Friday, August 29, 2014

On Being a Mother

My son’s getting on a plane back to Scandinavia where he goes to school.  He’s raring to go, his mind scrabbling for details.  Has he got everything? Passport, tickets, phone charger?  Jesus Christ, a 9 hour layover in fucking New Jersey, then an 11 hour flight to Stockholm.  L.A., Tucson, back to the wicked cold, and the bleak icy landscapes of Finland, a land so foreign most people forget it exists.

But he likes it there: his friends, his school.  At twenty-two he is not my baby anymore.  He is not anyone’s baby.  He is a young man, busting through his own skin daily and finding a brand new person.  His function in the world is becoming.

Mine is remembering.

I remember his birth, every moment of it.  I remember the light in the hospital room, the dyed hair of the crabby nurse reading the Book of Mormon, who became terrified when I asked her, just a conversational gambit, if she’d didn’t get a little worried about STD’s what with all the blood she had to deal with every day.  Maybe they do now but back in the early nineties, they didn’t routinely test expectant mothers for STD’s.  Not unless you asked.  I thought that was interesting and an interesting conversation was what I needed.  When you’re wracked with contractions, talking about the weather is not going to feed the bulldog.

I remember my husband on my left, always on my left, doing his best to help although really, what can a man do?  We’d been through this once before and he knew the woman on the bed wasn’t really me, or was me only spiritually, hormonally loaded for bear and anything else I could take down while trying to push a nearly nine pound baby boy through a hole that up to that point, had pretty much been used just for pleasure.

It was a long night.  There were ice chips, purgatorial tortures, rending of garments and oaths berating the gods then apologizing frantically for what I’d just said.  There was no doctor in the morning and the admonition, repeated over and over by various nurses, once I’d finally reached full dilation, not to push.  “You can’t,” they said.  “There’s no one here to catch the baby!”  I visualized a guy running in wearing full protective gear and a catcher’s mitt.  I tried, but not pushing after all that work was like asking a wave not to break on the shore.  Would my newborn emerge and crash headfirst onto the floor? Was it clean, was it soft?  Could someone at least put a pillow on the floor?

In the nick of time a frizzy haired MD—at least I think she was an MD; she could have been the janitor for all I knew-- swooped into the room, into latex gloves and the sleeves of her gown.  My child came into the world.

There was never any doubt that he would.  Throughout my entire young life I said I never wanted kids.  The world was covered in asphalt, Reagan wanted to start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and bank tellers had become automated machines.  But one day about age 27 all that changed.  I was at a restaurant and found myself entranced by a beautiful infant on an adjacent table.  All swaddled in powder blue, snuggled into his carrier, a little trickle of drool running out one side of his mouth, I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  His parents finally moved him to another table.

And I knew.  I could no more not have kids than a salmon could not swim upstream to spawn.  My lifelong maternal instincts and twenty-something fecundity made a mockery of my philosophical objections.  Rene Descartes would have thrown me into a fire; my cogito ergoed nil.  I was a human animal and could no longer fool anyone anymore.

I had two boys nearly 4 years apart.

Someone once said we’re compelled by infants because of the innocence in their eyes.  It’s very short lived and once it’s gone you never see it again.  Experience assaults it.  In small ways at first, barely perceptibly.  A favorite toy dropped on the floor through the slats of a crib, the disappointment and rage at being unable to retrieve it.  The sharp, sleep deprived swear-word from a parent none-too-thrilled at having to change a diaper at 3 AM.  Then bigger sorrows add up, sibling rivalry, school, physical and emotional pain change the wide-eyed clear gaze into something else.  It has to.

Because along with innocence comes vulnerability and this is dangerous.  While we long to cherish it, children themselves are desperate to get rid of it.  My four year old, terrified of the garbage truck, used to run in hollering every time it appeared: this great fearsome thing churning up the dust in the alley, making a terrible racket as it flung the bins around like some kind of monster from outer space.  He’d be frantic and hide behind my legs.  This is a fond memory for me.  Not the being scared part, but his rock-hard conviction of extreme danger and my ability to protect him gave me such a feeling of purpose.   But for him it was a moment of exposure, fear, and while he would also come to understand the protective function of “mother,” as he grew into a young man the idea that he needed his mother’s protection would become anathema.

