Tag Archives: smoking

Two Lists

The New Orleans trip is beginning to take shape. My English friend Lynn will fly over to St. Paul from Aberdeen, Scotland, where she lives. We’ll hit the road and wend our way south, taking about three days to reach New Orleans. I booked a suite in a B&B. Our friend Christine, an Australian who lives in Oxford but spends much of her time working in Africa or Asia, will fly over to join us, as will my cousin Molly, who turns 50 that week.

So it’ll be four of us all together for French Quarter Festival, then Lynn and I will drive a different route back. My friend Ferruh also lives there with his wife. They’re Turkish. He’s a drummer who used to play in a belly-dancing troupe, then moved to Denmark and then the US, all the while working on his PhD. Now he teaches at Tulane. He’s a great guy and I hope we can all have dinner together.

I alternate between worrying: “What if the car breaks down in rural Tennessee?” and feeling excited about the music, the heat, riding in a swamp boat and feeding marshmallows to alligators, touring a creole plantation and one of New Orleans’ fantastic cemeteries, maybe getting in on a second line, which I was lucky enough to do last time I was there.

My mom’s husband, Jim, is from St. Louis, so I sat down with him and pored over an atlas. He is 86 now and done with road trips, but they took some great ones and they love to talk about them. It must be hard to know that you’ll never drive to St. Louie again, or fly to Phoenix to escape the winter cold.

Jim had drawn up a list of things to do and see in St. Louis and Memphis:

Jim's List

I find these scraps of the folks’ handwriting endearing.

Jim told me about the great Italian neighborhood I had to visit in St. Louis. “We called it Dago Hill when I was a kid,” he said a little sheepishly. “But now it’s just called The Hill.”

I also want to write a bit of an update on Vince and how well he is doing despite the challenges he still faces.

When he was put on indefinite lockdown he was phlegmatic about it. “They’re trying to get me to react,” was his take on it. “And I’m not going to. This too shall pass.”

I know it’s called Alcoholics Anonymous, but it’s no secret that Vince is in the program and I think it’s okay to say that he’s really working it—he found a sponsor, who is like a mentor, and they are working on the 12 steps together.

He’s taking care of his health. He hasn’t taken up smoking since being on the outside. Besides just being bad for you in every way except for being an instant stress reliever, smoking is hugely linked to drinking and drugs and can trigger a relapse.

My sister gave him a used Bowflex machine. It’s in our basement, which could win an award for grossest, creepiest basement ever. But he goes down there and uses it. I told him he should feel free to clean the basement up and make it his man cave.

bowflex

He’s eating decent food. It would be easy for him to buy lunch at the Arby’s that a few blocks from his work, but instead he packs a lunch every day. He even bought lettuce and whole grain bread! We’re talking about bacon sandwiches, just to assure you he hasn’t completely gone around the bend and become a gluten-free, chewy crunchy vegan.

Vince was beginning to meet people and make friends when he was granted more time out of the house. That’s off the table now due to the indefinite lockdown. Thanks to social media, he can still be in touch with the outside world.

Most gratifying of all is Vince’s gratitude—for those who send words of encouragement, read his blog, and in particular to the anonymous person who gave him a new laptop so he no longer has to type his posts with two fingers on his phone.

Beinvenidos al Hotel California

This is the fifth post in a series about Cuba that starts here.

After a few days in Havana we packed our bags and flew to Santiago de Cuba, a city on the other end of the island. The plane took off as soon as the last passenger stepped on board, half an hour before our scheduled departure. What if that person had been half an hour late? Would we have waited for him?

The plane was basic. The little signs you see in planes, the ones that say, “Fine for Tampering with Smoke Alarm” were in Russian. At least, I assumed it was Russian, and that they said the usual things. The seat tray in front of me was a piece of plywood held in place by chains and hooks that would have cost $5 at Ace Hardware. As we ascended, mist seeped into the cabin. No one else seemed alarmed so I tried to stay calm.

About an hour into the flight, the co-pilot came on to make an announcement. I could understand his Spanish perfectly; maybe he wasn’t Cuban. I was happy to be able to tell my group what was going on. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I translated, “We are hearing a strange noise somewhere in the aircraft and we can’t figure out what it is, so we’re going to turn around and go back to Havana.” Everyone laughed nervously, then fell silent as the plane banked steeply.

We sat on the ground in Havana for a while before taking off again. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the co-pilot said as we took off, “We apologize for the delay. The pilot is new and neither of us has flown this kind of plane before.” What “kind of plane” did he mean, I wondered? A Russian plane? A run-down plane? There was no mention of the funny noise. Presumably whatever had been rattling had been fixed, or determined to not be life threatening.

