Category Archives: Backstory

Mamá, todavía te extraño.

Mom, I still miss you.

Twenty-three years later I still do.  I miss your laugh that started low and built up into something loud, contagious and hard to ignore, especially in public,  your ranting about how Reagan ruined the country, about the growing, callous disregard for the working poor which I’m sad to say continues, and the goofy way you danced at Grateful Dead concerts embarrassing us. I miss your talks about migrant workers needing help with pesticide and herbicide poisoning, education for their kids and access to basic hygiene.  I miss your anger about Native Americans and genocide, rich hippies and hypocrisy, gender discrimination and radical feminism.  I miss the wistful way you talked about a man who asked you to marry him in an Iowa cornfield and then died in a river in Vermont.  I miss your huge, impossible lists for the book mobile, and your huge, impossible lists of great books we had to read.  I miss your analysis of the failed promises of the 1960’s and the social change you were still waiting on.  I miss your loneliness over friends you thought you had who weren’t there for you.  I miss how you tried to insist we all learn Spanish because One Hundred Years of Solitude was so much better in that language.  Two of the three of us did and I wish I had.  I miss your self-righteousness about eating organic food and supporting organic restaurants and farms, your love of the Mother Goddess and your confirmed suspicions about hypocritical self-declared, California gurus who were really just sexist egomaniacs.  I miss the way you buried money in mason jars and and then forgot where you buried them and how you cooked pinto beans in the cast iron Dutch Oven on the roof of the station wagon in Baja because it was that hot.  I miss the way I caught you looking at me once, when we camped with Katie in the desert under huge palm trees near the only water for miles but not too close, because you wanted to make sure the desert animals had comfortable access to it.  In your look I could see, and I knew how much, you loved the three of us and how deeply you felt you failed us.  I miss the “No Bozos Allowed” bumper sticker on the Buick station wagon, the affirmations and Zen chants and prosperity thinking. I miss the beautiful clothes you sewed from seconds at LL Bean woolen mills, the faith you had in us and the impossible demands you made that tested the faith we had in you.  I miss your sense of adventure and the way you started surfing in your 50’s when the cancer went into remission.  And I miss your notebooks filled with long lists of people you needed to forgive for firing you, humiliating you, rejecting you, hurting you, especially the ones who fell out of your life once you had cancer.  And on those lists was even your father, for shooting your half coyote puppy when you were a tiny girl and for what he did to you and later, to us.  And how you never allowed him to see us again, until almost 20 years later at Mike’s wedding when we were grown up.  I miss the way you said, matter-of-factly, “If I don’t forgive them, who will?”

I miss it all, even the shit storms of unmedicated manic insanity and the inevitable crashes into debilitating months-long depression, because if I didn’t have those parts of you too, I didn’t have all of you, and it was worth it to have all of you.  I wish I had made that more clear to you.

Mama, todavia te extrano.  Viente tres anos.  A blink of an eye.  I’d like you to know I’m working on forgiving everyone for everything too.  Once in a while, sometimes for just a moment, it feels as though I even have.

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Chinese Medicine

I started to see a Chinese doctor in New York City in the late 1980s.  His name was Dr. Fu Zhang and he had a busy, non HIPAA-compliant office off Broadway in Chinatown.  On one wall were shelves and drawers filled with strange-smelling herbs, dried flowers, sticks, and powders, like a prosperous, medieval apothecary, minus the guys in big floppy hats, velvet pantaloons and smelly tights trying to cure their boils.  On another wall were rows of hard, plastic chairs filled with sick people waiting their turns behind the thin curtain that separated the exam room from the rest of the place.

My friend Sanjay brought me to my first appointment.  Sanjay was a very hip, half German, half Indian man of great beauty, with thick, blue-black hair in a neat pony tail all the way down his back.  I referred to him as Klaus Kundalini after we started dating.  He was so beautiful that his thick-framed, Buddy Holly glasses had the reverse effect, and made everyone who saw him only stare harder at his face juxtaposed with those nerdy glasses.

It was through a smoky haze that I first noticed Sanjay sucking down one cigarette after another, squirming slightly in his chair, eyes darting nervously.  He drank cup after cup of coffee and was wearing khaki pants with navy blue converse low-cut tennis shoes, no socks and a navy blue v-neck sweater.  It was an Upper East Side uniform of sorts, but his darker skin and lush, mid-back-length shiny black hair made him seem less like a Farnsworth Biffington Blowhard St. Clair and more like a preppily-disguised outlaw, at least in my mind.  I stared at him for about two years before he showed up at my apartment door one night with red roses to take me to a play where one of the Redgraves would be tastefully naked on Broadway.

