Friday, March 31, 2017


I was always thin.  Too thin in my teens and early twenties.  To compensate, I ate everything I could get my hands on.  Double cheese grilled cheeses and french fries dripping with mayonnaise, ketchup and relish were a daily affair.  I hate(d) water, so instead I chose McDonald's chocolate milkshakes and 7/11 Big Gulps (Pepsi).  At night I would cook up my version of sloppy joes in a sauce pan (burger meat, cream sauce and lots grated jack and cheddar cheese, served on an english muffin, slathered with butter and mayonnaise). My school backpack was always filled with M&M's, Baby Ruth bars and Hostess cupcakes.  I ate and ate and ate and I couldn't gain an ounce. My ninth grade English teacher was the first to diagnose my seemingly dire condition (when I confessed to her in tears that I must, as everyone always joked, indeed have a tape worm, and therefor be dying).

"There's nothing wrong with you, Laura. It's just that you have a really fast metabolism, Honey. Lots of people would kill for it, let me tell you!"

Kill for this?!  But I look like a skeleton!  Why would anyone want to look like this?

I didn't believe her.  I tried desperately to make myself look bigger by wearing multiple layers of tight clothing or baggy clothes that hid my skeletal frame.  Sometimes I felt like I looked okay when I wore two pairs of size double zero Sticky Finger jeans at the same time.  But the true test would come every day at three o'clock when my friends and I had to cross in front of Stubbie's Pool Hall to get from Berkeley High to the local Orange Julius.  The older men hanging out in front would always issue out long, slow, appreciative whistles to every female in the vicinity.  I, on the other hand, (while trying my best to stay hidden in the middle of the pack) would get the occasional "Hey Slim - Yo, yo yo! Say, what's your 'thick' friend's name there with those Levis on?" 

When I was 14,  I started praying (to a God that I wasn't sure existed) to grant me curves like the ones my friends were all getting.  I cared nothing about being healthy or strong.  I just wanted to one of the girls who got the "Stubbies" to whistle.

"Please give me boobs, please give me hips, please, I'll do anything..."

At 16, when I finally started to fill out at bit, I was dismayed to find that my metabolism didn't seem to be slowing down at all.  Yes, I was very pleased with my new bra-size and pants-size (34 B! Size 2!) But, if I skipped one meal, if I failed to eat one of my "in-between-meal-cupcakes" - I was down 3-pounds by morning.  I decided to go back to God.

Please, I'll do anything if I can just hit 120 pounds by my 18th birthday. 

When I woke up on August 27, 1982, I stole in to our small, communal, upstairs bathroom, slipped off my pajamas and slippers and knelt on the floor.  Instantly the cold, water-stained, octagonal tile made angry red lines on my bare kneecaps.  I whispered a quick prayer and then stood up and stepped on the scale, fastening my eyes on my image in the mirror of the medicine cabinet.  

My face looks fuller!  Maybe I'm up this morning!

I bit my lower lip as I waited for the needle to settle in the dial before I looked down.


I stepped off, bitterly disappointed.  

This is never going to end.  No matter what I do, I'm never going to have the body that I want.

*  *  *

My wedding was 4-months away.  I had my dress (actually a corset-top and a princess skirt), invitations had been accepted and the guests had made their entree-choices.  I weighed a glorious, hard-won, 124 pounds.  My body was the closest that it had ever been to what I'd prayed for on the floor of my bathroom almost a decade earlier.  Shelly, my maid of honor, was sitting with me in my PR office while I sorted through versions of the seating charts that my wedding coordinator had created.

"Do you ever work out?" Shelly moved a shock of silky, brown hair out of her eyes.  Everyone always asked if we were sisters.  Some people asked if we were twins.  But while my hair is medium-length, coarser and curly, she always wore hers short and straight.  Her thin nose also has a sprinkling  freckles that I've always envied.  Our complexions almost match, but she is a little more golden while my skin has browner undertones.

I looked up at her with a puzzled expression. 

"No!" I answered with a head-shake before looking back down at the chart.

What a silly question!  Why would I work out?  I might lose some of this weight!

"Oh," she said.  Her voice was full of something that I couldn't identify.

I put the chart down and grabbed a handful of M&M's.


"I was just thinking," she said, her eyes warming with appreciation.  "Your arms are so toned.  They'd probably be ridiculous if you worked out."

I stopped chewing and looked at my arms with new interest.  They were so long and slight!  I certainly didn't see anything special about them.  I bent my right arm at the elbow and straightened it back out.  An oblong muscle popped up on the side of my upper arm and then disappeared seamlessly back into place. But even when I relaxed it completely, I could actually still see some of the curvature.

Hey! She might be right.  I can still see the outline of my biceps and my deltoids even though I'm not flexing. I guess they are pretty toned...

I'd never really thought of my thin limbs as an asset before.   And although I must have known it on some level, it had never really occurred to me that people actually worked out to get stronger.  In my mind,  people only exercised (or worked out) to lose weight. And goodness knows I didn't want to lose ANY weight!

Hmmm.  I have the whole summer before my wedding.  Maybe I could join a gym or take a class for a few months...

We committed to going to Billy Blank's 6:00am Tae Bo class 5-days a week.  She and I had never experienced such fanaticism before.  Women, geared up in cut-off "Tae Bo" t-shirts and spandex booty shorts, shoved each other aside to jockey for one of the coveted front-row spots.   I, on the other hand would slink to the back of the class and when I was sure that no one was looking, would sneak around the corner to rest my hands on my knees, take big gulps of air and guzzle Gatorade (I still wasn't fond of water).  Often instead of returning to class,  I'd pretend to use the bathroom (flushing twice if anyone came in).  I might have looked like an athlete, but I was in horrible shape.  Who knew?  I was winded, sweaty and sore every day that summer until my wedding day.  I hated it.  

I can't wait until I get married so I can stop this masochism. I'm never working out again.

