Saturday, October 17, 2020

Twenty Years

I’ve told this story many times. I’ve written about it, too, a lot. It has been suggested more times than I can remember that I “write a book.” And, someday, I might just do that. Time, for the past two decades, has meant something much different to me – different than it did before, but maybe different than it does to most people. Not all, certainly… but maybe. Maybe we all experience it differently and maybe pivotal moments in our lives significantly alter that experience. But I suspect that’s not it. I think that for a few people who have been to the proverbial edge of life, time becomes simultaneously more and less precious. But even that revelation took time. It took time to realize, time to appreciate, time to navigate and by the time all that happened, 20 years have passed.


Twenty years. That sounds like a long time. When I was 20, it was a long time, unimaginably long. I literally could not imagine being 40 years-old. Ironically enough, I almost wasn’t. I almost didn’t make it to my 38th birthday. How’s that for a self-fulfilling prophecy? Those who know my story know what happened, those who don’t won’t have to be in suspense for long, but the clinical term for what I experienced is an “NDE” or a “Near Death Experience.” These are more than just a close call, a near miss or some other case where, if the circumstances were slightly different, one would have certainly died, but as it happened, escaped without serious injury.


An NDE means suffering serious injury of some kind, actually dying, and coming back. The actual experiences that those who have had NDEs vary (a lot) and the spiritual/religious interpretations are all over the map, but I’m not talking about any that. It’s not important. What is important is how one views life when coming back from such serious trauma, especially after fully realizing how dire the situation was. That, for me, did not happen until I woke up in a hospital five or six weeks later. What happened? I guess I haven’t answered that question yet. On the morning of October 17th, 2000, I fell asleep at the wheel of a 1999 Jeep Cherokee, crossed over into the oncoming lane and hit a logging truck in a glancing (left-front to left-front) head-on collision. The logging truck driver suffered minor injuries, my then 13 year-old son suffered less minor, but also minor injuries; my injuries were life-threatening, maybe life-ending.


My left leg was nearly separated from my body at my hip. My injuries included and compound, open pelvic fracture, a compound left femur fracture, a lacerate kidney, liver and femoral artery. I took something like 16 units of blood before I ever got to the hospital; I was bleeding out faster than they could put it back in. From others’ accounts, I understand that I was “brought back” a number of times. I remember almost none of it, but what I do remember is nothing short of weird. And it is nothing I could or would try to explain – and it doesn’t matter, that’s not what this is about. When they weened me out of a medically induced coma weeks later, it took some time for the fog to clear. By the time I was fully conscious, I was both grateful that I survived and pissed off that I had. I was facing a long and uncertain road of recovery.


Twenty years ago today my life changed in many ways, some of which I am still discovering, all these years later. It was, in a very real sense, the beginning of the end of an era, but it was not yet the end. The beginning of the beginning of the path I am now on was still in the future, if I could get there. When I “woke up” sometime in mid-November that year, I knew why what happened, happened. I was painfully aware that my excesses exceeded my luck, that my “lifestyle” and the warning signs I summarily dismissed for many years came home to roost. This was not another close call, it was not another near-miss, it was a direct hit and I very nearly paid the ultimate price. All that was not lost on me within days of my coming to. I knew what happened and I was done. Never again; my life would change, in the short-term by necessity, but in the long-term, I decided it would have to lest I run out of luck again, permanently. I’m not stupid. I knew.


But it was not the end. Or, if it was, it was an extended ending. Once released from the hospital, once left to set my own course – even a little – I chose the same path that landed me where I was. I rationalized that it would be different, that I learned my lesson, that I knew what my limits were. I was wrong. Nothing changed and although I did not end up in exactly the same place, the places I did end up were plenty bad. I experienced death, jails and other institutions were yet to come. I could not turn it off, no matter how “smart” I was, no matter how important anything or anyone else was. My immediate desires always dictated my next move and my next move was always immediate gratification. And drugs always did that.


