Friday, September 12, 2008

It Was 20 Years Ago Today, Nearly.

I found an embarrassing photo of Sarah Palin grinning under her early 80s puff-hair above a pink t-shirt bearing across her bosom the legend: "Even if I'm broke I'm not flat busted." Slightly less risque than the slutty baby-doll Juicy Couture worn by many of my lissome students studying and embodying current fashion, but still a vivid reminder of the power of the camera, the reach of the Net, and the shock of exposure I reckon more than two decades on. That same span marks, by the end of this month, my first gaze at Layne. This, in turn, leads to remembrances of how my hair drooped when I met my future wife.

At least it was still reddish-brown then. I always wanted long hair, but my tresses lack the body, and being too flyaway and wispy, tended when uncut to turn into spindly rat tail twirls rather than thicken into trailing locks that could grace a Harlequin's cover. Now, as you can see on my blog thankfully miniaturized, I run my fingers (known derisively as "a Welsh comb") through still wavy, but considerably grayer and sparser, thatches of hair awry. Luckily, no bald spot yet.

I cannot grow sideburns to reach my now-whitened goatish beard and mustache. It took me a year for the latter to come in, followed gradually by the former, so it's a curious sight, perhaps. I noticed the last time I got a haircut, reduced by our budget to someone cutting it (loud Latino music, Spanish spoken by all but me, storefront near the 99 Cent Store) for a third the price of the skilled stylist who my wife turned me towards early in our courtship, that he shaved off the scraggly whiskers near my ears, as if resigned to eradicate my face of any attempt any more to try to bridge my scalp with my chin.

The buses that pass down past the barber on half-barrio, half-gentrifying Sunset follow the same route that I took when I left UCLA to come back to Echo Park, pre-hipster era. Or at least pioneer hip, if you count Layne. I studied on the Westside; she lived on the Eastside. This route of the #2 RTD rambles into reminiscences of meeting Layne. Daily on my commute years later, I pass the Union Station where we met. So, on my way to and from work, I still get a kick out of the memory, one that lingers happily.

Nowadays, I shield myself on public transit thanks to an iPod. Back then, I escaped into music by a turntable and a radio. Our love of music-- the shared listening we'd done separately to the KCRW eclectic off-beat alternative "Snap" radio show-- brought us together. That, a love of dogs, inappropriate gallows and/or politically incorrect humor, and our quest for a place where our souls could merge along with our bodies, has continued to inspire us. And, irritate us. The High Holidays, honestly, we welcome with a mixture of dread and homage by now. The autumnal pilgrimage-- invariably like the L.A. County Fair visited in stifling heat-- began for us around 1990 in a rented church on the Westside, then the Santa Monica Civic (where I saw my first concert!), and eventually downscaled post-procreation to the humble temple about which I wrote last Sunday here.

I don't get uplift much from these ponderous services, with the exception of certain Kol Nidre passages, the Avinu Malkenu group confession of "we did this wrong," and once in a Rosh Hodesh blue moon an inspired homily. Yet, these solemn occasions represent the community and not the individual, and they bring the group together to appeal with humility before a somewhat faded portrayal of a jealous God. It's a three-thousand year old tradition rooted in the tribe and not the outlier. It speaks to the parent-child struggle, the battle between selfishness and maturity, between getting what we want and doing what's good for others. We hear the stories of Jonah and Isaac, cruel tests by the Unnameable of his quavering sons. The tension that rests at the heart of any relationship, blessed-cursed, human-divine, male-female, young-old, powerful-weak.

Although my conception of whatever transcendent apophatic force that may lurk out there has little in my middle age to do with the accountant God making a list and checking it twice, still, I understand the atavistic drama. Man proposes, God disposes. Tested by forces inexplicable to us. Punished for sins we barely knew we did. Ignorance of the Law is no excuse. And the ten days of repentance never let us forget. Days of Awe, reckoning what has been left awry. We assemble, balancing the books. This congregational repair and renewal fits the practical nature of Judaism, aligning smart business sense with ethical imperatives.

My own shuffling of my (non-musical) records does get to me. I'm on a compressed and accelerated schedule now. I have to teach more in less time, on-line and on-site. I feel guilty that sometimes with my relentless teaching schedule that I can no longer take the time off as mandated on our reduced eight-week schedule, due to the pressures of administrators and the sheer difficulty of covering what I used to do in twice the weeks. But, I am beyond any fear that some vengeful deity will strike me with leprosy for this compromise. I confess letting down my family and myself by this capitulation. Trying to rationalize the irrational guilt, I tell myself that the balance of good deeds with bad works out also with me trying to attend to my students and their needs best as I can in an incessant hamster-wheel of an environment that joins the corporate with the academic to maximum cost-benefit Taylorism in the name of stocks, efficiency, and dispatch. I try to teach well in an environment that calls itself a company. Such is compromise.

