Friday, July 31, 2009

The end of a fast

If I choose today could be the last day of my alcohol fast. I’ve been dry since June 21, the day after our nephew's wedding. I usually stay dry in July and January, but this year I started early because I felt I had had too much to drink over the wedding weekend.

Right now I’m hesitant to go back to drinking at all. Normally, I never imbibe too much – a glass or two of wine most every day. But, staying dry feels better. I don’t wake up with headaches, and as a result I’ve lost some weight. It actually looks like my belly has flattened. So, when I think hard about it, why would I go back? I can still socialize without drinking – water is perfectly acceptable and so is a cup of tea.

But, I know me. I like red wine – especially zinfandel, and I know I don’t want to give it up forever. However, I do know that I want to drink less – just what I always say at the end of a fast. Unfortunately, as past experience has shown, pretty soon I’m back to my usual ways.

Well, this year I’m motivated to cut back for medical reasons. My recent routine complete blood count showed that my red blood cells have grown a little fatter than normal. That is usually a sign of Vitamin B12 or folic acid deficiency, but I’m normal there on both counts. I also have a healthy liver. So, my doctor thinks my metabolism might have changed and I’m now drinking too much alcohol for my small frame. But, then again, she says it’s nothing I should lose sleep over when I pressed her to tell me what really is the matter with me. It could be genetic, it could be old age, it could be nothing.

So, I’ve decided to do a year-long experiment. Drink less for a year, still continute with my alcohol fasts in July and January, and see if my next CBC comes out any better. And, writing it down here makes it a real commitment - something I can't very well renege on. Look for my post on July 31, 2010 to see how it all turns out.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Another young life cut short -- for no reason

Steve Lopez wrote a column in the LA Times today about the murder of a 17-year old in near downtown LA last week, named Lily Burk. I’ve been following the story and what he says is so true. It is also beyond his understanding how such horrible news affects the parents – how could a parent continue to breathe if they lose a child by violence or illness or accident, he asks. It’s always been beyond my understanding as well.

What is so important about this story is that her alleged murderer is a mentally ill homeless person, in and out of institutions, and had he been incarcerated or hospitalized this wouldn’t have happened. It was just so random that she and the murderer were on the same street at the same time. And, right now the California budget is going to take more cuts which will possibly mean more folks being released from jail because California can’t afford to keep them there.

So that goes to Lopez’ question – should we keep our children in a bubble to eliminate the risk of losing them. Yes, I say. Or else spend the money to protect them from people who really don’t know how to help themselves.

Well, read the piece for yourself. I’ve posted it below because I think it is just that important – and so, so sad.

From the Los Angeles Times

Pondering a brutal killing as the risk of violence rises
Lily Burk's senseless death occurs as California is cutting funding to programs that help transients, the disabled and the mentally ill, and thousands of prison inmates could potentially be released.
Steve Lopez

July 29, 2009

In East L.A., in the Palisades, in Watts, in Pasadena and Long Beach, if you're a parent, you tell yourself a lie.

You tell yourself that your child is safe.
No car accident will take them, no illness, no violence.
You know it's not true because the news is filled with the deaths of young people, but you close your eyes and put your faith in the percentages.

But then there's a horrible story in your own neighborhood, and it punches holes in your shield. There's the child cut down by stray bullets while walking home from school or the store. There's the careening truck that takes out a bookstore and kills a toddler and her father.

Or there's the story of Lily Burk, 17, the Los Feliz girl killed Friday while running an errand for her mother.

Reading that story, I ached for the victim and wondered how her parents could breathe under such crushing news. I also did something a little selfish but human. I looked at the details to see if perhaps Burk was doing anything she shouldn't have been doing, or if she was in a place where she shouldn't have been. I wanted something, anything, that might reinforce the illusion that we can steer our children clear of danger.

Instead, the police account is a chilling tale of random, unpreventable violence. Police allege that on a relatively safe street near Wilshire Boulevard west of downtown, Burk was the victim of an abduction and robbery attempt by a transient and former prison inmate -- Charles Samuel. She was later found dead in her car on the edge of skid row.

We don't know Samuel's full story yet -- whether he is in fact the killer and what he was doing back on the streets. We do know that he had a lot of arrests, that he was in and out of prison and was recently in a residential treatment program for drug abuse. We do know that after Burk was killed, her head beaten and her neck slashed, Samuel was picked up by police on skid row. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, he was drinking beer and had a crack pipe. He also had Burk's cellphone and a key to her car.

So there it is, the brief narrative of a nightmare. You're left cold, sad, angry, and as you try to find any sense or meaning in it, you end up flailing.