Since I thought we were buddies going to the theater as friendly neighbors, I was surprised he had roses.  I was less surprised when he told me I was under-dressed, but I was wearing the one outfit I had that was in between a herringbone suit and jeans and a stained sweatshirt.

I explained I had nothing else to wear other than my, yes, (it was the ’80s) black stirrup pants and untucked, shoulder-padded, flowery silk shirt unless I put on a suit.  Oh well.  Little did I know that soon enough I, too, would be clad in khakis, navy converse low-cut tennis shoes and a navy v-neck sweater, at least when I wasn’t going to the theater to see naked Redgraves.

We were neighbors on East 92nd between First and York, just four blocks from the DMZ at 96th Street, and ate breakfast around the same time every day at a nearby diner.  I lived in a grimy, rat-infested ground-floor apartment right out of a Willard movie and he lived across the street.  I didn’t keep food in my apartment except in the fridge, but that didn’t stop the rats from pouring out of the burners in the stove, oblivious to the steel wool I stuffed in the holes in the wall (they chewed right through it).  I finally put a big piece of plywood over the top of the stove, with a chair holding it down to keep the rats at bay.  Sanjay was fixing up his place and hadn’t paid rent in years because there were issues with the building, like an elephant-sized hole in the floor and windows that didn’t close all the way, no heat and intermittent electricity.   I think squatting was the word he used.

At the diner, he always ordered scrambled eggs “soft” so I started doing that too.  Naturally we ended up sitting at the same booth talking about our relationships and I took immediate dislike to his girlfriend, well, until I met her.  But after becoming friends with her, Sanjay and I started dating and I don’t think anyone let her know.  The drama that ensued foreshadowed the drama of my own breakup with him some months later under similar circumstances.

After a few weeks of increased neighborliness and dodging his girlfriend, I ended up with a bad sinus infection.  Drama can really make one run down.  Sanjay insisted I go see his doctor in Chinatown.

The good doctor took my pulse a few times, looked at my tongue and wrote out a prescription in Chinese characters.  In the next room, a tiny woman, not unlike one of the thumb-sized twins in the Godzilla-Mothra films, pulled powders, sticks, weeds and dried flowers out of drawers and off shelves and told me to boil the fistfuls of oddly-smelling dried stuff, strain it and drink the tea twice a day.  I think I paid $25.00 for both the appointment and the tea.

I followed directions, for once, and in no time I was better, without the help of antibiotics.  So I began to see Dr. Zhang whenever my health was less than perfect.

I was working full-time at a Wall Street law firm as a paralegal and attending law school four nights a week from 6-9 p.m.  Not exactly an available girlfriend schedule but I expected Sanjay to understand my limited time with him would have to do until I got out of school in another three or four years.  In my self-centered mind it didn’t seem like a lot to ask but it turns out it was.

So of course Sanjay broke up with me as gently as possible and started dating a beautiful, waif-like waitress about ten minutes later.  I was crushed.  Confusing heartbreak with an actual, medical problem, I went to see Dr. Zhang.

The waiting room was crowded with all kinds of New Yorkers, only a few of them Chinese.  I was sniffling away with my broken heart, trying not to sob outright and also not to touch asses with the people on either side of me (the chairs were clearly for tiny people from the Far East).  When my turn finally came and I went through the thin curtain and sat on the exam table.  Dr. Zhang took my hand to feel my pulse and looked into my eyes.  That simple act caused me to burst into loud sobs.  In spite of Dr. Zhang’s limited English, my story spilled out about Sanjay, the beautiful waitress and poor, poor, pitiful me.  I was blubbering with such force it was hard to catch my breath.  The waiting room became too quiet and a few people cleared their throats as if to let me know it wouldn’t hurt to take it down a few notches.

Dr. Zhang told me to stick out my tongue, probably to get me to stop blabbing on.  He said, in a too-loud voice, as if to comfort me, “No worry, he need different woman every night.”    With that pronouncement he held up his finger in the universal sign to hold on and disappeared through the curtain and out the door.

I lay down on the exam table wondering what the people in the waiting room thought and looking to see if I could exit through the window but there was no fire escape.  It was very quiet and Dr. Zhang was gone at least fifteen minutes.  When he finally came back in, he presented me with a milkshake and told me to drink it.  Then he patted my arm and said, “No charge today, bye bye.”

I made my way through the waiting room with my milkshake, not making any eye contact with any other patients.   Maybe it was the sugar, but once I was out in the crisp, October afternoon air, I had a strong feeling everything was going to be OK, and of course it was.

And now, twenty years later Sanjay and I are friends again, each married a long time to good people, but I sure wish Dr. Zhang had an office in Colorado because I still need a milkshake once in a while.

