Monday, October 31, 2016

If Cousin Pookie Could Vote...

I was a "page" (an usher)  at the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco.  Me and my 80 or so "page"-compadre's beat out hundreds of young hopefuls to get these coveted spots that paid $40.00 per day (minus your uniform rental) plus lunch.   I'll never forget entering the Moscone Center that first day before they loaded in the delegates.  The air was electric with the sound of "mic-checks" and  shoe heels clicking on the hard floor between the carpet-aisles.  I was given the great honor of guarding the section directly next to Coretta Scott King and her four children, Martin Luther King III, Yolanda King, Bernice King and Dexter Scott King.   On July 18, 1984,  I stood at my post (in my standard-issue burgundy blazer) and watched tearily as Jesse Jackson delivered his emotional, keynote address on poverty and power.  Dexter Scott King, who sat on the end of the row, saw my tears and offer me a handkerchief (no one had ever given me an actual linen hanky before, I didn't know whether I should have given it back or not after I'd used it).  
"You're most welcome," he said after I'd thanked him and handed the hanky back to him.
I was struck by his speaking voice — it was so eerily like his father's.  I couldn't bring myself to look at him and yet I couldn't stop staring at all of them.  I was standing next to Black-American royalty.  They were all so regal and elegant.  
As the convention-day ended, I was small-talking with another page from across the aisle ( I don't remember her name) and someone walked over to us from the King "row" and invited the two of us to a gathering at nearby hotel suite where Jackson himself was to be the guest of honor.  
We both squealed "Yes!" and squeezed each other's hands not believing our good fortune.  We had been chosen!
I was 19-year's old.  
Hours later, I found myself in the suite with 40 or so other invited guests. My blazer and purse were thrown casually on an entrance-sofa piled high with coats and bags.  I was perched on the arm of Dexter Scott King's leather chair, (at his invitation)  listening intently and respectfully as Coretta Scott King and Jesse Jackson traded stories about marching for voter's rights in 1960. I kept looking around in complete disbelief.  

Here I am in a room full of people whose skin color had actually prevented them from even voting just 20-year's earlier.  And yet, these very same people have affected more change in the last 20 years than most people do in several lifetimes.

And hours earlier, these same legendary men and women had stood at the podium of a convention that selected the man (and woman!) who would compete to be elected to the nation's, nay —  the world's most powerful office.  
My mind was blown and I was on fire.

After the convention ended, I immediately volunteered to canvass door-to-door for the then-Democratic nominees,  Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. Until that day in the hotel suite, I'd never believed that any action on my part could really make a difference.  That night, listening to Coretta Scott King and Mr. Jackson, I realized that not only did my actions matter, but that my IN-actions mattered as well.  Not voting was a vote for the opposition.  Not campaigning was campaigning for opposition.  My vote matters, my voice matters.  I learned that it's not only possible to make a difference -- my vote, my actions could make the difference.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1988 and set about campaigning for Dukakis and Bentsen.  Texas Governor, Ann Richards, had delivered the keynote speech at that year's convention and inspired all of us democrats to go out and "spread the word!"  I showed up the next day at the store-front registrar's office on Wilshire and La Brea, got a clip board with 50 sheets attached to it and was given a neighborhood to canvass.  
I started at 9:00 am and went door-to-door for five hours that first day.  
"Hi, my name is Laura Cathcart!  Are you registered to vote?"
The second day I started at noon and stopped at 5:00pm.  The following day I started at 11:00 and went until just before 4:00pm.  
Almost no one in that mostly White and Asian, Hancock Park neighborhood opened their door for me, I had to hand in an almost-empty single sheet at the end of the week.  

In 1992, I felt the most hopeful about any election so far.  Bill Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, were getting people excited!  
Humming "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," I strolled back in to the registrar's office to see if I could set-up a booth at The Fox Hills Mall.
"Good luck registering voters over there," said the bored looking woman, who handed me my "Register to Vote Here" sign.   
I smiled and nodded back enthusiastically, thanking her.
"I don't think I'll need luck!" I shouted over my shoulder on the way out.
Even if she wasn't, I was confident that these two men could end the 8-year Republican hold on the white house.  They really seemed to understand and care.  And I was positive that there were people in THAT district who felt the same way.  