Maybe we should build bigger prisons.
Maybe we should raise our children in a bubble.
Maybe we should move to a safer place.

None of that's realistic, though, and none of it could bring the security we know is beyond our reach. You have to remind yourself that this crime was an anomaly, and that the job of parents isn't to shield their children but to encourage their curiosity and independence.

It's worth noting that Lily Burk believed she could make a difference in the world, having volunteered at a downtown harm-reduction and rehabilitation agency where her mother had served as a board member.

"She was following in her mother's footsteps," said Mark Casanova, director of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles.

Casanova's agency tries to reel in and help those who are physically or mentally ill, addicted, broke or all of the above. Having done that kind of work, Lily Burk would have learned that not everyone can be saved, but that most transients in the area where she was killed are sick or destitute rather than sociopathic. She also would have learned there are some genuinely dangerous people out there.

Casanova's agency, by the way, and countless others are being hammered by a combination of budget cuts and dwindling private donations at a time when demand for their services is growing. There's also the possibility the state will release 27,000 prison inmates to help balance the budget, even as the programs that might keep them out of trouble go begging.

In other words, as we cast about in the aftermath of a senseless killing for ways to make us feel safer, we're instead raising the level of risk.

"We're just completely dismantling the social safety net," said Molly Rysman of the Skid Row Housing Trust, which is about to complete 74 supportive housing units that will remain empty.

Why? There's no money for the supportive services.

Project 50, an L.A. County-initiated program, found the sickest and most frequently arrested people on skid row and brought them in off the street. They were given apartments and the support they need to quit churning through hospitals, courts and jails at great public expense. The program has been extremely successful and could save money as participants become more self-sufficient, yet a proposal to increase the number of participants to 500 has hit a wall because foot-dragging county supervisors won't fund an expansion without further study.

"We're talking about . . . budgetary considerations that cut from programs in the immediate but wind up costing society so much more in the long run," said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, just back in L.A. after working to close a $26-billion budget gap.

"When you're releasing people without the support system and then banning people with convictions from working, you're setting up a situation where you perpetuate crime. Cutting drug and alcohol programs and cutting Cal-Works is going to leave women and children on skid row, and it's going to increase the number of children in foster care. It's short-sighted budgeting."

Bass and I met Monday in her district office to talk about the budget and what California can do to get out of its rut, and I'll have more to say about that soon. As I was leaving, she showed me some photos, including one of her daughter, who was killed in a car wreck almost three years ago at the age of 23, along with her husband.

Emilia, Bass' only child, was about to finish her studies at Loyola Marymount.

Lily Burk, the only child of Greg Burk and Deborah Drooz, was about to start her senior year of high school.

"If there is anything that people can take away from this horrible tragedy," Burk and Drooz said in a statement, "it's that life is fragile and that they should live every minute of it fully."

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Weekend diversions

Last night we saw "Farragut North" at the Geffen. Chris Noth, who plays Mr. Big in the Sex and the City TV series and films, and Chris Pine, who recently played Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek movie, starred. It’s a political satire about a press secretary aspiring to be a successful campaign manager like his boss. It is quite fast paced and smart, but I thought the second act and the Pine character’s temper tantrum dragged on much too long. The playwright is working on it as a screen play, and I think he has a lot of work to do. Plus, I was very disappointed in Noth as a stage actor. This is a big beautiful guy who comes off very well on screen, but his voice just isn’t strong enough for theater. We were in the fifth row, and he hardly projected to there. Even so he still looked beautiful.

And, today while Bob played golf I went to see "My Sister’s Keeper" – a film I could never interest him in seeing. It is definitely a tearjerker. I believe the script was taken from a true to life story – possibly without the medical emancipation lawsuit by an 11-year old – about a family having another child so it could be used as a donor to help save his/her leukemia-stricken sibling. I liked the acting – Cameron Diaz, Joan Cusack, Sofia Vassilieva, Jason Patrick. And, I found the story very touching though a bit unbelievable considering the actions of the girl’s lawyer and the judge. Perhaps it’s a film for my women readers out there. The guys would probably prefer something with a little more action.

No matter. It's good to have entertainment diversions especially since next week promises to be busy at work.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ten years ago

I wrote this poem for Ben when he turned 25. Every mom should have a Ben for a son. I am so blessed.

For Ben on Your 25th Birthday

Only suckling or
holding you against
my belly and breasts would quiet you.
Not even your thumbs
(you did not care which)
eased your cries
in those first few months.
When finally the crying stopped you emerged
determined to take on the world.
That Benjamin, we called you.

