Friday, November 17, 2017

Here's why I always had to drink my way through the holiday season #tipsdown2017

I was on top of the mountain, ski's pointed straight out in front of me so that the tips hovered out like a ledge over the steep face.  My instructor, Jim, put his hand on my shoulder and said in a deep, booming voice (so deep and booming that I feared it might cause an avalanche), "Okay Champ, chest forward, poles back, tips down, bend your knees and stay away from the trees." I chuckled thinly at his glib rhyme, but remained motionless (or frozen, as it were).  Then, suddenly afraid that he might push me, I closed my eyes and forced myself to lean forward. My skis automatically pointed downhill until the bottoms were flush with the slick, powdery white stuff  All at once the wind was whistling past my ears and my breath steamed up my goggles.  I heard my heart beating in my head as the bracing air whipped across my cheeks like ice cold fingers. The mountain top had become the jumping off point and no matter how scared I was, there was no going back.

That's kind of what Halloween is like for me every year.  It's the jumping off point to the holiday season trifecta: Thanksgiving, Christmas (and the like) and New Year's Eve.  On October 31st, I'm always filled with a vague, panicky feeling, followed by a strong desire to flee and hide until January 2nd.  Because from November 1st on --  it's tips down.

The holidays -- they're baaa-aackkk...

I'm not sure of the best way to convey how I really feel about the holidays.  Some of my friends think that I hate them.  That's not exactly true.  There are many aspects of Thanksgiving and Christmas that I truly love and enjoy.  But I really have an issue with the obligatory parts, the spending money I don't have on people I don't really know and the Paperless Posts holiday party-invites, especially the ones with the hidden guest lists, (Really! How am I supposed to know if I want to go, unless I know who else will be there??).  Once upon a time, those holiday "social obligations" were just good excuses to drink unabashedly.  Now, at age 53 and nine-plus years into my sobriety, a holiday cocktail party invitation feels like some sort of moral imperative, rather than something that I look forward to doing.   So here's where I am - I have a huge life with a man that I love.  I have wonderful, authentic relationships with my family and friends.  I wake up excited for the day ahead and snuggle next to Scottie into bed at night, sleeping soundly until morning.  I love my life.  But every time I am confronted with the holiday season I feel a distinct sense of dis-ease.  This feeling is magnified by the fact that very often at dinners and holiday gatherings, Scottie and I are almost always the only ones in the room not drinking (yeah I know, there's sparkling water and Diet Coke.  But even sparking water and cranberry juice seems kind of "meh" when everybody else's faces are flushed with fragrant, red wine).  So even though I don't want to drink, year after year, I just can't seem to shake the thick feeling of intense discomfort that comes when I'm facing the holiday trifecta. During the rest of the year, I don't even think about whether people are drinking or not.  But in November and December, there are just so many parties, dinners and gatherings clumped into a short period of time -- and drinking is always the main event.  Take the first holiday for instance:


Thanksgiving is a food-centered, family holiday (based on how the Native Americans helped the Pilgrims to become acclimated to this new place they called "America" (of course, the Pilgrims later made servants out of the Native Americans and stole their land, but that's another story).  But gnarly beginnings aside, Thanksgiving is probably my favorite meal of the year.  I love mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese and sweet potato pie.  I love gravy-drenched turkey.  I love the green beans and collard greens. I love, love, love buttered biscuits and Parker House rolls.


 Thanksgiving is also a drinking holiday.  Look at any Thanksgiving ad.  You think that turkey is the star of the show?  Uh-uh, the real spotlight is on the cocktails that are served before, during and after the turkey.  On Thanksgiving, wine is poured and consumed in the kitchen all day and night during the cooking and preparation.  Bourbon and whiskey are cradled lovingly in short glasses (neat or maybe on the rocks).  Bottles and cans of beer are opened with that comforting POP sound and swigged in front of the TV.  The more interesting part (for Scottie and I) comes after the other guests are a few drinks in and people start getting confidential and argumentative.  But as an observer, even the spiciest of family drama gets dull when too many drinks are imbibed and people start getting sleepy or belligerent.  That's when I start checking my watch to see if its time Scottie and  I to say our goodbyes and head for the movies.


I'm sure I'm missing a December holiday, but my point is that these holidays all appear to be about family, friends, togetherness, brotherly love (and of course) presents.  And to some extent that is absolutely true.  Hanukkah and Kwanza illustrate and celebrate miracles, journeys and principles.  Christmas is midnight mass, a thoughtfully decorated tree, presents and a beautifully planned dinner.  "Season's Greetings" and "Are you going away for the holidays?" become common salutations in December.  The December holiday season is a collection of festive, warm, colorful, generous days, all strung together like cranberries and popcorn.

Christmas and Hanukah promote family togetherness and goodwill, but for many of us, all of that enforced connectedness can (rather ironically) create feelings of loneliness and inadequacy.  Drinking is the number one, society-prescribed, go-to solution for treating any undesirable feeling (and some desirable ones too)!  But when you're an alcoholic, without warning, this society-approved solution to holiday angst, this invisible liquid barrier and mood enhancer, can quickly become the problem.  And even though there are holi-days when I would be grateful for anything that would help make all of the small talk more bearable, for me, that something isn't booze (anymore).   And yet, during all twelve days of Christmas, I find myself surrounded by well-meaning people who are constantly offering me drinks as a salutation ("Hi! What'll you have?").  And why not?  Every Christmas commercial shows  people with champagne or wine glasses embracing each other and tossing their heads back with laughter.  Budweiser and Jim Beam ads give the viewer permission to do something "nice" for themselves this holiday season (aka drink).  Of course!  You deserve it! (a drink that is).   And here's the subtext to all of that text.  Most people really can't fathom the idea of being around their families for more than a few hours without some liquid courage (i.e., a drink) in their hands.  Yeah, sorry jingle bell-laden, Clydesdale horses, but no — that ice cold BUD is definitely not for me.

New Year's Eve:

Okay, I'm sure even non-alcoholics can admit that this is at the ultimate drinking holiday (and as Frank Sinatra once famously said: "New Year's Eve is for amateurs").  I completely agree.  I've never cared for New Year's Eve, it was the ultimate set-up and let down.  Midnight toast?  Dude!  I started drinking at 4:00pm and always overshot the mark well before midnight.  In fact, midnight was usually a hazy, forehead-smacking-embarrassing memory that hit me the next morning as I peeled my face off of my pillowcase.

But nowadays, everyone "pre-games" on New Year's Eve (for you people my age and up — that's when you get drunk at home BEFORE the party).  So by the time people jump into their Ubers, most of them are already pretty tossed. And by the time we might see them at the dinner party, instead of talking to them,  we're talking to at least 4 gin and tonics and a glass of champagne.

So, no thanks — we'll pass. Scottie and I stay home every New Year's Eve and invite friends over for tamales and sparkling apple cider.  We usually have upwards a couple dozen people who just want to be around other like-minded celebrators and not have to dodge drinks or drunks all night.  It may sound boring to some people (I mean yes, we are always in bed by 12:30.  I know that sounds boring). But I'll be a boring b*tch for an obligation-less NYE party and a hangover-less New Year's Day.

And just so you know, every year, that October 31st "tips down" gets a little easier.  More and more, friends of mine are considerately conscious of making sure to have mock-tails available for us and not making a huge fuss when we politely excuse ourselves after dinner.  That comes with my being better at setting boundaries and making sanity-preserving exit plans ahead of time.  Now we can show up for our wonderful friends who graciously want to include Scottie and I in their respective holiday celebrations, but we can still head home before the all of the other guests get too drunkity-drunk.

Friday, November 3, 2017

You'll never guess why I'm not the "right kind" of Black

“Prospective members must be sponsored by a current member in good standing of the chapter in which they are seeking membership…”

I stop reading and look down at my feet. 

Oh boy, she's asking me to join some kind of club.

I pick up the pamphlet again and stare at the caramel-skinned, sleek haired woman on the cover.  She's wearing a silk, fuchsia top under a grey, power suit with a string of pearls.

“We are an organization of mothers dedicated to nurturing future African American leaders by supporting children through...”

Oh  -- and it’s a Black club. 