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You Can Never Go Home, But I Keep Trying

And yes, I’ll be trying again this weekend.

The first time I learned we were leaving Crested Butte was the morning after my mom was on the phone to my Dad in the middle of the night again.  Dad was stationed in Thailand.  For months the whispered calls at 3:00 a.m. were full of tears or raised voices, or both.  It was 1973 and the war was winding down, and with it, their anger at one another for how each felt about, and reacted to, Vietnam and each’s various affairs, probably not in that order.

Mom was tired of trying to raise three kids with no money and no help.  Jobs for unreliable, somewhat heavy drinkers who took a lot of drugs weren’t easy to find and always harder to keep, especially in a tiny resort town.  Paying for groceries at Stephanic’s with food stamps always made me feel ashamed, and I know she felt the same, or she would not have sent her ten-year old to do the shopping.

Mom said Dad was the youngest full Colonel in Southeast Asia, barely forty and already a decorated squadron commander.  He was still in love with her and, I believe now, missed all of us in his own way.  But I was a suspicious ten-year old, full of worry about the future, and this pending reunion did nothing to sway that.

Still, whatever I did or didn’t do, they were remarrying one another in Denver and we moving to the Philippines.  Their decision was fortified when he arrived in Crested Butte directly from Khorat Air Force Base in Thailand, or as directly as one could at that time.  That meant a C-130 to Guam, refuel, land at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, refuel, land at Travis Air Force Base in California, catch a civilian flight from San Francisco to Denver, then a tiny plane to Gunnison.  When he finally made it to the Gunnison Valley, still in his uniform, two straight days after leaving Khorat, it was just as summer began its shy foray into the high country, around the time when the glacier lilies bloom so quickly and die even faster.  Hopeful days where summer passes in a blink of an eye after nine, long months of winter.

The two of them disappeared into the greening hills up Kebler, near the Beckwiths, for almost a week.  I don’t remember who took care of us; it might have been Mike at age thirteen.  Mom brought some freeze-dried food from the Alpineer, fruit and a lot of LSD.  Somewhere in the West Elk Wilderness they made camp near a rushing creek, and she built a sweatlodge.

She said you should never kill anything to build a lodge, and she didn’t kill anything then.  She bent the willows growing out of the ground over on one another and tied them, until she had a tiny shelter.  Then she covered that with Indian blankets, their edges anchored with stones.  With her Swiss Army knife she cut large, eagle-wing-sized sage branches from the sage bushes everywhere.  A big fire was built with deadfall and those dangerous, explosive river rocks were piled into the coals.

They were tripping and naked and hardly any food was eaten.  They drank big gulps of water from the tin camping cup right out of the rushing stream.  Mom said they filled the pit in the sweatlodge with glowing river rocks, and then placed the sage branches over the rocks so that if one exploded, which inevitably happened, the river rock shrapnel would be stopped by the layers of branches.  Also it made everything smell so good.

She said they both needed to cleanse their souls, especially him, to go back to, and be forgiven by, Mother Earth.  She was sure he knew deep down he must have killed women, children and old people, dropping all that napalm on Vietnamese villages.  After the sun set they lay under an astonishing canopy of shooting stars until the acid wore off and they passed out.  In the mornings they took more acid, drank freshly picked chamomile tea and stirred the coals until they had another raging fire, piling it once again with river rock.  Years later, even in the worst shit storms of their relationship, Mom would say, if she remembered, that, no matter what, there was a week of healing in the West Elks neither could ever forget.

When they came out of the mountains, they came out together and for a little while they seemed happy.  We all piled into our 1971 Toyota Landcruiser and drove to Denver where they were remarried in a tiny ceremony at a church I don’t remember the name of.  Dad left to go back to Thailand.  Khorat Air Force Base was closing, and he would be stationed in the Philippines soon, where we would meet him.  For us kids we had just a few, precious summer months left in the mountains, but the living was easy because he was giving her money again.

I still didn’t want to leave Crested Butte, but Mom didn’t want to hear that from me.  When I told her I didn’t want to go for the millionth time, it was in an ill-timed moment while she was scrubbing the bathroom in Matt Kapushion’s old house on First and Whiterock.  Her back was to me so I didn’t see her flicker into one of her rages until  she whirled around red-faced with crazy eyes, grabbing at me wildly.  I was cornered in that small space, and she grabbed my arm so hard it left her purple hand print for days.  With her other hand she grabbed the Mason Pierson hairbrush on the sink and hit me on the head so fast and so hard the hairbrush broke in two after the second blow.   I stopped talking about staying after that.

