Monday, January 30, 2006

L.A. Funeral

The memorial service for my brother’s father-in-law, Konnie, was held in Chino, California, and most of the guests who lined up alongside the busy boulevard to greet the grieving widow, S, at the chapel’s entrance wore cowboy boots. Spanish words colored the conversations the way the pink camellias brightened the green of the shrubs surrounding the funeral home. My sister’s 18-month old daughter played peek-a-boo with the railing, her happiness the antithesis to the broken-hearted crying we could hear from inside.

My most vivid memory of Konnie took place in Maui at my brother’s wedding to Konnie’s daughter, T. We all flew out there, T’s parents, our kids and us, and a slew of friends. The lot of us stayed together in a beautiful villa right on the beach. I had just gotten dressed for the ceremony – fancy make-up, my longish hair put up in a blossom of crisscrossing locks, a dress that made my curves look more voluptuous than lazy. I had to get something from our rented van and I skip-ran down the front stairs, barefoot, past Konnie. When I returned, I looked up and there he was, watching me and smoking a cigarette. His hair was cropped short, military style – his hefty build was draped in a green print Hawaiian shirt. He leaned on the railing, a tattoo, blued with age, visible on his forearm. I smiled and waved and he waved back, saying, “You clean up real nice there.”

I laughed, said thank you, and walked up the stairs, meeting my niece, Aa, at the top. The wedding was on.

Konnie loved fishing, Model-A cars, and smoking. He was known for often using the words son-of-a-bitch (said more like “sum-bitch”) and bullshit (said more like “boo-shit”). I got to know him a little when we’d go to B’s and T’s home for barbeques. We’d all sit by the pool late into the evening, smoking and drinking and chatting. He spoke caringly about his family, living and deceased. I could see beneath the rough exterior, a truly kind soul. He had a low, quiet laugh. At the same time, it was best to duck and cover when he got crotchety. If you weren’t expecting harsh words, he could hurt you.

He and I talked only a couple of times since he learned he had lung cancer. I tried to encourage him, reminding him to take one day at a time, but he looked at me sideways and said, “I won’t be around more’n six months. I know that.” I could only pat his hand and nod, knowing I was on the outside of that journey. Just like everyone else was. There’s little to say on the subject when you aren’t facing such a certain, immediate future, like someone in his position.

“We love you, Konnie.”

The service ended with my brother getting up in front of the gathering to thank everyone. I noticed as he got up that he walked exactly like my father. I was proud of B this past week. The death had been sudden, unexpected. Konnie had collapsed in front of his house. His wife, S, was devastated, like a lost child – his daughter was stoic. B drove the two around all week, helped make the arrangements, finally, thanking everyone. My little brother…was no longer little.

We piled into our cars after the service, each of the cars bearing the orange “funeral” stickers. We turned on our lights and started the long drive to Rose Hills Cemetery in Whittier, accompanied by the funeral traffic cops on bikes and one cousin on a Harley who helped manage the unwieldy line of folks. As we drove, I chatted on the cell with my sister, both of us admiring the Harley cousin (long hair flapping in the wind beneath his black helmet, leather jacket whipping back and forth) and recalling the funerals of our parents. Got a little weepy. The ride got a tad wild on the 60 freeway when we had to deflect away from the 57 eventually to merge onto the 605 where we’d exit. The motorcycle men waved their hands frantically to get us all to the left, then to the right. I learned later my aunt had no sticker, sweating it out at the end of line like a flea hanging on to a greyhound.

I felt honored to be in the procession – honored to be taking part in such an old tradition. There’s this wonderful sense of importance in that line as you roll through stop signs and stop lights. The dead need us as they make their way to their place in the deep dark.

Once there we stood watch on a green hill spotted with flat, granite headstones, the remnants of an ocean’s wind kicking up, chilling me. The sky was a bright stone’s blue, downtown Los Angeles clear and steel grey in the horizon. In between here and there are miles of suburbia and industry and commerce. So much so we even have cities named City of Commerce and City of Industry.