And, no profundity here, such is marriage. Our actual wedding symbolized what had been, pretty much from early in our relationship, our bond already forged, or so I'd like to imagine! I knew when seeing Layne one balmy evening in late September 1988 that she was the It Girl. I can still remember her first smile, her green coat, her blouse, and her calm hazel-eyed gaze under, yes, another head of naturally curly (like Frieda, not poufed like Miss Congeniality's) hair not then gray. When after viewing "The Last Temptation of Christ" I told my best friend Colleen (who would be therefore my Best Man in a few years at our wedding) and her beau Geoff about Layne, my colleague blurted out in typical fashion: "what are you doing? Marry her!"

Reader, I married her, to slightly paraphrase a more famous line. I had no idea when Colleen and I talked what Layne's background entailed. Years ago, such a detail would have loomed large in any encounter, but what mattered when I met Layne was only her. I can recall that I had no idea she was Jewish when we met. The odds worked in favor of such, she being Hollywood-connected in her work and her having dark good looks. Still, as one far removed from the industry and immersed in a milieu with few of the persuasion, I remained pretty clueless. I sat in her director's chair on the porch and noticed her surname across its back, c/o her father's moniker. As the family name was uncommon, I figured it might be Eastern European and by association I figured it could be Ashkenazi-- or Lithuanian. Still, we enjoyed our Xmas parties, at least until Andrew the hapless Airedale knocked down the bedecked tree with her beloved ornaments. The lights went out. I was never a nostalgic sort for Yuletide cheer anyway. It was fun, however, buying the tree and hauling it into the little apartment. We took its toppling as a portent for change.

Our shared journey meandered into Judaism, to reclaim both her sundered roots and my own drifting eddies into a more intellectually acceptable form of faith. Lacking of course any Yiddishkeit, never having eaten a bagel until college-- and that at a Jesuit one to boot, knowing practically nobody who was an M.O.T., I did not even know people could convert. Liz Taylor and Sammy, I vaguely heard did, but I figured, perhaps not erroneously, that these were P.R. stunts. Layne's parents could care less, and her mom preferred that I remain Catholic for whatever cachet that lent her daughter's match. To a future doctor no less. Unfortunately, not the rich kind. Since those in the know tended rather indifferently to my conversion, this suited me fine. Able to decide for myself free of pressure from anyone, I could not countenance one of those mixed marriages in which the kids cared not one way or the other, or in which one parent's fidelity or indifference or resentment conflicted against the other, and the results totaled not a stand-up comedian's punchline, but real despair and long bitterness of the soul that no chicken soup could remedy.

What my sons will make of their Judaism remains to be seen. Speaking of outliers, we're largely that. They enjoy friendships with those they've known since Mommy 'n' Me. Few perhaps from two-Jewish-parent households, so perhaps there we even have an edge up, sort of. This longstanding connection through first JCC and then the theater group that it spawned may prove the most durable link they take with them. They did come back from Camp JCA with encounters with young counselors who'd served with the IDF, and their reports of the condition Israel's perpetually in. I sense a mixture of my sons feeling a bit left out and a bit relieved not to be part of so many stereotypes better left alone. As the missus tells me, with the mixing of the gene pool, perhaps advantages come. It's disheartening to open the "Forward" to see "Annual Guide to Jewish Genetic Diseases." With we Hibernians, all you get is greater risk of schizophrenia. The guilt factor's probably a photo finish for both "races."

As with me, perhaps with the boys. Their Jewish identity, coupled with an Irish name, will always be rather stealthy. It won't leap out to the observer seeking the obvious marker, but it will be enough for them to blend, however they may choose, into the gathering of their maternal tribe. I do find it richly ironic that so many of their friends "pass" with a non-Jewish mother thanks to a Jewish father and surname, while my technically halachic sons endure the second-takes when their last name's mentioned. Still, such maneuvers remind those born Jewish into the usual surnames and appearances of pertinent lessons. Few Jews nowadays outside of Mea Shearim or Hasidic New York exurban enclaves will be able to expect those with whom they mingle to lack entanglements with other DNA, other nations, other creeds. Where did the Hasidim get their red hair, their occasionally blue eyes, their ruddy features? They did not come by osmosis in the Pale. Even Jesus came into the House of David by means of Ruth from Moab. Whatever the "typical" Jewish person will look like in a quarter-century will resemble everyone else around them-- in our blended families and hybrid diaspora.

