Friday, October 29, 2010

My Guide for the Perplexed

I spend about 12 hours going through my ballot and surf the web doggedly for information about candidates and issues. Even after a pretty diligent effort to become informed, I will be making a number of choices by hunch. I presume some day we will be able to vote on-line and the ballot will include video presentations about the candidates and propositions. Until then, the ballot is daunting, and I dare to say that I am better educated than a lot of my fellow citizens and it concerns me that complicated issues are decided by people who don't have the time and/ or ability to ferret out and parse through pertinent information.

I am comforted that Jerry Brown will most likely be our governor and that there are a couple of good propositions that I hope will pass. It is reassuring that the people of California are too smart to be swayed by Meg Whitman’s checkbook and it is painful to think about what could have been accomplished with the money she poured into self aggrandizement had it been applied instead to social welfare. Perhaps this will be the kick in the ass we need to move towards publicly funded elections.

If Jerry Brown is not your obvious choice for governor you can probably stop here. I am not voting as a party line Democrat but in most cases I favor more progressive candidates and despite being the owner of a business I place more importance on matters of justice and social wellbeing. I am not in love with Barbara Boxer but I think that issues that are important to me are better represented if there is a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate. Therefore in my district, while he doesn't make my heart go pitty pat, Xavier Becerra will get my vote for Representative. Neither of my local candidates for the state legislature, Kevin De Leon for State Senator (actually running unopposed) and Gil Cedillo for State Assembly needs my vote but there is no compelling reason to withhold it.

With regard to Lieutenant Governor, I've settled unenthusiastically on Gavin Newsom. His political ideology is actually similar to my own but I think he has some problems with impulse control. Newsom has been pretty candid about his personal lapses and I think given his confessions and apparent desire to atone, his behavior will always be subject to a lot of scrutiny which may, unless he’s the bastard son of Gary Hart, keep him in line. I can relate to Newsom's ebullience, but to proclaim, gloating self righteously, that we were going to have gay marriage in California whether "you like it or not" may have provided the soundbite that defeated proposition 8. I might consider voting for a moderate republican in favor of Newsom but Abel Maldonado is too deeply beholden and campaign antics, like showing up unannounced and disrupting a Newsom campaign stop indicate that he too is lacking in cool headed common sense. There are also allegations that Maldonado's family farm mistreats workers. Newsom, as an employer, when he owned the Plumpjack wine store in San Francisco, also had his share of run-ins with regard to labor and safety violations, the evidence suggests he acted immediately to set things right, where it appears that Maldonado has balked and obfuscated.

I also make my choice for Secretary of State not manacled to the party line but because Democratic incumbent Debra Bowen is well qualified and has an impeccable record. Her Republican opponent, former NFL player Damon Dunn has no political experience and admits to not having bothered to vote until 2009.

For the office of state Controller, I also choose the incumbent Democrat, John Chiang, who has showed extraordinary grace under pressure by keeping the state solvent for the last four years. His Republican opponent, Tony Strickland is an oldtime poltico with no financial training. I rejected him as a candidate because of longtime ties to the political machine but I didn’t realize that he is truly sleazy until a huge postcard from the Strickland campaign arrived in the mail bearing an unfortunate snap of opponent Chiang speaking heatedly and resembling Kim Jong Il.

Another incumbent, Bill Lockyer will get my vote for treasurer. He is endorsed by the L.A. Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and the Sierra Club. His Republican opponent, Mimi Walters suggests as a remedy for the financial crisis that California default on certain bonds that have been issued. This would be disastrous for the state's already flagging credit rating, not to mention plain immoral. Walters indicates that "bonds that go towards taking care of the environment and studies and stuff like that, I can't agree with." Her syntax suggests she attended the Sarah Palin school of public speaking.

The issues of education, criminal justice and particularly the death penalty greatly influence my vote. With regard to Attorney General, I think that the Republican candidate Steve Cooley is smart, earnest and hard working but he is ardently in favor of the draconian three strikes laws and the death penalty. Kamala Harris, his Democratic opponent also takes a tough on crime/pro death penalty position. I am aware that when you are elected to office there is an obligation to uphold the law of the land. Jerry Brown has indicated that while he is obliged to enforce the death penalty, he is personally opposed to it. I e-mailed Ms. Harris twice, once during the primary and again this week, to ask what her personal position on the death penalty is and I received no response. Because I see no real substantive difference between Cooley and Harris, I am voting for the Green Party candidate Peter Allen who states clearly on his website that he is in favor of abolishing the death penalty, revisiting three strikes, and legalizing marijuana.

All of the health care lobbies and consumer protection groups endorse Democratic State Assemblyman Dave Jones for Insurance Commissioner. His Republican opponent, Mike Villines avers that he has taken no insurance company contributions but actually 1.2 million dollars from an insurance industry financed PAC has been funneled into his campaign.

The Board of Equalization collects California state sales and use tax, as well as fuel, alcohol, and tobacco taxes and fees that provide revenue for state government and essential funding for counties, cities, and special districts. Membership is not very sexy and there is not a lot of information available about the candidates. Incumbent Jerome E. Horton was elected by the board as Vice Chair. He is a Democrat and endorsed by the LA Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, without a lot of other information to go on and no Republican opposition, he is a shoe in and I am unable to find anything on the Internet to indicate that this isn't totally fine.

The pages of judges always trouble and confuse me. There is very little information available and one has to rely pretty much on the LA Times, the LA County Bar and a Wikipedia sponsored website Judgepedia which is helpful but unfortunately full of gaps. For the offices of Supreme Court Justice and Judicial Court of Appeal Justice the only choice is “yes” or “no” for each individual candidate. 16 candidates appear on the ballot, all are rated qualified or well qualified by the Bar and have been carefully vetted and actually serve on the bench before their names appear on the ballot for official approval. All 16 will get my “yes” vote.

