Friday, September 26, 2014

My Friend the Murderer

For nearly a decade now I've written weekly to three Jewish inmates in California prisons. Alan is one we have a special bond with. We visit him four or five times a year at the prison in Tehachapi. He will be released in 2017, which after nearly twenty-five years of incarceration feels to him like five minutes. Spuds is in elementary school when we first visit Alan and will (we hope) have graduated from college when Alan is released. Alan is a person I would choose, and am fortunate to have, as a friend. I enjoy our visits and reading his letters. I send him stamps and books and do research that he needs on my computer. When he leaves prison at age 57 he will have never operated a computer or even held a cell phone.

I become involved in the penpal program through Aleph, a Jewish service group. I tell them I'd like to write to a pen pal and they send me three names and addresses. I am moved that these three inmates have all asked to correspond with a Jewish person and I figure, “What the hell?” and write to all three. It does not occur to me when I send these first letters that inmates have a lot of free time. I've settled into a pattern of writing to each of them once a week. When I travel I carry address labels and send them postcards from wherever I am. I provide a little warmth and consistency. Maybe I nurture some goodness in people who have done terrible things. There are cards from all three for all of our birthdays, anniversary and every holiday. I had no idea what I was getting into when I sent those first letters. Only death will end these three relationships.

While Alan will be released and I know his life story and the details of his offense, the other two, Jim and George are sentenced for life without the possibility of parole. I do not know the specifics of their crimes and I do not ask. I know that both of them are not in good graces with the (mainly Orthodox) Aleph group because they are unable to prove their Jewish heritage. Having been connected with the penpal program is a fluke and both have been refused the ritual items and publications that Aleph sends off to Jewish inmates. Claiming a Jewish heritage is common in prisons as it entitles inmates to a Kosher meal plan which the rumor mill touts as being superior. It sounds, actually, more vile than the regular grub. Alan, who is able to prove his lineage, suffers with the Kosher plan for several years. All of the foods are shelf stable, bland and gummy. I am the one who encourages him to let it go and return to regular meals. I tell him that he's atoned enough and that for the sake of his mental health he should make his abysmal circumstance as tolerable as possible.

Jim tells me nothing at all about his life story except that he was in the service and at one time owned a furniture store. I have no idea if he is or was married or if he has children or any living family on the outside. He likes football and every year I print out the NFL TV schedule for him. He has a thing for Reba McIntyre. He types most of his letters. There are no computers available to inmates in California prisons. How weird it is that it seems so weird to receive a typewritten letter. Jim is often less upbeat than the other inmates. He complains a lot and actually, having visited a prison, he has a lot to complain about. Jim asks for more than the other prisoners although from the outside I can't provide much more than stamps and magazine subscriptions. Jim does often take the time to transcribe long jokes. Most of them are actually funny. Once he writes out one that is rather racist. The next batch of stamps I send him are Ray Charles and Rosa Parks commemoratives and there are no further offensive jokes. He particularly likes Spuds because of the sports affinity and I send off a prison-typical hand drawn Betty Boop birthday card to the boy at Bard which he is delighted to receive. Jim notes to me that he hopes he won't run afoul of the law for copyright infringement for the unauthorized use of the trademarked image. “But what could they do to me anyway?” he adds.

George is vague too, but his life sentence, he reports is due to being found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. In his 70s, he is the oldest and most eloquent of the three. His letters are perfectly composed and written in an old school elegant hand. He sends me a tiny picture of an older man once but it may not be him. He writes proudly of a sister in Mississippi who teaches school. He brags about having had an insurance business and owning fancy cars and Rolex watches. I suppose he paints for me a picture of the person he wishes to have been. He is witty and funny and his veracity has never mattered. He keeps careful track of my family and as a former businessman is always curious about the operation of my company. His prison job is in the laundry and in vivid detail he describes the giant machines and steaming heat. When I tell him about the electric car he is skeptical and downright disappointed. He asks me to find him a copy of a prison newsletter that describes a program which grants compassionate release for elderly prisoners who have served at least 20 years. It is actually a bitch to track this down but I finally find it, print it out and send it off to him. Upon reading it, it looks to me like he might actually, despite his sentence of life without parole, be eligible for release.

