Here is my boy, in his graduation get-up. He is trying out his new duds (searsucker pants, a button down shirt, and an argyle vest) and sporting his graduation sash, minus the various decorations that now adorn it.
He has been practicing for weeks--walking the graduation walk to Pomp and Circumstance, sitting quietly with his knees together and his hands folded while the teachers call out students' names, singing "It's a Small World," and letting loose with a dance to "You Turn My Head Right Round." (a great song with a strong backbeat and a dirty message that we are hoping neither the pre-schoolers nor the grandparents will pick up on)
I have been waiting for this day to come forever, and it is time to leave. But it does wrap up 5 1/2 sweet years at our local cooperative.
The coop has changed our lives.
I remember when a neighbor/friend from the paper told us about it, describing the parents as Boho and cool. "Wow," I thought. "That is what I want to be." The truth was, at the time I was a corporate journalist working unpredictable and long hours. I longed to be a co-op mama hanging out in funky boots and cleaning bathrooms with a colorful bandana around my head, sipping coffee and laughing with other boho mamas who loved to sing and do crafts and grow vegetables.
I wanted to be part of this vision of motherhood and toddlerhood sooo badly that I used to sneak out of the office at the LA Times on unspecified assignments so I could take Theo to Mommy and Me classes way back when he was 18 months old!
Of course it didn't turn out quite as I imagined. But I do have some funky cowboy boots, I sip a lot of coffee in the sunshine, I have done endless crafts with preschoolers (to the point where I almost hate toddler crafts) and I have sung a lot of silly songs. I planned field trips for a year, and I was president for a year.
I leave this school with so much gratefulness in my heart.
We have weathered crazy dramas and parental feuds, a suicide and a firing.
But my children have been raised by a village--really. They have been loved by many adults, and been part of a community. They have learned to pitch in, clean up, contribute, share. I have learned to parent, from our amazing teachers Celia and Adina, and from the other parents I worked beside every Monday. And I have been moved and astounded by the sacrifices of these parents, many of whom have chosen to live in small houses and apartments, to drive only one car, to not take vacations--so that one parent could be with the children.
When I first encountered this approach to motherhood (and fatherhood--there are a lot of great dads here) I was so overcome and shocked after my nanny and child-care centric L A Times reporter view of the world, it made me want to write a book. How did they do it? How did they hold their own against a world that does not value motherhood, or any of the decisions they were making?
These mothers really helped me in my restless and desperate search for a version of motherhood that felt good to me.
I am restless again now, and ready to work again, come Fall. I am happy to send my Benja off to kindergarten in September.
But tomorrow I will cry as my boy walks the walk, and reminisce as I eat white cake from Porto's with whipped cream filling, strawberries and bananas.
An era is ending.
But I am deeply, profoundly thankful for Canyon School, for its teachers, parents, and children, and for all their love and lessons.
Tomorrow Benji graduates from Canyon School and then we jump into the car and head north to the Little Ranch.
The ranch isn't really little--it is a sprawling 140 acre piece of property with a well-appointed cabin and a river running through it--but it is owned by the Littles, friends of friends who are allowing us to rent for a weekend.
Seventeen miles south of Yosemite the place is so magical the first time I went I could not believe that a property that beautiful, isolated and undeveloped existed outside a National Park or a beer commercial. We drove through the cattle gate and never left the grounds for four days.
The land was owned for decades by a retired postal worker from San Francisco--back when you could buy 140 acres with a river running through it on a postman's pension. He loved the land, and when the Littles promised they would not develop it, ever, he sold it.
We will swim in water holes, make ice cream, sit under the stars, take naps in hammocks, ride horses, drink tequila, tell scary stories and pan for gold.
In a pinch we go to a scary little ethnic grocery down the hill in a mall that seems like a magnet for the destitute and sad of Los Angeles. We call it the Asparagus market, because next to it is the Asparagus Pizza joint, which sounds so stomach-turningly awful we figured it has to be money laundering operation.
We stand in line with the homeless, and watch desperate people try to steal really bad liquor. I have been there on two occasions when there were either arrests going on inside the store, or someone collapsed right outside and there were ambulances. It is too dangerous to leave the boys outside, so I always take them in.
