Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Age vs. Beauty

From a recent Spoken Word venue, at which I argued for Age against Beauty. Yes, it's a rant.


I am 53.

Let me tell you what that means.

It means that I was an American born during the cold war in Munich, Germany, where the sound of my parents’ late night, booze-fueled conversations with artists, educators, and social activists who worked for Radio Free Europe was the walla of my childhood.

Being 53 means that I embody the optimism and radicalism of the sixties, when giving peace a chance was not a slogan on a high end T-shirt, but a viable philosophy. And when women grew their underarm hair to declare their equality to men, instead of shaving their cootches to declare their insecurity over not measuring up to their boyfriends’ porn fantasies.

Being 53 means that I lived in New York City in the early 80s. Pre-AIDS, pre-economic crash, pre-snark. When young people still believed that they could make something so profound that they could change the world. Feminism wasn’t a confusing concept, and sex was fun because no one gave a shit about “the rules”. It means that I did cocaine in the VIP room of Studio 54 and danced with Andy Warhol. OK, he stood there and I shimmied around him. To be honest, that was all anyone ever did around Warhol.  Later that night I actually danced with Tony Danza and Phyllis Diller. Together. I have yet to meet another person who can make this claim.

Being 53 means that I got to work on an HBO television show for three years that nurtured some of the hottest, most relevant comedians of the late 90s and beyond.

I’ve written a bestselling book, married my best friend, been a beauty editor for a national magazine, backpacked through India, gazed upon the Panama Canal, walked around the Gaza pyramids, birthed two children, read most of the classics, lived in London, published in the New York Times, and chipped chunks out of the Berlin wall just after it fell. I’ve hiked to the base camp of the Matterhorn (the real one), occupied LA  – in a tent—with my family, danced with the London Festival Ballet, sold seven television pilots, met living saints, and walked the very steps that Ghandi walked before he was shot. I have stood amongst the funeral pyres on the ghats of the Ganges, looked through the smoke of burning bodies, seen my own death, and understood my existence to be both profoundly significant and utterly irrelevant. I have stood in a classroom teaching seventh grade English and wondered how any of us survive the wounding mortification of yearning and not getting. And I have squatted behind a lone rock in the middle of the Sahara Desert, digging a hole for my own waste, and realized that the only thing that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is shame. That, and thinking puns are funny.

You may be young. You may be beautiful. You may have already had a shitting in the wilderness epiphany by now. Eventually all of us do. But even so, when you – youth and beauty-- and I are together, I am the most interesting motherfucker in the room.

And even if you don’t agree with me. Even if you would still rather spend your limited time basking in the glow of already fading youth and beauty – because, let’s face it, physical beauty always, always wanes unless you’re Diane Sawyer -- even if you would trade every ounce of wisdom and courage you would gain by growing older, for a decade more of youth and beauty – I don’t give a fuck.

And that is the true beauty of aging – the pure lack of fuck that I give about anything that doesn’t make me a better, more compassionate, more connected, more useful, more committed, more sexy human being. If only to myself.

In the truest sense, aging is radicalizing. Surviving loss and facing an uncertain future, either breaks you or makes you a badass. Surviving loss gives you boundless compassion for the weak, the dispossessed, the miserable, the vulnerable, and the spiritually numb. Surviving heartbreak, teaches you that humility is not passivity, tears are not weakness, stillness is not laziness, and aging is not death.

Recently, I was at Ross, buying a particularly jazzy pair of fashion forward skinny jeans. The checker eyeballed me and said, “Senior discount?”

My jaw dropped.

What? I mean, seriously, what the fuck? Do I look like a grandma? I’m buying leggings that look like denim – no grandmother does that!

My younger self would have taken the checker on, would have protested my obvious youth. Or impressed upon her that I only looked worn out because I’d been up all night partying and screwing my brains out. But my older self doesn’t give a flying fuck. So I said, “Why, yes. Yes I am a senior.”

And I got the discount on my jeggings.

Because I am the coolest motherfucker in the room.