The first thing you notice about Santiago is that it is HOT. Hot as hell and humid. I don’t mind heat to a point, but if it’s too hot, this Minnesota-bred traveler’s brain and body become lethargic. We had flown almost 550 miles to experience “real” Cuban music that could not be heard in the capitol. I’m not a music connoisseur; most music sounds good to me unless it’s horribly out of key or country (which seem like the same thing to me), so I was skeptical.

We were transported to our “hotel”, which seemed to be some kind of abandoned camp compound with whitewashed, cement buildings spread out over several acres. I checked into my room and collapsed onto the bed, so out of it that I wondered if I was being drugged. Of course there was no air con, not even a fan, and no window screens, which allowed clouds of gnat-sized mosquitos into the room. The walls were bare and white, there was a bare bulb overhead and a double bed with a thin white sheet. The bathroom was the same as in Havana, with one threadbare towel and transparent toilet paper but instead of a flimsy toilet seat there was no toilet seat. Nice!

I turned on the black and white TV and there was only one channel; I believe Bonanza was on again. I groaned and attempted to wrap myself in the sheet like a giant burrito to keep the mosquitos at bay.

I woke up to knocking.

“Come to the pool!” a woman’s voice called.

Pool!? I detangled myself from the sheet and saw that my left arm, which had fallen out of the burrito, was covered with hundreds of tiny red welts. I flung the door open and there was one of my fellow travelers, an 80-something lady who had been subjected to a strip search at the airport upon our arrival and had taken it all in stride. She had a bottle of rum in one hand and a cigar in the other. Ten minutes later we were floating on a life preserver in the deserted but clean pool, sipping smoooth rum out of the bottle and smoking an even smoooother cigar. Cuba was heaven.

Cigars? Cigarettes?

This is the fourth post in a series about Cuba that starts here.

I was in Havana with the Marin Interfaith Task Force on the Americas, which has a tour coming up in April if you’re keen to visit the island.

Before the U.S. began its rapprochement with Cuba, Americans either had to go there illegally by flying from Canada or Mexico, or were required to have permission from the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC. And on these government-sanctioned trips, it wasn’t like you could just do whatever you wanted; the itinerary had to be vetted and approved and you couldn’t go off leash from your tour group. We carried OFAC letters on us at all times and, according to Ed, our Marin Task Force leader, OFAC probably had someone tailing us. And our Cuban guide was probably reporting back to his masters about … what? As I wrote in the first post, the Task Force was composed of a bunch of old hippies and me. But maybe the Task Force had been infiltrated by the CIA, and Ed was a plant?

I think in 10 years we will look back on this period and laugh about it. It was very cloak and dagger, and needlessly so.

I know, I know, you want me to stop going on about the politics and write about the rum and cigars and food and music, right?

Okay. First, the food. Everywhere we went, it was pretty much the same. Chicken, rice, and cabbage. Rice, chicken, and cabbage. Cabbage, chicken and rice. Obviously they had no problem providing themselves with these staples. According to Ed, the CIA had purposely introduced a swine plague that killed all the pigs on the island; that was why there was no pork. Why they couldn’t have grown something colorful–a little Swiss Chard or some carrots, I don’t know.

If you like sugar, you would love Cuba. Every drink is loaded with it, and we were offered desserts galore. The Cuba Libre was the standard drink, and it seemed to contain rum, mint leaves, and about a half a cup of sugar.

We toured a rum factory, which looked like something out of Victorian England. It appeared to have been built and hundred years before and never updated. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that—they certainly cranked out some smooth rum. We all bought bottles “to support the economy.”

We toured a cigar factory. The images here are from the Great Google but look similar to my tour, during which we weren’t allowed to take photos.

Cigar FactoryCigar Factory 2

The cigar factory is the single most vivid memory from the trip because the aroma was like nothing I’ve experienced before or since. Heavenly.

I bought a box “for a friend.” This is one of the reasons I love travel. I spend money on things I would never buy at home, and I can tell myself they’re gifts or that I’m supported a developing economy. And then I can enjoy them myself.

The cigar factory was also notable because it was a multistory, rickety, wood frame building. It reminded me of a barn inside, with bales of tobacco leaves piled around the perimeters and men standing at wooden tables in the center rolling the cigars (and cigarettes) by hand. One match and the whole place would have gone up like a roman candle. The workers were allowed a cigar allowance, we were told.

This seemed contrary to the anti-smoking campaign I’d heard about, in which Fidel was lauded for quitting and everyone was encouraged to follow the example of el Comandante Jefe.

