Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Christmas Loan (Part one)

For the two Christmases after the financial crisis (2008 and 2009) Pat and I had to borrow money from my parents simply to afford gifts and January rent. This year, we are visiting my parents again and our circumstances are slightly better. But for those who still feel the financial grip of fear along with their Christmas cheer, I offer the following story – along with profound thanks to my parents who have always, always been there when I needed them:

Happy, middle class families in America are very much alike. Most of them gather at the family seat at Christmas to share meals, tell old stories, compliment each other’s children, and exchange presents, many of which will be returned to Gap and J Crew the following day. Sometimes the adult children drink too much and go outside at midnight to build a pornographic snowwoman. Or maybe that’s just mine.
            Our family seat is my parents’ two-bedroom house on Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin. The winter winds blow so bitterly there that Murphy, a California boy and three at the time, once screamed through a scarf tied so high that only his eyes showed, that he wanted to go back to America. On the rare Christmas that all of us can make it, my parents’ compact retirement house can host eight adults and four children. This means that the ordinary recriminating and bargaining that marks every good marriage must take place in furtive, rushed tones behind any available closed door, including the communal bathroom.
            That is, when the happy couple actually remembers to close the door. I once walked by my younger brother, Keir’s encampment, a mattress on the floor of my mother’s art studio, and heard him impeach his wife’s angry back, “It’s always the same. Every year. Vacation after vacation after vacation after vacation.” The tone was familiar, if not the specifics.
There were a few years when my other brother, the middle child, had no door at all. Erik slept alone on the couch feeling, he later told me, like a failure for being unmarried, childless, and stuck at a meaningless job. Living room couches all across America can give leathery testimony to the ache of such children, now older, yearning for their lives to begin.
            It is the Christmas of 2009. Keir and his family have opted to travel to Thailand instead of joining us and Erik has come home a victor. Within three years he has fallen in love, married, bought a house, and sired a male child – riches and reason enough to lay claim to the guest bedroom. My parents are squatting in Mom’s art studio and my family is staying in the master bedroom. My mother has awarded us their room ever since we first brought Spencer to Madison at ten-months-old.  When Pat and I moved his pack-n-play into the walk-in closet, my mother was thrilled that we could close the closet door and create two rooms out of one. 
            The children are too big for the closet now and share a blow-up mattress that takes up most of the available floor space. That means that when Pat and I talk behind the closed door, we have a very narrow pathway in which to move around. This is a liability mostly to Pat who needs to move when tackling life’s biggest problems, like the fact that the check we have been waiting for – the one that will pay our rent in January, pay our credit card bills before they globally increase their interest rates, pay for our expenses here in Madison, and pay for groceries when we get back to Los Angeles – has been held up due to an accounting error and cannot be issued until the new year when the accountants are back from their vacations with their families and doors and couches.
            We have no money to see us through until that twelve thousand dollar check arrives in mid-January.  And since we voluntarily closed all of our credit cards over two years ago to negotiate lower APRs, we don’t have credit to lean on. The recession has hit us hard too. We used to fill in financial gaps with odd jobs that simply aren’t there anymore.
            “Can we ask your parents for a lona?” Pat asks me.
Proving that drops of blood can be squeezed from stones, his own mother is so strapped that she often depends on us to help her out.
“We did that last year,” I close my eyes, wincing at the prospect of going to my mother, hat in hand, yet another Christmas. Pat and I have done all right, financially.  But because I am a freelance writer and he is a freelance actor, Christmas is always tight, not just because our cash flow isn’t steady, but because the institutions that pay us are buried in paperwork at year’s end and then close down for a couple of weeks.
            “We’ll pay them back,” Pat says, stepping on the edge of the leaky mattress, which hisses air. I can hear the boys sledding down the stairs on a piece of cardboard. They should really be outside but I lack the energy to bundle them up with plastic bags stuck into their boots and over their jeans, only to have to peel off their wet clothes twenty minutes later when they’ve tumbled into some snow bank and have had enough.
            “We didn’t pay them back last year,” I say with a tense jaw. 
            “We didn’t?” Pat says.
            “You know we didn’t.”
            “I thought we did.”
            “No. We didn’t. Mom said not to worry about it,” I say, sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed. My mother is very proud of this new bed that is so high she has to climb up into it. My feet dangle like a child’s.
            “Then why are we worrying about it now?” says Pat, walking into a pile of Spencer’s books, which scatter. I resist the urge to jump down from the bed and stack them again. Pat hates it when I clean during a tense discussion. Which is invariably what I want to do. At least if my life is going to shit, my living quarters can look ordered.
