Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Rollie Loves Kids and Kids Love Rollie

Part of my job, until Friday, when the program was cut, was teaching kids. Humane education is the absolute favorite part of my week. I don't even like kids, but I love seeing them "get" it when I talk to them about responsible ownership or safety or pit bulls. I realized it was what I liked about library school- information literacy- and it was always what I liked about animal control- helping people learn to be better people to their pets. Teaching is a two way street- every time I go into a class, I learn something new about kids and how they think and learn and about how I can do better.

Today I got some amazing thank you's, many in English clearly from English learners. I teach a lesson with many components but the students really remember Rollie. I love it when they "get" the whole lesson, but I also love it when they get the safety part- maybe they won't get bit! They sent wishes for Rollie to get his sight back. I wanted to share them- photos with my slight translations below.

Richard House: The Kills

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Okay. I could NOT put this book(s) down. We've established that I don't read a lot of fiction, but I went through some "best of" lists lately and put some books down on my shrinking "to read" list that I keep on my phone in case I happen to stumble into the library or a bookstore. Some were fiction. I never remember where these books come from, and some of them are terrible. The Kills was not terrible. It was not amazing, either, but I couldn't put it down, and it was 1000 pages, so that is saying something. Half the time I had no idea what was happening, but I think that is what happens in a complicated suspense-mystery-type thing- you just wait till it all makes sense.

This book is actually four books (Sutler, The Massive, The Kill and The Hit) combined into one book. I'm not sure if they were written and published separately and then combined into one giant volume, and I don't really care- I'd probably recommend you read them as The Kills. I didn't get sort of weary of Richard House's writing till 900 pages in, and that's saying something. I also probably wouldn't read them as stand-alones, either, because they didn't really make sense by themselves, or at least, they didn't have resolution. And, honestly, I might be tempted to read them again, something I never do, to figure out the story better.

There are actually two stories: the story of gruesome murders in Italy and the story of fraud in Amrah City- a fake city in the desert being created by war contractors. Both are equally confusing and wonderful in the way that mysteries or suspense or good fiction are supposed to be. The characters are weird and wonderful. Just read this book(s).

Rebecca Alexander: Not Fade Away

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This is not the kind of book I normally read- it's a fast paced, medium-well written autobiography of a really inspirational woman- Rebecca Alexander- who has Usher 3 syndrome which causes complete loss of vision and hearing. The reason I read this book (which is really quite good if it IS the kind of book you normally read) is that Becky (as I remember her) grew up in my neighborhood and who wouldn't read a book about a former neighbor/schoolmate turned celebrity (especially if your mother hands it to you), even if the reason for the celebrity is sort of a terrible one.

It's kind of awful and wonderful to read about people you knew peripherally growing up- like a voyeuristic look into your neighbors house three doors down, with sound. They don't even know who you are, and now you know everything about them. I guess, though, that when people write memoirs, they put it all out there and expect that everyone is going to read it. They have the choice of what to include, and how to describe it.

The Alexander family was one of the cool families, the ones we all kind of talked about in the neighborhood. And now I feel so shitty about that. Alexander herself says that they had the perfect family, and still insists on it. Rebecca and her twin (his name is changed to Daniel in the book) are one year older than me, and I remember them and the Baker boys as the cool, handsome, popular kids that I would never be like- at school or at Temple. When their parents got divorced, I remember we all thought it was so sweet that their parents switched houses instead of the kids having to shuffle back and forth. That's not quite how Rebecca remembers it- the sweet part (the parent dance happened). And when Rebecca fell out of a window, I remember the gossip. How terrible I feel now, knowing that this was related to her disease. Communities can be really shitty that way. I didn't know that Rebecca was also asked to leave our small, fancy, expensive private school because they couldn't handle her disabilities- I left before they could kick me out. This is now the third story I've heard of them being less than accommodating- although they later gave her an alumnae award which she has accepted with grace, one can only hope they've come around. I don't have high expectations. All of this I feel like I know now, but shouldn't. On the other hand, I couldn't put the book down.

Would the book have been so compelling if I didn't feel a connection- however unearned- to the protagonist? Probably not for me, but maybe for readers of this genre. Rebecca is really amazing. Although deaf and almost blind, she has a therapy practice and is probably more physically fit than anyone I know. She has amazing friendships while living in New York- notoriously isolating. She seems to handle some of the most awful challenges out there with grace and humor. It's inspiring, even for those of us with hard hearts. And she's put it out there, for others to learn from.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Way Late Reviews

It's been a crazy month or two (death and dying, etc.) and I have been reading but haven't had time to review. So brief, better-late-than-never reviews.

John Steinbeck: Grapes of Wrath I have been wanting to reread Steinbeck but haven't been able to find my copies of Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. I was super excited when I found the same version of Grapes of Wrath that I had always had- not the one pictured- at a used bookstore. Somehow I had forgotten the plot, just the Depression-era stuff. I had also forgotten Steinbeck's unique writing style. Honestly, although I'm glad I reread the book, I wasn't as excited about it as I was last time. It was eminently readable- Steinbeck writes as beautifully as you would expect a humble blogger like me to say- but the plot was not as moving or as heart wrenching as I remember. Maybe it's because Steinbeck has become so engrained in our national truth? Maybe it's because it's not dramatic like we now expect our fiction to be? Maybe it's because I don't read fiction? I mean, I feel like a terrible person saying that I was only hmmm about a Steinbeck book- as a reader, as a former Steinbeck worshipper, as an American? How inappropriate!