But despite the veneer of desperation it is a sweet little store. And over time we fell in love first with the convenience, then the low prices, and now the treasures that hide in their short aisles. First Jonathan found the perfect meat to make Milanesa, just like he had it in Argentina. Divine. I have never seen that pounded beef anywhere else. Then Jonathan found a fajita mix he liked at the butcher.
Last week he came home with the oddest purchase yet: a jar of Cornelian Cherry jam. The ingredients were simple, as if from another place (Armenia perhaps??????) and it turned out the strangely shaped cherries still had pits in them. After I recovered from nearly breaking my tooth I smiled. It was the most delicious jam I have ever had. Soon I was eating it by the spoonful, ignoring bread and butter altogether. I love it. And I find that already, I crave it. (We are leaving for a few days of vacation tomorrow. Will I bring my Cornelian Cherry jam with me? Can I live without it?)
Last time we went Jonathan showed me the secret cache of Armenian jams and I looked through the odd flavors. This time I picked a jar of white mulberry jam. Again, a picture of a fruit I have never seen appeared on the lid. We went home and opened it right away. (No pits!) Oh my sweet God in Heaven! It is like honey and fruit, nectar and ambrosia, all mixed into one.
Now both come out before anything else on our breakfast table.
Last year, on the way back from UCSD, I pulled off the freeway near Trestles and got some cheap gas at a Thrifty. I am a Scot, I reasoned. I am thrifty. A few miles later a scary light went on in my car: "Coolant low," it said. "Slow to a stop, now."
I ignored it for 20 miles, as it flashed on and off. Then I called Jonathan. Was my car going to blow up? I wanted to know.
He said it was probably the bad gas. Drive on. It was a little scary, but I did. And the next time I got gas at my regular gas station everything went back to normal.
Flash forward to 2010. I was driving back from the Santa Ynez Valley after a weekend of camping, my boys snoozing in the back, the car coasting on fumes. I pulled over to the first gas station I could find and filled her up with Thrifty gas. By the time I got through the traffic in Santa Barbara my coolant light was on, telling me to pull over, NOW!
As is my wont, I ignored it. But it made me nervous. More and more nervous as the days went by. Yesterday Jonathan took it in to get the coolant checked. (We now get excellent service at our favorite garage thanks to a funny/irritating/unbelievable incident I will explain in another post.)
Today, riding on fumes again, I went to fill 'er up at our local gas station. We had no sooner pulled out of the gas station when Benji remarked: "The car feels smoother now, Mommy."
I thought about it. He was right. The car did feel smoother--and it was not because of the road. Hollywood roads are a nightmare of bumps and cracks. And then I got it: The Thrifty Gas!!!!
The Thrifty Gas messes up the Volvo. The finely tuned Swedish baby is tough in an accident, but delicate when it comes to nutrition. Bad gas makes it sick.
Every once in awhile you have a day that reminds you how wonderful strangers can be.
I had that day last Friday.
I was taking Benji on his long-awaited pre-school graduation trip to Soak City, a water park down in Orange County. He had managed to convince his entire pre-K class that this was where they wanted to go. So we set off, he and I, with a bag of bathing suits, water, sunblock and beach shoes.
I was sitting in traffic near Silverlake when a dude in a pick-up pulled up next to me, really nice, and said, "Hey, your left front tire is flat." I said thanks, and wondered if I could make it to Soak City.
A minute later a guy on the other side gestured to me to roll down my window. He gestured to my left front tire. "It's flat!" he said.
I tuned in to my car, and even on the worn out, pot-hole pocked L.A. freeway I could feel something was wrong. I got off at Alvarado and pulled into a gas station to take a look.
My tire was not just flat, I was riding on the rim. And I was in the middle of a neighborhood I do not know that well, not close to any of the garages I am familiar with. I went into the convenience store and a Filipina woman and her daughter told me there was a tire store right down the block.
I went outside and a sweet Latino dude in a little run-down Honda pulled up and offered to help me put air in my tire. He wouldn't let me leave without doing it.
My tire was so flat, and blown out, it wouldn't hold any air. He reached in and felt the inside of the tire and nodded his head knowingly. "It won't hold the air," he said.
