Monday, April 29, 2013

In Advance of Mother's Day

Mothers and neediness are much on my mind these days.

Yesterday I met my adult daughter for a little lunch and a little shopping.  I bought her a blouse.  As I did so, I realized that I haven’t bought her anything for a while.  She works, pays her own bills (including payments on the student loans she incurred in college), and is extremely independent.  She doesn’t need me to buy her much of anything.

My 93-year-old mother with worsening dementia needs me desperately.  But she doesn’t like me much these days and meets any of my attempts to help her with disdain and a supreme lack of graciousness.  (Recently, I bought her a new phone, but I had to let her think my ex-husband bought it for her in order for her to accept it.)  I do what I need to do behind the scenes and without thanks of any kind.

There is a dove nesting in an old clay pot outside my laundry-room window.  She hasn’t left her perch in three days.  I think her hubby brings her food at odd hours, when I haven’t been looking.  Sometimes we stare at each other (or, at least, I assume we are staring at each other: it has occurred to me once or twice that maybe she’s dead).  I imagine that she is warming eggs beneath her, that soon there will be babies.  I tell her that she is a good and devoted mother.  Yes, I really whisper it out loud (and then hope to God I’m not talking to a dead bird).

It occurs to me that we tend to think of children needing their mothers (and fathers), and of elderly mothers (and fathers) needing care and comfort, which almost always falls to their children.  But we don’t tend to think about young (or middle-age) mothers needing their children.  Or, more specifically, needing to be needed.

But we do.  Or I do, anyway.

Last night, I was reading Alice Munro’s great story, “Gravel.”  In it, the main character, now an adult woman, says, “All the eviscerating that is done in families these days strikes me as a mistake.”  Of course, the woman who is saying this did something terrible as a small child: she depends on being able to smooth over misery in order to live with herself.

I don’t know how to do that.  (And neither, thank God, does Alice Munro.)

I was going to write something flip about being a bird, how you just lay the eggs and shove worms down your babies’ gullets and then die when they fly away.  But I see from Wikipedia that doves feed their babies—called squabs—dove milk, and that they may raise up to six broods in a season.

That’s a lot of being needed.
And a lot of eviscerating, if you’re a disgruntled squab who’s into that sort of thing.

Monday, April 22, 2013


I’m working on a new manuscript, and I’ve reached the point where I’m starting to worry about my characters’ emotions. 

Emotions are a tough thing to nail down in a book, because often the emotion a character feels is not the emotion that really accounts for her behavior.  This also happens to be true in real life.

I just finished reading a very bizarre fantasy novel, ostensibly for middle-grade readers, but with an overly dense and lavish plot and characters that struck me as flat and uni-dimensional.  The reason the characters never came alive was that (for example) if the protagonist was sad, she said she was (or said she felt as though she was).  It was clear, cut-and-dried, unambiguous.

Really?  If only actual life were so simple.  My experience tells me that fear, sadness, and anger (“the big three,” as they’re known in my brain) often hide behind each other, or pretend to be something they’re not, or otherwise muck things up and make for confusion and uncertainty.  Much as I may wish that they would straighten themselves out in the people I know in real life, I actually like to see them muddled in works of fiction, because then I have the pleasure of trying to unknot them, thereby learning more about the characters than they know about themselves.

Right now, I’m puzzling over Wallace, a secondary character in the book I’m working on.  He is an angry boy, insisting on doing things his way, often yelling.  But because I want Wallace to be lifelike, I know that when he says he’s angry, there’s something else going on.  He may be angry, but he’s also scared. 

My father, who died when I was 19, and whom I adored, was angry all the time.  He was angry at patients who didn’t follow his post-surgical instructions.  He was angry at the checkers at Safeway, who always overcharged him (not realizing that he had tallied his purchases to the penny in his head).  He was angry that I had frustrated his efforts to make me into a classical violinist.  He was angry at Nixon.
Years after he died, I was telling someone that he had given up a lucrative private practice to work in an organization that covered his malpractice insurance.  And that once, on a gondola over the Canadian Rockies, he had ordered me to stop turning my head to see out both windows, and then walked down the mountain rather than take the return trip.

“Wow,” my friend said.  “He was really a scared guy.”

My father?  The guy who yelled a lot, who wouldn’t let my mother have a checking account, who vacuumed the entire house after the cleaning lady went home, who wrote me a letter a day during my freshman year of college?

Yeah.  That guy.

Because he was a person, and people are complicated.

I learned a lot from my father in the short time I knew him, but the most important thing I learned was that even very smart people don’t always know why they feel the way they do.

It’s  knowledge that has come in surprisingly handy, over the years.  And it has certainly made me a better writer.

Monday, April 15, 2013

On Dr. Phil and Goats in Berkeley and Learning to Type

Robert wouldn’t be caught dead watching Dr. Phil, and I wouldn’t either, except I watched it last week.  (See my recent post, The Five Stages of Watching Really Bad Reality TV Shows and What It Has to Do with Being a Writer

In the episode I watched, Dr. Phil talked about his “10-7-5” plan, in which one examines the ten moments, seven decisions, and five people that, for good or ill, have had the biggest impact on one’s life.  Despite the fact that Dr. Phil is a self-aggrandizing blowhard, I decided to think about all this.  Robert and I have been talking about it at dinner, and it’s a fascinating exercise.