It's hard to explain, but once in a while, I have had strangers of other races peer at me with disapproval in public. Singling me out, relentlessly. Deep glares, locked eyes, disapproving mien. Perhaps unreasonably, I have had the unshakable sensation that in these moments, I have been perceived as Jewish. I wonder if this contempt has been earned by some skip in my alleles. A quirk in my features, my hair, my glance? Not knowing my paternity makes this all the more disturbing. Despite what the post-racial tenured track tells us, in a city like ours, we are all minorities now. So, perhaps we all suffer what used to be the burden only of the numerically few in past decades or centuries. Still, this discrimination-- call it hypersensitivity or ego or imagination-- shakes me up; the last time I found myself at the receiving end was at a meeting at work under the gaze of a disapproving "person of color," a newcomer who did not know my name, only a few days ago.

Certainly, separation defines being Jewish whatever the protective coloration one adapts under threat. Meat from milk, blood from flesh, linen from wool, gentile from insider. Yet, "ivrit" derives from border-crosser. The sense of being a Hebrew was, as with Abraham, to change from Chaldean to nomad, for Moses to turn from Egypt back to the rabble, for Jacob to take on his new name after a night with a stone pillow, a dream of ladders, and an angel who went for the low blow at his mortal groin in some archetypal battle with disturbing undertones. Judaism's grounded in such half-understood lore, as with dreams recalled dimly upon awakening, mythic texts blurred despite centuries of grappling, identities shadowed over years spent in or dodging the public eye, ever under the scrutinizing stranger's glare.

When it came time to cross the denominational frontier, I was all alone and dependent on sounds, not sight. The sensation of the mikvah, when I swam into it, fully immersed into a fetal position so as to get every strand of that crazy hair underwater according to ritual, around the time of my first son's birth four years after his parents met, stayed with me. All but blind, without glasses, I heard only voices that I, naked at least underwater, had to assent to. A fine metaphor for rebirth. My wife could not be with me, for obvious reasons-- of birth.

Deep down, like some of the (holy?) water I inhaled, the sense of being Jewish in a half-bewildered, blinkered state stays with me. It's inside me nearly below conscious thought, as it settles on top of my Catholic upbringing, subsiding into an inner estuary of flow and existence beyond meaning or concept. In this inarticulate speech of the heart (A Van Morrison LP title but I am sure it's another poet cribbed), I rest.

Even if I do not know what they'd put on my dogtag. Maybe, as my newly discovered birthmother has alleged, I have been disowned of the little remaining from my (adoptive) father due to my "abandoning the Faith." As I will inherit nothing from parents adoptive or natural anyway, I can act free of untoward motives in purest altruism! There's no last will and testament to astonish me with sudden wealth.

Back to dogtags. Growing up in Cold War America, each year we grade schoolers would get an ad for metal I.D. bracelets to order in class. Along with name-DOB-next of kin, there'd be the prominent motif of a Star, Cross, or perhaps Crucifix, along with a Flag for the few seculars among us. Only recently did I realize why such insignia were peddled. Same reason that 10:15 the last Friday of the month we'd hear the siren tested and drop and duck under our desks, hands over our neck, eyes shut, imagining the glass shards imploding and the light so bright we'd never not see it even beneath pinched lids.

No wonder I have long wondered about sudden death, the afterlife, the possibilities of annihilation, salvation, wonder, or oblivion. Terrified by the predictions projected via the agitprop 1953 film "Our Lady of Fatima" that we viewed in fourth grade, I went on to work my demons out through a dissertation twenty-five years later on purgatorial visions and scolding revenants. The power of messages from beyond haunts me and beckons me, skepticism clashing with surmise. When I dream of what I am, I find myself once in a while in a church, rarely in shul. More often I will picture myself in dorms, in classrooms, or commuting. A recurring nightmare is that I have-- contrary to my naivete all these years since-- not finished my doctoral thesis. I used to have chaste fantasies with Madonna, not the Marian varietal, but always with dark hair, not Blonde Ambition. Niall thoughtfully found at the ArcLight a magnet depicting said iconography, which I added to my collection.

Lately, I have had a few reveries in my sleep of what Buddhists might call visualizations. What intrigues me is whatever or whomever the source that has called to me on three separate occasions so far appears much like my wife. She's with black-grey abundantly curly-wavy hair just beneath the shoulders, about her age, and with a very kind, olive-complexioned, open countenance, as a poet might fumble it.

Better this than Sarah who's no Bernhardt. Speaking of fabled Jewish muses, here's the Divine Miss (0)m icon. From the "Shekina" book of photographs by Leonard Nimoy. When you google "Shekinah," you will be dazzled or disheartened by show pugs, a Jewish quilt by a born-again seamstress, show German shepherds, African-American ministries, orthographically challenged preachers, End-Times outreach, Christian Rock, show horses, baby showers, and dubious airbrushed art. Take off the "h" and this image rose up first. Many were thrown off by Nimoy's 2002 decision to capture eroticism mixed into spirit, but for me, it's on target. logically. That's where the junction is, is it not? Twenty years with Layne has taught me that.

No comments: