"You asked where someone should start if they want to understand me."
H. Lawrence Higginbotham sat across from me in the gorgeous courtyard of his palatial home. "I know you're not my therapist, Joe," he continued with a wry smile, "but I have to start with my mother."
I hadn't seen that coming, and I felt oddly relieved. Most successful men at his level define themselves by an experience at their first company, or their tours of duty in the military, or the lessons they learned on their college football team, or something equally impersonal and subtly self-complimentary. Higginbotham was starting with his mom. I had no idea what was coming, but his lack of pretension pointed to a strong ego, and his openness was endearing.
"I'm not going to tell you my mother was a saint, but not far off." Higginbotham grinned. He was obviously warmed by the thought of her. "She was a generous, wonderful person — selfless to a fault — and she was born to be a mom. In her eyes, I could do no wrong, and the thing that pleased her most in the world was my happiness. I know this because my father once told me so in a roundabout way, and although I didn't understand it then, I look back at my childhood and it certainly explains a lot."
"She must have been lovely," I admitted, wishing I could say the same thing about my own mother.
"Oh, she was! But," he gave me a knowing glance,"as in all cases, you really can get too much of a good thing. While I benefited tremendously from my mother's steadfast support in the good decisions I made, she also enabled me in the bad ones. 'Whatever makes you happy, honey!' she would say." Higginbotham chuckled, took a sip of his whiskey, and went on. "But when you're a kid, you have no sense of long-term consequences. You're ruled entirely by your desires in the moment. Kids are animals — I mean that in the best possible sense of the word — and their approach to life is founded on the principle, 'getting what I want is good and not getting what I want is bad.' "
"That is about what it boils down to, isn't it?" I agreed dryly.
"So, as you would expect, I was spoiled. Not a spoiled brat, mind you," he clarified, pointing at me with the same hand holding his glass. "That's a different but related creature. Spoiled brats whine and complain. They're greedy and they're insufferable when they don't get what they want. They feel entitled to it, as though the world suffers a great injustice when they don't get it."
"I know the type."
"You're a Millennial, Joe, so I have no doubt of that."
"Exactly!" I couldn't stand most of my own self-absorbed generation. Creative and open-minded they were, for sure, but despite being in their late thirties, they still did a lot of whining.
"No, I was spoiled because I got pretty much whatever I wanted, but thankfully I was also taught good manners and respect for others. The problem was that the relationship I built with myself was …" he paused for a moment as if to swirl the word around his mouth like wine (or fine whiskey, in his case), "… destructive." I then saw a different side of Higginbotham. Up to that point he'd been varying degrees of jovial. Now he took on a more solemn demeanor. "And the place where this manifested most visibly was my weight. Throughout most of my childhood I was obese."
The man sitting across from me was a little heavy but certainly not obese, especially not for someone in his fifties. No one would call him slender, but he looked healthy enough.
"Let me ask you something, Joe." Higginbotham's smile returned as he leaned forward and winked to indicate that he was going to be playful. "Have you ever heard of the Clean Plate Club? You know … if you finish everything on your plate you get to be in the club and everybody is happy and proud of you?"
"Ha!" I liked where this was going. This guy really is a character, I thought. "I've heard of it, yeah. But in my family, Larry, we didn't get positive reinforcement if we finished our food, we just got guilt-tripped if we didn't." I raised the pitch of my voice a couple of octaves and mimicked my mother: "There are starving children in Africa who would feel blessed to have all the food you are wasting!"
Higginbotham threw his head back and roared with laughter. "Oh, naturally!" He said sarcastically, playing the role of the scolded child, "As if what I do or do not eat has any bearing whatsoever on some African kid's lot in life. Whether I appreciate my first-world status or not, those little boys and girls are just going to keep on starving. And trying to guilt me into valuing something when there's not a 12-year-old American kid out there who has any idea of what 'starving' actually means …" — that had all come out in a single breath after laughing, so he needed to pause for air — "ah … it's just ludicrous. But moms are both the loveliest and least rational of all creatures, no?"
