Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: spiritual fitness (page 1 of 8)

Introducing “Recovering the Body.”

Thanks to all those who, in my absence from this space, have been commenting on posts and writing in. I’m keeping up as much as I can while I begin a brand-new project that I think I can now announce—though the contract isn’t signed, it’s almost signed and I’ve been assured it’s happening.

In June, I was invited by Hazelden Publishing to write a new book about physical recovery from addiction. 

In fact there’s no book in the market like this, so it’s an awesome idea. They found me through this story I wrote last year for The Fix (sadly, now defunct) about four elite athletes who use exercise to stay sober. The idea for that story came from an exchange I had with a friend of mine, a writer, athlete and sober guy I met two years ago when he emailed Guinevere. In the way life works now, we have become close and he has given me a ton of moral and practical support.

So the help just goes around in a big circle. You catch it and you pass it on, a big game of Karmic Hot Potato. Is what I tell my kid, anyway. And what I tell my kid is usually what I need to hear.

The editor asked me to write a proposal, so one night I came up with an elegant design that has five chapters—exercise, nutrition, sleep, and sex, along with a chapter on meditation—to help readers understand the particular ways in which addiction to drugs and alcohol fucks up the body, and what physical discipline and care can do to restore not just physical health but also mental wellbeing and spiritual fitness.

"A Moment in Time," bronze cast by Roxanne Swentzell.

They bought it immediately. As in, within days. The contract is being finalized, and I will spend this fall and winter writing the manuscript. The book will be released as a lead title Fall 2014.

Amidst all that work it hadn’t even occurred to me to start a new site. I was too busy feeling crappy about not having time to push to this one. But a friend, a senior publicist at a big house in NYC, suggested over coffee at the café up the street—she lives in NYC but her boyfriend lives here, in fact five blocks from me—that I (duh) buy the domain name to my working title and make a space for my ideas, questions, stories, connections. A kind of online sketchbook, as my friend Paul said.

This way, you guys can have a way to contribute to the process. There’s a lot I don’t know, and I want to learn from you.

My intention is to keep publishing here when issues arise that concern the subject of this blog—getting and staying sober, as well as pet issues of mine (Suboxone use and abuse, for example, is still a massive blinking dot on my radar).

But I will be publishing stuff more often on my new site. I’ll ask you to share your ideas and experiences. I’ll be talking to some high-level athletes and professional experts and researchers, but mostly I’ll be talking to ordinary folks who squeeze (or who, like me, sometimes fail to squeeze) their exercise and nutrition regimens into their days, along with everything else they do, including working, parenting, and whatever constitutes their recovery programs. I’ll be talking with folks who feel like they might be going overboard, substituting exercise, food, sleep or sex for the drugs they used to use.

If you follow me on Facebook as Guinevere, I hope you’ll click the button below and follow me under my real name. That’s where I’ll be posting stuff about this new project. And if you have ideas and questions, please please please let me know.

Connect with Jen.

Blowing Up Midtown.

I wend my way down Third Avenue away from the Lex Ave subway stop (I call them “stops,” not “stations,” because that’s what I’ve trained myself to call them—I learned to ride the Tube in London and native Londoners on the street laugh at me when I ask where the nearest Tube “station” is—It’s a stop, innit? This is how afraid I am of being laughed at: I change my language, change my shorts, change my shirt, change my life, as Tom Waits sings, so that I can avoid even minor disapproval) and toward the midtown offices of this famous treatment center whose headquarters are in my state but which also maintains a location here. I wonder what it looks like.

It’s small. It’s narrow. It’s a little glass door sandwiched between skyscrapers in the tall steelconcrete windtunnel that is Midtown.

Caron, midtown.

Caron, midtown.

The meeting is downstairs. It’s big. Lots of people, it turns out, are “family and friends” of alcoholics and addicts in this town. I arrive five minutes late because the train was running late, I’m not used to building in time for the constant subway delays in this city, actually I’m not used to building in time for any malfunction ever, I always expect myself to be running at top speed in perfect condition, nuts tightened, pump primed, engine lubed and idling, ready to go. That perfectionism, in fact, is one reason I’m here, sitting at the back of this meeting, digging my knitting out of my bag and listening to the speaker give a “qualification.”

