Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Back to School

 

It’s early – way earlier than I need to be up and way earlier than I would ever wake up if given a choice. There are a number of reasons why I might get up this early, but not ever for no reason, yet here we are. It happens once in a while, and there probably is a reason, but fuck if I know what it is. I guess I do have a lot on my mind, but that’s not exactly new, or exactly out of the ordinary. In fact, it would be more curious if there wasn’t much on my mind. There was also once a time when I would use these “awakenings” (makes it sound more mystic that way) to pound the keyboard, to let the muse speak though my fingers and, usually, come up with something… some thing.

 

But it’s been a while. Not just since an early morning up-for-no-reason writing session, but since I’ve done any real writing at all. Oh, sure, I’ve done the shit for work – syllabus writing, assignment writing, emails and even a handful of letters of recommendation – but not this. And when I say it’s been a while, we are not talking about days or weeks – it’s been months. This is the end of August and I have not written anything besides a few longish Facebook posts this entire year. And now, all of a sudden, I wake up before four o’clock in the fucking morning and the words want to come out. Okay…

 

Speaking of work, yesterday was the first day of instruction for the fall 2022 semester at California State University, Sacramento. The official beginning of the academic year was last week, but the first day of school was yesterday and campus was packed. It was packed like it hasn’t been in a long time. It was packed in a way that I used to hate - the monumental hassle of the first week or two of school, the traffic, the parking, the students adding and dropping classes – all stuff that is part of doing my job but not part of the job. Yesterday I didn’t feel any of that frustration, any of that hassle, any of that over-peopledness. What I felt was gratitude even though I was stuck in a monumental traffic jam trying to get to the faculty lot that would likely not have any parking spaces available. I didn’t care.

 


I didn’t even have to be there yesterday. I have classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, but not on the main campus. I went because I needed to pick up a couple of things, but I really didn’t – that was an excuse. But I didn’t even understand that until much later, after I got home last night. In my reflection of why I was feeling the way I was, processing it, I came back around to what in the actual fuck did I need to be there for. I didn’t. I was curious. And I could have just waited until today when I will be on campus virtually all day. And perhaps that is what woke me up. Don’t know. Don’t care. Doesn’t matter.

 

I’m entering my eighth year of teaching at Sac State and, if I include the teaching I did as a grad student, first at Sac State and then at Louisiana State University, my 15th year of teaching undergraduate university students. I started in 2008 at Sac State, continued in 2011 at LSU and in the fall of 2015, it became my full-time job back at Sac State. Prior to 2008, I was a full-time student for all but one semester from fall of 2003 until I received my BA in late 2007 – from Sac State. That’s a lot of time in the same area for someone who historically gets bored with not just his job, but with his entire career every five to seven years. In fact, I am in record territory for remaining with the same employer, never mind the same career.

 

But COVID nearly changed all that. I do not like people (as a collection, as groups, in general), but I love being on campus, in the classroom and amongst students and colleagues. It seems to be the only kind of peopling I can tolerate. When COVID hit, it reduced the one form of interaction with people that I actually like to little black squares on a monitor. The classroom collaboration and cooperation were all but eliminated and only those who were already naturally predisposed to engaging with their peers would do so – the rest (which was most) of them were content with Zoom anonymity. And it was like that for more than two years. The switch was turned almost overnight, but it took a long time – maybe as much as an entire semester or more – for it to get turned back. And, while it appears to be more or less back to the way things were pre-COVID, I am sure there are many nuances that remain, many of which will show themselves today in my three sections and one office hours session – on campus.