There are two Superior Court judgeships being contested. Randy Hammock is running against Mark Ameli for office #28. Both are rated as qualified by the bar. The L.A. Times endorses Hammock but I am voting for Ameli who has a mind blowing list of endorsements on his website. Ameli, of Iranian descent, will be the first Middle Eastern seated on the California bench and he has worked extensively as a mediator. He is supported by a number of clergy due to his long participation in and sponsorship of interfaith and intercultural programs.

Alan Schneider and Tom Griego are in contention for office #117. Schneider is rated highly qualified by the Bar and is also endorsed by the L.A. Times. Griego is deemed "unqualified"by the county Bar. Amy Hogue is running unopposed for office #136. She is considered qualified by the bar and I can find nothing detrimental with regard to her record.

Both of the candidates, Tom Torlakson and Larry Aceves, for Superintendent of Public Instruction have good progressive pedigrees and both have actually taught in a classroom. I emailed both candidates asking why I should vote for him instead of his opponent and as of this writing have received no responses. Torlakson is strongly endorsed by most teachers’ unions which suggests perhaps a beholdeness. I am voting for Aceves because, while his platform is not really much different from Torlakson’s, he has taken a strong stand on the unfair allocation of property taxes to public schools, pointing out that San Jose receives $7000 per annum per student and nearby Palo Alto receives $14,000. Aceves learned to speak English in California schools and I think his insights as a second language learner will be beneficial in a state where 25% of students are not native speakers.

I am voting for John Wong for County Assessor. He is well qualified and widely endorsed. The L.A. Weekly suggests that his opponent, John R. Noguez engaged Mario Beltran as a political advisor. Beltran has a verifiable record of shadiness and appears to be quite entrenched in the scandal that recently rocked the City of Bell.

Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana use and possession for those over age 21, is not well drafted. The main concern is that the language is murky with regard to ferreting out those who may jeopardize themselves or others while under the influence of marijuana. Based on my reading of the bill I glean that marijuana use in the workplace will be dealt using the same criteria as the use of alcohol or other substances that can impair function. There is also concern about overriding federal laws. The feds haven’t wasted a lot of times with medical marijuana dispensaries and I can’t imagine, in the face of much more egregious narcotics violations, that public relations will permit an emphasis on the enforcement of marijuana laws given the state referendum to abolish them.

While the language is imperfect, I favor Proposition 19, the passage of which would free up law enforcement resources and generate revenue for the state. It is interesting that a consortium of ostensibly not for profit medical marijuana dispensaries has funded a lot of the opposition to 19. There is money to be made and I would rather it go into the state coffers than into the bank accounts of mercenaries who hide behind the façade of compassion.

There is a lot of confusion with regard to Propositions 20 and 27. Proposition 20 would remove elected representatives from the process of redrawing congressional districts and charge an independent panel to make decisions with regard to redistricting. Simply, Proposition 20 puts an end to gerrymandering which is why most of the state’s elected officials oppose it.

Proposition 21 is opposed by the Howard Jarvis Tax Payers Association which pretty much means I would vote for it without even reading the measure. Jarvis spearheaded Proposition 13 in 1978 which condemned California education and health services to mediocrity ever since. Proposition 21 isn’t at all controversial though and it’s one of the most straightforward measures on the ballot. Crippling cuts have closed and reduced services at a number of California’s state parks. 21 would institute an $18 per car annual license to help restore services and protect these California treasures.

Proposition 22 is strongly endorsed by the Jarvis taxpayers and developers. It makes funding for transportation, redevelopment and local government projects sacrosanct. Even if schools and health services are in dire straits, a freeway will take precedence.

Proposition 23 makes a backhanded stab at using the poor economy as an excuse to undermine much of California’s environmental legislation. It puts all efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions and other programs to reduce air pollution on hold until the unemployment rate is reduced to 5.5%. In the last 35 years, the annual unemployment rate has slipped below 5.5% only three times and we stand to generate an enormous amount of pollution before it dips this low again. Major funding for the proposition comes from Valero Gas, Tesoro Refiners and Occidental Petroleum.

The opposition to Proposition 24 is being bankrolled by Disney, Viacom, Cisco, Time Warner, Fox, Genentech, Amgen and other big players. This is probably all you need to know but the nitty gritty is that 24 aims to overturn some tax loopholes that allow corporations loss carry backs. That means, in the face of a bad economy corporations are eligible for refunds of taxes paid in the previous two years. Prop. 24 would end this and also a huge tax break that allows individual corporations to decide themselves whether taxation should be based on property, sales or payroll.

Proposition 25 would prevent gridlock in Sacramento, which nearly shut down California, because the annual budget must be approved by 2/3 of the legislature. This would change the requirement to a simple majority for passage of a budget but retain the 2/3 requirement for constitutional amendments and taxes. In the event of a stalemate, legislators would forfeit salary until a budget is passed. Based on the havoc budget stalemates have wreaked in recent years, this is prudent.

Proposition 26 is being bankrolled by Chevron, Phillip Morris, Shell Oil and other corporations who feel vulnerable to fines for damage they cause. It’s being touted as “tax payer protection” that requires certain state fees to be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature and certain local fees by two-thirds of the voters but the raison d’etre is to protect big corporations from fines and penalties.

Proposition 27 is last and definitely least on the ballot. Essentially it proposes the absolute opposite of the anti-gerrymandering Prop 20. 20 and 27, in tandem, are referred to as the poison pill propositions. If both pass, the one that wins by the higher majority will become law. Proposition 27 insures that politicians will remain in charge of drawing legislative boundaries instead of assigning the task to an objective committee. Haim Saban, the billionaire who brought us the Power Rangers and enjoys hob-nobbing with political powers from the Clintons on down, is the major contributor to the proposition. Speculation is that he is currying favor with California politicians which he will use as currency for the continued preferential treatment of Israel.

This is what I decided after a couple of days of pretty extensive research. My young adult son will be voting for the first time and I am trying to impart to him that it does take some effort to make an informed decision but it is urgent and truly a privilege. If he ever decides in a couple decades to run for office, if he gets into the habit of voting now and sticks with it, he won’t look like an asshole. For the rest of you, regular, sporadic, or too cynical to bother voters, here are some good resources so that you can be a well informed voter and not an asshole should you so choose.