            “We’re worrying about it because when Mom says not to worry about it, she doesn’t really mean it,” I say. 
            “Maybe she does.”
            I jump down from the bed and gather Spencer’s books while Pat glares at me, “What Mom means is, ‘don’t worry about it this time. But I will remember. I will remember how much you borrowed from me and I will worry that you can’t make enough money to care for yourselves. Every time you borrow money, I will stay awake for nights agonizing about how you are going to survive.’ That’s what she means, Pat.” I place the pile of books on the dresser where they will be safer, “And if I worry my mother into an early grave, I’ll never forgive myself.”
            “She’s already eighty, Brett. That doesn’t qualify her for an early grave. And I’ll tell you something else. If you’re so worried about worrying her, then let her help.”
            I climb back up onto the bed and sit, pulling my knees up to my chin. Pat swipes a pile of the kids’ clean underwear off of the desk chair and sits.  We’ve been married for eighteen years. We know what to say and what not to say. Although we’ve said the unsayable and withheld compassionate reassurance plenty of times, with painful results. The thought that visits me now is one that I’ve suppressed for years. Why is it my family that bails us out? How come Pat got to marry a woman whose parents have modest teacher’s retirements, but can manage the occasional thousand-dollar bailout? While I married a man whose parents met in a children’s home, divorced when he was one, and struggled to cover basic living costs most of their lives? How come he got to marry the woman who might inherit a third of her parents’ house while I got to marry a man whose mother might be so poor she might have to move into our two-bedroom apartment for the rest of her life? Tears sting the inside corners of my eyes. I feel ungenerous. Unloving. Unyielding. Stiff. Why did Pat just shove the underwear off of the chair? Couldn’t he have picked it up and moved it to the suitcase?
            “Look,” says Pat on a slow breath that means he’s going to use the reasonable, officious tone that I hate, “if you have a better plan, let’s hear it.”
            I recently attended a wedding where the minister gave a cute little speech extolling the joys of marriage while allowing that “sometimes you will be angry with each other.” My immediate thought then was, “what about loathing?” What about looking across the room at your husband and being filled so high with the black bile of resentment that it threatens to blow you apart, spewing its poisonous ooze all over the room and your man?  As far as I’m concerned, you aren’t truly, happily married until you’ve lived through hundreds of moments like this.
            I dip my chin behind my knees, swallowing bile, frantically thinking of options. Even as my mind races, I know the exercise is futile. We’ve explored financial options before and we already know that there are none except emptying my puny IRA or raiding the kids’ college funds.
            I unfold my legs and breathe out slowly, “I’ll think about it.”
            “Thank you,” says Pat like I’ve finally come to my senses.  He stands, scoops the kids’ underwear from the floor and replaces it on the chair. Damn him.
            He walks over and gives me a kiss on the top of my head before leaving and closing the door. I hear him saying something to the boys and the pounding on the stairs ceases to be replaced by animated chatter in the kitchen. The clanking of pans tells me that Pat is making them grilled cheese sandwiches.
            I am a better person than this and, even though I’ve loathed my husband many times, I will not live without him. No one understands and forgives me more. He makes me laugh until my insides hurt. He is uncomplicated in the best sense. To say that I love him seems trite because it’s voicing the obvious, although I do tell him this every day.
            So I will go to my mother, as we both knew that I would before the conversation even started. The reason why I will go to her instead of my father is that, like many marriages forged in the 50’s, my mother is my father’s Lieutenant. She protects him from the unpleasant ditherings of daily life. She will hear my case and then make her recommendation to him. I can’t think of a time when my parents have turned down a request for a loan or an outright bailout, but there are always emotional consequences. My mother will confess her deep concern about our solvency and even about our ability to negotiate the adult world at all. And my father will mentally tally how much money we owe them, in order to subtract it from my share of the estate, “Just to make things fair.” And, in the end, we all know that their resources are limited. They are incapable of saving us entirely. Were we to find ourselves completely and hopelessly broke, our only recourse would be to move in into the guestroom that Erik and his family are occupying right now.
            This, of course, won’t happen because my twelve thousand dollar check will arrive and I am still finishing two pilot scripts that the networks love and owe me money for. Pat will return to his job as a background extra on a popular TV show and we will muddle through, as we always have. We might even flourish. If one of my shows airs, if one of Pat’s commercials takes off, if Pat does a couple of guest spots, if I sell a big magazine article, if Pat gets cast in an equity play, if that play goes to Broadway, if I get staffed on a TV show, if I get a book deal, if Pat lands a recurring spot on television – if any of these things happen as many of them have and all are possible -- we won’t simply survive the economic crash that is pounding the rest of the country, we will prevail.

