag and left my purse and found myself late at night and without money, house key or passport. Not knowing what to do, I presented myself at the local police station and two bobbies drove me home and scaled a trellis to the third floor and pried a window open. They invited themselves in and demanded that I make them tea but when I made it the only way I knew how they threw it out and demonstrated how it should be done properly.

I soon discovered that the film school existed mainly to sponsor Eastern European student visas in exchange for a hefty tuition. There was a single faculty member to keep up appearances but I was the only student to report for the first day of class. The lone instructor was Max Benedict, a film editor. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of film and was delighted to have a living student, particularly an enthusiastic one. He’d edited a number of films of gravitas like The Magus, Whistle Down the Wind and Lucky Jim but after Shaft In Africa, work was spotty. He was happy for the bit of income the fake school brought in but he had a lot of time on his hands. He immediately saw through my pretentious aspirations and made it his mission to educate me about American film history. We attended together two or three films at the British Film Institute every day for months.

Watching the childish delight McGegan takes in conducting reminds me of my old teacher. When Max was tickled by something his face would beam and he would tap his fists together rapidly like a kid saying “goody goody.” He’d be thrilled by a film or a song or a good wine and I have never been so delighted by another person’s delight. Excited at being able to buy liquor at the age of 18 in London I brought him a bottle of Mateus rose which seemed pretty hoity toity to me and I was a little disappointed by his measured enthusiasm for my sophisticated offering.

After over fifty years of human interactions, some fleeting and some intense and substantial, it is interesting that my most vivid memories come from opposite ends of the spectrum. There are quirky and generous people who were in my life for a moment like the British cops or decades, like Max with whom I remained close until his death, who are indelible. There is also though a category of people who selfishly and ardently reject certain social conventions that are also particularly memorable.

Over twenty years ago we stayed in the tiny Galway hamlet of Oughterard. It stayed light until 11 p.m. and we attended mass at the local church which was delivered at the pace of those old speed talking Fed Ex commercials. The priest was irate that some local youth had broken into a summer house and consumed beer. We stayed at a small inn called Sweeny’s. The owners had a sweet little terrier mutt named Leo who patrolled the lobby and dining room. An older couple took their meals at a table next to ours. The husband was German and I believe the wife was American because I remember eavesdropping on conversations that mainly consisted of him complaining about the weather, the hotel, the food, and the price of gasoline. Leo made himself at home in the breakfast area but the German man accosted the server and told her it was unacceptable for a dog to be present in a room where food was being served. To this day we remember him yelling at the hapless Eastern European waitress who barely spoke English about evicting the dog. “He schmells! He schtinks!”

I remember Himself got sick in the Netherlands. We drove from Holland to Alsace without knowing a single word of French that does not appear on a restaurant menu. I would just open my wallet at the toll booths and let them take what they wanted. We were stopped by the French police on the highway although we were never sure if it was because we were going too fast or too slow or driving in the wrong lane. The gendarme were so exasperated by our inability to communicate they just glowered and waved us off. We schlepped heavy bags up several flights of twisty stairs to a garret room overlooking the Amsterdam canals. We gawked at the cathedral and ate sausage and kraut on the sidewalk in Strasberg. At the medieval Unterliden Museum Himself told me the story of St. Sebastian.

These are all the memories I can mine from what at the time was one of the most substantial experiences of my life. The angry German and the little dog are the most vivid. We have always told people we named the 17 year old after Himself’s Uncle Leo not wanting to admit even to ourselves that our first child’s name was most likely inspired by a dog.

Spuds invites friends from school to his Bar Mitzvah. One of the mothers of a kid, whose name I actually forget but I’ll call “Seymour,” phones with a litany of questions about what is to be expected at the event. She reminds me repeatedly, “We’re Jewish” but based on her questions she is quite out of the loop about Bar Mitzvah protocol. She asks if parents are welcome to the ceremony and for the party at our home afterwards and without explicitly saying, “Absofuckinglutely not,” I try to tactfully convey to her that the temple is very small and that the party later is mainly for the kids. Seymour’s parents attend the ceremony nevertheless and are first in line at the luncheon buffet, consuming several portions of the menu’s most expensive item, smoked salmon, before most of the invited guests have an opportunity to sample it.