Good sources of information:


League of Women Voters

And for the lazy and blindly trusting:

California Ballot, ala breve
Governor: Jerry Brown
Lieutenant Governor: Gavin Newsom
Secretary of State: Deborah Bowen
Controller: John Chang
Treasurer: Bill Lockyer
Attorney General: Peter Allen
Insurance Commissioner: Dave Jones
Member State Board of Equalization 4th District: James E. Horton
United States Senator: Barbara Boxer
United States Representative 31st District: Xavier Becerra
State Senator 22nd District: Kevin De Leon
Member of the Assembly: Gil Cedillo

Supreme Court Justice:
Yes for
Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye
Ming W. Chin
Carlos R. Moreno

Court of Appeal Justice:
Yes for
Robert M. Mallano
Victoria G. Chaney
Jeffrey W. Johnson
Judith M. Ashmann
Walter Croskey
Steven Suzukawa
Orville “Jack” Armstrong
Paul H. Coffee
Steven Z. Perren
Laurie D. Zelon
Frank Y. Johnson
Tricia A. Bigelow
Elizabeth Annette Grimes

Judge of the Superior Court
Office #28 Mark K. Ameli
Office #117 Alan Schneider
Office #136 Amy D. Hogue

Superintendent of Public Instruction:
Larry Aceves

County Assessor:
John Y. Wong

State Measures
#19 YES
#20 YES
#21 YES
#22 NO
#23 NO
#24 YES
#25 YES
#26 NO
#27 NO

Friday, October 22, 2010

Nuthin' Says Lovin'...

I believe the axiom that we must confess our fears in order to vanquish them, even though it smacks of self help. The confession however should be in a personal and not a professional venue and this is where Juan Williams gets it staggeringly wrong. Hate and fear have a symbiotic relationship and William’s ill considered revelation, in the context of his position as a respected journalist, could be construed as a defense and justification of our own hatred. I know that Himself will leave a biting comment with regard for my defense of NPR, which to me is sort of a bland wishy-washy lesser of evil evils. I will further antagonize my beloved by quoting NPR’s response to criticisms that the firing seems harsh for what might have been a single lapse.

In a
statement released at 12:27 a.m. Thursday, NPR said Williams' remarks “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”
This was far from an isolated incident.
Williams’ appearances on Fox News, especially O’Reilly’s show, have caused heartburn repeatedly for NPR over the last few years. Management said he’s been warned several times that O’Reilly is a professional provocateur and to be careful.
In early 2009, Williams said on O'Reilly of Michelle Obama:
"She's got this Stokely Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going. If she starts talking . . . her instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I'm the victim. If that stuff starts to coming out, people will go bananas and she'll go from being the new Jackie O. to being something of an albatross."

I am the mother of a registered voter who would rather have his braces tightened than endure any of the news on NPR or any discussion of politics. My son is eighteen years old this week and I keep telling him what a privilege it is to vote in democratic elections. I first voted in 1975. There was a bad recession, but in my second year of college, I didn’t doubt that there would be something for me when I graduated with some pretty whopping student loans. His father and I bring him the registration form which he fills out because we stick it under his nose. I am disappointed by the kid’s indifference but I can see that he has less to be sanguine about than I did and why he feels that an election will not make one bit of difference. Although I suspect a bit too if I were the apathetic non-voter type he’d be first in line at the polling place.

I receive a text message from him at school indicating that the bread on the sandwich, which was perfectly fine the night before, is moldy. I text him back and tell him to eat the filling and ask him how he managed to get a flat on the tires I purchased for his car two weeks ago. I can’t do a thing about the sandwich and he can’t do anything about the tire but we opt for the satisfaction at least of venting our annoyance.

Our usual moderate amount of friction is ratcheted up a bit lately, as in addition to the pressures of his last year of high school and an enormously demanding role in an upcoming theatre production, he has wised up about the driving thing. It is true for me that despite a few fender benders, my first months of driving were a big thrill. I waxed on about exhilarating freedom incessantly as my boy attempted to get his license but after driving now for a couple of months he realizes that he’s been set up. Driving isn’t fun like it was when I was a kid. He had it way better as a passenger and not only does he have to self propel, he has been designated to chauffer his brother and even run errands. Although I still handle the thought of him actually behind the wheel better with a few shots of liquor in me, I persist in sending him off and about. He notes bitterly how much more time this affords me to spend lolling on the couch. This proves that laziness outranks terror in momus operendi.

I spend weeks fruitlessly trying to solve the radio problem in the kid’s car. For his birthday I buy a third used Volvo radio. It is from Ebay and comes with the elusive and problematic antitheft code. The boys at work crawl in the trunk trying to figure out the wiring but after several hours I call them off. They do point out that a tire is flat.
I head over to Costco to deal with the bum tire. It is amazing how the same salesman changes in countenance from when one is purchasing tires and when one is requesting a warranty repair. The wait is 2 hours. I eat a veggie burger at the execrable chain restaurant Mimi’s and linger working a crossword puzzle on my phone until the waitstaff begins to give me the evil eye. I browse at Best Buy where there is nothing I want or need. Although I was there last week, I cruise the aisles at Costco to kill additional time telling myself that free food samples have no calories and scarfing them down until I am queasy.

The tire is replaced and I stop at a car radio installer to see if they have better luck with the radio. When it’s time to pick up the car, all of my coworkers are gone for the day so Rover and I walk in the rain back to the car. Rover does not like rain one bit. I am charged $40 and radio number 3 is pronounced defective. I am certain that my son will bitch about the wet dog smell in his car.

Spuds is under the weather and forgets, despite my admonition, to put his shoes away. They are gnawed to smithereens by the puppy Oprah. I have lost count of the number of shoes she has destroyed but Spuds resorts to wearing a pair of his brother’s and even these have chew marks on the toes and a day of padding around in the heavy rain doesn’t improve their appearance. I return home after a day playing Stella Dallas, walking with a recalcitrant dog in the pouring rain so that my son can listen to music in the car I purchased for him. I am too beat to make dinner. Spuds has no shoes. The only place that I can induce Himself to eat these days is Whole Foods as they serve excellent fish and chips and cheap draught beer and best of all, you don’t have to tip. He grudgingly accepts the offer although he grouses about the shoe run.