Next week: Part 2 -- asking for the loan

Boyz in Madison (2009)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Our Family Occupies Los Angeles for a Night (Part Two)

              The main event of every evening at Occupy LA is the general assembly meeting, and we didn’t want to miss it so we hustled the kids with their t-shirts back to the tent for some dinner. That’s where we were planning to meet our friends who had brought their son for the overnight as well. Striding down the sidewalk, past the humpy landscape of canvas abodes, I congratulated myself for turning a civics lesson into a fun sleepover as well. Of course, looking around, I was reminded that I wasn’t the first person to think of it.
            As we waited for the big meeting and our friends, Pat and I talked to the kids about why we were spending the night there. They had certainly heard talk about the 99% from the radio shows we listened to. We had also talked to them about the financial crisis and the fact that the two parties governing our nation had widely disparate views on how to solve it.
            Sitting on canvas chairs in front of our tent, we attempted to give this particular action a context that they could understand.
“So, because the two parties can’t agree, they can’t get anything done about the financial crisis,” Pat said, ripping off a hunk of French bread I had bought especially for that evening. Even though we were at a bare-bones populist action, there was no reason to eat like it.
            “So that’s why we’re here? Because the government can’t fix it?” asked Spencer, sipping on his box of chocolate milk. I know what contributes to a successful sleepover.
            “Well, we think that the government can fix a lot of things. Like a plumber fixes the toilet. Daddy and I can’t fix the toilet. That’s why we need a plumber.”
            Pat and the boys stared blankly at me. Why, I wondered? The metaphor was solid.
            Pat leaned forward to catch the boys’ attention, “Don’t think about the plumber. What mom is saying is that we believe that there are some things the government should handle and that’s one of the reasons we’re here. When the government isn’t paying attention to what the people want, the people have to get their attention in creative ways.”
            Pat tends to have more confidence in the children’s ability to grasp big concepts than I do, and I probably lowball their ability to comprehend because my own is a bit shaky. But as we heard the noise of folks gathering on the other side of the building, Pat and I persisted in telling the kids about taxation, privatization, unnecessary wars, entitlements, and social safety nets.
            “And what’s happening now,” Pat said, “is that money being taken away from the poor and the middle class; from our schools and from agencies that protect our environment because the banks and corporations don’t think it’s important to pay their fair share of taxes.”
            “And,” I piped in, “because some people think that paying for wars is more important than helping to create jobs so we can feed our families.” I threw a look to Pat. Better than the plumber?
            “That’s not fair,” said Spencer.
            Bingo, I thought. If he hadn’t understood the specifics, at least he had grasped the inequities.
            “What do you think, Murphy?” I turned to my baby. At seven, Murphy already has a sharp mind and a sophisticated sense of empathy. 
“Can I play with Daddy’s phone?” he replied.
            “No” Pat and I both replied in unison.
            Fortunately, our friends arrived so the phone became a non-issue. The boys happily engaged their pal and we poured his parents a cup of wine, offered them some cheese, and leaned back in our chairs to look at the sky.
            By seven-thirty it was totally dark and we walked over the General Assembly. About two-hundred people had gathered. They sat on the ground or stood at the back in groups listening to committee leaders who stood on the steps, talking through a microphone. Speakers went through housekeeping issues, security concerns, and the all important hand gestures that occupiers would use to vote on pretty much everything. The kids flopped around, enjoying the hand-gestures, particularly the one for “I don’t understand” – a circular motion in front of the face like you’re washing a window. I foresaw months of the kids using this gesture whenever I asked them to clean their room.
            Much of the rest of the meeting was spent connecting Los Angeles to other occupy movements nationwide. We voted on sending money to Oakland and a bus of occupiers to San Diego. Organizers also took some time announcing specific upcoming marches and actions. The boys would watch for a while, then chase each other around.
            Later, as I lay in our tent, I wondered what my sons would take away from this venture. Certainly, I hoped that they grasped some of the deep concerns that were propelling people – citizens -- to camp in the middle of our city. But more than that, I hoped that they felt connected those citizens. I didn’t want them to grow up thinking that it was someone else’s job to fix things.
            And, in the end, if none of those messages had sunk in – even if Spence and Murph had been more preoccupied with the tent and their friend – I hoped that the cumulative effect of attending marches and rallies would start to make participation a habit. As I told them when I tucked them into their sleeping bags that night, “The first and most important thing you can do is to show up.”
It turns out that this is as true for peaceful revolution as it is for getting free donuts.
The boyz listen to Pat's explanation of why we were there
At the General Assembly

Sending messages of support to Oakland

Waking up in the tent the next morning

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Our Family Occupies Los Angeles for a Night (Part One)