Originally performed at "The Write Club" -- Bootleg Theater, Los Angeles

Thursday, January 3, 2013

New Year's Thoughts on Grammar, my Mother, and Real Life


I am sitting in a cafĂ© in Madison, Wisconsin. The snow fell yesterday. The powdery, light kind that falls without purpose and doesn’t stick to the streets. Outside the window, the sidewalks are slushy and a faint white fuzz drapes over modules of hardened gray snow, making everything look cleaner. It’s merely cosmetic, this atmospheric landscaping -- but I am grateful.
I do not live here. But the barista (not called such in Madison) knows me. I am my mother’s daughter -- the Hollywood actress (as my mother described me) who arrives from Los Angeles in the winter and once every summer to visit and write at the table by the window. My mother used to come here every day for a skinny late. Before she broke her hip. Today, I will order her skinny late to-go before I pay my bill.
I haven’t written freely in several months. This is mostly because I began a new job, teaching sixth grade English, in September. The work has been overwhelming frankly. This has less to do with the job itself than it does with me. I am incapable of doing anything by halves. As a result, I wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about a student’s grade. Or I am in the bath and I remember a poem that I simply have to teach – one that will blow my sixth graders’ minds with its powerful dialectic on modern man’s disconnectedness from nature– oh hell, I can’t put it in to words. T.S. Eliott. You know the one. And I have to jump out of the bath to write it down to prevent it from receding from memory and leaving only a fragment that will gnaw at my consciousness until it pops back into mind, waking me – yes, that’s it “The Waste Land” – an hour before I have to get up in the morning. Jesus, I can’t teach ‘The Waste Land’ to sixth graders. What was I thinking?
It’s fucking exhausting.
The floor on my side of the bed in Los Angeles is piled high with books that are supposed to tell me how to teach. I flip through them nightly. I got into a time crunch before the winter break and didn’t get to do something clever with Santa’s “clauses”. What a missed opportunity. I really want to dig into clauses and inspire the kids to write beautiful complex sentences that rise off of the page. Hell, even if their sentences just lie there looking like whole thoughts, it will be a partial win.
I’ve come to believe that clauses are the key to making their sentences at least hover. My favorite are independent clauses -- added bits of information that could stand alone but, for reasons left to the discretion of the writer, don’t.
My mother walks tentatively now and is unlikely to brave the trip to this coffee shop until the snow thaws. Even then, she would feel more confident walking here if she could lean on my father or me.
            I had to teach myself what a prepositional phrase was this year. A friend of mine explained that prepositions are little locators. I am, for example, sitting at the table, in the coffee shop, on the street where my mother lives. I never thought much about locators before. And if I had, I doubt that I would have granted them much importance. Who cares where you are, I would have said, as long as you’re doing something.
If you don’t have a verb, you don’t have squat.
In this case, I am writing. Does it matter that I am on the street where my mother lives?
It isn’t simply teaching that has distracted me from writing the last few months. It has been the world at large. It isn’t a peaceful place. This shouldn’t be a revelation to me. After all, I’ve been living in it for decades. But before this year, I felt safe -- at my desk, in my apartment, with my family. Then Pat and I lost our health insurance, decimated our credit rating by declaring bankruptcy, and couldn’t find any employment. For three months in a row, we didn’t have enough money to pay the rent. When something like this happens, prepositional phrases become vitally important to you. Who gives a flying fuck what you are doing, if you can’t do it in your home?
Which brings me to the street where my mother lives.
When neighbors see my mother leaning on my arm as we walk out her door, they are likely to assume that it is she who is reliant upon me, who needs support, who cannot stand alone.
They would be wrong.     
When I called my mother this past summer to admit just how bad things had gotten, she said, “Just tell me what you need.” She sent money, no questions asked. And, when I could barely hold a thought in my head or get through an hour without weeping, she called me every day.
In the education books beside my bed, I have marked lessons on prepositions, clauses, conjunctions, and sentence fragments. I am falling in love with the architecture of language. I like looking at the numerous ways that one thought can build upon another. I like thinking about how an idea can link to another, although semi-colons still mystify me. Appositives, however, are a revelation. They allow a writer rename a noun. Whether for clarity or redemption, the ability to rename, to go back, to say, “what I need to you to know about this noun is this”, is mind-blowingly powerful. See here:
“Audrey lives on this street” is quite different from “Audrey, my mother, lives on this street.”
The writer, here, feels that it is important that you know that Audrey isn’t just anyone on the street. She is the writer’s mother. She is a person of importance.
 A few weeks ago, one of my sixth-grade students threw up his hands when we were analyzing a sentence and said, “I’ll never use this in my real life!”
I couldn’t, in all honesty, assure him that the ability to differentiate between a dependent clause and a sentence fragment would put him in a different income bracket or get him the girl of his dreams (the second being only slightly more possible). But I did tell him that the ability to communicate beautifully, meaningfully, and clearly would enhance his life no matter what path he chose.
He said, “What if I want to be a garbage man?”
Anyone who knows anything about sixth graders can guess that the ensuing conversation had more to do with the merits and drawbacks of employment in the sanitation industry than it had to do with grammar.
            But that night, I awoke from deep sleep, replaying the conversation.
            “I’ll never use this in my real life!”
            What the hell was I teaching these kids? Anything?
            I looked at the books on the floor and remembered my life five months earlier, prior to the phone call I made to my mother, prior to getting this job as an English teacher.
There is only one thing we ever learn and relearn in real life.
And only one thing to teach.
Everything is connected.
In real life.
Nothing, no one, stands alone.
Everything else is semantics.




Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Actress and the Comedienne (or "Free Lunch")