We eat at the dining area at Whole Foods along with a few senior citizens and a lot of young hipster families with babies and strollers and diaper bags. The babies are dressed in color coordinated organic cotton outfits with coordinating shoes and jaunty hats. The parents are wan and harried and spattered with baby spittle. I remember shlepping all that baby crap around and changing diapers in impossible places. Still, the babies look nice and if my kids wouldn’t be mortified I would have asked to hold one of them. I long to hoist a baby aloft and cry out to the beaten down parents, “Behold and enjoy this baby because in the blink of an eye you’ll have one of these.” I would point then with a flourish to my ginormous, and plotting matricide for my having embarrassed them, sons.

My young adult son hates my presence of Facebook but he knows that unfriending me correlates with the removal of the cables from his computer. He hates seeing my grinning mug pop up so much that he expresses distain for Facebook and resents his own reliance on it to maintain any sort of social life. I bust him once for a picture with a cig hanging out of his mouth and then am shamed by him when it turns out to be a picture from children’s theatre and the cigarette is a prop. There are several pages of sweet birthday greetings for him and a large album of photos going back several years. I browse through the pictures backwards and he and his big group of friends regress from a tall young men to round faced preteens.

During the summer my young adult son travels to Bakersfield with some friends for a special screening of There Will Be Blood at the Kern County Museum where research for the film was completed and there is a replica of the oil well that was designed for it. Waiting for the show they goof around in a children’s museum. The Facebook album has pictures of two of the boys in medical smocks performing a procedure with toy tools on another friend who is squashed into a tiny dental chair. They pose theatrically as firemen and pirates. The final shot is of my son, on his knees in a play kitchen with his head, ala Sylvia Plath, crammed into the tiny oven.

So much of my life can’t be conjured back with photographs. I do not remember my own eighteenth birthday. I wonder what, up until memory failed her, my mother remembered about me. I was sarcastic and lazy and dismissed carte blanche everything that was important to her. But I could always make her laugh. My own son is not that much different than I was at his age. I wonder how he will remember me. I’ll most likely forget my irritation at his indolence and my sadness at his need to separate from me in order to better delineate the person he’ll become. I imagine I will flip through pictures and be astounded at how fast it all went by but when all of the details and hurts have faded, I don’t think I’ll ever forget how he makes me laugh.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Grave Concerns

People in my circle don’t choose religious “She’s an angel strumming a harp in heaven” condolence cards so I get the “Sorry for your loss” model. This seems weird because my mother’s death last week is the anticlimax of a loss that’s stretched over five years. Maybe longer because memories fade and it is difficult for me to discern what I should attribute to the onset of dementia and what to the demons that plagued my mother for as long as I can remember. So, while I’m sad “loss” doesn’t really nail it.

I don’t kick up my heels in elated joy on the first Saturday that my weekly visit to the board and care doesn’t loom. Even though I am nearly incapacitated by the experience of seeing her, I know that the eventuality of not having to visit her will be bittersweet. It dawned on me about five years ago that due to her worsening dementia it was unsafe for my mother to continue to live on her own. It took a while to transition her to a facility. As I broke down her house I realized that I had, probably because I anticipated what a ginormous hassle it would be, ignored a lot of signs of her cognitive deterioration. I left her to falter there alone in the big house for longer than I should have.

Culling fifty years of stuff down to what she could take with her to the care facility was a huge undertaking. For the first few months she demanded to go home and retrieve possessions. I never told her that her beautiful custom 50s house was sold and covered with spray on-stucco, despite the buyer’s promise to restore it. I just said I’d bring whatever items she needed on my next visit, knowing that she’d forget. There was a hideous cheap leather coat that particularly stuck in her craw and I kept making excuses for not returning it to her. “Oh, it’s too nice to keep here, I’ll keep it safe for you at home.” “Your closet is so crowded, I’ll bring it when the weather cools down.” It had been sold for 50 cents at a garage sale. She stopped asking after her house and possessions after a while and settled in and enjoyed the constant company of her Mormon DOCTOR boyfriend with whom she haughtily held court at their designated table in the dining room.

The doctor’s family was pretty uptight and were concerned that they might be held liable should he crush her tiny body with his more than ample one while in the throes of carnal knowledge. She was barred from being in his room with the door closed. I arrived once and was taken aside by a nurse at the facility and advised that all scissors and clippers and other sharp objects had been confiscated from my mother’s room. The doctor’s eldest daughter Linda was a real control freak and called the doctor several times a day. My mother repeatedly put an end to this annoyance by cutting the telephone wires. She actually could have just removed the plug but she was pretty old school.

The days between her acclimation to the first facility and her deterioration to a stage too severe for the level of care offered, were perhaps the most content of my mother’s life. All of her bitterness and paranoia dissipated and there was a peaceful softness about her face. Sporting a bare midriff blouse and low rise hip-hugger jeans with just a tiny sliver of Depends popping alluringly above the waistband, she was glued to the doctor’s arm. She got three meals a day and two of them concluded with ice cream. There was a beautician on site who fixed her hair weekly. I took her out for lunch every Saturday and sometimes for a movie or a manicure. She had her ancient cat Sally for company when the staff ejected the doctor from her room. I cannot imagine how the life she lived for those two years could have been any more perfect for her. This too is a gift to me because the two years of “mom light” allowed for some revisionism and I found myself becoming more tender towards her. The golden age of mom ended when I arrived to visit and found her crumpled, abandoned and soaked in urine on a couch in the lobby while all of the other residents were seated in the dining room.

