Thursday, October 20, 2011

Death Defying Summer Vacation

A few years ago I became friends with a twenty-six year old alcoholic. With every whiskey, he’d reach a new level of maudlin and melodrama, pointing to the scar on his chest professing, “I can never love again because I have no heart.” Although it was wearing a bit thin on my patience, I’ll give anyone an audience to see where they will go if left uncensored. It wasn’t until he came to the “I won’t live to see 30” part of this semi-rehearsed monologue that I started to laugh. 
When we were young, my best friend Rick and I had a motto: Live fast, die young, leave a pretty corpse. This philosophy gave us license to take a lot of risks. Not to mention it sounded cool. When we reunited in 91, we were both over 30. Considering what we’d lived through, it was amazing we’d made it. I’m now 21 years older than I ever thought I’d live to be. 
Since the days of “live fast die young”, death’s been a recurring theme in my life. In ’88 I hit a heroin bottom that forced me to choose between life and death.  I've lost count of my friends who’ve died. Even in my fiction I’ve entertained suicide. And there was 9/11. Basically, since getting clean I've had many opportunities to contemplate death and come to terms with it. But you never know where you really stand until you face it. Recently, I had the most bizarre life and death experience to date.

 After forty years in the same house, my parents left Toronto and moved 90 miles east on Lake Ontario to a town consisting of four or five residential streets surrounded by farmland and forests. There’s a community center, hockey rink, and a general store.  Once I arrive, I’m basically stuck there.  Whereas before, I used to join friends after dinner, I now ride a bicycle for entertainment.

On my mom’s heavy ten-speed bicycle, I climb the never-ending hills up Community Center Road. My destination is always the same – one lonely horse in a corral several miles away. This is where I catch my breath and turn around.  Every summer I visit for two weeks. This year I arrived late July.

They were having the same heat wave I’d left in New York so I waited until evening before getting on the bike. The combo of natural beauty and endorphins put me in a state of tranquility and euphoria. I stopped at the top of the hill for the panoramic view before coasting past cornfields and another stretch of forest. Finally the land cleared to reveal a house, a small barn and corral. It had been a year since my last visit and I was anxious to see my favorite horse.

 As the property came into sight,  the corral  appeared empty.  A black animal came into view crossing from the corral toward the woods. At first I thought it was a bear cub, which was exciting and shocking enough, but then I realized it had a long tail.  My brain did a quick run-down of all animals native to Ontario that fit the description but came up empty. The animal moved unmistakably like a housecat.  My brain started reconfiguring the way a GPS freaks out when you do a U-turn.  “ I knew it was a black panther but this was illogical. Something was wrong. When the cat disappeared into the high grass I walked my bike to get a better look at the corral expecting to find a bloody carcass. Thankfully it was empty. Maybe the house was sold and the new owners owned an exotic pet. That could happen, right?  Dusk was setting in so it was difficult to make out any sort of cat cage or fence from thirty feet. As I contemplated this, the panther walked back into view and we made eye contact. He immediately crouched in the grass. 

My brain screamed, “Look away. Don’t make eye contact!” and my eyes darted to the road without as much as a heartbeat moving my body.  I felt like Mia Farrow when she wakes up in Rosemary’s baby having sex with Satan. “This is really happening.”

I ‘ve had guns pulled on me and two attempted rapes, but nothing had ever prepared me for anything like this. It was like being on an African Wildlife Safari without a vehicle. At the same time, there was a level of disbelief. There are no wild panthers in Ontario Canada. I know this beyond a doubt. Yet, as darkness was blanketing the land, a panther was watching me from a short distance with nothing between us except a cheap short wire fence. There was a good chance that within seconds of getting on my bike, I would feel the teeth and claws of this animal. I could be mauled, or dragged into the woods, eaten or discarded. This could really happen.

I took a deep breath. “Take a good look around because this may be the last time you see it.” So I took in the cloudless deep blue sky and swept my eyes over the wheat field and the forest now dark with night and thought of how beautiful it all was and how lucky I’ve been to experience it.  I got on the bike and began to pedal, knowing I didn’t want to die and at the same time, not afraid of it. I knew I was powerless and had to just ride this moment out.

I  ran directly to my computer and Googled “wildcat sightings southern Ontario”. Nothing came up. My mom followed me in. “Patty, did something happen. You are white as a sheet.” I hadn’t planned to tell her but knew it would be suspicious if I sped off in her car. “Mom drive me so I can get an address. There’s a panther out there and I have to call animal protective services before it kills any of the horses”.   The field was almost covered by darkness but the panther hadn’t moved. Its profile matched every panther ceramic coffee table ornament I’d ever seen. My mom saw it too.

After describing my experience, the cop on the phone said “Well, you’re in the country>” as though I was some city asshole who’d never seen a deer before. “What country exactly am I in? I grew up here and to my knowledge panthers are not indigenous to Canada. Moose, deer, bears, beavers, raccoons, skunks yes. Panthers no” He grumbled before filing an official report.

The next day I stuck a detailed account in every mailbox on Community Center Road.  My favorite horse was back in the corral and a woman was in the driveway. She listened while I told my story.  When I was done, she was quiet. I felt like a psychiatric escapee. “This morning when I let him out of the barn instead of going to his feed his nostrils began to flare and he started running in circles. I’ve never seen him like that before.”

There is no way to describe the emotional aspect of this experience.  What lingered in my thoughts were the cloudless dark blue sky and the various shades of green at the edge of the forest. When I believed my life was about to end, my only thought was “It is so beautiful here.” and the overwhelming yet peaceful feeling of being lucky to have experienced life. I was not afraid to die.

This experience showed me that despite my occasional angst and life stresses, I’m at peace with myself, and that this has not come attached to any concept of afterlife or reincarnation or God.  I’m thrilled that my youthful ambition to leave a pretty corpse was never realized. Peace, for me, has come through living.

I once wrote a story where the main character has to find a reason not to commit suicide. In the end, she decides that it’s worth hanging on because you never know what crazy adventure is around the corner, who the next new person will be to make you laugh at something new.  I still stand by this.

In September my mother dropped in on the woman with the horse. The vet said there have been seven sighting of the panther. It killed a horse 35 miles away. A farmer on Community Center road said his horses were tangled in the fence as if they were running from something and he mentioned my letter. Every house in the area with small children is now for sale.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Health Food and Heroin - Acquiring Culinary Skills - Part Two

By my third year of college, I was getting restless. The student life was no longer challenging or engaging me so I returned to NYC to raise funds for my “right of passage” student European vacation. By the time the new semester started, my heroin habit was impossible to replace with weed, wine and black beauties.  Debbie and I had gotten involved in a new dangerous lucrative career.  Once a month, I’d go to NYC, make some money I’d turn into heroin that I’d smuggle back so I could make it through my classes. When I met my future ex husband, it was time to go straight on all fronts. This meant getting a job.

Although my husband wasn’t an addict or a criminal, he was an artist and lived off grants and lived rent-free at a friend’s hotel.  Neither of us had much experience working a normal job. The best we came up with was sharing a few dishwashing shifts at a trendy French restaurant. The pay sucked but they fed us and we could occasionally steal food from the walk in fridge once the staff went home. On Sundays, my mother would give us a basket of tomatoes from the garden.

Our diet consisted of white rice and tomatoes. We were always hungry. It was during this time, I cracked open the box of forty-nine cookbooks. I spent countless hours, over my bowl of rice and tomatoes, reading thousands of recipes.  This was my culinary institute.

Eventually, I convinced Napoleon we needed to move to New York and devised a way to make it happen. My plan involved him working as a museum security guard long enough to be eligible for unemployment while I tended a friend’s bar.  In October, we’d find a cheap winterized cottage to rent, save unemployment money, and move to New York City by May. Since I’d memorized fifty cookbooks, I’d save us money by making everything from scratch.

Carless, we were dropped off at a cabin in the middle of nowhere with 100 pounds of flour, 50 pounds of sugar, powdered milk and eggs, dried beans, and 2 deep freezers full of vegetables and meat. A year earlier I’d announced we were vegetarians but when I noticed that he’d lost his edge, I put him back on a meat diet. Some people needed meat to feed their aggression and without it, he seemed to wilt.

It was six of the coldest months of my life. Time was spent baking bread, gaining weight, and snowshoeing to the mailbox to wait for hash to arrive. Chubby and stoned, we’d do TV aerobics with Jane Fonda and dream of springtime in New York.

 In New York we found jobs in the art department of a popular nightclub called Area.  It didn’t take long before I began using all of our money for drugs. To rationalize this, when we’d walk the dog, I’d show him prices at the trendy restaurants then replicate the meals at home explaining how what I spent on heroin was less than we’d have spent if we’d gone out for dinner.  Eventually, my cooking skills became so sophisticated, I started moonlighting as a cook for a caterer.

Throughout our years together, Napo and I were always seekers. We’d gone through a Carlos Castaneda phase, had a moment of shabby shamanism, crystal dowsing, vision quests, and built a sweat lodge. We somehow arrived at homeopathic remedies.  In the mid-80s a few health food stores began popping up but were still considered oddities by the mainstream. The patrons included old hippies, holistic drug-addicts, and people with terminal illnesses desperate to ward off death.  I was interested in all forms of detoxification from fasting to volcanic ash enemas. Anything, that is, except stopping the poison I was injecting into my body several times a day. I guess you could say I was trying to find balance between health food and heroin.

Eventually the nightclub closed, my husband went back to Canada, and I moved to LA. Which began the spiral into the eventual desperation to get clean. In 1988 I found a rehab in Louisiana that would accept Canadian Health Insurance. When I returned to LA, I was truly a stranger in a strange land.
After 18 months of sofa surfing, sleeping in cars, and living in vacant buildings, existing on vanilla cake mix with milk or chocolate chip cookie dough, when I finally got clean I really was starting my life from scratch.

I got my first apartment just before I celebrated my first year. Detached from my domestic skills, I ate all my meals out. My refrigerator was always empty with the exception of coffee creamer. It didn’t occur to me that I could feed myself.  

I had no connection to my past whatsoever and my new friends had no idea of what had come before them. To them, I was this unusually articulate single stripper who’d taken a greyhound bus to LA with 70 days clean with a duffle bag of G-strings. I’d talk about my outrageous life before recovery and even I wondered if I was making it all up.   Whenever I’d mention living in a cabin baking bread, how easy it was to make cinnamon buns from scratch, or the type of herbs to take for whatever was ailing them, the room would fall silent. Eventually I discovered all the knowledge accumulated during my health food and heroin phase had not been lost.  

A lot of recovering addicts talk about how they started using drugs in search for something of a spiritual nature. To me, any quest for knowledge that helps us to treat our bodies better is spiritual. Food, meditation, exercise, breathing, fresh air, even drinking lots of water promotes sanity and wellbeing. Participating in these things is, to me, living a spiritual life. It means, essentially, that I believe I am worth caring for. On a simpler note, it is self-respecting behavior. To this end, I always incorporate all of the above into my work as a sober coach.

Of course, clients always ask where I learned about nutrition and diet, or how I learned to cook. I’m sure they expect me to list certification programs, places of formal training.  Instead I think of how none of it would have come about had I not met Marty. Or maybe not come about the way it did.