When I returned to my hotel room and went to put my bottle of rum in the fridge, I found two eggs inside, wrapped in an embroidered handkerchief. Were they a gift, or had the maid forgotten her lunch? If they weren’t a gift, maybe the dancing lady hadn’t been a gift either. Maybe I should leave some money for it? I left a $10 bill with a note in my execrable written Spanish that this was for the beautiful dancing lady. I hoped the same maid came every day so there wouldn’t be an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Happy New Life, Again

Happy New Year!  I am re-posting this from January 1 of last year.  I hesitated to share such a personal story then, but it has been the most-read post of the 232 Vince and I have written.  Maybe it’s the story, or the encouraging advice.  Or maybe it’s the guns.

If you received this twice, that’s because I accidentally posted it for January 1, 2015.  Off to a good start, I say!

Three years ago, I hit bottom. I had lived with depression for as long as I could remember, but then….  I had to have a tooth pulled—boy, will that make you feel old! Then during a Christmas Day blizzard my car was towed and I spent four hours waiting in line outside at the impound lot to pay $300 to get it back. I then drove to Fountain to visit Vince. The trailer he shared with Seth was full of guns, beer cans, and smoke. I figured what the heck, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, so after he assured me that none of the guns was loaded, we posed for photos that became my holiday cards to my friends in the UK, where they had a good laugh over us gun-crazy Americans.

Vince (11)Vince (7)

Due to the blizzard I spent the night in Seth’s 5-year-old daughter’s bedroom; she was at her mom’s. Here’s a tip for parents who smoke: Keeping your kid’s door closed doesn’t keep smoke out. I couldn’t open the window and after tossing and turning until 5am I slipped out and drove home. On the way I started itching. Great—now I had bedbugs!

I contemplated suicide. I leaned my forehead against the screen of my 20th floor window. I had turned 50 the year before. Thinking about being depressed every day for another 30-40 years wasn’t real appealing.

Here are the things I had tried to manage depression and anxiety:

Meditation

Medication

Prayer (including begging, pleading, and bargaining)

Acting normal

Abstaining from drinking

Cutting down on coffee

Self-help books

Alanon

Exercise

Getting outside every day

Appreciating beauty, be it fine art, nature, music, babies, or kittens

Gratitude lists

Avoiding negative people / avoiding unnaturally happy people

Running away to other countries

Denial

Journaling

Telling myself, “At least I’m not a refugee / amputee / blind / fill-in-the-blank.”

Psychotherapy

Retail therapy

Sleeping, drinking, and movie binges

Reaching out to friends, even when that was the last thing I wanted to do

I thought that jumping out of my window would be exhilarating, until I hit the ground. I had some leftover pain killers from the dentist, and my prescription for Restless Legs. I googled an overdose of the two and learned that they wouldn’t kill me, but that I would likely need a liver transplant. I decided to keep living.

That spring, I visited Vince again and this time, made a reservation at a B&B.  On the free-book-shelf there, I picked up a tattered copy of, “Feeling Good: the New Mood Therapy”, by David Burns, MD. I read it and did what it told me to do, and I stopped being depressed. For good.

The book was about Cognitive Therapy. I had been instructed to use it at least twice in the past, but I’d been too stressed out to do it. Basically, you write down your negative thoughts and then argue with them rationally until you’ve de-fanged them. Writing it down is important; if you try to do it in your head you’ll end up down a rabbit hole.

So was a lifetime of depression cured overnight by one book? No. I think it was all the other things I had tried over the years—the good things, anyway—and then I added this on top of them and together they all added up to a breakthrough.

I still feel sad sometimes–there’s plenty to feel sad about–but I’m not depressed and I’m committed to living.

Sorry for the long post but, if you’re struggling, I want to encourage you to keep an open mind, keep plugging away, and keep trying new things.

PS: I didn’t have bedbugs after all.  I think I was just itchy from the smoke and dry air.  Living with addiction can turn you into a drama addict.

A Crazy Idea?

I woke up in the dark at 5:40 am and wished I still believed in God.  Fourteen people dead at a center for developmentally disabled people in California.  I wished there was a higher power to whom I could appeal for help.  Help for us all.  For a moment, I thought I could feel something, then … nah … wishful thinking.

It’s up to us, people.  What “it” involves is a matter of dispute.

Someone asked on Facebook, “will this turn out to be a mentally-ill person?  Someone with extreme ideology?  A workplace grudge?”