C.J. Pascoe: Dude You're a Fag This is an amazing books for Dorks Like Me interested in education, queer studies, gender studies, etc. It's probably a terrible book for anyone else- a book like the ones you read in college and were like, who READS this stuff? I actually found it super readable, but, like I said, I'm a big, fat, dork. Pascoe studied kids at a generic high school for a year and looked at the intersection of masculinity, sexuality and race and class. She found that really, all those kids yelling "you're a fag" at each other, aren't really saying "you're so gay" in the way us older people might think. They're actually establishing and re-establishing masculinity. And, of course, she calls out most looks at this subject as over-simplified: some groups at the school got to "play" with masculinity and sexuality in ways that others didn't/couldn't/wouldn't. Black boys and girls could play on the margins of acceptable/defined roles in different ways than white boys and girls, although still in prescribed ways, for the most part. She also scathingly points out how the public school creates and reinforces heterosexuality and traditional gender roles through school rituals- things like requiring the boys to wear suits and the girls to wear low-cut dresses in their school pictures, and in outrageously (hetero)sexual skits to compete for the equivalent of Senior King and Queen. Worth a read if you're into this stuff!

Roz Chast: Can't we talk about something more Pleasant? Roz Chast is a genius. You know her cartoons from the New Yorker. This graphic novel (I know- what IS a graphic novel when it's a memior? We've talked about this!) is wonderful. It was timely and awful- I haven't decided if people should read about death and dying when dealing with death and dying. Chast dealt with the death of her parents- she wasn't close to them- and then graphic novel-ed about it. She is harsh on herself, and honest about her parents, and the difficulty in the whole process. It's not an easy process, and that's what is so great about it- the memoir is honest and you want to laugh- not just because it's cartoons- but because it's just so real. It's a fast read, and I didn't want it to end. I wanted to keep having a friend to read about.

Christopher Hayes: Twilight of the Elites My dad and I often note that wonderful New Yorker authors don't always make great book writers- the long form of article writing doesn't always translate to a full-length book. It's my understanding that Christopher Hayes hosts a show on MSNBC (I don't watch TV except for binge watching on Hulu). He may be a great TV host, and he's a very smart guy, but he's not quite ready for full length books. "Twilight of the Elites" is a really interesting book with a great premise and wonderful promise but poor execution. I really wanted to finish it, so I did, but it took me forever, and I can't even remember what I read. Essentially, he argues against the concept of a meritocracy. The meritocracy "allows everyone to imagine the possibility of deliverance, to readily conjure the image of a lavish and wildly successful future. So that even if the number of kids from the South Bronx who end up at Goldman Sachs is trivial, even if the number of college grads from rural America who get into Harvard Law School is vanishingly small, the dream of accomplishment for our own children is the one thing we all share." The dream of the meritocracy holds sway for both right and left- we all want to win because we're good! And the idea of America being founded on a meritocracy (an anachronism from last century) is useful to us- we want to believe in the people who run the country because we want to believe that they deserve to be there. Hayes explains (and it might be wishful thinking) that America is actually run by an elite- the 1%- who didn't really get there out of merit. Now we resent this elite and mistrust them- and all of our institutions that we need to trust- and we've got a problem. (Problems like people not vaccinating their children because doctors can't be trusted, problems like not believing in global warming because scientists can't be trusted, problems like government mistrusting experts because they're experts and going to war on bad information.) This book is a good compliment to (and mentions!) The Spirit Level. It's not, however, a great read. Sadly.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Rollie is a Musician

I am way behind on posts, but Rollie wants to share his new talent- singing. (Turn your volume up.)

Friday, January 02, 2015

Requiem: Postscript

A requiem is a piece of music for the dead, generally, a Latin mass. Growing up, I sang dozens of versions of the texts of these songs. Some of them are more depressing than others. They are all variations on a theme- asking Jesus to grant the souls of the departed rest and reprieve from sin. (Pie Jesu: "Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest; grant them eternal rest.") What none of them really talk about is those left behind. Catholicism isn't my religion, of course, and I'm free to pick the best of any of the things I grew up with, I guess, but these beautiful masses have left a mark on me (and not just because "Requiem" is a beautiful word. It is.)

My mom mentioned the other day- the other week? the other month? Time has warped completely- that she doesn't view these deaths as tragic. They're not- both of my grandparents lived long, fulfilling happy lives and their deaths were mercifully short. (Mercy is a concept repeated in the texts used in requiems: "Spare, o God, in mercy spare him!") But the last few months have felt tragic- there have been other personal things mixed in- but I've never really felt grief like this. It doesn't help that it's not baseball season, and I'm only being a little bit glib. What do we do now? What do I do now?

When I started writing these, I wrote them for me. I write this whole blog for me and am still sort of mystified that people read themacinator! But family members have read the posts and emailed me and sent the most sweet notes. I love that others share these same memories or versions of the memories or felt like they got something out of the posts. Some other memories have come out, too- I love it. But what do we do now?

My dad sent me an email asking when he got his post, and would I write it while he could still remember. Well, this is the post (sort of). One of the things we do is remember how lucky we have it- I am SO lucky to have had grandparents into my 30s. I'm lucky to have had grandparents into my 20s, and as I said at the beginning, I'm lucky to have had grandparents who loved me unconditionally, and always. I am also lucky because my parents (and aunts and uncles) are amazing. When my grandpa fell and started declining, my parents upped their trips to LA in frequency and length of stay. My aunt E lives the closest to grandpa and has always been there for him- above and beyond there for him. But mom and dad were there, too, as backup for E and as daughter and son-in-law for Grandpa. It wasn't easy. They went away for a month near the beginning and I did a little, but they did a LOT. In the middle of that, Jackie fell and started her decline, and the trips to LA got more frequent and longer. Mom and Dad were now each supporting a dying parent and each other. It could not have been easy and, the majority of the time, they made it look, if not EASY, not like an obligation. They called it a gift that they could give their parents. A gift that they wanted to give their parents.