Then another guy came and told me where the tire store was. The first Latino guy said he would make sure I got there. So he jumped in his car and rode behind me to make sure no one rear-ended me. Then he made sure I was in good hands, and drove away. He said he hoped that if his daughter was ever in distress, someone would help her. I said I thought someone would.
I was at a cheap garage full of Latin Americans who spoke a little English in a parking area full of junked cars. But J.R.--who looked like an Indian from the mountains of Peru, fit me right in and changed my tire. Basically I had had a blow-out.
He felt under the car to my right front tire. That one was bald and about to blow, too. He changed it. He said I should change my back left, too, but said I could drive out if I promised to change the tire by Monday (I was literally in the process of getting the tires changed. Jonathan had warned me it was time.)
I freaked that a tire could blow again on some wild L.A. freeway and said, "Change them all!"
He did. He entertained Benji and gave me four new tires in half an hour for $200. Jonathan almost fell over when he heard the price.
Each of these people treated me with so much respect and compassion. They all made me feel grateful for this city and its hidden humanity. Drop off the freeway in a strange part of the city and people will emerge and help you.
Just as I will help them, or whoever needs me, here in Hollywood. That is a vow I made myself.
We made it to Soak City by noon, and my boy had the time of his life.
On the way home, soggy and happy, stuck in a sig-alert in downtown, with the sun setting over the city, I thought about how much I love L.A.. I thought about how misunderstood, and how hard to penetrate it is. But that is the challenge of L.A..
This is it. My crazy garden. I know therapists always use gardens as metaphors for one's mental state, so how can I resist the temptation?
Here is what I will say about my garden. It is thriving. It is unruly. It is out of control. It is not well-behaved or orderly, but it is gorgeous, wild and full of very healthy and delicious vegetables. It reminds me of my children. Not enough discipline, but I love the end result.
And I can't help but think that the garden has set in motion a chain of events that has changed the whole back yard. Coincidence? Luck? Cause and effect? I cannot say, but since I put in the garden Jonathan trimmed our back yard tree to give the garden more light. Our neighbor came in and hacked back his jungle for the first time since we have lived here, giving my hidden terrace garden about two more hours of sunlight a day. It rained more this spring than it has in recent memory. All the other plants have gotten competitive, and they are all thriving, too. We spend more time in the backyard.
I am grateful for my garden. For my giant zucchini and baby kale and fresh lettuce, for my aggressive beans and my exuberant tomatoes, for my persistent wild arugula, and my cucumbers on the run, and for the riot of green that is flourishing back there on what was once a patch of forgotten, sandy soil.
Both of them, Anna Bondoc (artist) and Vanessa Trice (businesswoman) are amazing women, and the art is even better.
I have pieces of Anna's handiwork hanging all over the house--from spontaneous purchases to lovely cards she has given us as gifts over the years.
These two mothers met and dropped everything to invest in their own company and build a business. I am inspired, motivated and awed.
That would be true no matter what. But the art is the best. If you love patterns, tactile art, art-deco, Japanese design, or just supporting two cool women who dared to have a vision and start a business, check them out!
Two nights ago we went out with a bunch of friends from our Charter School (and our Executive Director, head of the Board of Larchmont Schools and her daughter, and our principal) to see the new documentary by Davis Guggenheim about the state of public schools in America.
The film had its L.A. premiere at the LA Film Festival and the screening was packed. This was a huge theater--as big as an opera house--and when the doors opened we sprinted up three flights of stairs and escalators to try to score seats in the balcony because every seat in the house was full.
For anyone who has been following education in the news and reads, not much of the information was surprising. You could have gotten all the facts and figures and depressing data from a year of reading the LA Times, New York Times, New Yorker and Newsweek. Not groundbreaking research.
But the emotional impact of watching four families fighting to get an education for their child, mothers willing to get up at 5 a.m. for the shot at great teachers, parents trying in phone call after phone call to reach a teacher who would not respond, of families who know that education is the way up and out of poverty in America, and are aware that their local public school is not only letting them down, but could fuck up their kids lives forever--that drama played out on screen breaks your heart.
I can testify that our whole row was just sobbing and shaking. You could feel the tears and shoulders trembling down the entire row of theater seats. You could feel people crying two seats away, and you could hear people snuffling behind you.
