Thursday, March 29, 2012

Telling It Like It Shoulda Been

Slaving over a hot word processor in Paradise.
I’ve been writing a weekly blog for over a year now. I write my blog on Thursdays. It’s not always easy to think of something to write about. So why keep a schedule? you might ask. Why not just write when you feel like it? My blog is an exercise in self-discipline. If I only wrote when I felt deeply inspired to write, very little would get written by this writer. To have written is far more fun than writing. I write to get to the part where I’m finished writing. Life is so much sweeter when there’s fresh ink drying on the page in my writing room.
    When I learned that I would be writing a weekly column for the Miami Herald newspaper, quite a few years ago when newspapers were important, I called my grandmother, the one who’d always believed in my writing, the one who gave me my first typewriter, and my first desk. I told her my big news.
    “Oh dear!” she said.
    “Why ‘Oh dear,’ Gramma?” I asked her.
    “How will you ever think of something to write about every single Saturday?”
    Some columns, or blogs, are more inspiring than others, of course. I don’t write about religion, or politics, or my corporate job, although these are the things that most consume me, my passion and my opinions. I don’t write about those subjects because I don’t like to fight, or argue, or debate.
June at 15. She looked so happy. She was so sad.
My canvas, if you will, is Key West, my paradise. It is here where I healed from the wounds of a difficult childhood and adolescence, and here where I became aware of a world outside of my own very sad interior one. It is difficult to be blue in a place where the sun shines just about every day of the year, where gingerbread and Victoriana and a beach are never more than a block or two away. It is impossible to maintain resentment after being gifted with a beautiful family, a crew of true friends, and a disposition ever vigilant for a laugh.
    I have made mistakes this year, and learned from them. When I wrote about my son Miguel, at age 5, commenting on his teacher sunbathing topless at the beach, he reminded me that that incident had happened at the County Beach, not at Fort Taylor Beach. I knew that, but for the purpose of that essay, I wrote it my way. That, my journalist friend told me, was wrong. She agreed with my son.
    “If you take license with that,” she reasoned, “I, the reader must wonder, what else did she lie about in this story?”
    And I understand that she’s right. I’m not a fiction writer after all.
Mama June with baby Miguel. Oh joy!
    When I told a story from my New York childhood, about a friend’s mother’s accident, and my father coming to her rescue, I wrote it because I thought that was how it had happened. My friend sent to me a scathing e-mail, telling me that my father had never been present at the accident, and that other parts of my recollection about our childhood were dead wrong, too. I was horrified, because what I’d viewed as something sweet and unique, was to her difficult and embarrassing. She was furious with me for telling her story, using her name, and posting a photo I’d taken of her and her baby, I took the blog and photos down. I’m hurt that she feels so betrayed, after over 50 years of friendship that were so special to me. But I’m a writer, after all. My story is my truth.
    My son was just four when he and a bunch of Key West kids were in a television commercial, filmed in a building with a steep, concrete staircase. As the kids, my own kid, my ex-husband and I hustled out of the building and down the stairs, a tiny little girl of maybe three years old, reached for the rail, missed it, and toppled head first toward the ground two stories below. It seemed to happen in slow motion. In an instant I leaned over, reached out, and grabbed the tiny girl by the leg. She banged into the stairs and cried in fright. My son’s father, a big man with long arms, immediately took her from my arms, as I shivered with a massive rush of adrenaline. Without me, that girl would have been gravely injured. Or dead.
    The next day my ex said to me, “How does it feel to have saved a little girl’s life?”
    A few months later, and to this day, he says “Remember when I saved that little girl from going headfirst off those stairs?”
    The man still insists that it was he, and not I, that reached out and grabbed that little ankle before it was too late. He believes it with all his heart. And I believe it was me. I believe it with all my heart. I’d swear to it on a witness stand.
    So that’s what I’ve learned from writing a year of blogs. The truth is a slippery thing, like a vein when you’re trying to draw blood. It’s there, and then it isn’t. But in fact, it’s always there, somewhere. Otherwise, you'd be dead.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

