Friday, July 29, 2016


Across from our hotel on the Lower East Side there's a shop that delivers, via bike, cookies until 3 am. Cookies are actually not my drug of choice but I do more than a little damage at Economy Candy a few blocks over. Laura, however is partial to the snickerdoodles so we make a late night stop. Four kids man the tiny store, a girl works the counter and three others sit huddled together on the floor in the back. The employees are all in their early twenties and I wonder how they handle working through the night. Where do they commute from? How do they live? Don't their mothers worry? Laura debates with herself whether to get one cookie or two. I am captivated by a beautiful song. “Who is that?” I ask. They are pleased that I want to know and report “Jeremih. We head out into the sultry night and they all harmonize along with the lilting chorus.

I tell my kids that I've heard a song that I love. They are derisive about my fondness for Bow Wow and Gym Class Heroes so I am afraid they'll ridicule me. Jeremih however impresses them. I download his music and like a lot of it. The song that captivates me in the cookie store is “Oui” and I am embarrassed by the number of times that I play it. A lot of the other songs, even pretty ones are remarkably dirty. I've switched from explicit to the radio version but the bleeps are just toothpaste that you can't put back in the tube.

The 60s musical “Hair” had some shocking lyrics which would have likely shocked me even more if I'd actually known what they meant. When I was in high school, in 1973, a sensation was the Billy Joel song “Captain Jack” which included the word “masturbate.” I imagine my parents were certain that all this filth heralded the end of civilization. Now Viagra commercials with 4 hour erection admonishments are on every channel. A new spot has three bikini clad models standing with little bonsais obscuring their pubes. Two of them struggle with ordinary razors which result in a shaggy mess. The third uses a new bikini shaver and trims her little shrub in to perfect heart shape. Perhaps the subtlety escapes some viewers but I feel a tinge of prudery at this demonstration of a better way to shave your bush.

Even before reaching adolescence I wrote my parents off as old fogeys. As I find myself frequently embarrassed by what's now acceptable in popular culture I realize that every generation finds their elders brittle and uptight. Still, when a presidential nominee screams “fuck 'em” in the middle of a campaign speech I think that maybe it's OK to be a little old school.

The convention is a good excuse for me to remain on the couch. If it hadn't been on I likely would have still been splayed out there watching other crap but given the historic significance I feel slightly less guilty about my indolence. I guess the event is a successful one because I am less depressed about Bernie's loss, and not as cynical about Hillary, since watching. I am suspicious about Hillary's beholdeness to banks and the like and concerned about her hawkish inclinations but I also believe that she is sincere in the concessions she's made to the Bernies and that the platform is the most progressive one since the 60s. Hillary isn't my first choice but I'm over it and give myself permission to go all verklempt at the prospect of our first woman president.

Number One son's relo to Chicago is done deal. A one year lease is signed and a trailer hitch is being installed on his tiny Toyota. A week after he leaves a Korean exchange student will move into his room. I call Spuds about the disposition of the items he's left behind. I guess because my mom moved me back into a smaller bedroom each of the many times my sister returned home in crisis, I am sensitive about childhood rooms. I assure Spuds that everything important to him will be stored and that we will always be able to make room for him when he comes home. I am tearful making this proclamation but Spuds is largely indifferent. He just asks that I not be judgmental about the crap he amassed in high school and adds that, having lived so far away for so long, it doesn't really feel like his home anymore anyway. I think these words are intended to comfort me but they just compound the sorrow I feel in the wake of his brother's departure.

I've firmly averred that the decision to quit a job in his field, that he likes, and move to a city he's never even visited is potential folly. Nevertheless I am helping Number One son collect moving boxes and prepare for the imminent journey. Perhaps graveyard shifts at shit jobs, living on dollar meals and rice and beans is the shape of things to come. One of the lyrics from “Oui” is “Go anywhere baby. I don't mind. Grown man in my suit and tie.” The transition of being a mother to boys to being the mother of men is a rough one. Chicago is out of my power. I hope at least he'll be around other nice kids. And maybe they'll sing.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Week that Wore

It's been one of those weeks where I don't deserve really to have anything to write about. A refrigerator that has malfunctioned since its purchase three years ago is replaced with a shiny new model. Perry is neutered and when home from the vet, jumps out of his crate, bounds and leaps through the house, showing no sign of having been anesthetized. I leave a message for the principal of the adult school, hoping to find out if I will begin teaching when school begins in three weeks, but my message is not returned.

