Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Central Park Swim Team

Early in the summer of 1988 I blithely said to a man I’d known for about 20 minutes, “Sure, I’ll join the Central Park Swim Team, that sounds fun.”  His name was Tom and he seemed very interesting in a “My-God-You’re-Handsome-And-I-Hope-You’re-Not-A-Dumbass” kind of way.  I don’t remember anything he said though, well, except that he was leaving his career in arbitrage to devote his life to the Ford Foundation.  That sounded pretty charming.  Plus he was an Irish Catholic from Chicago where most of my dad’s relatives were.  Perhaps because he was so good looking, or because I was so clueless, or probably both, I neglected to ask for details about the swim team I joined.  I just assumed there was a swimming pool in Central Park.  Plus I liked the idea of swimming during the week because it was so damn hot that summer.

After dinner on the second date, we went dancing at a club for about 4 hours.  A few friends were with us but they fell away during our dance marathon.  It was not a perfect evening because I managed to clock an innocent bystander while showcasing one of my many signature dance moves, The Sprinkler.  Her head connected with my elbow and the poor woman dropped to the floor like a stone.  Sadly, this was not the first time that move hurt people.  I apologized but she was pissed and rubbing her temple so we got out of there.  It was already 2 a.m. anyway.

It was a week night but swimming after dancing our butts off seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea.  At an all night Korean grocery store, we picked up some cut up pineapple and watermelon and icy bottles of water.  Sitting on a bench right outside the 91st Street and Fifth Avenue entrance to Central Park, we ate the fruit and drank the water like we’d been in the Gobi Desert for a week with no provisions.

Tom said,  “We’re going to need some cardboard so look around.”  We ended up back at the Korean grocery store where they gave us two boxes.  Then I ruined my manicure busting my box to make it flatten out.  I still didn’t understand what we needed cardboard for but I was still in that 7 to 10-day window of a burgeoning relationship where  I questioned nothing.  Also, did I mention how handsome he was?  So it was no surprise I followed him when he suddenly sprinted into Central Park.  My mini skirt, heels and the cardboard flapping against my bare legs made running awkward but I caught up with him eventually.

We made our way overland to the reservoir.  I was puzzled.  “We’re going to swim in there?”  Tom said, “Of course, we all do it.”  I glanced around and there were just the two of us.  The “other team members” never had names and never showed up.  “How often do you do this?”  I asked.  Tom said, “All the time in the summer.”  “What’s the cardboard for then?”  He just said, “Watch me.”

He threw his big, flappy piece of cardboard over the fence that surrounded the reservoir so it was resting on the top.  Then he climbed the chain link fence and threw himself over the other side, sliding over the cardboard.  “C’mon, it’s not hard and the cardboard keeps you from getting scratched.”  I gamely threw my heels over the fence and climbed, barefoot, up to where his cardboard was.  I brought mine along and made a double layer.  In spite of my efforts, I heard a loud tear as I slid over the other side.  My mini skirt, ripped up to the waistband, was now more of a loincloth.  I was glad it was dark.

I retrieved my shoes and cardboard and followed Tom, gingerly trying not to step too hard on the dirt and gravel in my bare feet.  Tom stripped down and slid into the reservoir, paddling around with a big grin on his face.  “This feels great, come on in!”  I told him to turn around while I undressed.  False modesty was one of my specialties.  If I was too naked too fast, the beans were spilled too soon about having grown up with hundreds of constantly naked hippies in Crested Butte.  East Coasters, it seemed, found my background to be off-putting.  It was to take years for me to slowly learn not to tell my entire life story on the first date, especially the part about the hundreds of constantly naked, drug dealing hippies in my hometown.  With Tom I emphasized my Irish Catholic Chicago roots, although he didn’t know I only lived in Chicago for a month when I was a toddler and a month when I was nine.  I also neglected to mention I hadn’t been to mass since I was 8.  Now, in the darkness next to the Central Park Reservoir I was faking modesty too, but I had my reasons.

Tom dutifully turned around as I removed my ripped miniskirt and everything else.  I slid into the water, which was cool and perfect.  We started swimming quietly out to the middle of the reservoir.  “There’s a jetty out here to sit on,” he whispered, grinning wildly, sort of like a constantly naked hippy, or a serial killer.  The jetty was about 2 feet below the water’s surface.  He stood on it and jumped off, splashing around.  “Shhhhh” I said.  I was paranoid we’d get busted and I would end up naked in front of a bunch of policemen and their flashlights.  That of course would eventually lead to having to explain my multiple convictions for trespass and public nudity to the New York State Board of Law Examiners’ Character and Fitness Committee.  The bare naked truth was that I expected, at any moment, to be discovered, rocketed to instant stardom for something (I wasn’t all that specific).  Really I was planning to be Angelina Jolie, minus the vials of blood around the neck, back when Angelina Jolie was a small, unfamous child.  In my hazy, grandiose dreams I would settle for becoming a famous, brilliant lawyer if I could not be a famous, brilliant writer but one or the other, or something even more fantastic, would certainly lead me to becoming a famous left-wing philanthropist, beloved by all but the right-wing and the Vatican. Tom yelling and splashing around like a maniac might interfere with my brilliant future as a beloved world citizen.  So in that brief moment, while he was ruining my life plan, I wondered if  swimming in the city’s water supply with a stranger was such a great idea.  But we had a lot of friends in common so I ignored my concerns for the time being, deciding he was just a big goofball, not a serial killer.

We swam for a long time, then floated holding hands while staring at the sky.  Finally we rested on the jetty and talked.  The lights from the buildings bordering Central Park seemed so far away, as did the city noises.  The clouds swirled above us in fast-moving, ever-changing cosmic patterns.  It was magical.  The sweat from the dance marathon was long gone, and on that hot summer night I was happy for a little while, and not just because of my brilliant future.

But dawn was coming and with it Thursday.  I was supposed to be at my paralegal job in a few hours.  We paddled slowly over to the edge and climbed out.  Our clothes and the cardboard were just where we left them.  Dressing wasn’t easy since I was soaking wet.  My skills at scaling the chain link fence were once again lacking because I managed to rip my skirt on the other side this time.  Now I was sporting a real, spandex loincloth.  My underwear was showing no matter how hard I tried to hold the sides of the skirt together.  I was already thinking about the walk home, all the way to 92nd and First.

We trudged through the park, shoes squishing and arrived at the entrance only to see 2 cops hanging out.  We left the cardboard next to a trash can and strolled by the men in blue, trying to look casual.  My long hair was dripping wet.  Same with my loincloth.  The cops stared and we nodded hello but kept walking fast.  No one was supposed to be in the Park at 4:30 a.m.  Tom walked me to my apartment and gave me a quick kiss goodnight.  After a shower I slept until about 10 a.m. and made it to work just in time to take a long lunch.

We went swimming a few more times and I got the hang of scaling the fence without ripping perfectly good 80’s-style spandex mini skirts.  I loved swimming after dancing and looked forward to it.  But one day I was jogging around the reservoir at twilight after work.  There was a rustling sound ahead of me in the bushes.   All at once a rat about the size of a golden retriever ran across the path in front of me, slipped under the chain link fence, and started paddling in the reservoir.  My reservoir.  I was suddenly grossed out at the thought of the Central Park Swim Team.  Swimming around with rats will do that to a person.  I really wanted that rat to be a muskrat, or something somehow explainable, like common river life in a riparian zone.  But it was just a big, fat rat with a twitchy nose, the kind that are all over New York and in movies that have the name Willard in them.

Later that day I announced over the phone to Tom I was off the Central Park Swim Team.  He was losing interest in me anyway, and I heard rumors of a new member of the team, a busty practicing Catholic now taking midnight dips with him.  They met at a “folk” mass where young people played guitars but women were still oppressed.  No doubt she’d grown up without hundreds of naked hippies milling around.  But I was losing interest too, especially in swimming with rats.

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Filed under Sheer Idiocy

8 Year Olds And Molotov Cocktails

In the fall of 1971, when I was in third grade at Kinsey Elementary School in Flagstaff, I threw a lighted molotov cocktail into an abandoned building.  Or maybe I lit it and someone else threw it.  The building burned to the ground but I didn’t stay to watch that part.  I remember running all the way home, trying not to look back, gasping in the dry air and so scared I almost peed.  I was eight years old.

At home the police were waiting in front of our house on Zuni Drive.   We’d practiced making the bombs.  A brown beer bottle filled about 3/4 of the way with gasoline and a rag stuffed in the top.  We played with gasoline on the cement next to the garage, lighting little puddles of it with matches, or igniting it with a magnifying glass.  Gasoline and matches.  The gas can was never far away.  And I loved smelling gasoline.  I liked rolling down the window when Mom filled up the car.  It was comforting, maybe because I liked road trips so much.  When I made the bombs my hands would smell like gas for a long time, even if I washed them, and I liked that too.

Mom was so upset about this seemingly out-of-nowhere act of vandalism she was nearly speechless.  The police didn’t take us away but they talked to her for a long time outside the house.  The owner of the building never pressed charges.  Something about insurance I think.  Mom punished us after the police drove away though, beating us both with a wire hanger.

But was it out of nowhere?  Although Mom got rid of the TV after one of her first LSD trips a few months before, we saw some of the violent protests against The War on that TV.  And sometimes the protesters threw molotov cocktails at the police and National Guardsmen.  I think that’s where we must have come up with the idea.  But I really don’t know.

I don’t remember being an angry kid.  There were some signs though, and not just the one involving arson.  Vacuuming up a pail of mop water to see what would happen might be one of them.  The vacuum just stopped working and I told Mom.  She shook me so hard my teeth rattled, yelling that I could have been electrocuted.  I didn’t know what that was so she explained it.  Then she hit me hard in the head with the hairbrush because our vacuum cleaner no longer worked.

Randomly writing designs all over my Iowa Basic Skills test could have been another sign.  I had an old bat of a teacher named Mrs. Harris who seemed to hate children.  After the results were sent home, Mom marched down to the school to show her I was at a 9th grade reading level.  Mrs. Harris wanted me in Special Ed.  Mom was in graduate school in Special Ed at Northern Arizona University and we used the reading machines on campus, the ones that lighted one line of a book at a time.  We made them go faster and faster, as a game, and became great readers.  Mom made me read out loud to old Mrs. Harris that day and that year I was saved from Special Ed but not from Mrs. Harris.

Kinsey Elementary had a dry dusty, cinder covered playground that was a struggle every recess for us white-looking kids.  The indians, chicanos and blacks ruled.  The black kids were always trying to fight Mike because he was so tall.  There was a 6th grade black girl who wanted to fight me because we were the same size.  But I was only in third grade and a big baby.  I tried to avoid her but she managed to surround me in a circle of her older friends and kick me repeatedly after knocking me down.  I was wearing shorts and the pieces of cinder stuck in my knees after I stood up.  I had to pick them out.  She also liked knocking me down during our increasingly violent games of Red Rover, Red Rover.  I remember Mike was even beat up by one of the black teachers.  But Mom wanted us there because she was progressive.  Or maybe because that’s where the school district told her we had to be.  So yeah, I had to have been angry about Kinsey too.

I may have been angry because Dad was fighting in Vietnam and Mom was taking us to protests and concerts against the War.  Or because they divorced each other for the first time that year.  I know a lot of people started hanging out at our house then, people she met in grad school and at the record store/head shop called The Inner Sanctum.

Then another family moved into our tiny 3 bedroom 1 bath house.  A mom, a boyfriend and a girl and boy.  The boyfriend’s name was Demetrius and he was pretty creepy.  Something about his eyes I didn’t like, didn’t trust.  The children were not his and I liked them.  Their names were Aisha and Temezan and they had a pet chicken who crapped all over the house and barely excaped the clutches of our black cat, Harriet.  It was a daily struggle for that poor chicken running through the house and she eventually died.  Aisha was my age but seemed a lot older.  She shared Kate’s twin bed in our room.  Temezan was only 4, blond and really cute.  He slept in my bed like a little boy doll.  Demetrius and their mom slept in the living room on a bedroll.  I don’t remember their mom’s name, or why they lived with us for a while.  They left one day as quickly as they moved in.

Mom got a boyfriend then, a guy with red hair named John who was in school to be a doctor.  We were supposed to keep him a secret, even though Dad, she said, had girlfriends, mostly nurses and stewardesses.  I may have been mad about that too.  I know I didn’t like that John slept over, but none of us said anything.

For Christmas in 1971, we sent Dad a care package.  We made cards for him from colored  construction paper and I think we also wrote him letters too.  Then we used the tape recorder to record messages to him and put both the recorder and the tapes in the package.  It was fun.  Mom bought a poster for him that he later said was prominently displayed in the Officer’s Club on Khorat Air Force Base in Thailand.  It pictured an obviously male rhinoceros mounted on another rhinoceros and underneath, in big letters it said, “Make Love, Not War,” but everyone was doing both.

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On A Mission From Guad

Beginning in the spring of 1976, Mom collected and encouraged us to read, feminist literature.   I was 13.  She was reading it before then, but we weren’t.  I am reminded today of these books because I learned Mary Daly died a few days ago.  She was a Boston College professor for 33 years and author of “Beyond God The Father” and “Gyn/Ecology:  The Metaethics Of Radical Feminism”, among others.  I still have both books.

Mom had us daughters read a number of feminist books while we were in 6th, 7th and 8th grade, including,

“The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan;

“When God Was a Woman” by Merlin Stone

“The Female Eunich” by Germaine Greer,

“Towards a Recognition of Androgyny” by Carolyn Heilbrun

“Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape and Femininity” by Susan Brownmiller

“Woman On the Edge of Time” by Marge Piercy

“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrisson

“The Women’s Room” by Marilyn French, and

“Ruby Fruit Jungle” by Rita Mae Brown

There were more, but I can’t remember all of them now.

I do remember challenging my 7th and 8th grade history teacher and Crested Butte School principal, Mr. Helzer, about everything he tried to teach us.  The more I read, the more I challenged him.  I was admittedly a smart ass but he paid more attention to the boys and it pissed me off.  I pointed that out to him, pointed out he was a product of the patriarchy and what he taught was slanted, chauvinistic crap.  I told him football was inherently sexist, with the males pounding one another while the tiniest, bustiest kiss-ass females waited submissively on the sidelines for a chance to mate with them.  To his credit he told me to bring the sources for my arguments to school.  When I showed up with an armload of feminist/lesbian books, he turned purple thumbing through them and didn’t want to borrow any.

Our classes at the Crested Butte School were small; there were only 8 kids in my 8th grade graduating class.  I don’t remember how many were in 7th grade, but the classroom consisted of 6th, 7th and 8th to make it around 20 kids.  Mr. Helzer kept me after school often, but not to talk about herstory.  Instead he kept trying to get me to confess things about my mother:  that she was a drug dealer, that she was promiscuous, that she was a drunk, that she didn’t feed us regularly, that she was crazy but refusing psychiatric care, that our heat kept getting shut off, that drifters came through town and stayed at our house (and did they molest us?) and that she could not hold a job.  Between my attitude during his lectures and the small matter of the Gunnison Valley School District obtaining a permanent restraining order against Mom, he was probably a little concerned for our welfare.  But it was his patronizing, patriarchal way of trying to get me to turn on my mother that irritated me.  His concern was a direct attack on our family, which, although it was falling apart, was still my family.  He got nothing from me.

The permanent restraining order obtained by the Gunnison Valley School District against my mother is easily explained:  one morning, after a long night with a lot of LSD and tequila, Mom stopped the school bus that took high school kids to Gunnison before it left Crested Butte.  She boarded the bus full of kids and started screaming at the bus driver, berating him over his harsh treatment of my brother.  Mom’s rages were extraordinary and this one, I understand, was something for the record books.  It resulted in a court-ordered permanent end to her attendance at parent-teacher conferences and other functions, not that she ever went anyway.

But when Mr. Helzer sat me down in his office to talk about my mother, I denied everything every time.  I told him he was a macho, sexist jerk and that he could take his attempt to get social services involved in our lives and shove it.  Oddly, he didn’t like that kind of lip from me.  His face turned red, his forehead glistened with sweat and he just stared at me.  Eventually he backed off, trying to gently persuade me that a nice foster home down valley would be great.  I responded that any placement with a Gunnison-based, patriarchal family who wanted their women to be secretaries or brood mares would be resisted with tactics I learned from reading “The Monkey Wrench Gang” by Edward Abbey.  When he looked questioningly I explained, “Sabotage and explosives.”

Mr. Helzer was the former football coach and assistant principal at Gunnison High, a portly man whose condescending attitude towards the hippie kids of Crested Butte School made him less than popular.  It didn’t matter to me what he said about my mother or that it was mostly true.  I was hardly going to turn her in.  Plus, as I pointed out to him, having a lot of lovers was not a crime and maybe he should try it instead of criticizing her for it.  That always made him blush through his freckles and then I’d get to leave.  I neither confirmed nor denied the part about her selling drugs.  I wasn’t stupid.  Besides, the whole town was dealing.

For all her non-traditional parenting, Mom was adamant that we should never be ashamed of our bodies, our sexuality or of being women.  She didn’t want us to feel or be repressed, oppressed or depressed because we happened to be born female.  She did the best she could to impart a sense of pride in ourselves, even though her feminist rants often occurred through a haze of drugs and booze.

She told us the Mother Goddess loved us, loved our female bodies and wanted us to be happy, to have a lot of sex, experiment, be safe but not afraid and not hurt anybody.  Mom told us that when she was touring the Vatican in 1961, she strayed from the tour and came upon a vast hall that was roped off.  She ducked under the rope to look at the statues packed in against each other.  As her eyes became accustomed to the light, she realized every single statue was female.  They were naked or partially so, muscled and strong, their glory captured in stone.  They were powerful and unafraid.  And there were so many, pushed against eacher other in that hall in the Vatican, that she could not stop looking at them.  After a little while, the Italian tour guide found her and started yelling at her.  She returned with him to the tour group, but never forgot the hidden hall of women.  And she never wanted us to hide our power or strength from anyone.

She said the Goddess had many names and many faces, that She never disappeared, that Catholicism never really let her go, even though it shoved Her to the side when She should have been the center of the Trinity.  She said the Burning Times during the Middle Ages were attempts to stamp out the old matriarchal religion and in particular, wise women.  She said we were young Dianas, athletic, virgin huntresses, that someday we would be like her, the Mother, and then we would age into Wise Crones.  She told us “virgin” was mistranslated, that in Aramaic it meant “single woman” not hymen-intact young female.  She said we should honor ourselves and each other in all our Goddess phases, because the Goddess was in us and of us and we were Her.  She said the greatest gift of the Goddess was compassion.

She told us about a place in New Mexico, Chimayo, where the Goddess appeared in the 1500’s.  She said she visited a small church where miracles happen, that they happen because of the compassion of the Mother Goddess who can still be felt there.  She said the church, lined with crutches was a tribute to the Goddess, and although the Catholics laid claim to the spot, many knew it’s true origin.  She said we would go there some day to feel the sacred energy of that place, and to bring some of the magic dirt home.  I wish we had.

She said we should pray to Mother Mary, to the Virgin of Guadalupe, to Diana, to Brigid, to Morgan Le Fay, to Rhiannon, to Frieda, to Aphrodite, to Daphne, to Demeter, to Hera, to Persephone, to Devi, to Kundalini, to Shakti, to Tara, to Luna, to Venus, to White Buffalo Woman, to Anuket, to Isis, to Kali and others, and that She was all of them, in all their phases and faces.  She said the Great Mother gave hope to the hopeless, fed hungry babies when there was no milk and protected young people on quests.  She said the Mother Goddess, in her Death Mask, took away the suffering of the dying, that She was compassionate, above all things.  And it would be into Her arms we’d go when we died.

I spent much of my adulthood arrogantly decrying belief in anything spiritual, but it was my belief in atheism that ended up growing stale.  Now I find a little, intermittent comfort in the Mother Goddess.  I don’t think I have a problem with Jesus either, but I don’t like what is done in his name plus the whole literal interpretation of the Bible thing is ridiculous.  Oh and the exclusivity of Christianity does not work for me since I’m inclusive by nature.  OK, well and there’s the Father, Son and Holy Ghost deal which seems clearly way too male.  And the He Died For Your Sins part, which has never made any sense to me.  Neither does original sin.  Ever see a baby?  Babies are sinless.  No such thing as original sin. I guess I have a ton of problems with Christianity after all.  Oh and I really hate those bullshit Purity Balls where young girls promise their dads their hymen will go only to their future husbands.  Seems a little creepy.  Will dad want to see the bloody sheet on her wedding night?  Should a dad be that involved in a young girl’s genitalia?  But I take comfort in the reports that these Christian teens have a lot of sex anyway, while wearing those ridiculous purity rings (and hopefully condoms).  OK, so I wouldn’t make a good Christian.  Good to know.

Now when I hear of tragedies, of friends dying without warning, of hearts broken needlessly and of wars without end, I light a Virgin of Guadalupe candle.  They burn for about 7 days.  I say a prayer to the Mother Goddess to please enfold the suffering in Her arms and smother them with compassion.  I find in these small, whispered prayers over a lighted candle comfort, like a tiny, graceful breeze on a hot day.  And I always remember my Mother when I do it.


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My First Black Tie Affair, Postcript

OK at lunch just now I thought about “My First Black Tie Affair” posted yesterday.  I need to clarify a few things: 

During my 5-weeks in 1988  with my “boyfriend” Jim, he was generally charming, smart and funny.  Certainly he was gorgeous.  But he was an ass at the Black Tie Affair where, unbeknownst to him, I decided he should propose.  See post from 1/4/10.

I am willing to admit; however, he may have picked up on the soul-crushing psychic pressure of completely unfounded expectations bombarding him from my direction.  He may also have been sick of me already.  OK, he was sick of me already.  My point is, for the most part during our long, 5-week relationship, he was not an ass.  But I sure was. 

I have a bad habit which I’m hoping to break in 2010, of secretly assigning people characteristics they do not possess, and then becoming disappointed when they end up not having those characteristics.  Or, deciding exactly what part they should play in my drawn out fantasy of the rest of our lives, including assigning their lines that they never remember because, well, I never tell them their lines.  Fine, you are now all bit players so there. 

I am also willing to admit that living this way is somewhat divorced from reality and possibly a big, fat cosmic set up for me, a set up of my own making. 

Now I’m proud to report one of the most mature things that happened in 1989, and there were only one or two of those, was sitting down with Jim the Republican over coffee in a Greek restaurant on East 79th Street and First Avenue, about 6 months after our, um, break up.  I think we both apologized to one another.  I hope I did but I may not have since I had, and still have, a hard time even conceiving of any wrongdoing on my part, no matter what the hard evidence shows.  So I’m sorry Jim

But for a few minutes on an afternoon in 1989 I was a grownup, or at least pretending to be.  I met with someone I’d had a fleeting relationship with, we mended fences and went our separate ways.  It was a slice of Grace in a life filled with self-inflicted drama.  A tiny, crumbling foothold in the Cliffs of Insanity if you will. 

That is not to say that halfway through coffee with Jim the Republican I decided he should perhaps propose then and there, toss his well-bred, Conservative girlfriend aside, and throw himself at my feet, switch political parties and devote the rest of his life to making me happy and giving away his zillions to charitable causes of my choosing.  And, if I’m honest, for a day or two I was a teeny tiny bit spun out by the latest version of the fantasy I’d concocted.  Again, he was to play a leading role but again, he didn’t live up to my unspoken expectations.  Do you sense a theme?  So Jim, I’m sorry I was an ass, both when we dated for a few weeks and the following year when we had coffee, but at least I pretended to be a grownup at the Greek place. 

You’re welcome.

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My First Black Tie Affair

In the summer of ’88 I fell for a cute guy named Jim.  I didn’t know much about him and was still recovering from my mother’s death 6 months before, and from my then boyfriend’s unceremonious dumping of me a month or so after her death.  Oh and there was the small matter of Mr. Wrong knocking up his coworker while Mom was dying, but he didn’t tell me that, my friend Tapley did.  All in all it had been a pretty shitty 6 or 8 months, with a few miracles thrown in to keep me from complete despair.  Jim sure seemed like one of them at the time.

I had just moved to the maid’s quarters of a big apartment on East 66th between Second and Third.   My previous apartment, on Pearl Street, between Peck Slip and Dover, was nearly under the Brooklyn Bridge and so close to the Fulton Fish Market it smelled.  My windowless bedroom in the basement there gave giant water bugs free rein and I had to share it with a roommate.  East 66th promised privacy with my own room and bathroom.  The East 66th Street roommates were  aging, monosyllabic WASPs who were cash-poor and always wanted my rent at least a week in advance.  Still, I liked having my own space and the neighborhood seemed very Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

One of the other miracles that occurred that summer happened during my first visit to the Hamptons.  I arrived as a guest of a guest at the doorstep of a crumbling mansion in Quogue, overwhelmed by the amount of people living there on the weekends.  I was adding to the problem of course.  After a night there, a very nervous woman who kept talking about her psychiatrist confronted me, demanding to know why I was so happy.  I told her, “Look, my mother died but the air here, the quiet and swimming in the ocean is healing me I think.”  She shook her head and blurted out, “I can’t take this, I bought a full share and you can just have it, I hate this place!”  Um, OK.  Suddenly there I was, the penniless girl who had never been to the Hamptons gifted with a free place to stay at the beach, every weekend, for the rest of the summer and into the fall.  I could not believe my luck and silently thanked the gods for neurotic New Yorkers.

Every Friday after work I went to Penn Station to take the train to Quogue.  The city was sweltering and miserable, plus the maid’s quarters had no air conditioning.  I loved riding the train, but I never sat inside in the cars.  Instead, with my daypack slung over my shoulders I stood between the cars watching the gray, graffitied buildings slowly fall away to row houses with an occasional tree flashing by as we made our slow, rocking way out of the city.  Then the tiny hint of green from the occasional tree morphed into more green as we rolled through the suburbs of Long Island.  In time I could catch a whiff of the ocean and would start gulping in the air like a drowning woman.  I stuck my head out the door window, like an eager dog, looking forward, eyes watering, watching the suburbs melt into something much more charming.  Once we were chugging by the Quarry, a magical spot filled with miraculous, clean, fresh water, I knew Quogue was the next stop.  Sometimes someone would be there to pick us city stragglers up and take us to the house.  Other times I took a cab.  Once or twice I hitch hiked with men in rumpled seersucker so surprised at my request for a lift they thought I was trying to pick them up.  But they always said yes and thankfully never pursued me.  After a milk shake at Perry’s Drug Store, I made my way to the mansion’s grounds a few blocks away.

My tiny quarters at the big beach house were perfect; private and comfortable, with a bath down the hall and communal meals.  I began running out to the beach in the mornings, swimming in the waves to cool down, then collapsing on the sand where I never had enough sunscreen on.  It was pure heaven and I think I was slowly healing from a lot of different things.

I met Jim on my fifth weekend.  He had black hair and blue eyes, like the Black Irish from Galway I’d read about.   We started dating and 10 minutes later he invited me to his sister’s wedding.  I said of course I would love to go.  The wedding was in 2 weeks in a place I’d never heard of:  Purchase, New York.

Because I wanted to make an excellent impression on Jim’s family, I bought an overpriced green Jacquard silk long-sleeved Laura Ashley dress with a high lace collar, something a 6-year old flower girl might wear.  I took the train to Purchase that Saturday morning with my clothes on a hanger covered in drycleaning plastic because I didn’t own a garment bag.  Jim picked me up in a real Ford woody station wagon, the kind you see in bad surfing movies.  I don’t know what I was expecting but when we turned off the road a little past Pepsico World Headquarters up the long winding, gravel driveway, it became clear Jim was rich, or at least his family was.  I wondered why we always went Dutch.

