Friday, March 28, 2014

Nicotine Dreams

Spuds is home for a week. Three months is the longest I have gone without seeing one of my kids and I count the days until Spring Break. He arrives taller and with a nice friend in tow. We make the mandatory pit stop at In-N-Out on the way home from the airport and I am so delighted that I eat dead cow for the first time in many years. Note to self: This was a poor decision. I accept that my only claim on Spuds this week will be at meal times and I prepare foods and select restaurants that he likes. We note, that while he and his friend appear to have their phones affixed to their hands with Crazy Glue, their level of discourse is impressively erudite. Despite ostensibly being on East Coast time they sleep most days until four in the afternoon, which would have them starting the day at 7 p.m. back at college. We also notice that Spuds has mistaken our living room for a laundry hamper and apparently has a physical disability which prevents him from washing dishes, closing cupboards or turning off lights. It is always hard to say goodbye but I will take a little comfort in the return to order.

It appears that most of my peeps don't share my affection for the TV show VEEP or perhaps they're just too lazy to go out on a weeknight. When my friend cancels at the last minute, I end up taking the train to the PaleyFest to attend the tribute by myself. This is perhaps fortuitous as there is an incident with a client at work that has me boiling mad and the solitary time gives me time to chill and plot.

It is cheaper and faster to take MetroRail to Hollywood and Highland but I get antsy being in a crowded car. Mostly the other riders are benign but there are people talking to themselves and tweakers. I check every ten seconds to make sure that my purse is zipped. A deaf couple sign to each other animatedly and elegantly. I am enrapt and it doesn't feel like eavesdropping until the lady shoots me a “WTF?” look.

I used to walk on Hollywood Blvd. just about every Saturday afternoon with my dad. It was seedy even then but there were pockets of gentility. We'd visit Burt Wheeler's Magic Store and Larry Edmund's film bookstore. Once in a while we'd even indulge in the famous hot fudge sundae at C.C. Brown's. I don't get to Hollywood Blvd. much these days and when I do I wistfully remember the pleasure I took walking up and down the street, my dad quizzing me about all of stars on the Walk of Fame. Now it feels vulgar and aggressive and unsettlingly in my face. A man, peddling a homemade CD, is violating the personal space, of who I presume to be, a European tourist. The visitor fumbles with the unfamiliar currency and parts with a twenty. Another tourist snaps a photo of a guy wearing a woebegone Batman costume which I surmise was purchased at the 99 Cent Store. Batman chases the woman down and demands remuneration. A family is accosted by a tour broker who promises that if they pay cash right away that all of them can take the deluxe tour of movie star homes and pay only the child's rate. Two LAPD officers on foot patrol pass in front of the Chinese Theater and a huge portion of the crowd disperses leaving only tourists jamming their toes into Marilyn Monroe's footprint.

I believe that Himself, except when traveling, has never dined in a restaurant by himself. “Why would I?” he asks. “I have food at home.” For me, there is something urbane and grown up about grabbing a seat at the bar and ordering a cocktail and a snack. I'm not feeling flush enough for Musso's but there is a Hollywood branch of Loteria that I've been wanting to try. Given the day's work travails and the fact that Weight Watchers has already been damned by my midnight visit to In-N-Out and a number of other transgressions committed in honor of Spuds' homecoming, I order a margarita. Salt and all. Plus a trio of tacos but these are very tiny so there's only the booze to feel guilty about. The strong drink indeed helps put the office annoyance in perspective.

I buy a pack of Camels over a month ago at my college reunion. I did the same thing at the previous reunion five years ago and I'll do it again at the next one, five years hence. I smoked during college and for the occasion this indulgence feels right. I end up smoking only a couple of cigarettes in Redlands. They are too expensive to throw away. I smoke a couple a week since we've returned. Because my wallet is the family ATM I am sure that the cigarettes have not escaped notice. No one has said a word though, which sort of hurts my feelings. There is one cigarette left in the pack. I plan, after drowning my sorrows with tequila, to smoke it on the way to the PaleyFest but I see that I'm running late and it slips my mind.