And so it goes.  The times when I felt so needed and useful, sitting up nights with illnesses, emergency room visits, first cars that crashed, first cigarettes taken away.  Or maybe things got heavy.  Drugs, heartbreak, tantrums and forgiveness, mistakes, parental humanity--perhaps the scariest thing of all-- crashing through.  As a mother all your hero moments are the moments in which your children were the most vulnerable.  They don’t want to remember that. They want what we all want: self-confidence, self-assurance, independence.

Sons, anyway.  Sons are like bear cubs, grown up and gone.  They go out into the world and mark their own territory.  They are loathe to remember a time you had to pull them out of the refuse bin they fell into on the side of the road, hell-bent on retrieving that chicken bone.  

Kids grow older, putting their pasts further and further behind them, and as the childish writing on the Mother’s Day cards changes color and the ceramic bowls and keepsakes they made in kindergarten crack and crumble.  As the color in the photographs fades and my confusion and loudly proclaimed objections to the intractability of time are heeded not at all, I wonder what the fuck happened.  Where did it go? What was it all for?  It did not make me money, bring me fame or reputation.  I am now much as I was before.  Just older, grayer, creakier.

The traffic is terrible at LAX.  It has been all the way down the 105.  At eleven at night there is no reason for it, but then this is L.A.  There never is.  My son’s duffle bag has all his worldly possessions and is wedged into the back seat along with a backpack containing a disassembled computer.  These equal all his worldly possessions.  The duffle always gets searched and it makes him mad; he’s got everything organized just so in there and they fuck it all up.  I try to tell him he might have better luck if his luggage wasn’t army green, but what do I know?

My son would like it better, I think, it would have saved a lot of trouble if he’d just hopped out of the passenger seat with a peck on the cheek, but I’m not having it.  I want a full standing up body hug.  I want to take his smell, his height, the feel of his whiskers, his slouch, his preternaturally focused bearing.  It’s a lot like his father’s, but friendlier, easier.  I want to take enough in to hold me until I see him again, an impossible task.

He rambles through the airport doors.  He’s thinking about Stockholm, Amsterdam.  All the places he’ll go and the people he’ll meet.

His world is becoming.  Mine is remembering.  Tears roll down my face all the way home.  The 105 West is clear.  The August air smells of car exhaust and heat.


Catherine O’Sullivan, August 2014

Friday, August 15, 2014

Why PETA is Being Dumb about Sea World

When I was younger I had a housemate who had a dog.  Barney was a gangly retriever mix: a rambunctious, untrained pain in the neck.  Since my housemate lacked both the time and willingness to train him she resolved to get rid of him. 

This was back when hippies were real hippies, not the ersatz kind we have now.  Accordingly, they were mostly dumb and drug-addled.  Some of them were arrogant as hell.  They believed, for example, that just because the Vietnam War was finally over, they must have had something to do with it.  Nixon had been forced to quit and they took credit for that too.  Most significantly they figured out if you took the baloney off a sandwich and put avocado on it, not only did you appear more virtuous (see: Love Animals Don’t Eat Them), but had invented a new kind of tasty lunch.

So my housemate, her fierce belief in “natural” things reinforced no doubt by both avocado and alfalfa sprouts, decided to turn Barney loose in the wild.  The problem was that we lived in Los Angeles and the only “wild” she knew was Topanga Canyon, a brambled rolling land of sagebrush covered hills punctuated  by ramshackle houses occupied mostly by more hippies and possums.  Hopefully, someone found Barney and rescued him.  But it is more likely he was run over or starved to death.  He could no more have caught a possum than flown to Mercury.

This is the problem I have with PETA and its insistence that Sea World release its captive orcas.  I’m not on Sea World’s side.  I worked at a marine park with two captive orca whales in the late 1970’s and from the first day I saw them in that tiny 500,000 gallon tank, which sounds like a lot of water, but isn’t when you consider the fact that the bigger whale was actually slightly longer than the depth of the tank so his tail flukes were curved at the ends, you get the picture. 