This is a meeting whose weekly theme is “intimacy.”

The speaker talks, to my great surprise, about sex.

No one at any meetings in my town talks about sex.

But sex, sober sex, truthful sex, Real Sex, is so important and so critical to this process they call “recovery.” Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about sex? I wonder to myself. The answer is obvious: people are embarrassed to be open about their sexual “issues” in what used, in my parents’ cocktail era, to be called “mixed company.”

But I need to know what sober sex means. Honest sex.

What does it mean? What does it look like?

(My sponsor says: Making love doesn’t always have to mean sex. It can be other things.)

The speaker makes an analogy that sounds crazy and gross but is actually, upon second thought, fairly sane: this person wants a relationship that’s so intimate that it looks the way primates look when they’re grooming each other, weeding through each other’s hair and cleaning each other down.

stock-footage-cu-monkeys-grooming-each-other-at-the-monkey-temple-in-kathmandu-nepal

Total acceptance.

We’re primates, aren’t we? I think. Don’t we have this instinct somewhere in our DNA, this need to be so accepted and cared for not just by ourselves but by someone else as well?

//

I raise my hand. I talk about sex. I cry afterward, unwillingly. I don’t take long to talk, the “spiritual timekeeper” doesn’t even signal me to shut up, but I feel stupid, like a stupid freak as I root my Kleenex out of my bag and blow my nose. I’m the only one crying—at least, I think so.

Stupid freak. This is the language that my mind uses to address myself when I talk about dangerous subjects, the language that is second-nature and feels comfortable, like a threadbare flannel shirt. It’s garbage but it keeps off the draft.

I’ve been thinking about language all day. I’ve spent the day writing for an editor I like, a guy in this city in fact. But I also, paradoxically, found myself going to Mass. I’d gone to another meeting at a church, it happened to be the holiday they call (I used to call) Holy Week, I’d gone inside the cool stone nave to be quiet and “maintain conscious contact,” and suddenly the priest showed up. He said Mass. And I knew all the responses. I spoke the language. It burbled out of some deep well inside me that I thought I’d banged the cover on long ago. I am taken aback by some of the phrases. Particularly:

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you
But only say the word and I shall be healed

I shall be healed. Healed. Had I ever thought about that idea, that this “sacrament” could Heal Me? Not as such; I’d gone to church to please my parents, to look like a Good Girl, to maintain appearances, keep the varnish bright, and to somehow Meet God in “God’s house”—my mother’s term for church. I’d memorized the responses to the Mass the way I memorized my “times tables” in fourth grade; later all this memorization helped me commit calculus to short-term memory, and the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales to long-term memory, in Middle English, with spelling, and accent:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour …

Aprille. It’s April already. I’m ahead in getting my taxes done but already behind in so many other things. In Work. In Money. In Appearances. In Sex. In Life.

//

After the meeting I thank the speaker. Women and men alike express appreciation for my “share.” A guy tells me not to feel alone, that what I said about sexuality is probably a lot more common than I think. I nod my head and thank him and climb the stairs to the lobby.

I ask the woman behind the desk if Dr. Paul works here.

Paul Hokemeyer, MD, JD, clinical consultant to Caron Treatment Centers, NYC.

Paul Hokemeyer, MD, JD, clinical consultant to Caron Treatment Centers, NYC.

 

She regards me with a patient smile usually reserved for very young children. “He’s not here right now,” she says kindly, checking her watch—it’s 8:30 p.m.—“he’s left for the day.” Of course, I say; I just wondered; I’ve talked with him several times over the phone; I’m a journalist and sober blogger and I’d just wondered if these were his offices. I’m rambling a bit. I’m out of business cards; I don’t take myself seriously enough. I’m looking around at the lobby. People routinely do business over distances these days but something in me likes to place people, place faces, I’ve got quite an earthbound mind, I like to look into people’s eyes, I’m an artist

I paint portraits.

I paint portraits.

but I also wind up defending myself in situations where I needn’t. Why explain myself with the receptionist?

(because i explain defend myself with everyone)

Isn’t it time to open up a bit? to trust? … I think back to the interview I held with the Famous Author the day before. I was showing him my paintings on my new iPad; I felt as though I was not supposed to be showing him art on a fancy expensive consumerist design tool, I could hear the voice of my mother

(goddammit, who the hell do you think you are?)

but I showed him anyway; he said he recognized one of the paintings from my blog.

You read my blog? I asked.

I told you I read your blog,

he said.

I didn’t believe you, I blurted, placing my fingertips on his arm. He regarded me with slight reproach. He’d guessed my age as younger than his, though in fact I’m six or eight years his elder.

I try to live a life of rigorous honesty these days, my friend,

he said.

//

Bloomingdales_flags

Wind whipping Bloomingdale’s flags. Photo by Woody Campbell.

I walk out of the Midtown treatment center offices. The wind through Bloomindale’s flags has built to tornado force. I mechanically scan the sliver of sky for tornadoes, but of course they never experience cyclones here. I’m blowing up Third Avenue in Midtown. I’m steadying myself to keep from pitching over when a hand touches my left shoulder. I turn; it’s a woman from the meeting where they talked about sex. She asks the name of my blog. She has heard me speaking with the receptionist, saying I’m a sober blogger. She plugs the name of my blog into her smartphone and it comes up, smack, right there, in the wind, on the corner of 58th and 3rd, in Midtown.

She smiles and tells me this was her second meeting and she was glad to hear me speak. Both of her parents are addicts. Both of my parents were addicts, too, I say. She says her mother has just gotten out of rehab and her father is on methadone—not “really clean,” but still.

I tell her I’m glad they’re alive.

I touch her hand. People are so alone in this town—in this world—skin rarely touches skin. We’re evolved to receive these electric charges. We need them to power up.

She tells me that she’s been trying to change her attitude and give back to people by being a clown.

A clown? I say.

“I dress up as a clown,” she says, “and I meet people around town.”

Her face is beautiful—round cheeks, full lips, framed by dark curls.

Actually, I remember, all faces hold beauty—experiencing it requires deep looking.

A witness.

Trust: My Sober Family.

Somebody wrote in last week asking me to write more about how to stay sober long-term—when obsessive thoughts about picking up come back, and while the body is healing from the damage substances do. The top three things I do to stay sober long-term are:

  1. Take care of my body (eat mindfully, exercise, get rest).
  2. Take care of my spirit (pray, meditate).
  3. Take care of my mind.

Taking care of my mind means connecting with sober people I can trust to tell me the truth.

In sobriety, my nuclear family is made up of my sponsor and the three women I take through the work.

My sponsor

plumMy sponsor is a 67-year-old woman who grew up in the next borough over from my neck of the boonies.  Our high-school football teams were (still are) fierce rivals—the Mustangs v. the Indians.

PennHillsWhen I talk with my sponsor I usually go to her house, or else we meet at Whole Foods and get something healthy to eat.

One thing I love about my sponsor is that she doesn’t play phone games. We don’t do the work by text or email. We talk over the phone so we can hear each other’s voices, or we meet so we can look into each other’s faces. If the phone goes to voicemail, I trust that she can’t pick up the phone. She doesn’t screen calls. This has taught me not to screen calls with the women I work with. I’m straight-up with them: If I can pick up the phone, I will. If I can’t, I’ll call back as soon as I can.

I tell them something Sluggo told me: always have three women on hand you can trust will take calls from you in the middle of the night. I always have three in mind. My sponsor is one of them.

This connection is important. When I got sober, I had no clue that anyone would want to have anything to do with me, maybe ever. I couldn’t trust myself; why would anyone else want to trust me? I thought poorly of myself (I’m still tempted to think ill of myself; this is part of my alcoholic-addict mind: the warped thinking will somehow pull off any fucked-up contortion to entice me to pick up) and just picking up the phone was difficult. It was easier to pick up a drug or a drink because I didn’t have to risk my pride. Drinking or drugging meant I didn’t have to be vulnerable with anyone.

In sobriety I’ve learned the only way to protect myself from the fear of making mistakes is to avoid all relationships. I can only do that if I use. I’m wired to be social—we all are.

When we make connections with other people, it changes our outlook by changing our neurology. The hormone oxytocin is released when we form a new relationship. Powerful substance, oxytocin: also released during breastfeeding; also, in both sexes, during orgasm. The “afterglow” hormone. The comfort-and-joy chemical.

The women I work with

This comfort-rush is good for me, and I get it when I pick up the phone for the women I work with. There are three right now.

Georgia came first. 24; artist who studied at NYU. (I’ve gotten permission from all four of these women to write about them here.) Went for a while to the (private, expensive) high school my son now attends. Hipster. Vegan, wears no makeup with her simple haircut and skinny jeans. I learn so much from this young woman. The first time we sat down to do the work, I could see she has a very strong internal guide, a kind of compass that invariably swings to True North. The main thing I do when I talk or meet with Georgia is to gently help her stay in touch with this compass. Which helps me stay in touch with mine. We’re all born with this guide. Quakers call it the Inward Light. It can become warped by sitting in the coals of addiction.

Watching Georgia walk the walk gives me so much hope.

Then there’s Phoebe, who used to live in a house I own as a rental property. I mentioned to her that I have three apartments on this one street, and she said, “I used to live on that street.” When we drove by, we determined that the house I own was indeed her old digs—and the place where she used to deal drugs. What a coincidence, huh?

She was busted 20 years ago in the second-floor flat. The cops got her cash and her stash, pulled it all from the kitchen drawers. For Phoebe it’s been hardest to kick the drink. She relapsed hard late in 2011, racked up a bunch of DUIs, and is now on house-arrest. And she’s doing well. What I learn from Phoebe is to take life, even at its most difficult (especially at its most difficult), one small step at a time. At one point Phoebe had been facing jail time. A bunch of us wrote letters to the judge in her support, and today she is not incarcerated. She’s working, volunteering, staying fit (she was a gymnast as a kid) and living a sober life. Phoebe teaches me to be vigilant and persistent. She also reminds me to be grateful for simple things.

And then there’s Dora the Explorer, a 20-something cyclist and yogini who originally comes from the Pacific Northwest. She loves my city—this makes me so happy, that she loves my city.

The meeting place of three rivers.

The meeting place of three rivers.

Dora and I first met online when she wrote Guinevere an email one day. We met IRL (in real life) for a business thing last year; then she decided she wanted to try to quit smoking weed. She popped up at meetings. We’d have coffee. She asked if I’d be her sponsor. Some time passed, after which she looked at me shyly in the Quiet Storm one night and admitted that she had been reading my blog for a year before she’d written me.

“Your online voice sounded a lot like my mother’s,” she said, “except sane, and sober. So I thought of you as my Sober Blogger Mom.”

Turned out that she lived exactly three blocks away from me.

Small world. Or so they say.

I can’t describe how all this makes me feel—the Sober Blogger Mom thing, the woman dodging jail teaching me vigilance and gratitude, the hipster kid whose compass points to True North trusting me with her inventories and her life-story.

I trust all these women, and they trust me.

Trust. That’s what keeps me sober long-term.

Trust, and good organic food, and exercise—yoga, running, strength-training. And prayer and meditation—spiritual strength-training.

Trust is a powerful force. I believe there’s a certain percentage of folks who need “medication-assisted therapy” or what we used to call “maintenance,” folks who can’t stop picking up no matter what they do. But I also think a lot of folks don’t give the spiritual solution enough of a try. It requires me to trust, which is tough for an egomaniac. In addiction I lied a lot. The lies warped my sense of truth.

My sober family helps me sort the truth from lies. Dora and Georgia come to a Buddhist recovery meditation meeting my sponsor leads at the Shambhala Center Tuesday nights. I sometimes see Dora and Phoebe at a Saturday-morning literature meeting. And Friday nights, at a women’s meeting, my sober family and I are quite often all in the same room.

What Are Character Defects? An Open Letter To Dolly.

Got an email overnight from an old friend of mine who has been questioning how much she drinks, and why. She has been going to AA, she said, but she couldn’t understand—and couldn’t stand—the idea of “defects of character.”

She sent me a link to an essay written 25 years ago by a professor of philosophy and religion. The essay argues against the “disease concept” of alcoholism—the author sees alcoholics as suffering from a moral problem based in desire and will. He separates the realms of science and spirituality.

So it would take me ages to put down everything I’d like to say back to this guy’s essay—I’ll save it for another time.

//

But dear Dolly, I wanted to share something I’ve been experiencing with regard to my character defects and how surrendering them to a “higher power” (Step 7) is helping me stay sober.

When I joined Al-Anon 14 years ago I was suffering. I had a 2-year-old kid and a marriage, a house, a job, a car, the whole bit, and I felt like killing myself. I had grown up with active alcoholism my whole life. I was raised by a woman who had been raised by a violent drunk.

The green Lorcet pills I used to take for pain. Actually mine were white—they were the strongest ones.

I was taking one pill per day for pain, but I couldn’t stop taking that one pill. I’d gone to AA and figured I couldn’t call myself an alcoholic because I hadn’t had a drink in three years. I’d gone to NA and told my story and some people looked at me cross-eyed because I was taking just one pill. These were people who had sold everything they had for smack or crack, sold their last remaining possessions in their houses, sold their bodies to cop drugs on the street, faced knives and guns and disease. I bought my measly little pills in the drug store. I thought, “I can’t be an addict—I’m not like these people.” (I don’t think this would happen in NA today. OxyContin and its cousins are too prevalent.)

It would take me a few more years—eight or 10—to meet people who used the way I used. It would also take me some time after that to realize that I’d begun the whole show by drinking my head off when I was 17 and we were in school together. (I had my first drink ever at the Phi Delt house. Gin and tonic. Let some slippery sophomore Phi Delt get me drunk and grope me, and all the girls on my hall laughed at me the next day: I’d let That Guy feel me up. I got so scared about being laughed at and showing how naïve I was that I met a guy the following month and stuck with him for almost four years.)

So when I took the 12 steps in Al-Anon I made a list of things I thought I’d done wrong: I worried about deadlines and put things off because of my worry and annoyed my coworkers. I was judgmental, I thought of myself and other people as either all good or all bad. I’d lost a couple of pieces of jewelry people had given me and this hurt them. And I thought my defects of character were things like anxiety, black-and-white thinking, and carelessness.

I continued to have migraines and terrible physical pain, and after several years I went to the pain clinic and got serious drugs and eventually became an addict. Even so, I carried on with therapy and Al-Anon because I thought if I could just figure out my emotional problems, I’d be able to either quit taking drugs or take them responsibly.

But it worked the other way around. It wasn’t until I stopped drinking and taking drugs (acknowledged my “powerlessness” over them, in Step 1) that I could begin to see my emotional problems clearly enough to remedy them.

Once I got sober I took the 12 steps again, guided by a woman who has been sober for more than 20 years. I saw that my “defects of character” were deeper than what I thought. My primary character shortcoming is not just “anxiety,” it’s a mortal fear of disapproval. I’ll do fucking anything (have done most anything—or sometimes even worse, NOT done most anything) to make the people around me think I’m OK. I will, for example, stick for four years with a boy I like, I might even love, but with whom I’m not really happy, to avoid being lonely; I’ll avoid having other relationships, to avoid being called a slut.

Another defect is putting other people’s judgment and comfort ahead of my own. (Really just a subset of the previous defect.)

Yesterday I was in a meeting when someone told a story about how, when she was drinking and using, she used to use at night because, she said, it helped her sleep. She used to pass out in the house, maybe on the hallway floor or wherever, and her husband would be like, “Why are you sleeping on the floor?” Hearing this story made my defect of character crystal clear.

I didn’t used to do pass out in the hallway. Here’s what I used to do: For years, for more than a decade even, I trained myself not to move in bed, not even to turn over, not to get up and pee, and definitely never to touch my partner, because I was sleeping next to someone who had intractable insomnia. This person is a light sleeper and if I even turned over, I might wake him up. So I trained myself to lie still. I gritted my teeth, literally, in order to do this.

Grit your teeth and bear it, was the way I was raised in my alcoholic family.

Eventually the tooth-grinding became a problem in itself and I had to get a tooth-guard to keep from grinding my teeth to stubs. Also, I had jaw pain. Also, I had neck and head pain, and shoulder pain, and back pain. For which, of course, I took drugs.

Also, I had a lot of suppressed anger and frustration, which it turns out contributes to tooth-grnding.

The drugs helped me sleep and not-move. They helped me not-care about the anger. For a while. Until they didn’t help anymore.

They also helped me ignore my anger and frustration during the day and get done what I needed to get done. They helped me grit my teeth through everything and not-care about the pain.

I didn’t understand I was contributing to my own pain. “Medical science” told me it was an illness, a syndrome, for which I might need to take drugs for the rest of my life. 

Another of my huge character defects is arrogance. I secretly think I’m perfect—or if I try hard enough, I can be perfect. I can do what other people want me to do, or what I think they want me to do, and not “betray” them or let them down. I kept doing life this way for years and years.

Let me admit something to you, Doll. I’ve spent most of the past two weeks on my own. And I’ve been able to get real rest. I wake up without jaw pain. When I wake in the middle of the night, I get up to pee without tiptoeing as though my footfalls might cause an earthquake. It took me a few days to remember I was allowed to turn on the light and maybe even read or write.

And my spiritual discipline tells me that I don’t have to blame this person. No one “made” me do anything. I chose to do all this myself.

And I don’t even have to blame myself.

All I have to do is to see clearly what I’ve done to contribute to the hurt. Take responsibility. Ask for my shortcomings to be removed. And then change the behavior (amends).

Turn on the light in the middle of the night.

The thing is, my thinking is so distorted, I am so arrogant and at the same time so full of self-hatred, that I need another source of power to guide me in changing my behavior. When I rely on my own power, usually I go pretty far down the wrong road before I see how I’ve gone wrong.

I’m learning to trust my own judgment by taking small steps forward, using my own judgment under the guidance of others who have gone before me on this road. I can’t “insight” my way into being healthy, I have to take action. I have to turn on the light. No one’s telling me to do anything. I’m engaged in what Quakers call “discernment.” All I’m doing is using a map. A GPS of sorts. And the GPS might lead me to a swamp, or a desert, or up against a mountain, and it’s always a learning experience.

I learn by doing. Not by figuring everything out beforehand.

It’s scary sometimes. It’s also exhilarating. I feel alive.

My friend P and her daughter with our dogs, Ginger and Flo.

I need to go walk the dog. But I wanted to get back to you.

Love, G

Working Sober In Washington.

I am in Washington for this awesome government fellowship. A bunch of seasoned public speakers are teaching me how to speak in front of audiences. They’re putting me in front of huge camera lenses and telling me, “Talk.” And I am! It’s surprising. I can do this. I can do it largely because I’m sober. Also, they note, because I’m willing to try.

//

I’m staying in Foggy Bottom. Right around the corner from the Foggy Bottom Whole Foods Market.

Foggy Bottom was always my favorite Metro stop name.

I came to Washington when I first got out of school. Washington was the place a lot of young people who grew up near the east coast went after graduation. It was the mid-1980s and we were in the Great Reaganomics Recession; the steel mills that had hired my uncles and cousins in my childhood had already closed up and other industries were cutting back. It was tough for new grads to get jobs.

So they came to Washington. Because, it was thought, The Government always has jobs.

I came to Washington to see if I could get a job writing. I remember taking the Metro out to Arlington and talking to the people at Gannett, which was starting a newspaper called USAToday. I had set up a bunch of other networking meetings and spent the very hot summer days taking the Metro and learning the layout of Washington.

I stayed with my college friend Angie, who had left school a year ahead of me. She generously let me sleep on her couch. Angie lived on the Hill, in Southeast Washington. It was June and I remember how, when we were walking back from the bars at night (that summer in Washington everyone, it seemed, was drinking Amstel Light; in New York City it was Rolling Rock long-necks), legions of roaches would part like the red sea before our trudging feet. Even the armies of red-backed roaches were exotic and interesting.