I bet I'll have a long line!  I should probably set up near the food court...

3 discouraging 4-hour-days (and several Hot Dog on A-Stick meals) later, I turned in two sheets with 16 scribbled names, illegible, partial addresses and some drug dealer's pager number (meant for me).  I was defeated and humiliated.  

This S#@# is so hard!  Don't people know what's at stake?  Don't they know about the blood, sweat and tears shed so that we could have this privilege?

I married Brian in 1997 and in the year 2000 he and I were invited to a friend's house to hear then-President Clinton speak.  He was touring the country stumping for Vice President, Gore.  Miles was 2-year's old and Justin was just a few month's old (maybe 6?).  
It was a magical night.  President Clinton played the saxophone and made his own dinner plate from the soul food buffet. Eric Clapton and our host, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds played "Change the World" on their guitars.
As the evening ended, I walked up to President Clinton and told him that I'd been campaigning for the democratic party for the past 17-years.  And for 17-year's all I'd really known is that I didn't want the republicans to be in power.  
"But tonight, listening to you, I finally understand why I'm a democrat," I said.  "Thank you for your service to our country and for helping me see so clearly what is possible."

I was inspired again.  I held faith even as former Vice President, Gore lost his Supreme Court "chad" battle (that still makes me sad).  I weathered the storm of the eight "W" White House years that propelled us head-long into the recession (from which we're still laboriously extracting ourselves).  In 2007, hope came alive again (for me) when then-Senator and Presidential nominee, Barack Obama, gave a speech at an event to commemorate the 42nd Anniversary of the Voting Rights March.  He was joined by then-New York Senator, Hillary Clinton, her husband Bill and Congressman  John Lewis. In that memorable speech, he talked about the history that had lead us as a country to time where people had to risk being hosed-down, shot and/or trampled in order to continue to march for a right that was actually already afforded to them by the US constitution.  
"If Cousin Pookie could vote," he said toward the end of speech, "get off of the couch and register some folks to go to the polls, we might have a different kind of politics."


If Cousin Pookie could vote...

I thought that the 2008 and the 2012 presidential elections were the most important elections, in which I would EVER cast a vote. But I think I was wrong. This one here -- this match up on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, may indeed be the most important election in my lifetime. Scottie and I had the honor and privilege of seeing Bill Clinton this past spring, stumping for his wife (amazing thing! He vividly remembered so many details about the night that I'd met him 16-year's earlier!). Bill broke it down for the small crowd at our friend's home and explained how incredibly crucial this election was — and how vital the right choice was to our collective futures. I heard him that evening and fell in love with this election process all over again.

My vote will make a difference.

And for the first time in a presidential election year since 1984, I won't be going to the polls alone. My son, Miles turned 18 in February, making him eligible for Selective Services (oy)!, eligible for jury duty (after high school) and last but certainly not least, making him eligible to vote.

Last month, I asked him if he wanted to do his ballot early and mail it in.

He took so long to answer that I looked up from what I was reading with a questioning look. He was staring at me as though he had something to say.

"What?" I heard the crispness in my voice.

"I don't want to vote by mail," he said slowly. " I want to go with you, Mom. I can be late for school. But this is important, Mom, right? I want to cast my ballot in person in my first election."

But you have a civil rights test first period on Tuesday and you have an English project to turn in that can't be late..

I opened my mouth and then shut it again quickly.

I gently put my hand on the back of his head. His hair was growing out from the previous week's haircut. I could feel the downy new growth on the nearly shaved-clean nape of his neck.

"You're right Miles -- you should vote in person. And yes, you can be late for school that day. And yes, you're right, this is really, really important."

So, Miles and I are planning to cast our votes for president of the United States and all of the equally important "down ticket" races and ballot-measures just as soon as the polls open on Tuesday, November 8.