Everybody knew that situation was wrong.  I asked an old keeper one day whether he thought those animals would every get out of that tiny tank and he said, “only in pieces, Catherine.” (fortunately, that did not come to pass.)  When the female had babies, they starved to death.  She couldn’t nurse them.  There were several theories as to why.  One was that being on her own, no one had ever taught her how.  Orca whales, which live in matriarchal pods, are highly social animals and they learn just about everything from other whales.  Another idea was that since the pool was round and she couldn’t really straighten out, her calves couldn’t get into a nursing position.  The problem has been solved at Sea World and it has successfully raised many orca calves, which is good because at this point the animal loving public would raise holy hell if it began snatching baby whales from the wild again.

PETA’s answer to the Sea World problem however, is na├»ve at best and moronic at worst.  Let’s take a look at the only example we have of humans trying to rehabilitate and release a lifelong captive orca:  Keiko.
In the early nineteen-nineties production began for a movie called “Free Willy.”  It was about a kid who makes friends with a captive orca and resolves to get him back into the wild.  Most of the whales in “Free Willy” were animatronic, but inevitably the studio needed a real whale for a few shots.  Like all movie productions “Free Willy” had a limited budget and needed to get the cheapest whale they could find. They found him in a rundown dump of a seaquarium in Mexico.  He was two-thousand pounds underweight, had a nasty skin condition—the result of living in warm Mexican waters instead of the cooler waters of his native seas—and was overall in extremely poor health. 

The movie was a minor hit with the kids and somewhere along the line questions arose that would lead to one of the greatest let’s-put-our-money-where-our-mouths-are experiments of all time.  There was no choice.  Keiko had to be removed from that situation, but because of his skin condition he could not simply be purchased by another Sea Park.  No one knew whether it was contagious or not, and nobody wanted to risk putting him in with other valuable captive orcas.

The “Free Willy/Keiko Foundation” was formed.  Keiko underwent 2 years of rehabilitation in Oregon.  He had been captured in Iceland as a baby in 1979, and when he was healthy again he was transported by cargo plane back to his home waters.  He was trained to eat live food—having been fed dead fish from buckets for most of his life the change was something he had to get used to—taken on numerous open ocean swims, (accompanied by his caretakers in a boat)—and after being tagged with a tracking device, released into his native seas. 

Some wrongs simply cannot be righted and as humane as its motives no doubt were, The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation did not succeed.  Keiko did not, as was hoped, re-integrate with his family pod.  He did not speak their language, having never had the chance to learn it. Three weeks after his release he was found in a Norwegian fjord seeking human companionship and letting little kids ride on his back.  On December 12, 2003 he was found dead in Taknes Bay, Norway.  The cause of death was pneumonia, common in starving marine mammals.  Without a thick blubber layer they get as cold as we would if dumped in icy Icelandic seas.  They are warm blooded animals.

The cost of freeing Willy/Keiko, a project that took nearly ten years, was over twenty-million dollars and it was a failure.  He could not readapt to the wild any more that Barney the dog could have.  He did not know how to be a Killer Whale.  The sea is a wondrous but harsh place.  Thriving there takes a lifetime of learning and practice.

Sea World currently owns 29 captive orca whales, which have lived their entire lives in captivity.  Many have been born there.  The question becomes, if some grand hand were to come down and demand it release its animals, who would pay for it and more importantly, is there a chance in hell it would even work?  If it didn’t, could the suffering imposed upon real animals by uninformed ideologues be greater than the suffering they already endure?  These are valid questions.  These animals are not just used to captivity.  They are functionally dependent on it. 

Dramatic solutions often look great and make us feel virtuous, but in the case of captive orcas at Sea World, or at any other marine parks and believe me, there are a lot of them worse than Sea World, isn’t it better to put pressure on such organizations to phase out their captive breeding programs thereby eventually stopping the practice of keeping such large and majestic animals in captivity in the first place?

Sometimes, as it goes in life, mistakes are simply compounded.  The first captive orca was Namu, caught in 1965, made to live in a small sea pen in the Pacific Northwest.  He lasted one year in captivity before he died.  That’s not to say they didn’t try.  When he seemed lonely they even caught him a mate and called her Shamu, the performing name of every orca whale Sea World owns.


Maybe it’s time we admitted our mistake and simply turned around.  But like anything that takes years in the making, the solution will not happen overnight.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Wit, Depression and Robin Williams

Robin Williams killed himself yesterday.  This probably didn’t come as a surprise to people who knew him well.  He’d been in and out of rehab several times and endured a life long struggle with substance abuse and depression.