I’m not sure how I can explain how I became an addict. I don’t know if it’s genetic, if it’s environment, if it’s developed through exposure, if it’s just circumstance or some combination. It doesn’t much matter. It is clear to me that when I chose drugs, they call the shots – I no longer have a choice. But I cannot explain why that is. When I came to in the hospital, I was done. The risk was too great. I meant it - I had all the reason I needed. No one in his or her right mind would continue to take those risks in light of the very real consequences. Yet, when the opportunity presented itself, I had no defense. It is impossible for anyone who hasn’t experienced that sort of powerlessness to understand, but even the smartest people in the world have made similarly lethal decisions. It is not a function of intelligence.


I didn’t know how much of my physical self would recover from that wreck. They didn’t know how well or if I would ever walk, if my colostomy would be temporary or permanent and a host of other unknown long-term issues. I went home with a lot of surgical issues left to be resolved – I had four huge screws and an external fixator still holding my pelvis together, a colostomy and a bunch of nerve damage. By the end of 2001 all of that was dealt with – even the colostomy was reversed, but I was also well entrenched back into my former life. The risk – after barely escaping with my life less than a year earlier, was equal to what is was before. This time it would manifest in the form of law enforcement.


A series of gradually more significant charges finally led up to my accepting a plea deal for the felony of receiving stolen property and a few months of jail time combined with a few months of a residential drug rehabilitation program. I wasn’t guilty of knowingly receiving stolen property, but I was guilty of plenty and taking that bargain got me the least amount of jail time along with some help. In that one thin slice of time, it is what I wanted – I was experiencing a brief “moment of clarity,” I was “done.” I’d been there before – many times – but this time coincided with an opportunity, so I took it. By the time I got out of jail, I was committed to staying drug free, “clean and sober,” but I was also freshly free. Of course I celebrated. And once again I could not stop.


I stalled as long as I could. On March 11, 2001, the day of my probation violation hearing (for not reporting to rehab when ordered), I got into a residential program in Sacramento, CA. I was a mess. I was physically drained, emotionally empty. I was ready for a break, but I still didn’t want to go. I was between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Run, keep using and digging deeper, or try to rebuild. But the light at the end of that tunnel was so far off I just could not see it. I reported to the program, they contacted the court, the judged stayed my hearing until after I finished the program and I ended up spending six months there. The judge reinstated my probation – no violation.


Towards the end of that six months, I enrolled At American River College, the local community college. I needed to transition out of rehab by getting a job or going to school. Since I had no intention of staying in Sacramento, school seemed like the way to go. Besides, they were giving away money – grants and loans – and I was tired of being broke. Secondarily, I was kind of on fire with the whole recovery thing. I learned a lot about addiction and recovery in those six months and I witnessed those who were making a living in the “industry.” I figured I could do that, too, with the right credentials. ARC offered that. My first semester at ARC was a resounding success, my grades were the best I’ve ever had in any school at any time. After “graduating” from the residential treatment program, I moved into a “clean and sober transitional living” (CSTL) house in downtown Sacramento. All that success further motivated me and confirmed that I was finally, at almost 41 years old, on the right track in life.


And I was, but all tracks have side tracks and not all side tracks are good. Sometime in December of 2003, after I had nine months of complete abstinence from all mind and mood altering substances, during the semester break after my best semester in school ever, I was riding high on life, I had a little bit of money, some freedom and a whole lot of time. I spent some of that “doing recovery,” going to meetings and such, but I was somewhat bored, too. I decided to go up to Truckee and stay with my friend and do a little snowboarding. I knew what environment I’d be going into, but I was clean and sober, I had nine months, I was in control now, I would be able to resist temptation. Indeed, I was not tempted.


Or so I thought. While I believed I had regained my ability to control what I put into my body, the fact is that I likely already subconsciously decided that I could once again control my intake. It was not long before I was doing exactly the same things that got me into all that trouble in the first place. But this time, again, it would be different. I told myself I learned how to control it. I never did go snowboarding that weekend and when I returned to Sacramento, I was back on the same rollercoaster I left behind nine months earlier. I could not stop. I left that CSTL before I got found out and moved to Calaveras County where I could do what I wanted to do in relative peace. However, when my probation officer found all that out, he wasn’t cool with it. He sent the Calaveras County Sheriffs Department to find me, they tested me, Nevada County violated me and Calaveras County – just to add insult to injury, it seems – added on their own charge of public intoxication (I wasn’t in public, but I didn’t fight it).