I found a board and care that specializes in Alzheimer’s and arrived on moving day to further pare down her possessions for the transition to an even smaller room. The old cat was wheezing and looking pretty funky. The board and care had reluctantly agreed to take on the kitty but I knew the wobbly hacking thing would not have been greeted with much enthusiasm. Himself made the thrift store run and on his way, he dropped Sally at the animal shelter. Her possessions and her cat had been the center of my mother’s existence and it still pains me to think of how it would have pained her to know how cavalierly I cast them away.

I dropped my mother at the board and care and arranged what was left of her possessions in her half of the bedroom. I had to return later to the large facility to pick up some prescriptions they’d neglected to give me and I saw the doctor, in his bib, eating alone at their table. For the first few weeks at the board and care my mom tried to leave with me when I went to go. The tiny Filipino ladies had to hold her back and she would scream. She called for my father from whom she’d been divorced over 40 years and for her brother, dead nearly a decade. She escaped twice, having figured out somehow a way to dismantle the alarm, and was found wandering the neighborhood. Eventually, and aided by strong psychotropic drugs, she settled in. It was not a happy queen of the prom experience like she had at the first institution but she was placid and well cared for during the final sad phase.

I lieu of sitting Shiva, I spend even more time on the couch trying to manipulate the t.v. with what the puppy Oprah has left us of the remote. I watch a documentary about Pablo Escobar's son who’s committed his life to apologizing to the children of men that his father had bumped off. My mother never killed anyone to my knowledge but I don't think my life expectancy makes it feasible to atone to everyone she ever slighted. Never in her life would she admit to being old enough to be a grandmother. Ironically, now that she is gone her legacy is redeemed by her grandchildren.

My mother had a stormy relationship with my sister Sheri, the older daughter who inherited her good looks and a brokenness that led to lives devoid of trust and intimacy. My sister died 11 years ago in Las Vegas. She suffered from multiple sclerosis and although advised by her physicians that hot weather exacerbated the disease, she moved there chasing down her husband who'd relocated for the purpose of terminating their relationship. Both were compulsive gamblers and he had cocaine taste on a crack budget. It was discovered that my sister, while staying at my mother’s, had opened a number of credit card accounts, via offers she retrieved from the mail, in my mother’s name. She managed, until moving to Vegas, to keep up with the minimum payments but after a few months of living and gambling in Sin City, things fell apart. My mother remembered that before her move to Vegas, even on days she could barely get out of bed, no matter what, my sister would plod out, gripping her walker, always to collect the mail. Despite my mother’s droll observation, she and my sister did not speak after the credit card episode.

My sister was deteriorating it was unbearable for me to think about her dying without having had some sort of contact with my mother. I flew to Vegas with my mom. Sheri lived in an enormous 1980s beige apartment development. Her husband had moved cross town to a girlfriend’s although he kept my sister believing that he lived a few doors down in the same complex.. Because my sister was bedridden she really had no use for any furniture and my brother-in-law subsequently denuded her apartment. There was a brand new shiny mobility scooter in the center of the living room that was delivered long after the window of its potential usefulness to her had closed. When we arrived Sheri was being attended to by a nurse. My mother and I sat to wait in two of the three folding chairs that graced a card table, the only other furniture in the room. The door to the bedroom was slightly ajar and through the crack my sister’s withered bone of a leg was hoisted and being sponged by her nurse. “I see her,” my mother gasped.

My sister and mother spoke a few times after that but when the nurse phoned me and said the time had come I flew to Vegas by myself. I held her hand as she died. Her husband arrived and I took him to dinner at Applebee’s and flew home, entrusting him to deal with the burial. My father and I not only paid the debts Sheri had rung up using credit cards in my mother’s name, we had also purchased a handicapped equipped van and facilitated round the clock private nursing for a number of years. I knew the husband, despite having sold the handicapped van, would be in no position to subsidize a funeral so I contacted a funeral home in Las Vegas and paid for a very modest burial as my brother-in-law was adamant that my she did not want to be cremated. My brother-in-law called and informed me that the payment I’d issued was ludicrously below what he apparently knew to be my sister’s expectations. He indicated that my sister’s fantasy funeral we run in the area of thirty thousand dollars. He called me a couple of choice named when I refused. My father said to tell him to just pay for it with my mother’s credit cards.

My sister’s burial was so modest that her grave, eleven years after her death, still bears only a temporary marker. I never felt flush enough to remedy this but I feel embarrassed that she has been commemorated only with a handwritten plastic tag for so long. There is a small balance remaining in my mother’s account, just enough to buy a simple headstone for her daughter. I’m spending a long time thinking about how to inscribe it. I like the thought of my mother’s final act of generosity but also this allows me to engage in something appropriately funeral-y, supplementary to lolling about braless on the couch, to mark the occasion.

The acknowledgement of my mother’s death has been low key and sweet. I have reached an age where my contemporary’s parents are pretty much dropping like flies so I appreciate the solidarity and perspective of my peers. The mail brings a couple of obviously obligatory condolence cards from relatives. These are people my age but I can still see a mother wagging a finger and demanding their slavish attention to proper etiquette. The notes follow Miss Post’s advice to begin by sharing a memory, “I had fun at her house when I was a child” and conclude by noting a positive attribute. One writer remembers my mother as being “gentle” an observation that it sends me into nearly spasmodic laughter.

Jimmy, the Thai mechanic has been told about my mom by the boys at the office. Jimmy’s English is a bit dicey and he insists, although we are the same age, on calling me “Mama.” He never met my mother but he sums it up, “Yeah, it’s sad but she was very old and in bad shape so you know it was for the best.” He is also an advocate of bargain cremation and thinks that additional funerary expense and ceremony are frivolous. Dead is dead. He adds that for all of us, eventually everything we fret about will be meaningless. “Live now,” he tells me. He always forgets to turn the service light off in the car,but of all the words proffered,his may be the most comforting.

