Archive for April, 2009

Field of Dreams

April 9, 2009

One of the most confusing things about my childhood was the endless series of contradictions that was and is my mother.  My mother was strict.  So strict we had to come inside when the street lights came on.  So strict that we had to walk home along the same route, every day, and straying from that path meant trouble, and in all likelihood, a whuppin’.  My sisters and I were not allowed to let other little girls play in our hair.  We had to sleep in bras from the moment the first breast buds made their awkward appearance.  There were more rules than any child could possibly remember, and the devil to pay if you broke any of them.

And yet, with Mama’s permission, our brothers smoked weed in the house, every day.

My parents converted our attic into a shared bedroom for my three brothers when puberty made the already infeasible — three boy children and three girl children in one bedroom — downright impossible.  We didn’t have air conditioning, so on hot summer days, my brothers would crouch to catch whatever breezes blew into the small windows of a hot attic, and blow smoke back out.  As I walked home from school, I smelled our house long before I got to it.  Once inside, the familiar smell wafted down the stairs and into the rest of the house, overpowering my mother’s more pleasant cooking aromas.  

My mother didn’t like it, but rationalized it this way:  “If they’re going to do it, I’d rather they do it in the house, rather than out in the street somewhere.” 

In The Street was a place my mother distrusted with all her heart.  I grew up thinking In The Street was actually a street where everything imaginable took place.  Of all the questionable streets in the City of Detroit, I never could figure out which street In The Street actually was.  When I was old enough to start going out by myself or with friends, I began to understand that In The Street was, for my mother, anyplace off our front lawn.

My brothers’ friends knew our house was the place to be when the time came to get your smoke on.  We lost track of how many guys came to our house every day, trudging through the house to the kitchen and up to the attic bedroom.  Even if they’d never been to our house before, they needed no directions; like dogs, they would track the scent straight through the house — past my father on the living room couch, watching Tiger baseball; past us girls in the dining room, talking on the phone or doing homework; past my mother cooking or washing dishes in the kitchen; and up the attic stairs to my brothers’ room. 

And, like dogs, sometimes they would get themselves in trouble by lingering just a bit too long, staring just a bit too hard at us girls as they made their pilgrimage.  The smart ones figured out how to sneak their looks as they walked past, or bought themselves some time by pretending to make small talk with my parents along the way.  The dumb ones just stopped and gawked.  The dumb ones generally weren’t repeat visitors.

Deliberately or by accident, marijuana seeds, tossed out of open attic windows, landed in the fruit and vegetable garden my mother kept, and still keeps, in our backyard. 

Like all the houses on our block, our house was a tiny structure on a relatively large lot.  The backyard lawn had been reduced to postage stamp size to make room for Mama’s garden, which extended along the two edges not occupied by house or driveway.  A peach tree just to the right of the back porch grew the peaches that went into her completely homemade peach pies (she refused to call them “cobblers”).  Along the fence that separated our property from the neighbors, she grew tomatoes and cucumbers.  Beyond the far edge of the lawn, Mama’s garden extended from the garage to the alley.  In this larger space grew collards, mustards, and broccoli.  Mama collected the rinds, peels, stems, skin and pulp of all the fruits and vegetables we ate, and every day, she scattered them throughout her garden.  Accordingly, the soil stayed rich and full of nutrients. 

As a child, I had no idea Mama’s garden kept us fed through UAW strikes, plant closings, and Daddy just being too trifling to come home with enough grocery money to feed two adults and six children.  I just figured that she, having grown up a farmer in Mississippi, was used to having fresh produce in her backyard and had chosen to carry on familiar traditions even after moving to Detroit.  

Sometimes, either my sister Caroletta or I would ask my mother if we could try growing something else in her garden, in addition to the staples she planted year after year.  When Mama was willing, we grew carrots, potatoes, strawberries, sweet corn and beets.  We planted the seeds experimentally, but nothing ever failed.   My mother’s garden was like our very own field of dreams — if you planted it, it would not only grow, but flourish.  (When I read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, I kept imagining all the weird dead things that would come to life if planted in Mama’s garden.) 

