Posts Tagged ‘Reflections’

When Negative Is Positive

April 8, 2011

First of all, the good news: my biopsy results were fine. “Your results were fine, no problems, everything looks ok,” the radiologist told me when I called.

I thought about ending this post there.

But I still have a bandage on my breast. I still have the image of watching a needle poke into some weird thing inside my breast seared into my brain.

So let me describe the procedure.

I arrived at the Women’s Imaging Center at Weill Cornell Medical Center on time for my 9 am appointment. Outwardly, I was calm. My efforts to think positive thoughts had convinced me that this was some kind of divine comedic error, yet another example of God’s Monty Python-like sense of humor.

Things happened quickly. Within 15 minutes of my arrival, I was lying on my back in a hospital gown on a table in the ultrasound room.

In the two weeks since my mammogram, an odd thing had happened: I was no longer able to feel the lump. I had convinced myself, therefore, that the thing – whatever it was – had disappeared.

I mentioned to the ultrasound tech that I could no longer feel the lump. She nodded and applied the gel to the ultrasound wand, and began moving it around on my breast. I was about to ask her, “What happens if you can’t see it anymore?” when she said,

“Oh! There it is. I definitely see it. And these pictures look exactly like the ones that __________ got last time.”

So much for it disappearing.

And then I got scared.

During my last visit, I had peeked at the ultrasound screen, but none of what I saw made sense. I was reminded of my pregnancy ultrasounds, where I could discern the baby’s head, spine and heartbeat, but not much else.

This time, I saw it clearly.

The it, the thing, the lump that was causing all this trouble appeared on the ultrasound screen as a gelatinous bubble, like the movie The Blob. I had a Blob inside me. Of course, in the movie, the Blob consumed whatever was in its path.

I reminded myself that The Blob was a silly movie about killer Jello. But I couldn’t take my eyes off that screen.

The procedure I had is called an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy. A nurse and a doctor soon joined the ultrasound technician. While the ultrasound technician showed the doctor the pictures she had captured on screen, the nurse cleaned my breast for the procedure.

Everyone – doctors, nurse, ultrasound technician – was great about explaining to me what was happening, in terms that were simple but not dumbed down. I watched the doctor use a long, fine needle to fill my breast with Lidocaine so I wouldn’t feel any pain during the biopsy. I watched her insert a second thicker, hollow needle into my breast. She showed me the needle’s spring mechanism and explained that she would be activating the needle with a loud pop! sound to collect tissue samples, a process that would be repeated 5 times.

To my surprise, the doctor also announced that she would implant a small titanium clip into my breast to mark the location of the mass, since it was so subtle and not easy to detect, for the benefit of future radiologists. I didn’t like the idea of a titanium anything in my breast, but I gave my consent.

And then I turned my attention to the ultrasound screen.

I watched the needle probing and poking the blob. I saw the needle tip penetrate the mass. Even before the doctor gave me the “one-two-three” warning that she was about to activate the spring-loaded mechanism, I held my breath in anticipation.

I didn’t flinch.

“You’re doing great,” I was reassured, over and over again.

Inside, I wasn’t doing so great. I was overwhelmed by the odd and unsettling miracle of watching a needle enter my breast and cut away tiny pieces of some unidentifiable thing inside my breast.

It dawned on me that, no matter who you are in life, at some point, you will wind up in one of these hospital gowns, submitting your body to some procedure or another, hoping to discover that for you, life continues.

I couldn’t conceive of any other result. My children have no one but me. Their father is, um, unreliable. Their grandmother is gone. The family they know is in Michigan, where my children don’t want to be. They barely know their relatives in Philadelphia. And I am no longer as close as I once was to the women who were their godmothers.

The radiologist commended me for being so “good” throughout the procedure. I thought only about not orphaning my children.

My breast was a bit sore after the anesthesia wore off, but physically I was fine. Mentally and emotionally, though, the three-day wait for results was torture. I kept myself busy to keep from dwelling on it, but the bandage on my breast reminded me that, in the words of Madeline’s Miss Clavel, something was “not right.”

And now I know. The negative result is positive. I am relieved.

OK and fine do not, however, mean everything is back to “normal.”

For me, there is a new “normal.”

From now on, I will have a titanium clip in my breast. I will need to be diligent and consistent about getting annual mammograms. The breast biopsy joins the growing list of procedures and surgeries I have had recently, a list that replaces the “none” or “N/A” I used to routinely tick off on medical history questionnaires.

But still – I’m fine.

I’ll take it.

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Upgrade Him? Girl, No

July 25, 2010

I was chatting recently with one of my law school friends about a classmate of ours whose marriage was ending in divorce.

At first I thought it was regular gossip about another seemingly happy marriage falling apart.  But as my friend filled in more of the details, I understood it was, instead, yet another example of the Negro Improvement Plan gone wrong.

And as my friend and I are veterans of the Negro Improvement Plan Gone Wrong War, we clucked our tongues and sent up prayers for what we both know lies ahead for this woman in her efforts to divorce her low-income spouse.

“Negro Improvement Plan” is a term coined by my friend Stephanie to describe the phenomenon we began witnessing as one woman after another from our Harvard Law School class partnered up with lower income men.  The men were never just the construction workers, secretaries, mailroom guys, etc. they appeared to be.  Inevitably, he was “going back to school.”  In the rare cases where he wasn’t going back to school, he was starting a business.  Or he was a producer — for artists no one had ever heard of. 

The Negro Improvement Plan meant there was a plausible and legitimate reason for these Harvard-trained women lawyers to be marrying their Mr. Blue Collars.  He was going places.  He just needed a boost.  And his loyal, loving woman was going to be just the boost he needed to take him where he should go.

When more of us, including Stephanie and me, embarked on our own versions of the Negro Improvement Plan, we didn’t recognize that we had just joined the same club we had been so scornful of. 

The Negro Improvement Plan wasn’t always about trying to force the man into some sort of career change.  My ex was a construction worker when I met him.  I liked the sound of that, and was disappointed he didn’t stay in construction when I moved him into my Brooklyn apartment.  He decided he’d rather be working in an office, and I was OK with that, too.  I didn’t try to influence his career choices too much.

But from the day he moved to New York until the day he moved out of my Harlem brownstone, I rode him relentlessly for the way he mangled the English language, the fact that his subjects and verbs never agreed and his vocabulary was a bit “too street.”  He was a grown man from North Philly who had been speaking like a North Philly gangsta pretty much all his life, and he was very comfortable with how he spoke.  His friends were comfortable with how he spoke.  I was the only one who had a problem with it.  I told myself it was because I wanted my daughter to learn “correct English.”  I wasn’t honest enough to admit it was my issue and no one else’s.

I tried to upgrade my ex-husband’s grammar and vocabulary.  Other friends tried to upgrade their men similar to Beyonce’s “Upgrade U,” by putting them in Hickey Freeman suits, Pink shirts, Rolex watches and BMWs.  They tried to slot their blue collar men into their Pottery Barn worlds of 600-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, towels folded just so, a utensil for every kitchen-related purpose, and Jack and Jill for the children.

Stephanie had once snarked, “I guess he got tired of being bougie,” after one of our classmates’ marriages to a lower-income man fell apart.  But, as it turned out, Stephanie’s Negro Improvement Plan was the classic career changing  one.  She tried to turn her man into a small business owner.  The business failed, in part because her partner wasn’t a reliable employee of his own so-called business.

In all cases, including mine, the men enjoyed the perks of the upgrade efforts — the cars, the suits, the trips, the real estate — until they figured out their women expected those changes to be lasting.  My ex knew how to speak properly.  He was also very well-read.  Thanks to my nagging, he would correct his grammar in the presence of our children, but whenever I dragged him to some law firm function, he would reach deep in his storehouse of Ebonics and entertain my law partners, to my horror and frustration.  I was furious with him for deliberately fitting neatly into the stereotypes I assumed “they” held of “us.”

Once, I actually listened, and discovered he was carrying on an intelligent conversation, despite the Ebonics, with one of my partners and his wife about U.S. drug enforcement policy.  Later, the wife told me, “Your husband is a very smart man.”  I never knew if that was a genuine compliment, or if she was surprised to hear rational arguments coming from someone who spoke so poorly, like a dog sitting down to the piano and playing Mozart.

My ex-husband called me controlling, which I resented.  In hindsight, I realize most of our issues stemmed from a battle for control.  He already felt emasculated by my position and salary.  The fact that I would snark on his grammar was probably just a bit too much for him to stomach.  Embarrassing me at my law firm functions was his way of getting back at me.

It’s insulting and demoralizing to treat a man like, as my friend @HarlemWriter put it, stray animals or shelter rescues you can return when they soil the rug or chew on your pricey shoes.  You can’t change your mate.  You are supposed to love your mate as he is.  If you can’t do that, you are with the wrong partner.  Period.

Bottom line: leave the upgrading to Beyonce. 

And for the record, she didn’t have to upgrade her man, either.

My First Haters

May 31, 2010

 

I’ve always been opinionated, and I’m not shy about expressing my opinions, whether in a real-life discussion or on my blog.  I suppose it was inevitable, therefore, that some of my posts would rub some people the wrong way.

That doesn’t bother me.  I’m all for spirited debate.  Except . . . I haven’t gotten any.

It seems some of the people who disliked my posts, in particular the one about men, or the one about celebrity divorce settlements, chose not to post comments on my blog.  They also chose not to debate me on Twitter or Facebook, where I usually post my newest blog posts.

What they did choose to do was make cowardly ad hominem attacks on Twitter.

I’ve gotten one or two “you’re divorced, right? figures” comments on this blog.  I haven’t thought much of them.  What exactly does it figure?  Figures that I, a divorced woman, would be interested in the subject of divorce? 

Or does it “figure” that I’m divorced because I’m a bitter, unlovable hag, as evidenced by my writing and my opinions?

Apparently I’m supposed to believe the latter.

Sorry, but no.  Anyone else who wants to believe that about me, believe away.  And feel free to believe, based on a few blog posts and tweets, that you know all you need to know about my marriage and my divorce.  As long as I write about divorce and custody issues, I guess it’s understandable that people would try to construct a story about my own divorce.  Until and unless I choose to publish my divorce story, good luck with that.

I’m just disappointed that the people in question chose to resort to personal attacks, instead of making rational counter-arguments to the positions with which they disagreed. 

In the end, though, I’m pleased that people are reading and reacting to what I write.  Thanks to everyone who visits my blog and read my posts.  Whether you agree or disagree, I appreciate your readership. 

I do not, however, tolerate personal attacks, on me or any of my commenters.  As long as you keep it respectful, debate away.

A Good Woman – Part I

April 18, 2010

The day after my mother’s funeral, her baby sister,  my Aunt Mary, said to her grieving nieces:

“Well, your Mama sure had her ways, but couldn’t nobody say that Lennie wasn’t a good woman.”

We all nodded.  Mama most definitely had her ways, but the fact that she was a good woman was undeniable. 

I’ve thought about my aunt’s comment from time to time since my mom passed:

What made Mama a good woman?

Was it her unshakeable faith, her complete and utter devotion to the Lord?  Perhaps.  Mama was a Christian, but she was no church Christian.  She didn’t play church politics well at all.  In fact, she told me she was not-so-politely asked to leave her prayer group at her home church; she said it was because she was constantly challenging the group leader’s understanding of the Bible (of course, my mom was right and they were wrong).  Although her funeral was held at her home church, she hadn’t actually been inside it in years.

Mama called herself a student of the Bible.  We counted at least 30 bibles among her possessions, most of them ordered from the TV preachers she took to following when she stopped going to church.  She was not a Biblical scholar, but she had practically memorized the Bible.  She had committed her favorite passages to memory, and her recall didn’t diminish even as other parts of her memory began to fail. 

She gave, or tried to give, each of us a Bible.  She gave me two — a NIV translation, because I told her I preferred the NIV to the King James, and a Bible that had both the NIV and the King James texts side by side.  She must have been amused when, about a week before she died, I started quoting Scripture to her, using it to try to get her to consent to the medical treatment she had refused.

Mama was a good woman because she couldn’t stand to see people suffer.  It never ceased to amaze me — and, admittedly, sometimes disgusted me as well — the way she would feed the men and women who had been children with us, the ones who hadn’t done well enough to leave the block, many of them now mired in drug and alcohol addictions.  My mother hated to see people go hungry, especially children.  She was always sending a plate of food, whatever she had cooked that day, to families on the block.

We had neighbors who would come to her yard with buckets to draw water from the outside tap as if it were a well, because their water had been shut off.  I was outdone. 

Mama said, “They have children in that house.  They can’t be in that house with children and no water.”  And when I said too much in protest, she let me know it was her house, her water bill and her decision.   She never stopped doing what she could for the people in our neighborhood, until the day she died. 

We worried that people were taking advantage of an old lady living on a fixed income.  We feared that one of those people would decide to press that advantage by breaking into her home and robbing her, or worse.  Mama pooh-poohed us all.  She refused to leave her home, even when a stray bullet lodged itself in the wall just above her bed.  The neighborhood people never tried to harm her, and grieved her loss as deeply as the family did.

My mother was a good woman, but she was no saint.  As my aunt said, she had her ways.  She could be petty and small-minded.  She had a tongue that could cut you deep.  She always knew where the soft spot was, how deep to stick the knife and how far to twist it.  She defined stubbornness.  Once she had made up her mind about something, there was nothing — no logic, no reasoning, no nothing — that could change her mind.  She was as petulant as a two-year-old when she didn’t get her way.

All of those things mean she was human. 

But she was a good woman.

Mama raised us girls to be good women.  We were taught to cover our bosoms and our behinds, to close our legs and open our minds.  We were encouraged to be outspoken, independent, self-reliant.  She had seen first-hand how being financially dependent on a man could backfire, and wanted none of that for us.  As kids, we hadn’t been allowed to socialize with the people she wound up taking care of in her old age, after we moved away and they were left behind, struggling.  We were taught to comport ourselves with decorum, to treat others with respect, to associate with other good people, and to never give up on ourselves.

She was disgusted by Monica Lewinsky and would have been horrified by Rielle Hunter and Kiely Williams.  To her, a woman who used sex to get ahead was a prostitute, period.  Her insistence that looks were irrelevant, that only brains mattered, was so extreme that it seems only my oldest sister Cheryl knew she had any looks to trade upon, but it worked.  I may question her methods, but I can’t argue with the results.

I’m not a good woman in the same way that my mother was.  I’m not trying to feed the hungry in my neighborhood.  I consider myself a Christian, but some of my views of Christianity would shock and perhaps disappoint my mother.  I worry whether I have energy to fight the NYC Department of Education for my kids, the way she fought the Detroit Public Schools system to ensure that I received the best free public education I possibly could. 

And yet, I think I qualify.  I’m open-hearted and caring.  I believe everyone, from CEOs of multi-national conglomerates to the homeless, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.  I often decry the lack of civility in our discourse with each other, especially as people interact more and more with people they do not know personally via social media.   And while I try to get my daughter to feel good about herself inside and out, both beauty and brains, I’m an old-fashioned stickler for necklines up, hemlines down, knees together.

My mother lived long enough to see the type of woman I’ve become.  I’m pretty confident she approved.

Leave Me Alone

July 19, 2009

Most days, I love Harlem. 

I love seeing the historic Apollo Theater every morning as I go to work.  I love passing it on my way to the gym. 

I love that the Magic Johnson Theater on 124th & Frederick Douglass Blvd. is still thriving.  When it opened, Magic wanted to prove that multiplexes in black neighborhoods could profit without attracting undue gang violence.  (Now, of course, he reps for Rent-a-Center, helping them bilk our communities out of millions of dollars.) 

I love that in Harlem, 6th, 7th and 8th Avenues are named for important black historical figures — Malcolm X (6th Avenue), Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (7th Avenue) and Frederick Douglass (8th Avenue). 

I love that there are two Starbucks on 125th Street, within a block of each other — one on 125th & Malcolm X Blvd., the other on 125th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. 

But when it comes to exercising outdoors, I really, really hate being in Harlem. (more…)

I’ll Get It!!!

May 13, 2009

I wrote this piece when my daughter, who is now 12, was 8, and just starting to talk to her friends on the phone.  Now that she’s 12, I find that things have turned out pretty much as I predicted back then…

“I’ll get it!” my daughter shouted over the din of the TV, some wannabe singer screeching out something on American Idol.  She practically jumped off the top bunk down to the floor.  “It might be Nick!”

Before I could say anything, she had answered the phone and was talking into it.  “It’s me!  Hey, Nick!”  Then to me: “Mom, I’m going to go get the other phone.  Can you hang up when I pick up?”

I nodded, still shell-shocked.  This child, who just a few minutes earlier had been arguing with me about the Idol wannabes (“Mo-om, Carrie soooo can sing!”), was no teenager.  She wasn’t even a pre-teen or tweener.  She had just celebrated her eighth birthday two months earlier. 

Granted, there was the whole early puberty thing — she had just undergone a whole series of tests to determine why she was already budding breasts and sprouting hairs, and earlier that week I finally had to stop denying her the right to wear the little training bras she had received as a Christmas present from her former babysitter.  (I still don’t know what a training bra is “training” the breasts to do.)  But I wasn’t ready for her to fly off the bed and grab the phone because she was expecting some boy to call.  And as I half-listened to my daughter’s side of her conversation with Nick, I was both satisfied that the conversation was entirely innocent, and disturbed by the harbinger of things to come.

My daughter has always found boys easier to befriend than girls.  Boys tend not to judge you based on what you’re wearing, or what clique you do or don’t belong to, or how cool anyone thinks you are.  At the same time, she has always longed for that one true girlfriend.  This eighth year of her life has been especially difficult, because with all the changes going on already in her body, she seems to need that elusive best girlfriend now more than ever.  Eight-year-old boys, who are silly and irritating most of the time, are a poor substitute.  

In my daughter’s case, with the simmering hormones of precocious puberty stirring up all kinds of emotions she can’t yet identify, let alone name, it’s inevitable that she’s going to start becoming truly aware that the boys she chats on the phone with, hangs out with after school, and has playdates and even sleepovers with, is a bona fide member of the opposite sex.  And, come to think of it, they’re kind of cute.  In my experience, that recognition usually blows the friendship to pieces.  I’m grateful she’s too young for that recognition to occur, but I know it’s going to happen — and when it does, I suspect (and fear) some of her male friendships won’t survive.

I listened to my daughter in the other room, talking to Nick about school, other kids and parents.  She spoke in cool, calm tones, without any of that exaggerated language, copied from Nickeledeon and Disney Channel tween-focused shows, that 8 year olds use when they want to talk the way they imagine teenagers do.  There was no “what-EVER!,” no “Oh.My.GOD!!!!”  It all sounded frighteningly grown up. 

After a few minutes, I had to see what was going on, because suddenly I couldn’t hear her side of the conversation.  Her voice seemed to have dropped an octave or two, and that’s when I knew it was time to get her off the phone.

“Okay, Cami, five minutes,” I said anxiously, trying to be fair, but wishing I’d just told her it was time to hang up.

“Okay!” came the again-audible response.  Phone privileges were still pretty new to her, so she was unusually malleable.

A few minutes later, I again couldn’t hear my daughter’s voice.  “Cami, time to get off!”

“I’m already off!  Nick’s mom told him it was time to hang up already!”

I smiled.  I knew there was a reason I liked Nick’s mom.  I was glad at least one of us hadn’t wimped out of our responsibility.

The next day, as I was leaving my daughter’s school after dropping her off, I ran into Nick and his mom. 

“So, our guys have become quite the little phone pals, I see,” I said.

“Yeah,” she grunted.  We shared a knowing smile, an unspoken expression of relief that they were still only 8.  Nick was oblivious to the parental disdain going on above his head.  But he didn’t call that night.  Fortunately, being only 8, my daughter didn’t even notice.

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.

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.

Make Me Laugh

March 28, 2009

A post on the blog White Hot Truth  made me start thinking about my own positively soul-sustaining must-haves — especially in my relationships with others, whether they’re friends, possible partners, or anything in between.  Number one for me is humor.  I love to laugh and to make other people laugh.  I sometimes think I have the soul of a 12-year-old boy, because I am a big fan of double entendres, and I can find sexual innuendo in almost anything.  Or maybe that means I was British in a past life. 

Throughout my life, my best friends have all been people who “got” my sense of humor.  My best relationships have also been with men who laughed at my jokes.  I have always been attracted to men I found funny, but I never used to demand that they find me funny in return.  I used to think it was enough for them to have a sense of humor, whether or not they thought I had one.  During my marriage, I discovered how wrong I was. 

My ex-husband remains one of the funniest men I’ve ever met.  (His late brother Charles was even funnier.)  His dry wit drew me in from the first moment we met.  I used to work overtime to try to make him laugh in return, with varying degrees of success.   At times, I’m sure I tried way too hard.  One of the most hurtful things he ever said to me was, “You have no sense of humor at all.”  It was hardly the cruelest thing he ever said to me, but it cut me deep.  I stopped trying to make him laugh.  And when I lost interest in that, I lost interest, period.  I recognize now that not only do I need for my partner to be funny, I need him to think I’m funny, too.

I think the value of humor in business is severely underrated.  In some of the most productive business meetings I’ve ever run, or participated in, humor was used to get the participants to relax.  Once relaxed, they were more willing to contribute their ideas and agree on action plans.  The same is true for negotiations.  Although most contract negotiations are tense and stressful, I’ve been most successful when one or both parties used humor to relieve some of that tension, which enabled us to discuss our differences in a principled manner and work hard to find a common basis for agreement.

Humor isn’t the only thing I need, but I can’t be happy or satisfied without it.

Clouds and Panties

March 21, 2009

Blue Sky with clouds

When I was eight or nine, I developed a fascination with our World Book Encyclopedias.  I thought all the knowledge in the world was contained in those 28 volumes, and I intended to read each one.  I knew if I did that, I’d be the smartest person in the world.

 

The encyclopedias were kept on the bookshelf of the attic that had been converted into one huge bedroom for my three brothers.  For some reason, the “upstairs” was off-limits, unless you went with one specific purpose in mind and left once you’d accomplished that purpose.  This was not an edict issued by my brothers, it was an understood rule of the house, which meant that my mother had deemed it necessary. 

 

At eight, I paid my brothers no attention.  They were all several years older than me and all in high school.  Greg, the youngest of the three, was sixteen, an age that seemed unfathomable to me then.  I was simply the little pest, and the secrets of “upstairs” didn’t fascinate me at all.  I wanted those encyclopedias.

 

I don’t remember if Caroletta coaxed me into it or if it was the other way around, but my older sister and I started going upstairs (after Mama said it was okay) and bringing down one volume at a time.  We agreed that the A volume was too big; we’d save it for later.  The Ci-Cz volume was a good starting place – it was thin and, we decided, easy to finish.  We skimmed through it, looking for interesting topics, and Caroletta stopped on the section entitled “Clouds.”

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