Saturday, October 15, 2016

Sexual Abuse: Shame and what I wore

Do you remember the first time you were sexually abused? I do. I was in the fifth grade, at a ballroom dance class. I loved that class. The girls dressed in Sunday-best dresses, white anklets and patent leather shoes. The boys wore ties and sports jackets. Mr. Richards taught the basics of ballroom dancing, the box step, the fox trot, and then, my favorite, the cha cha. The class assembled in a circle in the gym, and every few minutes the music would stop and the boys would move on to the next girl in the circle. That way, everyone spent a few minutes ballroom dancing with everyone else.

One day my dance partner was Kenny Brown, a kid who was in the sixth grade but should have been in the seventh. He'd stayed back a grade and was older and bigger than the rest of us. We got into position,  Kenny's right hand on my back, his left hand in mine, and began following Mr. Richard's instructions.  But then Kenny moved his hand from around my back to my front. He rubbed circles on my chest, in the place where my breasts would eventually be, but were not yet.  There was nothing there but bone and ribs. This did not deter Kenny.

Stunned, I pretended not to know what was happening. I looked at Kenny's face for some sign of recognition from him, an explanation of what was going on.  Was I imagining this? Would he burst out laughing? No. I watched Kenny's eyes busily scanning the room, over the top of my head, darting from Mr. Richards to the couples around us, making sure no one saw what was he was doing.  No one did. Then Mr. Richards announced it was time to change partners and Kenny moved on to the next girl in the circle.

I did not tell anyone, but shame dogged me for weeks. I searched my mind a thousand ways, trying to understand my part in the thing, and even wondering whether or not it had truly happened.  I'd looked forward to the afternoons when my mom helped me get ready for dance class, made me as pretty as I could be. But then I felt guilt at making myself so pretty that Kenny had taken it as an invitation to run his hand all over my chest.

What haunted me the most throughout those two weeks until the next dance class was the thought of what I would do or say the next time Kenny was my dance partner. I dreaded that moment every night before I went to sleep. I thought of it when I woke up. I thought about it in school. I considered quitting dance class, but I knew if I did my parents would demand to know why. I had no idea how to tell them.  I feared they wouldn't believe me, or, if they did, I was afraid my father, who was Italian and a bit rougher than most other fathers I knew, would go after Kenny's father and there would be trouble. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to make trouble.

Kenny Brown never came to dance class again. I figured he'd quit. Or maybe he had fondled another girl with far more self-esteem than I, and she'd told her parents.

This all happened more than 50 years ago! Still I recall distinctly the moment when Kenny Brown robbed me of the girlish pleasure of being pretty in a pink party dress, and replaced that sunny innocence with shame. The memory still has the power to make me cry. 

Today, as the dark subject of sexual bullying has become front and center in this shameful and bleak political season that is the presidential race, I am remembering how much that first episode of sexual bullying -- yes, first, there were more to come as my life went on -- hurt me and even changed my feelings about myself, as well as my sense of who I was in relation to boys and men.

Yesterday I took a survey.  I asked every woman I saw: "Do you remember the first time you were sexually abused?" Their responses were nearly the same, every time I asked.  First surprise at the question. Then reflection. Then the answer. 

"Yes, I do."

"Did you tell anyone?" I asked.

"No," was the answer. Every time.

 "Why didn't you tell someone?" I asked.

"Because I thought no one would believe me."

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Make Me Move!

Is there any more daunting challenge than placing your home on the market?  Finding a new owner for your house, your home, your shelter, your nurturing boards and batten, is surely at the top of the list of things that make your nerves feel like downed power lines, hissing and snapping wildly on a wet and windy and lonely street.   It feels like being on stage, in a bikini and high heels, in a beauty pageant, flashing a big, phony smile on your face.  It feels like trying to please a lover who is a complete stranger.  Would they like it this way? Or that way? White walls or green?  Blue towels or beige?

We property sellers are advised to wipe our houses clean of our personalities, so that potential buyers may envision themselves living here, with their own chairs and quilts and paintings.  Mementos of living, of children, of friends and many good things that have happened to us, are referred to as "clutter" and "stuff".

First we made many trips to the Salvation Army Thrift Store. Then we simply put stuff out on the sidewalk, where it was gratefully carried off by passersby, to furnish their houses and dreams. And so we have stripped our house of anything evocative of our many years in Paradise.  Our house now resembles a hotel room. Practical. Easy in and out. Temporary. Sensible. Just the facts, Ma'am. At its stuffed and cluttered best, our house is warm, cozy and ever so sweet, so full of the riches of love and laughter and life it should sell for a billion dollars. But, though it feels as if we are, we are not selling our love stories.  We are selling a wooden house, a house built way before we were born, a house that will stand long after we are gone.
Pregnant with Miguel and a new house.
411 Truman down to her Dade County Pine bones.

Then. . .

Selling a house is hard on a marriage. Even the best marriages, therapists say, are prone to buckle under the weight of complicated fiduciary affairs.  Every high-impact window, every appliance, every tile in the bathroom has arrived only when we could afford it.  We have worked hard. None of it has come easy.  There is pride invested in this place. We did not swoop into this house and make it a home in a week or a month or even a year. Our home has evolved. And evolution is hard-won and very often painful. A wooden house is demanding.  Alive.  It has needs which must be met. It is old, and a bit crotchety. But with age comes enormous strength and fortitude. This is a sturdy house; safe and sane shelter from the storm.

In strictly practical terms, our greatest attribute, a feature not to be viewed lightly by potential buyers, is our off-street parking.  There is a driveway! Do you have any idea of the value of off-street parking in downtown Key West? It has occurred to us that we might put the driveway on the market and keep the house.

Our house has central air conditioning, making our lives much more than bearable. On the very occasional cold day, there is heat.  No more warming ourselves by sticking our feet into an open oven!  Our sweet haven is cool, calm, remarkably quiet and serene. What makes it all the more remarkable is the wonder of having Key West right outside our door.  Walk a block in any direction and you will find something worth seeing or doing or just being next to. Or sit on the porch and watch the whole world go by, on their way to the Hemingway House or Blue Heaven.  Planes fly overhead and we feel happy for the passengers, some coming home, some coming to visit, all about to bask in the special light that is Key West -- and only Key West.

There are ads for houses that state: "Make me move!"  I want to post an ad that says: "Help me move on!" It has been a long struggle to come to terms with the cold, hard facts about retiring in a town where everyone's biggest problem is finding a cozy place to live, and a place to park a car. 

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom's just another word for not having a  mortgage.  What we need now is freedom. 

Selling our house is like having an appointment with the dentist to have our wisdom teeth pulled. We are ready. We are scared, but we know it must be done. When it's over, we will be happy, and healthy, and comfortable. Let's just do it!

From our back deck I can see the tops of Hemingway's trees, swaying in the breeze, and sometimes, his ghost, snickering just above the tourists lining up, with their cameras and their guidebooks, to visit the house he once called his own.  When all is said and done, a house is just a house. Creating a story, living the dream, that's up to you.

For a virtual tour of the house today click here

(Our realtor is Walt Lee at Berkshire Hathaway 305-879-7355.)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

We'll Die For You

Dilys relishing fresh lobster. Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia.

Darling I Love You So.  That’s how Dilys taught me to remember how to spell her name. Of the hundreds of wonderful, brilliant and creative people we have known and adored during our many years in Key West I would rank Dilys Winn among the all-time greatest.  Dilys was a genius, a rebel, and a writer of mystery novels.  In New York City she founded the nation's first all-mystery bookstore and called it Murder Ink.  In Key West she staged a mystery theatre/bookstore, Miss Marple’s Parlor.  After Key West she moved to North Carolina, where her first address was “Mars Lane.”   In N.C. she was promptly discovered and hired by a country bed and breakfast inn as a hostess. Her job was to pour tea and entertain the guests, which she did with aplomb.  Imagine sitting down to tea with Dorothy Parker!  She even looked a bit like Dorothy Parker – not tall, plumpish, and with brown eyes, generally sparkling with amusement. She cut her own hair into a sort of pageboy and preferred drapey, linen clothes with big pockets and buttons.  I called Dilys my own private Dorothy Parker.  And in honor of that, Dilys presented to me a first edition of Dorothy Parker poems, a prize I will cherish forever. Sometimes I simply called her “Darling I Love You So.”

Dilys and June at the beloved lover's desk. Asheville, N. C.
Dilys lived in interesting places, and in none of them for long. Sometimes she lived in an abandoned building for sale and had to move when the sale happened.  Sometimes she lived in a garret in someone’s creaky attic. Sometimes she lived in the backrooms of her shops. Her final residence was in Asheville and it was lovely.   Dilys had a vast array of fascinating things that she gathered along the long and winding road of her life. Her favorite possession was a lover's desk, ancient, heavy and unique which she had brought home from England.  On the last evening we spent with her, some five years ago, I asked her to pose with me at that desk. And she did.

There is a prize named after Dilys Winn.  At the Mystery Book Writers of America annual Award Night gala the prize is given to the mystery novel that booksellers most enjoy recommending to their customers. It is called “The Dilys.” It honors Dilys Winn's elaborate conversational skills. Start at a mystery book and end up at Freud. Somehow Dilys was able to knit all the pieces together into something whole and brilliant. Her fascination with mysteries was her portal into the vast universe.

Nova Scotia morning. Shirley, Suzanne, Dilys, June and Babe.
In the last five years of our friendship Dilys was housebound, suffering with the kidney disease that finally took her on February 5.  We kept in touch with occasional marathon phone calls. An hour with me, and then, what she liked best, an hour with my husband, one of her favorite men. Had we recorded those wild conversations I’m sure we would have something Dilys would have deemed publishable by now. We didn’t, and so we will warm ourselves with memories of Dilys visiting us in Nova Scotia and chasing lobsters and puffins; Dilys treating us to dinner in a fabulous and remote restaurant in Asheville; and, of course, those many crazy days and nights hanging out at Miss Marple’s Parlor.

The attached column first appeared in the Miami Herald.  Pictures would have been a good idea.  But who thinks of that when you’re laughing so hard you can barely breathe?

We'll Die For You 

    After watching a couple friends perform in a campy, interactive whodunit parlor game at Miss Marple's Parlor and Mystery Book Shop, I suggested to shop owner Dilys Winn that if she ever needed a big blonde, I was available. Her bright eyes, aglow with a glimmer of lunacy, turned neon when I said my husband would act, too.
    Finally, our chance came. Last week Dilys called and asked us to appear in one of her zany dramas. I would play a whorish psychic. Michael would be a nerdy IRS agent. Were two roles ever so clearly ours? All we had to do, Dilys explained, was enter the parlor at 8 p.m., clutch our throats, stagger like poisoned people dying hideous deaths might do, and - die. Easy enough.
    "Sure," I told Dilys. 'We'll die for you."
    Dilys sent me to the Knot So New Consignment Shop where Ilene, the shop owner, who really is psychic, handed me dress after whorish dress to try, while a salesgirl named Lucy and I discussed the meaning of the word "whore." Does a whore get paid a lot for sex, or simply have a lot of sex? I say the second. Please don't ask me why.
    After I'd found my costume, a tight green and gold skirt with a giant flounce in a shimmery fabric, with a matching leopard-skin print jacket, I was to report to Dilys for costume approval.
    "Here are my corpses now," Dilys said to someone on the other end of the phone, when Michael and I walked into her shop.
    Dilys loved my costume, and was so encouraged by our enthusiasm for acting, she made an impulsive decision to expand our roles. After our death scenes, according to the new script, we were to quickly change into angels' wings and choir robes. Oblivious to anyone else but our ghostly selves, Michael and I were to wander around, discussing bright white lights at the end of a tunnel. We were also to drop occasional clues.
    Late Friday afternoon, while I teased my hair and applied a half-pound of makeup, Michael hunted for the gray flannel suit he'd stashed in the back of his closet 10 years ago. While he knotted his tie, I parted his hair down the middle and plastered it with gel. We found his old briefcase.
    At 7:30, we headed on foot for the mystery theater, with absolutely no clue of how our appearance on Duval Street would affect sunset pedestrians. Michael, the nerd in the suit and tie carrying a briefcase, and I, his whorish companion in the leopard skin suit, jangley jewelry and cheap perfume, created a bona fide scene.
    "Is this your first blind date?" I shrilled to Michael as we passed a group of pedestrians. Some polite types tried hard to not stare. Others glared at me disapprovingly. "How do you like Key West so far?" I shouted gaily, as Michael managed to stay in poker-faced character.
    A girl sitting on the sidewalk stared hard, and then when we were past, sighed loudly and gasped "My nerves," as if she'd hallucinated us.
    Soon, it was 8 o'clock. Showtime! As we waited in the wings, with the other, more seasoned cast members, Dilys appeared to give us some last minute directions.
    "When you do your death scenes, really camp them up," she said to us. "You should really overact, and don't worry about looking foolish."
    Then, as a sort of afterthought, Dilys murmured, "I could never do what you're about to do."
    But Michael and I had no qualms about looking foolish, and no fears of losing our dignity. Our impromptu dress rehearsal on Duval Street had cured us of all that.

Here's a video of Dilys' appearance on "To Tell The Truth" in 1972.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Uneasy Rider

A guy up in Maine -- wish I knew his name -- did this and gave it to Rocky. It's very cool, right?
A few weeks ago I went to New York and visited with my brother Rocky. One night we went to the Caramoor Center to see Patti LuPone. We rode to the concert on his Harley.  Most of the time the thought of riding on the back of a motorcycle scares the hell out of me; so many things can go wrong. But on this night, I ignored that nervous Nelly voice in my head and turned myself over to my brother’s care, and to fate, which seemed friendly and encouraging on that lovely summer evening. I had recently read an essay in a Buddhist magazine about becoming one with whatever you were doing. I decided to become one with my brother, just as he becomes one with his mighty Harley when he rides. For good measure I reminded myself that Rocky, my baby brother who is now in his fifties, has been riding a motorcycle since he was five years old.
Rocky with Mom and me in pre-Harley days.
Back then he had a mini-bike. He had a trail through our yard. There were ramps and jumps on a ride that took him past the front porch, around two trees, down the driveway and into the back yard, along the edge of woods, and up a grassy hill into the front yard again. The whine of that little engine was background noise to many seasons. 

Rocky was a neighborhood phenomenon – an adorable little boy in perpetual motion. Who better to trust with my life and my limbs? And although I know fate is an arbitrary thing, on that beautiful sultry night I easily abandoned my absurd notion of having some control over it, and relaxed into the wonder of the scene around me.
Country roads where we grew up. We love them!

Rocky letting his hair down in Key West.  You're so handsome, 'Bro'!
The ride was spectacular. We roared through the country roads like a jet through the clouds, the trees on the side of the road a blur of greens. It was twilight, and it occurred to me that traveling on a motorcycle was so much more honest than riding in a car. Every curve was a revelation. Sensational.  And as I hugged my brother’s back and screamed and laughed with the sloopy joy of freedom, I knew why he loved riding so much, and why he’d ridden thousands and thousands of miles like this, through tree-lined country roads and deserts and mountains, through Indian Reservations and National parks, on steep cliffs far above ocean shores and along the reedy beds of lakes and river.
My best friends. Michael Keith and Rocky Mazza. In Tatamagouche.     
After the concert, which was in no way as exhilarating as the journey to it (LuPone did not thrust her arms toward the firmament and belt out “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”) we climbed back onto the Harley and headed off into a much colder, darker night. 
Treen Cottage, Malagash. Another Nova Scotia summer with my boys.
I tried in vain to warm myself on Rocky’s back as we rode, huddling ever closer to him, which only made my helmet butt into his helmet until he finally asked me to please stop. I concentrated on tolerating blasts of moonless night chill waiting at the far side of every curve. No more crazy joy; no more happy memories; just a desperate need to make it back to Rocky's house and between the flannel sheets of my bed.

“I see why you love it so much,” I told him later, when my teeth stopped chattering.  “It’s wonderful! It’s thrilling!”

“It’s not as thrilling as it used to be,” he said. 

It was like hearing of a divorce, or coming close to the end of a book you were loving reading. I felt sad to hear that something so fundamental to his character had lost its thrall.

"Don't get me wrong," he said. "I  love riding. But nowadays I don’t feel safe. People are in such a hurry. You have to be on the defensive every minute. It's not like it used to be.”
 Michael, Susan Pitts (our daughter) and Uncle Rocky. They look so innocent . . . don't believe it! I can't imagine what they're up to, but clearly, they're up to something.
Last summer Rocky was riding on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, on the final leg of a cross-country trip, almost home, when a truck changed lanes and side-swiped his bike. Amazingly, Rocky stayed upright, but his foot was smashed and so was his Harley. The truck didn’t stop. Maybe, Rocky says, the driver didn’t know that he’d hit someone. An ambulance took Rocky to the hospital where the broken bones in his foot were splinted and wrapped. His Harley was towed away and repaired. It could have been far worse, everybody said. Yes, that is true. But the darker part of that wreck is what it did to his soul.  It robbed him of his innocence, a bright and shining thing, that Rocky had managed to hold onto far, far longer than most of us ever dare to. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Scenes from a Long Good Friday

Don't mess with my cushions!
One Thursday morning our neighbor Thea woke up blind.  She was understandably freaked out, but maintained her calm as Michael drove her to the local eye doctor, where she was examined.  The doctor came into the waiting room, stood before Michael and gravely announced: “She needs to go to the emergency room at the eye clinic in Miami. Right now.” 
   Michael called me at work to say that he was heading to Miami with Thea. What else could he do? Whoa! On a busy holiday weekend? There had to be a better way! I made a dozen phone calls, to the hospital, to the ambulance company, to the helicopter people. Turns out that waking up blind, as terrible as that is, does not classify as a life-threatening condition. Therefore, the only way to get Thea to Miami was to drive, on the eve of Good Friday. I joined them, and around 2 we headed to Miami. We arrived in the city, and into the maze that is Miami’s hospital district, just after rush hour, and found our way to the clinic by nightfall.
    In the waiting room there were others with eye emergencies even worse than Thea’s.  A kid on a stretcher with one eye heavily bandaged. (A victim of the famous BB gun incident our parents warned us about?) A baby, wailing, in the arms of his horrified parents. And other, quieter catastrophies. Like Thea’s -- all of them waiting for their turn with the doctor.
    By midnight Thea had been examined, her blood tested and her body injected with steroids. She was told to return in the morning, bright and early. Which meant checking into a hotel located somewhere in the maze of dirty streets and tall buildings.
    After another day of waiting rooms and treatments, Thea was released from the clinic. The roads were a glut of 3-day-weekend traffic. The source of Thea’s sudden blindness remained a mystery, although a course of treatment had been prescribed. As we made our way out of Miami, the tension, disappointment, and Thea’s fear traveled with us, like an elephant in the back seat. There was little to say, and so we said little. Our relief, at arriving home, was profound.
    Sometimes life in Key West is more like a movie than real life, as in you can’t make this stuff up! It was one of those times. And we had one more scene to go.
      As Michael eased the car into our narrow driveway we noticed an unfamiliar bicycle propped against our house. Unlocked. Who does that? While I walked Thea home, Michael investigated. He quickly returned to the front door and said,  “Call the cops!”  The tone of his voice sent chills up my spine.
    “Why?” I asked, dialing 911.
    “There’s a body on the deck,” he said.
    “A body? You mean a dead body?”
    “It’s all wrapped up,” he said. “I can’t tell.”
    He encouraged me to not look, so I didn’t. A policeman soon arrived. He was all business. With his right hand resting on his gun, he walked through the house with Michael leading the way. He saw the mummy on the deck and agreed that the thing wrapped in a quilt beneath the schefflera tree might be dead. Or alive. 
    “Hey,” he said, poking the body with his foot. “Hey, you!” 
    He did this for a minute or two until finally, the thing moved.  It was alive. It was a man and the man wanted to be left alone.  That’s what he said.
    “Leave me alone, please,” he moaned, and as he exhaled this plea fumes of alcohol filled the air. Michael and I staggered back, but not the cop.
    “You gotta get out of here,” the cop told the man. “This is private property. You’re trespassing.”
Our friends from Up North always get a kick out of our outdoor laundry room. 

    I realized that he was wrapped in the heavy quilt we use to cover our washing machine. Beneath his head, I recognized the porch chair cushions. He’d opened the gate, come into our yard, onto the deck, and bundled himself up nice and cozy. He hadn’t been there for long, I knew. Otherwise, that bike would have been gone, like all unlocked bikes in Key West.
    “Man, I told you to fix that gate lock,” I hissed at Michael, as the man slowly rose from the floor, moaning gruffly, polluting the air with his barroom breath.
    “Can I take this shit with me?” the man asked, clutching the quilt to his chest.
    “Yes,” the cop said. “Take it and go.”
    By now we were totally punch drunk with exhaustion. The situation was suddenly hilarious.
    “Wait a minute,” Michael said. “That’s my shit!”
    What made it all the more hilarious to me is Michael swearing. Michael does not swear.
    “No, you can’t take it. That’s Mr. Keith’s shit!”
     And then the cop. More hilarious still. 
    “How about these pillows?” he asked.
    “No!” I yelled.
    The drunken man surrendered our stuff. The cop walked him around to the front of the house where he slumped on the steps, and wearily held his head in his hands. He was not a bad man, I thought, just a defeated one. The bike, he said, in response to the cop's questioning, was his. He’d been in Key West for four weeks.
    “You want me to run him in?” the policeman asked. “It’s up to you.”
    “No, we just want him out of here,” I said, talking as tough as I could muster.  “But he’d better not come back here because this is Florida and if I see somebody on my property, behind my gate, I have the right to shoot!”
    “Did you hear that?” the cop said to the man. “Mrs. Keith says if you come back here again she’ll blow your head off.”
    With that the man rose from the step, and slowly climbed onto his bike, moving as if the effort pained him greatly. 
    “Hey, he’s riding drunk!” I said, as the man headed toward Duval Street and who knew what next.
    “Yeah,” the cop said. “I’ll probably be seeing him again tonight.”
    “Just like a western," Michael said. "This is where the cowboy rides into the setting sun.”
    Then we three stood silently, watching, and waiting for the credits to roll.

Monday, September 16, 2013

How I Found Enlightenment in the Walmart Parking Lot

Twenty-four hours after we woke up in the Walmart parking lot look who's still laughing.
Back in March, as I reserved and paid for plane tickets and a rental car for a trip to Canada Michael and I were planning to take in August, he viewed my early planning as an unattractive symptom of my controlling nature.  I am hyper-vigilant, for whatever reason. My school teachers often described me as “high strung,” which seemed to me a good thing. Better high strung than low strung, right?
     As our August departure date loomed, I urged Michael to secure our lodging for the Friday night we arrived in Maine. I needed to have a bed waiting for me at the end of a long day of travel.  As a high strung person, I need my rest.
      “There are lots of motels in Maine,” Michael said, “I want to wait and get one when we get there. Maybe we can get a same-day discount.”
There are motels all over the place!! 
      “But the motels are selling out,” I said. “I’ve been looking. There aren’t many rooms left!  Please choose one now!”
      Then came that look and that sigh from Michael. Oh June. Poor, high-strung June. I decided to work on developing a more laid-back attitude about the motel reservation. This is often what I do when these sorts of issues arise in my marriage. Michael is, after all, a far more worldly guy than I.  He’s been around, and, as he likes to remind me, been to Georgia on a fast train!  He’s educated at Furman, the Harvard of the South.  His feet don’t sweat.  He is laid back. So I figured Michael was right. We didn’t need reservations. I needed to get ahold of myself and steer clear of stringing myself too high.            
      On August 2 we flew to Maine. We took possession of our rental car, a sleek, white Sonata. We drove into the cool Portland sunset and all the way to Augusta before stopping for dinner. We asked the waitress if she knew of motels in the area.
      “They’re  everywhere!” she said. “I mean it’s Augusta, Maine.” She shrugged, shaking free the remote possibility of us finding ourselves without a roof over our heads for the night. But she was wrong. There were no motel rooms in Augusta, Maine that night. Or in Bangor either.  Turns out it was the weekend of the Lobster Festival, the state’s biggest tourist event. The motels were full and we were out of luck.
      In Brewer, Maine, we found a Walmart open till midnight. The nice clerks told us that we were welcome to spend the night outside along with the other campers in a tree-lined corner of the parking lot. People stayed there every night they assured us. How bad could it be?
      A wonderful thing happens when you surrender to the inevitable. It’s a sweet release; the knot in your chest unravels; your breath comes freely and you reclaim your sense of well-being. I jumped off the high wire then. Yes, we’d sleep in the car. We’d buy pillows and quilts and nest for the night, cupped in the soft leather seats of our lux car. Why not?
      “Baby,” Michael said, as we wandered the empty store, punch drunk with exhaustion, giggling like fools as we shopped for car camping supplies, “Pick yourself out a nice warm quilt.”
      We parked next to a very nice camper. There were a few.  A man walked his dog. A stiff breeze whipped the American flag flying over the land of the free. It was 60 degrees. We cracked the car windows for a rush of fresh, clean northern air, wrapped ourselves in our quilts, pushed back our seats and tried to sleep.
      Around 2 a.m. a Toyota Corolla pulled into the parking place next to ours. Inside the little car two people unabashedly performed the top ten positions of the Kama Sutra. Every once in a while they turned on the car’s engine, apparently to warm the car. They didn’t have quilts after all. Or curtains. What a show!                                            
      Maybe we slept for 2 hours. At 4 a.m. we were awake and chatting and laughing. I got out of the car to pee.  Maybe the folks in the fancy campers watched me do it. Maybe they didn’t. At 4 a.m. it was too late to care.
     “I peed on my feet,” I told Michael as I jumped back into the car, shivering from the cold, and shimmied back into the warm cocoon of my quilt.
      “Too much information,” he said.
     At 5 a.m. we drove to the all-night Tim Hortons for real bathrooms and coffee. At 6 a.m. we were on the road to New Brunswick, where we checked into a motel and slept for 18 hours. My equilibrium was shattered but my spirits were high.  Bottom line, we survived.
This boy has been to Georgia on a fast train, y'all!
      Now that we’re home in Key West, the trip is done, and life is back to routine, I think about that night. It was a fluke for us, but not for all who spend nights in their cars with no place else to go. I think about them. One night of homelessness was very hard on me.  It required a difficult period of adjustment, and then a longer period of recovery. I did it, but I don’t want to do it again.
      Now I see that flying above all that minutia — my need to control, Michael’s stubbornness, our silly egocentricities — is the clear solution, as obvious as that flag flying wildly in the Maine wind. There is truth in acceptance. I cannot manage every outcome in my life and it is a relief to admit that to myself.  Getting older is something I can do nothing about. The tyranny of time overrules our most carefully made plans. But I am lucky enough to be able to buy myself a very nice quilt. And so that’s my new serenity prayer: God, grant me the wherewithall to always have a nice, warm quilt as I surrender to the inevitable passage of time.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Hoka Hey Hell

Rocky waiting for breakfast in Key West, 2006.
My adventurous brother Rocky is about to set out on his beloved Harley for the mother of all motorcycle endurance rides, the Hoka Hey. Hoka Hey Challenge 2013 zig zags around the U.S. and Canada, covers 7,000 miles of road, and wraps at a giant survivors party a week or so later. Competitors’ bikes are equipped with tracking devices, so that we, the riders’ anxious friends and/or loved ones may watch their progress on our computer screens. Riders must sleep out-of-doors, if and when they sleep, and are strictly prohibited from using any performance enhancing drugs. Marijuana is taboo, too, and at the end of the race urine tests are administered to check for signs of infractions. Getting a ticket for speeding automatically eliminates challengers from sharing in the winners’ pot. Reportedly, Hoka Hey organizers will know if riders deviate from the rules, and in previous years, just to be sure, lie detector tests have been administered, which many unfortunately failed.  Riders are given directions to their next checkpoint at consecutive Harley dealership check-ins along the way.  The route is a mystery until the departure time of 6 a.m., Sunday.
          The website explains that the Hoka Hey is designed to “test riders’ abilities to navigate, endure and persevere along some of the most technical roads in North America!”
           And here I have to ask: what is a “technical road?”    
          “One with pavement?” Michael, Rocky’s brother-in-law suggests.
           Not necessarily, but in as much as that is possible, yes, the route will be on paved highway. Occasionally there may be deviations, however. Previous contestants have reported the instructions to have been very confusing.
          Here’s more from the Hoka Hey website: “Join us as we venture north into the ARCTIC WATERSHED! Traveling to places that no other competition has ever gone before!”
          “Maybe there’s a reason why no competition has ever gone there before,” Michael suggests.
           The Arctic Watershed, for those without a clue – like me, I had to look it up – is way, way, way up in northern Ontario, Canada, at the very lip of the continent. I suspect it will be cold. There are no towns in this area, only outposts.  Surely it will be lovely to see. But it’s a good thing Rocky is carrying his food, a series of high-powered nutrition shakes designed by his dietitian. I don’t think he’ll find a McDonald's up there on the tundra.
Michael, June and Rocky in Malagash, Nova Scotia, 2004.
            The challenge, as it is called, is designed by a South Dakota attorney, Jim Red Cloud, and his wife, Beth Dunham. They do this to bring attention and hopefully money to the plight of Native Americans.  In the Lakota language, Hoka Hey means “it’s a good day to die” and is believed to have been the battle cry of legendary Sioux warrior Crazy Horse. Others have interpreted the phrase to mean “it’s a good day to ride.”  The philosophy behind this is a belief in living a good life, so that when you die, you are prepared, no regrets.
           Sadly, the Hoka Hey has received some seriously negative publicity since its first run in 2010. Key West was the departure point for the trip that year. The finish line was in Alaska. The advertised first prize was $250,000 but that prize was never awarded. Those first over the finish line were plagued by a myriad of disqualifying factors. What those factors were, exactly, is kind of hush-hush. Ultimately, some cash prizes were awarded, just not the entire grand prize to one person. It was divided among those who managed to finish the run in the prescribed amount of time. And those guys aren’t talking.
          One hundred and seventy-three riders started the 2011 Hoka Hey endurance race. Of those, 11 finished in time to be eligible for prize money.  There is no public record of the 2012 statistics. And reportedly, Jim Red Cloud does not do interviews. You can go on line and read the blogs of the more literary past participants. The stories are interesting, but frightening. A lot of crazy things can go wrong on the road. There are natural disasters, traffic troubles, and fatigue. Riders are expected to cover nearly a thousand miles a day. That leaves little time for napping on the side of the road. Most of the participants are middle-aged, like my brother.
Key West Heidi and her baby, Rocky.  Ft. Taylor, one Thanksgiving.