There’s still a lot unknown, but it looks like it could be all three.  And I’m curious to learn if post-partum depression played a role in this latest incident, where a young mother dropped off her baby then went on a shooting rampage which she knew would result in her death or life in prison.

Here’s the liberal argument I hear: “Why do we label the white attackers mentally ill but the Muslim ones terrorists?”  I think what is really being expressed, by the conservative “side”, is that white attackers are deranged while Muslims are evil.

I’d like to flip that around and suggest that instead of considering every horrendous act an act of murder terrorism, we consider it an act of mental illness.  Hear me out.

I’m not a mental health clinician, but I have worked at two mental health clinics, where I have observed that mentally ill people often have religious fixations.  They think they are Jesus, they hallucinate angels, they hear demons telling them to do bad things.

A number of members of my family have suffered from Bipolar Disorder.  One was convinced that the Catholic Church had a conspiracy that had something to do with the numbers on the clock.

Anne, haven’t you noticed?  The numbers on the clock—there are 12 of them!  It’s so obvious that the Catholic Church is behind it.”

“Behind what?” I would ask.

He could never explain to my satisfaction what the numbers on the clock had to do with the Pope and the Catholic Church, but I would hear him out, hoping he wouldn’t call his parents next and burden them with his ranting.

If mentally ill people can have wacko Catholic theories, why wouldn’t they have wacko Muslim theories?

I was in the Middle East for work in February.  We were in Bethlehem on a long lunch break between meetings.  My two Palestinian colleagues and I were smoking shishas while my colleague from Minnesota gagged.

I had arrived in Amman the day ISIS released a video of them burning to death the Jordanian pilot they had captured.  The streets were packed with people waving the Jordanian flag and shouting.  They were angry, and I didn’t blame them.  I wish Americans got angry about wrong doing and demonstrated more often.

Omar turned to me.  “Tell us, what do you think about ISIS—these people who do such things?  We really want to know what Americans think.”

I had been thinking about this a lot.  “I think there’s an element of mental illness involved.  Who is it that most often gets schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses?  Young men.  Who is it that is almost always behind violence?  I’m sorry, but it’s men.  And then you get them in a group—call it group think or herd mentality or whatever—and fire them up with ideological rhetoric, and put an AK47 in their hands…”

My Minnesota colleague disagreed.  She asserted that poverty and hopelessness were to blame.

Of course those are factors.  But I’ve been poor and hopeless, and I’ve never even shoplifted.  Millions of people around the world are desperately poor and they don’t kill people.  Many members of ISIS and Al Queda are not poor—they’ve got engineering degrees and come from middle class families.

If we do assume that mental illness is behind sadistic killings by ISIS or mass shootings in California and Connecticut, this does not mean the murderers are not responsible for their actions.  It does mean we can have hope, at least in the US, because there are effective means to identify and manage mental illness.

Beautiful France

ANNE

I am writing this the day after the latest terrorist attacks in Paris. There were multiple terrorist attacks in Lebanon the previous day which are getting a lot less attention in the west. I don’t think this is callous disregard for people in the Middle East. I think it’s about what Paris stands for.

I’ve been to Paris and it’s wonderful but the trip that helped me appreciate joie de vivre was to Provence in 2012. I went for a Mini Cooper festival. Yeah, it’s a thing. Specifically, Iggy Pop was the festival headliner, and seeing Iggy Pop in concert was on my bucket list. So off I went.

I had taken a heavy-duty meditation class for three months prior to this trip, so I was as chill as I will ever be. I missed my flight from Paris to Marseilles because I was too absorbed in watching planes come and go through the cavernous windows at Charles de Gaulle airport. I got to Marseilles after dark and chose to drive the two-hours to my hotel in the dark instead of spending the night in a hotel. So part of my perception that France is “so laid back” was my own state of mind, and the fact that I was on vacation. If I actually lived in the south of France, had to get up and go to work every day, pay bills … well, I’d be willing to try it to see if it was as stressful as daily life in the U.S.

I turned the corner out of the rental car company into the enormous tunnel under the port of Marseilles and ran smack into a thousand-car traffic jam. Here’s where I first noticed something different. In the U.S., people would have been laying on the horn, screaming the F bomb, and abandoning their vehicles to “go get someone to straighten this out.” I witnessed something like this when I was in a 25-car pileup on the freeway in St. Paul during a blizzard a few years ago.