It was no surprise to any of us how quickly the discarded marijuana seeds sprouted and grew in Mama’s garden.  My mother complained bitterly about the little plants that started popping up.  She was aware they were marijuana plants, but to her, they were literally weeds. 

For some reason, however, she took a liking to one plant and let it grow.  Before too long, we had a knee-high marijuana plant in our yard.

My brothers were amused at first.  They would go to the back door to see how big the plant had gotten, and then ask, “Ma, how long you gon’ let that grow?”

“I don’t know,” was always her response.

The plant grew bigger and bigger.  My brothers told her, “You know the cops could come after you if they saw that.”

“I’m not going to do anything with it,” she would counter, as if her lack of intent to sell or use the plant was dispositive.

My brothers argued constantly about whether or not the plant would actually yield any good smoke.  Michigan summers were too short, one brother opined.  Marijuana needed lots of sunlight to develop high levels of THC.  The weed wouldn’t be potent enough to be any good.  Yeah, the other brother would say, but that plant’s been growing in Mama’s garden.  You know how good that soil is.  And on and on the debate would rage.  It was their version of Batman v. Superman.

I liked the plant, and thought it was too bad it was illegal.  It was pretty.  It grew as well as the sweet corn we grew one year which yielded the sweetest, most tender ears of corn I have ever eaten.  I had no idea back then what good smoke actually meant, but in the ongoing debate, I silently took the side of the brother who voted in favor of Mama’s garden.  That soil was the truth. 

My neighbors were not amused by the new plant growing in Mama’s garden.  One neighbor constantly threatened to call the cops about the plant.  We took the threat seriously.  This was a neighbor who had “handicapped only” parking signs installed in front of her house — even though she wasn’t handicapped and didn’t have a car.  She would call the cops if anyone parked, or even left their car idling too long, in front of her house.

Every time this neighbor saw my mother in her garden, she would come to the fence and complain about the marijuana plant.  “That plant’s not bothering you,” my mother would say, dismissively.

Still, we were getting nervous.  As the plant approached the height of the back fence that separated our property from that of the bitchy neighbor’s, the possibility of police intervention became more real.  The plant was growing large enough to be visible from a distance.  If a police car happened to drive by and see a huge, well-tended marijuana plant growing in someone’s backyard, they were likely to stop and at least ask questions. 

My brothers — aware of their own upstairs stashes, and I suppose out of concern for my mother and our family as well — started trying to talk my mother into chopping down the plant.  It had gotten to a size where chopping would be required. 

My mother, by her dismissive remarks, clearly didn’t want to destroy the plant.  It had grown big, fast, proving yet again the superiority of her garden soil and organic farming methods.  But logic and sensibility prevailed. 

One day, the plant was gone.  I never knew exactly how she got rid of it.  I am pretty sure my brothers didn’t smoke it.  And I can’t imagine she set fire to it.  Whatever she did, it was gone, and that was that.

Except, for a while, it wasn’t.  For a few more summers, marijuana plants sprouted in the garden.  My mother would let them grow for a couple of weeks, and then dutifully pull them while they were still ankle-high. 

But now we had a new problem — the seeds, kept in the attic and no longer tossed into the garden, attracted mice.  On more than one occasion when I went up to my brothers’ room (most likely to read about secretaries’ panties), I saw baby mice stumbling about and moving very slowly.  Fortunately, high mice proved pretty easy to trap and kill.

Zen and the Art of Blackberry Poker

April 8, 2009

 

A couple of years ago, I attended a poker night for professional women – an educational, networking and team-building event sponsored by a friend’s law firm.  The event was based on the theory that poker teaches essential business skills that can be difficult for women to master – such as reading the competition, being aggressive and learning how to take risk at the appropriate time.  We were given poker lessons by a leading professional woman poker player, received a stack of chips, and played rounds of poker for fun.

 

As an attorney, I consider myself to be a tough negotiator who is good at reading a competitive situation. That night, I bet small, folded often, and lost all my chips fairly early in the evening.  I had neither the stamina nor the interest to keep playing round after round until there was a final winner.  But I refused to believe this was due to some innate deficiency I had as a woman.  I chalked it up to an abundance of good wine and good sushi, and a complete lack of knowledge about poker.