As the day of our departure neared, Mom said we weren’t going to get to take our dog Bofer, a golden retriever-Saint Bernard mix who was only about a year old.  I didn’t understand and the anticipation of that parting made my heart ache every night while I tried to fall asleep, worrying about the unknown, about life on an Air Force Base where all the boys would have crewcuts and the girls would probably be prissy as hell.  And not like me.  I didn’t understand Mom was out of options, desperate and overwhelmed.  And hoping that this time with Dad would be different.  I hope I understand that now though.  I remember she just kept saying Bofer wouldn’t like being a big, giant, furry boy in the tropics of Southeast Asia, that he would be miserable, that there were no Saint Bernards in the Philippines.  I wanted to scream I’d be miserable without him, that he was only half Saint Bernard, but I didn’t want to face another hairbrush beating.

Even though I was only ten, after a year in Crested Butte I felt I was finally in a place I really belonged forever and ever.  A beautiful, magical town where all 63 school kids, from kindergarten through seventh grade, got to go skiing every Tuesday afternoon on the mountain.  Season passes were $50 but even the poor children whose families couldn’t afford it, and the ranchers’ kids who had to do ranch work instead of ski, were bused up on Tuesdays, fitted with rental equipment and broken out into ski groups based on ability.  It was a blast.  On Thursdays we had the afternoon off to go cross-country skiing with the marshall.  He taught us survival skills like what to do if we had hypothermia.  Our pot-smoking, LSD-dropping parents were naturally suspicious of him, making constant jokes about dosing his coffee with some “loaded” sugar cubes.  But every Thursday afternoon he made our lives really fun and adventurous.

In my ten years on Earth at that time I’d lived in Weisbaden, Germany, Chicago, Illinois, Norfolk, Virginia, Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, Winslow, Arizona, Misawa, Japan and Flagstaff, Arizona.  I’d been to a few different preschools, three kindergartens, two second grades and again changed schools from third to fourth grade.  I just wanted to stay somewhere for a long time and not be the new kid again.  And that somewhere was Crested Butte.

So my friend Melissa and I hatched a plan.  My friend Kitty may have been in on it too.  Since it was summer, and we were not town-bound and could roam almost anywhere except down the highway to Gunnison, we decided I should run away just west of town.  With a loaf of bread and an old canteen, we pitched a tent overlooking town, just west of my house off Kebler Pass.  I could see the Don and Adele Bachman’s house and maybe go knock on their door in case of an emergency.

It’s funny now to think I didn’t think anyone would find me.  Melissa agreed to bring me food.  I thought Bofer could move with me too.  I didn’t plan as far ahead as winter.  Or even the fall, because I was a little scared about hunting season.  A few years earlier, in 1969, a hunter shot a couple of kids riding a small motorcycle, killing one of them.  He might have been drunk.  Otherwise how do you explain blowing the head off a six-year old while he’s hanging onto his older brother on a little red motorcycle?  Word around town was that the hunter got off with probation.  It was a highly political case and the judge and jury didn’t want to discourage out-of-state hunters from enjoying the Colorado high country.  I don’t know what happened to that poor family.

As August settled in and the date of departure for Southeast Asia loomed, Melissa and I tried to get more organized about my running away.  Then a grown-up got wind of the plan and the tent was taken down.  And I thought about the hairbrush and of course kept quiet, resigning myself to what lay ahead.

The movers came to pack the house up, drive our belongings out to San Francisco and load them on a ship bound for the Philippines.  Bofer was tied up in the back yard on First and Whiterock, with assurances a nice family was coming to get him.  Melissa told me later he howled and howled for days in that back yard before she came and got him.  I hate to think Mom just left him.  I’d rather think there was someone coming to get him who flaked out, and hippies were famous for flaking out.  I will never know the truth, except that she was overwhelmed and trying to patch up a shitty marriage and worse divorce with this new marriage to the same man.

Eventually Melissa’s aunt took Bofer to Aspen where he lived a long, happy life, dying in the early 1980’s.  I’m so glad I got to see him one more time in the spring of 1976.  He was a good dog.

So yes, we moved back to Crested Butte in January 1976.  Left again in 1978.  Came back for full summers in 1978, 1979 and 1980.  But by then Mom had cancer, and she moved to the Mexican border for her controversial, natural Gerson Therapy cancer treatment.  I came back to Crested Butte for visits in 1982, 1988, 1990 and 1992.

Then in September 1992, I moved from my tiny, studio apartment in New York City back to Crested Butte, this time as an adult.  I thought I might be a tweedy country lawyer there.  It had a nice ring to it.  I landed a weird little job at a weird little law firm in Gunnison, but I had no place to live, no car and no money to live on.  It seemed harder to be there without money than even Manhattan.  I left again in 1996, heartbroken for other reasons but determined not to let any of it show, and exhausted from my self-induced struggles, financial, emotional and otherwise.