I prepare the whole Kiddush at the temple by myself and except for the tacos, make all of the appetizers, side dishes and deserts for the party at the house too. I come home from temple tired and happy to loll about braless in a schmatta relaxing with Chris and Bob, who are down from Santa Cruz, for the couple hours between events. About two hours before party time, we hear a car pull up and the door slams. Spuds goes outside to inspect and comes in and announces deadpan, “It’s Seymour’s parents” which is a pretty good joke except later when the other parents begin to drop their kids off for the party, Seymour and both of his parents arrive. Apparently they’ve burned off the three plates of lox they’d scarfed at the temple because they make several visits to the taco truck before they ask if it is ok for Seymour to spend the night and then beat it, after helping themselves to a dessert doggie bag, when I capitulate.

Spuds invites a couple of other boys to sleep over and all of the other parents pick their kids up the next morning around eleven, after I make them a French toast breakfast and then collapse on the couch. Seymour is still there. I take Spuds aside and ask him what the deal is and he shrugs but considerately keeps Seymour out of my line of sight. The mom waltzes in to fetch her boy around two just as Spuds is finishing serving him lunch. She is eager to engage in chit chat but I am uncharacteristically unresponsive.

I usually lack the nerve to blow people off, not wanting to be unliked even by the unlikeable. Himself, despite other social issues that I have bemoaned here ad naseum, is more courageous with regard to imparting unfriendliness. Once an annoying mother comes to fetch her child from a playdate and makes herself comfortable in our living room. Across the room Himself and I are discussing our evening plans and she overhears and pipes up, “Oh, we love Chinese too. We don’t have any plans. We can go with you,” to which Himself responds emphatically and simply, “No.” The coda for the great Bar Mitzvah story, a permanent entry in Murphy family lore, is that Seymour and his parents are the only guests present who fail to acknowledge Spud’s occasion with a small gift or even a card.

We meet my stepmother for dinner at the same Westside Chinese restaurant we always go to. The place is mostly patronized by Jews so we do not expect library quiet but there is a Russian family at the next table, who, even though separated by a partition, make six dozen hungry Jews seem absolutely monastic. The kids chant and compete to be the loudest. The patriarch, in sweat suit, unzipped to midbreast to reveal a hairy chest and gold chains, makes sure that his voice of authority is heard over the children. The women, plump thighed in miniskirts with six inch spike heeled gladiator sandals cackle and drink. I have been embarrassed by the loudness of my own people in venues more genteel than a Chinese restaurant and regardless of cultural background it is always surprising that certain folks never adapt to going with the flow.

I am at a celebratory luncheon and am seated at a table with three great girls I have known for well over a decade. A couple in their 50s that I have never met is seated with us. The wife is wearing a very tight purple sweater and her udderlike breasts are not constrained by a brassiere. The husband, except for the name tag, is dressed to bag groceries at Trader Joes. Everyone else at the event is clad appropriately in business attire. The couple orders Caesar salads, which contain anchovies. Anchovies are the raison d’ĂȘtre of the Caesar salad. The salad arrives garnished with a fresh anchovy. The man curtly orders the server to take the salads back and not simply remove the offensive tiny fish but prepare new salads entirely, which will be of course dressed with an emulsion containing anchovies.

At the risk of self aggrandizement, I think my girlfriends and I are better than average conversationalists. We are witty. We avoid tales of tragedy and medical procedures. We banter about food, and travel and what we’re watching on television. We attempt to include the couple but she won’t engage at all and he informs us condescendingly that he has no patience for television. His wife remarks to him, not even in a stage whisper, “You must find this very boring. I know I do.” “Yes,” he agrees, “but we spent $20 on parking. I want to get my money’s worth. Maybe we should go to the museum.”

I remember acts of kindness random and ordered but it is also a comfort that the world also seems as to make room for the eccentric and the obnoxious. I think I will always remember the German’s umbrage at the dog Leo, the Bar Mitzvah schnorrers, the couple who thought three of my smartest friends and I are boring and the militantly unacculturated Russians. I collect memories of odd and outrageous behavior. Of course this makes me feel superior and courtly but there is a certain comfort in knowing that my species would most likely make accommodations if I do decide to break the rules.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Rings on the Water

The newish charter school my kids attend doesn’t have it together enough to offer a foreign language until this year, Because most colleges have a three year requirement, the17 year old will be short a year of language credit. I attempt to enroll him in summer school at a community college but most courses are cancelled due to the budget shortfall. For many families, including ours, the option of community college as an inexpensive alternative to the first two years of college, becomes less attractive due to budget cuts and overcrowding. The likelihood of completing an A.A. degree at an inexpensive community college in a reasonable amount of time has diminished.