"That's an excellent way to put it," I said, nodding in agreement.
"There was no guilt-tripping from my mom, that's for sure." Larry smiled again while speaking of her. "Just lots of and lots of positivity. And her approach to food was equally irrational. Rather than teach me to eat only as much as I needed — you know, only enough to sate my hunger — she told me that if I ate all the food on my plate I'd get to be in a special club for the evening!" He raised his glass in a mock toast. "Where my mom ever got that nonsense, I'll never know. The thing is," he said, eyes widening and arms gesturing about, "it wouldn't have been that much of a problem if she hadn't served lumberjack-sized portions! It wouldn't have been that much of a problem if she didn't serve me three or four such portions! There I am, not even 10 years old, and I'm eating as much as a grown man, if not more!"
Higginbotham paused to reflect and quaff a bit of whiskey. I took the opportunity to do the same.
He went on without a prompt. "But hey, Moms are designed to feed their kids, right? And I mean literally designed. They carry the physical apparatus intended for that very purpose around with them every day on their chests." It was the first and only time he set down his whiskey, to relieve himself of it so that he could use both hands to form the outline of two large breasts in front of his own chest.
I pointed at the whiskey and quipped, "I'd wager that breasts are among the few things in life that could actually get you to set that down, huh, Larry?"
Again a roar. "Few things, indeed!" This is good, I thought. If he's laughing, he likes me. "I like you, Joe," he then said, as if reading my mind.
"So, women …" he continued after a breath. Laughing was a hearty endeavor for Higginbotham, "They're already hard-wired that way. My mom just took it to an extreme. You see, food for my mom, God bless her, was love. There was no difference to her between showering me with love and showering me with food. Makes sense, right?" I nodded. "And I love to eat, Joe. I freely admit it. I don't eat to live, I live to eat. I have Italian friends who say I put them to shame. I have more self control now as an adult, but back then, eating enormous amounts of food made me happy, and feeding me enormous amounts of food made my mom happy. So if everybody is happy, how could anything be wrong with this picture, right?"
"But you got heavy," I said.
"You're a gentleman, Joe," he responded, taking on an earnest tone. "But let's not sugarcoat it. I got fat. Really fat. As a little kid, though, I paid no attention to that. I never looked in the mirror except to make funny faces at myself. And while kids at school made fun of me plenty, I got used to it and learned quickly that some kids — most kids — are real jerks. Besides, my mom told me I was perfect exactly as I was. We even had this little joke between us. Whenever I felt bad about being made fun of, she'd remind me that those kids at school were just jealous because my mom was a better cook than their moms." We both chuckled. "So Joe, why am I telling you all this? Why did I start with my mom and my obesity as a kid?"
His questions were obviously rhetorical. "Tell me."
"Because one of the defining moments of my life was when I was 12 years old. I was a Boy Scout back then, like my son is today, and one weekend my troop went on an overnight hike. On that hike was the first time in my life that I ever felt fat. That is to say, it was the first time my fatness ever actually affected my life in a serious way that was visible to me. And even then it was only visible because I saw the way it affected others. It had yet to dawn on me how it affected me, personally."
Higginbotham became very serious. He looked away from me and stared inward at a place of emotional distance. "The events of that day led to my name, my very identity, being permanently associated with that which holds a process back, the agent in a system that slows everything else down." He paused for the final swig of his drink. "The weekend of that hike I had no idea of the suffering and torment I would soon endure all because of one man. One Alex Rogo."
There was something grim in the way he uttered that name. Alex Rogo? I searched my memory. Why does that name ring a bell?
Then, as suddenly as he'd gone serious, Higginbotham's cheerfulness returned. I was relieved to see it. "But before I tell you that story, all this talk about food is making me hungry," he announced. "Let's eat!"