I didn’t fight any of it because I was at that point, again (another moment of clarity) except this time with a new twist. That twist had two equally sharp edges. One was that I had already been down that road, accomplished quite a lot in a short period of time and flushed it all away in an even shorter time. Although the legal and physical consequences were not (yet) so dire, the personal ones were. The trust and faith I had built up in others, primarily my boys, was lost and it would take much longer to build that back. The other edge was the starting over again. Losing all that time, including a career path that would no longer be possible in a reasonable period of time, was crushing. I was also looking at another several weeks in jail. That was a bit of a surprise, I figured I get a slap on the wrist, an outpatient program or something less severe. Both county’s judges were not going for it. Meanwhile, that spring semester at ARC was not going nearly as well as the previous fall. I still managed to get decent (not great) grades, but I was doing it on artificial fuel.


I found my way back to Sacramento in the summer of 2004 and awaited my fate. I was sentence to 60 days in Nevada county, I would have to serve 40, followed by 90 days in Calaveras county, of which I would have to serve 60 days. I was relatively certain that I would be released early in Calaveras County due to jail overcrowding, but there was no telling how early and the worst-case scenario was 60 days. I was ordered to turn myself in to Nevada County on August 6th, 2004. I used drugs as much as I could while I got my “affairs in order” right up until my turn-in date. I would have gone to jail loaded, but I distinctly remember having no hustle, no game and no drugs to use that day – at least not the ones I wanted. August 6th, 2004 remains my “clean” or “sobriety” date to this day.


A week after being released from Nevada County, I was to turn myself in to Calaveras County. That week in between was brutal. I knew I had to stay away from drugs like my life depended on it. The judge in Nevada County told me that another dirty test would send me to prison for a year and I was pretty sure they would test me in Calaveras County prior to incarceration. I contacted my old sponsor, I went to some meetings and I kept to myself. I had to stay away from drugs at all costs. It turns out they did not test me in Calaveras County. It also turns out they were very overcrowded; I was out in eight days. I went home to my two younger sons in my little two bedroom duplex in Sacramento sometime in late September with about 60 days clean and sober, pissed off, and not too thrilled about the future – any future.


I tried to find a job, but for a variety of reasons I was not having any success. I have never not been able to find a job, but the landscape had, in just a few years, changed - a lot. That, combined with a huge gap in my resume, some dated technological skills and a felony on my record all proved to be serious obstacles to what was once a routine – and quick – process of finding employment. I went back to ARC to talk to a counselor about my possible school future. I had a bunch of college credits going all the way back to the early 80s; they don’t “expire,” what are they good for? It turned out that with just one more semester at ARC – just five classes – I could transfer to California State University, Sacramento as a junior. In all that stumbling and falling and getting back up over the past 12 months, I discovered that I have a talent for writing, so I decided to go for it and major in journalism.


My pissed-offedness subsided significantly midway through the spring semester. Things were starting to work out again, school was going well. My grades were excellent and I was able to finally parlay my old house in Truckee into a home in the Sacramento suburb of Fair Oaks. By this time, my wreck was now coming up on its five-year anniversary. In January of 2006, I first wrote about it. I wrote that life was good. And it was. But so much has happened since then. In 2007 (actually, January, 2008) I was awarded my BA in government-journalism from CSUS, magna cum laude. In the Fall of 2008, I went back to CSUS and entered the MA program in communication studies. In the Spring of 2012 I was awarded my MA  at CSUS. In the fall of 2011, I was accepted to the communication studies PhD program at Louisiana State University. While I did advance to doctoral candidacy, I ended up with another MA at LSU in 2016. I worked as a journalist for a local news organization in the Sacramento area and as an undergrad instructor during my grad student years at both CSUS and LSU and, since 2015, I have been working as member of the faculty at Sac State. All of that happened because I didn’t die 20 years ago today.