           “Can I pitch my tent here?” I asked a young man whom I guessed to be an organizer by the benignly authoritative manner he used with a couple of campers. These campers were ‘occupiers’, who had been bedding down around Los Angeles’ city hall for close to a month.
            “Looks like we’re trying to keep the walkway clear here,” he said, indicating what looked like a thoroughfare for foot traffic, with domed tents, three deep, on one side and service tents on the other. On the service side I saw a signs for a library, meditation area, and a People’s Collective University. “But really you can set up anywhere.”
            “I was told that this was the quieter side,” I said. “My husband and kids are going to be with me.”
            “Oh great,” he said, his face brightening, “we really want to start getting families down here.”
            “Well, here we are,” I said, stupidly, since I was only bringing my family and another for one night, not an army of families to occupy for as long as it took.
            “Great. Great,” he said. “Yeah, I guess you could say this is the quieter side. That’s how it’s turning out anyway. The general assembly starts at 7:30 on the south and that’s when it gets pretty crazy and noisy for a few hours.”
            I wanted to ask “how crazy?” but I didn’t, for fear of sounding uptight. He looked like a twenty-something hipster, I am a fifty-year-old woman who looks like she’s comfortable at an ice cream social even though I don’t know what one is.
            “Sounds like this is the right spot, then,” I said, resisting the urge to jazz up my language by calling it the right ‘hang’ or  ‘hood’. “Thanks,” I touched my eyebrow in a solidarity inspired salute and flipped out my phone to call Pat, who was circling the block with the kids in our jeep.
            As I waited on the curb, I felt the last bit of my earlier irritation with Pat fade. When he had arrived home from work that afternoon he proceeded to check e-mails and methodically go through a mental packing list while I urged for speed and spontaneity. We only had a couple of hours to get downtown and pitch the tent before it got dark. I was starving and I already wanted to devour the salami sandwich I’d packed for that evening. The boys whapped each other with pillows while Pat returned a phone call. All this while my mother-in-law jabbered on about a movie she’d seen thirty years ago starring James Garner. My mother-in-law has been living with us for a month while she searches for an apartment to move into, closer to us. My motivations for dragging my family down to occupy Los Angeles for a night range from the personal to political to parental. But mixed in there is another ignoble factor. Why not occupy LA while my mother-in-law is occupying my living room?
             Pat pulled up in the jeep and the boys tumbled out with our tent and gear. While Pat was parking, the kids and I dragged everything over to our hang. I was going to wait for Pat to return to start erecting the tent. I have managed to assemble it by myself, but Pat has a firmer grasp on mechanics and, frankly, this is an area where I have nothing to prove except my stunning ineptitude at following directions, especially ones with diagrams. Why oh why do the drawings never look anything like the real thing?
            Before Pat could join us, however, three young men descended, introduced themselves, and offered to help with the tent. Before I even managed an affirmative nod, they dragged it out of its box and started lining up the poles. Spencer and Murphy eagerly helped when the guys asked for assistance.
            “Before this, I had never put up a tent before,” a white guy with a tie-dye shirt said. “But now I’ve put up hundreds of them.”
            “I think I’ve got the first pole in,” said a handsome African American guy with a wide grin. He pulled on the pole and the rose, sagging at either side. “Is this what it’s supposed to look like?”
            I shrugged, “Without the other poles in, I can’t tell.”
            “Doesn’t matter,” he said, flashing white teeth, “if it’s wrong we can start over.”
            This was the first time I would notice the universally generous attitude that I would find consistent throughout our stay. I understand why the left has consistently sought to distance the ‘occupy’ movement from its hippie element.  There’s a fear that it lightens the movement, makes it less serious, more fringy. But at a time when “compassion is out of fashion” (as Paul Krugman recently wrote in a New York Times Op Ed), it was moving to see young people consistently opting to help us - and each other - out. I think that a return a core hippie belief that we are in this together and that we are all responsible for each other is one that the Left should embrace.
            By the time Pat appeared on the scene we had a saggy shelter, flapping precariously in the breeze.
            Pat smiled, “Did anyone look at the directions?”
            “Nah,” said tie-dye. “We knew we’d figure it out.”
            Proving that you all you need is love and a plan, Pat located the directions and significantly sped up the process so that the tent was up before sundown. Before taking off, our new pals gave us the lay of the land and offered to check in on us later.
            First we checked out the public tents. The boys were disappointed that the library didn’t have books for kids. But there were plenty of used books for older campers to grab. The People’s Collective University was an open-air tent where organizational meetings were being held as well as classes in social activism. Later that night, Pat noticed a circle of folks who also met there for purely recreational reasons. As we walked through the encampment, we were periodically offered bottles of water and baked goods. Free baked goods, I have now come to believe, are the very life’s blood of any decent rebellion. What decent mob won’t go the extra mile for glazed donuts?
            The occupiers that I saw were diverse ethnically. There did appear to be some homeless folks and certainly some barefooted, bare-chested stoners, but the majority of the occupiers appeared to be twenty-something activists. Pat and I listened to a band of them hold an organizational meeting on the steps, itemizing what they would bring to the general assembly that evening at seven-thirty. Another significant group were Iraq veterans – I met one who managed the food truck and another who was working on media relations. I also met a lawyer who used her tent only during weekend days. Sprinkled throughout the camp were occupiers of every stripe – professionals, parents, artists, and a couple of older citizens (specifically an elegant grey haired woman, with her adult daughter, who asked me about camping overnight).
            As we returned from our exploratory mission, a gentleman named Rahm sought us out, “My buddy is this rad artist who does these t-shirts…” he pointed to his own, “and we’d like to give all of you one. We really want to encourage families like you to come down here.”
            Cool, I thought. Revolution swag. We found Tony B Conscious on the east side of city hall spray-painting his Basquiat inspired t-shirts.  He fist-bumped the kids and they bounced around picking out their very own wearable art. Mr. Conscious even spray-painted a fresh t-shirt for Pat. As it turned out the shirts weren’t as free as Rahm had led us to believe. But for a five dollar “paint donation” each, we would walk away from our overnight just a little hipper than we arrived.

in Part 2 I attend the general meeting, camp overnight, and am asked by a young person if this was what it was like in the 60s!
Murphy eyes the sweet bread in front of our tent

The boys next to the Library (the People's Collective University is behind them)