The daughter of the Larchmont Schools Board Member was so upset by the plight of Daisy, a little girl from Boyle Heights about to go into a Junior School that had a devastating drop out rate, and pinning all her hopes on a public lottery to a charter school (she didn't get in...) that she begged her mother to find Daisy and pull some strings to get her into Larchmont's new upper grades.
Guggenheim and his team hope that this film will function as a call to action for all Americans. That it will start the revolution. That it will motivate citizens to fight the Teachers Unions (who, in this film, are portrayed as the villain in our educational disaster drama).
Go see it. And text "possible" to 77177.
And then see what you can do for your local schools.
If you are wavering about whether you have the time, the passion,the energy to care, watch these kids and their families and you will. You will feel so guilty that you are letting them down that you will sit down and move mountains.
Larchmont Charter West Hollywood end of year picnic. Strawberry and whipped cream eating contest, water balloon toss, tug of war, volleyball, yearbook signing, yumminess, friends.
And this time, the picnic was to celebrate Theo's last day of school with all of his friends he has been in class with for two years in his K-1 loop (next year they will mix it up) AND to welcome Benji and all the new kindergarteners to LCW.
I am so proud of both of them and all they have learned this year.
Theo has learned to read, to really really read anything. To draw fantastic imaginary space, underwater, and on-land machines with levers and buttons and screens and ladders and wings and wheels. They are engineering feats. To multiply and add and subtract and play with numbers. To text. To play the piano--including every verse of the Coffees.
Benji has learned to write his name and all the letters of the alphabet, to play a few songs on the piano, to meet and greet his teachers, and to persuade a bunch of rowdy pre-schoolers that they should go to Soak City on their end of year trip. Wow!
On the second night of the Ring Cycle Wotan, the one-eyed King of the Gods, tells Freia, his wife, that he does not want to kill Sigmunde, his bastard, half-mortal son. Freia is angry at Wotan, and tells him he must not help Sigmunde, and he must kill him. Freia hates Sigmunde because he is a half-God/half-mortal fathered by Wotan himself. And she is mad at Wotan for a lot of reasons that she deserves to be angry at him for. Sigmund is the son of the mistress. Wotan protests that he does not want to kill Sigmund. Wotan tells Freia he has never helped him. Sigmund's life has been only misery and pain (true) but that he loves him because he has taken care of himself. He says that Sigmund, although he is not a God, can do things that Gods cannot do. He says all the Gods, and those he helps, despite all their powers, they are slaves to him. They depend on him.
Sigmunde, on the other hand, is a self-made man. He is free.
"A free man creates himself," he says.
That phrase stuck with me like a line of poetry. In Wotan's eyes, a single, brave man, who took responsibility for himself, had achieved more than all the Gods with their mighty powers, who lived beholden to him.
Who are we beholden to? Who holds power over us? Do we let that power sway us? Or do we hold strong, and make our own path, with no help?
Wotan betrayed Sigmund, who he loved almost the most. But then he betrayed almost everyone else, too.
I am predisposed to fear, because of the death of Natalie. That is a fact.
But this process has made me think a lot about medicine, about technology, and about not knowing.
I do know now that I do not have breast cancer. That is nice. And I know for people whose breast cancer was not caught--they would envy the care and diligence with which my doctors paid attention to me. Indeed, I know that I was afforded the luxury of these tests precisely because I have the best of insurance and my insurance would pay for them. If my insurance had not paid, I do not know that the doctors would have made the same decisions. My great insurance entitled me to more expensive and invasive tests.
But here was the side-effect. For six weeks I was in hell--either at appointments, waiting for appointments, being tested, or waiting for results. Even with the best insurance there is to offer I will pay a lot of money, and the bills will keep filtering in for the next year and a half.
I was told the procedure would be non-invasive. I now question what that means.
For three days afterwards I could not close my eyes without imagining I was back in that room with the machine drilling into me and the blood everywhere. I could not sleep. I read terrifying mysteries to soothe myself. My doctors said this would all be nothing. In fact, so many doctors handled this process I feel like a piece of meat floating down a conveyor belt. I do not even know who I would talk to if I wanted to say, "Hey. That was really unpleasant. You should alert people that this could be emotional--even beyond the fear of having cancer."