Foggy Bottom Metro station

Washington is the place where I learned how to ride a subway. I’d come from the country and had never seen a subway before. Yesterday, when I took the train from Foggy Bottom to Gallery Place, I noticed that the Metro stops look the same inside as they did 25 years ago , they smell the same, the maps are the same, the blinking lights at the track-edges are the same, the turnstiles are the same, they take the same kind of tickets they used to 25 years ago. It’s not like the New York City subway, which used to take metal tokens before they switched to paper tickets. The Metro’s consistency was comforting.

The most romantic date I think I’ve ever had in my life took place that summer in Washington, D.C. Angie’s friend Bruce had a crush on me. He was a legislative aide by day and a singer in a band by night. One Saturday he asked me out. We rented bikes and rode all around Washington under a clear blue sky. I remember red and yellow tulips and blue and purple pansies in the roundabouts; I remember the scent of grilled beef at lunchtime; I remember the boulders and the bridges and the water in Rock Creek Park. I remember how we’d hit a red light and we’d stop and Bruce would lean over his bike bars and kiss me. We wound up in Adams-Morgan at twilight, sharing a bowl of pasta.

I liked Bruce but I was scared of him. I was scared of all those legislative-aide dudes who threw back hard liquor and wore Brooks Brothers button-downs and wanted to drive Beemers before they were 30. They looked destined to get thick in the waist too early in life. Bruce wasn’t like that: he was working-class, his ambitions didn’t include the brand-names of cars; but I was still scared of him. I was scared of most men my age. I didn’t know what they wanted from me. I knew what my mother said they wanted. It took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t have to believe everything she said. (In fact, I’m still figuring that out on different levels; I suspect every woman is finding that out about her mother.)

I was scared of life.

After those two weeks in Washington, I ended up moving back to Western Pennsylvania and taking a staff-writer job at a small newspaper. Which was probably the best thing I could have done. I sometimes think every college graduate—at least, every writing student—should work at a community newspaper. It teaches you how to write, and a lot more besides. It teaches you about municipal government, about taxes and the ways money moves, about the law, about politics both petty and major; most of all it teaches you how to ask questions.

I rented a house in the country and my roommate and I drank cases of Gennessee beer.

I’ve worked mostly in print, but somehow I’ve always been trailed by chances to speak in front of audiences and to be on camera. Early on, I’d go out on stories as a print reporter and I’d be there grilling the firemen about the destruction of a house or the cops about some shooting or car-crash, and the video guys from the news channels in the city would be shoving their cards at me. “You need to be on camera, honey,” they’d say. “Call me and we’ll shoot some clips of you.” I never called them because what I wanted to do was write. I didn’t want to be on camera.

I was remembering this today when I was on camera. It’s freaky to stand in front of a big camera lens. It’s weird to have hot lights on your face. But also, I was used to it. I’ve been shot for documentary films. I’ve been interviewed for television news. I had hundreds of still shots of me taken for my first book project. I hate seeing my face onscreen or in photos but other people don’t seem to mind it.

//

I’m ready to go back to work tomorrow. We’re in another recession, The Great Bush-Cheney Recession, which is lingering into Obama’s second term. There are no armies of roaches in Foggy Bottom in December. I’m older and a bit wiser and a lot more experienced. I’m sober. When I got sober four years ago, I had no work at all. Today I get to wake up and go to work in Washington. Tonight I get to text with my son.

Hijito-hijito, I write.

[“Hijito” is Spanish. “Hijo” means “son”; “hijito” means boy.]

Madre, he writes. He is on his own in the house, 250 miles away. Feeling a bit lonely, he writes.

Let’s do some push-ups together, I write.

OK let’s start at 13, he writes.

So over the next 15 minutes we knock out 13 push-ups, then 12, then 11, all the way down to the last one, which he decides we must do military-style, with hands underneath the shoulders and elbows next to sides.

Good job dude, I write. How many was that?

A moment passes. Then the phone buzzes:

91!!!

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