The only alternative for coursework equivalent to high school Spanish available is online coursework. I research a couple of different high school credit recovery programs. They are all very pricy, averaging about $350.00 for a single semester of credit. The Brigham Young University program is much less expensive and even lists courses in bowling, personal responsibility, Mormon scripture and genealogy that can be taken online and free of charge. I am curious about online bowling. Even though it is the least expensive alternative, so much Mormon money is poured into supporting Proposition 8 and other causes I find repugnant, I would really prefer not to send the LDS any of mine. The school college counselor recommends BYU though and also tells me that our high school itself will be using the online BYU program for many subjects next year. With this recommendation, he enrolls in the BYU online program.

A CD with 45 minutes of audio material and log on instructions for Spanish II A arrives in the mail. After a few hours online his complaints don’t surprise me but his delivery of them becomes so shrill that I sit beside him at the computer. The course is comprised of seven long lessons. Each is followed by a test. There are no graphics at all, only word processed text appears on the page. The accompanying audio is poorly recorded and difficult to understand. We complete exercises based on the recorded dialogue and we aren’t sure if questions refer to Graciela or Louisa because all of the female characters are read by one actress and the males, by a single actor. Although Utah is 10% Hispanic, I doubt if many of these inhabitants hail from Spain. The course however presents a lot of Spanish vocabulary and grammar forms that are not common to the Spanish spoken in most Latin American countries. I realize our school’s rationale for subscribing to the BYU program is economic and that there is probably not an affordable alternative but it makes me sad to think that other coursework will be as clumsily and ineffectually presented as the Spanish class.

I don’t know if it’s chicken or egg or if not mastering second and third languages foments xenophobia or if it’s the other way around. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t require intensive second language instruction until the secondary level. I suppose my late starter seventeen year old will pull through and get credit for a second year of foreign language but this online travesty will not bring him any closer to experiencing the satisfaction of actually communicating in a language other than English.

Exorbitant college tuition is not breaking news but verbiage addressing steep hikes seems narrowly focused on the correlation of tuition to graduate’s earning capacity. This is addressed in a recent New Yorker piece, College By Degrees. Author Rebecca Mead quotes a paper by Professor Vedder (Ph.D., University of Illinois) noting that fifteen percent of mail carriers have bachelor’s degrees and adds that “some of them could have bought a house for what they spent on their education.” My own education, dollar for dollar, was probably a lousy investment but there is no material possession I’d trade it for. It is confoundingly shortsighted to assess the value of higher education with regard only to vocational placement.

A college degree is not a requirement for most of the jobs listed on a list of the “Top Ten Fastest Growing Occupations,” most of which are low level and hands on and in the areas of healthcare, food service and retail sales; pretty much stuff that can’t be outsourced. This seems etched in stone but is it right to assume and accept that the inevitably large percentage of the populace who will earn a living in the performance of physical labor should be cut off from the cultivation of mind and imagination? I agree that the traditional college experience is not for everyone but the notion that learning must end with high school serves no one and a populace committed to and engaged in lifelong learning will inevitably score higher on the happiness scale. A kerfuffle in the occupational outlook is a given but it is sad that the innovation and creativity, nurtured by our educational institutions which made the U.S. a formidable force in the world, will have to be outsourced too as we allow our schools to flounder.

Argentina, and it seems like a big thing for a predominately Catholic country, legalizes same sex marriage the same week and in the same hemisphere, there is news of efforts in Uganda to pass wide sweeping anti-homosexuality laws that would impose the death penalty for the crimes of engaging in sex with a minor or if one is HIV positive. It will be a crime not to report a citizen suspected of homosexual activity to the authorities. Self-called AIDS activist Pastor Martin Ssempa wields a lot of the muscle behind efforts to pass the legislation. Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church shared the pulpit there with Ssempa and although prior to Obama’s inauguration, where Warren’s presence sure didn’t’ bode all that well for the hope and change thing, Warren quietly disassociated himself from his long relationship with Ssempa. There are other large congregations in the U.S. that make no bones about supporting Uganda’s ostensibly Christian position on the status of homosexuals.