I have recovered well. I am not infected. I am not ill. But my breast is huge and swollen and emotionally I am a wreck. Even knowing I am OK, I feel violated, and angry. My body is strong. But my mind is feeble and fragile. One friend estimated it will take me three weeks to feel normal.
I feel that because machines have trouble with dense breasts like mine, I must undergo more extensive testing. Is that right?
MRIs are notorious for way over-enhancing--in other words many things that enhance are not cancer. They are also good because in the process of over-identifying enhanced spots, they catch tiny cancers that no other technology can catch. If I had cancer I know I would be grateful.
I now have a scarred and swollen breast that will have a permanent lump. The experience was so unpleasant I think I may opt for the European model and wait until I am 50 for my next mammogram. I feel betrayed by a medical system that grossly underplayed the physical and emotional trauma that having a foreign body--however small--drill into you, has on the psyche.
I wonder if our medical system relies too much on its technology. I wonder if it teaches people to put too much faith in technology that is still often wrong. I wonder if we love our technology so much that we order people who have only a minute chance of having a disease to undergo tests to take the possibility of disease down to zero. I wonder if I should be part of that decision. I wonder if we underestimate the trauma of tests and overestimate the peace of mind and accuracy that tests bring.
An I wonder how the tests themselves will alter how I am treated in the future--even though the best doctors and technology have never found any cancer in my body.
It has been a week and a day. Last Wednesday I got an MRI-guided biopsy. I have waited to write until my emotions calmed down somewhat. This entry is to help me process my complex emotions on the topic, and also to throw out some larger questions the experience has raised for me.
Radiologists saw nothing when they did a mammogram, but they could not see well, so I got an ultrasound. They saw nothing with the ultrasound, but they ordered a session with a breast specialist and an MRI. The breast specialist (who I admire) felt nothing unusual, but agreed. I got the MRI and they saw no mass, but an undefined shadow--so she recommended an MRI-guided biopsy. She did not feel I needed a biopsy. Really she wanted to order another MRI in three to six months, but insurance would not allow that, she said. Insurance only allows you to act with urgency, or not at all. So she was going to opt for urgency. Once she made up her mind, that was that. I like her. I do not find her alarmist. She assured me the process would be quick, easy and non-invasive. It would take 45 minutes, and then an hour in the recovery room to stop the bleeding. It was not an emergency, she told me. I could have it done any time in the next month. But sooner would be better.
She answered a few of my hysterical questions by email, and then I was on my own, the time was booked. Wednesday, 9:30 a.m..
I turned up and was whisked through the bank of insurance specialists. They liked me because my insurance is good--you do not even need pre-approval the woman told me with a smile. You are lucky.
I was sent downstairs to a subterranean maze of rooms where you could hide if a nuclear weapon ever goes off in L.A.. I changed into a gown and then was sent to have an IV put in. That would be used to send the colored fluid through my body so they could see the contrast on the MRI.
I was led into the MRI room by a cheerful nurse. Soon, I was told, I would be informed about what would happen that day. Finally a young male doctor radiologist came in. I had never met him in my life, and he had never met my doctor. He told me that I might have DCIS. He told me they would slide me into the machine, find the spot, put some lytocaine (sp?) on my breast then they would drill into my breast with a needle slightly smaller in diameter than a number two pencil, slide me back into the MRI machine to make sure they had the right place, pull me back out of the MRI, then take eight to nine samples in the shape of a rotary phone all the way around the shadow--hard because they could barely see it--and then I would be done.
I could not drive myself home. Oh yeah, he remembered, we will be shooting a piece of metal into your breast to show us where we went because after this procedure there will be abnormal cell growth all around where we drilled into you and we need to know for the future that this was caused by us, and not you. And you can't drive yourself home. This is a serious operation.
I was alarmed. No one had told me about metal, or about anything at all. It seemed like a lot of samples. I didn't want metal. He told me he would show me the metal and the needle they would be drilling into me. He did not. I resisted. I was naked. I had no phone. I had no way to contact my doctor. I was trapped in an underground room with a doctor I had never met in my life who was really defensive and made everything sound much worse than my doctor had. I was getting emotional, which he did not like. He told me yes, there could be a lot of swelling. Yes, there would be considerable bleeding, and yes, there would be contusions. None of this matched what my doc had said, which, I suddenly reflected, was not much at all.