Pat Smith, whose son was murdered at Benghazi rails against Hillary at the convention. Smith's facts are evaluated by Politifact and determined to be largely inaccurate. The exploitation of this bereft and obviously unhinged mother is sickening. I manage the duck hunter, the underwear model who avers that Obama is a Muslim, and Stepford Tiffany but then can bear no more. Even the fringe elements of the GOP never screamed to imprison or even lynch the opposition. Who'd have thought that Ted Cruz would actually come out looking sane and heroic?

I think the best response to the GOP convention is to steal myself not to think about it. The other thought I am trying to keep at bay is that Number One Son, has, sight unseen, signed a one year lease for an apartment in Chicago. He is resigning from an excellent job and in a few weeks will attach a trailer to his tiny car and set out to make a new life in a city he's never visited. My reservations have been politely listened to and, unsurprisingly, ignored.

To fill the empty basement and satisfy my preternatural maternal instincts I have applied to host a foreign exchange student. I am offered a 13 year old Chinese boy but the supervision of a child this young is more than I want to take on. It is astounding to me that a child of this age is sent by himself to a foreign land. Cultural roots are obviously in play here as I myself am freaked out about my 23 year old heading off to live with a group of friends in the Midwest. The agency is attempting to find an older, less high maintenance student for our home.

Resigned to the inevitable I check out job opportunities in Chicago. There is nothing listed that remotely relates to the boy's interest in film. For young college graduates the options seem to be retail clerk, food service worker or car rental agent. He comes home from work now enthusiastic about projects he's working on and celebrities he sees around the office. But he also returns to the same room he's occupied since childhood, in a city where even with a decent paying job, it's nearly impossible to find an affordable rental.

I point out to him that I accept his decision and despite my skepticism am being supportive, adding too that I am also deeply depressed. He notes that he is sad too, knowing how much he'll miss us. Interestingly enough, having assiduously avoid any Jewish activity beyond our terse Friday Shabbat prayers, he notices that he feels a connection with the Jewish community and suggests that this is something he might pursue in Chicago. His intention, he says, is that his children be raised no less Jewish than he was. He adds too that, like us, as soon as the Bar Mitzvah is over, he'll hightail it from the synagogue. The candles are lit this week and I notice that Girlfriend-in-Law knows the prayers and shyly sings along. Both agree that there will be challah and candles in Chicago.

I think a lot about my mother these days. During college I spent some time in London and some in Mexico but otherwise I stayed nearby. Believing that my own children, for the most part, truly enjoy spending time with me, I'm trying to remember if there was a time that seeing my own mother was anything other than an obligation. My problem is I cannot separate the dementia, that I do not blame her for, from what in hindsight, I see as some sort of untreated personality disorder, for which I find it more difficult to forgive.
Before Spuds leaves I take both kids to the Mercado De Los Angeles in Boyle Heights, the closest thing to a bustling Mexican market that I know of. They eat muletas and drink raspados. Spuds buys a Loteria game board to hang in his room. I mention that I was here years ago with Grandma. They are surprised, as their only memories of visits with their grandmother are that we all dreaded them. I explain that there was a time when my mom was adventurous and that she loved foreign food and travel. She was also jealous and angry and that often eclipses for me that despite it all, there were times of fun.

My sister's life exploded and she ended up back home with my mother again and again. There was screaming and drama and I was looked to constantly to act as referee. At one point I dragged the two of them to a therapist I was seeing. The next time I saw him on my own he was annoyed at me and asked, “What do you think I could possibly do with them?” The implication that there was a possibility that he could do something with me was reassuring. But now, as I approach 60, I relate to the terrors about money and health,. At the time Mom expressed being frightened it seemed overly dramatic, paranoid, and conjured simply to induce my guilt. Now I wake up myself in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, panicked about death and destitution. My mother, wracked with worry, tromped around a big house that she occupied, except for when my sister crashed and burned, by herself for over 50 years. My circumstances are indeed quite different. A partner sleeps beside me and I like to believe that my children are less damaged and resentful than I was. Still, I feel lousy about trivializing my mother's terror and angst.