            It happens every now and then. Someone who is famous or semi-famous, someone that almost everyone would recognize from the small screen, wants to meet with me because they liked my first book and they want to make it into a TV show or a movie, and – even once – a play. I go on these meetings because it’s Hollywood and anything can happen. But mostly, I go because I get to meet the famous person in a restaurant that is so upscale that I could never hope to afford it and couldn’t even get hired as a waitress there because I’m not pretty enough, thin enough, or young enough. It’s like getting a free pass to visit the planet where famous people live.
No matter what anyone says about famous people putting their pants on one leg at a time, they really aren’t like the rest of us. Not a bit. I do not make this assessment from a place of judgment or envy. It is merely a fact. The pants that famous people put their lasered smooth legs into cost more than my annual rent and lots of people are fighting each other to take pictures of them in those pants. It is simply impossible to remain unaffected by how excited people get about you in your pants. You can still be a swell person; you can still be generous, kind, and loyal to your friends. But in the end, you either think that you deserve those pants or you are secretly frightened that you don’t deserve the pants and you will go to extreme measures to hang onto them.
You and I do not have a relationship like this to any of our pants.
I once met a semi-famous person who liked my book at Sardi’s in Beverly Hills and got caught up in a crush of excitement over someone who must have been super-famous entering the bar. My heart started racing. Who was it? President Clinton? Desmond Tutu? Princess Diana? The fervor in the room was so high that I honestly felt like my life was about to be changed forever. Cameras flashed, people in expensive suits shoved each other to get a better look. Finally the throng reverently parted for creature that looked like Gandalf in make-up and high heels. I hadn’t a clue who it was. The semi-famous person I was with grabbed my hand across the table and whispered, “Oh my God. It’s Joan Collins.” She didn’t even look like Joan Collins but it didn’t matter because she was.
            For as many times as I have been on the edges of this world, I’ve never felt a part of it and I wonder if writers ever do. Even when they, themselves, are famous-ish. For the most part, writers are invisible, unless a seriously famous person wants something from them.
And in that case, the writer gets to go to lunch.
            The Actress and the Comedienne love my book and they want to meet me in the bar of the Beverly Hills Hotel. I don’t know what plans they have for the book but I’m open to anything that will generate income. I am expecting two checks for magazine articles and Pat is picking up work for a friend. But at this very moment, we’re seriously tapped out until we get paid.
            Sometimes I buy a new blouse for meetings like this, just so I can feel more confident that people aren’t whispering to each other behind their menus, “How did she get in here?” But this time I can’t even afford a schmatta from Target. So I’m wearing an old standby that only needs one safety pin.
            The Comedienne waves me over to their booth in the back. She recognizes me even though we’ve never met because in this particular room, I am the standout. I walk over and shake both of their hands. Introductions are made and I slide in opposite both of them. I notice that their glasses of white wine have already been delivered and sipped.
            “We’ll get you a glass,” the Actress says, raising her hand to a waiter and pointing down at my chest. He nods.
            “Right?” says the Comedienne. “It’s never too early. Right?”
            They both laugh. My book is called “Mommies Who Drink” which leads readers of all stripes to believe that I drink all the time. This is not the case in life or in the book, but I’m not going to turn down a glass of fancy chilled wine in the Beverly Hills Hotel.
            “Right,” I affirm. Never too early.
            “Besides,” says the actress who is on the thin side of lithe and whose silken blonde hair falls in wisps from behind her ears in a way that is at once casual and planned. “I just found out that my series is cancelled. So I’m celebrating, right?”
            She mock pouts. I’m not sure what my response should be. Is she happy or sad about the cancellation? Fortunately, the waiter appears with my glass of wine. He places it down in front of me and turns to the Comedienne.
            “I just want to say, that I loved you in your show,” he says to her. “You were the best thing on it. You were hilarious. I can’t believe it’s over.”
            “Thanks, honey,” says the comedienne. “I fucking loved doing it.” She touches the waiter’s arm, “Call up the network and tell them to put the fucking show back on the air!”
            She guffaws, leans over, and slaps her own ass. The Actress giggles and the waiter throws back his head and laughs like that’s the funniest thing he’s heard in his whole life.            
            My corresponding smile, here, is not disingenuous. The Comedienne and the Actress are harmless enough and this is probably one of the highlights of the waiter’s year. In fact, I feel excited. Maybe they want to option my book. And I can’t wait to see what is on the menu. 

            They tell me the parts of my book that made them howl with laughter. They tell me that they are just like me.
“You tell the truth about motherhood,” the Comedienne says, conspiratorially.
 I’m not sure what truth they are talking about.
            “It’s boring,” says, the Actress. “I could never stay home and just play with the kids.”
            Ah, that truth, I think. In the book I write about how bored I felt being at home with an infant. Days fuzzing into each other and when the baby wasn’t sleeping, he was crying. I was bored, yes. But the other part of that truth is that we banded together then. When he slept and when he cried, I was smelling him. Cooing. Rocking, Feeling him against me and making him mine.
I wonder if the Actress and the Comedienne have noticed that I have barely spoken at all. Not that I mind. The endive salad with pear, caramelized onions, and goat cheese crostini is so delicious that I have to tell myself to slow down. I’ve already consumed half of it while my hosts have only moved food around on their plates. In anticipation of a great meal, I didn’t eat any breakfast and I now realize that this was a tactical mistake because the salad isn’t going to be enough. I should have ordered the lamb burger with gorgonzola cheese and string fries. But salads are standard famous-person food and I didn’t want to draw attention to my otherness.
I reach over and take a second warm, crusty, sourdough roll out of the basket in the middle of the table.
            “We have the best nanny. She just loves my fucking kid,” the comedienne says.
            I smile. Not just because she’s just modified her child with an expletive (which makes me uncomfortable), but because moms always say that the nanny loves their children. Never thinking that quite possibly the nanny is just as bored by their children as they are. The nanny is doing a job. The nanny needs the money.
            I wonder if they are thinking of the book as a series or a made-for-TV movie. I want to tell them that I’m wide open.
            The Comedienne finally takes a bite of her salad. “We’re like you,” she says to me. “Just because we’re moms doesn’t mean that all we talk about is playgroups and diapers. You know what? The other day, I called her up,” she points to the Actress, “and I asked her if she ever touches her vagina just for comfort. You know. Not for anything else.”
            The Actress leans in, her eyes twinkling, “And I said, ‘Of course I do. We all do.’”
            They titter. I titter, rip my roll in half, and drag it through the olive oil on my plate. Really? I think. Really? Are we going to talk about our vaginas now? When are we going to talk about the book? For some reason, famous women feel compelled to bring up their vaginas pretty early on in a conversation. I know this because it has happened to me before on several occasions. And never with a non-famous woman. Maybe famous women do it to convince the non-famous that they are like everybody else. “Don’t worry,” they are saying, “I have a vagina just like you.” Or possibly they are proving that they can get down and dirty too. Whatever the reason, it’s standard fare and I never have a thing to add about my own vagina. Not because I’m a prude but because it’s simply there, doing what it does. I like it. I use it. But I don’t have anything funny or interesting to say about it.
            “And then I ask her,” the Comedienne continues, “if she ever does this two finger thing on her vagina.” She holds her fingers up and slices them back and forth. Not in a masturbatory way, but more contemplative.
            “And I’ve never heard of that before,” chirps the Actress.
            “Neither have I, “ I say, just to say in the game. “Three fingers. Sure. But never two.” 
            They whoop in response. I haven’t a clue what I’m saying, but I said it like it was a quip and they bought it. I look down at my plate and my salad is gone. Somehow I have eaten the whole thing without even realizing it. I feel a little panicky because I am nowhere near full and I don’t handle hunger well. It’s either blood sugar thing or basic immaturity, but I have been known to sob in the car when we’re out in the middle of nowhere with no food. I have snapped at my children to hand over their last five gumi bears before I lose it. If I had lived through famine after a war, I’d be famous for performing any sex act just to get a rotting potato. I’d been known to the soldiers as, “Rotting Potato Jane”.
            I reach for the breadbasket, flip over the napkin, and find it empty. How can that be? Did I wolf down three pieces of bread? I thought I only had two and famous women never eat bread. There should be at least one piece left. Then I glance over at the Actress’ plate and spy an untouched roll. I forget. Sometimes famous women pretend to eat like the rest of us and take a roll that they never intend to eat.