Nicely buzzed, I arrive at the Dolby (nee Kodak) Theater for the VEEP tribute. When I confess that I'm alone, I am moved from the back of the mezzanine to downstairs front and center. I fill a seat in the same row as the Paley family. An episode from the upcoming third season is screened. The show, written and produced by Brits, is wicked and wildly funny. The ensemble cast is flawless. Himself looks down at the show and calls it “shrill.” I swear to him that if he actually watched it, and didn't just half listen, he would accept that the show is one of the finest comedies ever produced.

The episode is followed by a question and answer with Armando Iannucci, the show's creator and most of the cast. I am disappointed that one of my favorite performers on the show, Anna Chlumsky, is absent but the others give a lot of insight into the production. Almost all of the performers live in Los Angeles but VEEP is written and produced in Britain and shot in Washington D.C. The discussion makes it clear that this is a fun project but there is a formidable work ethic and nearly maniacal quality control.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is almost painfully thin. I think that perhaps that this is a camera concession but I am sitting close enough to see that the two rings she sports are dangerously loose on her fingers. I imagine that Ms. Louis-Dreyfus doesn't wear a lot of costume jewelry. It is all I can do not to raise my hand at the question and answer period and advise her that she's going to lose those expensive rings if she doesn't get them re-fitted.

So, except for my big outing to the VEEP thing and problems with an irksome client, my week has been devoted to the feeding of Spuds. I'm busily at work on the final menus. There are only a couple of meals left now until I dump him at LAX before dawn on Sunday. Then I'm back to Weight Watchers and high maintenance customers. At least I have that cigarette to look forward to.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Writing Strife

I am asked by an old friend, “Are you still writing?”  I respond affirmatively but feel sheepish.  I know what she means is “Are you doing any real writing?”  as in “Blogging is trivial.” and “Have you had any success?” as in “Selling anything.” It stings a bit that it has been many years since I’ve had anything published and that it has been about a year since I’ve even tried.  Yet, I am more disciplined about writing than just about anything else in my life. If success is measured in terms of honing writing skills in a way that is very meaningful to me personally, I have indeed achieved success. Still it seems like my work ethic should be better rewarded and that my prose deserves attention beyond the small circle of loyal friends who read regularly. 

I am starting, after some disappointments, to muster some ambition and if you notice previous pieces from this blog disappearing it is because I am removing them and reworking to submit for publication.  I go as far as to register for an online course about publishing personal essays.  The use of the expression “killer personal essays” in the class description should have been a tip-off.  The course is held via “Go To Meeting” software.  We all check our cameras and microphones and we are admonished beforehand that the discourse is to remain confidential.  I will note that one of the participants is seated at a kitchen table, not using headphones, while her father (elderly boyfriend?) hovers nearby preparing a snack.

Nevertheless, ever obedient, I will refrain from any possibly identifying disclosure.  Before the class we are given links to four personal essays, touted as being shining examples. Killer essays. All are confessional.  “I Wet the Bed”  “I Hit My Husband” “I Slapped Around my Boyfriend’s Crazy Stalker.”  All are written by women.  The eight participants in the class are also women.  The successful formula for publication I learn is confess to something horrible and deeply embarrassing, describe what drove you do it and then conclude with how you arrived at self love and acceptance.  We are to take turns activating our web cameras and pitching the ideas for three personal essays.  The instructor is in her late twenties/early thirties I think but I am often decades off with anyone younger than 50.  She reports rather smugly that she’s been writing for FIVE YEARS!

The seasoned writer is very patient with my fellow students.  She essentially plays therapist for the three hour session, telling each woman what her nutshell paragraph should be and how to get from there to the unconditional self love and acceptance conclusion. One woman blathers on incoherently about foreign aid work and PTSD.  Another describes falling in love with a woman after a drunken threesome.  A third recalls a time that her mother failed to pick her up at school. The instructor giggles about a story she has apparently milked many times herself for personal essays.  She heads out for a “booty call” at 3 a.m. and winds up in the drunk tank at the county jail. 