I send all of the inmates my annual Rosh Hashanah card and realize that I haven't heard from George for a while. I know he is diagnosed as needing a heart valve replacement and he complains about waiting for the prison bureaucracy to make it happen. I think maybe he's finally gotten the surgery and is recuperating but it's starting to feel like a long time. I log on to the California Inmate locator website. I enter George's name. Nothing. I enter his inmate number. Nothing. Just to make sure it's not on the fritz, I enter Alan and Jim and their names and locations appear.

It is unlikely that a compassionate release could have come to fruition this rapidly. It is however very likely that the heart valve replacement is delayed in a mire of prison paperwork. George is incarcerated at the Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. I try to phone. It will suffice to say that this results in nothing more than a wasted hour of my life and a reminder of prison personnel culture. I am finally connected to the counseling office. I leave a message. My call is not returned.

Finally, I try the office of the state prison ombudsman in Sacramento. I leave a message. A kind woman returns my call in less than an hour. George Brown passed away August 14. He never received the newsletter about the compassionate release program he was eligible for. The letters, stamps and Rosh Hashanah card I've sent have not been returned. Although I have no compunction about Alan, I admit there are times I feel burdened and wish I hadn't taken on Jim and George. Every letter from them in the box reminded my of a long haul obligation I'd naively gotten myself into. Letters from Jim and George always have an undercurrent of bullshit but despite the onus of having to answer each one, every single letter shows an effort to please me either with a funny story or a concern about my life. Having received a letter from me weekly for nearly ten years the inmates can better document my life than I probably could myself.

Several years ago I make the decision to get rid of all the letters. There are folders overflowing and individually none of them mean that much. Now, I wish I could go back through the letters that George sent me and look at the photo that may or may not have been of him. He's been de facto family for nearly a decade yet I have no picture of how he lived or died. Knowing what I do about prison life, I cannot bear, despite whatever horrible things he may have done, the thought of someone whose life has been intertwined with my own for so long, dying there alone.

At first I am reticent to recount to the prisoners any fun or adventure in my life which would make more harsh the sting of their own bleak surroundings. Over time though I realize that my weekly travails bring color and a help satisfy a longing for the outside world. Just like the letters I receive from prison are often more than a little revisionistic, my weekly notes are written for an audience far different from the people I address here. The commitment to the inmates is like a mandate to live a life that someone, stripped of everything that I find important, will take comfort in hearing about. Knowing that people who are invested in my life molder in prison cells compels me to savor my good fortune all the more.

When the penpal project starts I am a temple member and many of the early letters are about Jewish holidays and customs. This year, for the first time in over twenty-five years I am at the office on Rosh Hashanah. Our temple membership has lapsed and we will be absent on Yom Kippur too. I no longer feel the comforting presence of the ineffable when I sit in a temple pew. My prayers there are rote and provide no sense of a greater connection. It is the season of atonement and this year I honor it with silent retrospection. I am unmoved by communal prayer, but the bigger thing, the real Jewish thing to me, Tikkun Olam, to heal the world, still resonates. George was likely a liar and a killer but he knew my life and he tried to make my laugh. He never missed my birthday. The thought of his death hurts me more than I ever imagined possible. But maybe in some way our correspondence during the last years of his life made him better too. At least I am better for knowing this and I like to believe that a killer remembering my anniversary means that the world has healed a tiny bit.
L'Shanah Tova

Illustration: Mordecai Ardon: Missa Dara

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Ease of the New

I spend the better part of a day selecting a ceiling fan from 113 Amazon pages of possibility. Himself, in a noble effort to eradicate a sound akin to bones breaking, sprays ours with WD-40 a bit too zealously. Usually he is discouraged from attempting household fixes and I rely on the boys from the office. I co-host a surprise party for one of these fellows who is used to being imposed upon for small and maybe not so small home repairs. We tell him we need urgent help with a garage door that won't open and this is so credible and probable that it is the perfect rouse. There is of course, at the moment at least, no garage to repair, but there will soon be a ceiling fan to be installed. I'm not even sure if I even like the fan but there is a heatwave and after getting through about 50 pages of possibilities I am exhausted and beaten down.