            The Actress and the Comedienne order a couple of more drinks and talk about the Actress’ kitchen. She needs a new one. That’s why, she says, she needs to get another series soon. Because she needs a new kitchen and she has to keep the nanny who loves her kid. Doesn’t her network understand that?
All of these concerns I remind myself, stomach growling, are perfectly reasonable in their world. It makes perfect sense, I tell myself, that the Actress wants a new kitchen. If I were her I would want a new kitchen too. Hell, I do want a new kitchen. The Actress doesn’t know that yesterday I rifled through my sons’ closet to see if there was a passable pair of Spencer’s old sneakers that I could pass down to Murphy -- and that I deemed a pair with a small hole in a sole worthy. She isn’t being insensitive. For all she knows, I just got my own new kitchen.
The Actress says that she bought a ten-thousand dollar present as an apology to a famous colleague. And the colleague didn’t have the grace to acknowledge it.
            Ten thousand dollars? As an I’m-sorry-I-fucked-up gift? What happened to the carefully worded e-mail?
            Their concerns have nothing to do with me, I repeat to myself like a mantra. Their concerns have nothing to do with me. The Actress and the Comedienne aren’t parading what they have in front of my face to cause me pain. The Actress and the Comedienne love their husbands and their fucking children. They have lost pets and doubled over with pain. They have woken up in the middle of the night, countless times, bewildered by how they got so old and agonized over why didn’t they do this or that when they were younger. When they had time.
They put their pants on one leg at a time. They have vaginas.
Why isn’t the Actress eating her roll? I almost laugh when I think that. “An actress eating her roll.” Maybe I should turn this into a joke. Steer the conversation somewhere else. But normally I don’t do puns. I’m not punny.
What the fuck am I doing with my life? Why didn’t I settle into a real job years ago? Why didn’t Pat? I can’t write for a whole living, it’s insane. I am not like these women. I’m desperate. I cannot afford to buy a ten-thousand-dollar-I’m-sorry-gift. Murphy has a hole in the sole of his sneaker.
If I don’t get another writing job, what will we do?
            “Can you believe it? He couldn’t even pick up the fucking phone to thank me.”
The huge gaping hunger in my belly widens, A carnivorous yawn. I will never be able to fill it up. It will have to feed upon itself. Turn inside out and eat me whole. Where is the waiter? I look for him above the ladies’ heads.
            Their concerns have nothing to do with me.
            Waiter. Waiter. There is a fly in my soup. There is a hole in my sole.



Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How to Say a Prayer


Last Saturday I had the honor of being a "guest preacher" at our Unitarian Church. The whole experience was humbling and wonderful. I was most nervous about writing a prayer. So much so that I started to write notes to myself about it. When I finished, I realized that my notes were the prayer and so that is how I left it:

How to say a Prayer

When in doubt, start with gratitude. Start by giving conscious thanks for the earth, your family and friends, your mind, your heart, and your humanity. Give thanks for all that connects us to each other. We have all ached with love, loss, joy, and despair. And we know what it is to languish too. To feel numb. To wait. To yearn. And to get some kind of reprieve. To celebrate. Stop and give thanks for all of it because it is in that metaphoric tissue that we find empathy, hope, forgiveness, and love. Not simply for each other, but for ourselves.

Don’t forget to pray for those who suffer. The hungry, the sick, the angry, the embattled. Syria.

Pray for wisdom. Always for wisdom. For yourself and others. Pray for compassion too. Which is, in fact, wisdom in the profoundest sense.

Pray for courage. Mostly the courage to be yourself. Because that is where strength comes from.

Pray for guidance.

Remind yourself that humility is not passivity, tears are not weakness, stillness is not laziness, and aging is not death.

Remember to breathe. To let air fill your chest. To let yourself feel small and big at the same time.

Don’t forget that when you do any task with generosity and love, you cannot entirely fail, because you’ll still end up with generosity and love.

And then. Let your mind rest so that you can listen to the world around you and to the beating of your own heart. 

The boyz wanted to check out the pulpit with me

Thursday, July 12, 2012

What I did in the Summer of 2007


             The ocean is a hundred yards away, just as it said on the campsite’s website.  I glance over at the crashing waves, wishing we were done with the tent nonsense and already burying our toes in wet sand.  Our two sons sit on a log staring at Daddy who attempts to connect two poles over his head.  He’s been at this an hour and tent parts still litter the ground. 
“That’s one long one and one short one,” I say to him.  “I think the poles that connect have to be the same length.”
“This is the door, Brett.  So it’s a longer pole than the others,” says Pat in a voice full of suppressed rage. “The directions say to insert this pole first.  Then the others will pop into place.”
“I think that’s the middle pole.  The one that holds up the roof.”
Pat lets out a groan that’s louder than the ocean, “If you would take a minute to look at the directions, you’d see that the roof pole is the one that the boys were playing with earlier.”
We both throw a glance to the boys who look back at us blankly.
“Where’s that pole?” Pat asks them.
Spence, the seven-year-old shrugs.  Murphy, the three-year-old says, “What pole?”
Pat drops the poles he’s been wrestling with and walks over the gravely road.  He looks down the road and mumbles something. 
“What’s Daddy saying?” asks Murphy.
“I don’t think he wants us to hear what he’s saying,” I say.  “Let’s find that bendy pole and Daddy will feel better.” 
The boys and I look around a couple of trees and find the pole pretty quickly.
“Found it,” I yell to Pat, who doesn’t turn immediately.  He continues looking down the road like it’s viable option.  After a moment of nothing but the sound of waves, his back straightens and he walks back toward us purposefully, “You guys go to the beach.  I’ll put up the tent.”
“Are you sure?” I say, hoping he is.
“Very.”
The boys and I grab our buckets and shovels and head out to the beach.  Three hours later, Pat joins us looking beleaguered but triumphant, “It’s up.  We just can’t unzip the window or the tent will expand and fall over.”