But not in the south of France. People were honking, but only in a half-hearted, “I’m bored so I’ll toot a tune on my horn” sort of way. We all had our windows rolled down because it was a hot evening and there were diesel fumes and of course most of the people were smoking. My fellow travelers were listening to a comedy show on the radio. It was in French so I didn’t know it was a comedy show until the people around me started laughing and it echoed throughout the tunnel. Some of them looked over at me and I fake-laughed. Not one of the thousands of us got out to “go find someone and get this fixed.” Eventually we started moving and were on our way.

My friend Heidi flew over from London for 24 hours for the festival, but after that I was on my own for however long I was there. A week? 10 days? I can’t even remember. Time seemed to slowed down.

I went for a hike along the Mediterranean:

The Med

Yes, there were vineyards, and sections of the trail smelled like pizza because they were planted with rosemary and oregano.

Vinyard

I drove around the mountains in my rental Peugot, which was smaller than my Mini Cooper. I stopped at a farmer’s market and bought some fresh produce, Roquefort cheese, a small bottle of champagne.

French Farmers mkt

I ate at a seaside restaurant. I was there for hours—no one came to whisk my plate away and deposit my bill the moment I’d taken my last bite.

?

France, in my mind, stands for beauty and enjoyment of all life’s moments and pleasures. Food that tastes like food, drinking (and—gasp!—even smoking) in moderation. Seeing and appreciating beauty, not just rushing blindly through life checking off items on a to-do list. I know France has got plenty of ills, but I believe these are some of the reasons she is targeted—because fundamentalists (of any faith) hate beauty and pleasure. Not to mention topless sun bathers.

Sun bathers

Today, I will be French.  I will appreciate the sunrise from my front window.  No terrorist can take that away from me.

Sunrise

Another First Conquered

VINCE

As some of you have read, and are excited to read about today, I started my new job today!  I haven’t said that in three years. I am sore from doing yard work yesterday at my aunt’s house.  It was a great day and I had a good talk with her, something I’ve needed for a long time. But that is all I am going to share on that.  Some things are just for me. and, I have so much to tell you about the job!

It’s not exactly like anything I’ve ever done before but it is in some ways similar to the work I did in the wrapper room at Kemps Ice Cream.  I work at A.M.G. Laminating in St. Paul.  Essentially as the rookie I will be floating from machine to machine learning the different functions, getting my hands caught in huge rolls of plastic wrap, moving palates of various sizes to and from various places, cleaning up, and generally just getting to know the processes.

Today I spent most of my time cutting the extra plastic film between segments of what will eventually be nice, shiny, laminated cardboard boxes for a well known company.  I would transfer them onto a palate and when it was full I would strap them down tight and circle the palate in a dizzying dance of plastic mayhem.  I was taught how to do this by a real cowboy although I suspect he was just a man wearing a cowboy hat.  Either way it was his last day and I was his replacement… Awkward!!  It was very clear to me that everybody thought I was great and funny and amazing at life, at least that’s what my interpretation was.  My very good friend from C.I.P. [boot camp], Mr. Doty, the same man who made it possible (along with my repeated attempts via e-mail, telephone calls, and personal visits) for me to work there, was in the background doing other things but we managed to wave at each other several times.  At one point I attempted to pick up the chair he was sitting in with a forklift but I failed.  He was far too quick.  Mr. Doty is very tall, and he likes it when I make jokes about that.  His lovely girlfriend, Ms. D (Unrelated. (I will protect her anonymity)) came by to visit him for our lunch break and I tried to explain to her that even though the sun is 93 million miles away from the earth, he sunburns faster because of how tall he is.  We all laughed.  Hahahahaa.  Well, you all know what laughter sounds like.  She also brought a foam missile launcher system that she purchased from Rainbow for 50 cents which we all had fun with.  It was a good day.  I had a lot of fun and got a lot done.  Hey, I’m a wrapper!

After work I arrived at home and my mother had made (ordered) an amazing blackened walleye dinner.  It was just what I needed after a hard day’s work.  Thank you.

The plumbers and electricians were here while I was at work today and now in my room I have a three by three gaping hole with exposed plumbing.  I guess it’s actually better than having the washer and dryer in this tiny room which is what I thought would be the case.  It’s all closing in around me here.  I think it’s about time to start looking for a different place to live.  The other morning I woke up to my mom yelling at the kitten. No! No! No!  Over, and over, and over.  She then started clapping at it.  This was all at about 7am.  She’s used to living alone, so I can understand not having to worry about other people.  But I go out of my way to be quiet.  I tiptoe down the halls, barely close the bathroom door because old houses make so much noise with so little provocation.  Ugh.  I don’t know.  I shouldn’t have put myself into this position, I get that.  And I’m grateful that I have a roof over my head, walleye in my belly, and another day sober.  And with that, I pass.