The guests arrive a half an hour before my friend and his tool belt. I've done my usual potluck prep providing some appetizers, beverages, salad, main course and dessert. All bases covered in case the offerings are weighted in one category too heavily. At one gathering that I attended, everyone brought a dessert. There were no complaints. Nevertheless I like to insure a balanced menu with quality provisions. The guests, most of whom I don't know, are a diverse, very artsy crowd, a bit more bohemian than our own little posse of old fogeys (people who would use posse and fogey in the same sentence). I am knee-jerk indignant and superior when menu contributions include chicken wings from the Von's deli and a tray of plain wrap cookies.

I futz around refilling drinks and plating things. I am not entirely comfortable meeting strangers and even, often these days, people I know. I am afraid my party planner mode might seem aloof or snobby so I force myself to engage. The birthday boy and his partner do not use Facebook. They are, like most of their friends, artists. They spend a lot of time together at openings, concerts and film screenings. They do things. Out in the world. No Facebook. We used to do things too. I am struck by how genial and affable the group is. I know too that except for the people I already know, that no new relationships are being formed. While the chit chat is totally pleasant and the group diverse and iconoclastic, I feel my own undercurrent sense of falseness and futility. I am very rusty at being around new people, even nice folks (despite the crappy cookies). I decide that maybe I need to get out more. I will try not to judge people who just don't care that much about food and I should only be so lucky.

There are three kids at the party, two twelve year old boys and a seven year old girl. They eat a lot of the most expensive cheese and steer clear of the generic cookies. They remind me of my kids, who were also completely comfortable with adults. They chat affably with each other and the grown ups. Being kids, the repartee grows tiresome and the three of them huddle around a phone watching a video. I ask them if they want to watch TV, which given my own social regression, is what I'd probably rather be doing myself. They demur relenting only when I point out that they can stretch out on a comfy couch and watch the same thing they are watching on a big screen. One of the kid's dads later chides the boy for surrendering to the boob tube instead of being edified by the awesome group of adults. I pretend not to hear.

I think about the extent to which Facebook for has supplanted real human contact. I get a phony infusion of warmth there and then am free to melt into the couch with remote, laptop and popcorn. I used to love lying on my bed talking to a friend on the phone. One of my sweetest memories is the first time Himself and I spoke. For about two hours. I was in my tiny cottage in Echo Park and was in a pastel phase. I had to pee so bad. Now I cringe when the phone rings. It seems my relationships are better modulated when communication is via text or the (archaic to my children) e-mail. I can present myself so much more charmingly with a lag-time to compose my thoughts.

Still, I do try to spend real time with real people. I am not being hyperbolic when I state that, more often than not, attending a Weight Watchers meeting and having breakfast after with the girls is the high point of my week. There are fewer scheduled get-togethers these days. Maybe there is a message that I am not getting but it seems that I tend to take more initiative towards these things more frequently than most of my friends. Usually asking for a date is met with an enthusiastic and appreciative response but I think I am the ask-er more often than the ask-ee. I wonder perhaps if many of us have lost the knack of preserving affable human contact in our lives. We have Facebook and Amazon Prime and Twitter and Netflix after all.

I love my home and idle away many hours there. But its decrepitude and the accretion of things weighs. And I am more than a little repulsed that the prospect of coming home to an imperfect ceiling fan is unconscionable to me. My house, like the food I cook is my own creative outlet. But, maybe though this is just a rationale for indulging in excess. Living life out of a couple of suitcases, free of things, truly appeals. I love my stuff and my space but I am also oppressed by the attention all that I have amassed requires.

It is so easy to surrender to the couch and not to be bored. There are at least a 1000 hours of series to get through and this is just HBO. There is less imperative for some to seek out human interaction. Perhaps there is too little in my own life. I have long conversations with the dog “You're such a good girl. You're my office dog.” And the cat. “Thank you Gary for not peeing on the bed.” I chastise our little robotic vacuum, who is unimaginatively called Robo, when he tries to eat the cord of my laptop. As I write this Himself is yelling at Robo for getting stuck under a chair. If Robo had fingers he'd dial social services.

The bonsai on the balcony are Brother Juniper, Paddy and Nestor. We share two nice blue cars, Bluie and little brother Junior. After driving my ancient wagon to nearly 200,000 miles now we have one very nice used and one of the few new cars we've ever owned. Himself embarrasses me when he catches me stroking the steering wheel affectionately so I try not to do that anymore. But I do talk to them. I praise Junior for not needing to visit the gas station. I thank both of the boys for being so nice to drive and staying so nice and clean. The latter, I'm afraid, is due to the demise of Rover, a short haired dog who shed so much that it was a miracle that he wasn't bald. If any one has another good line to help characterize the enormous amount that the dog shed I will gladly cut and paste.