I have thought about wit many times.  Mostly because so few people have it.  Many quote jokes, smile, laugh as a form of social engagement and enjoyment and have occasional witty moments, but chronic wit is rare and those afflicted live troubled and conflicted lives.  Groucho Marx destroyed most of the people close to him.  He couldn’t turn off his scathing humor regardless of any love he might have felt for the people at whom it was directed.  The joke, barb, the surgically precise observations continually burst through, shredding anyone in its path.  He made several wives miserable and died a lonely and exploited old man.  

Richard Pryor, a first class wit by any measure was miserable, angry and violent.  There would have been no “Blazing Saddles” without Pryor—Mel Brooks, as funny as he was, was bolstered and advised throughout by Mr. Pryor.  Those of us who witnessed his stand-up in its heyday remember being shocked into speechless insensibility as he talked about his past in whorehouses and on the streets, turning the fact that he grew up under miserable circumstances into a brand new kind of comedy.  Richard Pryor rarely pulled a punch and he made us laugh like hell.  He also eventually set himself on fire then proceeded to die miserably over a period of twenty years.

The ability to see the world, to remain intimate with the horror and cruelty of it devoid of sugar-coating, then spin it into something that makes us laugh, comes at great cost.  Most of us filter realities' harshest barbs with conclusions, belief, mindsets and philosophies thereby remaining at least partially buffered.  Dawn Powell said, “wits are never happy people.  The anguish that has scraped their nerves and left them raw to every flicker of life is the base of wit—for the raw nerve reacts at once without any agent, the reaction direct with no integumentary obstacles.”

True wit is a razor’s edge.  Rosanne Barr was funniest when she’d just got out of the trailer park, the same goes for Whoopi Goldberg when she was on welfare.  Both situations were exceedingly painful: children, no money, desperation saddled with roaring intellectual acuity that never stops collecting information, sharpening it, and presenting it back in particular brands of stark relief.  But this stark relief provides both insight and pain.  The act of turning the pain on its head is the very thing that makes it funny. 

One of the most quoted lines of Groucho Marx, that he’d never want to be a member of a club that would have him as a member, isn’t what people think.  Back in the 1930’s the best and most exclusive social clubs disallowed Jews.  That’s what Groucho was talking about. As a Jew, no matter how famous or rich he was he could not get into the best social clubs.  Anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, these are all the rich veins from which comedy comes.  

They’re also extremely painful.

Dave Chappelle walked away.  Everybody thought he was nuts.  In truth, he was probably the sanest comedian ever to come down the pike.

I don’t know what Robin Williams’ personal demons were.  I’m sad that he’s dead.  He made me laugh more times than I can count.  But maybe what killed him was a function of who he was, the way he saw the world and spun it into humor as told to us.  And maybe for all he said, it’s the things he didn’t say that killed him, the leftovers, the things we were spared.