And I sincerely hope that "Cousin Pookie" and all of his kinfolk will be voting that day as well.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Marriage is a Piece of Paper

I was walking up the escalator at The Galleria (yes, walking.  I don't like to just "ride" up escalators — it makes me anxious, I need to be moving) and I saw a younger-than-me, Black guy from the corner of my eye walking up quickly behind me as if to pass me.  But instead of passing me he stood on the escalator-stair just below me and said in a soft voice.
"Don't be afraid, please."
This, of course, put me on high alert.  I slowly turned my head and glanced at him to see if he looked crazy.  But he just looked curious.  He was shorter than me, brown-skinned, had a pleasant face and close-cropped hair.  He was someone I could pass a thousand times on the street and not notice, but in that moment I was keenly aware of his presence.
"I'm not a mind reader," he continued.  
It was a voice you would use if you were trying to coax a kitten toward a saucer of milk.
"But I know that you're going to answer my next question in one of three ways:

1) It's not a good time in your life, so you're emotionally unavailable
2) You have a boyfriend
3) You're married."

He's hitting on me!
I smiled back at him (actually I think I laughed out loud — no one ever hits on me anymore)!
"You're right," I said with as much kindness as I could.  "I do have a boyfriend."
He shook his head and furrowed his brow as if he were pained my admission.  We both exited the escalator and then he turned left to ride the "down" escalator back to the main level.  
Maybe he does this all day long.  Rides up and down the escalator using that same line.
He smiled at me again as he started to descend and said in a louder voice, "Well, I'm glad you're not married.  Maybe that means I'll still have a chance one day."
I then found myself in an all too familiar position: Feeling the urge to defend my relationship.

But he's not just my boyfriend!  He's the man with whom I'm choosing to spend my life.  And P.S., the word "boyfriend" isn't code for: I'm waiting for someone to come and "wife me!"

I opened my mouth (to say what, I don't know.  I didn't actually want to have that conversation with a stranger and plus, he was halfway down by then).  But instead I just waved goodbye nervously and turned right toward Burke Williams.

The following week, Scottie called the gas company to come by and check out an ominous smell in our kitchen.  Scottie had to leave for a workout so I stayed home to wait for them.  The gentleman who showed up was a strange, little dark-skinned guy with round eyes and razor bumps on his face and neck.  And 20-minutes later (after verifying that there was no gas leak) our courteous conversation took an odd turn.

"So, you said your boyfriend is the one who placed the call for us to come out?"
"That's right."
"Well, I'm just going to say it," he threw is short arms in the air above his head.  "He's messing up!"
"I'm," I faltered, "I'm sorry?"
"He's messing up!  He should have married you by now for sure!  How long have you been living together?"
I side-stepped his question as I started walking toward the front hallway, eyeing the knife holder on the kitchen-counter next to him (one..two..three giant steps away)! I counted silently.
"So, is this your last stop today?" I put my right hand on the front door knob, twisting it silently before pulling the door open. I held my cell phone in my free hand.
"I'm just saying — he's messing up," I saw foamy, yellow, spittle in the corners of his mouth as he shuffled by me on to the porch.
"Men don't know what they have, you know?" he continued as he walked backwards down the front stairs, keeping eye contact with me.  
"But if you ask me, he's a fool to let a woman like you slip through his fingers!"
I forced a polite smile before I said goodbye.  Once I was sure that he was gone, I pressed my back against the door and breathed out a sigh of relief.
What the F*@#%?!  He was totally triggered by the lack of a diamond on my left hand!

There are about 35 words in Webster's thesaurus for marriage.  There about half that many for divorce.  But there are no known synonyms for unmarried.   I'd like a synonym you see, because the word "unmarried" doesn't cut it for me.  I need another box to check.  I have a boyfriend, we're in love and we live together so we're choosing to be unmarried life-partners.  Where's that box?

So, here's the deal - Scottie and I have made a conscious choice not to be married.  We both had long-term marriages before, we've each had two children who are now in their teens (well, Nora will be a teen in March)!, and we've both been through the pain of divorce.  We found each other at a very tender time — we were early in our respective recoveries, I was newly divorced, he had just gone through his 2-year's earlier.  The very fact that we'd had found each other at all seemed (and seems) miraculous to us both.  We are mindful of the fact that what we have is unusual.  It is love without a price tag or an agenda.   And truth be told, Scottie tells me all the time he would marry me.  We've daydreamed a bunch about what that would be like, what having kids would be like, what our lives would look like — married.  But in the end we just really love what we have (and plus I'm 52 - and I ain't birthin' no babies)!.  
Why tinker with this magic that is our relationship?  Who gets this the second time around?  That's kind of where we are.