A year later, in 1997, I moved back with the love of my life, and he bought a house in Crested Butte South.  We agreed to a two-year experiment there in the Valley.  But at the end of that two years, he was not offered a job as a teacher, even after all the substitute teaching and coaching basketball.  I was not yet working as an attorney.  It was over, but I was finally ready to really leave.   I think.

So we moved to a place where we could be self-supporting, build careers and really start our life together.  Neutral ground.  It couldn’t be Crested Butte, my hometown, and it couldn’t be Bath, Maine, his.  Now I’ve been in one place for nearly 11 years, for the first time in my life.

Still, Crested Butte remains my hometown, a place where I get to mythologize my childhood, adolescence and even my thirties.  But sometimes I get to tell the truth about it too.  And the town is different every time I go back, with more real estate offices and t-shirt shops, and less empty lots where kids can play.  The cars are more expensive, the houses nicer, the restaurants pricier, and I don’t know everyone anymore.

Still I go back, and I love it there.  The people who do know me, have often known me nearly forty years over the patchwork of my comings and goings.  Even my friend Melissa, who helped plan my escape into the field near Adele and Don Bachman’s house back in 1973, is still there, now with her own family.

I have always had this longing to be from somewhere, and once I was from Crested Butte I had that, a place that called to me and mountains that healed me, that still heal me.  So what pulls me there still is not just seeing all the old friends and acquaintances, laughing about the latest small town gossip or sitting next to Coal Creek on a sunny afternoon having an icecream cone.  No, it’s those mountains.  And I like to think of my parents in those mountains, healing each other in a sweatlodge by a river, letting go of that goddamned war and what it did to them, and whatever shit they did to each other, finally willing to walk their road again, hand in hand, even if it wasn’t going to last.

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Other Mothers, Other Days

There were so many but I guess I’ll start with my Aunt Gloria, my dad’s older sister who will be 80 this year.

She is my godmother.  Goddess mother.  My oldest living female relative.  Funny and smart, she seems almost always filled with a deep sadness that never really dissipates.  She had 10 children in 11 1/2 years and her oldest died at 28.  You’re not supposed to outlive your children, but she outlived Patty, now for nearly 30 years.

Aunt Gloria found out she has breast cancer about a week ago.  Because they caught it very early and and she is very old (she’s been known to sign her emails, “Love, Methusulah”), her prognosis is excellent.  Still, I wish she didn’t have cancer.

Aunt Gloria went to graduate school in psychology in her 50s and 60s, and became a certified Jungian psychotherapist in her 70’s.  She recently told me she’s thinking of retiring this year but doesn’t want to retire just because she has cancer, so she might work for a while longer.

When I came to Chicago for a visit in December 1978, my dad hoped I would leave having changed my mind about staying in Crested Butte no matter what.  He wanted me to move in with him on the Front Range .  I stubbornly held on to my Crested Butte dreams, even though I was living on my own in a trailer behind Takeaway, a small grocery store in town.  I’d been living alone for months and I was just a freshman in high school.  My mom had long since moved to a tiny, 1-bedroom, eight-sided log cabin outside of town, owned by her new boyfriend John Newberry.  There was no room for me and although I never let it show, my feelings were deeply hurt.  I didn’t want to move and I didn’t know where I fit anymore.  Kate lived with dad already and Mike left the state earlier in the year.  I was the one holdout, clinging to Crested Butte like it was the last piece of floating debris in the sinking wreckage of my family.  Plus I knew people in Crested Butte who loved me.  People who had known me longer than anywhere else.  And I felt glimpses of something like spirituality there, especially if I was hiking above town in my beloved mountains.

But at 14 I’d already been drinking in the bars for about 2 years.  I had a job dishwashing 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., but I still ran out of money all the time, didn’t have enough warm clothes and monthly rent on the trailer came due too often for my wages to keep up.  I slept in my down sleeping bag because I didn’t own any sheets.  I was stubborn and tough on the outside, but I was still just a kid, trying to act older than 14, but really scared shitless and eating a lot of ramen noodles when I didn’t have a restaurant shift.

So with hairline cracks spreading through my tough facade I agreed to fly to Chicago to see the shrink my dad and his family kept saying I should see.

He turned out to be a defrocked Jesuit priest-turned psychologist with, luckily for me, a predatory penchant for young men.  He also had  a deep hatred of all things female and it wasn’t hard to peg him as a mysogynistic asshole.  Still, everyone in Chicago seemed to hold him in high regard and there I was.  What he told me after an hour was that I would end up a junkie and a whore, just like my mother.  But since my mother was neither, I didn’t find him particularly credible.  I was coming around though to the idea that I was going to have to leave Crested Butte.