The view from our tent

T-shirts, courtesy of Tony B Conscious

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Us vs. Fleas

              The first thing I noticed was the debris that our cat, Taft, left when he vacated a spot. It looked like sand. How was he getting sand in his fur? He’s an indoor cat. Then Taft stopped sleeping in his usual hangs. He kept jumping on the bookshelves, seeming to want to be as high up as possible. He knocked over candlesticks and pencil holders in this pursuit.
            “Taft has fleas, Mom,” my eleven-year-old Spencer said.
            “He doesn’t have fleas,” I said. “He’s an indoor cat.”
            “Seriously,” Spencer persisted. “I see fleas jumping all over the place.”
            “Right,” I snorted. “This from the kid who freaked out every night for a week after we got back from camping because he was convinced he had ticks.”
            “Mom, the fleas are biting my feet at night.”
            “And did you have ticks?”
            “There you go.”
            Taft couldn’t have fleas, but something was definitely amiss. He would race to his food bowl like he was being pursued, eat fast, then jump on something tall, leaving those damn piles of sand everywhere. What could it be?
            One morning, Spencer was pulling on a sock, “See Mom. Look at all my flea bites.”
            I looked and saw a small constellation of red dots on the top of his foot.
            “Maybe it’s a rash from your feet sweating,” I said.
            “It’s fleas, Mom. One of them jumped on the book I was reading last night.”
            I sighed, “OK. I’ll check into it. Just to put an end to all of this.”
            That night, I went on the Internet and searched for information about fleas. I figured that I’d print out a couple pages to put Spencer’s fears to rest. There were too many things that didn’t add up for me. Why was Spencer the only one who noticed these so-called fleas? Why was he the only one with bites? Spencer had been wrong about the ticks and he was simply indulging another swath of panic about parasites that might take over our home. And what about the piles of sand? What connection could they possibly have to the fleas?
            Within seconds on the Internet, I had my answer.
            The piles of sand were piles of dead fleas and flea feces.
            Flea feces? Are you fucking kidding me? I jumped up from my chair at the computer inspected a dresser top that Taft had recently been sitting on. There was some of the sand. I grabbed a spray cleaner and a paper towel and spritzed. When I ran the towel over the dresser top, a whole smear of red/brown filth clung to it. I knew what I had. Flea Feces.
            Oh dear God. Really? Really? On top of our car falling apart, our computer on the fritz, no money in the bank, the boys going back to school with their crazy disparate schedules, and my mother-in-law driving cross-country to stay with us for two months, I had fleas? Everywhere? And worse, I had their feces all over everything.
            “Pat,” I said to my husband. “Taft has fleas. The whole house is infested.”
            “But Taft is an indoor cat, “ he said.
            “I don’t know how he got them, but they’re here and so are their feces.”
            I took Pat on a brief tour of the evidence. The smeared paper towel, the bites on Spencer’s foot, Taft perched on top of the television set like a sniper. Now, I realized, he was searching for ever higher roosts to avoid the army of fleas living in our carpets.
            “So what do you say, we flea bomb the whole damn house tomorrow?” I said to Pat, while Spencer was putting his sock back on.
            Pat rubbed his chin, “Mmmmm. Those bombs are so toxic.”
            “Yeah. I know. They are toxic to the fleas. That’s the point. Let’s bomb them out of existence.”
            Pat sighed, “I know you hate this, but I really don’t want all those chemicals. Let’s spray a little with Cedarcide.”
            Cedarcide was a natural spray that Pat had bought for our trip to India. On the road, he would spray all our beds with it, each time extolling its effectiveness. And when I begged for deet in hotel room with more mosquitoes than usual, Pat turned from his spraying to hiss, “You never believed in the Cedarcide. Never.”
            And he was right. When it comes to bugs, I’m a decisive first responder. Blow them up. Agent Orange the whole damn apartment. I don’t care if I get brain cancer twenty years from now. I can’t take any more flea feces on my furniture.
            I knew better than to say any of this because Pat would insist on the non-toxic route first.  And with kids and cat, I knew that he was mostly right. So we sprayed with Cedarcide until the apartment smelled like a hope chest. When that didn’t work (which I knew it wouldn’t) we got a flea collar and flea powder from the grocery store.
            Pat was leaving the evening he came home with our grocery store arsenal of flea killers. He helped me fasten the flea collar around Taft’s neck before skipping out to play poker. The next day we planned on powdering the carpets.
            “Mom!” Spencer screamed from his room. “Come in here now! Taft is dying!”
            I ran into the boys’ room to find them standing around Taft who was gasping, his tongue hanging out of his mouth like a Labrador retriever’s. His eyes were watery and I could hear him wheezing.
            “Do something!” Spencer screamed.
            The only thing I could think was that Taft must be allergic to the collar. So I raced into the living room, grabbed scissors, raced back, snipped the collar, and threw it to the ground.
            Taft lay on his side and panted.
            “Mommy!” yelled Murphy. “He’s still sick!”
            “Give it some time,” I said, in what I hoped was a calm tone. “Just watch him for a bit. I’m going to call Daddy.”
            I took the phone into the bathroom so I could close the door.
            “Pat, it’s me.  Taft is panting and I think it was the collar but I’m not sure and the kids are frantic and I can’t let the cat die in front of them. They’ll never forgive me for ignoring the fleas. It’ll be all my fault. I’ve got to save the cat. What do I do?”
            On the other end of the line, I heard Pat say to his poker buddies, “I’ll take two.”
            “Pat!  What do I do?!!!”
            “Yeah. It’s probably the collar, “ he said to me, now that he had his damn cards. “I told you that stuff is toxic.”
            “I took the collar off but he’s still panting.”
            “The only other thing I can think of is dumping him in the bath.”
            “Oh God,” I said, “I really don’t want to do that. He’ll fight me on it.”
            “Well, that’s all I can think of. Give him a bath and then spray him with Cedarcide.”
            Minutes later I was standing in the bath tub, my jeans wet up to my knees, holding a squirming, yowling cat under the faucet, while the kids held the towels and cried hysterically. After Taft was completely soaked I handed him to the children who swathed him in towels and tried to talk him down, “It’s OK, Tafty.” “You’re going to be fine.” “Mommy should have gotten the fleas off you sooner.”
            The next day, Pat decided to powder each room’s carpet individually, then close the door so that toxins wouldn’t get to us. The children’s room was the most affected so we stripped the bedding and got everything off of the floor.
            “We don’t have any facemasks do we?” said Pat, walking into our bedroom as I lay on the bed, exhausted.
            “Facemasks?” I lifted my head up to look at him. He was wearing yellow rubber gloves and surgical scrubs that he took from the hospital when I gave birth. He had tucked the mint green pants into his athletic socks and wound silver electrical tape around the tops of the socks and his waistband. He was wearing crocs on his feet and he had pulled a knit cap down over his ears. He was holding the canister of flea powder. I responded with all the love I could muster, “Facemasks are probably with the rest of our riot gear.”
            “Right,” he said, “I’ll just tie a bandana over my nose and mouth.”
            That night, the children slept on our bedroom floor while the powder worked it’s fatal magic. And in the following nights we powdered and vacated the other rooms, each time moving to another overnight encampment like Bedouins.
            And still the fleas thrived, jumping on Spencer like he was their personal conveyance. Taft took near permanent refuge in his litter box so we moved his food and water into the bathroom. And on a Saturday morning, I woke to find Spencer sitting in our desk chair in the living room, his knees pulled up to his chin, clutching a canister of Cedarcide, while he read a book.
            “This is the only flea free spot in the house,” he said, then sprayed a spot on the floor close by.
            I had had enough. Pat agreed. Damn the expense. We needed a professional. We lined a cardboard box with towel, gently lowered our embattled cat into it, and took him to the vet. I didn’t even care what the vet would infer from the label on the outside of the box.
Charles Shaw.
Vintner to bohemians and the underclass.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Bike Ride -- Conclusion (The Hero's Journey)