We didn’t go to the follow-up dinner. Instead my sister and I took our grandmother to lunch at a local fish house where we talked over beer about the dirty dreams we have in our old age, making my grandmother laugh and laugh, saying, “Sin verg├╝enza muchachas!”

I think Konnie would have laughed, too.

Just found this...



I hope this isn't just one more lost liberty in a long line of many.

Image from Jesus' General. Thought it was quite clever.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Lying

Near ten last night, I pushed open the pocket door to my office to see what J was up to on the computer, hoping to urge him gently to bed. Usually when he’s on the computer, he listens to his music, making and remaking play lists, he reads drum websites, band websites (a risky venture), and chats with friends. D and I always float in and out of the office to monitor his activity as best we can without breathing down his neck. We can’t catch everything even with our filters in place. I’ve considered a snooping type program, but haven’t had any luck with the test downloads.

At the sound of the door sliding open, J immediately shut down the browser, setting off my internal alarms. I bristled and questioned him, moving him away from the computer, but he popped back into the seat, opened the browser again, and before I realized what he was doing, he deleted the history.

I breathed. Counted to ten.

We argued. He went to bed in a huff. Quickly I searched the drive for web pages and lo and behold, there it was, J had recreated an account on MySpace.com even though we specifically prohibited him from having one until he brought his grades up. Our plan had been that he’d have to attain “C’s” in order to continue getting free-reign access to his drum set rather than on a very restricted schedule, and “B’s” to get access to time-sucking MySpace.Com. I didn’t think it was that strict an approach to take. I thought it was simple, clean, uncomplicated. That was before the possibility of BP. We’d decided to stick with the plan because I was very afraid he’d take advantage of the “excuse” (he’s very shrewd in that way). More importantly, I didn’t want to rock the boat – I wanted him to know that life was the same, that this “diagnosis” didn’t change anything. No big deal. Just like any other medical condition. We’ll treat it, move forward.

Well, apparently, he believed the grade situation to be so hopeless that he decided to go ahead and get the MySpace.com account. It was easy to do…he’d do it quickly behind doors…he’d delete history…he’d deny he had an account…if he got caught looking at an HTML page at MySpace.com, he would use the excuse that he was helping a friend out with their account. No problem. No struggle. Total satisfaction.

So, we caught him red-handed. So, deleting the history didn’t work since I decided to test-drive a snooper program (still doesn’t record chats, though).

He lied.

Lied, lied, lied.

D and I remained calm in the face of the BIG LIE and grounded him. But…as much as I want to maintain consistency, we do have to deal with the problem of discouragement. Fact of the matter is that getting good grades at his particular school is a problem. Indeed it may seem to him an insurmountable problem. We might have to adjust our simple approach to something more complex – something layered that will still allow him to reach the longer-term goals of “B’s” and “C’s”.

Life cannot remain the same. I don’t want my beautiful child to give up, to learn that lying gets the same results as successfully meeting a challenge.

***

Which brings me to James Frey, a writer who took easy outs in order to sell a book rather than take on the challenge of selling his story as one of significance.

I read the book, A Million Little Pieces for myself, not wanting to depend on reviews. I found the book interestingly written – I’ve always enjoyed books that take literary leaps, stylistically speaking – the story was touching in places, horrifying in others. I had the advantage of knowing the controversy when I picked up the book so when I came to the part where James Frey pleads not to be sent to a maximum facility I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I kept imagining this conversation where he’s pleading not to get the electric chair (Please GOD not “Yellow Mama”!) while people around him are confused, assuring him he won’t get the chair for having an open bottle of beer in his badly-parked car.

But then…I think of my own memoir-type writings and that in order to create a story out of a snapshot memory, I had to alter some things. I mainly altered conversations because I can’t remember what was said. All I have is my impression of what happened, the essence of what happened. A few alterations therefore…might lead to a lot of them in order to fill in a lot of blanks. Not to mention the driving desire to sell books in an increasingly hard-boiled society.

I admit…I shrugged the lies off. I wasn’t reading an historical autobiography but something that was definitely literary in nature, an example of what is commonly known as “creative non-fiction.” The "true" story was presented in a decidedly, traditionally fictional manner. I was surprised by all the hoopla. I was surprised as hell that Frey took the brunt of criticism when in truth the publishers were ultimately responsible for marketing the book as “memoir/literature” without adding a disclaimer. I don’t believe for one instant that Frey, a debut writer, would have walked into the Doubleday offices with his well-worn manuscript and had the run of the house. I don’t believe for one instant the publishers were at the mercy of Frey.

The Los Angeles Times published an article addressing the question of “memoir” and truth-telling:

Such a question gets at a deep and dirty secret of the publishing industry: There is little vetting of the facts. "Publishers in general will check only for libel," says Wolfe. "For the rest they accept the author's version." Pulitzer Prize finalist Tim O'Brien, author of many books, including the 1973 memoir "If I Die in a Combat Zone Box Me Up and Ship Me Home" (one of the earliest books to be labeled "creative nonfiction") says that when his memoir was published, "I wondered if anybody would vet it, to see if I had been in the Army. But nobody ever did. I could've just made it up."

"Publishers," argues Michael Hoyt, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, "have abandoned their role as gatekeepers. A publisher who says it doesn't matter, well…." He trails off in disbelief.


I recall a much-mocked memoir written by a famous basketball player and one written in a similar vein by a well-known reporter, both writers detailing amazing sexual exploits, the number of partners rising exponentially as the books wore on. I “knew” such details couldn’t possibly be true and yet…I don’t recall any fuss made about the obvious exaggerations. And what of the other “tell-all” books that have become so popular, the other stories of suffering and criminal lifestyles? What, they’re all “true”?

How odd it really is that Frey’s book has garnered so much attention for its falsities considering the packs of lies that are published on a routine basis without so much as a peep. And they’re not even vaguely titled, “memoirs/literature.”

Oprah filleted Frey on her show this past week. I watched about twenty minutes and couldn’t take another second of Oprah’s self-righteousness, couldn’t take her very public flogging of this writer who sat through most it looking like a proverbial deer-in-the-headlights. I found the assault unnecessary and selfish. As a note, the book has not been removed from her “Book Club.” Meaning Oprah wasn’t that incensed. Meaning Oprah isn’t interested in “truth” as much as she is interested in additional publicity.

Frey may or may not survive the backlash – I hope he does. I hope he’ll embrace his fictional abilities full throttle. I hope from now on he won’t be at the mercy of anyone or anything.

I hope he won't...lie.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Windy Nights

The wind is blowing frightfully hard here in the Los Angeles suburbs, pressing against the windows, reminding me of how terrifying this same kind of wind used to be when I lived in Pasadena with my parents. The wind was so strong once that it literally blew down a massive pine tree in our front yard, blew it down so all 90 feet of it crashed in between our house and the one next door.

We had been watching that tree in our darkened kitchen for all the electricity had gone out. My father stood at the sliding glass door with my younger brother next to him. We were talking about what would happen if that tree fell, that beautiful, pine-needle-sprinkling tree that certainly saw the development of our neighborhood back in the late 1800's. I was 18 years old and you'd think my constitution would have been stronger, way past the time when I was afraid of the dark or the boogie man. I was sitting at the kitchen table when all of a sudden my father yelled out that the tree was falling, get out! Time seemed to have stopped for me and I heard the tree literally being yanked out of the ground and crashing downwards. I had stood and turned to get out only I tripped on the chair and crashed, too, right down on the floor, imagining the house was coming down around me. My father pulled me by the arm, dragging me away from the kitchen, until I could get up and run with him outside.

I stood outside, the wind whipping around me and the tree...the tree down on the ground, huge and helpless, branches punched through the neighbors' roof, conveniently though lying right in between our two houses. Safely fallen. Miraculously fallen.

For many nights after, for years after, whenever wind blew hard against the windows, I would be overcome with an overwhelming sense of insecurity. Never before had there been a more perfect metaphor come to life for what I felt about living in the Pasadena house what with my parents' constant dramas.

When I married and moved, only when my father was near death did the wind scare me again. The fear faded only to be reinvigorated with my mother's passing. The fear receded once more. Until tonight. I'm in my office preparing for tomorrow's lecture and I'm scared of the wind as it presses the glass windows, as it makes the vent in the garage whirl wildly.