The last paragraph covers about 15 years in the matter of just a few words. Of course my “recovery life” includes a lot more than just a list of a few accomplishments. There are numerous trials and tribulations, triumphs and adventures, new life and lives lost.  These past 20 years have not been a cake-walk, certainly not early on, but not at various points between then and now, either. But what if I didn’t make it. There were times – many times – when I wished I did not. When I was in that hospital, totally helpless, unable to do anything for myself with both an immediate and a long-term future that looked bleak, unsure and hard and I was pissed of that I had survived. What kind of cruel joke is this? And, while late in this essay, do not let that reflect the significance of priority – this was a monumental upheaval in my family’s lives. My parents and my kids especially paid a heavy price for my so-called “freedom.”


Ironically, I am freer today than I ever was then. I was a slave to my addiction, a slave to my sense of entitlement, my sense of comfort, my view that I was supposed to be “happy.” It took nearly losing everything – and a shitload of time to think about that – to realize what freedom really is. In a parallel universe, there is no Michael Althouse. He died in a wreck on October 17th, 2020. Today his kids mourning him, perhaps his friends, what few he had, are remembering  him. And except for those he touched, the world probably wouldn’t be much different. But how many have I touched in the past 20 years? And If that parallel universe sees me survive only to continue crashing through life, what does that world look like? In the big picture, it’s not much different. In my little world, however, it means a lot, in all three universes. We talk a lot about “breaking the chain” in the recovery world, but I don’t think it means what a lot of people think it does. It doesn’t mean that if we get clean and/or sober, that our kids will not have to drink or use. I think it means that when they do (because they will), they will have an example that they don’t have to chase it to the very gates of hell, like I did.


And if I survived for nothing else, that is enough.



Saturday, September 12, 2020

Fine, Part 3

Fine. I am fine. It seems as though I have been saying that a lot lately. Sometimes I’ll change it up with an, “I’m okay,” or, “I’m good,” but usually what I am is “fine.” I’ve been approached enough lately with sincere, not superficial, not in-passing, not as a greeting substitute… “How are you doing?” to notice it. Some have been more specific with concerns about my mental and emotional well-being. The point is that

it’s more than just coincidence – I am throwing something out there that is being read as definitely “not fine.” But I am fine, really. And, under the circumstances, I am especially fine.


I know the acronym that has been assigned to the letters: F I N E – fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional. Lets break that down.


1.     Fucked-up: This can be interpreted in a number of ways. One of my best friends ever just passed away from a vicious disease that made his passing even more difficult. That’s pretty fucked-up. It’s the closest person to me who has died before his or her time (that is, not of age-related natural causes) in a very long time. How fucked-up am I? I don’t know, what scale are we using? I can still work. I can still function. I still answer my phone. No, I don’t want to talk about it. What are the rules. Give me a list and I’ll give you a number between 1-100 of how “fucked-up” I am.


2.     Insecure: I have never been more secure – in every respect – in my entire life. I am financially secure, I am secure in who I am. I do not fear abandonment or, really, much else. It took a long time to get here, and I owe that same friend who passed a debt for helping me do that, but security no matter how one measures it is not my problem. Next.


3.     Neurotic: I don’t even know what this means. I know what it means contextually, kind of like I’m pretty sure most others do. But except for those in the mental health professions, I’d be willing to bet most people think “neurotic” means things like nervous, touchy, self-conscious, unstable, compulsive, etc. I’d bet not many know what it really means. That’s why I’m going to look it up, right now…


And here it is, turns out we were pretty close:

Neurotic means you're afflicted by neurosis, a word that has been in use since the 1700s to describe mental, emotional, or physical reactions that are drastic and irrational. At its root, a neurotic behavior is an automatic, unconscious effort to manage deep anxiety.


4.     Emotional: Anyone who knows me knows I am not emotional. I am not unemotional on purpose, I do not try to stifle my emotions, I just do not usually outwardly express my emotions. I never have. Maybe I am damaged somehow, but I have managed to get through 57 years of life with a broken emotion-display-unit, so I guess it’s not fatal.


So much for acronyms. I always thought that one was particularly stupid anyway. It takes a perfectly functional word and turns it into something that means exactly the opposite of what it really means. Ah, yes, what it really means. What about that. When I say I am “fine,” what am I really saying. There is no question that plenty of my friends – real friends who really do know me – don’t believe I am, in fact, fine. I should (and do) take their views very seriously. I have not cared much about what those on the periphery think in many years, but those who are close and who genuinely do know and care about me do get a seat at the table. Their opinion matters. That leaves a huge, “now what?”