It’s not a big surprise that American evangelical congregations would jump on this bandwagon but a number of conservative U.S., Canadian and British Episcopal dioceses have split off , from what is regarded a bastion of tolerance and liberalism, and affiliated with the Church of Uganda which declares itself in full communion with the Anglican Church of North America, a denomination formed by American and Canadian Anglicans opposed to their national churches' policies regarding the ordination of women and gay priests. The Church of Uganda takes issue with the proposed homosexuality legislation only with regard to criminalizing the failure to report homosexuals which the church feels is a violation of the sanctity of confession. Better a church that favors the execution of homosexuals than one that acknowledges the diversity of those chosen to serve God.

Obama chooses Pastor Suzan Johnson Cook as ambassador at large for religious freedom, a daunting assignment in a world where the Pew Foundation reports that 70% of the citizenry are subject to some form of religious repression. Johnson Cook would have her work cut out for her if anyone intended to actually let her get to work. We have to tread lightly, and evoke religious freedom as an excuse to turn an expedient blind eye to repression and intolerance.

Not much can be done about hard line militant Muslims, bent on the repression of women and draconian measures to subvert anyone daring to propose a more enlightened and nuanced reading of the Koran. If armed conflict can be reduced it really doesn’t matter if the tradeoff dooms women to be treated like shit. The Chinese are owed too much money to made accountable for the obliteration of ancient communities of faith in Tibet and Nepal. There is a fear that it is impossible to affect equal rights for gay citizens without offending the faithful of many persuasions. What of the churches that took a stand against integration in the 1960s evoking “the curse of Ham” to prove the inferiority of African Americans? This history is a source of shame for these congregations now and so will it be, and I hope in my lifetime, that discrimination against gays and lesbians will be remembered with incredulity and shame. The subjugation of any group runs counter to the core tenets of every faith yet America is loathe to confront those who manipulate religion in the defense of hatred.

Another outstanding documentary my company had no part in is A SMALL ACT by Jennifer Arnold. It’s on HBO and screening a bit at festivals and fundraisers. The film follows Chris Mburu, the acting coordinator of the Anti-Discrimination Section of the U.N. Mburu grows up in a Kenyan village in a family of itinerant coffee pickers. Home is a tarpaper shack without running water or electricity. He attends primary school and excels despite nights when he is unable to study due to lack of oil for the lamp.

Education beyond grade 8 in Kenya requires tuition, and while Kenya boasts one of the best educational records in Africa, still fewer than 24% of its citizens attend secondary school. Chris’s secondary education is subsidized by a European charity. He goes on to scholarship at the University of Nairobi and then graduates from Harvard School of Law. He remembers that his tuition is paid by a Swedish nursery school teacher. Mburu begins a program to provide secondary scholarships for the children of Kenyan villages and names it the Hilde Back Foundation. With the assistance of the Swedish Embassy, Mburu is able to locate the 85 year old Hilde.
Chris states that in his mind’s eye his benefactress was extremely wealthy and he is surprised that Hilde, never married and childless, lives alone in a very modest apartment. Hilde is not a native of Sweden. She was born of German Jewish parents who, when the Nazis barred Jews from schools, were able to get their young daughter an exit visa. They were never able to secure their own and Hilde’s father died in Terezin and her mother in Auschwitz.

Hilde is thrilled to see that the money she scrimped to send matters and is also a bit overwhelmed by the hoopla and the film crew. After their first meeting Chris and Hilde discover a genuine affinity for each other and after the initial awkwardness of meeting in such unusual circumstances, they speak on the phone and, as Chris is headquartered in Switzerland, visit often. Hilde travels to Kenya and is feted by Chris’s Kenyan village and at her 85th birthday party, among her teacher friends, Chris presents Hilde with a sweatshirt that says “Harvard Mom.”

It is noteworthy that a country with a Catholic population of near 75% is only the second in the southern hemisphere to sanctify same sex marriages, South Africa, perhaps in a proactive gesture , remembering the shame of having clung to apartheid for so long, is the first. Uganda, heedless of future shame, would acknowledge same sex unions, not with the rite of marriage but with execution. It is simplistic to attribute this polarity solely to disparities in education but the substantially higher rates of adult literacy found in Argentina and South Africa may have a bearing on the existence of two such distinctly unparallel universes.