I don't wonder why I'm feeling this way, however. Last week we learned why J's behavior has so intensified, why for the past couple of months he's been making horrific choices when given options - such as choosing to shoplift a trinkette in a store when visiting the mall with a church group - such as choosing to disappear in the neighborhood with friends when making a trip from right next door back home - such as choosing to self-destruct with regard to his grades, dropping from the cursed D's to F's, even in the face of losing that which he loves most in this world, his drumset. I took him finally to be evaluated and the doctor said he's presenting classic symptoms of bipolar disorder, just like his brother, just like my mother.

For months now, J has become the primary focus of the family - becoming a mini-tornado in our home, causing disruption wherever he is, from the moment he wakes up until the moment he goes down at night, always later than we want, always in defiance.

He's made me extremely insecure.

So the wind is blowing, I'm scared and I'm grasping once again to those little things in life to make me...happy. Moments of simplicity, or peacefulness, or joy.

Sitting in my grandmother's kitchen, eating chilaquiles and drinking instant coffee, while the sun pours in from the window right onto the table, warming the both of us, warming us as we talk about the family.

Driving in the car, coming home from dinner and a visit to the car dealership, D and I talk about how good it is that we found a new car for a price that won't kill our budget, that it's all going to work out just fine. We are practically giddy.

Picking up A from school and watching him lip synch Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire". He knows all the words and it is so funny to "see" such a deep voice singing about passionate love coming from such an angelic, smiling, still-a-baby face. We both laugh and laugh all the way home while Sassy sticks her head outside the open window, lapping at the breeze.

Walking around Barnes & Noble, deciding I'm going to spend $40 on books I'll never finish. I'm joyous.

Talking about movies and television with my friend, happy...happy. Isn't Keifer a beauty? Isn't it great the Shield is back on and smokin'? Doesn't every reality show suck, suck, suck? Yes! Wasn't King Kong great and how in love am I with Juaquin Phoenix? I'm relieved for the simplicity of it all.

Thinking about writing a post on Ray's Market, the treasure trove down the road. How it looks through my children's eyes, how it will look in their eyes when they look back on it as adults. How wonderful!


The wind is pounding our trees, the windows really take it well. I'm certain no trees will fall this night.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Back in the Saddle

Ahh well...the vacation ended and I was truly sorry to see it go being that the five of us seemed to be in a nice groove, where the kids were pleased to be playing, hanging out with friends, and above all, doing homework at their own schedule as opposed to someone else's.

I end the last paragraph on a last positive note about school because boy are we back into the swing of things.

A is crying on the floor because he doesn't want to write any more descriptive words ("ankle heel" is all he will write about a foot and "artistic" is all he will write about his teacher) nor will he read another word, silently or aloud. And he refuses even though he's lost all priveleges the more he cries. We're pretty much down to water...he's allowed to drink water.

J is in his room working on some missed assignments. Well, that's what he tells us. If we question him, we're shot with, "I KNOW!!!" If we remind him that he now has two and half weeks to get "C's" in class (let me repeat...C's...C's!!!! Come on!!!!) or else we're packing up his drumset and sending that to his uncle to be put in storage until he gets those fucking C's, he says, "I KNOW!!!!"

M...ahh...little M with her curly hair and fingers in her nose and mouth, with her striped stockings and pink shorts and green shirt...she's in front of the t.v. in my room, still sleepy from her nap at school, with a chocolate milk at her side, a chocolate milk in a Sponge Bob cup that's making a ring on my cherry wood nightstand (remember those days of being newly married, walking in an expensive furniture store in Orange County, buying that set, never even dreaming that there would be a plastic cup with a talking sponge on its face marking forever that beautiful reddish wood?).

D is on the phone to our insurance company, arguing that the guy who made a u-turn in front of him is at fault and thus responsible for the $3-5,000 worth of damage to our poor 12-yr-old BMW. Our insurance company agrees...except the guy has completely lied, happy (no, thrilled) there are no witnesses to the event. We might end up in arbitration.