When I met with Gloria’s kids, the Weiss cousins, I was quiet, overwhelmed by the noisy mob of them.  Aunt Gloria told me her kids thought I was a snob but she explained to them after I left that I wasn’t aloof, just shy.  I was glad she stuck up for me.

At Grandma Marie’s, Aunt Gloria came into the guest room while I had my suitcase opened.  I don’t know why but she noticed I didn’t have any bras and I only had 1 pair of raggedy underwear that was too big for me.  It sounds pitiful now, but I just wore that one pair right side one day and inside out the next and then every other day I washed them and hung them up to dry overnight.

Aunt Gloria took me shopping at JC Penney’s then and there.  She bought me a few training bras and enough underwear to last a few weeks along with some regular clothes.  I offered to pay her back and she looked at me hard and just said she’d talk to my father.  She tried not to say anything bad about my mother but I could tell she was mad at her that I had just 1 pair of underwear.  She was mad at her for a lot of things.

I remember looking at all the new, white underwear on Grandma Marie’s lumpy twin bed with the nubby cotton coverlet and it felt better than Christmas.  By Aunt Gloria’s simple, protective, motherly gesture, I knew, even with her 10 children, full-time job and graduate school, that she had my back.  And now, even with cancer, it feels like she still does.

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Cheesefood Is Neither.

Obese children make me sad.  Make your kids eat real food.  Make them go outside and play.  Better yet, go outside and play with them.  Teach them how to cook.  Make it fun.  I say this out of love and concern, and as a very opinionated woman who never had a watermelon-sized human push through her girl parts.  So being child-free I am naturally full of opinions about children.  And recently I read that today’s children are the first generation (of Americans) who will have a shorter lifespan than their parents.  All because they are so overweight.

This ends up having to do with me of course.  I was an overweight kid and whenever my Uncle Dee called me “Miss Fat”, my feelings got hurt.  When I see fat kids, I wonder how they are holding up against all the teasing.

The last time that happened with Uncle Dee we were standing in the front yard at 205 Zuni Drive in Flagstaff, Arizona.  I was 9 years old.  Dee was visiting from Winslow where, to my mother’s disgust, he’d just married a 16-year old girl named Vickie.  I think he was nearly 30 at the time.  Mom correctly predicted they would divorce as soon as Vickie got a little older and “came into own personality.”

It was one of those windy, high desert days with a sun you expect to be searing but isn’t.  Too high up and too cold.  The constant whooshing of cars and semis going by on the highway a block or so away steadily eroded the windswept silence.  I can still smell the ponderosa pine, juniper trees and playground cinders.

Earlier that spring, Mom pissed off the neighbors by plowing up much of the front lawn and planting corn and beans.  The corn was now as tall as me and she sent me outside with a bowl to pick some ears for dinner.  We were having beans, rice, corn, salad and quesadillas again.

Uncle Dee teased me like he always did, following me out the front door, relentlessly.  I’d had enough of him.  And my body didn’t seem fat to me.  Yes, my clothes didn’t fit and my pants were always too short.  I don’t remember having clothes that fit unless mom made them and even those I seemed to grow out of in a matter of months.  I was just so tall, and getting taller all the time.

That day I wore a light blue jumper thing covered in white daisies that was too small, and some maryjane pumps for someone older than 9.  My feet were already a size 9 womens.  The shoes came from a second-hand store and I liked the way my feet looked in them.

Uncle Dee leaned against our the house and kept teasing me.  I shucked the corn because I didn’t want to make a mess inside, all the while getting madder and madder.  Finally I whirled around and said, “Well you’re tight Uncle Dee!”

Uncle Dee’s eyes grew big and he grabbed my arm, “Don’t ever say that, that’s a bad grown up word; do you even know what it means?”  “It means you’re stingy!”  I yelled as I twisted away from him, almost dropping the corn and running awkwardly into the house, the heels of my pumps sticking into what was left of the dry, dead lawn.

Mom laughed at how mad Dee was.  She was beautiful back then.  Dark, almost black hair, with her Mescalero Apache skin and her surprising green eyes.  She was a slim 6 feet tall, and men always noticed her in her Levis, Frye boots and nearly see-through men’s undershirt tank tops.  I wanted to be thin and look like her, and I wanted skin that tanned instead of burned and blistered in the Arizona sun.  Mostly I wanted to be grown up already so I could help her, because she wasn’t very happy and I thought I could change that.