Mom had beautiful nails which she maintained meticulously. Even towards the end, when she was completely ravaged, I made sure she was taken for a manicure. I'd often arrive at the board and care to visit and find her gazing at her hands. There is a sweet manicurist who has somehow gotten my own brittle nails to grow a bit. For the first time in my life they look decent. I like to admire them and catch myself examining my hands again and again. I am like my mother, I'm sure, In many ways I don't observe and also in ways I clearly see. When I extend my perfectly manicured nails and examine them with satisfaction I feel connected with my mom in a strange and potent way.

Shabbat will soon be different. Perhaps it will be just Him and myself or maybe some befuddled foreign student will join us at the table. This week after dinner the four of us play Clue. I haven't played in years. I realize I could likely win if I had a piece of paper to keep notes on. Number One Son figures out that it's Colonel Mustard, in the conservatory using the wrench. Then we have cherry pie.

I imagine I will continue to wake in the night, afraid. Either a mildly corrupt professional politician or a narcissistic sociopath will be our next president. There will be a foreign student with us, or there won't be. I'll either teach again, or I won't At least until Spuds graduates in May and, maybe even after that and forever, my kids will be far away. Poignant feelings wash over me when I catch myself staring at my hands. I am my mother's daughter. I am my sons' mother. For all the ebb and the flow, the stasis and the change, that will always be.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

East Coasting

The mother of one of Spuds' school friends owns an Israeli restaurant in Manhattan.and hosts a Shabbat dinner. Spuds, my friend Laura and I are seated at a table with a bunch of recent medical school grads who are starting internships at Bellevue. They are friendly and eager to discuss their own accomplishments but demonstrate very little curiosity about us. Being admired by folks in our age bracket is obviously familiar territory.

Laura is temporarily reliant on a cane and is a very good sport about it. Our trip is planned while she is fully ambulatory and she grins and bears the difficulties of getting in and out of cars and navigating steep stairs. What I think is more disheartening than the physical discomfort are all of the assumptions that seemed to be married to this small medical device. I notice a number of times that questions intended for Laura are posed to me, as if somehow impeded walking results in impeded thinking.

We leave the restaurant after Shabbat and one of the interns asks if he can help us hail a cab. I inform him that we're Ubering. He thinks that this is cute and adds that he can't imagine his grandma ever using a phone app to summon a car. Doing the math, I figure that with two generations of teen moms I actually am old enough to be his grandmother. I often say, and it's even true, that I would not prefer any age to my current 59. I don't think I attach any shame to being as old as I am but the grandmother Uber thing, even a week after the incident, pisses me off. I guess I really don't really like being identified as old, while for the most part, being as old as I am is quite satisfactory. But, I think what rankles the most is the assumption the younger often hold that older people are backward or quaint. Dr. Questionable Bedside Manner, ironically, probably thinks he's complimenting us for having risen above his low level of expectation.

I give myself permission to go off the rails when I lose my friend Richard. It seems to me that six months of informal grieving should suffice. Fortunately, my teaching gig provides a wonderful and fulfilling distraction. When this ends, despite the expiration of my six month mourning period, I am still unsettled and sad. Since the kids are independent, and we're able to travel without them , we've adventurously visited places we'd never been to before and really expanded our comfort zone. This trip is one however of mainly retracing familiar steps. There are still a number of historical sites in the Hudson Valley that are on my list but I spend my time lolling around and preparing meals for Spuds and his friends.

Spuds lives in the charming town of Tivoli. A lot of his friends are spending the summer there too. Jobs are pretty easy to land in this woodsy retreat from Manhattan. Kids share decrepit 19thdxcentury houses, which knowing they'll be trashed, the landlords neglect and gouge for. I clear out everything that's rotted beyond recognition from the fridge, do half a dozen loads of laundry and the kitchen floor. Spuds, like his older brother, has taken to grilling and I make sides and desserts for big groups of kids. Unlike the New York newbie doctors, these kids actually show an interest in us and are eager to hear about our ideas and experiences. And as Liberal Arts students they have voracious appetites for culture and we bop from art, music, film and tv. Their insights are sophisticated and opinions well thought out. They have more tattoos and facial hair than the young physicians but seem to take themselves far less seriously. Spuds reports that we pass muster as “cool” parents.