             A month later, the bones of the tent are laid out in our backyard. I’ve decided I need a tutorial since I’m taking it on a “women and children only” camping weekend. 
“Lay out poles to insert in sleeves,” Pat says, reading the directions.  I’ve glanced at the same directions and they are indecipherable to me, like encrypted directions to an undiscovered Anglo-Saxon Burial Mound.
            “What poles, Pat?” I say.  “There are long ones, short ones, and the two bendy ones.” 
            Murph lets out a scream of frustration.  Apparently, Spence took one of the tent pegs he was using as a rocket ship.
“Spence give it back,” I say.
Spence pitches it at Murph’s feet.  Normally I’d take him to task. But I can’t afford the digression.  All my attention must be on the tent.
            “Now I’m going to write this on the directions,” says Pat, taking out a pencil and writing on the worn paper.  “Short poles first.”
             Pat’s penciled clarification is useless to me and he knows it. But he persists, as all spouses do, with the hope that one day his mate will wake up and decide to change her most annoying trait.  In my case, the trait has no name -- I shut down when I look at a set of instructions.  I start to hyperventilate when a cashier at the drug store hands me a rewards card application to fill-out.  I’ve been known to giggle and cry when faced with a long form at the doctor’s office.  I perceive instructions to be a test I have failed long before I put pen to paper or fingers to the keypad.  The result of this phobia is that I cannot assemble anything, cook anything, or apply for anything by looking at instructions.  I need to be told and shown how to do it two, maybe three, times. 
               It takes an hour for Pat to take me through all the steps.  It takes another fifteen minutes for him to repeat the steps a couple more times.  After I am confident that I understand the tent, we all high five each other and stand back to look at it. 
               “Then there’s the rain cover,” Pat says, waving a piece of fabric that clips over the net roof, to keep out rain, dew, and wind.  “That’s the easy part.  We don’t have to do that now. Just strap it on like the picture on the front of the tent bag.” 

                 At the Big Sur Campgrounds, the moms and the kids are impressed when I’m the first to erect my tent, pretty much single handedly.  Spence and Murph half-heartedly attempted to fulfill their peg job, but gave up when the ground proved too hard for their lackadaisical pounding.  Never mind. I’m feeling positively macho about having assembled the tent.  I don’t even care that it lists to one side and the door is blocked by a boulder that we’ll have to scootch around when getting in and out.  The point is that I assembled something.  From an intimidated non-assembler, this is a seminal moment.  It is also notable because the boys have seen me do a job that would typically be Daddy’s.  I look into their eyes for recognition of this fact. 
                “Nice job, Mommy,” says Spence, in a more casual tone than I had hoped for.  “Can we get in now?”
                “Just let me get this rain cover on,” I say confidently.  I look at the picture on the tent bag.  The rain cover is diaper shaped with stretchy straps on each corner.
                 I slide the rain-cover over the top and stretch one strap down to a key at the bottom of the tent. When I move to anchor the other side, the strap won’t stretch that far and I find that the position of the rain-cover leaves half the tent uncovered.  All right, it’s on backwards, I think.  I turn it around, and make another attempt.  It’s a tiny bit better, but when I stretch the second strap is zings loose, stinging me in the elbow.  I stifle an invective. 
                   After forty minutes of more zinging straps and increasingly audible invectives, I’m no further along.  How could Pat have thought that this part was so simple?  By this time, the other mothers have moved luggage into their tents and poured wine into jars, brought to serve as glasses. 
                Cathy brings me over a jar of wine, “Let’s take a look.”  She glances at the front of the tent bag and shifts the rain cover.  No luck. 
                “Let’s look at the directions,” she says.
                 I hand them to her. 
                 “These are indecipherable,” she announces.
                  YOU SEE, I think, feeling vindicated, even though I’ve barely glanced at them.  The sisterhood gathers around with their jars to collaborate as the kids zip through the other tents.  Twenty minutes of a collective attempt bears fruit when I notice that the logo of the tentmaker is shown on the front of the tent in the picture.  Cathy finds fabric loops half way down the sides of the tent, Paula moves a tent pole in making the roof area smaller, and Mo stands back to direct the whole enterprise.  
                   That evening, as the campfire casts shadows on our tents, we tell stories and roast marshmallows.  I glance over at my tent and congratulate myself for resisting my initial impulse to throw up my hands and walk away from it.  I have given these jobs over to Pat through the years because of our differing skill sets and also out of laziness.  But in doing so, I realize that I have robbed myself of the sweet satisfaction of succeeding against my own odds.  
                   I look back at the other mothers’ faces glowing in the firelight, reminding myself that it also doesn’t hurt to know when to accept a little help from your friends.
Murphy and Spencer asleep that summer in the tent that Mommy and her friends built.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Spencer's Birthday at Santa Anita Racetrack (Part Two)