I Got the Crabs at Joe’s

A Miami Beach landmark.
A couple of weeks ago my darling husband and I were snuggling quite promisingly in our cozy bed when a tiny but persistent beep began emanating from somewhere nearby. A truck backing up outside? A smoke alarm? Some bit of computer gadgetry we’ve yet to uncover amid our mass of modern technology?
Michael, June and Waiter Doug at Joe's Crabs.
    “It’s me,” Michael whispered. “Don’t worry.”
    I immediately disentangled myself from his warm arms and sat erect in the bed.
    “It’s YOU?” I asked.
    “It’s my defibrillator,” he said. “It does that every day at 9 a.m.  It means it’s time to get a new battery.”
    Seven years ago Michael suffered a heart attack. Because he is thin, a nonsmoker and nondrinker, at the time he thought he was getting the flu. The last thing either of us suspected was a heart attack. On that day he looked pretty awful and was uncharacteristically grouchy. I figured it was the flu. He was turning greener by the moment. A sheen of sweat covered his forehead. He felt cool and clammy to the touch. I noticed that when he tried to relax with a magazine, he held it upside down, and turned the pages as if it were a common thing to do.  That’s when I insisted on a visit to the emergency room. It was a heart attack. We were helicoptered to Miami. Michael survived. He was installed with a defibrillator, which is kind of like having an emergency room in your chest. Should his heart skip a beat or two, that defibrillator delivers a shock that feels akin to being kicked in the chest by a mule. It’s quite an amazing setup. Its only flaw is that after five years or so, its battery needs to be changed out. That means a brief surgical procedure. And that’s why we were in Miami Beach last week — to have his battery changed out and silence that weird warning beep in his chest.
    Apparently implanted defibrillators and pacemakers are not rare. Not long after Michael received his we were at a dinner party where two other guests confessed that they, too, sported defibrillators. 
They really look like this, too.
    “Don’t get us too excited,” one guy said. “We may all go off at the same time!”
    By 11 a.m. the procedure was done and Michael was being discharged from the hospital. While we waited for paperwork, I thankfully entertained visions of heading away from the hospital, driving back to the hotel, and enjoying an afternoon nap before evening. But no. Michael was hungry. And because he was emerging from anesthesia, and his thinking was a bit askew, he was particularly suggestible.
    “Is it OK for me to eat now?” he asked his cardiologist.
    “Sure!,” his happy doctor said. “You should go to Joe’s Crabs on the beach and have the fried chicken. It’s only $5 and it’s delicious.”
    I’m not even going to go into how I feel about a cardiologist telling a man with a heart condition to have himself a plate of fried chicken for lunch. Fried chicken is my Southern-bred husband’s favorite dish. Further, he’d missed breakfast. Finally, we were bone tired, having risen by 4:30 a.m. to be at the hospital by 6 that morning.
Eating Key Lime Pie at Joe's three hours post-op.
    We headed to Joe’s, which, the doctor said, was “just down the road.” The GPS in our car told us that Joe’s was 3.5 miles away. However, on a March day, the very height of tourist season, on Miami Beach, 3.5 miles might as well be 100 miles. It took us a bumper-to-bumper hour to get to Joe’s.
    Joe’s really is a cool spot. You are greeted by men in white shirts and black bow ties, with impeccable service skills. We were seated on the patio. It was a glorious day, silky and breezy as only a March day in Florida can be. By that time of the day, there were no lines. Michael ordered fried chicken, which is $5.95 at lunchtime. He insisted that I have stone crab claws, as a reward for being such a good driver.
The Cheesecake Factory.
    The food was wonderful. The chicken was old-timey and excellent. My crab claws, all three of them, were delicious. The creamed spinach, featuring a wonderful base flavor of nutmeg, and the shredded potatoes fried to crispy perfection, were divine. The Key Lime pie was perfect. It really was a most enjoyable repast. We chatted with our waiter and took photos. Our bill was roughly equivalent to our weekly shop at Publix, but heh, Joe’s is a bucket list event. You’ve gotta do it once or you haven’t really lived. 
    Driving out of Miami Beach was a whole lot easier than driving in. We stopped to pick up Michael’s pain meds. We were in a hotel by dark. Michael took a Tylenol with codeine and settled in front of the television for the news shows. I headed out to meet my friend Patty for a leisurely dinner. Yes, that’s right. Dinner! At the Cheesecake Factory we dined on the best macaroni and cheese imaginable.
     To sum up our visit to Miami . . . Lunch at Joe's: $65. Dinner at the Cheesecake Factory: $40. An emergency room implanted in your heart: priceless. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Descendants