Now that Spencer’s wailing has subsided, the wood becomes itself again. It’s as if Spencer’s injury was a vortex of action and sound, sucking life from the clearing, leaving it characterless until the crisis ebbed. Now that Spencer is paying quiet homage to his pain, the sunlight dances again over the brush. A breeze lazily flaps leaves on their branches. Insects buzz. And I can hear the scurry of a critter on the other side of the path. Murph notices this reanimation too. His attention is drawn to a bird pecking the ground.
I can clearly hear Pat talking to Spencer through the phone, “Remember the hero’s journey, Buddy?”
“Yeah,” says Spence, not taking his eyes from his wound.
The hero’s journey – why didn’t I think of that? It’s a perfect thing to say. Spencer and Murphy love Joseph Campbell’s analysis of the hero’s narrative in many mythologies as told to them frequently by Pat, most often in reference to Star Wars. Casting Spencer as a hero instead of a boy with limited cycling experience led into challenging terrain by his mother with no water, no first aid supplies, and no real plan is a brilliant move. Already I can see Spencer’s shoulders relaxing.
“…then there’s the refusal of the call to adventure,” I hear Pat say. He’s on the second step already. The first step is the actual call to adventure, the point where Mommy said, let’s all rent bikes and ride them into the woods.
“I told Mommy that the side of the path had too many loose stones,” Spencer says into the phone.
“That’s it,” says Pat. “You refused to bike on the side.”
“No. I biked on the side like she told me and that’s how I got hurt,” Spencer says, a hint of his former hysteria creeping into his tone.
Pat hears it too, because he counters quickly, “Forget the refusal of the call. That’s one of the steps some myths skip anyway. And we can skip supernatural aid, I bet.”
“Yeah. Nothing like that.”
“So we get to ‘crossing the threshold’. You left your comfort zone and answered the call. You agreed to go biking with Mommy…”
“I didn’t exactly agree.”
“OK. Let’s say that you didn’t disagree.”
            I smile to myself. Spencer must be feeling more himself since he’s hassling Pat on the details. Murphy draws his knees up and leans in closer to the phone so that he can hear Daddy too.
            “Oh,” says Spencer, “some people stopped and gave me water and a Kleenex. That could be supernatural aid and I just didn’t know it.”
            “Could be,” affirms Pat.  I feel the conversation veering off track but Pat brings it back. “Let’s not get lost in the steps right now. The point is that the hero has to overcome many obstacles and sometimes he even fails. Sometimes he doubts himself. All that is part of his journey. If the journey was easy, he wouldn’t be a hero, he’d just be a pretty accomplished guy. So see, Spencer, you can be the hero here. You can be scared and still get back on the bike.”
            “I’m not riding on the side of the path though.”
            “That’s something you’ll have to work out with Mommy.”
            “I’m telling you that I’m going to ride down the middle.”
            “OK, Buddy. Talk it over with Mommy. Can I talk to her?”
            They say their goodbyes and “love you”s like Spencer is going off on an honest-to-God trek across scorched earth to start his ascent up and through a perilous mountain range that he must pass before the winter comes. I can almost hear the swell of a movie soundtrack as Spencer hands me the phone and starts to stand, keeping his wounded let stiff.
            “Thanks, my love,” I say into the phone to Pat, “I think I can take it from here.”
            I pocket the phone and reach down to help Spencer lift his bike. Any pause might give him time to reflect and weaken his resolve. I remove twigs from the spokes and Spencer lifts his good leg over the frame, straddling the bike. I grab his helmet and hand it to him.
            “Why don’t you start,” I say, “and Murphy and I will follow.”
            Spencer snaps on the helmet and pushes off. Immediately the bike wobbles.  Spence can’t get any traction. He stops short and the bike falls against his inner thigh, pushing him into a pile of leaves again. He screams, “The bike won’t go. The bike won’t go!”
            I run up to him and pull him from the felled bike.
            “It’s broken,” he yells, kicking the bike.
            I look back at Murphy who is standing next to our tandem, helmet in hand, with a look of barely suppressed irritation. I look back at Spencer, “Maybe it isn’t broken, Spencer.”
            “YES IT IS, MOM!!!” he yells at me, red faced, tears streaming down his face.
            Yet again, I feel completely helpless. I want to say, “What about the hero’s journey?” A minute ago, you were ready to take this whole thing on --be the hero --and then, BAM, one little set-back and we’re back where we started? Really? And, what’s all this outrage directed at me? What the hell did I ever do except try to give you an adventure that I obviously can’t even afford now because the clock is ticking and at this point we’ve probably spent more money than we would have if we had gone sailing. And why? Because of YOU.
            And on and on.  Resentful thoughts tumble in my head as I stand over him. They are non-parental thoughts. Worse. They are the thoughts of a pissed-off peer. They are thoughts that could be owned by someone Murphy’s age. And my one proud moment in this whole thing thus far is that I don’t voice them.
            Then. Slicing through the jumble in my head with laser-like precision is a super-thought, stronger than the rest. It is an undeniable thought which is almost laughable for its simplicity.
It is this: What about me? Why can’t I be the hero? Why am I continuing to refuse the call to action? I have been passive since Spencer first took the fall. In fact, the only active thing I did was dial Pat’s number so he could deal with it. Jesus, when am I going to the fucking hero of my own life?