 

Still, the idea that most women are not naturally aggressive, calculated risk-takers stuck with me.  So when I saw that my new Blackberry came with a Texas Hold ‘Em game, I was determined to test out the theory and prove it wrong.

 

The first few games were meaningless – I lost money while I familiarized myself once again with the basic rules of poker, learning the hard way that a flush beats a straight, a high straight beats a low one.  Once I got that down, it wasn’t too hard to figure out, at the margins, when to hold and when to fold. 

 

When to bet and how much to bet, was a bigger challenge.  Frequently, I would find myself with great cards, but the courage to bet only a small amount.  I was constantly afraid of losing all my money, although it wasn’t real money.  Sometimes, my ego would trap me into staying in the game, even when I knew I had no chance of winning.

 

Unconsciously, I found myself replaying patterns that played themselves out in my life as well.  Lacking the courage to take bigger risks, staying in a bad situation because I was already in it. . . . I played round after round, losing it all over and over again, with increased frustration because I just couldn’t seem to figure it out.

 

My daughter showed no interest in my new poker fascination, but my son took to it instantly.  He watched me play a couple of hands and then offered some advice.

 

“Mom, what you should do, is bet a lot of money sometimes, to scare them off.”

 

My son is 7.  He had never played poker before seeing my Blackberry game. But his instincts was dead-on.  I was amazed that he seemed to have an intuitive sense of the game, and knew what I needed to do to prevail.

 

The gender theories were being proven right in front of me.  My son had suggested that I bluff, make aggressive moves and take risks as strategies to succeed.  I hadn’t even attempted to bluff.  I strictly played the cards, and lost hand after hand, round after round.  My son got bored watching me and went back to playing his Nintendo DS games, where he could be much more of a risk-taker than his Mom was willing to be.

 

I learned that the poker instructor really had been right – the cards were not the end point; they were the starting point to figuring out what you needed to do.  The cards merely informed your decision.  Each time, you had to take a chance that either your cards would either beat everyone else’s cards, or your betting would intimidate people with better cards into making unwise choices, like folding instead of holding.  Sometimes, a perfectly rational decision resulted in a loss; other times, a riskier decision resulted in a huge win. The subtleties of when to stay in the game and when to get out were a lot tougher to master than the broad strokes of understanding that three of a kind beats two pairs.

 

Finally, I had a breakthrough.  I was in a battle, with $14,000 to my virtual opponent’s $2,500.  I had a hand that I knew should be a winner, but I nearly convinced myself to fold.  I worried that I would be down by a substantial amount if I lost — despite the fact that I would still enjoy a huge advantage over my virtual opponent.  And yes, I actually worried about this – to the point I had to shut down the game and walk away from it for a couple of hours.

  

I told myself I was being ridiculous.  I kept reminding myself it wasn’t real money.  It was a stupid Blackberry game.  In real life, I would be no poorer either way (except for the time lost spent playing Blackberry poker). 

 

I had to close my eyes to place the bet.  When I opened them, I discovered I had won.  The game told me I needed to go to a higher stakes table.  I felt as if I had actually won nearly $20,000.

 

I am hardly a poker master now, but I am now sitting on a bankroll of $32,000 virtual dollars.  I draw it down in $500 increments, and I use the game to practice bluffing and taking calculated risks.  Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but I take none of it personally. 

 

I don’t think I would be able to stomach playing poker with real money – I would wind up thinking of each pot lost in terms of my kids’ college fund.  But learning not to be afraid to take calculated risks, and to keep on trying if I lose, are important real-life lessons.  If a silly Blackberry game can improve my ability to do both, it will have been well worth my time.

 

A version of this post was originally published on NYC Moms Blog.

Running – In the Moment

April 6, 2009

For the last several months, I have been trying to finish Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.  I have found the book enlightening on several levels; I have no idea why I can’t finish it.  Tolle’s explanation of ego is unparalleled.  His discussion of aligning with and living in the now resonates with me intellectually, but I have had a hard time putting it into practice in my own life. 