Friday, October 8, 2010

When the Time Comes

Dad’s in Boise and Spuds seizes the opportunity to celebrate his 15th birthday with a meticulously planned soiree. Before attending to his shopping list we make our weekly visit to Grandma at the board and care. The week before she is propped in a wheelchair but now we are advised that she is now unable to sit erect and is confined to a hospice issued hospital bed. My stepmother has sent a box of Mom’s favorite See’s candy. My mother is engulfed by the big bed. She eats the chocolate dutifully as I press tiny pieces to her lips but her face is blank. I could be feeding her gruel or sawdust. Odd wayward long eyebrows and whiskers have sprouted and while my former mother would have been furious that I didn’t tweeze them for her, I don’t want to cause this shell of the mother any discomfort. She stares into space not even muttering in response to my attempts at conversation. I begin to tell Spuds again that I should never be left to languish like this. “Don’t let me…,” I start but he cuts me off, looking me in the eye. “I know.”

Priscilla, the attendant, lingers, trying to put a good spin on Mom’s condition. We leaf through an old album from the nightstand and Priscilla marvels at how beautiful my mother is and how fat I am in the old photos. When my mother is still ambulatory Priscilla tells me that while the other residents sit in recliners gazing at Turner Classic movies all day, my mother stands for hours and stares at herself in the mirror. I email myself a reminder to bring more albums the next time I visit. I know that my mother, now invulnerable even to dark chocolate, would be happy to have her beauty appreciated.

Spuds stands on a ladder and strings twinkly lights on the grapefruit tree and lines the driveway with luminarias. He also places a bicycle lock on the gate to bar entrance to the backyard, which resembles Tobacco Road. I am given specific menu instructions and several cleaning assignments although plastering and painting the gaping holes gnawed in the living room walls by the puppy Oprah is beyond my realm of possibility. Spuds settles for a batch of cupcakes and a trip to Alhambra for banh mi.

The seventeen year old and I make an ice run. After co-hosting parties with me for over twenty years now, Himself still becomes apoplectic at the thought of parting with 6 bucks for FROZEN WATER although he would object to our purchase of a dozen liters of Mexican sodas no less if we served them warm. We arrive at the liquor store and the seventeen year old advises me to just stay in the car and he takes care of the transaction and hauls 50 lbs of ice to the car cheerfully by himself. He even uses his own money and while the contents of his wallet emanate from mine, I dig the illusion.

The party is fairly placid. I chaperone loosely, occasionally looking through the window at the proceedings. Richard keeps me company. We watch The Bad and The Beautiful for the zillionth time and I am reminded about all the movies we watched together before I was married. I note to Spuds the local ordinance regarding amplified music after midnight and the stereo is turned off without argument. I wake to find that all of the clean up has been perfectly completed. Folding chairs have been returned to the garage. Decorations have been stowed and leftovers packaged and refrigerated. Feeling useless, I prepare an elaborate breakfast for the sleep overers and even offer carry-outs to two boys whose parents pick them up early. Spuds starts in on me about being weird and needy but shuts up about my pathetic stab at usefulness when I remind him about all the crap I bought for his party and how I will be the one who gets yelled at when Himself scours the trash for misplaced recyclables and finds the telltale wrappers.

The cell phone rings while I’m in heavy Monday morning traffic. I am in the habit of letting it ring to voice mail while I am driving, but I notice it is Ning, the owner of the board and care. She tells me that my mother is unresponsive. My mother suffers from severe dementia. Unresponsive? Duh. I tell her that I’ll be in the office shortly if she needs to reach me and that I won’t be available at all the following day. There is a silence on the line. I fumble with the phone. “I think she may be gone!” she finally blurts. She says she’s going to call the hospice. I call Richard and make my way to work.

Ning calls again when I arrive at the office. The hospice nurse arrives and my mother is pronounced dead. Richard is on his way to the board and care. I am immobilized at the office. I was trapped in a room with my dead father for an eternity while my stepmother wailed and kissed him from head to gangrenous toes. I do not require an audience with the body of my mother “Layne is very sensitive about things like this,” Richard says to account for my absence.

The hospice nurse is in a hurry to leave but is apparently prohibited from doing so until she is assured that arrangements have been made. I’d taken care of this for my dad but Richard, keeper of all records family and business, is at the board and care and I don’t know where he’s filed the receipt for my dad’s cremation. I google “Los Angeles cremation.” The first few listings are pertinent to pets but I scroll down and select a service for humans that actually has the price posted on its website. It feels crass to call any of the more coy establishments and demand, “How much?” I make the arrangements and opt to have the ashes scattered at sea because not only was this my mother’s wish, having accumulated the ashes of many dead pets over the years that I don’t know what to do with, I would be even more confounded about storing the ashes of my mother. I split my dad’s ashes with my stepmom and threw my half from the top of the Space Needle in his hometown Seattle but I can’t think of a particularly appropriate ash flinging locale for my mom. Even though the scattering at sea costs $10 more than having the cremains delivered by certified mail, I decide that this is that way to go.

Once again, Richard takes complete charge when I shut down although, ever Scottish, instead of leaving the box of See’s with the hospice people who’ve demonstrated so much kindness to my mother, he snatches it up along with the photos and albums. Five years ago Richard helped me pare down my mother’s belongings when we moved her from her huge home of nearly 50 years to single room at an eldercare facility. We further trimmed her possessions two years ago when we transitioned her from the large institution to her shared room at the board and care. At journey’s end there are a few photos and a closet representing a tiny portion of her former wardrobe which before had overflowed the closets of all three bedrooms on Fulton Avenue and a box of cheap costume jewelry. I advise the board and care people to box up the remains for charity.

Before the dementia hit full throttle, my mom used to torment me about her eminent death. The subtext was “you’re going to miss me a lot when I’m gone and you’ll be real sorry if you don’t revel in my company now.” She often gave me instructions about what to do when she died to which I would cut her off with “That will be the first time in my life that you won’t be able to tell me what to do.” I didn’t anticipate the onset of dementia which resulted in about five years of having a living mother who actually didn’t boss me around. Mom hasn’t attempted to wield authority with me for a long time now but it is surprising how the opinions of the person she was prior to the onset of dementia still resonate. I suspect she’d be pissed that I splurged the extra ten bucks to have her scattered at sea.