The main house was a big, Georgian thing with columns, and there was a giant tent already set up for the reception in the back yard that I was to learn was called the West Lawn.  I met Jim’s parents and tried not to take their cool reception personally.  But it turns out it was about me, at least in part.  We somehow ended up talking about the Vietnam War and I mentioned my dad had been a squadron commander and full Colonel.  Then I added that it seemed he was finally coming to terms with what a mistake the war had been.  Jim’s father leapt to his feet and said, “We were fighting the Communists’ take over of Asia!”  I almost laughed, but stopped myself.  He was serious!  Bob ushered me out of their living room to a guest room where I could change for the wedding.  In the hallway were photos of Jim’s father with many famous people, including Henry Kissinger.  I asked about the photos and Jim said, “Kissinger will be at the wedding today if you want to meet him.”  Then  I noticed four photos with Nixon and Jim’s father.  “What are these?” I asked in disbelief.  “Dad was Special Assistant to Nixon.”  I wanted to ask more questions but my jaw had dropped to the floor.  Also it was time to change into my inappropriately juvenile dress.

The wedding was a Catholic affair with a full mass.  I figured out pretty quickly how wrong my dress was.  All of the women, with the exception of Jim’s other sister who was a nun, were garbed in chic, designer outfits, none of them long-sleeved with high lace collars and truly unfortunate white stockings.  But at least there were some other tall women there and that made me feel good.  Back at the house uniformed waiters plied us with drinks and appetizers while a quartet played.  It was lovely.  Then we all sat down under the vast, yellow and white striped tent, and had a fabulous dinner.  I thought I might need a wedding like this too someday, perhaps without a 6’1″ flower girl.

As the plates were cleared and the dance floor readied, everyone was asked to walk out towards the East Lawn.  That was when the fireworks began.  Apparently the Grucci Brothers did weddings, or at least weddings in Purchase, New York.  After a show that rivaled any big city’s 4th of July celebration, a gigantic, Love-American-Style heart with the names of the bride and groom inside burst into flames and sparklers.  Henry Kissinger was even clapping and smiling at the display, something I’d never seen him do on television.  William F. Buckley was there too, but when we were introduced he seemed like the same ass in person as he was in print.  However he was Jim’s father’s dear friend and sailing buddy so I tried hard to pretend to be delighted to meet him and his wife.  Still, I could not shake the feeling I’d been dropped behind enemy lines.  Someone even said to me, “Where did you prep?”  I was worried my identity in this sea of incredibly privileged strangers who apparently loved and approved of Richard Nixon, would soon be discovered. Like any delusional overgrown flower girl, I decided Jim could not possibly be anything like his family.

The dancing started and immediately the groom, one of the non-murdering Skakels of Greenwich, Connecticut, grabbed me and threw me over his shoulder and spun around. That would have been fine if it wasn’t the bride and groom’s first dance, plus it was the first time anyone ever attempted such a thing with me, the 6’1″ Amazon.  I kept boogieing when he put me back on the floor as if strange men hefting onto their shoulders happened every day.  He did the same to his bride and other women for the rest of the evening.  I decided it was some sort of upper class mating ritual.  That night we stayed on a sailboat in Stamford and caught the train to the city from there the next morning.  On the way home Jim asked me to go to a black tie affair at the New York Hilton in a few weeks.  Of course I said yes, still under my delusional impression he could not possibly be as conservative as his family.

We went on a few more dates and unbeknownst to Jim, I decided I might be in love and this upcoming dinner dance was probably where Jim would propose.  In retrospect, there was absolutely nothing, other than my wild imagination, that would have led anyone to believe Jim was at all serious about me.  Oh and we’d been dating all of five weeks.

Because I never made it to prom, was too tall to effectively play dress up and wanted to make up for lost time at the ripe old age of 25, I was overcome with a series of expensive ideas right before our special night.  In addition, my law school loans came through and I had some serious cash in my bank account.  I made an appointment at Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door Salon for the works:  facial, manicure, pedicure, makeup and hair.  Most people know to not wear makeup after someone has been picking at your freshly steamed face, but not me.  And the woman who applied the coats and coats of makeup to my inflamed skin meant well, but I looked a lot like a circus clown once she was through.  A second woman did my hair, which is to say she teased it within an inch of its life and then lacquered it into a helmet with gallons of Aquanet as if the 1960’s were not 20 years past.  I emerged from the Red Door Salon feeling freakish and looking exactly that.  Still, since I was no doubt becoming engaged that evening, I was pleased I prepared myself so luxuriously.

I walked over to Madison Avenue to a little place called One Night Stand where, for a mere $450 plus a credit card security deposit of $6,000, I rented an Oscar de la Renta gown and a mink stole.  I bought long black satin gloves at Bloomingdale’s, along with black suede pumps, a tasteful beaded purse I would return the next day, and my first strapless bra.  My old boyfriend from Paris, E, generously supplied the expensive-looking costume emerald and diamond jewelry to wear.  He worked in the business.

The dress was black velvet, strapless and in pure 80’s fashion, adorned with three,large, ridiculous green silk bows down the front.  It was maxi-length and so tight I could only take tiny steps.  Jim was supposed to pick me up but called from Connecticut to say he was delayed while hunting.  I didn’t know what one could hunt in Connecticut but I hoped it wasn’t female.  I assured him it was no problem meeting him at the Hilton.

The tiny steps made getting anywhere take hours so I left early.  After spending so much of my student loan money on renting my clothes, I thought I would save some money by taking the subway.  That was a bad choice but I suffered through the stares and emerged in midtown a little sweaty but right on time.  I was like an overgrown Geisha in my gown, making my way through the crowds.  I was only missing one of those tiny, elaborately painted Japanese parasols, that is if a Geisha was ever a sweaty, 6’1″ woman with freckles shelacked into a plastic mask of clown makeup.

