Thursday, August 28, 2008

It's in the 90s outside and C has been down with a slight cold. I woke up today with a frog in my throat and a bit of a drippy nose--nothing really, but it meant we had to cancel our double date with Carla and Gerry, a hike up at Inspiration Point (which is paved for easy wheelchair access) and a movie afterwards. Instead, I went swimming and C stayed home and played with his new music recording equipment.

The International Interplay Conference is on right now, in downtown Berkeley, all kinds of wonderful folk, doing all kinds of great things--teaching improvisation in the prisons and to parents and young children, music therapy, artmaking, storytelling...

Testimonial: I use Interplay all the time in my relationship with my Little Sister. She's ADD and hyperactive and bounces off the walls; if I couldn't speak gibberish to her sometimes, if we didn't do hand dances together (of course I don't call them that,) or let our Evil Twins come out and goof around with with each other, I don't know how I'd bridge the cultural and generation gaps between us. It also works well with my young nieces and nephews. And with C.

Now the hard part: the conference is being held in a church with a huge shiny cross hanging over the sanctuary. I didn't feel comfortable performing there. I'm done cavorting on Christian altars until there are some other Jews in the community. I don't know if that's a "reasonable" thing to say or not. I feel like the turd in the punch bowl when other Interplayers refer to the Interplay community as their "tribe." I feel like saying "I really do come from an actual tribe and all my other people are missing," but that seems...rude.

I remember when I was dating I reached a certain point when I snapped. I said, "I'm not going to have sex with any more men whom I don't love and who are not ready to commit to me." It was hard, and I had a few slips, but basically I held onto that until C finally showed up, two years later.

When Wing It! performed at an evangelical church a year and a half ago, something in me also snapped. I had never heard so much "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus," live and in person in my whole life and it felt traumatizing. I cried the whole next day, called up Phil Porter and cried and raged all over him, and have been obsessed about it ever since. I don't much like being in my own skin when I'm obsessing. And I don't like being angry, putting up separatist walls, or setting boundaries. But that's the rub. Being angry and being separatist may not be very healthy, but setting boundaries ultimately is, even if it's hard.

This morning I respected the boundary Carla has set about not being in contact with sick people. I cancelled our date even though I was sorely disappointed. The kid part of me was protesting, "I'm not really sick! We've planned this for weeks! Let's just go anyway!!" But the adult part of me took over and said, "It's not worth the risk." End of story.

Now, with Wing It! I've set a boundary around my own exposure to Christianity. But it feels painful and uncomfortable every time I keep it. (It would feel painful and uncomfortable to be up there improvising under that giant cross and have something mean escape my mouth "by accident." It would also feel painful and uncomfortable to stifle myself.) I stayed home with C and we tried to watch Saving Private Ryan but it was much too violent, so I ended up reworking the essay on house renovations for the 1,000th time.

Later, I thought about what C said to me the other week: "If I had to convert to Judaism to marry you I would do it. I'm willing."

I responded, "I'd never ask anyone to do something like that for me."

Then I got to thinking--what if he would really be fulfilled being a Jew? Who am I to turn down that kind of full-hearted offer? He's already said that if he could have been born into any religion that's the one he'd choose. He has many Jewish characteristics; skepticism, humor, a passion for the underdog. He feels Jewish to me in many ways.

So I brought the subject up again.

"Remember what you said about converting? Would you still be willing to entertain the idea...?"

He showed me some pages he'd downloaded from the Internet after we'd been dating less than six months. He'd also already bought Hebrew for Dummies--a year ago.

"Ask the rabbi about it," he suggested. So I put in a call to Rabbi David: When are you available to perform a wedding ceremony next July, and by the way, my partner is interested in converting. The journey continues...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Clouds, then sun. That’s how I would characterize these last few days, weeks. Even without the structure and confines of our regular teaching jobs, C and I both feel challenged to achieve the right balance between work and play, social time and solitude, exercise and reading and writing.