They drove or booked open ended tickets and stayed in hotels and those long-stay apartment things or even in Jackie's condo. They ran errands for M, Grandpa's partner, and for each other. They went to endless doctor's appointments- endless as in many and as in hours long. Sometimes they only slept in their own beds for one night at a time. My dad flew back to Oakland on my birthday, just for the night. Dad fed Jackie ice chips every minute on the minute. Mom learned how to conference call on a cell phone and held strategy conference calls with her siblings. They worked well with their siblings. Dad started carrying a cell phone full time (does he use the microwave yet?!). They asked for help when they needed it (sometimes). They took care of each other. They modeled behavior that I can only hope to emulate when they get old and need me. They were (and are) amazing, in the face of a loss that must be 18375 times greater than mine, though I know I'm not supposed to compare.

My parents have been married 45 years, as of about a week ago. This got lost in the shuffle of the deaths. I know it hasn't always been easy, but that is not my story, it is theirs. But it is part of this story- of the grandparents. My grandparents raised two (more, but this is my story, so just two for this blog) amazing individuals, and I'm lucky to have them. I feel like I'm in the middle of a whirlwind, but what I'm holding onto is that my grandparents were amazing and my parents are amazing. A requiem doesn't remind us of that. It asks us to look to God for grace and mercy. (Kyrie Eleison: "Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.")

Instead, we're gonna go with Bob:

"When you're sad and lonely
And you haven't got a friend
Just remember that death is not the end."

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Requiem Part Four: Jackie

When I started this, it felt too soon to write about Grandpa and Jackie. I made it through Grandpa's, even though I still haven't quite managed to wrap my head around the fact that he's dead, but I had a hard time even starting this one and then opening my computer to finish. I guess it's fine- she just died only a few days ago- but each day has felt like a week. This month of death and dying has felt alternately like a decade and like it just sped by- each day wasn't nearly enough, since it might be the last. Neither grandparent could use their email anymore, the best way to communicate with them, and it was never quite certain if calling them on the phone was a good idea- would you wake them? Would it be a good day? Would they have their hearing aides in? Would it be more trouble for them than a good thing to be talking on the phone? I know this is my story, not hers, but it's also interesting that my sister thought Jackie would live forever, and I thought Grandpa would- there was nothing wrong with him that would ever kill him. She had this same feeling about Jackie, and we're both going through it. I think I haven't let Jackie's death hit me hard yet. It will.

In retrospect, we should have known that Jackie would have a heart attack. One of the favorite stories my immediate family likes to tell about Jackie is how she would order hot chocolate (or a sundae), hold the hot chocolate. Read: serve me a cup (or bowl) of whipped cream. Jackie was born in England, so really she would have preferred clotted cream or heavy cream, but in Los Angeles, whipped cream would have to do. At one of the first meals my mom and Jackie had alone (Jackie was dad's mom), Jackie told mom it was perfectly okay to skip lunch and go straight to dessert if that was what they wanted. Why waste the calories? Jackie also believed that there were no calories if you ate off of someone else's plate. Or split a dish. I never saw Jackie cook, or eat much, let alone eat anything particularly healthy. On the other hand, she never weighed much more than 120 while I knew her, so something was working. She specialized in sushi, loved pre-cut fruit (I can't remember what she ate before they sold pre-cut fruit in the market) and never bought green bananas.

Without giving away themacinator's top secret identity (you have no idea who I am, right?), my grandmother wrote romance novels- best selling romance novels. I grew up alternately exceptionally proud and slightly embarrassed, as I am a world class prude. One of them is dedicated to me- they are all dedicated to Bert, and then each child and grandchild has one dedicated to them- and I accidentally pulled that particular one out first the other day. The inscription reads "Dear [themacinator]- When today is a long time away, read this and think of me. I love you, Jackie. (Grandma, too). September 5, 1983" Let's just say I am very proud now. [See note on the grandma thing here.]

I never really talked much to Jackie about writing the books, I don't think, or at least I can't remember. It's funny that I can't remember or didn't talk to her about it, though, since from when I was very little, I wanted to be a writer- who knows whether that's nature or nurture. I've said it throughout that there is a lot of each grandparent in me, and, although Grandma was very creative and loved to write, Jackie was the writer. She wrote meticulously researched historical fiction- a genre I adored when I was younger. I loved (and still love) everything about books and when I realized that being a professional writer was only for the Major League Baseball players of writing, like the top 0.0005%, I thought about working in publishing. When I realized that I didn't want to push paper, I dropped that like a hot potato, and as we have heard, I have just completed an #onlineschool degree in library science where I can still be as close as possible to books, authors, ISBN numbers, bisac codes, etc., without having to actually labor under false pretenses that I'm a writer. Now I wish I had asked her everything. There is so much I wish I knew- how she got her editor, what changes she accepted, if she wanted to write about sex, where her ideas came from, if she liked working under deadline or hated it, if people stopped her in the street at the height of her fame.