Well, I write. Because I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t even fucking know what “it” is. But this idea of what “fine” is has me intrigued. What, exactly, is “fine.” I can look it up, I can trace its etymology, but I’m much more curious about its philosophic underpinnings. In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance, Robert Pirsig went down a similar rabbit hole in his pursuit of the metaphysics of “quality.” Ultimately, quality is something that must be experienced, it cannot be defined, and perhaps the state of being “fine” is similar. And I’ve been not fine, decidedly not fine recently enough to remember it vividly.


But the fact that I can say I am experiencing the state of being fine is at odds with the fact that others are observing something else. One time, my then brother-in-law and I were driving to a ski resort just past the chain-control check point. We had just chained up, but stopped to check the chain tension. We got back in my car and took off. Before we refastened our seat belts, a cop on the side of the road waived us over. My brother-in-law opened his window and the cop asked, “How are you doing?” We both said, “Fine, sir.” He said, “No you’re not! You’re going way too fast and you’re not wearing your seat belts.” After apologizing and promising to correct our behavior, he let us go. It is still a running joke with us, 30+ years later. The point is that in his eyes, we were not fine.


In yours, I must not be, either. And perhaps I do need to fasten my seat belt and slow down. I am the first to admit that I cannot always see the things that are closest to me. But, and this is important, as much as I might appear to be hurting, angry, in pain or whatever other element of not-fine I appear to be, please know that I am not in any danger of harming myself or anyone else. In that respect, at least, I truly am fine. Really. I love my life, I love living and I plan to do plenty of it for years to come. Art would want me to do that. He would want me to be fine.




Sunday, August 30, 2020

Brave New First Day of School


The first day of school is always exciting. It has been so since my earliest memories way back to kindergarten – new shoes, packed lunch-box and wearing my favorite (or, at that age, my mom’s favorite) new school clothes; I was off into the great unknown. While I do recognize that those details expose a degree of privilege – privilege even my parents did not enjoy – there is still a universality to the first day of school. It is a yearly ritual that typically happens right about now. For me, this fall, that day is tomorrow.


For most of us, once we leave school, at whatever level, those days are over. However, when our kids grow through them, we do get to relive them from a different angle, and as anyone who is or has done that will attest, it is a whole new ballgame. But then they, too, will eventually finish; the phase is temporary – long-term, but temporary. However, for those of us who have made education our profession, the new school year/first day of school ritual is ongoing. We dance this dance every year. Maybe we all don’t go out and get brand new haircuts or a new pair of shoes or wear our best clothes to make the absolute best first impression, but we are all keenly aware that a first impression is being made and it will affect the entire semester.


For the last 17 years, I have been back in school. I went back to college in Sacramento, CA at American River College (the third community college in my growing list of colleges) at the age of almost 41 years old. In addition to that college experience earlier in life, I had lots of other school experience in general – in short, at the time, I had a lot if “first day” experience under my belt, both as a student and as a father. That fall was different, however, for reasons that are both common to returning “nontraditional” students and unique to my own situation. I’ve written about them in the past, I’ll write about them in the future, this is not about that. This is about tomorrow and why it is so different even in comparison so some very different fall semesters.


Since the fall of 2003, I have missed just one first day of school – the very next year. The first day of the fall, 2004, I found myself residing in the Nevada County jail and would not be able to attend the first day, week or month of class. I knew that would be the case when I was sentenced, so I didn’t bother enrolling (again, a story for another time), but with that one exception, I have had a “tomorrow” every year since. And it’s always the same. The excitement, the trepidation, a little bit of fear, the anticipation – all of that and more makes the first day of school absolutely electric. The moment I set foot on campus I can feel it.


For the past five years, I have enjoyed the first day of school as a member of the faculty at California State University, Sacramento. From 2008 to 2015, I enjoyed the dual role as grad student and student instructor, half at CSUS while working on my MA and half at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA while working on my PhD (also a story for another time). I am entering my sixth year in the role of teacher only at Sac State this fall, my sixth “first day” as a member of the faculty first, last and only.