I sat shivering in my gown on the edge of this giant futuristic machine that looked like it could take me apart, send me through space and time, and reassemble me cell by cell in Afghanistan. I crumbled and gave in. I said they could do whatever they wanted. I signed and said I would not blame them if I got infected, if I bled profusely, if they hurt me any way at all, if they shot metal into me.
I lay down. They couldn't get my position right. They slid me in and out a bunch of times. I asked the doctor how many times he had done this procedure. He did not answer.
For some reason they wanted the machine tighter than normal. I am not claustrophobic, but I was starting to feel that way. They could not find the shadow spot. Finally after going in and out two to three times they found the spot. They put the lytocaine on me. The doc drilled into me. They slid me back into the MRI machine. They slid me back out. He started his motor. He took his eight to nine samples, whirring away into my breast like I was a two by four. I lay there. He ran in and out into his control room. Lots of voices. Another doc who sounded like she knew what she was doing came in and put her hand on my back and told me it would all be over soon. I couldn't move. My head was down. I was awake. The doc came back. They had missed. They got mostly fat. They had to do it again. They put me back into the machine. They tried to find the right spot. They slid me out, they drilled in again. They slid me in to make sure it was right. They pulled me out.
They drilled again--nine more samples. They tested. This time they were happy. At this point I had been in and out of the MRI machine about eight times. They had taken 18 core samples. I hurt. Finally they let me up. I was crying. There was blood everywhere. The doctor said nothing to me. He just took his bloody tools and walked away. The nurse wiped clean my breast that was already swollen and full of contusions. They covered me and bandaged me to try to stop the bleeding. My blood was still all over the MRI machine. The whole process took two hours.
I cried and cried. Just silent sobs. They told me I had to ride in a wheelchair. I said no. They said yes. I said no. I felt like it was the only thing I could do to try to restore my dignity. I walked to get my clothes. They called a supervisor who told me I had to ride in the wheelchair. I said no. She rolled her eyes and said she was going to have to talk to her supervisor. Sigh. I could fall. I could sue.
They walked me upstairs and put me in a recovery room. I had to stay for two hours because I did not have a driver. The recovery nurse was nice. The most informative person I had met at the hospital. He said most biopsies come back negative (unlike the doc downstairs who said it was very possible I had DCIS--the most common form of cancer). He told me MRI guided biopsies are good because they take out so much of you it is effectively like a lumpectomy. He told me that my doc was a fellow.
A day later, before I had my results back, a nurse called from Cedars. She wanted to know how my experience was. And she wanted to know if I would recommend Cedars and its Imaging Center to my friends (Kind of like, Did you enjoy your stay at Canyon Ranch? Would you recommend us to your friends? Thank you, I will give this to my marketing department.) She spoke to me longer than anyone the whole day at the hospital, with the exception of my sweet recovery nurse, Ricky.
Is there some division of labor that hospitals abide by? Are nurses assigned the duties of compassion and listening? Doctors the role of distant, hard-line, non-emotional robot?
A week has passed. My breast is still swollen. It is black blue and yellow all down the left side. There are contusions. Inside there is a huge lump of scar tissue. Where I had no lump before, now I have one. I am sure it will go down over time. But it will be there.
I hate my breasts right now, and I hate my body. I feel modest, vulnerable, violated and traumatized.
Though I have no record of breast cancer in my family, and no obvious risk-factors, the fact that I have been checked carefully now means I am on the official watch list. I am being told to be checked more regularly, even though two MRIs and an MRI guided biopsy have shown that I have no cancer, even though fibrous and dense breasts are not a risk factor for breast cancer. The mere fact that I have had tests, means that now, forever after, they want to keep more of an eye on me.
My medical records, written so as to get the insurance needed to get the tests I need, read in a way that is far more dire that my actual situation. When I read what the doctor said (which she explained she had to do to get insurance coverage for me--which I am grateful for) I get heart palpitations.
But I know the words she wrote to get the tests will live as the truth, not the words she told me about my breasts. So again, my risks will be elevated in my medical record.