I mentioned Jackie was born in England- interestingly, she is my only grandparent not born in the US. She came as a young girl, and didn't have an accent. She did however, have characteristics that we blamed on/attributed to being British. We tease Dad about how "not bad" is the highest of compliments- it's not really fair to blame this on him when his mother says a meal is "decent," she's referring to Mori Sushi which is basically the best meal around. I think I've already made it clear that mastery of the English language was not a problem for Jackie. She was just British. As the twitter account @SoVeryBritish says, it's a Very British Problem to "declare yourself quite chuffed to indicate the most pleased you've ever been." She also loved tea and had rotten teeth. I don't know if it was the sweets or the British in her, but I believe I've inherited both of these (sweet tooth and bad teeth)- and yes, I'm drinking a diet soda right now. Jackie often handed out tins of these hard but chewy candies in exotic fruit flavors like I-don't-know-what-berry. My sister and I almost brought back a giant tin of them for her from New York, but the price of a tin was the price of a ticket down to see her in Los Angeles, so the purchase was vetoed.

Jackie purportedly hated to shop. She was also an excellent shopper, as in purchaser of things. We got many gifts, and when we would go to visit, there was always a shopping trip. In the beginning, these trips often included a trip to an outlandish children's store that specialized in outlandish children's clothes, many involving sequins or rhinestones. I loved these clothes. I believe the shopping hatred was more of the hassle that was involved- Jackie didn't suffer fools. In this I also take after her. She had a personal shopper at Saks. Sometimes she would call ahead to tell them she was coming and what she wanted to try on, which would cut down dramatically on the amount of hassle. She wanted us to think about what we wanted so we could go there- shopping wasn't about browsing the whole store, but about trying something (sometimes something she liked) and making sure it fit, then buying it. I don't like shopping at all, so this suited me just fine. There was a time that it didn't suit me at all- I didn't like a single thing at Saks, and for awhile I didn't want any things. Slowly, I began to accept the concept that I was going to get a thing, like it or not, and also, Jackie began to adjust what I was going to get. We'd go to a shoe store instead of the fanciest store in town that carried skater shoes or running shoes and I'd get a pair or two. We'd go to a little boutique that carried all kinds of things I would never even touch, but she would tell me she had seen a scarf she thought I'd like and it would be just inoffensive that she was right, I would like it.

Jackie had exquisite and expensive taste, though not gaudy. She wore hand painted shoes, always had a new Lexus, even after she didn't drive, and hired Disney's interior decorator for her condo. She bought the condo when Bert was first getting sick- she wanted him to be able to enjoy it and she wanted to move before it was a hassle to do so. So out of the house in Bel Air and into the condo in West LA. The condo was huge. Like, three times the size of my house for two and then one elderly people and one tiny dog. She spent most of her last ten years walking back and forth approximately 6000 times a day in that condo- like mall walking in your own home. She spent the first few years with Pepi (Pepi 2, the dog the and Bert shared) and then the next few with Kobe. After Pepi died, I came to LA to help try and find her a dog. After failing miserably, she found a dog through a doggy matchmaker- something VERY LA. That little dog lived the high life and was also perfectly matched for her (and is also a perfect dog). One day, I hope to live all by myself with a dog and go out once a week. (Note: I only leave the house a few times too many a week, or I'd meet this goal now- something else I get from Jackie.) When we would come to visit, after she stopped fighting over the time we spent with Grandpa and Grandma, so sometime in our late teens/early adulthood, we'd spend the mornings with Jackie and then get gracefully kicked out of the house and head to Grandpa's. A woman had to have her private time, after all.

Jackie was exceptionally generous with her money. It's been hard for me to accept this money, as all of my grandparents and parents were exceptionally wise adults and taught their offspring the value of a dollar and the value of fending for themselves. (I don't know that I've written here about how many times my dad told me I was out of the house when I was 18. He only sort of meant it?) Jackie always wanted to pay for my health insurance. She was my "phantom roommate" whenever I needed it, and the last couple of years, even when I didn't. She funded the Jackie [insert last name] Scholarship fund for two years of undergrad. She REALLY wanted to pay for #onlineschool, and I took to sneaking in payments before she knew they were due so that I could feel somewhat independent. This is privilege, and it is brought to me by Jackie (and others, of course- but especially Jackie).

She loved to travel and took the entire family and chunks of family on lots of trips. She was on the Nile with Bert when I was born. We went to Israel (one of my least favorite places ever, but hey, I've been, thanks to Jackie!) and several times to a dude ranch called Alisal. I've mentioned that they went to the Olympics with Dad and my sister, and there was a trip to China with her kids and I'd venture to guess she and Bert went to almost every continent. I remember trips to Epcot and Disney World- so many trips!

It's only fair to also include that Jackie could be moody and grumpy and bossy. I mean, I don't want to paint this last picture as the only blemish free one- since it isn't. I believe the words "queen mother" were used to describe her more than once. Generally, though, with the grandkids, she was, if not warm, kind. And if we didn't get a lot of hugs, she did say "I love you" before she hung up the phone, or "kiss, kiss." There was no doubt in my mind, ever, that she loved me.

Strangely, Jackie's death mirrored Grandpa's in many ways, which is why these last few months has been especially hard for my immediate family, and especially odd since they're not a pair- I feel like many elderly pairs go quickly one after another. Not only were these not a pair, they didn't even like each other for so many years! About a month after Grandpa fell, Jackie fell. She didn't even go to the doctor at first but someone insisted she go, and she ended up with staples in her head, but not much more. No one was quite sure why she fell (at least, at this point, with all of this, I can't remember). She never really got all the way better after this, just like Grandpa. She had been healthy, for an 86 year old, just like Grandpa. Both of them got shots in their eyes for macular degeneration, and she suffered from anxiety-related vertigo, but really, that was it. She got the flu after that, and then a massive heart attack. She was in the hospital, then moved to rehab and never left rehab. I saw her exactly a week before she died, on her 87th birthday. She REALLY wanted birthday cake, and the lady got birthday cake- a massive one from her dog walker. She had her hair done and told everyone she was turning 67. From what I hear, it was her last best day, and it wasn't all that good. I'm glad she went quickly- she wouldn't have wanted to be undignified even that long.