*  *  *

"I know who you should get to train you," said Brian.  He'd called me back after we'd just gotten off the phone moments before.
"Huh? Train me?"
What gave him the impression I was looking for someone else to train me?
"Yeah, someone to work you out.  I saw her training Angela Bassett down on Ventura Boulevard earlier today.  She was making her do walking lunges on the sidewalk."
Oooh Angela Bassett!  What's Love Got to Do with it!  Now, she has some arms!!
"But I have Jessica," I protested.
"Jessica?" He laughed. "Come on Laura, be serious."
But I was serious.  Sure, sometimes Jessica showed up hungover (sometimes still reeking of tequila) and sure, last time she'd fallen asleep on the workout bench during my work out (Brian had heard her snoring from the kitchen).  And yes, more often than not, I got a cancellation call from her (in fact, I'd grown to count on it), but replace her?  With someone who makes people work out on the street?!?
"Okay," I said.  I had a growing sense of alarm in my stomach. My voice got very small.  
"I'll call her. What's her name?"
"Chariesse," he said.  "She's a badass.  Wait till you see her."

Badass was an understatement — this woman was an agile, strong, elegantly proportioned, energetic, enthusiastic, for-real, for-real athlete.  For 12-plus years, Chariesse subjected me to the special brand of torment that she'd invented and perfected.  For my part,  I would show-up for my scheduled 1-hour private workout two or three times per week.  I looked pleadingly at the clock the whole torturous time, hoping for any chance of escaping her practiced eye.  When she turned her well-toned back to take a call or change the music, I would immediately skip to a higher number (if I was counting reps).  I would try to engage her in conversation during my incredibly short rest breaks in the hopes that she would forget that the hour was ticking by.  But she was never distracted, she never forgot about the time, she never let me rest until every nano second of that hour was gone.  She also had all of these cheerfully annoying "inspirational" sayings that she would literally sing out when I felt my legs giving out from under me:

"Mind to muscle!"

"Is ANYTHING happening here?!?"


"Are we feeling good about ourselves?"

Two amazing things started to happen as she and I continued to work together:

First: I started to receive compliments.  A lot of compliments.  People who barely knew me would cross the room to compliment my arms or my posture.  That was a first for me.  No one had ever before complimented me on how STRONG I looked.

Second: Chariesse and I started to become friends.  Despite the fact that while in her studio, she was still the dungeon master and I, the hapless victim.  Outside the studio she and I innocently began to talk and vibe.  She trained me through the years leading up to my going to treatment.  She trained me during those tender, early recovery years and through my divorce. And it was with the help of her support and friendship that I began to navigate the strange, new life that I'd been given.

So although I still didn't like working out, I very much liked the company and camaraderie that she and I had developed.  And I was finding that I also really liked how my body looked and felt.  When it came time to move out of the home that Brian and I had shared for over a decade,  I found that I (much to the mover's amazement) was able to lift my heavy living room chairs without much effort.  When Chariesse took me to a running track to train, I found that I could run for a whole mile without my lungs exploding out of my chest.  I decided that if all I had to do for the rest of my life in order to feel this good, was to eat healthy food and train with her, then so be it - I was down.

*  *  *

"My trainer moved out of state, so I'm looking for another place with a similar set-up to train."
I was sitting in the chair across from Joe Garcia at Arena Fitness in Encino.  And although I was heartbroken that Chariesse was actually gone (long story -- but suffice it to say, she was presented with opportunities/obligations that required a major move), I found myself in the peculiar position of actually wanting to continue training even though she was no longer around.

Here I am at age 52 (with two almost-grown kids).  I am still on the thinner side, although no where near what I weighed in my twenties (my new median weight is somewhere around 135 pounds). I am now someone who finds that my legs and arms start to get soft when I skip a week of training. Who would have thought that I would become someone who gets anxious when I don't have all of my training sessions lined up for the month?

But don't get me wrong.  I still don't like working out (I find"hate" to be such a strong word).  I still look at the clock the whole time and cheat on my reps whenever I can (sorry Max).  I still try and take advantage of my rest periods and I still have to psych myself into showing up for my sessions every single time. 

I stubbed my toe.  Is that a good reason to cancel?

I once heard Oprah Winfrey say that she psyches herself up for exercise by telling herself that she can do anything for an hour -- This has become my daily workout mantra ("I can do anything for an hour, I can do anything for an hour...").

Scottie joined Arena too and sometimes he and I work out together.  It's nice, actually.  We give each other high fives and cheer the other along.  Sometimes I look over at him when we're on the rowing machines during our "cardio portion" and admire how strong and fit he looks and I see him looking at me and admiring me right back.  My trainer, Max, is giving me more and more weight progressively (and I can actually lift it)!  At 52, I think I may truly be in the best shape of my life.

I heard Maxine Waters respond this week to Bill O'Reilly's jibe at her ("I didn't hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig").  Maxine fired back something to the effect that he couldn't bring her down with his insults — "I am a strong Black woman and I cannot be intimidated.  I cannot be undermined." All of this created a Twitter storm and suddenly a new hashtag was born: #strongblackwoman)

Scottie snapped a picture of me last week during one our workouts.  I was surprised to see that I looked so focused and strong.  And what's more, I am a strong Black woman, in precisely in the way that Congresswoman Waters meant (and I'm very proud of that).  But I'm also strong physically.  And I intend to continue building and honing that strength.  My physical strength is now maybe one of my favorite things about myself.

Note to 14-year-old Laura.  It gets better.

Arena Fitness, Encino California March 2017

Friday, March 24, 2017

On second thought...

"The government should not be guided by temporary excitement, but by sober, second thought." (Martin Van Buren, 8th President of the United States) 

"Terrible!  I just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Obama was tapping my phones in October - he is a bad guy!"