I private message her that I will not be participating in the pitching and that I am only really interested in the protocol of submitting work for online publication.  She messages back that I should pitch so she can assess what publications would be a good fit.  Having read her formulaic reductive work and listened to her cynical approach, I doubt whether this is within her realm of possibility.  I message back that I all I can think of to pitch is about how I would rather gouge out my eyeballs than sit in front of my laptop and tell a group of strangers things that I would like to write about and what that says about me. She messages me back “OK.”  The other students’ pitching is so excruciating that I drift over to Facebook and am actually tempted to turn on the TV.

I guess there are shocking things I could admit to but they bore me and any tidy epiphany would be bullshit. The appetite for this kind of essay depresses me.  I conclude that the writing I find most satisfying is not suitable for a number of web publications.  Narrowing the list is actually of significant value and I have honed in on a couple of periodicals and online magazines that might be a good fit.  Two pieces are sent out this week.  My skin feels pretty thick right now and perhaps I have enough momentum going to withstand inevitable and copious rejections.

Ironically, when Hannah Horvath, the main girl of Girls quits a job in a comfortable office with lots of snacks because the writing is advertorial, I hate her more now than I have ever hated her, which is a whole lot. (Jessa is the only girl of Girls I would be interested in spending time with.)  Hannah however, unlike me, has no other source of income and the soul she’s afraid of selling to the devil is so worthless that he wouldn’t want it.

There has been a lot of debate lately about the value of Creative Writing MFA programs.  If there were do-overs I probably would have applied for one when I graduated from college.  I don’t know that I would necessarily have become a better writer than I am now but it would have been a serious declaration of my seriousness.  Furthermore, as in any field, the literary profession is rife with log- rolling. Perhaps if I had begun networking earlier on it would be more natural and less odious to me than it is now.

Despite what Himself thinks, I do read. Most of what I read, I find poorly written and/or badly edited.  This is almost always the case with the on-line publications that the personal essay class targeted.  However, even the august Atlantic and New Yorker will once in a while print total duds by writers who in the past have done much better work but are obviously “friends of the magazine.”  Perhaps this sounds bitter.  I’ll even cop to feeling some animus towards editors and agents who haven’t even had the courtesy to respond to my queries and particularly a representative at a dinky publishing house who sent a witheringly harsh rejection. 

But every week I slog away here and every week I feel better for having done it, even knowing that others look down their noses.  I’ve read a lot about the craft of writing.  I’ve incorporated the wisdom of other writers with good results.  The most meaningful advice I’ve gotten from another writer however is that while perseverance, self promotion, and to a lesser extent talent are important, a successful writing career hinges on pure luck.  Which I would welcome a bit of.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Reality Rats

Except for medical and dental appointments and flights I seldom have to be anywhere.  Sometimes there are social engagements and/or cultural activities but I am on a liquid diet and the truth is I have no gumption for anything that wouldn’t include a meal.  I binge on Housefinders International and look on line for real estate opportunities in Belize or Serbia.  It would be good to maintain a nice lifestyle and not have to work .  Actually, I can’t complain about my current lifestyle and I pretty much don’t have to work much now but still satisfaction, for the most part, eludes me. 

On one of Himself’s teaching nights I indulge in Guilt Trip with Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogan.  It is a work-a-day predictable crowd pleasing comedy.  Streisand is a, sort of reined in and classy, despite her controlling brashness, Jewish mother.  Some of the dialogue is inspired and reminds me of the way I talk to my own kids. “Do you need me to pick up some underwear for you at The Gap?”  I am totally embarrassing and annoying but I’m so full of warmth that the kids have to be nice to me.  Seth needs to rev up his imagination and Barbra needs to expand her horizons and find fulfillment outside of motherhood.  After a few explosions they learn to make the most of their closeness.  Mom and son bring out the best in each other and ultimately navigate to a mutually satisfactory conclusion. The Rogan character has at least a decade on my kids but perhaps when they become of age they’ll help me figure it out.