 

But I will be on campus, and so will they. And that is good, despite the monumental cluster-fuck it’s going to be. I have never looked forward to a traffic jam or a crowd or students jostling for a seat in one of my classes or any of the other first day/first week trials and tribulations like I am this week. I remember all too clearly venturing onto a virtually deserted campus on the first day of school not very long ago. This is so much better.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Dog People

One of the great injustices in life is that the average human lifespan is so much longer than that of the average dog. For those of us who cherish our canine companions, that means we will not only have to endure their passing, but also that we go into the relationship knowing that will eventually come to pass. They don’t, they live each day as though it is their only day — not like it might be their last, but like it’s the only day there is — the only one that matters. It is among the most profound gifts they give us, but it is among many, many others. If we, the so-called “dog-people,” are lucky, we will experience a few dogs who both grace our lives… and depart from them. Luck, however, is a two-edged sword, both edges are razor sharp. One side cuts deeply into our hearts, our souls and our lives, filling us with unequivocal, unconditional love; the other leaves the pain of their passing so unique it is difficult to describe. The sting of loss will fade over time, but their love never does.

“But what is grief, if not the perseverance of love.”

~ Vision, from Marvel’s WandaVision

Facebook, as much evil as it sews, is remarkably efficient in cataloguing my activity and recalling it as “memories” on a daily basis. In that respect, it only reproduces what I have put in, and much of that is absolutely worth remembering. Sometimes what is worth remembering is the “perseverance of love.” There have been a handful of really special dogs in my life, all lived out what would be considered long lives — for dogs. Facebook reminded me of two today. One passed on this day peacefully in her sleep nine years ago at the age of 15. Her name was Magic, a pound rescue black lab/Australian shepherd mix whose name fit her perfectly. The other, Bella, in this Facebook video, was just a pup 12 years ago today. She passed less than a year ago. Both of these dogs left paw prints in my heart; I feel them, still, persevering. The sting of their loss has faded, but their love remains — unequivocal, unconditional, eternal.

Now I have Möbius. He has not replaced Magic or Bella or any of the other dogs who have graced my life over my 59 years on this planet. He has added to them, he is among them, he is part of their pack. He lives every day like it’s the only day there is. He loves me unconditionally, he is always happy, his word is always full of optimism. However, the odds are that I will outlive him and one day, he, too, will have to leave me. He doesn’t know it, but I do. He still has a lesson for me — he has the tools to deal with that reality, to deal with all future possible calamity, uncertainty, whatever life might throw at me: Live today like it’s the only day — not like it’s my last, not like there is no tomorrow, and not like a dog without any need to plan for the future, but to enjoy what time I have and just live. Today. And love — like today is the only day there is.

 

Sunday, December 12, 2021

The Script, Pt. 2

 

The Eric Rood Administrative Center is the main government building complex for Nevada County, a rural county in the Sierra foothills just east of Sacramento, California. There are two main buildings – one holds all of the main county governmental machinery and the other is the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility (WBCF) – the Nevada County jail. Yesterday, the 30th Annual Nevada County Toy Run once again attracted in the neighborhood of 1,000 motorcycles with various toys lashed to them. They were all gathered in the parking lot outside of the jail for their annual pilgrimage to the fairgrounds. For 30 years, the toy run has provided toys, clothes and food to the less fortunate residents of Nevada and Placer counties. For me, it is also sort of a homecoming.

 

In the summer of 2002 and again in 2004, the WBCF was my home for a while. For 78 days in the summer of 2002, I would pay my debt to society and, because I am not very good at following directions, I returned for another 40 days on August 6th of 2004. In 2002, although it was not my first time in jail, it was my first extended sentence; it was more than just a day or two, or four or five – it was weeks. I was tired, I was becoming compliant, I experienced some moments of what we call “surrender,” but I was still fighting, still a “victim,” and still way smarter than virtually everyone else. And I had my rights, dammit! I was convicted of a non-violent felony (since then, after a few years, reduced to a misdemeanor) and sentenced to the relatively cushy trustee “N Section” of the jail. I felt I could improve upon my situation and worked myself right into the much less cushy general population “A-pod,” where I served out most of my sentence.

 

Every year that I ride in the toy run – and on the other occasions I happen to be on my bike at or around WBCF (it’s located right on CA-49 near CA-20 in Nevada City, an absolutely beautiful place to ride a motorcycle) – it takes me back to a little rectangular window on the second floor, right on the corner of the jail, in A-pod. That was my cell. I used to stare out that window and watch the Harleys and other motorcycles riding up Highway 49, pissed off, at first, but eventually just sad. Sad because at some point while I was there I had an epiphany. One day – and I will never forget it – I realized why I was there. It was not because of the cops, or the judge, or my idiot “friends,” or my parents or anyone else. It was because of me. It was like lightning struck me. That day, I stopped fighting.

 

Until I got out. I was going to follow the script. I had every intention of cleaning up, of getting into a 12-step program, of following through with the second part of my sentence – three months of residential treatment – and starting a new, drug-free life. But withing six hours I was right back where I was when I went in, and I had no ability to turn it off. It’s not the first time I was going to “quit” and meant it. It’s not the first time that I connected the dots, saw where they led and said to myself, “enough!” I’ve had these “moments of clarity” before – and as recently as less than two years previously when my behavior almost killed me.

 

A little more than 21 years ago, on October 17th, 2000, I was living the life of a “non-conformist,” of a “renegade,” of a “freedom-loving American,” or whatever other euphemism I would come up with to defend my “right” to put whatever drugs into my body I saw fit. I would say things like it no one else’s business, that the only person I’m harming is myself (and I didn’t believe I was, anyway) and that if it bothers you, that’s your problem, not mine. I bought into all of that bullshit in order to do what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. That morning, due to the drugs I was consuming, I fell asleep at the wheel while driving my then 13- year-old son to school. I drifted into the oncoming lane and hit an approaching logging truck almost head-on. My son escape major physical injuries (however, non-physical injuries are serious, too), as did the logging truck driver, but my injuries damned near killed me.

 

I don’t remember almost all of it, and what I do remember is seriously clouded by shock, pain medication and a medically induced coma. I “woke up” five weeks later. Within a day or two, by the time the fog cleared, I knew exactly what happened. I knew this wasn’t a “close-call,” it wasn’t a “near-miss,” this was a direct hit and, of all the times in my life that I “could have died,” this time I should have. They thought I would. They didn’t think I was going to make it. And I knew why, even though it was determined that “drugs and alcohol were not a factor,” (I have no idea how or why, but that’s what the police report said).

 

I’m not stupid. I almost killed myself, I could have killed my kid. I put my parents and everyone else who cared about me though literal hell. It was everyone else’s business. I was never going to do that again. But I did, not long after I got out of the hospital three months later – still with metal and tubes sticking out of me. I rationalized that now that I knew what could happen, I could prevent catastrophe, but that was yet another lie. Law enforcement came into my life in a big way and by 2002, I found myself looking out that little window longing to be part of that world, wishing I could have followed the script that would get me there.

 

I finally got into residential treatment in March of 2003 and stayed for six months. I gained a lot of clarity, participated in 12-step recovery, tried to work with the “god” thing – something that took a lot of work, because there is no old man with a beard living in the sky in my world. But there was a path around it. In the fall of 2003 I returned to school and thrived like never before. The success I had there was a two-edged sword, however. It bred an arrogance that would soon be dealt with at the end of 2003 with a relapse, a probation violation in 2004 and a return to WBCF on August 6th, 2004. Since that day, I have not found it necessary to use any drugs or alcohol. I have found that following that script is working for me.

 

But it wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t just the drugs. I had to swallow years and years of pride, a world-view that had me at its center without a concern about how my actions affect others. I had to take all of that back – in a very real, personal and direct way. Do I follow all of the rules? That’s not a simple question. There are rules and then there are rules. Some conventions I do not follow – but they do not affect others. My tattoos, my long hair do not. That really is your problem, not mine. My motorcycles? That’s a much tougher question. If I were to be seriously injured or killed on my bike, that would absolutely affect those I care about – those who love me. But that is a little different, the same can be said for simply walking out my front door – it is a dangerous world. Drugs, at least those that defy “recreational use,” have no redeeming features – they lead to destruction, despair, dereliction and, often, death. The script I have followed for the past 17-plus years absolutely, 100 percent prevents all of that. It has a proven track record.