At the end of the last post, I was savoring a moment of clarity about how very little we truly need...
Unfortunately, the boys have not pondered this basic truth as I have. And after repeating that mad dash to the fence a few more times, they are restless. Just as I start rifling through my mind for some organized game I can pull together, Pat appears with tickets for the booths. Five per kid. Earlier, we had decided that the tickets would serve as party favors.
“Plus,” he tells the kids as he rips up the tickets, “there’s a real treat here. We’re going to get to meet the actual real live horse who played Seabiscuit in the movie.”
Spence and Murphy clap their hands, eyes wide with anticipation. The other boys’ reactions are more subdued. What? Were they were expecting the real Seabiscuit? Maybe they haven’t seen the movie. Or perhaps they have become jaded Hollywood kids already. Last year, the dog who played Marmaduke visited their school and they all got their pictures taken with him. Meeting animal actors, and even human ones, who portrayed heroes, was routine for them. Who knows? Perhaps they had grown wary, suspicious. When they visited the doctor, they worried. Would he turn to them in front of his framed headshot on the wall, and say “It looks like a hairline fracture to me. But, hey, I’m not a real doctor. I just play one on TV.” Poor guys. They were growing up in a fake world. I get it.
Spencer, however, is still eager. To say that he has a rich imagination is to understate it. He has lived out many lives and roamed as many fictional lands in his mind. So meeting the horse that portrayed his all time favorite steed in the movie is good enough for him. Small events like these are seeds. Out of them grow hours of play. Next week I might look out our window to see him racing around the courtyard, hearing the thunder of hooves behind him as he storms across the finish line. 
Pat closes up the cooler and leads the boys across the field as I trail, counting heads.
We find the smallish horse, pawing the ground in a small paddock. A painted sign on cardboard identifies him as “The horse who played Seasbuscuit”. There is no mention of the equine actor’s real name. That has to sting. And we are the only fans there.
Pat pulls an apple out of his pocket and starts cutting it with his jackknife, “Who wants to feed him?” He asks.
Small hands jut forward and he doles out slices of the apple. Spencer presses his forehead to a slat of the gate to get a closer look. And it is comforting to know that he is seeing his hero – the tiny horse who wouldn’t quit – and not the actor who had outlived his usefulness. I check myself. Maybe that’s not it at all. This horse is not you. Possibly this is enough. Hell, maybe he hated the movie set and dreamed of a day when he could lazily nibble apple from children’s palms.
I take a picture of them hanging onto the gate with the horse’s face sticking through the slats. I will send it to them as a memento of the party. They can place it next to the one of them with the canine actor who played Marmaduke.
Pat tosses the apple core into the paddock and rallies the troops. We are on the move again. My eyes slid over the tops of the boys’ heads. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.  Good. It’s a short distance to the booths and the kids quickly scatter.
“Pat. I have Murphy, Spencer, and Kevin Wu,” I shout, keeping my eyes trained on them.
Pat shouts back that he has the rest. Although it’s possible that he doesn’t. Just as much as he expects to be loved, he expects the universe to be benign. To support rather than squash. To lift up, rather than cast aside. To deliver the lost child, rather than swallow him altogether.  As charming as this worldview is, it requires me to be that much more vigilant. I must be the sentry, always anticipating danger so that it does not overtake us.
One. Two. Three. Four. Four. Four. Where’s? Five. And six.  I can’t wait to get back to the cooler. Away from the crowds where I can count over and over in peace.
Kevin Wu runs up to me, Spencer and Murphy behind him. “I won a glider,” he crows, thrusting the flimsy balsa model forward. Spencer and Murphy inspect it.
I am happy for Kevin Wu. Maybe it will keep his mind off of fake nausea on the way home.
Young-Jae materializes. “Where did you get that?”
“Over there,” says Kevin Wu, pointing to a ring toss booth. Really? Kevin Wu actually won at ring toss?
“I want one of those,” Young-Jae says. “But I don’t have any tickets left.”
He looks up at me, his look of entitlement so plain that I can see the hotshot floor trader in his future, hopped up from coke the night before.
Giovanni strolls up and spies the glider, “Hey, where did you get that?” Kevin Wu points to the booth again. Giovanni goes through his pockets. But I already know that he won’t find any tickets there. I throw a look to Pat walking toward us, with Max in tow.
Young-Jae turns to Pat, “Do you have any more tickets?”
Pat stops. At a buck a pop, we have already exhausted our ticket budget of thirty dollars.  For Christ sake, these kids might not possess Kevin Wu’s ring toss talent. It could cost us another fifty just to get five more gliders. I consider slipping the sweaty vendor a ten and buying the piece-of-shit toys outright.
Pat runs his hands through his hair, “Guys, we said five tickets each. You’ve had your fun. Now let’s get back to the cooler and play a game.”
All but Spencer let out an audible groan. It’s not that Spencer wants the glider any less. Or that he’s fundamentally less acquisitive than the others. He simply knows that Pat won’t budge. And, unfortunately, he also knows that we cannot afford it.
The boys stand their ground, not knowing what Spencer knows. Pat is not going to buy more tickets.
Giovanni’s hand shoots up from the small throng, a wad of cash in his grasp. “I’ll buy them,” he says, like a cowboy walking into a saloon from a month long cattle drive. The boys jump up and down. Even Spencer.
Before Pat and I can say a thing, they turn, tripping over themselves, and follow Giovanni striding toward the ticket booth.
“What just happened,” I say to Pat. “Should we stop them?
“Why?” He says, putting his arm around my shoulder.
And for the life of me I can’t think of a good reason. I lean into Pat. The benign universe has delivered up Giovanni and his wad of cash. I have known Giovannis all my life. They love the big moment. The grand gesture. And today, he gets to be the hero. I watch Giovanni hand strings of tickets to each boy and they move in a clump toward the ring toss.
I don’t how how much money it takes for each boy to walk away with a glider. But when they return to the cooler, they toss them into the air until Kevin Wu breaks his and it’s time to go home.
The Jocky


The boys meet the horse who played Seabuscuit



Thursday, May 17, 2012

Spencer's Birthday at Santa Anita Racetrack (Part One)


A couple of years ago, Pat and I held Spencer’s Birthday Party at the Santa Anita Racetrack. This I that story:

It is Spencer’s birthday and we’re between checks again. It’s foolish to spend our scant resources on a big party.  We cannot afford laser tag or Medieval Times. But what we can afford, Pat announces one evening from his station at the computer, is, “The Santa Anita Racetrack. Children get in free.”
“That’s because they are in the business of creating lifelong gambling addicts,” I say, folding laundry on the dining room table.
“No. The kids won’t gamble. We’ll take them to the infield and set up a picnic. They get to see the horses race around them. It’ll be thrilling. And it says here that there even have booths set up for kids. Ring toss. That kind of thing.”
“Ring toss?”
“Kids love ring toss,” he says.
            “I hated ring toss.”
            “That’s because you never won.”
            “Ring toss is a set up for failure,” I say, dumping loose socks onto the table. “The odds are with the house.”
            “Of course the odds are with the house. Otherwise the house would never make any money.”
            I snatch all dark socks, put them aside, and allow myself to think about the possibility of the racetrack. Spencer loves watching horse racing on TV which is what inspired Pat to look it up. But what will the kids’ parents say? I’m still living down Murphy’s birthday two years ago. On the morning of the party, I realized that we hadn’t gotten party favors for the kids. So I ran across the street to a cooking store, thinking that I might find cute cookie cutters. Instead, I found darling little snow globes in individual boxes for four bucks a pop. At the end of the party, in the crush of handing out the snow globes to eager sticky hands, a parent said to me, “Brett, did you know that the globes are wine stoppers?”
            I start with the white socks.
            “So we would make it clear on the invitation that there won’t be any gambling?” I say.
            “Of course,” says Pat, turning around in his chair to look at me. “All we are gambling on is the weather. The only shelter is inside near the betting windows.”