Me...ahh me, I'm waiting patiently for 6:00 p.m. when I have to leave for school. Thank goodness for night classes! D, of course, will have to put children to bed, a misery, yes. I will wear over my professional outfit a scarf, hand-crocheted by a student of mine in appreciation. So sweet! So considerate! Tomorrow, I have a doctor's appointment with an ortho-type doctor because I've hurt my shoulder. I hurt it months ago and it's getting worse, surely something's injured. Loathe as I am to see doctors, I'm glad to finally get it looked at. Hopefully it's not some horrible, joint-eating, spine-metastasizing, liver-consuming disease or other. Unlikely, you say, yes...but it might require many weeks in a lush sanitorium, maybe by a beach. Can't wait!

Sassy, oh Sassy. Bless our little black beast, she is hiding under some pillows, chewing on a McDonald's plastic toy. She's waiting for the moment one of the kids finds her, pulls the toy away and runs, runs away with the toy, waving it about like candy.

M is at my side now, whining about something, blue nail polish I see on her fingernails, pointing to a toenail that's torn. "Aiiiii!" she squeals, followed by another sound, motioning to something else now, disappearing into the den. Oops...oh, fallen off the couch now, crying. "I hurt my fingie!" Her cries are a tad muffled by her fingers in her mouth and by Daddy's shoulder as he hugs her.

I'm off...back into the waters of suburbia. I think we're doing McDonald's for dinner, or maybe Burger King, or perhaps that free cooked chicken from the supermarket with a side of veggies.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Sadness in the Bliss household and extended Bliss family...

Damn that Vince Young! What a loss.

Okay, back to regular programming.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Happy New Year!




The rain has come, raining for the first time on the Rose Parade in fifty years. I was sorry to see that so many stations dropped coverage of the beloved parade - made me wonder about its future. I grew up in Pasadena, see, blocks away from one of the corners of the parade route. One of my earliest, most vivid, memories includes walking with my mother and small crowd of people on a typically bright January first morning to watch the parade - I can recall the height of everyone around me, the energy in the air, the peddlers of balloons, horns, cotton candy, programs - party stuff that looked so wonderful to a five-year old. The crowd I was with had been overnight guests who'd awakened in our Caltech home following a wild party thrown by my parents. Imagining back...the hangovers must have been profound. Amazing that so many would be willing to hike up Sierra Madre to Colorado Boulevard for a parade. Just goes to show the value of this particular parade. The corner that was "our corner" was towards the end of the route, meaning many floats would be in the throes of being towed. Didn't matter. The flowers and the smiles and the bands were still brilliant and captivating.

So the parade this year was rained down on. Colorado Boulevard never looked so dramatic.

Our New Years' Eve, this year, was spent with my sister and brother and their respective families. We chatted, drank, played poker, and watched the kids and dogs and woweee...we yelled a storm when 2006 hit, everyone outside, the children especially whooping it up, finally at the end of their night. The streets were busy when we drove home, the rain starting again. The kids fell asleep in the car, the hour near 1:00 a.m. when we got home. I sat awake a while longer in my pajamas, watching some mindless t.v., thinking about my resolutions, my objectives, the house blissfully quiet.

****

Clean up my office.

Be happier.

Enjoy the children more.

Write more.

Organize my pictures.

Exercise more.

Get angry less often.

Read more.

Cook more.

Spend less money.

Spend more time preparing class lectures.

Create a website for school.

Breathe deeper.

Nap more often.

****

The last day of the year was lazy. We all seemed to be moving from couch to bed to the kitchen and back to couch or bed. In the afternoon I settled into new sheets and a new, huge comforter, cuddling cozily, with M next to me. She wasn't sleeping, though, she was playing with a doll, playing doctor, wrapping my wrist with a ribbon (a bandage), putting clips in my hair, and talking softly in a doctorly voice. For at least an hour I closed my eyes, relaxing, napping. Coming to the conclusion and complete awareness that this is my favorite way to nap.

I imagine this is the way I want to live - my life a perfect blend of self-care and parenting. I hope the year brings more napping.

Happy New Year to everyone...may this year pour good fortune on all.