So why would it legitimize our relationship to the escalator guy or the creepy gas company guy if Scottie would "put ring on it?"  Why isn't our loving, thoughtful, respectful and at times, wildly romantic relationship "legit" just as it is?

And it's not just the creeps (and seemingly)  nice guys on escalators.  But it is also our community of loving friends who seem to be waiting for Scottie and I to "upgrade" our relationship status.

"When are you guys getting married?"
"Maybe you'll get married when the kids graduate?"
"Do you think you guys will EVER get married?"
"Awww, that's too bad," (when I answer that we're not planning to get married).


But okay, I understand.  I do.  You guys (our friends) are rooting for us.  You see it too — what we have.  You want us to succeed.  I get that.  I also get that for some of you — maybe loving somebody as much as we do — as obviously as we do, means having a wedding ceremony and a marriage license (which, also means having your individual assets become community property - unless you have a prenup).  I know that there is security in marriage.  I took great comfort in it when I got married to Brian in 1997. Getting married was evidence to the world at-large that we loved each other enough to commit to our relationship on paper and take vows of devotion and fidelity in front of our friends and families.
But the thing is that Scottie and I are secure without the vows, signed-papers or ceremonies.  At the moment, we don't feel as though we need any additional reassurances from each other.  And we're not taking this lightly.  On the contrary, we entered this "union" reverently, advisedly and soberly.   We waited for 6-years before we moved into together (we REALLY wanted to be sure)!.  And right from the beginning, we've always set-aside romantic time for each other on a regular basis (vacations, movies, plays, dinners, concerts. Etc).   And although my intention is to grow old with Scottie, I'm open to whatever happens. We're living this life of ours day-to-day, hand-in-hand.

"But what if one of you leaves just because things get a little rough?" asked the same friend who sent the text in the picture.  "When you're married, it really makes you think twice before walking away from someone."
"But that's what I love the best!" I said excitedly.  
"I don't ever HAVE to be with Scottie.  I am only with him because I love him and I really want to with him.  There is no obligation in what he and I have.  To me - that's the real beauty of it.  I light up the moment he walks in to a room.  Not just to make him happy or because I want to appear the 'dutiful girlfriend' - I light up simply because he lights me up.  I stay because I want to stay — and he stays for the same reasons."

And to be perfectly honest, I get a little resentful when people feel sorry for me because we're not married.  I know it makes it harder for you to put us in a box.  But please, we're good -- really.  And if one day we find ourselves feeling like we want to take vows in front of our friends to honor what we have together, then we will.  But right now, no judgement or pity required.  We're are blissfully unmarried partners, boyfriend/girlfriend, choosing to share our lives with the other.

And although I don't need a ring, Hon. I wouldn't say no to one or two Cartier "Love" bracelets.  Christmas is coming...!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

An Open Letter to Robert

Dear Robert,

I get it.  I hated the questions, the innuendos, the assumptions about what kind of mother I was or wasn't when I came back from treatment in August of 2008.  I had to endure narrow-eyed clucks of disapproval when I spoke honestly about the choices that I'd made.  I was humiliated and ashamed every day of that first year.  I felt guilty and at times I felt unworthy.  Sometimes I believed what they said, that I'd let my family down, that I'd failed both my marriage and my children.

In October of that same year, I happened upon two acquaintances whispering excitedly about some woman who'd just come back from rehab and destroyed her marriage.
"What kind of mother does that?" said one with her back to me. "Isn't anyone thinking about those poor kids?"
The one facing me got quiet and cast her eyes downward with a slight head nod toward me.
Instantly, the air became unflavored gelatin.  Every gesture and blink of the eye looked almost comedically slow. I was suddenly overcome by the cloyingly sweet smell of the patchouli oil that was the signature scent of the woman facing me.
I can still see the expression on her face.  It still makes my heart wince. It still hurts to breathe.
I'm the kind of mother that does that.  They're talking about me....
But the crazy part is that before they were alerted to my presence, I kind of felt myself nodding with them.
Yeah, for real? What kind of mother does do that? Those poor kids...