A friend with a very stressful job is afraid that retirement would inspire her to eat and not much else.  I find that since the kids are gone I have so much time on my hands that it is hard to control grazing.  I do not miss the pace of life before the kids were driving but I miss the satisfaction I experienced in attending to their needs. I do not miss the emotional drama of four people living in the same household.  In my late fifties I’d envisioned having some chill time now, a reward for my efforts.  I have occasionally to wake up in the middle of the night to fulfill an order.  Working in the wee hours is pretty uncommon though and I can pretty much operate the business from anywhere in the world where there’s  wi fi.  For decades I was stuck in my office running things via telephone or written correspondence between the hours of nine and five thirty. My employees and I don’t really need to be in the office 40 hours a week but now there is the requirement of keeping in touch for the entire day and over the weekend. Still I describe myself as being in a state of “semi-retirement.” Since the kids are gone except for traveling I have not quite found my groove.  I always assumed that given an abundance of free time, Id write. But, since Spuds flew the coop I’ve only accomplished the minimum.  I manage to keep up these weekly pieces but have been unable to write anything other than this nor have I been able to motivate myself to go back and mine old pieces and hack them into submitable form. The only new routines born of the empty nest  are immoderate snacking and watching Judge Judy just about every day. My kids are mortified when I report the Judy obsession to their friends.

I was thrilled while I was in London I could watch Judy at the same time I do here.  That and seeing The Curious Incident of the Dog at Midnight before the roof of the theater crashed were definitely the highlights of my trip.  I am not really a slave to Judy but there was a sort of novelty about trying to see her in an English context because Judy is such a quintessentially Jewish American mother.  And I am proud to have Judy represent the tough love Jewish mom. Judy is all about prudence and to some she might seem condescending.  Sometimes I even agree that she is a bit much.   At times her judgments seem very biased and perhaps serve her social agenda more than justice.  Nevertheless the show is very entertaining and it’s broadcast all over the world.  Judy is to be lauded for imparting moral lessons, larded into pure entertainment, to so many millions of viewers.

Another recent distraction has been sort of like living in a reality show myself.
The fact of our hillside location and idiosyncratic house will always preface my confession, that, we have rats.  Our fifty year old house has been do-it-yourselfed from one level  into four and there is plumbing on three levels. We have battled treacherous rodents for over twenty years.  Four different exterminators have thrown in the towel and simply stopped returning our calls.  I notice on Yelp that there is a service that brags about being woman owned.  Kat’s Rats has a hot pink motif and scads of rave reviews.  Kat arrives in a pink truck bearing a cartoon of a lady strangling a rat. There is a hot pink streak in her black hair. I learn within fifteen minutes that Kate’s husband died young of a brain tumor and she is left raise her two sons.  Kat has triumphed now from homelessness to having one son doing rough work on her crew and the other majoring in English Literature at the University of San Francisco. 

Kat, her son and a godson so close she calls him her son spend several hours casing out our joint.  They take numerous photos and  execute precise diagrams. Then, we wait for Kat’s recommendations.  Two installers yank my old dishwasher from the wall and a rat runs out before Kat’s bid is received.  Kat apologizes profusely for the delay, explaining that there’s been a family emergency.  The bid arrives several hours later with a twenty page attachment.  There is some pretty scientific information about rat behavior and a comprehensive description of the work proposed.  For the extensiveness of the job and the guaranteed results the bid is high, but fair.

Half a day is spent installing traps and crawling around and sealing pipes and spouts.  Our luck is bad though and a rat dashes across the kitchen in broad day light and then another one (or maybe the same one running in circles, suggests Kat ) There are some pipes that cannot be examined without the removal of a chunk of ceiling from Spuds’ room.  I send my employees over with saws and they return taken with Kat and her pink duct tape.

I’m not having a good week.  I’m overmedicated and still in a bit of pain from oral surgery.  And not eating solid food is tantamount to psychological torture.  Kat comes by to check traps a couple afternoons a week. She always sits down before she goes for a little chat.  I am feeling so rough that don’t feel like talking.  I kind of dread it when she positions her butt over the chair but then I find myself captivated by the saga of the single mom/terminatress, even if it’s right in the middle of Judge Judy.

The ceiling is removed but there is no clear view of the pipes so Kat needs to smoke test the house.  This involves closing all the vents and shooting smoke through the main line to reveal the hole the rats are using to enter.  Given my week of morass I am certain completely sealing the house will require the demolition of a concrete floor.  We are not able to locate the entrance for the main line.  I show Kat where I remember it being but it isn’t there.