So that's it for the grandparents. I mean, that's really it. There aren't anymore. There will be a postscript soon.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

David Finkel: Thank You For Your Service

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After finishing an almost unreadable book, I picked up one of the most unputdownable books I've read in a long time. It was also possibly the saddest book I've ever read, and at times I almost had to put it down, because this is a really bad time for that. "Thank You For Your Service" is so good that I couldn't put it down, even when it was crushing me. David Finkel is a master story teller, telling a horrible story.

The conceit here is that he's embedded with soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who have now come home. In his previous book, he embedded in Iraq- I haven't read that one. The soldiers, some of them now former soldiers, are in various states of disrepair. None of them can be said to be thriving. Adam Schumann, the anti-hero of the book, can most definitely be said to be fighting for air and/or his life. PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury) and anxiety and depression and other forms of mental illness are plaguing all of them, somewhere in the middle of Kansas. They're fighting the stigma of mental illness that they've internalized- the healthiest one of them seems to be one of Schumann's fellow soldiers (one whose life he saves and who figures prominently in his PTSD), who has all kinds of physical problems. The broken men wish for physical injuries and are sure, probably not incorrectly, that they're being judged unkindly by their peers. One of the most painful moments in the book comes when one of the men sees a piece mocking soldiers getting help for their problems in his superior's cubicle- at the mental health treatment center.

The book also deals with the others affected by the war- the widow of one of Adam's battalion members (I probably have the level wrong), Adam's wife, a four star general who actually gives a damn about mental health- particularly suicides- of his troops, the girlfriends, etc. It's a bitter, ugly story. Thank You for Your Service is journalism and doesn't pretend to offer solutions or resolution or a Hollywood ending, but readers might end wishing for one. No one comes out looking good, but if you don't read this book and end up angry at the men in charge and feeling tragically sorry for the men and women at the short end of the stick, I'm not sure what book you read. This is a must read, if you can stomach it.

Jeff Chang: Who We Be

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I really wanted to like this book, and waited a long time till my turn came to get it at the library. Jeff Chang is a local guy and his previous book, "Can't Stop, Won't Stop," was very well acclaimed. But this book kind of mystifies me. And even though it's only 345 pages, it's an oversized book, so it's really really long. It's also not easy to carry anywhere, or curl up with, because it's so big. It's almost coffee table size, but it's not meant as a coffee table book- it's almost all text. It's interesting, though, because it's also about art- it's like the publishers started out thinking this would be an art book, a book of criticism with lots of pictures so you'd know what Chang was talking about, and made it oversized with glossy pages, unique, bold font, etc., and then forgot to put in all of the art. And then, for some reason, stuck a hundred pages on at the end that had nothing at all to do with art, but rather, political events that had to do with race and multiculturalism, Chang's over-arching theme (sort of). The other part I never understood is that the Oakland Public Library has this book tagged "Young Adult." There is nothing "Young Adult" about this book. I mean, I barely understood most of it, and there's name dropping all over the place, half of which I didn't understand, of theorists, that maybe college students in the arts would understand. If I were a young adult, I'd be bored stiff by this book. I think young adults should absolutely be introduced to the themes in this book, and there's no reason they shouldn't be reading books written by adults, but I kept wondering if I was missing something: Is "Who We Be" actually for a different demographic? Is the physical format designed as a hook for teens? Is the OPL as confused as I am about this book?

I *think the theme of the book was about how the arts (mostly the visual arts) fed into, were influenced by, influenced and fought against the various trends of multiculturalism over the 20th and early 21st centuries. It's not always clear if Chang is taking a position on this, or if his voice, which is very conversational, is meant to reflect the artists that he's speaking about. He picks individual artists (for example, he starts with the local, and recently passed Morrie Turner) to discuss how art changed over time. It's never quite clear if he thinks these artists were representative of the changes- as in, good examples of what was going on- or if he believes these artists were the catalysts for the changes that were going on. It also isn't clear, because of the last hundred pages that take place from 2010 on, if this is a book about the history of art as it relates to multiculturalism, or if he's telling the story of multiculturalism through art. The last hundred pages, about Trayvon Martin, Occupy, the Dream Act, have almost nothing to do with art. They discuss the colorization of America. Are no artists representative of this? The section leads with a discussion of Shepherd Fairey's Obama poster, but that's about it.

I slogged through this one, but I don't get it. Tricia Rose points to some of these same issues in her review for the NYT. Hyphen says that Chang's last book had that same slow-going style that I found with this one. Pages took days (and I finished this book last week, so the review did, too). But mostly, the reviews have a positive tone, and Kirkus's influential review is mostly a summary with positive notes. I wouldn't recommend this, though, and feel stupid for not understanding.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Requiem Part Three: Grandpa

It feels much too soon to write this, because Grandpa died the morning after Thanksgiving, and Jackie fell that same day (or the day before or after) and I don't feel like he's gone, most days. But I've started now, and it feels like I have to finish the series, because if I don't, it wouldn't be fair, and also, because I might never, if I don't now.