We are a society that says it believes that people are capable of change (prisons are supposed to be correctional or rehabilitation facilities, right?)  We are a society that boasts of tolerance and inclusion.  We say, "Yes! — Your life matters," We say, "Yes! You were born that way, We say "Yes! "Families come in all shapes and sizes."  But when the rubber meets the road, do we really mean it?  It seems to me that my family structure  just the way it is now is seen by some "happily married" folk as a cautionary tale — something to be avoided at all costs. Do people really not only accept but applaud parents who bravely go the unconventional route when it comes to raising their families? Or do they secretly judge the parents who have to make those hard choices?

Robert,  (it feels funny to call you Robert.  Remember I used to always call you Archie and you called me Veronica?)  But anyway, Robert, you never met my ex-husband, Brian, but you heard me talk about him. You know how hard he and I work to keep our promise to our kids that we would remain a family after our divorce.  But there's no getting around the fact that our family changed after he moved out.   Okay, so yes — our kids have to do the dreaded "transition" from one household to another every week.  And Miles and Justin had to get used to Brian and I each loving other people.   Those were and are the facts of our lives.  But those facts didn't and don't make it tragic.   If you ask me, divorce doesn't have to be the end of a family.  It can be (in some cases)  an opportunity to create a new and improved family unit.  Mine looks like this:

Household one: Me, Scottie, Miles, Justin (and Venus and Serena)
Household two: Brian, Tracy, Stella (Brooklyn and his soon-to-be-here little brother, Pork chop)
Household three: Scottie's daughters, Lily and Nora

So, Robert,  It took a while, but I think we've figured out something that works for us.  

I know that you and Scottie were grateful to have found each other in 2009.  You bonded over the fact that you were both in early recovery and you were both newly divorced.  But mainly you bonded over your desire to spend more time with your daughters (his two and your one).  Earlier that year, Scottie had discovered that his ex-wife was looking at rental properties in Stowe, Vermont, (for she and Lily and Nora) so that she could be closer to her boyfriend who lives there.  And while your ex-wife was here in Los Angeles, she wasn't too keen on your ideas about co-parenting.  I remember how painful that was for you.  
But remember those summers in Manhattan Beach?  Scottie would rent that beach house so that Lily and Nora could build sunny, sandy, salt-water memories of "summers with dad."  You and your daughter were woven into the fabric of those days.  The photographs you took of Lily, Nora and your daughter on that beach during those summers are still some of our favorites.  

It was partly due to those discussions with you on the deck of that house (and by the pool of The Sportsmen's Lodge where all you guys all hung out when Scottie didn't have the beach house), that led Scottie to the conclusion that he couldn't uproot himself from his recovery community in order to chase his kids to Stowe - no matter how much it pained him to say goodbye to them at the airport in August every year.  He knew that his job was to take care of himself first and then make sure his kids knew how much he loved them so he could be that SAFE place for them.  And he was that safe place then, just as he is that safe place now.  

You and I both understood that by putting his recovery first, Scottie could be the kind of dad that his daughter's deserved.  But just like I felt listening to that conversation (when I returned from my shameful 28 days "away" that August), Scottie felt and feels the pressure from society to be a different kind of dad.  People have actually said to his face that they "resented him" for not moving to Stowe to be closer to his kids.  After a meeting one time, a man huffed away from a conversation with Scottie declaring loudly that, "You are NOT the kind of dad I want to be."
To say that Scottie was devastated is an understatement.  Like me, he questioned all of his decisions those first couple of years.  He was honest about the choices he had made, and in my opinion, society penalized him for it.  
Why would it be better for Scottie to leave his foundation and go live in a small ski town with a couple of "program meetings" per week  and no career prospects -- just to be geographically closer to his daughters?  Why would that assure people that he was more invested in being a father than the path he chose? Which is, by the way, the same path my own father chose.  My dad and I have lived thousands of miles away from each other most of my life and I have never seen a man more dedicated to making his daughter feel loved, secure and adored — that is, until I met Scottie.