Over Spencer’s keening, I hear voices up the path and see a trio of bike riders heading toward us. I raise my hand and yell a phrase I almost never use, “Can you help us?”
The riders slow to a stop along side of us. I see now that they are three young men. Mid-twenties, maybe. Hard-bodied. One even has his shirt off, his defined physique glistening with sweat. I feel my face flush with embarrassment, not just because of my incompetence and screaming child, but because I am middle-aged.
I push past my shame and ask, “Do any of you know about bicycles? My son thinks his is broken.”
“Sure thing,” says the shirtless man and he hops off his bike. “You stopped the right guy. Bikes are my thing.” He walks over to Spencer’s bike and Spencer grows quieter. The man leans down to the bike and Spencer, silent now, sits up from the pile of leaves he’s been lying on.
I turn to the other riders and see that one of them is rounder than the other two. The round guy says, “As you can see, I don’t do much bike riding anymore.” He points to the shirtless man, “This was all his idea. I told him, ‘For once can we do something that doesn’t hurt my whole body? And this is what I get.’”
Spencer smiles at the joke.
The shirtless guy looks up from Spencer’s bicycle, “Chain’s loose. That’s all.”
The man in the green t-shirt, next to the round guy, eyes Spencer’s knee and says to him, “Your knee got hurt?”
“Yeah. My mom said to ride on the side,” says Spence, adjusting his leg so green t-shirt can get a better look at the wound that is still bleeding.
The shirtless man picks up the bike and straddles it. He grips the frame with his knees, “And the alignment’s off. I can fix that.”
Green t-shirt points to Spencer’s wound and says, “That’s your badge of glory.”
“Yeah,” says the round man. “You wanna show that off. It’s your badge of glory.”
“Right,” says green t-shirt, “The only thing better than having your badge of honor right up front on your knee, would be if you had it on your face.”
“Like if you flew over the handlebars, face first,” says round man. “Then everyone would see it.”
Green t-shirt giggles, “Yeah, then you could do jokes like, ‘Hey I didn’t fall off my bike. I just wanted to get a closer look at the road.’”
The round man laughs and punches t-shirt’s arm. Spencer chuckles and Murphy laughs because everyone else is. I don’t entirely get it. I mean, if it’s a badge of honor why would you say you were simply getting a closer look at the road? But my spirit lifts at seeing Spencer smile.
Shirtless guy rolls the bicycle back to Spencer, “See how this works.”
Spencer gets up from the leaves, mounts the bicycle and pedals a few feet. All without a peep of protest. Is it because he’s among guys? He stops and turns to give them a thumbs up.
They all chuckle and says things like, “Right”, “That’s it”, and “My man”. There is general high fiving and big grins as they take off. We three watch them disappear into the woods and then I turn back to Spencer, “Moving on?”
“Yup,” he says.
Murphy climbs onto the back of the tandem. I throw my leg over and wait for Spencer to start. We push off without conversation and the ride is slightly uphill. I anticipate complaints from Spencer, but he digs in. Murphy points out some scenery and I keep up the pace while considering options. The smartest financial option is to return the bikes as soon as possible. But part of me wants to redeem this afternoon. I want to return in triumph with Spencer’s badge of glory and memories of the scenery and how frigging cool it was to ride a tandem.
After hitting a biking groove for a while, we come to a crossroads. We can take the path up to a nature center or loop back down to base. Spencer is reluctant to go further but I suspect that the nature center might have first aid and water.
“But we don’t know how hard it will be, Mom,” he says.
“Just look at the map,” I say, pointing to the one under the sign. “It’s not that far.”
“You can’t tell from the map,” says Spencer with an irritable edge to his voice.
I can feel helplessness creeping into my bloodstream again, about to infuse me with inaction. And then I remember. I can be the hero. I can make choices and if they’re wrong then they’re wrong. What’s the big deal? I don’t have to be defeated by every mistake and miscalculation.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” I say to both boys. “We are going to the nature center. Spencer, I will walk your bike up this incline until the path gets flat again. Then you will take it from there. Murphy, wait here with the tandem and I will come back to get it in a couple of minutes.”
With that, I kick Spencer’s kickstand and start to walk the bike up the hill as he trails me. My legs are tired and I can feel the sweat dripping down my face. My arms ache as I push the handlebars over the soft ground. It is, however, worth the surge of effort. This is action, pure and simple.
Later, when we get to the nature center to find water, Neosporin, and a band aide, I spook the lady behind the counter with my effusive gratitude. Once Spencer’s wound is cleaned and we’ve all gulped from the water fountain, we take a tour around the nature center. The boys get free stickers.
In describing the hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell says that once the hero has earned his “ultimate boon”, he must return. And that return offers more obstacles. More dragons to slay and chasms to cross. In surviving these tests, he becomes a master of both the spiritual and material world. In other words, he returns changed by his travails, not simply triumphant because he has survived. Something internal happens on the bike path.
Fortunately, the dragons that might beset us are sleeping upon our return.  We take the path slowly and stop a couple of times to gaze up at the trees against the sky. And when we ride past the scene of Spencer’s first test, Spencer lifts himself off of his seat and pumps the pedals faster. He reaches a crest, then sits back down and takes his feet off of the pedals to let the bike carry him down.
A stop on our return