The first thing to say about my grandpa is that he was very very smart, and very very intellectually curious. Again, this is not necessarily the most important thing about him according to him, or according to anyone else, but one of the take-homes for me. He graduated from the University of Chicago when he was either in his late teens or just 20- he started when normal kids are still in high school. He got or almost got an advanced degree in some fancy science-y stuff. I always thought he just sold paint, or mixed paint. But when I talked to him about it a couple of months ago, it turns out he was actually like, involved in the science-y stuff, the chemistry, behind fancy paint that coats things like airplanes. His company got bought out and bought out and bought out and is now part of some giant industrial paint manufacturer- he showed me a few months ago, and of course I've forgotten (and I will not insert an Alzheimer's joke here- see Requiem Part 2). A few years ago, one of my relatives found a scientific paper that he co-authored- I couldn't even understand the abstract. While I was growing up, he participated in a group called Plato (embarrassingly, I was sure this was Play-dough for way too long) at UCLA- a group of adults (maybe older adults?) who would pick topics for themselves each month and research and write papers and teach each other about them. For fun. I have a vague memory of going into the stacks at UCLA with him. I also remember our last trip to the Santa Monica Library when he checked out some books and told me he didn't pay his fines till they got to $20.

The story goes that when my mom and her brother and sister were growing up, if they had a question at the dinner table, Grandpa would tell them to go look it up. Whether this succeeded in teaching intellectual curiosity or not (or if it was just annoying) is a question for them. What I can say is that one of my favorite books growing up was "Why are there more questions than answers, Grandad?" which was translated into our family language to "It's in the book, Grandpa," as in, go look it up, kid. (Thanks, Dad, for figuring this out- proto-librarian spent WAY TOO LONG looking!) I am pretty sure that the dusty old encyclopedia set Grandpa's kids used is sitting in my outhouse right now, waiting to be brought inside. The intellectual curiosity of his is sitting in my head right now, among other heads, I'm sure.

Of all the grandparents, who were all smart, Grandpa is the one I most associate with being intellectual. They all read (though now I'm having trouble remembering what Grandma and Bert liked to read), but Grandpa read the most. He and my dad used to swap big boxes of books, back in the days before they both switched to Kindles. Yes, my grandfather started reading on a Kindle in his 80s. He also loved email. He was very into our educations- again, they all were- but one of the ways I like to explain Grandpa's personality is through a story about education. When we'd get A's, he'd ask us why we didn't get A pluses. He meant well, he was proud of our A's, but he wanted us to REALLY do well. I almost went to University of Chicago- partly because I really wanted to be like my grandpa in that way. I graduated college in four years because I knew it was really important to him- he had promised me he would come to my graduation if I did. This seems so silly now- I graduated college in 2003, when he was 85, of COURSE he and his partner, M, flew across the country to Connecticut to come to my graduation! What was I thinking? I should have taken 6 years! I swore I would never go to graduate school, but he never let go of the hope. When I was in high school, and even in early college, I had discussed rabbinical school, or just divinity school. He would bring it up frequently. When I would discuss being burnt out of animal welfare, he would bring up grad school. When I finally succumbed and went back to grad school, every single time I thought about dropping out of #onlineschool, I stayed in because of Grandpa. Before he died, when it still looked like he might live forever, I secretly thought that I could get him up to San Jose for the graduation this coming June. I mean, the man had designs on his great-grandson's Bar Mitzvah, still 4 years away. When it became clear that wasn't going to happen, I made secret plans to come down to LA and watch the ridiculous "virtual" graduation they're holding online for us with him. Now that that's not going to happen, I don't even care anymore about this degree. It's too soon: my mom told me that somewhere Grandpa is smiling that I've finally finished. Just the thought of that, the truth of that, makes my entire body hurt.

Grandpa was not one to show his emotions, but in a million little ways, he made the grandchildren feel special, all the way till his death. It has hit me really hard, I think, because I feel like I got to know him as an adult. All over again, I'm reminded how lucky I am. When we were kids, after we'd crawl in bed with Grandma and Grandpa, after he'd absentmindedly stroke our heads or backs, he'd get up and squeeze orange juice for us. Light pulp for me, always. I never liked oranges, but I always liked that orange juice. He'd make sure to buy oranges before we came. He loved to play cribbage with us, or Rummy-Cube. Grandma and Grandpa had a pool, even though Grandma never learned how to swim. Grandpa would throw us in the air, when we were little and just hang out with us later. He always washed the dishes. (Did other men of that era do that or was it special?) He had a special chair in the den, and I loved to sit in there with him, and we'd do crossword puzzles, or watch the news. Or read. Always read. You did not get to talk on the phone with Grandpa, however. When you called while Grandma was still alive, he would say oh, hello, here's your grandmother. After that, you were lucky to get a full 60 seconds. Even when he could still hear. Maybe I can blame my dislike of the phone on him. He took to email like a screenager- the man loved his computer, and the second to last time I saw him (maybe the last, I can't remember), I set the mouse to contrast more with the screen so that he could play solitaire more easily. He loved to play solitaire with real cards pre-computer, and switched right over to the computer after that. (Grandma told us to bang our heads against a wall if we were bored, Grandpa told us to go twiddle our thumbs. Maybe that says something about the two of them. Maybe it just says something about what Yiddish phrases they knew and could translate into English). Even when he emailed, though, the emails were almost as long as his phone calls- 2 sentences was a good one. All capitals, so he could see, always. The one time that I wrote back in all capitals, though, he asked me why I did that. No accommodation for Grandpa.