Too much work and we get tight, tired, crabby and depressed. The other day we spent about four hours at Home Depot—at least that’s what it felt like—picking out a vanity, sink, mirror, etc for the in-law, and buying joint compound and sheetrock. I should not complain, C has done all of the work in the bathroom because I’m not qualified. Work on the kitchen—the scraping and painting which I am qualified to do—has been temporarily halted while he finishes up.

Meanwhile, there’s the whole rest of life—precious visits with Carla, time spent with my Little Sister—who is testing my boundaries in every way a resourceful, survival-oriented, badly hurt seven-year-old can—Interplay; and pathetic attempts to get some exercise. Oh, and writing. After three days, I finished an essay about the house renovations. It’s in pretty good shape. I’m half way through a long essay about Carla. I haven’t touched the musical we began in May 2007.

My Little Sister and I washed my car. Well, “washed” is a dubious term. We smeared the dirt around and half-rinsed it. Then we started in on C’s Subaru. “Hold up, we’re using too much water!” I called out to her, afraid of the expense because of the drought. “I’m washing his rims!” she called back, hose pointed at his hub caps. “You got to wash a man’s rims.”

Later she told me he had to be my husband and not my boyfriend because “You all sleep together and if he’s your boyfriend he’s supposed to sleep on the couch.”

While we were driving on the freeway she commanded me to pull over, “I want to drive!”

“In your dreams, Sister,” I said. “You are not driving my car until you’re forty.”

“And by then you’ll probably be dead, huh?” she said. I did a few calculations in my head.

“Yeah, probably.”

I don’t know how to balance. I kind of suck at balancing. Either life spills all over me and I just go with it, or I hide away in bed as I am doing now, so I can write.

Last night C was so happy and tender with me because he had spent a few hours playing music. I was renewed from teaching my Personal Essay class at the Writing salon. It has been such a wonderful class! Really one of those I-can’t-believe-they’re paying-me-to-do-this things. I came home at 10 and we slow-danced in the kitchen. Heaven.

The day before I’d been depressed. “Pre-monstral” my friend Angela calls it. I felt fat and bloated. I need exercise, need exercise, need to swim regularly again. God damn the Courthouse for closing. I haven’t been able to replace that gym.

Then I felt spoiled for kvetching about not having a good gym when there is so much real suffering around me. Then I just felt dull and listless. Then those feelings passed and the weather was different again.

p.s. Note about a friend's comments on the remark "You are the most annoying person in the world," which is a phrase C and I sometimes fling back and forth, and which I mentioned in the house remodeling essay. She felt that that was a hurtful thing to say and couldn't understand why i didn't think so. I wrote back:

"As far as "You are the most annoying person in the world," and the reason it doesn't bother me when he says that--it's a standing joke between us--is that I know that I'm not. I have my flaws but I'm not the most annoying person in the world. (I don't know who exactly holds that tile, but I could propose some candidates...)

If C said, "You have cellulite on your ass," or "You sing off-key!"-- that would hurt my feelings, as both those things are true and I feel uncomfortable about them.

But "You are annoying--" or "You are the most annoying--" that to my ears is playful, like we're dropping into being two nine-year-old playing and tuanting and shoving each other on the playground. It might not be fit for public consumption, but I feel very tenderly about being able to play full-out with someone. He has let me see his inner bratty kid, and I have let him see mine. And those inner bratty children even play together and have a relationship.

(And the words, "I love you," and similar appreciations are exchanged between us all the time.)

Maybe what makes it more important and precious for us to be able to be brats and let off steam with each other is that like me, C has spent so much of his life trying to be "good." And sometimes both of us have been "too good," too nice, too accomodating, taken too much shit that we shouldn't have. So being able to assert ourselves fully with another person--to be angry, to be annoyed, to be anal (in his case,) or I-don't-give-a-shit (in mine) and still be accepted and loved--that's where the healing is. Precisely there.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

I felt it the other day; summer turning its cheek. The afternoon was bright and warm, I was standing on Lakeshore, and the light was different. More golden, swifter to darken. Last night we went walking in the hills as the full moon rose. We walked back in moonlight, stumbling sometimes over rocks and roots. An adventure.