One of my “moments” occurred in 1969, when I was twelve and my family was living in Berkeley.  It was a bad summer: my uncle died suddenly and unexpectedly, and our neighbor’s goat crawled into the backseat of my father’s Imperial and took a massive shit.  My parents were a mess and wanted to get me out of the house, so my mother signed me up for typing.

I was already “hunting and pecking” on my father’s discarded Underwood, writing long and formless stories in which characters with funny names were described in great detail and did absolutely nothing.  But I don’t think this is why my mother signed me up, because the course she picked for me involved six weeks of typing and six weeks of shorthand.  Fortunately, the typing came first.

Every weekday morning, I would walk to the intersection of Claremont and Domingo and get on an A/C Transit Bus.  I’m pretty sure it was the E, and I think I had to transfer to get to Shattuck by nine.  It was the first time I was ever allowed to take a city bus by myself.  I remember it as a whooshing, wind-in-the-face-blowing-my-hair-straight-back kind of freedom. 

The typing school was in an old brick building that has long since been torn down.  I think I had to take an elevator to the fourth floor, and then walk through a wooden door with a frosted glass panel, like the ones behind which 1940s private eyes worked.  The school was housed in a single, windowless room, with three or four slightly rising tiers of desks, and on each of them, a typewriter and a workbook.

I was the only kid in the class.  The other students, as I remember, were in their late teens, or possibly twenties, and were clearly there for the purpose of remedial education.  The mood was deadly serious.  The only sound was the clicking of typewriter keys, and the sizzle-click of carriages being returned by hand.

I think there were two teachers: elderly women in shirtwaist dresses with big, gray beehive hairdos, who smelled like old paper.  They took turns walking behind us students, looking over our shoulders to see how we were coming along.  I don’t remember either of them ever speaking to me.  When they felt I had mastered whatever I had been working on, they simply turned the page of my workbook for me, thereby signaling that I could progress.

I loved that class.  I can’t tell you why, exactly: it had something to do with the exhilaration of getting there by myself, the clear expectations, the fact that socializing was not required, the fact that I was good at the subject at hand.  (To this day, I remain a kick-ass typist.)  Also, I think I felt in some corner of my soul that this was necessary for me in a way that my mother didn’t understand.  It was one of several keys I needed to unlock my future, my bliss.

After the typing class ended, I put my foot down and refused to attend the shorthand segment.  My mother was unhappy with me, but my father, who was starting to recover from the whole goat thing, understood.  I spent the rest of the summer eating Quisp cereal, figuring out which Monkee I would marry (Peter Tork, because Davey Jones was too short), and mentally typing anything anyone said to me.  I worried that this private quirk would never go away, but it did, eventually.

I miss old typewriters.  I see that they are now collectors’ items, often for sale on ebay.  Perhaps I shall put in a bid.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Update on My Mother

I haven’t written about my mother lately, because I haven’t wanted to bore anyone with my own frustration and unhappiness.  But in the spirit of full disclosure, and for anyone who is wondering, here’s an update.

At 93, she remains at home, with 24-hour care.  I took her car away about 18 months ago when I had the feeling that she might be failing, and that is the one thing she has not forgotten.  She has been telling people that she is quite sure I hoodwinked her doctor into diagnosing her with moderate to severe dementia, that I am after her money, that I cannot be trusted.  (“I know her,” she said, shaking her head, refusing my ex-husband’s best efforts to defend me.)
She makes sure to remind me on a regular basis that I hurt her terribly by not dedicating PRETTIEST DOLL (Clarion, 2012) to her.  On once being reminded of the fact that I dedicated my first book (NATALIE SPITZER’S TURTLES, Albert Whitman, 1992) to her, she said, “I don’t care about that.  I want to tell you how I feel.”

I have tried to manage my own reactions to her by reminding myself of this statement.  My mother is no longer interested in lawyerly argumentation, a clear and evidential presentation of the facts.  (Actually, she was never much interested in facts, but she knew how to pretend that she was.)  She wants everyone to know how she feels, and how she feels is terrible, awful, as miserable as anyone has ever felt before.  It does no good to remind her that she has no physical pain of any kind, that she lives in her beautiful apartment with big windows overlooking lush oaks and willows, that she is free and able to take walks alone whenever she chooses, that she has two nice ladies who cook and clean and watch Maury Povitch reruns with her all day long and at deafening volume.  (“Gina, do you like Maury?  I love him!”)  My mother is mad and sad, and she wants that made clear.

Of course, she is also terrified, but this is something that she will never tell anyone, ever.  I am not sure she knows it herself. 

I struggle with whether to believe that my mother’s often-voiced disdain for and distrust of me is a symptom of her disease, or what she has thought of me all along.  Friends, doctors, and social workers have given me their conflicting views on this.  It’s hard to sort it all out.

My brother remains adversarial to me.  He and I had only the most marginal relationship for much of my adulthood, but I always held out hope that the boy who was my best friend during the first seven years of my life would re-appear.  Sadly, I don’t think that will ever happen. 

I was talking with a friend yesterday about how it feels to know that the only two surviving members of my family of origin don’t like me.  Basically, it is terrible.  But this is not a pity party.  I don't feel sorry for myself.  I am so lucky in almost every other way.

This is a picture that sits on my desk: my mother with my kids when they were babies.  It reminds me that we had so many good times together:
When my kids call my mother on the phone, she tells me, "They're magnificent.  Just magnificent."
They are.  
And I'm glad she still remembers that.