Anyway, if it weren't me I would think these one-sided conversations are indicative of loneliness. But what's a little anthropomorphism when there's such good tv? My intention however, at this moment at least, is to cut down on the TV and Facebook. I am taking baby steps toward figuring out how I want to live as I enter what is likely the beginning of the last part of my life.

Illustration:  Three Symbols by Eileen Agar, 1930

Friday, September 12, 2014


For the first time in twenty five years we are not synagogue members. I have never recovered from a couple of stints as temple board member which was sort of like the Wizard of Oz curtain swept open to reveal mere mortality. I have always had a sense of the ineffable but my family was of the “eat or be eaten” school. This “me first” ethos was an agenda item, when in my twenties, I began to try to “undo” my childhood. When we started attending temple regularly it felt like I was making real progress, and to a great extent I was. Perhaps my childhood would have been easier if I had been raised in the bosom of a proud community. Initially the comradeship and sense of higher purpose I got from the synagogue provided great sustenance.

When Joe College was born I was blown away and my wonder proved that there existed that which most people refer to as “God.” We attended temple just about weekly for a number of years. I gave my kids something that perhaps my own childhood was lacking. But my efforts to support the community exposed me to pettiness and politics that distracted me from the raison d'etre. After the Bar Mitzvah hoopla the kids had to be dragged to temple. Both, away at college, interestingly, have a disproportionate number of Jewish friends and quite to my astonishment, attend Jewish functions at their schools.

My attendance is limited to an occasional Shabbat and the high holidays. Our tiny shul is blessed with a charismatic woman rabbi, who embellishes the bimah like a dancer--her former avocation. Her sermons are among the most eloquent and accessible I have ever heard. Even the kids like them. The rabbi accepts a position at another temple. I discover, after the fact, that this is due to a small salary increase that I feel our congregation could have matched had we been notified.

Last year I volunteer on Rosh Hashanah and am seated at the entrance of the temple making sure that everyone admitted is paid up. I accept that a small temple is extremely dependent on high holiday monies. But several temple board members man the station with me and details about members' personal finances and contributions are discussed quite freely. I slip in to hear the sermons from the replacement rabbi, also a young woman. In fairness, she might have warmed up by Yom Kippur. I didn't attend. The biggest guns come out for Yom Kippur, but I find the Rosh Hashanah sermon disjointed and lacking gravitas. It's not like I attend regularly when the cool rabbi is conducting services but this year, I've got no gumption to go at all, even for the Days of Awe and the start of the new Jewish year.

I partially rationalize my not springing for temple membership with the usual leftie organized religion cant. The anniversary of 9/11. The guilt by association members of my tribe endure as the result of Israeli politics. The mean-spiritedness of the Christian right in this country. Et al. Religion itself isn't ruining the world but so much of what ails the planet foments from extremism. Is it possible, without obliterating organized religion entirely, to keep in check adherents who may drift towards a perverted extreme? At least I won't be at risk this year.

Still, having been a student and a Jew, autumn to me always feels like the start of a new year. Summer is over and it's time to pull yourself together. Despite the mess and clamor of kids in the house all summer, I have a bad relapse of empty nest malaise. Our marriage is different now. We cannot simply pick up where we left off twenty two years ago before we were parents. With our gray hair and battle scars we see now how for years the kids suck up so much of our attention that our personal struggles are overshadowed or sublimated. Now we are less distracted and more in each others faces with our angst and our burdens. We have no more excuses not take that stab at accomplishments to supplement our parenthood. We have turned our fears of what could be life's last ultimatum on each other and let it smolder.

We could step out in front of the proverbial bus tomorrow but the underwriter of our life insurance policies is banking on thirty or so more years for us. With each year though the odds get smaller that we will reach the statistical mean. And that our bodies will remain enough intact to insure that what is predicted for us is worth enduring. For me and Himself there is the gnawing question of whether we should take one last charge at our vocational heart's desire or whether it is better to take advantage of our ambulatory state and not put a lot of effort into to things that have historically beaten us down.This question is what's gnawing at us and not the rudiments of our ancient marriage.