Where is summer going? It slipped away from us while we were painting and scraping and arguing and loving and making phone calls and making dinner and watching movies, and…

I get caught in expecting great things of summer (actually, I get caught in expecting great things of everything, but that's another story.) I expect renewal, change, inner and outer. I expect huge fun, big adventures, peak experiences. I remember summers past--hitchhiking across Canada, trekking through France--and want that again.

Today the fog is blowing in and out. There’s a mess of windfall peaches on the ground and I’m going to gather them and make peach pie to bribe G to let me watch Olympian gymnastics on his hi-def TV, and I’ll make peach sauce to serve with latkes at Chanukah.

Summer has gone by so fast! And I did not complete the first draft of the musical, did not become a buff 148 pound mile-swimmer, did not get an agent or do a vision quest or even plan my fiftieth birthday party.

I did write an unexpected show for Elizabeth Mendana (go to to find out about it; it will run September 5, 6, 12 and 13 at St. Gregory of Nyssa Church, 500 DeHaro St., SF.) I did revise Shame Circus for the umpteenth time and sent it out. I did spend quality time with my Little Sister.

I’m about a third of the way through a long essay about Carla, which I’ll send to the NY Times Magazine when I’m done. I’m working very carefully on it, combing over each sentence, excerpting pieces of her songs, her blog, and her show to interleave with the story. I want it to be exquisitely structured, really worthy. And: I want The Times to take it. If they don’t, I’ll send it somewhere else.

And I started another essay, about working on the house with C, that I could send to Modern Love when I’m done, except I’m afraid the editor might think it cliched. Couples working together to rehab their house, ho hum—I’m sure it’s been done (though not by me.)

I have a poem in the latest Syracuse Cultural Workers Women Artists Datebook, and six poems of mine are finalists in a contest. Another poem, Ode to Vegas, is going to be published in an anthology called “101 Odes.” So many of the poems in See How We Almost Fly have been published, accepted for publication, won prizes, or been runners-up for prizes, I know the work is strong. It’s just taking forever to get the manuscript as a whole accepted somewhere.

Wednesday night, C and I went over to dinner at Carla’s. Gerry joined us and we had a great time, sitting around eating salmon and watermelon, talking, laughing, listening to music. It was blessedly normal, amid all the weirdness of ALS and the state of the world. Then we all went out to The Albatross, a local pub which serves grown-ups, not just college kids, and continued to have a lovely time.

We asked each other the question, “Who would you like to have dinner with?” assuming someone famous and probably dead. Carla picked mostly singers. She named Billie Holliday, and some other musicians, Lou Gehrig (alright, he was not a singer but a ball player.) Gerry said Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson, and maybe Frederick Douglass or Paul Robeson. C wanted to have dinner with inventors. Thomas Edison, and Ray Kurzweil, and Oscar Peterson. (“But really,” he says, “I’d trade any of them to have dinner with my Dad. To get him in an unguarded moment, to ask him about what being a Dad meant to him, how it changed his life…”)

I said Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks and Jane Addams, the first social worker. On reflection, I’d like to add Chekhov to that list, and Shakespeare of course. But really, I told C later, the best dinner companions I can imagine are Carla Zilbersmith, Christopher Bates, and Gerry Thrash. This is it, we are it, right here and now. Someday we will look back and realize this was the time of our lives.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I am writing this from Planet Intimacy, a place not unlike the moon, with strange caverns, glorious vistas, unexpected fissures. The atmosphere here is different; the normal rules don’t always apply. Sometimes it’s as breezy and warm as a picnic in Heaven; then storm clouds move in, the wine turns sour on the tongue and nothing makes sense for a while.

It’s disintegration in service to a deeper re-integration—or self in the world, soul to soul, soul to God. It’s descent into pettiness—“That’s not the right way to send a package! “ “You are the most annoying person in the world!” in service to humility and seeing oneself clearly, childishness, warts and all. It’s what I longed for all those years, maybe my whole life, envying my parents because they got to sleep together in their big bed. It requires patience, stamina and guts, as the remodel continues and we paint and scrape and measure the bathroom for new fixtures and go to Home Depot and try to live our creative lives as well.