Our kids and our kids' kids. Top Row:
Laura, Kevin, Susan and Leslie.
Will, Johnny B. and Meredith
A year or so after our divorce my ex-husband called me to say he’d decided he wanted another child. I wished him luck.
    “You don’t understand,” he said. “I want you to have another baby with me. I want our son to have a brother or sister. All you have to do is have the baby. I’ll take over from there.”
Michael's mother got to be a Grandmother and she loved the job! Here she is with Meredith, Laura and Susan
Kevin caught this fish on a Key West party boat.
    I thought he was nuts. Lately I’ve been thinking maybe I should have taken him up on his offer. Because as it stands today, it appears I may never be somebody’s grandmother, a job at which I feel I would be really terrific. My one and only son Miguel, my singular issue, has lately told me that he’s not totally keen on having children.
   I do have three great step-daughters. They were grown by the time I met my husband. They are lovely and accomplished.       Michael’s first wife did the heavy lifting say, when describing our mixed family.
Kevin Springbreaking in Key West 
Those daughters have borne my husband, their father, four exceptionally fine grandchildren. But these stunning specimens of DNA do not represent my own gene pool. This is good and bad. Good because I can brag on them with impunity. I make no claim on those sterling genes. They call me “June.” We are Granddaddy Michael and June. I am obviously a very young woman. If I were an older woman, I’d be a grandmother. And I’m not.
 Leslie and Uncle Miguel
    It seems my only hope for grandmotherhood is my son.
   “I love kids,” Miguel says. “I always thought I’d have kids. But it’s such a huge responsibility!”
Brothers Johnny B. and Will
    That’s what happens when you put off having kids. Maturity makes us wiser, and more aware of the perilous speedway that is a life.     Miguel says his friends with kids are always doing some chore or errand related to parenting, as in “we gotta go get the kids” or “we gotta take the kids to somewhere” or “we gotta go pick up this or that for the kids.”
    Miguel teaches elementary school. He loves his students. He loves playing in his band at night. He loves his life, as it is. Where would kids fit in?
   Many of my closest girlfriends do not have children. They lavish their love on step-kids, nieces and nephews instead. That seems to work out well. Those girls travel a lot. They do not have mortgages or stretch marks. Somehow, in spite of not being mothers, they always have things to do, places to go, people to meet, stuff to talk about. 
The Descendants. Grandson Kevin, his mom Susan, with Granddaddy Michael.
Chess Champ Will, 8, and John, 5, playing the state capital game with Granddaddy Michael. The boys won.
        A woman recently told me her story of having her eggs harvested from her body, so that her infertile sister could have children. After suffering through months of the indignities of daily injections of various hormones, she produced an astounding 47 eggs, potential babies, one of which actually created, for her lucky sister, a fine boy. And, since there were plenty of viable eggs, more kids could be! It turned out that the sister was so overwhelmed with having one baby she changed her mind about having a big family. One kid was plenty. More than enough.The remaining eggs were destroyed.
Granddaughter Leslie: Homecoming Queen.
    “Are you devastated when you son says he doesn’t want kids?” the same woman asked me when I told her about Miguel’s comments.
Uncle Miguel teaches his niece and nephew
the finer points of shooting craps.
   I am not. Some people say that having children is an ego trip. Isn’t it the same for grandkids? I would be devastated if my son ended up like a musician friend of mine who cannot set foot into the state of Florida because, as a starving artist, he could never pay all the child support the judge said he should. His children are adults now. Still, he is barred from living in Key West, a place he loves, the place where he met and married the mother of his children. I would be devastated if my son were to marry and then divorce, losing access to his kids in the deal. So many things can go wrong with parenting.
Miguel on drums; Tony Olivero on guitar; making music for the Montessori Charter School students
    My mother and I had a very bumpy relationship. My Nova Scotia grandmother once explained to me, with a weary sigh, “you two are just not cut from the same bolt.” I no longer wonder what I would have turned out to be if I’d had a mother who was delighted to have me as a daughter. But I used to wonder that a lot, and to terrible distraction. Then a psychiatrist said to me, “Who says how a mother is supposed to love her daughter?  Where are those rules written?”
    And, in one stark instant of divine clarity, I got it. He was right. For that matter, who says everybody must have babies? I’ve decided that having step-grands is way good enough. And so, here they are: my truly amazing grandkids.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