“Look, I can ride a 2-wheeler
and I’m only 3,” you shouted
with pale hair like fine corn silk
flying and huge hazel eyes
seeing nothing but the road.

You lived your young life in competition
reading the most books,
writing the most journal pages,
earning the most As,
running the fastest 10K,
collecting the most Garbage Pail Kids
and hitting the best
backhand down the line.

You loved the pressure
It made you nervous
(I said excited)
It was your fuel
You had to be the best.

Your tennis consumed you and me
We drove miles and miles
You in your trademark baseball cap
battled your opponents while
I battled freeway phobia.
Not quite 8, you overcame 1 to 6
in a 2nd set tie break
to win your first championship trophy.
They called you “Iceman” as
you coolly walked off the court.

It was not all serious.
You wrote the scripts and then filmed
Andy, Dan, Cam, Josh or Brad
walking down the long hall,
gun in hand,
ready to pounce on the next victim
or pretend to throw him over the deck
In every film someone went
over the deck.
For such a gentle, sweet boy,
you sure loved violence.

You also loved to mimic
McEnroe’s serve
Kline’s “k-k-k-ken”
Hoffman’s “I’m an excellent driver”
and the Three Amigos.
You made us snicker
when you called someone
an emma, a foof, a donkey, a nick
or cute and funny and silly and nice.
But I was most charmed when you
touched my face and said,
“your cheeks are nice and soft, are mine?”
or “come sleep with me for a minute”
when I would wake you
to get ready for school.

Little did I know that
that early play acting
was practice for your passion.

Arms uplifted, legs spread wide
Speaking in a loud, deep voice that comes
from the bottom of your belly
your presence fills the stage.
Lean, firm body
enclosed in a skin-tight suit
the color of a ripe peach
Finger and toe nails painted wine red
like the deep stain on your lips
Hair sticking up like the spokes of a bike
you cartwheel across the floor
You are now where you most want to be.

As your high school teacher said
you have the world on a string.
Keep a tight hold
It’s all yours for the taking
Just like you willed yourself to be
taller than your dad
You will be a success someday
in whatever you choose to do.
Happy 25th birthday, Ben.

Love, Mommy

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Happy birthday, Ben

Tomorrow is Ben's 35th birthday. So, like the proud mama I am, I'm showing him off yet again. I'm sure this photo is somewhere on this blog already, but with a face like his, I see nothing wrong in posting it another time or two.

We're celebrating tomorrow night at his favorite restaurant, Via Veneto, on Main Street in Santa Monica. We've got a lot to celebrate -- his engagement as well as his birthday. His 35th year promises to be very full.

Happy Birthday, Ben. Have a wonderful year and more!! xoxoxoxoxoxo

Monday, July 20, 2009

Weekend report

We saw two movies this weekend: "Cheri" on Friday night and "Away We Go" on Saturday.
I thought "Cheri," with Michelle Pfeiffer was just so-so. The costumes and interiors were excellent; but I felt Michelle’s performance was very bland – like the tired courtesan that she plays. On the other hand, Kathy Bates who also plays a has-been courtesan, was terrific. But then I always find her acting terrific. Otherwise, I found the love story uninteresting. So, if you haven’t seen it yet and still want to experience a Collette piece on film, rent it. It’s perfect for the small screen.

"Away We Go" is very worth seeing. The acting is great and natural and the writing is smart. Also cameo appearances by Jeff Daniels, Allison Janey, and Maggie Gillenhal steal this picaresque film. I loved the whole thing and highly recommend it.

And, for those of my readers who live in the LA area, go to the Aquarium of the Pacific. We spent a couple of hours there yesterday afternoon and though it is pricey it’s well worth it. We saw the Southern California exhibit with the jelly fish and sea lions. But my favorite is the Tropical exhibit. There we revisited the waters we experienced during our days living in the South Pacific in the late 1970s. The coral, sea anemones, the fish in shades of deep blue, yellow, and hot pink are not to be believed. Plus there are lion fish, sea snakes, sea dragons that look like twigs, and stone fish that blend right into their surroundings. Go if you’ve never been there and go back if you haven’t been there for a while. It’s also great for kids who spent a lot of time pressing their noses up to the glass and squealing with joy as the fish seemed to react to them.

So, while we were on our way back from the aquarium we made a list of other attractions in the LA area that we need to go to – a mini bucket list, so to speak. These are:

the Pompeii exhibit at LACMA
the Huntington Library
the Norton Simon museum of art
the refurbished Getty villa

All these places are easy to get to and prove that there are other things to do here besides go to the movies.