Last night C played music again for a few hours while I was out teaching my class, (I love my class! They are so wise and open! I can’t believe I get paid to do this!) and I came home to find a new man, or, I should say, the old C—radiant, refreshed. When he neglects his creative work he gets burdened and cranky. When I neglect mine I get apathetic and listless.

We watched the opening ceremonies of the Games last Friday night on G’s large-screen HDTV. Jaw-droppingly awe-inspiring. I don’t have the energy to go into the descriptions here—everyone can watch them on Youtube by now—and they should. It’s a spectacle greater than any in living memory.

The announcer kept talking about how the Chinese value harmony. Harmony, harmony, harmony. At what price, I wondered. The shadow side of harmony is fascism. Kill the element that is inharmonious. Pluck out the withered flower, the unruly opinion, the misshapen individual. Replace the plain little girl singer with the gorgeous voice with the pretty little doll and let the pretty one lip-sync. Harmony is beautiful, but, like perfection, it is not human.

Human nature is boisterous, roiling, changeable, ambivalent, full of contradictions which never resolve. I am an advocate for all that is imperfect and inharmonious. I don’t mind having stupid arguments with my beloved or being a fool, or being ugly, if it is part of an authentic life. Which is why I will never compete in the Olympics, never be one of those flowers of perfection to entertain the world stage (although I love to watch them, especially the gymnasts.)

I will just live here on Planet Intimacy, recording rotting peaches and coffee grounds, a messy desk, rumpled sheets, a sunny day, a trip to the body shop to fix C’s bumper which I dented when I backed my car out of the driveway without looking, a phone call to Carla, not enough time to exercise properly but a thousand words written before lunch.

(And what are the shadow sides of my own ideals? The shadow of authenticity is total descent into the dark side, laziness, abandonment. The shadow side of kindness is weak boundaries or no boundaries. All of our ideals are flawed.)

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Dede is beside me on the bed, helping me write my newest essay. The first page or so is slow going, until I find my rhythm. This one is about Carla and it’s hard to write as everything is changing so quickly, the feelings are so raw, and everything feels too alive, vulnerable and sacred to be frozen into print so fast. But I want to get the word out, want people to know and buy her CDs and maybe contribute to her medical fund. The cat turns around three or four times, looking for an appropriate nest, and then settles in next to my legs, a comfortable vantage point where she can watch C eat his breakfast—leftover Chinese food, eggs, toast, coffee, and lick herself.

For the past week the rhythm has been: work on the in-law—scraping paint off the old cabinets, stripping away layers and layers of paint, washing ceilings, washing walls, and then write. Or try to. Write a little, strip a little. Monday I skipped practice and went to Home Depot with C where we bought industrial size dust pans, a baby lime tree, rope, a redwood two-by-four and orange eco-goo paint-stripper (not its real name,) in hopes of avoiding death by toxic fumes while we do this work.

Tuesday Carla and I went shopping and had girl-talk and death talk and life talk. She has a new breathing machine now, to help her get more oxygenated. A good thing, but a bad reminder. Thank God for dating and sex, the best distractions on the planet. I see her being pulled between death and life, almost pulled apart, like that dance in her last show, where the young woman dances with death and is bound by and supported in stretchy bands while the soundtrack played a song Carla had written and sung for the show, achingly beautiful.

At her apartment, Carla lets me listen to me her latest songs, the ones she recorded last week. Songs are pouring out of her. A dark love song, a hilarious song about blow jobs that would go viral on Youtube in one minute if she released it there; a brilliant funny song about disillusionment in relationships; the death song, others. I listen and think “I wish she’d started writing songs twenty years ago.” But of course twenty years ago the conditions were not ripe as they are now.

I learned how to break down and reassemble her wheelchair, pack it into the trunk of my car, and, not to brag, but if there were an Olympic trial for wheelchair packing (which there should be,) I would definitely be a contender. I can take the thing apart in three minutes, put it back together in four. I’ve always excelled at demolition. Carla promised to help me make a tee-shirt that says “DESTRUCTOGRRRL.”