He loved Grandma fiercely, even when the two of them fought like they didn't care who knew that they hated each other in that moment. I don't even remember what they fought about, anymore. Everything, maybe. Every time I saw them fight, you could just tell it was because they loved each other. She could be annoying and crazy and a martyr, and he could be annoying and probably smothering and emotionally vacant. Grandpa always wanted "whatever's left on the plate" and that thing about showing his love by telling you you could have done better has a particular abrasive quality, if you can't step back from it. Also, sometimes you don't WANT to look it up, you just want the answer. I could see how this could get annoying over the course of 60 years of marriage and a very long illness.

After grandma died, grandpa started dating a woman that he and grandma had known for 40 something years. The two couples had been friends, and M's husband had died 10+ years before. The two eventually moved in together and spent the next almost 15 years together. When they first got together, Grandpa got 10 years younger, right before our eyes. It was amazing. They couldn't get married, because she'd lose her pension, and they couldn't just live together because she'd lose the rent control on their apartment three blocks from the water in Santa Monica, or maybe the other way around, so they became domestic partners. They started traveling together, and they wore rings like a married couple- it was only proper. One time, in college, they took me and my then-boyfriend on a trip to see the fall leaves in Vermont or some such place that has seasons. The two of them were like Grandma and Grandpa before all of the fighting. M and Grandma had taken art classes together- I couldn't even tell the difference in the art on the wall. They told the same stories, went to the same places. He cared so much about her- on some of my last visits, all he worried about was M, and what must be happening to her. She has declined greatly since he has gotten sick- she, too, was in amazing shape for 92 and now 93. M has always been gracious and loving to me in a difficult position- being not-the-grandmother. I owe her 10 extra years with my grandpa, I think.

When Grandpa turned 95, he took his whole extended family, which now includes six great grandchildren, on our version of a family reunion, though I've never heard us call it that. He was still walking and talking and, basically, acting like a man of 80. He lost sight in one of his eyes years ago, and hearing aids weren't doing much for him anymore, but until about two months ago, his brain was as sharp as mine, and his memory probably sharper (no bad Alzheimer's joke here). His knee had been bad for decades so his walking was deteriorating, but I don't think he had a cane until his late 80s, and the walker only came in the last couple of years. As dad pointed out the other day, he was in good enough shape to go over the bill line by line. My cousin had bravely interviewed him about his past, and we all watched it together, though Grandpa couldn't hear it. The part I remember most is the part about him saying he was most proud of his family, proud of his wife and kids and how he had provided for them. There was no emotion in his voice. He just did it and just said it.

But when I'd go down, especially the last year or two, he always said "thank you," with so much emotion, it was like that serious, emotionless man was someone else entirely. I knew he loved me, I knew that unconditional love was there at all times, whether I was with him or not.

There's not much remarkable about Grandpa's death except that it happened. Somehow I thought he would live forever. I mean, at 95, he was still in great health, and not just for a 95 year old. I've seen 60 year olds look worse than he did. He fell one day and after that, he couldn't swallow. They never figured out why he couldn't swallow- at first the doctors didn't even believe him. He spent the last couple of months eating through a tube in his stomach. I saw him the week before he died, and he was so cheerful that day- I was lucky. He was sitting up in a chair waiting for me when I got there, lucid and happy, and bossy about when we'd eat dinner (without him)- just like usual. Eventually he died from pneumonia, or some other complication from aspirating fluid, as he couldn't swallow correctly. He was sick for only a couple months, mercifully. It felt like decades, and I was only going every 3-5 weeks. You learn something about yourself when your people are suffering. You learn about the strength of your love and your ability to man up. I can apparently man up for the hours I'm there, and then it takes something like 3 days for me to recover per hour spent. (More on my parents' amazing ability to man up later.) (Nothing on the use of sexist language, ever.)

Requiem Part Two: Bert

The grandparent who passed next was Bert. This seems a strange way to describe him, and it's not really pertinent to anything at all except what other way to order these in a set of posts brought on by the wham-bam style of deaths of the last two? The grandparent I was the least close to was Bert, my dad's dad. we're gonna get really personal here, so your warning has been given to back off now if you like themacinator in dry, witty doses! Bert was a man of a certain generation and a certain generation, and, I think, a certain personality. I was the first grandkid, and I think that, knowing my dad like I do now, he wasn't going to start learning how to get in touch with his feelings or how to use words just because I came along!

That said, he was a great grandfather in his own way. It's not his fault he didn't particularly like small children- I don't particularly like small children, either! We called Jackie and Bert "Jackie" and "Bert" because I was born when they were still young- in their 50s- which now seems impossibly young to be having grandchildren, even though I know some people have them in their 30s. The way I remember it, Jackie felt too young to be a grandmother, so first names it was. But part of me says it was Bert, too. Maybe this is because near the end, when he had Alzheimer's and became incredibly sweet, he said a couple of times, "why don't you call me Grandpa?" He also asked for more hugs.

Jackie and Bert lived in a low slung ranch house down a steep brick driveway just over the line into Bel Air from Grandma and Grandpa. This was another thing that the two sets had in common- they were both wealthy, though to differing degrees. They were also wealthy in a way that never actually gave me the sense of just how much money they had. I didn't know what Bel Air meant until the Fresh Prince came along- the house was the same size, I think, as Grandma and Grandpa's house in Westwood, and there was no discussion of what cost what. It just was. Bert wore sweaters that I always thought were quite ugly, but it turns out that they were some fancy designer. Things just were of a certain quality. Maybe this is really what privilege is: not even knowing how fancy everything is? On the other hand, there was no sense of snobbery, of my friends not being good enough, of me not being good enough. They just lived nicely. (This is my version of history, don't forget- others may have totally different interpretations.) We ate in the kitchen. The bon bons that we ate were Bert's favorite- the little frozen ice cream ones with a thin layer of chocolate- not rich people's bon bons, but the ones you can get at 7-11. His favorite restaurant was In 'n Out. He owned gas stations when my dad was growing up and did a lot of maintenance at the apartments that they owned.