How very tragic that he could not spare himself. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Evolution of Sideboob
                 Noisy USC students celebrating something.  Who knows what?  The twenty-something blond with the broad back flashes serious sideboob.   That in itself is not worthy of celebration.  It is a side dish.  We are in a Tapas bar.
Sideboob is a twenty-first century invention.  Thousands of generations of women all over the world have launched endless assaults with cleavage, but sideboob is only just emerging.
                “Don’t be so obvious!”  My dining companion’s head pivots 180 degrees like Jerry Manhoney’s and when it comes back around his mouth is hanging open.  “Pretend like you’re looking at the wine list.”  The wine list is chalked up on the board behind the revelers.  They have Verdugo and Andalusio, and Toro and Spaino and loads of other vintages all from the sun soaked plains of that land overseas that just missed inventing tortillas.  It could have become a great civilization but for that. 
                He gives it another go.  The Catalonia Picado is a very spicy vintage, no doubt, and man holy shit, you can almost see nipple.  Blond locks flowing, hiding the knot at the neck of the flimsy black halter dress with a back so low it’s possible there’s no dress at all.
                Something happens.  The students roar.  Their conversation is mostly roars.  “The scallops are really good,” hollers my companion.  I cup both ears like a radio dish trying to receive faint signals from outer space.  Roar, roar and more roar.  The scallops, grilled in a number of things I’ve never heard of before, include carrot goo.   I order them.
                Sideboob cuddles her boyfriend, flesh barely teasing his upper arm.  She whoops about something and I don’t blame her.  Young, well-fed and cared for as if raised on a farm for beautiful girls, she should be whooping about everything.  The world that unfolds for her is not the same one the rest of us muck around in.  It welcomes and embraces her gently and lovingly.  Everybody in it is “nice.”  It puts its coat over puddles in the road lest she dirty her Italian slave sandals.
                Historically, women have been looking for ways to both show and not show their breasts for millennia.  The dilemma first presented itself back in caveman times when someone with big, well-formed breasts got the best guy in the place.  He really liked those breasts but he liked them so much he didn’t want any of the other guys to get a look at them, even though most of them already had.  The “best” guy in the place wasn’t necessarily the smartest.  He was just the best at hunting, running, all that.
                “Now that you’re going to live in my cave,” said the Best Caveman, “you’ve gotta cover those things up.”
                The Best Caveman’s woman was not thrilled by this pronouncement.  She had a baby who ate ten times a day and putting a yak pelt on and off all day long seemed like a big pain to her.   Those suckers are heavy.
                People say a lot of bad things about cavemen, that they’re domineering, short-tempered, inclined to club women in the head and drag them around by the hair, which is mostly true, but this one was pretty reasonable.
                “What if,” said the Cavewoman thinking on her feet, “I cut a ‘V’ in the top of the yak pelt.  That way when the baby needs to eat, I can just reach down and whip out a breast and when I’m finished, put it back.”
                This idea caused the Best Caveman some consternation.  It made sense, but there was still so much wrong with it.  A full time crew-neck yak shirt was a heavy burden to bear, which wasn’t really fair to the Cavewoman, the ‘V’ would allow for easy access, but damn!  It would still allow all the other cavemen to see the creamy smoothness of the tops of her breasts.  But wait, were those parts even a big deal?  When both he and the baby were having at those magical orbs, they went straight for the nipples.  It occurred to the Best Caveman that maybe, just maybe, those were the only parts that really mattered.
                “Okay, fair enough,” said the Best Caveman.  “But if you whip those things out when the second best caveman is around I’ll club you insensible.
                “Fair enough,” said the Best Caveman’s woman.
                Over the centuries, women have found hundreds, perhaps thousands of ways to exploit this initial, and for reasons unknown, definitive masculine decree.  The Roman’s, generally ignorant of Stone age humanity and anybody’ else’s but their own, allowed massive cleavage on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, none on Tuesday and Thursday, and on the weekends changed the rules without telling anybody. This occurred only after the invention of the Julian calendar.  During the dark ages most people were starving and women actually had concave breasts, so nobody cared.  But by the time the European Renaissance rolled around there was bustiered, corseted, wired, strapped, and default cleavage on display and in abundance.
 The Victorians got goosey about breasts, but that high-necked, bowed and lacey nonsense made everybody miserable and by the time the 20th century rolled around women were beginning to rediscover the fact that cleavage was an enormously powerful tool in making men act the way you wanted them to.  Cleavage displayed correctly could poleaxe most anything with 1 “X” chromosome, makes them buy you drinks and eventually say “yes,” when you wanted new furniture for the living room.
                But then something happened that no one had anticipated.  Breast implants.  Breast implants made cleavage so common it got boring.  Tits and fannies began to look alike.   Everybody had massive cleavage: children, fat boys, young girls, old girls.  There were fifty and sixty year old women walking around with the tits of 25 year olds. Rich people got their dogs breast implants.  Someone simply had to come up with a better idea.  That’s when the the genius of this latest generation comes in. 
While breast implants look great from the top, all round and symmetrical, from the side those suckers look lousy!  From the side they look like, well, blobs of manufactured plastic.  Fact is, you can’t fake awesome side boob.
                The table of USC students roars again.  Roar roar roar roar.  Someone’s ordered a round of drinks, something extremely nasty and pink colored.  It’s either watered down Nyquil or something Spanish nobody’s ever heard of.   My dinner arrives.  The scallops are decoratively arranged on a bed of carrot goo and grilled to perfection.

They are delicious.