I guess one of my messages is that good food makes me happy. I can barely be friends with someone who does not love food. They do not have to love the same food I do. But if they do not love eating then I am wary, uncertain they have passions, or true loves. I know it is not fair, but there it is.
Here is some food that makes me happy. This is a picture of fried zucchini flowers. You can stuff zucchini flowers with mozzarella and fry them, or chop them up with spices and make a filling for tacos like the Mexicans, OR you can deep fry them in a light batter, sprinkle them with sea salt, and gobble them down as soon as they are cool enough to eat.
That is my favorite style. Light, salty, fried, summery. No matter how many I make they are gone in three minutes.
Afterwards I rub my belly, sip my prosecco, and I think, no matter what else happens, life is still a glorious thing.
When I was in 10th grade, in Miss Keck's Virginia and US A.P. History Class (It was Virginia, and Virginia came first, because that is how it is Virginia), I once hid my eyes during a movie about the holocaust. It was a grainy documentary of Germans dumping starved Jewish cadavers into giant holes and burying them in mass graves. The movie went on and on and on. It was 45 minutes of human suffering with a muffled and disturbing soundtrack. I put my head down on my desk. For me, it was too much to bear.
Ms. Keck, a.k.a. Sgt. Keck at Wakefield Highfield School, came and rapped me on the back of a head with a ruler. I was her star student. She loved me. She was angry.
"Pick up your head and watch," she said. "You cannot look away from the truth. You need to look at what happened. Do not avert your eyes."
Then she stood next to me in the dark and made sure my eyes were on the screen. She did not move from my side until the movie was over.
What was wrong with me that I could not watch? No one else had my problem. They could put their eyes on the screen. They could watch. They did not feel sick. Or at least they were strong enough to keep on watching. And the truth is I agree with her. You cannot avert your eyes from the ugliness of the world. It is your job as a human being to look it head on, so that you feel compelled to do something about it.
But I often think back to that moment. I wonder if she found some flaw in my character. I do not want to look at the ugliness of the world. I have worked hard to take jobs, to do work, to immerse myself in the world, to be aware of what is going on. To not hide from the world and insulate myself from the ugliness and tragedy of the human condition. And yet, there are times when I just have trouble picking up my head and facing it.
I want to hide. I want to be ignorant. I want to look the other way. I want to put my head back down on the desk and cover my ears and wait until the horror has passed.
Jane Smiley has a new novel out, and I have only read the book review. But the premise is intriguing. A woman witnesses a hanging as a child. She averts her eyes. That inability to look at the lynching head on leads to, and is representative of, a passivity that affects her whole life--her marriage, her family, everything. Because she will not look at what is, she is trapped in it, and cannot move.
I am trying to moe. To lift up my head and look. But I get so overwhelmed sometimes I cannot hold there.
When Natalie was sick she spent much of her illness in denial. When I saw her I could not be in denial. I saw her disintegrating. I held up my head. I was strong for her. Then I would get on the plane and projectile vomit on the way home. Sometimes I would take to bed from the effort of looking, and of acting. And yet, I knew I did right.
Now it is time to look at my own health. I feel sick. I have not slept in three nights. I cannot eat. When I open my eyes I imagine myself back in the MRI room with blood everywhere after my biopsy. I know I need to know the answer of whether I have cancer. To take the truth head on, to see clearly, so clearly that I must act.
But how hard it is for me. I find myself full of anger. Angry at the doctors, the machines, the health care system, my husband, my friends. But in the end I know my rage is at myself. It is a rage that I have to look at the truth. That I am being dragged to the edge of the abyss and I am scared shitless because I don't want to die. I know that I would rather know than not. I know that knowing will help me to live--if that is my truth. But a deep part of me wishes I could live in ignorance. I wish I could live in a place without tests, where I would grow sick and die, slowly, without living in a constant state of fear, and a promise that technology will provide answers, when for me, it seems not to.
I crave ignorance. I know it is wrong. But I am enraged that I must look at my mortality. I feel resentful and scared.
It is the right thing. It is the brave thing. It is the necessary thing, to know. But for me, it is just as hard as 10th grade.
By night two the crowd was buzzing. Everywhere you stopped for a minute you could hear Wagnerian professors and musicologists comparing courses they teach and the best Ring cycle they have ever seen. A huge diagram of the Gods and the mortals and the half Gods and the Dwarfs sat on a stage on the second floor. Neophytes like us studied it between Acts. We were there for 5 hours.