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Script, Pt. 1

Just to be able to remember “what it was like 21 years ago,” we must be considerably older than 21 years of age. My first memories are from the age of maybe four or five – perhaps a little younger, but they are so sketchy that I hesitate to qualify them as full-fledged “memories.” Those are more ephemeral, ghostlike, perhaps dreamlike images that I cannot really contextualize. But from the age of about five, they become much more concrete. That means I had to be at least 26 before I could say things like, “Twenty-one years ago, we didn’t have…” However, I can remember what life was like when I was 26, and I wasn’t thinking about shit like that. I wasn’t really thinking much at all.  

 

Twenty-one years, in the context of a human life, is a long time. It is almost one third of the average human life expectancy, worldwide. It was, and still is for certain things, the arbitrary number of years it takes for a child to reach “adulthood.” For many species, 21 years is more than enough time to come into existence, live, procreate and die without a trace. When looking at recent technological advancements, the past 21 years has been nothing short of amazing, although 500 years ago, a 21 years span might have looked no different at either end. Still, for people, generally, 21 years is a good long time.

 

 

And that went on for many years. I did some things. I had some success. I had a family, a home, a white picket fence and a mini-van… a wife and a career. But all of it, in retrospect, felt like I was living by someone else’s script and all the while I was “ad-libbing.” What did the ad-libbing look like? It was the epitome of not thinking. Following the “establishment script,” the rules, the norms, the conventions, the “way we are supposed to live life,” would have served me well and kept me out of trouble, but for some reason I just could not keep on that track (I have some ideas why now, but at the time I had no clue). The “left turns” were minor in terms of adding, for lack of better words, excitement, entertainment or recreation to my life – through chemistry - and the related larger “left turns” that manifested in major life changes. The minor, over time, often led to the major because there is no such thing as recreational substance abuse, better known as addiction. 

 

At 26 years old, I was still largely a responsible(ish) young adult with a promising future ahead. All I needed to do was follow the script that remained ahead of me. While I did need some cooperation (the dissolution of my short-lived marriage was not in the script and, while my wife and I going off-script contributed, there is a divorced, single father responsible adult script left), it was still in my hands, if I could do it. I could not, and playing the victim was particularly helpful in my justification to take my character into new and uncharted waters. The twelve years between my 26th and 38th birthday, in retrospect, was not a long time, but so much happened. The successes were still there, but they were fewer, farther between and shorter. And the trouble mounted, slowly at first, but it grew by orders of magnitude. I finally got a handle on all of it in 2003 and again, for good, in 2004, buy by then a lot of damage was already done.

 

Twenty-one years ago today, my life was chaotic, and my two youngest sons were along for the ride. They might have said that they were living a good life (they have said so before), but they were not aware of everything going on and, despite living in what many refer to as “paradise” in the mountains, there was plenty of trouble in paradise. In just four days, all hell would break loose. 

 

We were all, of course, blissfully oblivious to what was on the horizon, but it was all part of the script I was living – it was not a preordained conclusion, but is was certainly in the cards. On October 17th, 2000 – not quite 21 years ago, everything would change. For me and my family, it was the beginning of the end – not quite the end yet, that was still coming, but it was the beginning. The beginning of the beginning would not come until 2002, but the actually new life I enjoy today took another two years to come to pass. Ironically enough, I am following my heart and following the rules, conventions and norms of civilized society – the script I fought against so hard for so long.

 

To be continued…

Friday, September 17, 2021

Of Lights and Tunnels

About 17 years ago, I was in between the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility (Nevada County Jail) serving 40 days of a 60 day sentence for a probation violation and the Calaveras County Jail for a 90 sentence on the charge that got me violated in Nevada County. I was coming off a six or seven months relapse after being clean (or sober, depending on one’s brand of recovery) for a little more than nine months after all the original trouble that got me on probation in the first place. Another violation would send me to state prison. I was again clean/sober — both by force because I was in jail and by choice because I didn’t want to go to prison, but I wasn’t happy about any of it. Those were not good days.

At the end of 2003, at about nine months of staying out of trouble, of staying straight, of “doing recovery,” I thought I had it going on. In some respects, I did. I went back to school and attained the kind of success that far surpassed anything I ever experienced academically prior. I regained the trust of my family. I felt better — physically and mentally — I had a clarity I could not remember ever feeling. But I also felt a power over myself, my own wants and desires that was wholly unfounded. I felt “in control” of much that I was not and, I believe, will never be in control of. I felt that I could use drugs, and the drug alcohol (although, for me it was primarily other drugs), “recreationally.” That turned out to be absolutely false, but I not only didn’t know it, I didn’t even consider it — I probably didn’t want to know it.

I also wanted it all — all that stuff, not just the material stuff, but the status and the stature, the standing and the prominence, and, of course, I wanted the material things, too. I wanted what I saw others had, but I didn’t want to wait for it. It’s important to understand that these concrete thoughts were not bouncing around in my head, I was not saying these things to myself, but in retrospect, the thing the drugs always gave me — instant gratification — was still driving me. I wanted it all and I wanted it now.

That week in between jails was difficult. I had 40 days clean and all the motivation in the world to stay clean, but despite that, I wanted an escape. I didn’t “want it all right now,” I just “wanted it all to end.” I was pissed off all the time — nothing, it seemed, was going right. I knew where I could find instant gratification, I knew where I could get instant relief, but I also knew where that would get me. I also knew, by then, with a clear, albeit angry, mind, that instant gratification only lasts for an instant. But I just could not see any light at the end of any tunnel. All I could focus on was staying out of prison and to do that I had to stay clean. But that was not at all easy. Fortunately, I would be locked up again soon before I could make another fateful decision.

The old Calaveras Jail was a miserable place. It has since been replaced with a new, modern facility (so I hear), but at the time it was an ancient, overcrowded hell-hole. However, the fact that it was overcrowded worked to my advantage. Where I would have had to serve 60 days of that 90 day sentence, I was released after only eight days. And eight days was enough. By the time I got home I was still angry (and, to be clear about that, although I had plenty of anger to go around, and many undeserving people got the brunt of it, I was really pissed off at myself), but I had around 60 days clean and a bit of a foothold in recovery once again.

But the light was still nowhere to be found. I saw that others who were doing this recovery thing had found something, and I saw that. Over time, many had achieved big, fulfilling lives. I wanted that, too, but I just could not see it for me. It was just too far away. I just needed to stay out of prison — and that turned out to be challenging enough. There were a couple of days when it was close, but I made it. I finally made my way back to school at the local junior college and, as time went on, things gradually got better. It was somewhere around six months clean that a revelation washed over me — I’ll never forget it. It’s as simple as it is powerful: I realized that I had gone a few days, maybe several, without any anger. It might not seem like a big deal, but being pissed off all the time is fucking exhausting and to realize, in retrospect, that I was free from it for a sustained period of time — and, also, not even knowing, specifically, that was what was draining me until then — was like a wave crashing over me.

Of course it didn’t last, but the anger, over time, continued to diminish and the peace and serenity in my life began to increase. I continued with my education, transferring to California State University, Sacramento where I earned my BA, with honors. I then enrolled in the communication studies MA program at CSUS earning a master’s degree. I then applied to and was accepted into a Ph.D. program at Louisiana State University where I advanced to doctoral candidacy before settling on another master’s degree. During all that time, I stayed clean, stayed “in recovery” and dealt with life as it came — not all good, not all bad. I didn’t always handle every situation perfectly or even “well,” but I also didn’t ever self-destruct over anything, either. The success that eluded me my entire life — the bottom that always fell out eventually — still hasn’t, for 17 years now. And that light? It’s as bright as the sun now.

In the last few years, my focus has been not so much all that “stuff” — both material and status — that I so desperately wanted (or, thought I wanted) all those years ago, but rather, it’s peace. It’s serenity. I know that conflict is part of life, I know that it is unrealistic to think that I can totally avoid it, but I can do quite a lot to mitigate it, to moderate it, to not invite it and, where it comes to my own domain, to show it the door. I have come to a place that probably has to do with not just the years of recovery from addiction — which includes but is not limited to just the complete abstinence from all mind and mood altering drugs — but also an age where I simply do not feel like wasting my time with bullshit. I will not tolerate drama, I do not do passive-aggressive, if you ask me what I think, be prepared for the truth.