Friday, July 17, 2009

I need sleep

This has been a hard week. I think mainly because I’ve been so tired. In fact, I’m looking forward to sleeping late both Saturday and Sunday - something I hardly ever do. Luckily, I have no plans for each day this weekend – in fact we don’t even have any evening plans until we see Ben and Marissa on Sunday evening, so I can be at will about when I take my weekend walk or go to the gym.

You read it here. I'm not getting up at 6:30 tomorrow to go to my usual Satuday morning Spinning class. I'm sleeping in. I need the sleep. I need to get caught from my stay at Esalen where I never had one good night’s sleep, and this week's usual workout and work schedule.

I'll let you know how it all turns out.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A special gift

On Sunday afternoon we went to the Wellness Community annual event at the Palos Verdes botanical gardens. We participated in the silent auction, ate some appetizers, I tasted an iced coffee latte with soy and a green tea soda, and Bob did some wine tasting. He was wearing a hat that said Manhattan Beach and a woman pouring wine asked him if he really was from Manhattan Beach. When he said yes, she wanted to know his name. He told her, and she knew exactly who he was because she had once been Paul’s teacher.

The coincidence was that she was recently going through her school things and came across a photo of Paul taken when he was in 6th or 7th grade at an international event at the school. He was wearing a sombrero and serape. Bob brought me over to see her, and I immediately recognized her. She then promised to send us the photo. And, sure enough she did – with the sweetest note. She said how blessed we were to have him in our lives for the short time he was with us.

What I come away with from this experience is that one never knows who will come into our lives with such a force and with such meaning. I never really knew this woman, the teacher, yet she knew my son so well that she remembered him perfectly after all these years. What a gift she gave us as a result.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Esalen one more time

For those of you who don't know anything about Esalen, here's what the brochure says:

Esalen - a convergence of mountains and sea, mind, and body, East and West, meditation and action

Esalen - a center for alternative education, a forum for transformational practices, a restorative retreat, a worldwide community of seekers

Dedicated to exploring work in the humanities and sciences that furthers the full realization of the human potential, Esalen offers public workshops, residential work-study programs, invitational conferences, and independent projects that support its mission

As a center designed to foster personal and social transformation, Esalen offers those who join the chance to explore more deeply the world and themselves.

For me it's all of those things and more.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

After Esalen

Esalen Garden

Since 1999 I had been going to Esalen in Big Sur at least once a year and sometimes twice. And, for some unknown reason I broke that habit in 2008.

Thankfully I went back this past week after skipping a year and found all that I love about Esalen still there: a breathtakingly beautiful location on a cliff overlooking the ocean, soothing sulfur hot springs, a writing workshop led by generous leaders – Ellen Bass, Dorianne Laux, and Joseph Millar – and fellow writers whose excellent work was both inspiring and courageous. I started each day of my stay there with a long walk through the Esalen grounds to the back entrance, onto the highway for another mile and a half, back the way I came, and my reward for all that hard exercise work, a relaxing soak in a hot outdoor stone tub.

After breakfast, all 34 of us in the workshop gathered together to hear a craft talk – this year they were on list poems, truth and beauty, and writing with a personal voice – got our writing assignment for the day, and then we went off on our own until mid afternoon when it was time to gather together in smaller groups for reading and critiques. We veered from that routine on Wednesday and got the whole afternoon off. I took advantage and visited the Hawthorne Gallery where Bob and I once bought a painting that hangs over the fireplace in our family room and The Phoenix shop at Nepenthe about 10 miles north. It goes without saying that I came back with a Buddha statue – as I’m wont to do whenever I travel or whenever. I'm a sucker for the Buddha.

I think my writing progressed as the week went by though nothing is ready for prime time yet. By the end of the week Ellen said my last poem could be my breakthrough poem, as she suggested several month’s worth of revisions. That was another major discussion topic – the hard revision work we need to do. Our leaders stressed the obvious fact that our Muse will not dictate our perfect poems to us.

So, instead of a new piece just out of the Esalen oven I’m posting a prose piece I wrote while celebrating my 60th birthday there – oh those nine years ago. CJ the man who led the massage workshop is still there, and on most visits he is my go to massage guy.

Turning 60

As 60th birthdays go it wasn't too bad. But how would I know any difference? This was the first and last time I'll ever turn 60. Bob kept toasting me with a "here's to another 60 years." Ha! Now, that's a laugh. I know I feel pretty good, but another 60 is stretching it a bit, don't you think?