Baby boomers giving up roots is getting buzz. Some are Dickensian tales of Walmart World A trailer in the parking lot and seasonal minimum wage heavy labor. Other portraits are more sanguine. There are people who sell it all and travel the world via couch surfing or organic gardening. When we go visit our friend in prison we always look at the catalogs of prison approved products. Inmates are issued bedding, towels, a uniform, and the most rudimentary of sundry items. A package of no more than 30 lbs. can be ordered four times a year. Otherwise a few items are available from the prison canteen. The storage of possessions is cunningly compact. I think that the transition from this to a world of so very many things must be jarring. Still, I mull at stripping down to two suitcases and a few devices.

Joe College graduates in May and it stresses him to think about his future. How about being 57 and faced with what bodes to be my last chance for re-invention? Opportunities to balance out my failures shrink in number. How long can I bank on being physically able? When should I scale down and how far down should I go? As my stamina dwindles how should I allocate my energy?

For the most part, the high holidays are a communal affair and I am in self-centered existential crisis mode. The period of atonement is devoted to misdeeds of the community. We pray that we, all of us together will be absolved and live collectively in God's image, name etched for another year in the Book of Life. I am watching the Sons of Anarchy for the second time with Himself because there is some Irish content which might be a good subject for a paper although on the second viewing I fear a dearth of material and that Himself will fly into a rage at me for subjecting him to seven seasons. Anyway, sometimes members of the Original Redwood Charter of the club get pissed off about something and split off from the founding branch to become Nomads. They always end up going back to the fold though. I guess I'm a Nomad Jew and just don't have the steam right now for collective atonement but I'll always belong to the club.

Illustration: Camel by Julian Trevelyan

Friday, September 5, 2014

Office Dog

The stoplight at Hyperion and Rowena is out. Traffic is backed up all the way to Atwater. A strand of palm trees is framed by the arch of the bridge, so symmetrical that for a second I think it's a mural. A flock of birds, too small to be pigeons but too big to be sparrows, flutter in a diamond formation. They land one by one on a power wire. The mystery avians extend from one side of the wide street to the other, a uniform distance between each bird. Minutes later they take off again, one by one, a flittering rhombus. With my own supposedly superior intelligence I am just waiting in traffic to get to Trader Joe's.

My routine seldom varies. I walk every morning. Then I do a crossword puzzle and read a magazine while eating breakfast. Judge Judy and popcorn weekdays at four. Friday I buy a challah at Trader Joe's and we light Shabbat candles, give the dogs the leftover challah from the previous week and there is dessert after dinner. Sunday is Weight Watchers, breakfast with the girls and laundry. Except maybe for the laundry part I enjoy these rituals and take comfort in having become so routinized. Sometimes I worry that my indolence is a sign of depression but I kind of enjoy doing nothing much at all so it might just mean that I'm getting old.

This week brings some variety to the routine. We return from Santa Cruz and notice that corgi Taffy is coughing quite a bit and even more alarming, the most food aggressive dog on the planet is suddenly not eating. Taffy suffers already from hip dysplesia and one of this hind legs can't bear any weight and the other is wobbly with strain. He takes four different medications a day. I take him to the vet who thinks it might be bronchitis but an x-ray reveals that his lungs are filled with tumors, likely malignant. I feel bad, after years, that Himself had to take his beloved Fido on her last ride without me so I tell him not to meet me at the vet. They have a designated room with a cushy dog bed and soft lights. It goes faster than it did with Rover.

One of the finest things I've ever read is an essay by 92 year old Roger Angell. He lists a small portion of the friends and acquaintances that he's outlived. Angell's daughter commits suicide. Two months later Harry, his Jack Russell Terrier falls to his death. It is when Harry dies that Angell and his wife totally break down. Perhaps the death of a pet is our license to cry for every fucking thing. I keep mum about Taffy, having shot my wad sympathy wise, upon losing Rover less than two months previously. It is harder on the kids. They've had the dog for more than half their lives and have experienced many fewer pet deaths than we have. Spuds, who was gone when Rover went to doggy heaven too, sighs sadly, “I hate being gone when these things happen.”