All those years ago, I wanted the things I have now. The money, the nice house, the motorcycles (yes, plural, and I can’t even begin to say how excited I am about the one I’m picking up tomorrow), the ability to not worry about paying my bills and living paycheck to paycheck. I thought that’s all I wanted; I thought that would make me “happy” (a misnomer; what I want is contentedness, satisfaction, peace — happiness is and must be fleeting). It turns out that those things are a result of all else. I enjoy the “things,” I like my stuff, but that stuff absent the intangible peace and peace of mind it took, literally, all those years to attain, would be meaningless. I know, because I’ve had “stuff” before and it never gave me what I really sought. But, I never really knew what I was looking for. It took 17 years to get here, there is no way I could have seen that 17 years ago.

#peace


 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Unconditionally

I usually have some “big” thoughts on my annual ride to Sturgis. This year, my eighth consecutive pilgrimage to the Mecca of all the motorcycle things (my seventh consecutive actual ride there) is no different, but I have not dwelt on it much nor does it have to do much with the adventure itself. It was, like all the previous seven excursions, not a “vacation” as commonly defined, even though for vast numbers of attendees it is that, it was once again about the journey. It is a three part deal — the getting there, the being there and the getting back, each full of trials, tribulations and triumphs — challenges to be met and overcome, expecting the unexpected and dealing with it all. Along the way, there is a complete immersion in the experience one can only gain from being in close contact with and in some control of the actual travel on two wheels, completely exposed to the elements, the atmosphere and in being an integral part of all of it. That all happened this year, but I’m not going to go into any detail about it. It was different this year, but the overall theme is the same — and that theme is that the experience is never the same.

The difference this year, for me, had nothing to do with Sturgis. It had to do with love, unconditional love. People put conditions on everything. There is always an unspoken agreement, always lines that cannot be crossed. Often they are not known until they are crossed, but they are, for lack of a better word, “conditions.” Even the most noble among us, the most saintly, have our limits. While “love” might always exist, the nature of relationships amongst humans is complicated and they can be altered, sometimes irrevocably. The same is not true of “man’s best friend,” our canine companions, dogs. I suppose there are those who would say the same of other pets, but I have not found this quality of complete, unadulterated, unconditional, reciprocal love more pure than between a human and his or her dog.

I have had a few dogs in my life, a few who have claimed me as their human. Most recently, Bella, an 11 and a half year old chocolate lab who was my son’s dog for the first half of her life, came into my home in her later years and claimed me as her own. She was my everything, but passed way too soon from cancer last March. Her loss devastated me like none before or since; it caught me off guard. I am not made of stone, but I tend to be somewhat philosophical about such things — life and death — I do not “not” feel it, but I tend to be rather emotionally stoic. Not so with Bella. Her loss has weighed heavily on me since she left — it still does.

I knew I would be getting another dog eventually, but I wasn’t sure when. I planned to be out riding my motorcycle most of the summer, including my ride to Sturgis. That did not come to pass. Although I did take one other shorter ride earlier in the summer, I was home most of the summer. However, I was not ready and I wanted to be home when I brought a new dog into my home, and I knew I’d be gone the two weeks for my Sturgis ride. I figured I’d begin my quest when I returned. But the planets aligned, my friends had a litter of golden retrievers in June and, as fate would have it, one of them would become mine. He picked me before he was fully weaned and I know who would be coming home with me when I returned. I thought about him every day I was gone.


The ride home from Sturgis was actually one of the best. I rode with three others, two of whom were new to the entire experience. Most of the route was old hat for me, but the roads were iconic and ones I was glad to ride again (still am). There was even a stretch of new stuff that proved to be absolutely magic (ironically, the name of a dog I had years ago). But as good as all that was, I could not wait to get home. I’ve been home for four days now and the unconditional love I missed from Bella is back in my life. It is not Bella, Möbius did not and cannot replace her, but he has filled a void that she left, and I know she is smiling down upon us. Because she loved me, unconditionally. Always.