One of the things I liked best about Jackie and Bert's house was Bert's office. I'm not sure we were really allowed in there much, but I just have such a strong memory of that place- or maybe I just have a memory of my house and feel like it was actually Bert's office. There were papers EVERYWHERE. I definitely think my slobbery (not snobbery) comes from him. The man sure knew how to make a mess! Jackie and Bert also had webTV- early internet that you used through the TV. I remember doing this in his office, though it seems to me that Jackie was much more technological than him. Memory is fallible.

There's also a story of making brownies or fudge and then one of us- me or my sister- I don't know now, I hope it was me- saying "I no sharing." He loved that. Maybe this sweet tooth is not just from Grandma- Bert also loved Snickers straight out of the freezer. When they developed those Snickers ice cream bars, you could find those in the freezer, too. Another famous Bert story is that, on road trips with his 3 kids in the car, all it took to get them to behave was for Jackie to turn to him and say "Bert, HIT those kids!" I don't believe that Bert ever hit anyone (please, no one disabuse me of that notion!) but the phrase stuck with all of the generations.

Bert loved animals. He gave me all of the James Herriot books- whenever he'd see one, he'd buy it and send it to me. He would tell stories of the dogs he had had. When I was growing up, there were no dogs at the house- too much trouble, or Jackie didn't like them (which is funny, because later, Jackie loved her dogs.) He especially loved huskies. When he was starting to get sick, and even before, when they'd come and visit Oakland, we'd go for walks at Point Isabel, the giant dog park near us. We'd take Kozi and he would just walk and smile at all of the dogs. I think that I got my love from him, even though I didn't know it at the time, since I didn't grow up with animals. He wasn't a particularly soft guy, and I didn't really get to see him around the animals, but it was in him. I think of him a lot when I start to wonder about how I fell into this. I have lots of memories of him sitting in the bedroom watching the horse races.

Jackie and Bert went to the Olympics every four years- then my dad started going, then my sister as well. I got to share baseball with Bert. My dad and I went on a bus tour once of baseball stadiums, and another time Bert came with us. (Is that right? Were there two?) There is a picture of us on the field at the old Phillies stadium that I'll post if I can find it. He loved sports. Of all my grandparents, he was the only one. Bert and I went together to the only World Series game that I've been to- A's v. Reds. We sat in the back row in the second to last section in right field, before there were tarps or Mount Davis. I show people that section all the time. Dad just this season told me the story- apparently he had two tickets to each game, and he and Bert went to one and Bert told him he was going to another. So off we went, no dad. I must have been 9. Unless it was the Dodger's world series, which makes more sense, in which case I was 7. I don't remember the game, just going with my grandfather and sitting in that scary back row.

Bert got easier to be around- less gruff and distant- as I got older, and I think that this is true of his time with my sister and my younger cousin as well. He loved to joke about young blondes- as he got older, the dream lady got younger. It was always funny, but as I think about it, it doesn't seem funny. As far as I know, he was a wonderful, loyal husband. I don't remember how long he had Alzheimer's for- 5 years? 10 years? He had a minor stroke- so minor that they couldn't find it on the scans, but he started mixing up numbers and not feeling himself. His golf game suffered. The many loved his golf. I wonder, now, if he was any good at it? I wonder how a man with shaky hands (the essential tremors run in the family) could be good at golf! Jackie and Bert got a dog, Pepi, a miniature schanuzer. She was lovely. They were terrified that she would get out and get hit by a car, and, sadly, she did. Their yard wasn't fenced due, I'm guessing, to that steep brick driveway. So Jackie got another rescue miniature schanuzer and named it Pepi. Bert must have had Alzheimer's by then. I don't think that he knew this was a new Pepi. By the end of Pepi 2's life, I don't think Jackie remembered, either, though her memory was fine. Everyone is the center of their own novel. Regardless, Bert loved that dog/those dogs.

At some point, Jackie realized it was time to sell their house and move somewhere less isolated. This must have been near the beginning of Bert's illness. They moved to a fancy condo on Wilshire- even I could tell this one was fancy. Bert wasn't there too long before he was moved to a full time care facility (also fancy), and I don't think he was there too long before he died. Alzheimer's is terrible. All of us on that side are terrified of it. Bert's sister had it, and he was terrified of it. The jokes we make about it aren't really funny. They're hiding the terror. He starved to death- the body forgets how to swallow.

After he died, I realized that many of the photographs in his house were ones he had taken. Why hadn't we talked about this earlier? Jackie gave me some of his cameras. He had lovely (and heavy) macro and micro lenses and fixed focal length lenses- my favorite. I wish we had talked about his travels to Africa and Guatemala where he took incredible pictures. The way he saw things- he must really have seen them, like seen like a photographer. Framed them with his mind and his eyes. He used to do a sort of preprocessing of the negatives- I found ones where he had sort of written instructions on them to have the shop alter things- I'm not sure how it worked. I never knew this about him.

After Bert died, Jackie kept his ashes in an urn. She talked about him and the urn, him- the new, ashes form of him- at least once a visit. I think she probably talked to him. We aren't really spiritual people. But every time I went, I did look at the urn. Yesterday I wondered where we'll put Bert, and how we'll make sure Jackie and Bert stay together. She'd want to be near that urn.