Before I started writing this, I found dozens of articles on what makes a good father.  Each one of them assumed that the father lived with full-time with his children.  They were mostly things like "changing diapers," "reading bedtime stories," or being the "snack-dad." But not one of them mentioned sacrifice.  Like, "A good daddy makes the sacrifice of actually living apart from his kids IF it might makes things easier for his kids."  
Lord knows divorce is painful enough.  But I find that a lot of parents will force their ideals on the family during a divorce so they (the parent) can look good or feel better about themselves.  But is that what's always better for the family?  Is that what's always better for the children?   I know a few moms and dads who have made the painful sacrifice of stepping away from their families when it seemed like staying would do their kids more harm than good.  Not one of the articles I read mention how much love is required for parents like Scottie to put his kids on plane after one of those month-long visits with a smile on his face. Or for you to drop your daughter back at her mother's place and cheerfully wave goodbye from the bottom of the steps.
I guess we're not there yet, where families can look like, "Dad lives 3000 miles away but he's still a great dad!" or a mother's contribution can be important and valued even when they don't live with their children.  Not just because of how they contribute to raising their children, but because of what they sacrificed by not being the primary care-giver.  Don't get me wrong (or send me angry comments — please!) I'm not saying that all non-custodial parents are making a sacrifice by not being with their kids full-time -- but Scottie is and Robert, you were too. And I don't know if you knew this, but Scottie took Lily on her first college interview here in Los Angeles this summer (can you believe she's already a senior?!?) .  And Nora, (who's now in 7th grade) flew out here by herself for the first time this July and traveled up the coast with him to meet us in Oregon for our annual Robbins/Slaughter family vacation.  

Whatever anyone else thought or thinks - Scottie's relationship with his daughters is truly inspirational.  He waited, he did the work and as a result, he is that safe place for them.  They know they are loved.  And conversely, it fills me with sharp, bitter, sorrow to think that your contribution to your daughter's life could have be seen by some as "expendable".  
It wasn't.  Your contribution to her life was essential.  Everyone who knew you knew how much you loved her.  And because you had to give up so much (your home, your beloved career in music, your recovery and finally your visitations with your daughter) you let some family court judge, your ex-wife or perhaps even society at large take away the one thing that you did NOT have to give up, Robert  - HOPE.  Hope that no matter how bleak things looked, you could stay steady in your recovery and continue to grow and evolve so you could be that safe place for your daughter when the time came.  She is 15-year's old now.  In three years she would have been able to decide for herself whether or not she wanted to be part of your life.  But now she'll never have that choice.  Maybe you feel like "they" put the gun in your hand that day almost two-week's ago, but it was you who made the decision to pull the trigger. A wise woman once told me there's never only one way.   I wish that you'd known then that there were solutions to your suffering.  But I know that you couldn't see any other option when you made that fateful decision.  I believe that you believed yourself to making the ultimate sacrifice  -- for her.  And I know, as you said, that you were very, very tired.

Well, we are all the worse for your absence, Robert.  What ever you felt, what ever you thought —  what ever told you that your daughter would be better off without you was an abomination of the truth.  You are missed.  And I for one, am sickened by the notion that had you found more compassion from our "society at large," then you and I might be having this conversation in person, instead of me writing you an open letter.  I know that you tried, Robert.  I know that you wanted to be that safe place for her.  You once shared with me that all you ever wanted was to be a better father to her.  But I would have known that without you ever having to say a word.  We all knew what she meant to you  -- and the people who loved you will do our best to make sure that's what we remember about you.  Not how you died, but the kind of father that were to your daughter.

Rest in peace, Archie.


Footnote:  A women named Allison Ellis wrote a beautiful blog entitled, Why My Dad Committed Suicide.  I think it tells the story exquisitely of the daughter who is left behind.  Please read it if you're able.  It might help put some of this tragedy in perspective.