I realize that more and more the kids will be gone when big (or little) things happen. I remember when my mom made changes to my childhood home, even thirty years after I moved out, that it was jarring. Now, still in my minds eye, the house it as it was in my earliest consciousness. The home that we've made I guess is just as important a character in the kids' lives as my childhood domain remains in my own. Now the kids will come home to two aging parents who share a sandwich and dote mawkishly on a single dog and a single cat.

Another event that makes this not a normal week is jury duty. After spending a day in the juror pool my advice to you is not to get arrested. One of my fellow prospective panelists spends the whole day right outside the jury room door screaming into his phone. He is mad at his wife, furious at a contractor (who he will indeed be suing) and on the verge of firing an employee (if he doesn't shape up). One of my other peers has arrived in short short cut-offs. And there are a surprising number of people who have brought absolutely nothing to occupy themselves and either stare into space, read magazines from the aughts or nod off. Most everyone else plays with a phone. There are only a couple of folks reading books. I overhear that a number of people are present because, after ignoring notices repeatedly, they are commanded to appear and threatened with a $1500 fine. Even the more law abiding are full of rancor, sighing and bitching and wailing, “I hope I never have to do this again.” I wonder what they have to do that is so preferable to having to do nothing. I actually would like to be on a case but am not called. I have a book and my laptop to keep track of the office.

While bemoaning my peers' lack of civic-mindedness I watch an Asian man interact with the staff. He is sweet but I detect that he is intellectually limited. On a shelf filled with ancient games he finds a jigsaw puzzle of a Van Gogh self portrait. It is one with the bandaged ear which seems a strange choice for a puzzle. He plops down in the middle of the floor and starts sifting through for the edge pieces. A man in business attire joins him and begins scouting out all the blue pieces. Then a woman with the guileless expression of either a missionary or a cultist joins the men on the floor. She is wears a dowdy beige skirt, mary janes with short socks and her legs are unshaven. Maybe she is just a hippie and is high and wearing the thrift store garb she uses to clean up. She begins to shape the red portion. An impeccably coiffed black woman sits daintily on a canvas bag and looks for Van Gogh's whiskers and beard. I love puzzles and am tempted to join in but I am so captivated by the silence and purposefulness that I just watch the portrait take shape.

We are sprung early and I even make it home for Judy. I am usually puttering around so commercials are often not muted. There is one for Beano that drives me insane. A couple is celebrating all of the things they are able to eat without inducing farting, thanks to the product. The woman says “veggie pizza” and the man adds “with extra cheese.” There is something weird and computer generated about their voices. I can't figure out exactly why they sound so off and it bugs the hell out of me. Plus, I detest the word “veggie.”

Another commercial, in the daily rotation is for the Auto Club. A woman claims that when she got the bid it was so low that “I literally fell off my chair.” I am furious when I learn that the new OED provides an alternative definition of “literally” as “figuratively.” I also bristle at the ubiquitous use of “healthy” instead of the correct “healthful.” I guess this is just old coot. Why should I have a hegemony over language? It is a fluid and changing thing. How has English evolved since Shakespeare's time? How did Old English (which Himself will chastise me for not mentioning was actually more a hybrid of German and Icelandic than any sort of English language) become Middle English become Modern English? How far ahead would I have to set the time machine to arrive at a time when my own English is unintelligible?

In just a little over a year, Spuds starts college leaving the house childless. Three venerable and beloved Volvos are junked. Mary, our sweet kitty is certainly in a different heaven than her nemeses Rover and Taffy. I miss so very much having an office dog and go as far as to look a bit on Petfinder. As Ohpea and Taffy are inseparable, Taffy's handicap makes it unfeasible to take both to work. Now that Taffy is eating challah in heaven, Ohpea is the new office dog. She is happy to get in the car in the morning and is a quick study as to the drawer the treats are in. In his final days Rover only came to the office once or twice a week. It was hard for him to get in and out of the car. He still insisted on a walk at 10:30 but could only manage half a block. Ohpea, on the other hand, keeps a very brisk pace and I am dragged a couple miles before the young strong thing is ready to return to the office.

A traffic jam is palm trees and magical birds. Juror prison is quiet collaboration on a jigsaw puzzle. Saying goodbye to the irascible corgi is having a happy sweet energetic companion at the office. I guess I can accept literally figuratively. If I could just get it together to mute those damn commercials.