We kids played outside all the time.  Mom threw out our television after one of her first acid trips.  She didn’t want her kids turning into zombies in front of the boob tube.  She said it wasn’t worth watching after Nixon had the Smothers Brothers and Rocky and Bullwinkle taken off the air.  And she didn’t let us eat junk food, although we sometimes snuck away with her graduate school friend, Steve Lehman, who we called “Lemo”, to the Dairy Queen for dipped ice cream cones.  I liked him because we were the same height and he was funny and talked to me like a normal person.  He never called me Miss Fat either.  Mom and Lemo were in Trig together at Northern Arizona University, the only students in their late 30s in the class.  She was a foot taller than he but they became fast friends.

Mom was puzzled about my chubbiness.  I knew it disappointed her.  I slimmed down here and there, but the chubbiness always reappeared.  Finally in my 20s I became thin for about 20 years and it was such a relief.  It seems a little silly now, but I’m glad I was thin when she died, so the last time she saw me she wouldn’t be disappointed with the way I looked.

After she died in December 1987 I searched for months for her, irrationally certain, as I gazed in the faces of people in the subways and streets of Manhattan, she would appear to me.  I just wanted to see her face one more time, to not forget what she looked like, in spite of photographs and recent memory.  Mostly I didn’t want her to be dead, so irrevocably gone.  But she was and I couldn’t find her in those faces.

So it is on cold spring days like today that I remember her putting us to work digging up that hard old dead sod, preparing the stubborn Arizona earth for the tiny corn and bean plants she was growing in egg cartons on the kitchen table, for the harvest ahead that eventually came.

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High Class Problems

I can’t seem to get my ass in gear to complete some fairly simply assignments from my book editor. Yes I’m busier than ever with my caseload at work and now I’m training for a fall marathon three or four times a week.  The running helps me in too many ways to name and is a cure for insomnia.  Plus, please start the violins here or just play a fucking crescendo from the saddest symphony ever, I do all of the shopping and cooking at my house.  Nevermind that Fred does all the cleaning up and deals with the cat litter and trash.

I’m pretty sure if I just won the Colorado Lottery, no, it would have to be the multi-state Powerball, I could finish the rewrites of my book a lot more quickly, in between twice-weekly massages, directing a staff of nice, bright people I hired as part of my philanthropic organization, planning healthy, amazing meals with my gluten-free expert  personal chef, Pietro and writing a witty blog about achieving balance in the midst of instant, enormous wealth.

But at the moment God seems to have a different plan for me, although I keep buying lottery tickets every week.

I met with my high school counselor in the spring of 1980 near the end of my junior year.  For some reason my then-stepmother attended this session with me.  The counselor was tired, overwhelmed and did not seem nearly as delighted with me as I was.  My stepmother had an annoying habit of telling me I would not amount to much and this was my opportunity to prove to her my future was unbelievably bright.  As is often the case, things did not unfold according to my plan.

I began with a concise summation of my excellent, clearly achievable goals:  eventually I would be a full-time, best-selling writer living in a cabin outside of Crested Butte, working the winters as a ski patrolwoman to stave off cabin fever.  To achieve that, I would go to college and medical school, have a brilliant, lucrative career as a neurosurgeon and retire at about 40.  Then I would retreat to my cabin, my writing and my ski patrolling.  I added I had a Plan B, which was, if medicine didn’t suit me, I would become a lawyer, have an equally brilliant and lucrative career (I wasn’t sure what lawyers did so I didn’t elaborate), retire at 40 as planned and write those bestselling novels in my cabin outside of Crested Butte.  I noticed the counselor didn’t seem to pay attention and hurriedly glanced through my file.  He had no superlatives to toss in my direction and instead said in a tired voice,  “You should try to get into community college somewhere to get an associate’s degree in something so you won’t make minimum wage for the rest of your life.  Your grades are OK but don’t show you are particularly talented in anything, or more importantly, focused on any one area.  These disciplinary issues don’t help you at all.  Stop mouthing off.  You excel at nothing, you have no activities listed, no volunteer work and no community involvement.  Colleges are not going to be interested in you, plus, as your mother (I interrupted him to say, “Stepmother!”) said, there’s no money to pay for higher education.”  My stepmother nodded in agreement, looking relieved.  I, meanwhile, was stunned.  I figured Ivy League schools would fight over me once I applied and maybe a scholarship-laden bidding war would quickly ensue.  

As we left, my stepmother told me I would have to live at home with her and the Colonel, work full-time for minimum wage and attend community college.  She reiterated, as she had since I met her in 9th grade, that my financial salvation lay in marrying well.