I thought this: Wagner demands something of his audience that makes the whole experience more intense. He demands commitment, time, passion. Those of us there for the cycle have committed 18 hours of opera in 8 days. Crazy. It demands endurance, patience, and you are completely immersed in his music, his poetry, his myth. He takes over your mind.
It is hard to explain. But there is something about his deep dark chords that gets you on a level so deep it is hard to put into words. Wagner had special Bayreuth tubas made just to create his unique deep, dark sound. You can hear the characters in the music. You can hear the characters who are dark, the characters who are light, the characters who are evil, and the characters who are fighting, loving, and doomed. It makes you wonder: What would my leitmotif be?
But like an energy worker Wagner does get inside you. I believe he is shifting me in my darkest places. I cannot say it is completely pleasurable. But it is powerful, intense, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Jonathan is already preparing for our second Ring cycle.
He texted me yesterday: "San Francisco, Summer 2011?"
Will we become like the crazy British gentleman? Jetting around the world to see the Ring?
Who knows? It is a transformative experience.
And the transformation is not yet complete. Back to Seigfried on Thursday, and Gotterdamerung on Sunday.
This is a protest on the first night of The Ring in Los Angeles. The scraggly group--who could really sing-turned out to be a group of angry music teachers demanding to know why LA County spent $14 million on The Ring, but is cutting music teachers. In addition, they protested, Wagner was pro-Nazi and an Anti Semite.
By the end of the opera on the first night, I thought this was all part of the drama and emotion stirred up by Wagner. Love him or hate him, he touches people in deep, dark places.
Regarding the protesters--at first I thought, Hey, they are right. Music teachers are worth more than The Ring. But then I thought about every public school I know--at least at the elementary level--and they all have to raise their own money to pay teachers. Does anyone still have music teachers in this city? I thought they were cut long ago.
And I know the Nazis loved Wagner. But can an artist be blamed for the actions of evil people who love their work 80 years after their death? That seems a little unfair.
But the Ring itself. Why did we go?
I don't even know. I bought the tickets in a moment of extravagance. They are Jonathan's Christmas present--four nights of opera (18 hours) packed into 8 days. It is the first staging of the Ring ever in Los Angeles. I don't even know Wagner, and from what I heard, I thought I probably wouldn't. But I can never say NO to a once in a lifetime experience. This may never happen again.
Ringheads from all over the world flew in for the performance. Before we went in, while we were sipping cheap champagne from plastic glasses out in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in the sunshine, we met a guy who had flown in from England. This was his 20th Ring. He was giddy with excitement. (England rewards this kind of wacky eccentricity!)
Despite our promises to ourselves to enroll in online courses on Wagner and the Ring we had done no preparation except to read a very detailed synopsis from an old book on Opera that Jonathan had swiped from his grandfather's house after he died.
The British gentleman said The Ring was the greatest opera ever. a total experience. He said his first time did not affect him deeply. The second time left him hooked for life. Several years ago he was listening to the Flight of the Valkyries in his car and he drove into a wall. "It will be transformative," he promised us. "If you get lost, just follow the music."
The staging was magnificent, even from up in the nosebleed section where we were. (On the way down our four flights of stairs on the way out we saw a woman who really did get a nosebleed!)
It is hard to explain the power of the performance, which only grew stronger on night 2. It is not like opera in the traditional sense. It is not gorgeous harmonies or duets. I do not like the singing as much as Mozart or Puccini or Verdi. But the music of the orchestra, the power of the mythical story, the dark philosophical questions that are raised, they get you at your core and seep into you unbeknownst. The evil dancing dwarfs, the agonizing Gods, the guardian mermaids, they are all like a dream.
Jonathan and I both had strange dreams the night after the first performance. I likened it to a Jungian dream. It as if, with his music, Wagner unlocks our unconscious. He wiggles down into the murk and stirs you up in a way that just sneaks up on you. Weird.
I am an ex-journalist and a mother of two boys. I live in Los Angeles. I am a traveler, an adventurer, a writer. These are my philosophical investigations -- from the kitchen, the playground, and the streets of LA.