You Are What You Eat

A last bastion of Cuban coffee and sandwiches.
This morning I had coffee with Audrey Sams at 5 Brothers on Southard Street. Audrey brings her own coffee mug to the coffee shop, pre-seasoned with almond milk and organic sugar. On top of this, Pepe, son of one of the five brothers, pours a shot of hot Cuban coffee.
    “I bring my own milk and sugar and Pepe still makes me pay for it,” she says, laughing.
Audrey and Pepe
    I still drink the old-fashioned cafe con leche, strong coffee doused with cow’s milk, which, according to Audrey, is laced with antibiotics and hormones that my cancer-surviving body should most certainly do without. This morning I ordered toast, hot Cuban bread slathered in butter, wrapped in a square of waxed paper and perfect for dunking into Cuban coffee. The butter is wrong, too, Audrey says. I should switch to coconut oil instead. So I felt a little bit like an addict, smoking my last cigarette before quitting, or drinking my last Budweiser, before heading to an AA meeting. I know this has to stop. I know there is no argument I can make to refute the wisdom of cleaning up my diet. But old habits die hard, and food is the oldest habit in the world.
    Lately I’ve been thinking seriously about my diet. I’ve been working hard on preparing meat-free meals, featuring lots of veggies, beans and grains. Milk I can live without. But butter? I’m half French, for God’s sake. How do I do without butter?  I was born in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, the butter capital of Maritime Canada. My husband grew up on South Carolina cuisine, a lot of the stuff I’m trying to eliminate from our meal rotation. Meat. Bacon. Ham. Cheese. How can we do this?
    The last time I was at Sugar Apple, the healthfood store, I saw Audrey. I ran into her at Help Yourself, the organic food spot where on Mondays you can buy organic vegetables. Through the years, as many locals have experienced the subtle expansion our waistlines and the slip-sliding away of our youthful vigor, Audrey seems to have gone the other way. She has never looked better. She’s driving a dent-free BMW. She’s always smiling.
Audrey. Healthy, wealthy enough, and plenty wise.
    So the last time I saw Audrey I told her I wanted for us to talk. I want to know the secrets of your success, I told her.  So we had breakfast this morning.
    It turns out that Audrey is every bit as smart as I always thought she was. She grew up in Montreal. She is Jewish. She was married once to an Air Force man. She lives on proceeds from several rental properties she owns. Managing those, and keeping up with volunteer activities, keeps her busy. She walks, does Pilates, and coaches a great number of friends on diet and exercise. But she does not call herself a coach or claim any special expertise. 
    Audrey is a very practical person, with refreshingly clear vision. And yet, she told me, from the time she was very young she has never felt like she really fit in. Anywhere. I believe this sense of being an outsider is common to intelligent people, who find themselves frequently mystified by the often silly, sometimes cruel, sometimes harmful antics of people unfortunately not blessed with clear vision. 
    “Real estate and sex,” she said, “are things you should get when you’re young.”
    “Wow!” I said. “You’re right!”
    “Don’t be impressed,” she said. “I got that off a birthday card someone gave me 25 years ago. But it’s true!”
    Michael Ingram dropped into 5 Brothers for some of that irresistible Cuban toast. I told him I loved his new antique Lincoln Continental, which I posed in front of just the other day.
    “I’m cheating,” he said to Audrey, nodding at his toast wrapped in paper. She smiled.
June posing in front of Michael Ingram's new vintage Lincoln Continental.  (See the lady behind the car taking a picture of the most photographed house in Key West?)
    The problem with meat and dairy, Audrey believes, is the way they’re raised and killed. They are given horrific amounts of hormones to make them grow faster and fatter, and antibiotics, to keep them from becoming diseased before they are slaughtered. She watched a film, “Forks over Knives” that presented “compelling evidence that a plant-based diet” would give her the best shot at good health.
    “It’s not how long you live. It’s the quality of the living. I live like a person who has battled and survived a life-threatening disease,” she said. “Even though I haven’t.”
    A couple of years ago she endured a mean bout of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness with flu-like symptoms. For ten days she could barely move.  From that experience she learned all she ever wanted to know about being horribly sick. 
    “Who would think a little tiny mosquito could fell a great tree like me?” she said.    
    Nowadays Audrey chooses her food carefully, and loves preparing astoundingly delicious and healthful meals for her carnivorous friends. She is generous about sharing her hard-won knowledge of diet and exercise with anyone interested. She isn’t looking to argue or debate.
    As for the BMW, it’s leased she told me. She leases a new car every couple of years because she gets a kick out of having a new car. But if she could only afford to drive a Toyota, that would be fine, too. Taking care of her body is her main expense. Everything else comes after she pays for organic food.
    “I know plenty of people who drive big, expensive cars and eat crappy food. Some people spend more money on gas for their car than they do on food for their bodies. I really do believe that you are what you eat,” Audrey said.
    “So if someone were to take a bite out of you,” I asked her, “how would you taste?”
    “You know,” Audrey said, “That’s a good question to ask yourself. ‘How would I taste?’”
    "Yeah," I said. "Like a strawberry? Or a cheeseburger?"