Murphy looking back

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bike Ride Part 3 (After the Fall)

            Spencer’s words, “It’s all your fault” ricochet in my head. Blood streams down his knee. I have nothing to dab the blood with. I need to see the wound. What if it’s deep? Tears sting the inside of my eyelids as I frantically look around for a solution. “It’s all your fault!” I could use my t-shirt but it’s covered with dirt. Would I be making matters worse?  Murphy has taken up position next to Spencer. He bows his head while his brother writhes next to him. I feel helpless and angry that Pat isn’t here. Wounds are his duty. Pat’s always decisive in situations like this.
            I look down the bike path. Of course, now that I’m prepared to ask for help, there are no cyclists. Spencer continues to wail as I look in the other direction, my hand on his shoulder.  I spot an older couple cycling toward us and put up my hand.
            They slow and stop in front of us. “Do you need help?” the woman asks.
            “Yes,” I say over Spencer’s screaming, although I don’t really know what I need. I want them to get off their bikes and take care of Spencer’s knee but I know I can’t ask that and they aren’t offering.
            “Here’s some water,” the man says, handing me a bottle.
            “And I have a Kleenex,” the woman adds.
            I quickly take them and pour the water over Spencer’s knee. He screams louder.  I hand the bottle back to the man.
            “You keep it,” he says.
            I almost burst into tears. I’m grateful for the water but I also want to tell them that I hadn’t planned on the bike trip. That’s why I don’t have any water of my own. I blot the blood on Spencer’s knee. The Kleenex is flimsy and shortly turns red. I glance up at the couple. Either they don’t have another Kleenex or they don’t want to give it to me.  
Hot with the shame of needing help and not knowing what to do, I gather my self together and manage to say rather formally, “We’ll be all right. Thank you so much.”
“Are you sure?” says the woman.
I want to yell, “Of course, I’m not sure!!!! I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here. My son hates me and what if he needs stitches out here in the middle of nowhere? What do I do then?  Fashion a fucking needle out of a twig? Rip up my t-shirt to make a tourniquet?  Isn’t it spectacularly clear to you that I haven’t a fucking clue what I’m doing?”
Instead, I say, “Of course.  I can take it from here.”
I see a flash of relief cross the woman’s face before she adjusts.
“All right,” she says, having reconfigured her face to register concern. The man smiles. I smile back. Spencer has been weeping ceaselessly. Murphy’s head is still reverentially bowed. It looks like he is honoring Spencer’s pain and praying for the moment to pass so we can have fun again.
The couple nod and take off. I turn back to Spencer’s knee. I pull the red Kleenex off and take a look. I see a flap of loose skin and a wound that is wet and raw and bleeding. I pour more water on it and cover it again with the Kleenex.
“It’ll be all right, Spencer,” I say.  “Try to breathe. Just breathe.”
“It hurts so much,” he yells.
I can’t tell whether he’s reacting out of real pain or fear and anger. Probably everything.
“OK. OK. I know it hurts. We can sit here as long as it takes,” I say.
He gasps and starts a new kind of wail that consists of longer breaths with deeper resonance. It’s as if he’s taking the opportunity to tap into other grievances.  I know the sound well because I’ve been there. As long as he’s bitterly protesting his wounded knee, he might as well throw in our cat’s death and his loss of the soccer championship last year. This shift in sound indicates to me that Spencer’s agony is part theater. Which doesn’t mean it’s unimportant, it simply reassures me that the knee is probably going to be fine. It’s his sense of betrayal by me and possibly even a general sense of not being safe that needs to be addressed.
Over his howling, I continue to suggest that he breathe. “Maybe concentrate on the scenery,” I say, stupidly. “It’s beautiful here, isn’t it? Just beautiful.” I look out at the scenery in an attempt to model what he should be doing, “Don’t think about your knee. How about that?”
“It hurts too much,” Spencer yells at me.  “I can’t think about anything else!”
“Well. Just try,” I say, keeping my voice even.
I continue looking out at the scenery and an unbidden thought occurs to me. We are renting the bikes by the hour. By now, we’ve tacked another hour onto our initial expense and who knows how much longer it’s going to take Spencer to calm down. Add to that, the time it will take for me to address the knee and coax him back onto the bike that bucked him in the first place. We’re talking a small fortune for this hellish ride. My shoulders sag. I feel depleted of will and initiative. 
I pull my cell phone out of my pocket and call Pat. He picks up on the second ring, “Hey, what’s up?”
At his voice I burst into tears and manage to get out the words, “It’s Spence. He’s fallen.”
“What? What’s happened?” Pat yells back, immediately.
I hear the panic in his voice. Now I’ve made things even worse.
“It’s nothing,” I sputter, “We’re OK. It’s OK.”
“It doesn’t sound OK.”
“That’s because it’s not,” I say through my tears. “I just don’t want you to worry. We’re fine. But we’re not OK. We’re not in trouble or anything.”
“Look,” says Pat, in a calmer tone, “can you give me to Spence?”
“Sure,” I say and hand the phone to Spencer. “It’s Daddy.”
Spencer’s crying softens as soon as he hears Daddy’s name. He reaches for the phone and brings it to his ear. I get up and walk to the other side of the path where it drops off into a ravine. I wipe tears off of my face. I hear Spencer listing his grievances again. Mommy told him to ride on the side of the path. Mommy wasn’t prepared. His knee really, really, really hurts and it won’t stop hurting.  Between complaints, I hear Pat’s tone, not the words. His tone is measured and reassuring. I walk back to Spencer just as he moans, “That’s the exact opposite of what Mommy told me to do!”
What? I think, what?  What’s the exact opposite? Now that I’m closer, I can hear Pat’s words. He’s telling Spencer to pay attention to the pain, focus all of his energy on his knee.
Spencer’s weeping subsides as he takes the Kleenex off of his knee and concentrates. Murphy looks at the knee as well. Blood trickles down his shin. But it is quiet. 
(to be continued...")
When Spencer calmed down I quickly took this picture of him talking to Pat on the phone