I felt the back of my eyes begin to swell with hot tears when I read that.  Not just because I disagree (and I do), but because I feel so angry that its come to this — leaving aside issue or policy discussion in favor of blatant character assassination.  It reminds me of those kids in grade school who would resort to name calling when they couldn't win an argument.  I never knew how to participate when it got to that point.  I don't like saying things simply to hurt someone else's feelings or to get a reaction.  And lord knows how many times I've been told that I take "it" too personally (what does that mean, anyway?  After all, isn't it personal when someone calls you a bad guy (or gal)?).  But don't get me wrong, it's not one-sided.  I feel like both Republicans and Democrats have this hyperbolic reaction to anything set forth by the other party.  I find it to be extremely discouraging and counter-productive. And it all leaves me feeling defeated and filled with an icky feeling that I wasn't able to properly identify until recently. Here's the thing I've discovered -- it's literally making me sick.

Now, you may think that I'm the one being hyperbolic, but I'm not.  There is an actual, biological, visceral, chemical chain reaction that happens inside of me whenever something renders me hurt and angry, excited and angry or excited and fearful.

I heard a woman say once that she "couldn't metabolize the excitement that she craved." Right after she finished speaking, I grabbed my phone and typed what she said quickly into my notes, afraid that I might forget exactly how she put it.

That's me! I thought.  I've always bit off more than I could chew (as it were) with everything!

I've never been good with things that speed me up.  When I drink that fourth cup of coffee, I become instantly cranky and jittery.  When I did or over did __________ (insert any 1980s chemical compound that affects the central nervous system),  it was the same.  And once more; when I snuck out of my bedroom window in high school to join my friends, or called "HIM" and hung up as soon as he answered (pre-caller ID obviously) or harbored a secret resentment against someone (who may or may not have deserved it), I got the same response.  A rush which made me acutely and simultaneously aware of my both my circulatory and respiratory systems (veins filling, heart throbbing, lungs desperate to expand) followed by a sharp, abrupt decline that left me trembling with  shallow breaths and a deep, hollow, sticky feeling in my stomach.  That excitement that I craved, that coffee, that Red Bull, that "hit" of whatever (a substance, getting away with something or reactive-rage) was always more than I could metabolize.  Other people could laugh and continue on with their days after imbibing in any one of these areas, but not I.  I was always like the worst kind of junkie.  I could never take the high.

*   *   *

Checking into treatment in July of 2008, I was surprised to find that all of us patients were to be deprived of most of these aforementioned things:


"Sorry - only decaf here."

Do you have anything sweet? Candy or something?

"Actually candy and anything containing sugar is forbidden."

Oh - can I sit next to my friend during the lecture?

"Contact between male and female patients is greatly discouraged."

Is it okay if we put the news on?

"Sure! We put it on for 1-hour per day in the group room."

I just want to go to my room. I want to be alone...

"Actually you can't go to your room until bedtime.  But please find someone with whom you can process what you're feeling."

*   *   *

I soon learned that there was a method to their torture.  They were depriving us of all of the things that created those peaks -- those high-HIGHS.  Because, they knew, that without them, those valleys wouldn't be so low-LOW.  And then maybe, just maybe,  I wouldn't need to numb the pain of riding that roller coaster anymore.  Maybe, eventually I would be repulsed by the thought of chasing the high that I so clearly couldn't metabolize.

Our recovery literature tells us that: "Resentment is the number one offender.  It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.  From it stem all forms of spiritual disease."  

In other words, I can't afford to carry around resentments.  The penalty of carrying around a resentment differs from person to person.  But the take-away for me is that for us folks in recovery, indulging in any activity that creates or sustains resentment, comes at a great risk.  

Now, this does not mean that I "turn the other cheek" whenever something makes me angry (I definitely get angry with the best of them!).  But feeling anger (which is human) is totally different from harboring a resentment.  What this means is that I can't afford to hold on to that anger after it's run its course.  I can't afford to feed that anger by following certain politicians on Twitter, watching FOX News or engaging in FaceBook battles.  I have to step aside when someone baits me with politics at a dinner party or at a parent association meeting.  I need to be especially careful when engaging in a conversation with any "friend" who is charged with that certain brand of political-vitriol.  Because when I do engage, the penalty is that same hand-trembling, shallow-breathed, red-faced rush that leaves me fumbling for words and renders me virtually useless for a minute or an hour or possibly even a for whole day (depending on the level of excitement/fear/hurt/anger that I'm unable or unwilling to release).

Scottie made an observation this morning, saying that "if holding on to a resentment is like swallowing poison, then (according to Facebook) a lot of our friends are "drinking" around the clock."
And it makes me sad.  I've always been a political activist (see my blog "If Cousin Pookie Could Vote").  Or at least I was up until this past election.  And I believe that now, more than ever, it is critical that everyone pay very close attention to what's going on.  I like to watch and discuss the congressional hearings and read news feeds and the Sunday New York Times.  I feel like it is my duty  to "root for the home team" and take political action when it's warranted. But since the Democratic Convention last summer where Hillary Clinton was chosen to be our candidate, I have been the victim of these "flash flood-surges" of fear, confusion and resentment.  Feelings that, like I said, make me actually, physically ill. 

So what's the solution?   I won't (I can't!) Simply put my head in the sand.  Just like someone who struggles with food or sex issues — total abstinence can't be the answer for my extraordinary inability to metabolize the hype around our current political situation.  No, I must have some awareness of what's going on in our world.  I must pay attention (and take appropriate action) when someone threatens the basic rights of the marginalized.  But when it starts to get sticky, when I start to feel my face getting warm or my heart beat speed up,  I'm going to have to pause long enough to listen to that sober, second thought, just as wise, old President Van Buren recommended. And though sometimes taking a stand may be the next, right, indicated action for me, it will be just as likely that I might have to say, "You know, I'd better sit this one out."

Skirball Center polling place, November 8, 2016

Friday, March 10, 2017

Genie in a Bottle

Genie with my dad and his brother, Juan (1943?)

Genie was a hustler, a liar, an IV drug user, a daily drinker, a chain smoker and a conniver.  She was selfish, extremely self-centered, passive aggressive, manipulative and immature.

I've recently discovered that also, to many people, (specifically, my dad and my brothers) Genie was caring, selfless, generous and considerate.  And in recent years, I've come to regard her as having been highly intelligent, self-educated and resourceful (and that woman really loved a good crossword puzzle!)