I try to remember to smile, but Jessica has caught me off guard.  I normally like to be braced for these "right kind of Black" encounters ahead of time.  You see, my parents were Bob Marley singing, no-white-flour using, dashiki and sandal wearing, natural hair having, hippies.  So I really missed out on the stereotypical Black experience while growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  We were poor, but never lived in the hood and money was always scraped together for private school. Back then, I would have describe both of my parents as "agnostically inclined,"so I never even entered a church until I was in my early twenties (and that was for a wedding).  The Black people I grew up around were more about individualism, art and politics than church, community and Sunday dinner. And for that matter, I have just never been a "joiner" (as it were).   So I knew that I was an enigma to someone like Jessica, who seemed to like me a lot, but was confused by how best to categorize me.

“So what do you think?” She says.

Jessica is shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand.  She’s about a foot shorter than me with shiny, straight hair extensions that hit the middle of her back and smooth, cocoa brown skin. 

Yeah, I'm about to disappoint her again…

I had already disappointed Jessica once at the beginning of the school year when I told her I didn't go to church.

Jessica: Really?  (Her voice scales up with thinly veiled indignation) May I ask why?

Me: (thinking) Why don't I go to church?  Isn't that a personal question?  I would never ask you why you go to church!

Me: (Out loud) Actually I never really... (I stop myself mid sentence when I remember that I have the perfect excuse).  I mean to say, that well, my husband is Jewish.

Jessica: Your husband is Jewish!? (she looks at me with a stung expression).  I just assumed he was Black.

Me: (thinking) Okay...

Jessica: You know (she pouts) your boys really don’t look mixed. I would never have known.

Me: (thinking) Sorry.  It wasn’t like I was trying to fool you.

But now apparently she’s gotten over the shock of my Jewish husband and mixed kids, because she wants to sponsor my membership into this very sadiddy-looking Black mom’s club.

“Thanks so much, Jessica,” I say indicating my messy ponytail, jeans and grape jelly stained t-shirt.  “But I don't see myself as the 'club' type.  I mean it looks lovely and I appreciate you thinking of me, but I don't think that I can join something where people look so --  proper and put together."

Plus they would see though me in a minute.  It would be like that scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers when the zombies all point and scream at the imposter.

*  *  *

"Did you hear about Donna?" Karen is whispering to me and Savannah, who is sitting between us.

The three of us are bored with the woman at the podium at our Parent's Association meeting.  I leaned in closer so I can hear the gossip, I have to move Savannah's long, blond hair to one side like a curtain in order to see Karen's face.

"What happened?" I say excitedly.

"They finally asked her step down!"

"Thank God!" shouts Savannah with a fist pump.

"SHHHHHHHHHH!" says the woman in front of us.

The three of us get up and move a few rows back and resume our conversation in whispers.  Never a fan of Donna's, I'm happy to hear that she's no longer in charge and I'm eager to find out why.

"Well, it was getting so that you couldn't even say ANYTHING without her getting offended.  She had that nasty chip on her shoulder when it came to anything racial!  So I think they just had enough.  She was just always so angry!"


"That's why they asked her to step down?" My voice sounds like it's coming from far away.  I feel like I suddenly have a hot light shining down one me.  A swirl of confusion has started to churn in my stomach.

"It was always just too much with her," says Karen, grimacing as though it pained her to even discuss it.


"But you're mixed, right?" Savannah suddenly pivots toward me.   "I mean you're not all Black are you?"


My smile drops slightly as I steel my insides against whatever is coming next.

"Yes! You're so pretty," says Karen, pressing her face closer to mine and lowering her glasses.   "I'm just looking at your features.  Is one of your parents White?"

She looks around and lowers her voice when she says, "White" as if it's a dirty word.

Are you saying that I can't "just" be Black if I'm pretty?  That I've got to be mixed?  

"I'm just Black," I say loudly, looking them both in the eyes.  "Both of my parents are Black."

Karen's face freezes into a smile.  Underneath her glasses, her eyes are an extraordinary popsicle blue.  Her short red hair is sprayed within an inch of its life, moving all in one piece like a helmut.  I catch a whiff of the minty gum she is chewing.

I can tell I've disappointed her.

She's wondering now, if I have a nasty chip on my shoulder too.  She's confused because she thought I was that right kind of Black.

Savannah is looking around now as though she doesn't want anyone else to hear what's going on.