I am relieved now of running around to pick up sundries and Depends and prescriptions for my mother. This will be the first Saturday that I don’t have to make the dreaded visit to the board and care. I saw my mother every week and as her awareness of my presence decreased, the level of my own self pity at the obligation grew stratospheric. “I wish not to have to do this anymore,” I would say to myself, full knowing that my only possible source of relief would be her death.
I find an envelope labeled in capital letters in thick Sharpie “To Be Opened When I Die.” The contents aren’t a big surprise. Her files were always heavy with what she construed as evidence of my father’s mistreatment of her and general lack of character. The final envelope contains legal papers reflecting my parents’ financial scufflings which continued for decades after their divorce. There are account numbers and phone numbers and insurance receipts and a Reader’s Digest article about not squandering your inheritance.

Two of my longtime employees were reared Catholic and I can tell they find it odd, as does the Filipino staff at the board and care, that my mother has been cremated. Period. No service. No wake. No viewing. No covered casseroles. My mother was not religious and was always circumspect about being Jewish. She never went to temple and we had a Christmas tree and Easter baskets. A Jewish friend is surprised that I am not sitting Shiva. I explain that my mother, if anything, was a self hating Jew who refused even to invite any of her friends to my Jewish wedding, lest her WASP cover be blown. My friend explains that sitting Shiva is intended to comfort the living more than memorialize the dead but it doesn’t seem like covering the mirrors and sitting for a week on boxes is going to make me feel any better..

At the bottom of the ominous envelope along with the documents and practical instruction is a tiny Jewish prayer book with a Post-it note affixed to it. “I said Kaddish for my mother from this book. Saved it for my children to use when the time comes.” My mom, it turns out, has the perfect send off as we flip through the old albums and marvel at her beauty. I will not seek the comfort of sitting Shiva. She would hate the covered mirrors. I will, now that the time has come, say the Kaddish for her although I will not miss bribing the kids to escort me to visit the frail vestige. I have missed the mother who used to be for a long time. I am surprised that the missing is no less acute at the end of the long road from mother to hollow vessel to ashes.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Social Network and Vinegar Syndrome