Genie was also my grandmother.  And writing this may be my first real attempt to forgive her.

*  *  *

"Will you take her back to London to bury her?" He was standing next to Genie's hospital bed.  She had been in a coma for a little less than a week.  Her tests had revealed that she'd suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and she wasn't expected to survive.   Scottie was sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, I was standing near her head holding her small, warm hand.  Her hand was soft, but her cocoa-brown skin looked dry and cracked.  I made a mental note to pull out the Jergens from her bag beside her bed after they left.
"Back to London?!" I heard the snicker in my voice.  I folded my lips together to keep from laughing out right.  Scottie looked at me from his chair. His eyes were alight with mirth.
"Um, maybe," I answered solemnly. "It'll be up to my dad.  I'm not sure what her wishes were."
"She's a wonderful lady," his voice cracked with emotion as he took a step forward and grabbed her other hand.
I looked at him with a slight startle.  He was White, tall with thinning, stringy, brown hair.  His brand new, cream-colored, Nike running shoes stood in stark contrast to the over-sized, oil-stained, workman's coat he wore.  I automatically switched to mouth breathing as he got closer, because it looked as though he may not have had a shower for while.  He had arrived a few minutes earlier with two other older, White men from the house in Palm Dessert, where about seven of them rented rooms. Genie was the only female occupant.  One of them was heavy-set,  the other was thin with a thick black, handlebar mustache.  They had each come to pay their last respects.

"Your grandmother was the best puzzler," said tall one.
"When she got her checks at the end of the month, everybody ate good!" interjected the heavy one.
"Your grandmother told the best stories..."
"Let us know if you need help getting her to London to bury her.  We don't have much, but we can help..."
"When I needed bail money for my son," said the mustachioed one.  "Your grandmother gave me her last $20.00..."
"Or at least she said it was her last $20.00!" Laughed the tall one.  "Did you check your pockets?! She might have given you your own twenty! You never knew with Genie!"

No, you never did know with Genie...

*   *   *

She died on April Fools Day, 2013.  One $2,200 mortuary bill later, she arrived in a UPS box at my door.
"Sign please."
While he stood there with an outstretched pen, realization flooded through me as soon as I saw the label on the box.
Oh Jesus, God.  It's Genie.
The act of signing for a UPS box that contained my dead grandmother's ashes seemed absurdly surreal.

Grandmothers don't get UPS'd in a box to biological granddaughters with whom they had no real connection.  Grandmothers don't spend their final days in group homes for wayward men. Grandmothers are given funerals surrounded by their loved-ones and their favorite flowers.  Grandmothers have ministers and eulogies.  Grandmothers are mourned by their family and friends.

I was surprised by how heavy the ashes were.  I stood there for a moment in the cold and watched as the gate closed behind the black and brown UPS van.  The crickets were singing and the sky overhead was clear and full of stars (or, as full of stars as a Los Angeles sky can be anyway).
"Mom, close the door.  It's freezing," called Miles from the living room.
I was turning to walk back into the brightly lit house when I stopped just short of the open doorway.

How am I going to explain what's in the box?

Without a word, I stole off the porch in my bare feet.  I sped up and yelped a little when the soles of my feet hit the surface of the chilly, pebble-strewn driveway.  Flipping on the outside light, I entered the detached guest room and placed her on the bare, carpeted floor.    I sat down cross-legged next to her and stared at the funeral home label on the box-top, keeping my hands on the sides of the box.  The box was cool and smooth and smelled vaguely of wet clay.  I tried to imagine that there was a person in there, a whole life contained in that box.