I arrived in the great ballroom surprised to find it full but there were two seats way up front near the dais.  I sat there primly, waiting patiently for Jim, gnawing only on a stale dinner roll.  I didn’t want to eat my rubber chicken without him, especially with an engagement looming.

Jim strode in wearing his grandfather’s tuxedo and diamond cufflinks, looking like a million dollars and only about an hour and 45 minutes late.  My plate had been cleared and the dinner roll was not nearly enough.  I should have at least had it with butter, given the events that were to come to pass that evening.  The room we were in became the Big Band Room and the ballroom down the wide hall was the DJ’d dance room.  I saw my sister and her date, a casual friend of ours, laughing and having fun.  Jim seemed a little grim, but I thought that was because he was mad at himself for being so late.

Once the Lester Lanin Orchestra started up though, I once again felt that fairy tale feeling as Jim whirled me around the dance floor.  After I stepped on his toes for the 9th time, he said he thought I was a bit controlling.  I laughed and told him liberal feminists always led, even while dancing.  He did not find that was funny at all, and seemed grumpier than ever.  We found our rhythm and I noticed my sister dancing up to us with her date.  She swerved into me, planted an elbow to get my attention and said loudly, “Boob’s out!”  I looked at her confused and then looked down.  Sure enough, my Oscar de la Rented as I affectionately called it and my black strapless bra were pulled down below my right breast in a daring display of avante guard fashion.  I pulled away from Jim to pull up my bra and gown, mortified.  Jim started walking away, rather abruptly, saying he wanted to go really dance in the next room.  I followed him like the obedient Japanese woman I was trying to be in my oppressive de la Rented gown, almost tripping and falling in the process.

Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” was playing in the DJ’d room and we started to dance.  Like walking, this kind of dancing proved nearly impossible in the black velvet medieval curtain I was wearing.  Plus rock and roll dancing seem to encourage a certain topless flair to the outfit.  I had one eye on my mink stole in the corner because the $6,000 deposit was beginning to weigh on me.  The combination of these stresses did not make me a very attentive dance partner.  We sat for a moment to cool off and I felt the rivulets of sweat pouring down my forehead, neck, torso and legs.  I could taste Aquanet too.  Jim leaned in to me, I thought for a kiss or perhaps a marriage proposal.  Instead, over the din of “Billy Jean” he said, “I feel really trapped in this relationship.”  Needless to say I was surprised, having blindly not picked up on any of his many signals throughout the evening.

Within minutes he was dancing with his soon-to-be new girlfriend, no doubt a proper conservative who had never flashed a breast at the Lester Lanin Orchestra.  I shrunk into a corner, gathered my mink stole around my sweaty shoulders and left to the beat of Madonna’s “Like A Prayer.”  I splurged on a cab and made it back to my apartment with only a shattered ego and an Oscar de la Rented rash around my torso, both of which healed in a week or so.

Later I found out Jim instigated tearing down the protest shanties at Dartmouth while at college there; shanties put up to protest Dartmouth’s endowment’s investment in South Africa, which was still under Apartheid.  The apple did not apparently fall far from the tree after all.  Me, I was saved from an ill-fated union, even though that union was just an invention of my own mind, that would have included Nixon-loving Reaganites for whom Apartheid was a good investment.

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The Worst Marathoner, Part I

In the summer of 2005 I was 40 or 50 lbs overweight and no matter how much I exercised, including with a trainer twice a week, yoga and running 3 miles or so another few times a week, I could not lose anything.  I didn’t eat like a pig either.  However, I was woefully undereducated about thyroid issues, adrenal issues, hypothalamus issues, gluten intolerance, etc., all of which were contributing to my outward appearance as Fatty McFat.  Plus I was sure I knew a lot about nutrition, and that made me arrogant and unwilling to say, go find a decent endocrinologist.  It was a moral issue for me and I was determined to control it somehow.

My wonderful trainer, Melissa, suggested I sign up for a 5K “Fun Run” and since I was taking most of her suggestions seriously, I did.  The 2005 Stadium Stampede in Denver promised great fun and a finish through the newly named Invesco Field at Mile High.  Naturally I pictured ending this first race in a triumphant, nearly effortless glide through the stadium packed with enthusiastic Denver residents cheering mainly for me.

The day dawned warm, I think it was in May or early June.  I misread the brochure and showed up almost 2 hours early.  There was only 1 car in the vast parking lot.  Two very thin women of suspiciously low body fat percentages lurked outside their Subaru doing gymnastic-type stretches.  Their car, plastered with racing stickers, made me feel instantly angry.  These women were tiny, very serious runners of an ilk I became familiar with early on in my racing career.  They mostly hailed from Boulder and over the course of my three years as a runner, I became accustomed to seeing their hind quarters for a few seconds at the beginning of a race.  That was because they always dusted me in the first 1/10 of a mile or less.

These two came in first and second that day, beating most of the men.  I think they were from Eastern Block countries and steroids may have been involved.  But no matter, in the predawn light I could tell they hated me as they looked me up and down with disdain.  My response was to start stretching as if we were all going for Olympic gold.

At the starting line, I saw my trainer, who forgot her racing bib and was wearing her mother’s.  She was laughing about it.  After the race, her mother received a phone call from the race director congratulating her on her amazing time and asking for an interview.  I’m not sure if the truth ever came out about her 29-year old fitness trainer daughter running in her place.

This being my first race, I positioned myself at the front of the starting line, because my ego and my running capabilities were somewhat misaligned.  When the gun went off, I started too fast, that being relative of course, because even at my own breakneck pace, thousands of runners stuck behind me were forced to make their way around me in the first few minutes of the run.