When I called my real mother, who was in the middle of her cancer treatment doing the Gerson Therapy near Tecate, Mexico, she exploded, “Fuck them, that’s your father’s sexist bullshit permeating this whole bullshit scene!  Don’t listen to another word from Mary or that fucking so-called counselor!”  She made me feel instantly better and we made plans for me to come out there for the summer to help her with her 8 fresh fruit and vegetable juices per day, including raw calves’ liver juice, her laetrile, B-12 shots, organic meals of steamed veggies and brown rice and her endless coffee enemas.  She said, “Ree, this college trip will come together and don’t let the bozos get you down.”

For my senior year I took three AP courses where I got As, volunteered with at-risk kids at a YoungLife camp even though I was faking my Christian affiliation, joined French Club and about 10 other clubs and wrote incredibly bad but often-published poetry for the school’s literary magazine (it helped being a co-editor).  I mouthed off at my teachers less too.  I was wait-listed at Dartmouth and eventually got in but was about $20,000 per year short on tuition and expenses.  But then came the letter from Pacific University, the “safety” school with the nice brochure of a rolling, green campus filled with giant trees and young, happy white people, with a few Hawaiians thrown in for diversity.  A full academic scholarship with conditions, most of which I met during my years there.  So I am grateful for P.U.

Today I want to be able to write that I am grateful all the time for every little thing and all the obvious big things that have led me to this perfect moment on a beautiful Sunday morning.  But I’m trying not to flat-out lie these days.  And rumor has it the truth shall set me free.

Still, if I write a Gratitude List, I get a sliver of perspective for a few moments.  I wish I knew how to make the gratitude I feel when I look at the list last but I don’t.  That I have a really nice roof over my head, food in the larder, a good job, functioning wheels, a host of friends and family that love me, plus that wonderful husband and that I have an editor for my book escapes me too often.  My sense of entitlement can permeate everything like a cloud of pesticide fog and it is just as poisonous.

So today, at least after the U.S. kicks Canadian ass in Olympic hockey, I will do ONE thing on my book and write down a gratitude list, maybe not in that order.

And I’ll also go out and buy a few lottery tickets for Wednesday night’s drawing.

 

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Survival

I was scanning old photos from some crumbling family albums at Kinko’s/FedEx last weekend when I came across this one.  In my mother’s cheerful handwriting on the back of the photo it simply says, “Michael, age 10 1/2 months.”  Now I know it was 1961 and things were different but this seems like a precarious place for an infant, even 50 years ago.

Survival is a noun that means the act of staying alive or in existence, especially after facing life-threatening danger.  Synonyms include existence, endurance, being, subsistence and persistence.  Antonyms include death.

I don’t know that my childhood was more dangerous than anyone else’s, except maybe the Beaver on Leave It To Beaver.  But Beaver was not real.  I sometimes wanted a mother who vacuumed in high heels and had warm cookies waiting for us when we came home from school.  Instead we got Mom who chain-smoked joints and ranted about the military industrial complex and French Intensive organic farming.  And we all survived her although she did not survive us.

I survived a lot of things.  Multiple vaccinations by well-meaning Air Force doctors and nurses before flying to Japan in 1967 and again before going to the Philippines in 1972, skiing without helmets from about 1966 to about 5 years ago, car accidents, good and bad jobs, traveling around Europe with only a train pass, a backpack and $243 for 6 weeks in 1983, working almost full-time in college and full-time in law school, my mother’s illnesses and death, The Grateful Dead and so much more.  On one trip in Europe and Morocco at age 21, in 1984 I survived a train derailment in Portugual.  I camped alone in the West Elk Wilderness starting at age 13, hitchhiked all over Gunnison County and from Crested Butte to Aspen as a young teen, getting mugged by a bunch of high school kids on a Manhattan subway one Christmas Eve, being jumped by 5 guys in Central Park in broad daylight (fought my way out of that one until they miraculously gave up), getting dysentery in a remote part of Corfu while camping in an olive grove, having my wallet, passport and other papers stolen on the subway in Paris, having my apartment burgled in Manhattan, having our house burn down in Crested Butte in 1972, skiing off a cliff and crashing into a tree (pre-helmet days) and ending up hanging from a different tree by 1 ski about 15 feet off the ground, getting swept out to sea off Long Island (had to get rescued by boat), getting stung by jellyfish in the South China Sea, etc.

And of course I lived through a lot of easier moments.  But even the hard moments don’t seem remarkable because everyone goes through hard stuff.  I heard someone say today, “The good news was that I was 8 feet from the fairway, the bad news was that it wasn’t the right fairway.”  That’s me much of the time.  And to just keep playing instead of sitting there pissed off at myself for, as our last president said, “misunderestimating” the lie of the ball.  The point is to keep playing with some humility and some humor.  And humility is definitely not for sissies.  Neither is survival.

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