"It doesn't matter Laura," she stage whispers.  "What are we even talking about!?   I really don't see color, you know?  When I look at you I see a beautiful, obviously intelligent woman, that's all.  I know you understand what I'm saying, right?"

I take a deep breath and force the corners of my mouth to turn up slightly.  I know that Karen and Savannah don't know that it is an insult to a Black person, a PERSON OF COLOR, to say that you don't see color (as it means that you don't see us).  I know that Savannah really believes that she's giving me a compliment.

I put my hand on her shoulder and smile warmly.

"Don't worry, Savannah.  I know exactly what you're saying."

*  *  *

"That's your man?"

I follow his line of sight over to where Scottie is standing.  Scottie is wearing cargo shorts and a light blue t-shirt. He has a styrofoam coffee cup in one hand and his skateboard in the other.  He's smiling and talking to our friend Lee.

"Yeah, that's Scottie.  I thought you'd met him before."

"Yeah I met him before," he says flatly.  "Just didn't know that was your man."

Alfred is tall and brown and close to my age.  He and I always have nice, cordial "Blackcentric" conversations, being that often times we are the only two Black people in the room.

"Well, he is!" I say brightly.  "For the past nine years."

"So... you go for White guys, huh?"

What is that on his face?  Distain? Disappointment?

I snap my lips close before I answer.

And why is he throwing shade all of the sudden?  

"No, I don't GO FOR anyone.  I just love who I love." I put my hand on my hip and take a step back.

"But your baby daddy is White too, right?" He steps forward toward me, closing the gap I'd created between us.

Baby Daddy?  Who actually says that?

"Yes, my ex-husband is White.  But I'm not sure what your point is."

Alfred smiles and puts his arms out to the side, as if to hug me.

"Ain't no thing, girl, I'm just messing with you.  It's just there aren't too many fine Black women left on our team, you know."

I'm momentarily distracted by how white his teeth are.

Sometimes I feel like I'm seen as a traitor when I'm walking down the street with Scott.  I've heard the  fuc*ed up comments my people make about other mixed couples.  I'd like to say that it never bothers me, but sometimes it does.  I want to shout out at all of them:  "My White man doesn't make me any less Black!"

"I just hate to lose another one to the other side," continues Alfred, as though he were reading my thoughts.

"Well, you never had me, anyway Al," I say turning around with a smile.  "So there was nothing to lose."

*  *  * 



Black people see me and they wonder “Are you the right kind of Black?”

Do you check all of the boxes that a White person may lack?

They do not ask if I believe.  Instead they simply want to know…

Why I don’t choose to wear a weave and to which church my family goes.

When they see my blue-eyed boyfriend, they talk smack behind my back.

No church, no weave, no brown-skinned man.  She’s NOT the right kind of Black!

White people see me and wonder, “Are you the right kind of Black?”

You’re not too dark and you speak like us!  You’re a keeper, that’s a fact!

These people are relieved, when they see me enter rooms. 

Sit down, let’s talk!  Stay here with us! You are our Ace Boon Coon!  

You’re so pretty!  You must be mixed.  I’ll bet your mother’s White.

See with you, we can say these things.  Other Blacks might want to fight!

We don’t like those angry Blacks.  We’re glad you seem so calm.

You people are so sensitive when racial talk goes on.

You know we’ve got your back, Laura. With you we can relax.

Because we know for sure now, that you are the right kind of Black!

Okay, real talk?  -- I’m sick of it.  I don’t want to be “the right kind.”

I don’t want White people to tell me, that with me they’re colorblind.

I don’t want to make them comfortable.  I don’t want to be preferred.

I’m a woman, I’m a mother, but I’m Black first — and I’m not looking for a “cure”.

I’d like for my Black brothers and sisters, to see me with new eyes.

I don’t go to church, I don’t straighten my hair and my man’s that surfer guy.

So, what?  Am I not Black enough?  Did I fail your paper bag test?

Do Sunday services and Jack and Jill prove my “Blackness“ best?

I’d prefer if you didn’t need to know.  To me, it’s all just fronting.

In fact, I don’t like them apples at all — a nod to Good Will Hunting.

It would be nice -- to be myself, without inviting an attack.

When you look my way, can you just see me?  And not what kind of Black?