*   *   * 

"So, tell me about your grandmother," said Beverly.
"Do you have a few years?" I laughed.
Beverly smiled silently and folded her hands on the table while she held my gaze.
My laugh faltered when I realized that she was waiting and I opened my notebook.  I cleared my throat, "okay, um she was born in Wascum, Texas," I smiled.
"Okay," said Beverly in a patient voice.
"I'm sketchy on her childhood and all that," I said with a dismissive wave of my hand.   "I know she was a teenager when she married my grandfather, Walter, in Chicago.  I know they had two boys right away; my uncle Juan first and then a year or so later, my dad. But somehow she ended up moving to Los Angeles without Walter.  I'm told he went out to buy lemons and never returned, or something like that."
"So, she was a single, teenage mother in a strange city?"
I looked at my notebook and then back up at Beverly.
"Well, yeah.  I suppose she was."
I became conscious of the sound of me clicking my pen open and closed with my right thumb over and over. I stopped abruptly.
"Okay," she said.
I was quiet for a moment, while I found my place with my index finger and then I continued.
"Anyway, she was never much of a grandmother to me.  Oh, I got a card every birthday with five dollars and a 'Love, Grandma Genie' in her big, loopy script, but that was about it."
"Well, that's something," said Beverly.
"Sure, but it wasn't what my friends had.  Their relationships with their grandparents were different.  Their grandparents were like their surrogate parents.  I never really had a connection with Genie."
"Tell me what she was like."
What was she like...?
"Well, for one thing, she lied about everything." I felt my face grimacing with annoyance.
"No one knew how old she really was.  My dad jokes that he doesn't even know if she knew, because she had lied about it for so long.  And get this -- she spoke with an English accent."
"What?!" Beverly laughed with her head thrown back, revealing two rows of shiny, white teeth.
"For real!" I said after we'd laughed for a few seconds.   "She spoke with a legitimate, British accent!"
I screwed up my face and pointed my index finger in the air as I mimicked her:
"Lo-rah.  Did you put the caahhh in the gair-aahhge?"
Beverly's laughter filled the air.
"Or, ' Lo-rahhh, I'd bett-ahh put a jumper on — it's positively chilly out he-ah.'"
"That's amazing!" Said Beverly.  "Was she messing around?"
"No," I said shaking my head.  "You don't hear me though! She was from Wascum, Texas and she spoke with a perfect, cockney, British accent.  She never broke character, not once.  That is how she always spoke."
"And the rest of her family? Her siblings?  Her parents?  Did they have accents too?"
"Nope!  No one else spoke like that.  And no one ever seemed to know why she did."
"Did she ever visit England?" Said Beverly.  "Remember when Madonna married Guy Ritchie and came she back with that British accent and everybody was up in arms?!"
"Yes," I laughed.  "I remember that, but no -- Genie never left the United States! But apparently, that didn't stop her from telling everyone she met that she'd grown-up in England."
"Boy, you gotta admire her commitment," said Beverly dabbing the corners of her eyes with a napkin.
"Whoo boy! Okay, so, you moved to Los Angeles by yourself in the late eighties?"
Boy, Beverly has a good memory!
"And your grandmo — er, Genie still lived here then, right?"
"And what was your relationship like?"
"Relationship?!  There was no relationship." I lifted my left eyebrow for emphasis.
"She'd call occasionally, 'Lo-rah, can you come quite quickly, dea-ahhh?  Thahhs's a bit of an urrhh-gent situation.'"
"And then what?"
"And when I arrived, she'd send me right to the store for cigarettes and brandy and maybe get me to 'let her hold some money' before I left.  If I didn't give her the money right away, she'd make up these elaborate stories to make it sound like someone would die if she didn't get $50.00 that day."
"Oh my!"
"Once she asked someone for money to go to her sister's funeral.  The problem was, they knew that her sister had died years before."
"Oh I see!" laughed Beverly.  "Boy! She sounds like quite a character!  And you said that she struggled with alcoholism too?"
I shook my head adamantly.  "There was no struggle.  She never tried to get sober.  She just did what she did and didn't care who it impacted. I wanted to protect my dad and my brothers from her 'conning'.  I felt like I was the only one who could see through her — to me, she was glass."
Beverly took a deep breath and reached across the table, placing her hand on my wrist.
"So, why all this?" Beverly waved her fingers over my notebook.  "I get that she was quirky and certainly quite the scam artist, but why do you think you have this huge resentment towards her?"
I pulled my shoulders back and opened my mouth to protest, before dropping my shoulders back down and closing my lips sharply.
"I'm not sure that there is...a...resentment," I said slowly, keeping my eyes on the notebook.  "I mean I guess the thing I resent is that I feel like people expect me to have had a relationship with her."
I made my voice higher, "'Oh Laura - I'm so sorry to hear about your grandmother'.  Or 'Oh Laura, I heard about your grandmother! When is the funeral...'" I let my voice trail off.
"But I don't think of it that way.  I don't think of her that way.  I think of her as my father's mother.  I just think of her as Genie."
"I don't think..." Beverly started carefully. "Well, let just me say, it might not be that anyone is really expecting anything of you, maybe it's your own internal assessment that you should be feeling something that you're not connected with?"
I titled my head to the side.
"Maybe," I said shaking my head.  "But I don't know if I'm even ready to look at all that."
"That's okay, sweet girl," Beverly's eyes shone with kindness and tolerance.  "What would you like to  look at today?"
"Well, the thing is that she's just sitting out there in my little guest house!  It's almost October, she died in April.  It's weird.  I don't know what's appropriate here.  And even if I'm not motivated or ready to honor her.  I want to do the right thing for my dad.  He loved her.  So did my brothers.  She was really great to my brother Kofi.  She actually took care of him for a few months when he was little. And Chris adored her."
"So what are you thinking?"
"Maybe when my dad and my brothers come for Thanksgiving, we take her up north and scatter her ashes off of a cliff or something."
"I'm sure your father would appreciate that."
"Or maybe we can drive up to the beach in Santa Barbara and do it there."
"Perfect," she said with a wink.
"I do have some memories of her where I didn't feel like she was 'grifting' me," I smiled.
"Like, she caught the bouquet at my wedding! It was awesome! She beat out all of these young hopefuls, like a wide receiver.  She was all dressed up in this long, green dress and matching sequined turban (that's a whole other story! Apparently my dad had to take her to about 10 stores the day before the wedding before she found one she liked)!  And when Miles was first born she came to visit and she couldn't take her eyes off of him.  She kept calling him 'the little prince.'  I was braced the whole day for her to hit me up for money before she left, but she was really actually very sweet.  She didn't ask for anything but a photograph of him. Maybe I could talk about that..."

*   *   *

"Liar, manipulator, daily drinker, selfish, self-centered..."
"Huh?" said Scottie. He was laying on top of the covers, propped up against the pillows. I had just burst into the bedroom.
"It's almost 5-years since Genie died.  I'm writing this week's blog about her."
"Oh!" He laughed.  "You were talking about your grandmother!  Yeah, wow, that's crazy! That was 5-years ago?! And all those weird guys in her hospital room from the place where she lived.  What was she, 93?"  He tapped his head with his finger as if to capture the memory.  
I nodded and continued.
"Yes, she was 90 something.  But Honey, those words, those are some of the words that I've used over and over to describe Genie all of my life.  I just now realized that a lot of those words at some point in my life could be used or have been used to describe me."
"Well..." he started.
"I was that liar," I cut him off.   "I was that manipulator, the daily drinker, I was selfish and self-centered.  Don't you see?  I always thought, Oh no!  I will NEVER be anything like her!"
"Yeah," he ran his hand through his hair with an unconvinced look. "Okay..."
"I saw her world getting smaller and smaller as she got older and I thought, GOOD RIDDANCE! You should just disappear somewhere where you can't cause anymore trouble!"
"Yeah, you've never really had anyone really like -- well, like Genie in your life."
"But Hon, what if the reason I wasn't able to connect with her the way my family did, wasn't just the fact that I was the only one who saw right through her?  I mean, I'm sure my dad and Kofi saw her for what she was -- and they loved her anyway."
"Well, it was different for them."
I put my index finger up in the air.
"Exactly!  What if, for me,  Genie wasn't just a glass window that only I could see through?   What if, for me, Genie was more like a mirror?"
"Wow, Baby," he said with a tone of admiration. "You got all that from your writing just now?"
"I'm just starting to unravel it, but yeah."
"You know," he said, "with my dad, I truly got to forgive him before he died because I was really able to see him for who he was.  At first I could only see the things about him that I didn't like, such as the fact that he subscribed to a way of life that was based in racism and chauvinism.  And despite warnings from his doctors and my mom's pleas, he stubbornly insisted on killing himself with booze and cheeseburgers.   But he also gave me all this other stuff; my love of fast cars and my appreciation for cooking.  He also taught me about things like loyalty, monogamy and frugality.  Until I could really see the whole person, I couldn't forgive him for his shortcomings.  Maybe you're just seeing a more complete picture of Genie now."