Chris travels the world documenting instances of hatred and genocide. He returns home to Kenya in 2008 and when a contested election leads to an explosion of ethnic tensions over 800 die in violence. Hilde’s familiarity with the human capacity for evil is etched on her soul. Near the end of the film One Small Act, the tiny elderly Hilde Back and Chris Mburo, statuesque and very conspicuously black to Swedish passerbys seen in the footage, stroll a public square with a big modern fountain. How odd they must look, walking arm and arm ,unless you know how inextricably they are bound together by their faith that educated people are less inclined to stoop to hatred and violence. Water shoots from tiny jets on the concrete floor. Instead of succumbing to numbness or cynicism these witnesses to the worst keep alive in each other the belief that people can and will be better. Hilde surveys the large installation and says, “If you do something good, it can spread in circles, like rings on the water.”
Shabbat Shalom

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Summertime Rues

Home for nearly a week, I am still sort of on a vacation from adulthood. The family sends my inmate pen pals postcards from the Madonna Inn and I go a week without writing to them. Someone suggests it is cruel to send prisoners postcards of hotel rooms, albeit incredibly tacky ones, but taking time during our vacation to let them know they’re remembered doesn’t draw attention to our freedom vs. their lack of it. California prisons are grim and dispiriting places but the lack of human connection is far more devastating than the surroundings. We remember their birthdays and send them holiday cards and photos of significant events and new pets. I tell them about our lives and they weigh in about Spuds watching too much t.v. or the seventeen year old’s driving lessons. We have a good life and as much as we are able, we share it with them. They are happy for us. Having visited prisons, I am able to visualize the trajectory of the thick letters I receive, being written longhand on yellow legal paper and inspected and stamped California State Prison in red letters. While the letters themselves are usually cheerful and caring and funny, sometimes the heaviness of their origin dogs me and I allow several to accumulate unread on my desk.

One of my pen pals has recently been transferred for medical purposes from Mule Creek State Prison to the unfortunately named Pleasant Valley. Sugar is restricted at most California prisons because inmates make a type of moonshine called pruno with it. Apparently Pleasant Valley is less punctilious about the enforcement of this, and in general the fare is much better there overall. For several weeks he rhapsodizes about fresh fruit and jelly beans. There is a large stack of letters waiting when I return from vacation and I choose to read his first due to the cheerfulness of his last few missives. Instead of the latest edition of Prison Gourmet, the letter begins with a detailed complaint about the institutional plumbing system and after a sentence or two I fold it back into its envelope and stash it away.

I post only briefly on the blog. I listen to Philip Roth’s first novel, the very difficult and remarkably fresh, Letting Go on CD (21 for a 630 page book) in the car. Roth was 29 when the novel was published and listening to it read suggests to me, that at age 53, I should abandon my writing aspirations. I guess I am also relieved, that at 29 or even 53, I don’t think my imaginings could ever yield grief as excessive as Roth foists on his characters. Other than the weighty car tome, for the first few days home after vacation I feel dull. I haven’t exercised and have been overeating for the past several weeks and I never know if it’s hormonal or a fundamental lack of character. I think about enrolling in an MFA program. I think about joining a gym. I consider a protein drink fast or a cellular phone upgrade. I start to feel lousy about not writing to the prisoners and going days on end without writing anything of value or reading anything pertinent to injustice. Maybe it’s just that summer thing.

My kids survive May and June by marking the days until summer, but just like it was for me, and for most kids, except those who are off to Paris or safari, summer is the year’s biggest anticlimax. The novelty of not going to school morphs quickly in to the onus of not going to school. I look forward to the respite from making breakfast, driving to school, packing lunches and fascista homework encouragement, but now, with vacation over, without this purpose, I languish instead of working out or imagining world peace.

The coordinator of a summer Internship program for kids whose families receive public assistance asks me to hire three interns who will receive a salary paid by some special school district funds. I agree but hear nothing. Cynically, I assume this is because I’ve advised the sponsor that interns would need to be at grade level in their reading and writing skills. Several weeks later she does contact me and apologetically explains that most of her students have opted for internships in retailing. There is however one girl who has expressed an interest working at my film archive. The sponsor indicates that the girl lives in the neighborhood and is a student at UC Riverside. The prospective intern, she tells me is also working this summer on coordinating fund raising projects for her sorority. I agree to interview her. She arrives a half hour early and announces, “Leila sent me.” She does not introduce herself or ask for me by name.