I decided to spend my birthday at the place I love the most - Esalen Institute on the Big Sur coast. I turned down a party. I just couldn't get behind the idea of a celebration this year. My sister insisted, Bob insisted, Sherry insisted, Carole insisted, but I resisted and prevailed. No way. I didn't want any part of it. A 60th birthday may be a time to celebrate, but with my son, Paul, dead less than a year, I just couldn't do it. Believe me, Paul wouldn't have cared, but, I did. I just didn’t feel right having a party this year. Anyway, why should I worry about what they all wanted. I’m the one who turned 60.

I knew I made the right decision as we drove North on Friday. As soon as we got past Santa Barbara I started to relax, sink deep into my seat, take some long deep breaths and watch the beauty of the world go by. The verdant hills looked like they had been painted with sweeping brush strokes of mustard yellow, the rows of newly planted grape vines stood tall and proud as little toy soldiers, and the clear sky except for a few Georgia O'Keefe clouds beckoned us up the Coast. It looked like just plain heaven to me. And I figured that if it were this good on the road, what would come next would be even better.

It wasn't easy getting Bob to agree to go. Esalen, created in the 1960s where people gather to expand their minds, relax their souls and work on their bodies; eat fresh, healthy food, and soak in the hot springs baths while watching the waves of the Pacific, is my place. I've gone there many times without him, and he is very happy to have it that way. But, this time he really had no choice. Of course, I offered bribes. He got to choose the workshop, he got to ogle all the naked women in the hot baths and he got to spend as much time with marvelous me as he wanted all weekend long. There would be no interruptions - no telephone, no email, no exercise classes, no work. What the hey? He took the bribes, and in his inimitable way, he came along and participated fully and willingly.

Out of the four workshops offered this particular weekend, we decided to take the massage intensive. What a concept! We signed up to spend about nine hours taking turns rubbing each other’s bodies. How bad could that be? At one point I was laying on the table that stood right in front of a huge dome-shaped picture window, the sun was streaming in, a cool breeze was washing over me, the ocean was roaring below, and I was being massaged by not one man, but two. The instructor had decided to come by and give Bob a lesson in using a slow hand and an easy touch. Oh, and don’t get any ideas. They each were doing a leg. Even so, if I could have my way, that moment would still be going on.

The truth is, there’s not a lot at Esalen to complain about. Sure, the digs are a little primitive, sure, there is no room service, sure, all calls have to be made on a pay phone, sure, meals are served buffet style and before shoving our dirty dishes into the kitchen area we have to scrape any leftovers into the compost pot. That’s about it. There is so much more to like. The breathing sounds of the ocean as it laps against the rocks below are hypnotic, the pungent smells of fresh herbs and pine tickle the senses, the fertile ground that produces grapefruit size roses along side rows of emerald green vegetables boggles the mind, and, the hot baths soothe not only the body, they heal the soul. It’s like no where else I’ve ever been. It’s where I can go to be completely relaxed and at peace. I made the perfect decision. I wouldn’t have wanted to turn 60 any place else.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Preparing for my poetry writing retreat

I just had a pedicure in preparation for dipping into those wonderful sulfur hot springs at Esalen in Big Sur next week. How could I go in without perfect toes? Actually the toes will have nothing to do with the poems I write, but it's best to be prepared for anything.

Here's a piece I wrote many years ago about getting a manicure. It was my first attempt in writing something surreal. Perhaps it was my last as well.


I watched her as she carefully set the implements on the table. The files, in graduating sizes, the picks, the chisels, the sanding paper, the paint brushes and cans of paint – all in perfect sanitized rows in front of her. She asked for my index finger. I unscrewed it and gave it to her and she began her work.

As she bent over my finger I could see that her head came to a bald point on the top that she covered with a sprig of holly berries, twisted around and around the point like a Christmas tree. The rest of her hair lay in long wisps to the floor like a light blanket wrapped around her body and chair. She looked pale today – a whiter shade than usual -- and in the pupils of her eyes were outlines of unicorns waiting patiently to escape.

She kept working on my finger, pushing the green crusted skin aside until she found the pearl – a beautiful iridescent sphere that she sanded until smooth. She began painting it, first black, then a bluish-green like the sea. And as she painted, the pearl grew. It became a long pointed talon that reached out to its origins, grabbing a scoop of the sea water and returning to the table to anoint us with the salty spray. She set that finger aside to dry. She asked for another and I gave it to her and another and another until she had a row of painted talons hanging like an expansion bridge across her table.

Then she got up and first took off my right arm and then my left and put them around herself like a hug. She began twirling like a dervish, and the unicorns leading her by her hair swept her away into the void.