The new hard developments—more difficulty walking, more weakness, the new breathing machine—bring home the awfulness of this disease and the rapidity of its progression. We talk about this, and then when I’m home I get an email from her: “We have to find a man for F---“ (one of our single friends.) I laugh and am grateful that the storm has passed for the moment, grateful for the lovely tracks of her original songs that she laid down last week so we can always have them, grateful to be playing yenta with her, grateful she can still get in and out of my car, grateful I’ve got the strength to do the wheelchair. Grateful and at the same time so sick of this damn disease and so heartbroken.

Wednesday I got a tooth pulled and now my tongue keeps moving up to the hole in my jaw where the dentist took a stitch and tied a knot. I did that in the morning; in the afternoon it was back to scraping. C is careful and meticulous; I’m not. This leads to clashes of core values against core personality traits, but we go through it honestly, all the way, not holding back and not running away. Tears on both sides. In the end we’re closer. Working this hard takes a toll.

.The work on the house is the work on the relationship and vice versa. As the house gets stripped down, rotting wood exposed and removed or repaired, as old dead plants are tossed and replaced with fresh blooming ones, as layers of dirt and old paint come off, so do layers of defenses, history and baggage we’ve accumulated over the years. Until there’s just this: me stripping, scraping layers and layers on the warm sun, and C coming out to offer a glass of water and touch my back and we stand there savoring each other for a moment before he picks up the paintbrush and apply another layer of ec-goo.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

I’m writing this sitting up in bed. C is napping beside me with Dede curled into the curve of his body, purring softly. Dad is napping downstairs, lying on the couch in front of the sunny window, his book open on his belly. It’s a perfect summer day—light, cool, cloudless.

We’ve been working like demons these last few days, especially C, getting the house ready for Dad’s visit. There was the 4-hour session of putting the sofa-bed/futon from Ikea together, an activity which required two people, a contractor’s license, power tools and infinite patience. The house has been vacuumed and mopped, the grounds weed-whacked, and this morning I picked some roses from the garden to put in a vase in Dad’s room.

My father in his seventies exudes a sweetness like ripe apples. His face is big and pink and kind, his hug is strong and warm. He walks more and more slowly, head bent, absorbed in his own thoughts. The absent-minded professor. Sometimes he doesn’t hear what you say to him because he is so lost in his own mind. Five minutes later he will snap to and try to pull the words back from the ether they have disappeared in. He lives mostly in his head, but he loves things of this earth as well, trees, flowers, bushes. He notices how clean the house is, especially his room, and he knows it is C who has done it, and he tells me, “This one’s a keeper.”

We go to the garden store together and he buys us plants—a pot of bushy silvery lavender for me, an asparagus fern for C. We go out to eat; Vietnamese food, Burmese. He is like his mother, my late grandmother, who would hover over you as you finished your breakfast and ask, “So what do you think you’ll be wanting to eat for lunch?” I make pesto from the new basil plant we just bought and serve it with polenta and salad and he likes it.

He gets up every morning between four and five. He waits until six and then walks very slowly, up our street to the cafĂ© that opens at 6:30. There he drinks a decaf coffee and eats a scone and reads the paper. Manny Ramirez of the Boston red Sox has been traded. Good. The guy is a schnook, he gets twenty million dollars a year and then he says his knee hurts and he won’t play? For that money, Manny, you get out of bed and play. I don’t care what your knee feels like. Thus spaketh my dad.

I try to get up early to, so as to have quality early morning time with him. All the time we spend together is high quality but he is at his absolute sparkling peak first thing in the morning. His hair is neatly combed, his cheeks are rosy, and all’s right with the world. By eight that evening he will look twenty years older and infinitely more tired, but daybreak is his hour. The problem is that it’s not mine.

The first day I struggle out of bed at 7:45. I’m out of the house by 8, walking as fast as I can, chasing him the mile down to the coffee shop. Half way there I meet him coming back, looking younger than springtime.

The second day I get up at 6:30. He’s already gone, but I make it to the coffee shop by seven and we share a companionable hour together. He buys me a coffee and a scone, and he reads his paper while I read the New Yorker, all about a Chinese musical prodigy named Lang Lang.. I can’t talk very well that early, but I sense he’s glad to have me there.