She is tiny and Asian and has on jeans so tight I can only think of Monostat. I ask her if she knows what we do and with lips parted, she shakes her head. I am surprised that she hasn’t looked up the company on the web before arriving for an interview, particularly as she purports having graduated from a business magnet high school. She asks a few questions, none pertinent to the actual work assignments. The program requires interns to complete 160 hours of work prior to August 20. Based on this, I ask her how many hours a week she would need to put in and she fidgets. I tell her that it would be about 26 hours a week and she complains that this will interfere with her work on behalf of the sorority.

I presume interns are paid about $8 an hour so the summer gross will be around $1300.00. My inner Republican is indignant that a member of a family receiving public assistance would look down her nose at an opportunity to earn $1300 and get some experience in the real working world. It seems she is assigning greater value to her social aspirations than to a not insignificant chunk of change and a bettering experience. It is difficult for me to ascribe anything other than shallowness to college fraternities and sororities but perhaps based on some combination of her personal experiences and what the future bodes for someone who will graduate college in 2013, a commitment to a sorority may actually be more practical in the long run.

I notice the words “Lil Chola” embossed on the back of her jacket as she leaves. I wonder if she planned in advance to be deemed unsuitable for the internship or if she is genuinely clueless. Is it culturally insensitive or classist to expect a graduate of a business high school who is accepted at the University of California to make a better impression even if she is economically disadvantaged?

Paolo Freire wrote in 1970 that “no pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.” Perhaps my expectations of my would-be trainee brand me an educated white oppressor. Maybe the institution of the sorority has blossomed into a shining temple of redemption. Regardless, I hope that the intern I’ve rejected will be better prepared for her next job interview.

My seventeen year old, after a rigorous prep session, endures the ACT Test. Many of his friends who are also entering the twelfth grade have already taken this, as well as the SAT several times and also a number of subject tests in categories that seem to me more grad school than high school. Families we know spring for 10k college counselors. I see the boy stressed out in the face of the ACT and agitated when a remiss teacher fails to grade an assignment which might reduce his grade in a history course from an A to a B. Part of me feels we have failed to be on top of things and perhaps some avenues of opportunity are permanently closed because we’ve been so laissez faire, but seeing how stressed out the 17 year old becomes even with our college light approach, I am glad we haven’t ascribed to the Isabel Buckley philosophy. The Buckley school in Sherman Oaks is one of L.A’s most prestigious. It was attended by the children of wealthy relatives who I spent a lot of time with while growing up. An autographed copy “College Begins at Two,” pruney Buckley glowering on the cover, graced the bookshelf.

Himself and I were both math imbeciles in high school. I was fortunate to land in geometry with Fred Carrington at Grant High School who was the best teacher I ever had. Somehow, he not only made me get it, he made it beautiful. Himself says that algebra and geometry are a waste of time and that kids should only be taught practical math. My potential intern, who was unable to figure out how many hours of work she’d have to put in, makes a good case for this but in that kids have no reason to hurry to finish school and be unemployed, why not take the time for both? I wrote Mr. Carrington a note a few years ago to tell him what a life changer he’d been and got a nice note back. I found out later that he’d received a Disney Teaching Award, which is the highest honor that can be bestowed on an educator and so my praise was just a drop in the bucket.

Our boys haven’t found Mr. Carrington yet but we’ve been able occasionally, unlike our own parents, to bring in a tutor on an emergency basis to keep them afloat. Math is a struggle for them and probably a subject that will rule out for them both a number of universities. This was the case for Him and myself. We ended up with scholarships at less prestigious liberal arts colleges. But, I was never taught by a graduate student. Fewer than fifteen students were enrolled in my largest classes. For over thirty-five years I have remained in touch with some of my professors and they continue to help shape my thinking. My young adult son will make his own choices but I hope he lands somewhere in the world where his fitness as a student is determined by more than a test score.