 One of the office guys comes and finally digs where I believe the cap is located.  He  locates the clean out.  Kat can’t come until Friday because there is a family funeral on Thursday. The new dishwasher makes a terrible noise and I am certain that it has been rat ravished and that the warranty will be void.  The serviceman lets the dogs out and I have to chase them for several blocks.  The repairman starts the machine and it is quiet and whatever was causing the noise seems to have righted itself.  It is enormous relief not to worry that the serviceman will report with disgust that due to having been installed in such a filthy house the new machine is rat wrecked and the warranty is thus voided.

Kat says that after having been homeless she started working as a receptionist at a pest control firm.  Then, noticing how much more money the servicemen made, she begged to learn the trade.  She owned a home but it was foreclosed and now she is renting.  She has a number of dogs including one that she rescued but was then sought out by his original owners who she sadly observes now keep him tied up. 

Kat is considering going to San Francisco to celebrate Valentine’s Day with her son and his girlfriend.  Valentine’s Day is the anniversary of their first date Kat reports.  She adds that an ex-boyfriend has asked her out for Valentine’s Day but she has refused.  I think Kat also says that Valentine’s Day is the birthday of her husband who died but I am taking pain medication and perhaps this is from a real reality show.  Teen Mom?

Kat is upset about the persistence of our rats.  She says the stress is so great that she goes off a week- long diet and eats candy and a cupcake. I am not at all surprised when Kat tells me about auditioning for the reality show Verminators.  She says she got the part because they were casting a female role and the other candidates were what the producer determined to be “too butch.”  In the show, which unfortunately isn’t available on demand, she plays a rookie but Kat says that the main character’s ego was a bit wounded by her presence so she only appears on a few episodes.  Still, interacting with her always feels like the cameras are still rolling.

Kat is a reality show heroine. It is etched in stone that the problem will seem unsolvable but always, in the end, Kat will prevail. And then Kat will move on to rescue another  distressed household.  At which time it might be advisable for me to join a gym or take a class or soon I will be lowering my already bottom of the barrel, television standards. Not to mention, that I my return to solid food might prove catastrophic. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Meal Deal

AARP has been hounding me insultingly for the last seven years.  Lured by the promise of cheap car rentals and other discounts I finally succumb and join.  The other event of my week is the completion of a 15 mile stroll from Silver Lake to what is referred to as “the beach” but is actually Fred Segel in Santa Monica, or more precisely the Umami Burger contained therein.  A bunch of women in the 50-70 age bracket set out at daybreak.  A number peel off in Hollywood but four of us trudge on towards the coast.  I have completed this walk twice in the past but this is my first attempt in over two years.  I make it to the finish line, motivated by the promise of grease, beer and protein.  This attempt however feels more strenuous than it was before but it is an exhilarating accomplishment. And the tuna wasabi burger and Allegash ale at Umami are unspeakably delicious rewards.

Joe College and girlfriend come in for a day.  Both are trying to arrange summer internships.  The boy is doing what he is supposed to be doing but I still flaunt my quantitatively greater life experience and boss him around.  He is correct to discount me.  The young are supposed to ignore the old and learn by making their own mistakes but that doesn’t shut me up.  The quality of my life now would be better but for some youthful folly but I try not to take it personally when the boy ignores and/or forgets the edicts I spew with consummate authority.

Anyone near to me knows better than to compare me to my mother.  I do this more and more myself however and this inspires now a bit more self-acceptance than it does loathing.  The boy is growing tense now that there is less than a year and a half of college and my constant cheerleading and instigation of brainstorming sessions just makes him even more apprehensive about the future.  There is very little I can do now to better illuminate his path or quell his angst.  I buy him little trinkets and pack up food for him to take back to school.  I felt burdened and controlled by my own mother’s ceaseless offerings.  As I accept however my own psychic ineffectuality, I long to have some impact on the boy.  So I send him off heaped with cookies and discounted bulk socks.    