From right to left:
My brother, Kenji, My grandfather Theophile, my mom, Linda, me, my dad, Ronald,  Genie and my brother Kofi

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Road Less Traveled

Playa Del Carmen, Mexico 2015
"Can I get you something to drink?" The 50-ish, red-headed, flight attendant had a bottle of red wine in her left hand and a bottle of white wine in her right.
"PLEASE!" I held out the wine glass from my tray-table.
International red-eye?  Check! 
Boys already asleep? Check! 
The vacation has officially started!
I took a big gulp of red wine as the plane was taking off.
"Flight time will be 4-hours and 37 minutes," said the captain's voice.
"We'd better get some rest while they're asleep," said Brian, looking at Miles and Justin in the seats next to us and pulling his blanket around his shoulders.
I scooted past Brian the moment the fasten-seatbelt sign was turned off, "I'll be right back."
I loved the glow of the fluorescent lighting in the airplane bathroom.  Closing the door firmly and locking it into place gave me a feeling of excitement and safety (as did my full bottle of Ambien).  I rattled it before I opened the cap and plopped one into the palm of my hand.
Better take two.  5-hours is a long flight.  
Actually, it's only 4 1/2 hours.
Well, 4 1/2 hours is five hours by the time we get to the gate and everything...
I emptied a second, small, white oval into my hand and popped them both into my mouth, washing them down with airplane, bathroom-sink water.
Brian woke me as we were landing.  Groggily, I woke up the boys and retrieved my luggage from the overhead.  After what seemed like an hour of standing up in the aisle of the plane, holding all of our stuff, we finally began to move.  I wobbled slightly down the jet way as I held Justin on my hip with one arm and rolled my carry-on behind me with my free hand.
Oy! Did I bring Advil?
I perked up as soon as I saw the short, sun-browned ladies at the gate with the trays of tequila shots.
What time is it here?  10:00am?
Two shots later, we picked up our luggage and got into the hotel-sent SUV.
My next memory is leaving the boys in the room with our nanny, walking to the little beach bar and sitting down in front of a huge margarita.
One giant slurp in, and suddenly a sharp-edged, notion sliced it's way into the back of my mind.
Hey Laura, maybe that's enough.  You've been going for almost 12 hours now. Think about what you're doing. You're missing these moments with your family.
I shook my head.  The notion was both intrusive and irritating.  We had dinner at 6:00 and then after-dinner drinks in the bar.  We weren't getting back on a plane for 7-more days.  The huge margarita was OBVIOUSLY not enough.  The thought was annoying. Vacations were drinking not thinking.  My goal was to look at all of the amazing pictures of this vacation afterward and see how much I could remember.  Raising two small boys 21-months apart was hard.  Packing for this trip was hard.  Entertaining two small boys 24/7 was hard.
I deserve a break. I deserve THIS break.

*   *   *

"Can I speak to the concierge please?"
My heart beat sped up as I waited.
Why does this call still make me nervous after all this time?
"This is John, the concierge."
"Hi John, my name is Laura Robbins.  My boyfriend, Scottie and I are checking in a few days.  I have a couple of requests."
"Sure, Mrs. Robbins. What can I do for you?"
"Um, we don't drink, so it would be great if there is some kind of welcome/arrival gift, could it not be alcohol?"
"Of course, that's no problem, do you like chocolate?"
Love chocolate!!!
"Yes, chocolate is great! Thank you."
Okay, thats one down.
"Also, can you please have the alcohol emptied out of the mini-bar and replaced with Evian?"
"We have Fiji water.  Is that okay?"
"Yes, Fiji water is perfect.
I took a deep breath.  My right foot was shaking nervously back and forth, my flip-flop fell off.
"Okay, last thing.  Can you please look up recovery meetings in the area for us and email me ones that we can attend during our stay there?"
"Um, sure, I can locate those for you.  I have your email here on file. Will there be anything else?"
"No," I exhaled and observed as my foot stilled itself.  I reached down and replaced the flip-flop.
"That's all.  Thank you, so much."

*  *  *

My second year in recovery I heard a woman share that the first thing that she did any time she traveled anywhere was to look up meetings.  Two-weeks later, 4 of my non-alcoholic girlfriends and I were scheduled to depart on a cruise to Mexico with our kids.  I went back to the woman who shared and asked her exactly how to locate meetings on a cruise ship.
"Darling it's easy,"she purred.  "Just look for 'Friends of Bill' on the ship's daily schedule."
"Really?  Friend's of Bill?  Like some secret society?"
She patted me on the hip and winked at me with her long, mink lashes.
"Yes! Kind of exciting, isn't it?"

I searched nervously for "Friend's of Bill" on the schedule after we'd found our state-rooms.  I hoped that no one would ask if I needed help.  I wasn't prepared to talk to some random, Nickelodeon Cruise-ship purser about my recovery.
I don't see it! Maybe all ships don't have it.
The following day I got up early and went down to get coffee.  While I was waiting, I checked the schedule again and I almost yelped out loud.  I did a little fist pump and then looked around to make sure that I hadn't been observed.  There it was:

Friend's of Dr. Bob and Bill W.
5:30 in the Stars and Stripes Conference room.

The secret society here in plain sight!

After that, at 5:20pm every day of the 4-day cruise,  I would deposit my kids with my friends and race up to the conference room.

The fact that no one ever showed up to join me was beside the point.  I figured it was enough that I was making the effort.