In keeping with the anti-adventure theme of the trip, we decide to return to Philadelphia, despite the East Coast's nearly infinite untrodden territory. We do make a stop en route in Nyack to visit the house where Edward Hopper was born and cruise, at Himself's request, through the home turf of his paternal grandparents, the old coal town of Avoca, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia is a great city for both food and art and I like a place where there's stuff to do between meals. Spuds, who announces his plans to attend grad school and earn a PhD in art history, appreciates a lot more contemporary art than his mom who militantly favors the representational. We go our own ways at art museums and when the Barnes (one of the best museums in the world) is sold out, Spuds opts for the contemporary gallery and Himself and I trek over to the behemoth Eastern State Penitentiary, which now operates as a museum.

The vision was to create a penal institution inspired by the Quaker belief in isolation and quiet repentance. The building was considered one of America's most modern when it opened in 1829. Each cell was heated, had running water and a flush toilet. Andrew Jackson's White House of the same era lacked running water and was heated by coal stoves. Also, modern was the rejection of harsh and corporal punishment. However, the notion of quiet penitence was taken to the extreme. All speaking was forbidden. Prisoners were confined to one person cells and assigned handicrafts like shoe-making or leather work. Convicts were moved around the prison wearing hoods to insure that they were unable to communicate with or be identified by other inmates.

When Charles Dickens toured the ostensibly innovative and human facility in 1842 he wrote:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

By the 1920s, the prison was expanded and run more conventionally. A photo gallery shows sports teams, Christmas celebrations, big vocational workshops and musical groups. We visit a sweet little synagogue, recently restored and watch an interview with the Rabbi chaplain. I imagine that statistics will confirm that prisons have become more punishing and offer fewer resources for the prevention of recidivism over the last decades. There has been some criticism that “prison tourism” trivializes the current incarceration crisis. Indeed all have gift shops with kitschy items like toy handcuffs and t-shirts that resemble prison uniforms but this just pays the bills.None of the handful of prison museums I've visited across the country glamorize or romanticize the prison experience. I can't imagine anyone touring a prison museum without being struck by the coldness and lack of humanity. On the central yard at Eastern State there is a huge 3D info graphic that demonstrates how much higher the U.S. rate of incarceration is than any other country in the world. There is also a breakdown that shows how disproportionately African American and Hispanic people are sentenced to prison.

We return to the Hudson Valley on the 4th of July and walk down to watch a big fireworks display from across the river in Saugerties and then spend the night, after a day of hazmat duty, sleeping at Spuds'. The next day I drop Himself at JFK and then head to a crummy AirB&B on the Lower Eastside. When Laura arrives the next day we decide that the apartment is too squalid so we move to a nearby micro-hotel. I hit my usual Eastside haunts-Russ and Daughters (restaurant 1x, deli 2x,) Economy Candy (2x) and Yonah Schimmel's Knishes (1x). When not eating we see my friend and expert New Yorker Rosemary and enjoy the Book of Mormon and for my second time, Fun Home.

We take in three great exhibits at the new Whitney-a selection of portraits from their permanent collection, and retrospective of Stuart Davis with dozens of his vivid oil montage riffs on European advertising. Finally there is a large exhibit with the work of photographer/filmmaker Danny Lyon. Lyon began his career photographing the civil rights movement. I notice that some of his earliest photos include civil rights leader John Lewis, the congressman who brainstormed the recent House sit-in for gun control. There is also a chilling series of Lyon's 1960s photos from a Texas Penitentiary.

The Museum of the City of New York has a wonderful exhibit on the NY cartoons of Roz Chast and some interesting artifacts from the Yiddish theater. It is comforting to revisit familiar places and feel vaguely New Yorker. Like the Hudson Valley, there is a long list of Manhattan attractions I've yet to partake of but this trip my disposition runs conservative.

Spuds flies home with me to spend a week. He has a new girlfriend who's spending the summer in L.A. and they are attached like glue. Number One Son, despite having never been there, is planning to pack it all in, quit his job and move to Chicago. I proffer my opinion but understand his curiosity about living elsewhere. I made even more rash decisions myself when I was 23. I get a weird feeling as I watch from outside my boys, as men, planning and living their own lives. I look at these giant creatures, strange yet familiar and it is hard to imagine that they were once inside of me.

Both boys and their girlfriends sleep in the basement as I write this. In a couple weeks I suppose it will just be Him and Myself, two cats and a dog. I still don't know if I'll be teaching in the fall. If not, I need to find something to fill the mothering void or I'll put on another twenty pounds. I did download PokemonGo. I've caught two Pokemons and am at Level Two. I bet the young doctor's grandma can't do that either.