I am invited to a screening of The Social Network at the Writer’s Guild. My first reaction is that driving cross town to Beverly Hills on a week night is unthinkable. Before marrying it was almost unthinkable not to see a movie on just about any night. In lieu of a relationship, I probably saw about three hundred films a year back in the revival house era. I’ve only seen two films in a theatre this year and maybe one was actually last year. But, Himself is teaching a night class and the sprats are getting themselves, in the seventeen year old’s finally registered car, to rehearsal. Four loads of laundry are done the night before and so only a cup of yogurt and the remote await me at home. The price is right but still, it feels reckless and decadent when I accept the invite. The crowd to get into the WGA lot gridlocks the intersection of Wilshire and Doheny. Tempers flare. A cherry 50’s Mercedes convertible cuts me off. Many guild members lay on the horn, anxious about missing the free movie. Note to self: Get batteries for remote.
The Social Network, for any cave dwellers who read here, chronicles the creation of Facebook by fellow landsman, Mark Zuckerberg, who’s portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg. The theatre is jammed and there are even half a dozen people who beg to stand behind the last row. Perhaps it is a testament to the bad economy and the particularly hard hit entertainment industry that people will stand for over two hours rather than pay $10 to see something that’s opening wide in two days.
The film launches immediately into Zuckerberg getting dumped by his girlfriend. The dialogue is cunning and the sparks fly, ala Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder. There is something about Zuckerberg, from what I’ve read and via Eisenberg’s performance that reminds me of Himself. The intellectual wheels spin a zillion times faster than do a mere mortal’s, the likes of which are left to eat conversational dust. The set of Eisenberg’s mouth, bewildered, smug and vulnerable in a weirdly puffy half smile, is transfixing. I could watch his mouth forever.
The strapping Aryan Winklevoss twins are established early on as nemeses of the scruffy Jewish nerd. This is where the otherwise restrained film slips into broadness. It’s funny but more facile and the material with the twins represents the least subtle of the humor in a very humorous film. The crew champions Winklevi, as Zuckerberg calls them plurally, are cartoon evil. The actors are not brothers but their bodies are very similar and one actor’s face is digitized over the other's so they really are clones. I don’t know if this is necessarily creep in a cool way. The brothers are members of the elite WASP Porcelain club which ships in girls by the busload for their parties. The coeds drink and cavort and engage in lesbian high jinks for the titillation of the crème de la crème. This is counterpointed by a brief scene of a Caribbean themed party sponsored by the Jewish fraternity and attended mainly by Asian women which is almost torturously underplayed and hilarious.
The twins commission Zuckerberg to design a social network site and he keeps blowing them off in order to thwart competition and buy time as he readies Facebook to go live. The twins discover they’ve been had and cry foul to Daddy who arranges a high powered legal team to bulldog Zuckerberg. The Winklevosses really though are evil incarnate only by virtue of being blond, handsome, rich, powerful and athletic in a movie with a nerdulant Jewish protagonist. The twin’s comeuppance is the loss of an English crew regatta by a hair. Further humiliation comes immediately after their shocking upset, as a veddy British gent just happens to tell them that his daughter at Cambridge has just heard about the race by a phenomena that is just reaching Europe, something called… ah…er….Facebook...
Eduardo Saverin’s transition from affable best friend to bitter enemy is much more interesting than the dust up with the dastardly twins but the early connection of the two is so satisfying that the depiction of its rupture is wanting for a few beats. It is intimated that the seeds of Zuckerberg’s treachery are planted by Sean Parker, the flamboyant creator of Napster. Parker comes on strong but open faced Justin Timberlake brings dimension to his character, part visionary, part Svengali. You’re never sure whether Parker and Zuckerman are more driven to better the world or to be remembered by history for having bettered it.
The Social Network is being touted as the film of the year which may be premature as the fall season is just getting underway. Nevertheless, it is an easily likeable film. The pace is crisp and the performances do justice to, and at times transcend, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay. The very complicated story has been plugged into a conventional format. In movie shorthand, the biggest social innovation in the history of the world is inspired by lost love. There’s way more to the real story but it’s a nice fable that Facebook was invented to impress a girl.
The Social Network has spurned a lot of fact checking and many speculations about the real Zuckerberg. . His donation of 100 million dollars to the Newark Public Schools a week before the release of The Social Network suggest that perhaps he is concerned himself. However, none of the film’s nitpickers and Zuckerberg detractors deny the importance of Facebook. I rail a lot myself about the banality of communal life there but I am also enriched by the camaraderie and exchange of ideas of which I partake.
Spuds turns fifteen this week. After a double digit number of visits to the DMV this year, he reminds me that he will be eligible to take the exam for a learner’s permit in March. He will be transported by his dad. Spuds is taking advantage of Pater’s weekend trip to Boise and is hosting teenage soiree at the house in his own honor. On the actual day of his birth he is carted out by the ‘rents to celebrate at Freres Taix, pretty much unchanged since my childhood and whose name I am still uncertain how to pronounce.
Spuds, after nearly a year of vegetarianism, goes carnivore and orders a steak. Feigning a trip to the ladies, I pull the server aside and ask if there are plate covers they could use to surprise Spuds with our gift to him, a freakishly tiny IPod. No such covers are available but the server promises to devise something. Before the table is cleared four excited waiters present Spuds with a huge mound of chocolate mousse and sing perhaps the most rousing version of Happy Birthday I have ever heard. They hover excitedly while Spuds digs into the dessert. I am worried that the mousse will seep through the tiny plastic box but they have thoughtfully encased the thing in about seven layers of aluminum foil. The gift is a huge hit although when he first discovers the tiny box Spuds is concerned that we are proposing marriage.
Spuds avoids Facebook all birthday day. He says he wants to log on at the end of the evening and drink in, in a giant gulp, all of the assembled birthday greetings. There are a lot although his father embarrasses him by calling him “little man” and a black friend refers to him as “niggah.” Spuds thanks all of his friends, individually making for perhaps a hundred little conversations. He notes how Facebook enhances the pleasure he takes in the occasion.
In addition to his Facebook greetings, Spuds also gets elaborate handcrafted cards, even a Dodger themed one, stamped from three different state prisons. The mailroom has been advised not to apply the red state prison stamp to pieces of artwork but this edict is usually ignored.. There is something weird happening though at California prisons. All three of my correspondents indicate that they haven’t received any mail from me in nearly two months. My thick letters are covered with commemorative stamps and full of articles and puzzles and letters addressing their concerns and trivialities of my life. Their missives are pleading and worried and sad. I see online some mention of mailroom hours being cut but the news is from back in March when letters were usually received in three or four days. I have no way of reaching them and I pray for word indicating that finally some of my correspondence has broken through. But the letters just grow more and more dejected. I like that they like me and I like each of them too but it is frightening to be so important and so powerless.
My notion of history, based on a childhood of film watching, was that it took place in black and white. Maybe my soft spot for the incarcerated is inspired by the bleak portrayals of prisons in the two gorgeously shot black and white films, I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Sullivan’s Travels. Black and white, while often disturbing, creates a distance from reality, almost a surreality, What I remember mostly about Bonnie and Clyde and later kindred spirit Chinatown, is how the color lays waste to the dreamlike and sucks you in and reminds you that the world has always been in color.
Director Arthur Penn died this week. My dad took me to see his Bonnie and Clyde when it came out in 1967. I had to promise not to tell my mom. The film was released a few months after The Graduate and both demonstrated that the counter culture had infiltrated the mainstream movie. Both films were among the last “studio” films and harbingers of the death of the factory system of filmmaking. The Graduate seems to be regarded as the symbol of the tectonic shift but I think Bonnie and Clyde is ultimately the more enduring film. I’ve seen it maybe half a dozen times since my dad first took me to the Wiltern when I was ten and it is remarkable how vivid the film still is to me, back from when I very first encountered it.
I watch some home movies of myself at about age four, playing with my two favorite toys, a red Texaco truck from a station promo and a bride doll with a net veil that my dad traded some films for. I spent every Saturday in the back of his office with a projector and access to thousands of films. Because he never represented MGM or RKO I made quick work of the Columbia musicals and AIP stuff like Beach Blanket Bingo. From there I went full throttle into Warner Brother’s crime and noir, throwing in occasionally war and western films.
After his half Saturday at the office, we’d eat next door to Paramount at the Nickodell, Then we’d usually go to the Wiltern or a theatre on Hollywood Blvd. where he’d tell me about anyone whose Walk of Fame star I didn’t recognize. He patiently endured Gidget and My Fair Lady and several screenings of the Monkee’s movie Head. Dad was married to women not much interested in movies so I afforded the opportunity to partake of some the more manly offerings, and it is these films, that a little girl shouldn’t like, which actually have the most lingering impact.
The film racks at my office are filled with features in fiberboard shipping cases and short films in cans. I’ve seen many of them on a flickering projector or propelled by my hand on rewinds through a tiny illuminated viewer. I walk the aisles, my sea of celluloid. The labels, black ink for black and white, red for color, are written in my father’s steady hand and fading. The faint scent of the vinegar rot syndrome reminds me of our losing battle to stave off film’s dogged impermanence. Stricken films disintegrate into reeking gobs of unctuous jelly. Many of my childhood favorites survive though and I always mean to show them for the kids but never get around to dragging home a projector. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched a film in my collection for pleasure and I almost start to blubber from childhood nostalgia watching some shorts and cartoons projected at an outdoor party in Tarzana on one of the valley’s last big ranchos.

Facebook may be the prototype for something that will endure long after films and books and letters. In the penultimate scene of The Social Network Mark Zuckerberg is referred to as the requisite devil in the creation myth.. If Facebook were a country, it would be the third most populated in the world. It seems inevitable that eventually most of the world’s population will be connected to the same social network. Zuckerberg’s motives may never be clear but he set out to help people connect with other people, Imperfect in it’s nascent state I believe that ultimately some form of social network will help conquer ills that have been accepted since the beginning of time as inevitable.