           “The Hoka Hey Motorcycle Challenge is not your local poker run! It will try your tolerance for ambiguity. It will test your determination, your resolve and your stamina,” the Hoka Hey site says.
          This is a challenge my brother Rocky is apparently unable to resist. He’s has been bucking the odds since he was a little 5-year-old kid. Back then, to challenge the strength of a toy football helmet, he put the flimsy thing on his head, aimed, and ran as hard and fast as he could into the side of our house. Our mother, who’d been sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee with our Aunt Connie, thought a car had hit us. The women ran outside to find Rocky on the ground, out cold. Years later, when dared to climb up to the roof of the school and jump to the ground, Rocky complied, and broke his leg in several places. He once cut his finger off slicing Italian bread at a clam bake. The doctors sewed it back on. That was their challenge.
          Rocky was planning to participate last summer in Hoka Hey 2012. He drove to Las Vegas, the starting line. He partied with the Hoka Hey challengers. He was ready to go. Then he got a call from home that his son Keith had died of a heart attack at age 33. He didn’t do the ride. He went home to attend his son’s funeral. Rocky fell into a depression, made even darker by being laid off from his job. It was a rough time. But through it all, he looked forward to the 2013 Hoka Hey Challenge. He got a new job. Spring came, and with it, riding weather. Now it’s summer. He’s much more like his old, jolly self these days. And now it’s time.
Keith, Joey Rock, and Granddaddy Rocky. Connecticut, 2007.
          Today Rocky is camping with the other Hoka Hey contenders at the Senaca Indian Reservation in western New York. His ride is dedicated to the memory of his son. I can think of one hundred other things he could do to honor the memory of his son, none of them involving risking life and limb. But, this is Rocky, a man born to bend the laws of nature and good sense. He promises me he won’t push himself. But that big cash prize at the end of the road is pretty irresistible to my brother. How can he not push himself with his deeply ingrained American need to win? Rocky wants the bragging rights. He wants to prove himself to be shatterproof. (“I’ve already broken most of the bones in my body” he recently reminded me.)
          Sometimes I feel proud of my brother’s power, his tenacity, and his dedication to the open road. Lots of times I am very nervous. I once made him promise me were he to meet his end on the highway, he would die happy, no regrets. Hoka Hey! And he did promise. He has covered many thousands of miles on that bike, criss crossed the country a dozen times, and shown up to meet us on our own adventures in Arkansas, Nova Scotia and North Carolina. He truly does love riding, and works hard to support his Harley habit.
One of Rocky's New York friends did this a while ago.
    You can follow his ride on the Hoka Hey website  His tracking device number is 705. You can also pray for him and visualize him rolling triumphant, on July 1, back onto the Senaca Reservation, in one happy, jolly piece.
    I will spend this week thinking of my baby brother, calling him way too often, searching the Internet for weather reports, and dealing with a roller coaster ride of emotions. I will dwell in Hoka Hey Hell, and most certainly will suffer far more than the intrepid Superman, Rocky.            

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