We ran along the South Platte and within a mile I had shin splints that forced me into a slow, painful hobble.  A kindly race volunteer made sympathetic sounds and suggested I consider throwing in the towel as I gripped the railing of one of the pedestrian bridges.  I might have been moaning in agony.  I scowled at this irritatingly cheery person and moved forward.  How dare he?

By the time I entered Invesco Stadium, most of the race walkers had passed me.  And no one was in the stadium except a camera crew as I hobbled through at my breakneck 12.5 minute per mile pace. I looked up and on the big screen it was thrilling to see myself, but it was only for about two seconds because the camera panned past me to a septuagenarian woman who was gaining steadily, clearly trying to beat me.

The finish line crowds were just outside of the stadium for the last 100 yards or so.  In all my jiggling glory, I tried to speed up.  As I broke out of the stadium to make my way to the finish line, a cheer rolled through the crowd just as I imagined, but it was not for me.  It was for the aged granny who was going to beat me in the last seconds.  They were definitely rooting for her.

Kind Fred was at the finish line looking worried and then somewhat puzzled as I elbowed granny out of the way to beat her by a few feet and finish the race with a blistering 13 minute per mile average pace.  I was so disappointed in myself I ran past Fred and everyone until I made it to the far end of the parking lot, away from the maddening crowd.  I met Fred at the car and we left quickly, just as the two steroid-infused Boulder androids were receiving their first and second place awards on the podium.  Bitches.

Instead of considering another sport, or perhaps an obscure, fat-shortened life filled with cake, cookies, ice cream and a lot of television, my racing really took off from there.  I ran a few more 5Ks and two 10Ks, and then completed the Boulder Backroads Half Marathon, finishing last out of hundreds of irritating people in better shape than I.  Between my inauspicious beginnings at the Stadium Stampede 5k and the fall of 2007, I trained for 6 marathons and completed 4.  I made it to mile 13 in the Estes Park Marathon and definitely would not have completed that race that day.  I was stopped at mile 18 in the Chicago Marathon because the City of Chicago shut down the race due to heat.  I believe I would have finished that one though.  I also ran 5 half marathons and a 17-mile race.  There were other 10Ks and 5Ks too.  After Arizona, I joined a running group where, although I was again routinely last, they were remarkably nonjudgmental about my ineptitude.

I’ve been passed by morbidly obese racers in a fast waddle as I’m running and some were even in their 70s and 80s.  I am a strong finisher though.  Even if over 6 hours have elapsed and I’m limping, I manage to run hard to the finish for the photo, because the effort must be saved in false glory for posterity.  My ego loves that money shot, even if I’m last.  I’m not proud of that but it is remains an important part of my running career as an overweight, middle-aged athlete persevering, thank you very much.

My first marathon was the 2005 Phoenix Rock-n-Roll Marathon.  It took me about 15 hours and I’m not disabled.  OK, maybe 7 hours.  Granted I fell down an entire flight of cement stairs at Meteor Crater in between Winslow and Flagstaff the day before this first marathon.  So I was beat up, stiff and sore when I arrived at the starting line on that mild January morning in Phoenix.  Actually I was nowhere near the starting line.  I was back in the 6 hour group of non-runners, walkers and really fat people trying to prove something.  Although I was fat too and certainly had something to prove, I still felt I should be a just tiny bit closer to the Kenyans and Ethiopians.

By mile 7 I was hobbling with shin splints and eating Advil like M&Ms.

By mile 14 I switched to Tylenol and was snarling at all the incredibly bad bands in this “Rock and Roll Marathon.”  Clearly they were picked to play so people would speed up to get the craptastic “music” behind them as soon as possible.

By mile 21 concerned, well-meaning First Responders were asking me if I wanted to sit for a while in their ambulances.  “Um, no thanks, just having a bad day, Fuckers.”

Plus the Colonel and his new wife Carolyn were waiting for me at the finish line and I was going to make it, even if I crawled on my swelled up hands and shin splinted shins.

Around mile 24 the really fat people began passing me as I jogged, many of them simply walking fast, their blubber shaking as I watched their backsides pull away from me.  I kept thinking, “Well at least I’m fucking running.”  But I was barely doing that.  And striving for an air of superiority while being passed by herds of obese people in the last stages of a marathon can rankle even the most positive person, which I am not.

I crossed the finish line with a housewife from Michigan who became my friend in the last 2 miles.  I saw the Colonel and Carolyn, looking tired and slowly getting down from the bleachers to greet me.  I stumbled towards some sliced oranges and cups of water and someone who put a medal around my neck.  Then a very kind person removed my shoes and bloodied socks and placed my feet in some awesome rubber sandals.  I would not have been able to do that since I could not bend any part of my body.  Then, like any world-class athlete with only middle age and a paunch holding her back from international glory, I burst into tears.

Carolyn and Dad gave me a ride back to my hotel.  It took hours due to my inability to communicate directions or find true north. We circumnavigated Phoenix, which is a lot like L.A. but without a nice ocean.  I had to be helped out of the car by the concierge.

It took another hour or so to make it through the lobby to the elevators and up to my room because I could only walk in straight-legged, tiny steps, like a small Japanese woman in a confining, floor-length kimono.  I was also really cold, even though it was about 80 degrees.

The next day I drove all the way to Santa Fe. I stopped at a motel, where again I had to be helped out.  The front desk man looked at me shuffling towards him and said, “You’re lucky because we only have one disabled room left.”  I paid for it gratefully and used the rails in the tub and other amenities that evening.  The next day I drove the rest of the way back to Denver, having learned nothing from my painful few days trying to prove something.

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