Himself notes the cool in Felton again and again. “59 degrees, he exclaims, in July!” There is nothing, except reports of puppy vandalism, on the home front to make us dread returning but we are a bit somber on the ride home, down the aptly bleak Interstate 5. We return to an unseasonably cool L.A. I’ve broken out the summer wardrobe of cotton skirts and sandals and because it is summer, no matter how chilly it is, I refuse to wear a sweater, banking the memory of this cool time for the inevitable months of triple digit heat. In mere moments I’ll be bitching about sack lunches and homework and again counting the days until summer surcease so maybe it isn’t so profligate to sleep a bit later. I try to wean myself a bit from vacation languor and force a three mile treadmill stint. I finish the prison letter describing time delay toilets. I’ve had a real vacation though and as I ease back into the day to day, what felt at the end of a hectic school year like a weight to be lifted, feels now solid and mine. A heatwave is inevitable and the balance between heaviness and purposefulness will always shift. We are not jetting off to Paris or a swanky safari and we tell the kids they are lucky to have batteries in the remotes. But there will be more trips up north and more good memories to be made and to bank for when it’s hectic, hot or heavy.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, July 2, 2010

Road Trip

We arrive at the cabin in Mt. Hermon with a tinge of sadness, knowing our visit will not be long enough. There may be other family road trips just the four of us but the numbers are waning. We will travel with Spuds for a few more years and most likely he will have a year or two in the role of only child at home. Road trips and memories of road trips, back to our own childhoods and through infants and toddlers to teens. The pattern is the same. Kids get cranky. Dad doesn’t want to stop. Kids become more shrill. Stop and feed kids. Rushed by dad. Sated children sleep.

Hiimself, ever eager to arrive at destination, is willing to make a half hour detour to eat Mexican in the Steinbeckian town of Guadalupe. There are seismic retrofit notices in the windows and most of the restaurants on Main St. are closed up tight. The Wikipedia entry for Guadalupe is scant on the town’s history but notes that the Dollar Store is popular. We walk through the dusty boarded up town chasing a homemade tortilla sign that Himself spotted. The tortillas are perfect and the guacamole is excellent and the quantity is so abundant that at $2 that it feels like a gift.

I e-mail the mayor of Guadalupe and he responds assuring me that the other restaurants are slated to reopen. He is glad for my interest and provides a list of all the films shot in the area including De Mille’s Ten Commandments. Some of the gargantuan biblical sets are occasionally visible when the dunes shift. The kids in Guadalupe watch us as we make our way down the main street. My kids have relatively empty plates this summer but we watch the youth of Guadalupe amble through the ghost of downtown, our own prospects don’t seem quite so bleak.

I gamble and surprise the kids with a night at the Madonna Inn. They are pleased and we share the Skyroom with clouds airbrushed on the ceiling and a bidet. Himself and I are relegated to the televisionless loft where he bumps his head four times on his birthday. I like the Madonna Inn. It is kitschy but also clean and comfortable, unless you are over 6 feet and there is a low beam in the loft. I like going into the gift store and looking at postcards of each of the different 110 rooms, so explosively imaginative that aesthetics become inconsequential. It’s like staying overnight at Disneyland, a purely California experience to enjoy every decade or so.

We travel to Gold Rush country to visit my niece Cari and her husband Mike in Grass Valley. We see again the effects of the economic downturn on a small town as stores and restaurants we remember from previous trips are shuttered. It is weird to still be in California and be in a place where the preponderance of people are white. Cari was adopted and met her birthmother, my sister, when she was eighteen. I’m flying blind and somewhat self serving in reconstructing family history for my niece. Most of the players were unreliable and now they are all gone. But what’s left is a niece and a grand niece who shine and who both like so many of the same things that I like.

It is the 100th anniversary of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and in honor of the occasion there is a screening on the beach of the film Lost Boys. The opening event is a performance by the band of cast member Corey Feldman which features bikini clad girls playing with beach balls on the stage. Feldman acknowledges the recent loss of one of his Lost Boys co-stars, Corey Haim. A number of scenes in the 1987 film are filmed on the boardwalk. We have imported some Cornish pasties, a Grass Valley speciality and smuggled in some beer and we sit on a blanket as the sun goes down. The actual neon ferris wheel and the roller coaster on the inflatable screen are right there. There are a number of people smoking pot.

Grass Valley swelters but in the Mt. Hermon Redwoods we sleep with quilts. I make a dent in 6 months worth of New Yorkers and do some crossword puzzles. We play Scattergories and have a cocktail hour. Tomorrow we get up early and wash the sheets in the cabin for the next renters. We will probably make the detour for more handmade tortillas in Guadalupe. We will return home and hope that puppy Oprah hasn’t been too destructive. I will savor my last hours here in the Redwoods. The topic for the week’s writing usually emerges on Wednesday or Thursday but there’s been no epiphany on a road trip through California and time spent with friends and family, just a gratitude that transcends words.