*   *   *

Two year's ago when I called the property outside of Cancun where we were staying for 6-nights, the concierge assured me in heavily accented English, that he would take care of my "no alcohol" request and make arrangements for English speaking meetings.   I was crestfallen when our "welcomer"  presented us with margaritas as we arrived at the resort.
"Oh! No thank you," we both said, handing them back.  "We don't drink."
I saw his face change with sudden recognition.  He rushed forward and placed the frosty drinks back on their tray.
"Mrs. Robbins, Mr. Slaughter!  My apologies!  I am Raphael, the one you spoke with on the phone.  We were supposed to have special drinks for you." He spoke rapid-fire Spanish to a young woman in a long apron who disappeared quickly with a slight bow in our direction.
"Please, come this way," Raphael continued.  "They will bring your bags."
Scottie and I looked at each other and put our bags down.
Raphael was wearing what seemed to be standard issue in at Maroma, white, short-sleeved button-down shirt and stiff, shin-length brown shorts with huarache sandals.
"Your room is this way," he said.  "I have printed out the meeting list you requested.  You'll be happy to see that there are many meetings nearby.  But there is one, I want to show you especially."
He was strolling in front of us, his long, brown arms pushing aside the low-hanging jungle plants as we followed him down the narrow path.
Suddenly he turned and faced us, "This one," he handed Scottie a piece of paper.
"What's this?" Scottie took off his sunglasses and squinted at the paper.  The sun was setting rapidly.  Jungle birds whooped loudly to each other all around us.  Two young boys whooshed by us with bare feet lighting the torches that stood along our path.
"That," he said still pointing to a name on the piece of paper, "is the meeting where my parents met 30-years ago.  They both still go to that meeting."
"Your parents are sober?"
Just then, the young woman in the apron returned with two drinks in margarita glasses.
"No alcohol!" he said, waving his hand as though he were casting a magic spell to make the drinks alcohol free. "Please, try."
"Delicious," said Scottie after trying his.
He was right, it was mango.
Or is it papaya?
It was so fruity and refreshing, I realized how thirsty I was after the first sip.
"So your parents met at a meeting?" I said wiping my mouth with a cloth napkin that the aproned-woman handed me.
He told us the whole, lovely story of how his parents saw each other there and fell instantly in love.  He spoke lovingly of recovery.  Although he, himself, did not have the same "allergy," he told us that he had grown up in meetings.  Scottie and I both had tears glistening in our eyes when he was finished.
"Thank you, Raphael."
"Anything you need while you are here," he said grabbing both of my hands in his.  "You let me know. I will personally take care of it"

*   *   *

Last year, Dean, the concierge at The Loews in San Francisco, had a print-out of local meetings ready for us when we checked in.
Dean wore a hotel-issued blazer, shirt and tie.  His manicure was gleaming as he went over the  meeting list with us.
"The ones I circled here are all within 10 minutes of the hotel by foot".
"Thank you, Dean!" I said.

We were headed out to the R&G Lounge for dinner that night, a place where Dean had highly recommended the salt and pepper crab.

"I'm telling you - it's amazing because they cover the entire crab in this scrumptious salt and pepper mixture and then deep fry the whole thing, shell and all! You've never had anything like it!  And you MUST try the dessert there.  They have this amazing cake..."

"Mrs. Robbins, Mr. Slaughter?"
Scottie and I stopped just short of the automatic double doors.  I pulled my cloth coat tighter around my neck. The wind howled and clawed at the hem of my thin dress.
Oh my God! It's freezing! Scottie's going to have to hail the cab while I wait inside!
"Yes, Dean?" I said as shivered/walked back over toward the front desk.
"You know the dessert that I recommended to you?"
"Oh!  The cake?"
"Ahhh yes!" He licked his full lips, his round eyes seemed to glaze over with the memory of its lusciousness.
"This cake is to die for!  But I checked the ingredients, and unfortunately the sauce has brandy."
"Oh, that's okay, Dean," I said, setting my purse down on his counter. "We'll just get something else. But thank you so much for checking, that's really sweet."
His grew big with horror.
"NO! You MUST try this cake!  I insist."
I opened my mouth to explain that if it had brandy in it, we actually couldn't "just try it."
"You see Dean," Scottie interjected.  "We can't have anything with alcohol.  We're allergic to it."
Dean smiled widely and opened his arms as though he wanted to embrace both of us.
"That is precisely why I called ahead and spoke with their pastry chef.  They're going to make it special for you two, no brandy."
He gave Scottie a long, appreciative look and then winked at him.
"I really don't want you all to miss out on that cake! Now let me get you the house car to take you to R&G. It's absolutely bone-chilling outside!"

*   *   *

In July of this year, Scottie and I had booked a week's vacation on a small, Caribbean island called, Anguilla.  A couple of weeks before the trip, I called ahead and did my usual shpiel with the Viceroy concierge:

"Chocolate instead of alcohol for our welcome gift would be great, please clear the mini-bar and replace with bottled water and if we could get a local-meeting list..."

"Oh," she interrupted me.  "I'm afraid, Mrs. Robbins, that there aren't any meetings like that here."
"What?  really?"
What do you mean NO meetings.  That can't be right!  Does that mean there are no people in recovery?
"Yes,  I'm happy to check again, but someone asked a few months ago and I checked for them.  We found that there are no meetings here on this island. But there are meetings on St. Martin, the next island over.  I'd be happy to find out about meetings there for you."
"Oh, okay," I said.  I could hear the sound of my own disappointment, "Sure, I'll get that list from you."
"I'll be emailing you shortly then," she said in her soft, British accent.
I was just telling Scottie the odd news about Anguilla not having meetings when the phone rang in my hand.
"It's the Viceroy," I said, looking up at Scott.
"Mrs. Robbins?" It was the soft, British voice again.
"As it turns out, someone may have left a note with us for you."
"Left a note?  A note for me?"
"Well, perhaps," she laughed.  "Here, let me read it to you:

"Please have any of your guests who are looking for a meeting, email Zoe.  I will be happy to make the arrangements.  Below, please find Zoe's contact information.