The third morning I don’t bother to get up until my normal time, nine o’clock. He’s already been to the coffee shop and come home in a wonderful mood. I make coffee for myself, put hot water on for C’s tea, and fix us all bowls of fruit and yogurt. C stumbles downstairs looking adorable if a little comatose and we all sit and eat.

For three days I get to be with my two favorite guys on earth and I am happy. We don’t do anything that exciting. I make gazpacho the first night (I’ve been really into making gazpacho this summer, tons of fresh tomatoes and green peppers and cucumbers and cilantro and parsley and a few drops of red wine vinegar and lots of fresh garlic and some olive oil and the juice of several limes. It doesn’t get much better than that.)

I make gazpacho and invite a couple of friends and we hang the Mezuzah the first night. Inside the Mezuzah is a little folded up scroll of paper with the traditional Biblical passages on it. C adds a passage he wrote years ago, before he met me, about the home he dreamed of creating with someone, and I add a poem I wrote in our first months of living together. The friends and Dad witness as we read our writings out loud and then stuff them inside the mezuzah and C nails it to the doorpost while Bethie sings the prayer in her clear lovely voice.

The next two nights we just watch movies at home; a Merchant-Ivory one called The White Countess with Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Natasha Richardson. Ingmar Bergman’s last movie, called Sarabande with Liv Ullman. On the last day we drive Dad and his miniscule luggage to the car rental place. He will join my stepmother in Santa cruz; they will go to a wedding down there and spend time with my stepsisters and brothers and on Monday morning we will get up at dawn in order to have breakfast with them at 7 a.m. at their hotel before they go back to Massachusetts. When I told Carla we were getting up at that hour, she said, “That’s love.” It’s true. There are only a handful of people I would get up at that hour for. Dad heads the list.

Since he’s been gone I’ve been reading the Philip Roth books he sent me, three from the Zuckerman series. I’ve read the first one, and Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson. Roth evokes mixed feelings for me. He’s such a good writer—his sentences ring like music, he has a prodigious vocabulary and the words just tumble out of him, glorious words, all the right, surprising, felicitous, smart words.

But that kind of feels like all there is. Words, not life. The Anatomy Lesson is about a famous writer suffering from a combination of crippling mysterious pain, writer’s block, depression and alcohol and pill addiction. All the characters in the book make smart, witty, pithy speeches—gorgeously written, but they all sound alike. They all sound like the narrator.

I remember when I read the first page of Anna Karenina. A husband whose angry wife had kicked him out of their bedroom woke up on the sofa and stretched. It took him a minute to remember where he was and why he was there. There was more physical weight and life in that tiny scene than in all of Roth’s fevered speeches. Granted, it’s not fair to compare anyone to Tolstoy, but Roth seems to have lived exclusively in his head for the last half century, and it feels like a barren argument-chamber in there. His prose is addictive though, and I finished the book in two days, partly because I had to spend a large chunk of one of them sitting on an uncomfortable plastic chair at the DMV.

Besides reading, I had another date with my Little Sister—we went to my favorite bookstore, the Laurel, and I tried to get her to let me read books to her, while she tried to get me to buy her $25.00 face-painting kits masquerading as “books.” Neither of us had much success. I did bring her home and introduced her to Dede the cat, whom she loved, and to C, who has been slaving away in the in-law re-roping windows, scraping paint, measuring bathroom fixtures (I scraped a whole door, both sides. It took four hours.) As I drove her home, she said, “We’re family now. You’re in my family and I’m in your family.”

Reading did get me started writing again, and last night I started three different pieces; an essay about Carla, a novella based on the hot tub, and the beginnings of something that might explore my troubled relationship to Christianity, the way it pushes all my paranoid Jew buttons. I don’t know if it will be publishable, but I need to write it, as the Interplay international conference looms at the end of the month and I find myself wondering if I will be the only Jew there in a sea of Protestant ministers and ministers-in-training, and if I am, do I want to even go?