            We borrow a friend’s minivan to transport all of the children to the track. Within minutes of our departure, Kevin Wu says that he’s going to throw up. He isn’t getting enough air in the back, he says, and Pat rolls down the window. I’m not too worried, because Kevin Wu is a first class complainer. He knows that if he really throws up, it will be the talk of the fourth grade. It takes an hour to get to Santa Anita with six boys swatting each other and Kevin Wu periodically dry heaving for effect.
            Spencer makes quips from the center seat next to me. He’s in fine form and doesn’t seem fazed by Kevin Wu’s theatrics since they are routine.  He is excited to be the center of attention. Unlike me, he expects to be loved. He also expects everyone to be as excited as he is about seeing a horse race up close. I’m not so sure they will be and I muttered my fears to Pat two days ago.
            “Kids expect so much these days,” I said. “All the other parents drop five hundred to a grand on some pre-packaged party that provides non-stop entertainment, all the crappy food they can cram into their faces, and a party favor that’s a neat-o light-up, whirly, plastic weapon of some kind that they can take apart and reassemble into something else.”
            “We aren’t ‘other parents’,” Pat said.
Like Spencer, Pat expects to be loved. He doesn’t know that you have to work at it. You have to study what other people do and at least attempt to fit in. Otherwise…Otherwise, what? I ask myself.
I don’t want to find out.
          When we get to the track and tumble out of the van, I am struck by how accurately the movies depict racetracks. There is a constant swirling of activity. People pouring in and out of the gates. Noonday sun sharpening the color so it looks like a Doris Day picture. From the parking lot we can hear the announcer calling out the places of the horses in quick succession as they round a bend. Their names are like titles of noir novels: Last Hope, Fancy Girl, Ruby Ruby. Spencer bounces up and down with excitement. I do a quick head count of the boys and as we wind our way through the crowds, past vendors, I quickly realize what my greatest challenge will be. Keeping track of everyone.
            Giovanni wanders off to a cotton candy concession to buy one with his own money. While Max zips ahead of us, disappearing into the crowd.
            “You stay with Giovanni,” I yell to Pat, hightailing it to the entrance.
            I catch up to Max who has dragged Murphy along to the turnstiles, “Guys, wait with me here. Where’s Kevin Wu?”
            I spin around and spot him heaving into a garbage can with Young-Jae standing next to him, eyes rolled heavenward, like he’s praying for aliens to beam him out of there. To be fair, this is what Young-Jae always looks like. Childhood is something he’s barely enduring until he can make a ton of money at a high-powered job he hates and blow it all on coke and prostitutes. Spencer has known Young-Jae since first grade and invited him out of a vague sense of waning loyalty.
            I watch Pat, Spencer, and Giovanni catch up to Kevin Wu. Pat parks the cooler, squats down, and puts his hand on his shoulder. Kevin Wu nods at Pat. Hee looks down and kicks the ground. Then Pat turns to the group and says something that appears to pull them all together, since they all bunch up behind him as he picks up the handle of the cooler.
            Max and Murphy run up a tiny hill next to the turnstiles. I watch them out of the corner of my eye while Pat pulls the cooler with the boys, looking subdued, stumbling in step behind him. I suspect that he has spoken to them sternly. Pat is a loving parent. But he has absolutely no difficulty taking command and laying out his expectations to children. I abdicate this duty all the time in favor of being liked.
            Pat waves to me as he approaches, “All accounted for.”
            “Great,” I say. I look down at the boys and say in my best, most warm, mommy voice. “This is going to be fun!”
            Pat pays for the two of us at the window and we shuffle the kids through the turnstiles. On the other side, he amasses the children and says, “Keep your eyes on me. We’re going to go through the main building to the infield. Follow me and don’t stop to look at stuff right now. I can take you back in later, if you want.”
            The boys start to follow Pat and I bring up the rear, obsessively counting them over and over again. In shocking contrast to the whirl of color and noise outside, the inside is muffled, moody, and gray. It’s like we took an elevator down to purgatory. I look around hoping that the kids aren’t seeing what I see.  A sticky cement floor. Men sitting at Formica tables, hunched over betting forms, with foggy plastic cups of flat beer in front of them. Fast food containers littering the floor and tables. Grimy TVs circling the cavernous hall, showing stats and the track.
            Giovanni turns back to me, cotton candy residue lining his lips like mishandled lip liner on an old lady, and says, “What can we buy here?”
            “What?” I say, before I can stop myself. “We’re not buying anything.”
            Curse his parents for giving him money. I had expected the other kids to clamor for cotton candy after Giovanni bought his, but I think they were too dazed to figure out what was happening. Perhaps they assumed they’d get theirs later. I square my shoulders in anticipation of the begging to come. Maybe we should have written on the invitation, “To keep things even, please don’t send money with your child. He will be provided with juice, sandwiches, and cookies from our cooler. Each kid will get five tickets for the booths and no more. If your child requires anything further, tell him to place a bet.”
            We make our way to the exit where light pours in like the opening of a tomb. I touch Giovanni on his shoulder and say, “If you want to spend your money later, I’ll bring you back here.”
            I don’t know how I will negotiate this, but I don’t want to get a phone call from his mother this evening. I quite like Giovanni. He told me earlier that he had been to the track with his uncle a few times and this doesn’t surprise me. He has the wheeler-dealer air of a man who wears a vest over his shirtsleeves and runs a craps game.
            We emerge like emigrees from a dank land into a new world. The Santa Anita infield. Where colors are their true selves – the green of the grass, pure blue sky, the reds, yellows, and purples, of peoples’ clothing as they mill around buying souvenirs, programs, and snacks. Pat strides ahead, pulling the cooler over the grass like he knows where he is going. The passel of boys dutifully follows him. They glance around furtively, but appear determined to keep in step. What on earth did Pat say to them?
            We walk further into the field and away from all the action. Did Pat look at a map before we came? Where are we going? We keep walking over the soft grass until Pat stops in the middle of the field and declares, “This is it.”
            This is it, I think? Where are the horses? Why are we so far away from the rest of the people?
But the boys are relieved to stop walking. Kevin Wu complains that his shins hurt and he sinks into the grass. Spencer, Murphy, and Max chase each other around. Pat offers the kids juice boxes from the cooler and Giovanni and Young-Jae take one.
            I hear a bugle call and the announcement for the mounts to post. From watching horse racing with Spencer on TV, I know this means that the horses are moving into their stalls and getting ready for the race. But we can’t see the race? Isn’t that what we came here for? The race is the main activity. Without it, we’re just in a field with cranky kids who would rather be playing video games.
            Now that the cooler has been opened, the boys gather around it, pulling out sandwiches and bags of chips. Dear God, I think, they are going to wolf down all the food within the first ten minutes and then ask what’s next. The thing about a successful kids’ birthday party is to pace activities.  If you speed through the food, games, cake, and gifts within the first hour (and I have done this) you end up with pandemonium. The outsiders – and there are always one or two (I glance at Kevin Wu) -- beg you to call their mothers to come and pick them up early. They know what’s coming. And the rangy pack of other boys become so hyped on the food and freedom that they start running in circles throwing spiky objects at each other, until one of them is wrestled to the ground and starts wailing.
            “Boys are born warriors,” a new-agey friend of mine once told me when my kids were little. She shrugged, dipping her chamomile teabag in a mug like, what can you do?
            And at the time, I said, “No. That can’t be. Boys aren’t born warriors. Warfare is taught. And I will teach my sons the way of the Tao.”
            My new agey friend whose son was a holy terror, simply smiled and said, “It’s what they do. They must fight.”
            Then she lit up a joint.
            I look at the boys circling the cooler and I can feel the thrum of anarchy in the air. They are gearing up, like the horses we can’t see at the starting gate. Except for Kevin Wu, who is picking at the grass. He was not born a warrior. He was born a systems analyst.
            “Pat,” I say. “Do you want to take the boys over to the track so they can see the actual horses?” I had promised myself that I wouldn’t interfere when I handed Pat the task of planning the whole party. I’ve planned most of them in the past and, seriously, the stress of each one has shaved a respective year off of my life.
            Pat smiles, “Oh we’re going to see them any minute.” He points to a fence half a field away. Then I hear the announcer call for the race to begin and there is a shot.
The crowd roars in the distance and I glare at Pat. We’re nowhere close.
          He points to the fence and yells to us all, “Run!”
          He starts running and we all take off after him. The noise of the crowd intensifies. I hear rhythmic pounding. Is it the crowd stomping their feet? I bound across the field behind them, Kevin Wu at my heels. Every breath hurts my throat. But I don’t care. I can barely stand it. I want to yell. Maybe I do yell. What am I running toward? I don’t know. Who the fuck cares? This is the most thrilling thing I’ve done in years. I feel like picking up a rock and hurling it into the air. But I can’t stop. The noise of the crowd drives me on.  I have to make it to the fence.
            Pat gets there first and climbs up. The boys do the same. And just as Kevin Wu and I clamber up next to them, we see massive thoroughbreds baring down on us. Jockeys’ colors glinting in the sunlight. They race by in a flash. So close that I can feel the steam from the horses’ nostrils on the hairs of my arm.
We keep our eyes on the horses until they turn the bend. The crowd gets even louder. The announcer amps up his patter.
Atta Boy. Dora’s Prize, One Fine Morning.
We hang on the fence waiting. Listening. Gasping.
The announcer intones so fast that I can’t make out the horses’ names.  It’s a chant, building, building to a crescendo as we hang onto the fence. And finally a cacophony.
Announcer. Pounding hooves. Crowd.
And it’s over.
Pat, the boys, and I look at each other’s red faces. We jump down from the fence, raise our fists in the air, and whoop. The boys race around with no particular purpose and I run over to Pat and throw my arms around him like I haven’t seen him in years.
You cannot buy moments like this. Or, yes, you can buy them for little more than the price of two adult admissions.
I would like to have more money. I long for a time when I don’t feel the mounting tension of waiting for the next check to arrive. But there are times like these when I think that our inability to pay for distraction has brought us here. To this bare moment of crazy joy. I do not aggrandize financial hardship. But it has shown me how very little I really need.