Years ago, I used to meditate.  It was a Taoist meditation based on circulating energy, or chi, throughout the body’s main meridians, or chakras.  I can’t meditate that way anymore.  I read Eat, Pray, Love, and tried to meditate on a word, on breath, on nothing, on everything.  That didn’t work, either.  I was starting to feel like I’d never get to experience what Tolle describes as “inner space” ever again.

A wise friend told me not to worry about “failing” at meditation.  “You will find the perfect way to meditate for yourself as you are now,” he told me.  I loved the thought, but I didn’t believe him.   I kept focusing on breath.  I kept falling asleep, or stopping to check my Blackberry.

Then, on Sunday, April 5, I ran the City Parks’ Foundation Run for the Parks 4-mile run, in Central Park.  As I lined up in the starting corral with the other runners in my group, making small talk with a woman from my New York Road Runners classes, my mind was completely clear.  Unlike previous races, I made no attempt to imagine how the race would go, or map out in my head a strategy for the course.   I simply moved when I was supposed to move, noted the sensations of wind and chill and the small twinges of discomfort in my tendinitis-challenged right ankle, and waited for the race to begin. 

As we inched closer to and then crossed the starting line, I started my watch timer, wished my classmate good luck, and picked up my feet in accordance with the rhythm of my breathing.  I was conscious of nothing but the movement of my feet and some intermittent but minor pains shooting through my ankle.  I was aware of the runners ahead of me, but didn’t focus on any of them.

Early in the race, my breathing felt labored.  I adjusted my pace, wondering if I was already overheating.  Then I saw we were going up a hill.  I recalled the advice of my instructors, and began pumping my arms to propel myself up the hill.  It was only as we neared the apex of the hill that I realized this was, of course, Cat Hill — the hill we used for training runs in class, the hill everyone dreaded.  The dreadful and dreaded Cat Hill didn’t seem so dreadful anymore.  Somehow, by not thinking about it, by not battling an image of how hard it was, I ascended the hill without too much trouble. 

As other runners passed me, I kept my own pace.  I looked around a few times for other people I might know; seeing none, I kept going.  As I began to pass other runners, I asked myself whether it was my pace or my ego that was driving me to pass.  If it was my pace, I kept moving forward.  If I determined my ego wanted me to pass someone that my pace wasn’t ready for me to pass, someone my ego decided was inferior somehow — whether because of weight, age or some other characteristic — I held myself back and waited until pace, not ego, propelled me to pass.

A race volunteer announced a water station at Mile 3. I dutifully stopped for water.  At Mile 3.5, my stomach reminded me I hadn’t had breakfast.  I acknowledged being hungry, and kept running.  Soon thereafter, I saw another NYRR classmate.  We spoke, and she introduced me to her friend.  For a moment, I thought of slowing my pace to run with them, but decided not to.  I had a good pace, the finish line was near, and my ankle was no longer throwing off warning signals.  It was fine.  I was fine.  I kept going.

Finally, with the finish line in sight, I pushed myself to go faster, to run harder, no longer concerned about running out of steam.  I finished strong, faster than my previous fastest race time.  I enjoyed another drink of water, considered and then reconsidered taking a bagel or apple from the boxes and boxes of post-race carbs, and then just decided to go home.

And on my way home, it occurred to me: during the race, I experienced inner space.  My friend was right.  I had found my perfect way to meditate.  Running was my meditation.  When I run, I focus on nothing other than finishing the workout.  As soon as I find myself comparing myself with other runners, I start to falter.  When I return to focusing on absolutely nothing at all, I achieve my goal.  Sometimes I’m last, never first, but I finish.

I’ve decided to work on remaining in the moment.  To resist the temptation to check Facebook repeatedly throughout the day and night, to watch television while the kids are telling me a story about their day in school, to feel as if I’m idle if I’m not attempting to do three or four things at the same time. 

I’ve already seen some benefits.  Today at work, I got through a backlog of old emails for which responses were long overdue.  At home, I finished two blog posts in time for the start of the NCAA Championship Game.  I don’t expect perfection.  The effort itself is worthwhile.