Joe College’s sojourn to Los Angeles is ostensibly in search of an internship but, being my boy, he also optimizes the eating potential and scores two dinners and a breakfast.  I am thinking about a bribe that will motivate him to get his ailing car to the mechanic as early in the day as possible.  I ponder that he might like a newish neighborhood joint, S-qirl which has gotten a lot of buzz.  While
I ponder whether or not he will find the place pretentious, Himself is parsing a Westways Magazine and mentions this same restaurant at the very moment I am thinking about it.  S-qirl apparently specializes in burned toast.  Joe College and Girlfriend make it to the mechanic’s in time for a late breakfast and we are pleased that S-qirl also offers toast that isn’t burned and an impressive selection of homemade jams.  Just because the place is straight out of Portlandia and has a weirdish menu I’m prepared to hate it.  But, all of our food is good and the service is genial. 

My children are food-centric like their mother and it will often take hours for the three of us to agree on a restaurant.  Himself is less obsessed with eating. Due to cheapness and laziness and the fact that I have learned to cook around his enormous list of gustatory taboos, it is very hard to sell Himself on dining out.  His pat response to “Do you want to go out to eat?” is “If you want to…” I infer the dangling ellipse means “but I DON’T want to.”  The only surefire way to get Himself out of his chair and into a restaurant is with the promise of pizza. Our usual default is an Argentinian place in Glendale that makes a pie with about a pound of sautéed onions and not much else.  His other favorite place is the ancient Casa Bianca in Eagle Rock.  Because they don’t take reservations there is often a line around the block for the popular place.  “Waiting in line” is in Himself’s trifecta of terrors, along with “parking” and “traffic.”  Casa Bianca is only feasible close to the opening hour of 5:00.  The kids need to leave early and get back to school so, for once, a very early dinner at Casa Bianca is feasible.  I will add that I am scheduled for oral surgery the next day.  I will be on a liquid diet for three weeks so my pre op preparation includes ice cream, pizza and Thai food.

The surgery is complete now. I am recuperating at home with true crime shows and Weight Watchers smoothies.  I will have to watch Judge Judy with a hot compress and sugar-free pudding instead of my ritual popcorn.  Theoretically, this shouldn’t be a big deal but it messes with my brain chemistry and I feel sorry for myself with nothing much to look forward to.

It is Spring Break for Joe College and he and Girlfriend are riding up to the Bay Area with a fellow student.  I am anxious due to the bad weather.  The boy is 21.  I began traveling by myself at the age of 17.  I made countless trips, usually in an altered state of consciousness as I recall, to Northern California.  I also made a number of visits to Mexico by myself, travelling by bus and train and visiting villages where there was a single phone operator off the town square and the wait was often several hours if they could get a call through at all.  As I check the traffic conditions on the Grapevine obsessively I wonder how it must have been for my mother, who lived by herself, knowing that her teenage daughter was traveling alone in remote places and incommunicado for weeks on end. I must have been very cavalier about this at the time but now guiltily acknowledge how rough that must have been on her.

Joe College calls.  I am so used to the kids communicating by text that when they actually call I panic.  They are driving on the 5 and need to know where to go eat.  He is pleased with my suggestions.  The 5 is a huge challenge.  Harris Ranch is stinky, expensive and mediocre but there is a decent Salvadoran place and an ok Indian in Buttonwillow.  Joe College already knows that while cute, the place with the lunchboxes and the big apricot completely sucks.  The boy thinks I’m a lightweight on film and music.  He’ll listen to Uncle  Richard on matters cinematic.  Himself and Uncle Bob have musical credibility.  My input on these subjects, and certainly life planning is inconsequential but I own the child’s stomach.

Spuds phones as well but at my behest so I don’t have a coronary episode when the phone rings.  He is happy and will be home for spring break in three weeks, bringing a friend who’s never been to Los Angeles.  This last stretch since Christmas break is the longest I have ever gone without seeing the boy and I am counting the minutes until he arrives.  We talk about what sights his friend will enjoy and about the possibility of a few days in Joshua Tree.  Spuds primary concern though is, “We have to figure out where to eat.” I don’t tell him that a couple of the places I have in mind offer an AARP discount.