"Oh wow! That's great!" I said.  "Thank you so much."
"I will forward you the information now, Mrs. Robbins."

There were a series of emails between Zoe and I up between then and the day that we arrived:

"Dear Laura, we alternate locations between our homes so I can let you know where the meeting will be and meet you somewhere easy to find if you have a car.  We don't use addresses here, so it would hard to direct a taxi.  If you don't have a car, my friend Vivianne said she'd be happy to pick you up at The Viceroy."

"Thank you so much, Zoe!  We're very much looking forward to meeting you on Monday.  And thank you to Vivianne for offering to pick us up! Scottie and I will be waiting in front of the hotel at 9:00am."

On our third day in Anguilla while we waited for Vivianne, Scottie asked me what we were "walking into."
"I'm not sure!" I laughed.  "But isn't it cool that they're picking us up?"
"So how far away is this meeting?"Scottie's voice caught sharply on "is".  He had turned a deep, buttery brown since we'd arrived.  His blue eyes shone against the bright sun. I looked to see if maybe there were tears in them.  He hadn't cried since we'd arrived there.  As if sensing my thoughts, he put his sunglasses on.
"I'm not sure," I said.  "They don't have addresses apparently."
"So it's at this woman's house?"
I thought his tone had an edge.  His mom, Nancy was losing her battle with stage-four ovarian cancer (see my blog post, The Thaw).  He had just been with her the week prior and he was going to see her right after our trip, but he was still ill at ease about being so far away from her.  We'd talked several times about cutting the trip short, but Nancy wouldn't hear of it. "No, now you two just enjoy yourselves."
I shook my head.  "Not the woman who's coming to pick us up.  This is another woman.  Someone who goes to this meeting."
"What do you know about them?"
"Not much," I said.  "Only that they don't have regular meetings and they're putting this one together for us."
"Maybe this isn't the best idea," his voice was definitely edgy now.  "I mean, we're just going to show up at someone's house..."
I reached over to grab his hand in mine and threaded my fingers through his.
"I wonder what they'll look like?" I said, changing the subject.
He didn't respond, so I continued.
"I wonder if they're that gorgeous, deep, brown color like most of the other Anguillans we've seen."
I looked admiringly over at the rich, brown skin-tones of the two bellman who were also waiting outside the hotel.
Minutes past in silence and Scottie closed his eyes and leaned the back of his head against the hot, porous bricks behind us.  I opened my mouth to say something  "cheery" and then closed it.
Let him be.
Shortly afterward, an older blue Volvo came noisily down the long, dusty hotel driveway.  We both stood up and peered into the driver's side window.
A lovely, short-haired, White woman leaned out and smiled widely.
"Are you Laura?"
Vivianne was lovely.  She was Dutch and lived both in Europe and in Anguilla.  She chatted easily about the virtues and disadvantages of island living.  15-minutes later we pulled up in front of a one-story wooden house with a big, front yard and a wrap-around front porch.
"Here we are!"
We walked in and there was another 60-ish White woman inside.  I knew it was Zoe instantly.  She had a snow, white shag cut and icy blue eyes that peeked out from her bangs.  It was obvious by the way she puttered around, that this was her house.  Scottie and I followed Vivianne into the open-plan living room/kitchen area.
"Welcome," said Zoe, giving us a stiff hug.  "I'm so glad you could make it.  There is a fresh pot of coffee if you want, but I don't know if maybe you want it iced.  It's an oven in here!"
She wiped her forehead with a cloth she kept in the back pocket of her jeans and indicated a steaming, glass coffee pot that sat surrounded by mis-matched coffee mugs.
Two more White women arrived.  One of them had brought pastries.  They were both from the US, like Zoe.
So much for the brown-skinned Anguillans I expected!
I looked at Scottie to see if I could tell how he was feeling.  He seemed to be a slightly guarded version of his normal, charming self.
"We're from Los Angeles, I heard him telling Claire, the tall one.  "We'll be here for a few more days."
"Well," Zoe looked around.  "This is everyone."

We sat down and started the meeting with a moment of silence, then they started to share.  All of them shared about their children.  Each one of them talked about getting older.  Every share contained  loving words about each other ("I don't know what I'd do without these three!").  One of them cried during her share and the others let her (as is our custom).  When she was finished sharing, she was handed a tissue and given warm nods and an arm squeeze.
When it came Scottie's turn to share he was so quiet that, for a moment, I thought he might not share at all. Then finally, after what seemed like minutes of us all sitting there in silence, he expressed some general gratitude for their hospitality.  A sentiment which brought nods and smiles from the women.  He was just about to pass the sharing to me when his eyes suddenly flooded with tears.
"My mom is dying."
Suddenly the air in the room got thick and still.  Claire and Zoe leaned in toward Scott.  I put my hand on his bicept.
"And I feel so helpless," he continued, gently removing my hand.  "Because I'm here, and I can't really join Laura in enjoying this incredible island.  I can't really enjoy anything without feeling this huge guilt because I'm not in Richmond with my mom."
Scottie talked tearily for about ten more minutes.  Vivianne handed him tissues when he cried.  They all listened.  Claire wept silently.  No one spoke a word until he was finished.

Once we closed the meeting with the serenity prayer, those four "mamas" sprung into action, circling him and comforting him.  Scottie looked up at me, from the middle of them at one point and nodded at me with a slight smile.
We walked back out on to the porch and hour and half after we'd arrived.  The wind had blown the clouds in front of the sun.  The sky looked heavy with rain.

"Thank you, Scottie," said Claire.

"Good luck, you two..."

"You're a wonderful son, Scott.  I'm sure your mama knows how much you love her," Zoe hugged him tightly.

"Please come back and see us."

Scottie and I walked the beach after Vivianne dropped us back off at the hotel. He held my hand in his, looking off into the horizon.
"It really is beautiful here, Hon."
"I know," I felt tears warming the back of my eyes.
He stopped and turned to face me, the warm waves lapping at his ankles.
"Thank you," he said.  "I needed that today."