In years past, the fall semester has had a few disruptions. A couple of years ago, California fires and the smoke that permeated the Sacramento caused some major disruptions in the fall schedule – but we handled it and made it through the semester. While I was at LSU, we were shut down for Hurricane Isaac for a few days one semester and for a few days because of freezing rain one semester. One summer it rained so hard one afternoon that a waterfall developed inside my classroom – class cancelled for three days. The point is that we have always managed to adapt and accommodate these disruptions and returned to campus to pick up where we left off.

This fall we are not returning to campus – not real campus, anyway. We will be going to virtual campus, whatever the fuck that means. In all likelihood, I will not meet, in person, face-to-face a single one of my fall students this fall – and probably not in the spring either (I have no advanced knowledge – they don’t tell me anything – that is simply a guess). I can sense that electricity, at least the anticipatory part of it, but the actual jolt of walking into a classroom of new students for the first time cannot be replicated with Zoom. Period. Full-stop, end of story. It won’t happen. That connection I make with my students, the one I rely upon so much to get through to them will have to be made some other way. I have some means of doing that, I have no idea of how well they will work – and no one else does either, despite how much they think (or know) they do.

It’s literally a “brave” new world, but I don’t know what’s so brave about it. Online only education is not the be-all/end-all some seem to think it is. It can’t be. Does it have a place? Sure, of course it does. Online components are exceedingly helpful in a number of areas – even the most technologically resistant among us have been using some forms of online education for some time now. But for all those who think this is “the wave of the future,” pump your brakes. When you can get a group of students to circle up their desks and bounce ideas off each other in real-time, in all the messiness, the modulation variations, the talking over and around one another, the negotiation and creation of meaning and substance – when you can do that in a virtual environment, you let me know.

There are those who are really looking forward to this. It’s time to break out all their cool online toys and really show us what they can do. Y’all don’t have anything to prove to me. I know what you can do and I even agree it is quite a lot. I’m even adopting some of it – not because I want to, not because it’s better than what I can do in the classroom, but because it’s all I have. However, where we agree that the classroom is a physical space that cannot be replicated in virtual space and that physical space is inherently better than virtual space, we will get along fine. Right now I need you, and you know it. But I don’t plan on needing you forever. Best case after all this is said and done – I might still want some of what y’all can offer. Some of it might make the classroom experience better – but it is not better than the classroom. It never will be.


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Resurrection: College Life

In the fall of 2003, while winding up my time at a residential “treatment” facility in Sacramento, CA, I was faced with rebuilding my life. I was approaching my 41st birthday and found myself in the unenviable position of trying to figure out what I would do with my life. The prior three years were a roller-coaster of consequences from really bad decisions that ranged from near-death to incarceration to the court-ordered rehab I was currently residing in. I had about six months of abstinence from all drugs, including the drug alcohol and was, for the first time in many years, clean and sober and relatively healthy. I didn’t ever want to be in Sacramento, I didn’t plan to stay in Sacramento, but for the time being, I was “stuck” there.


Rather than try to find a job based on my considerable, disparate, but dated experience (it had been about three years since I had any real employment), I decided to go back to school and start a new career. To be perfectly honest, I went for the money; I qualified, for the first time, for student grants and loans and I was tired of being broke. But I was also on-board with this clean and sober thing, I figured I could turn that into a career (as so many do) with an AA degree from the local community college. I did have some college experience and a few college credits from a couple of unsuccessful attempts many years prior, but because all of my transcripts and my SAT scores were so old, I was required to take some assessment tests in math, reading and writing. I scored exceptionally high scores, especially in the writing part.


My math score did not surprise me, but it was also not relevant – all of my math requirements were satisfied back in the 80s. My English scores, however, were a bit of a shock. In fact, I scored high enough to qualify for an “honors” course. English was my worst and least favorite class in high school, despite the fact that I was a strong reader and writer. I had no intention of needlessly testing myself in a honors course – why set myself up for failure? But I was challenged by my peers and counselors in the recovery home as well as by my family, “what are you afraid of?” At the time, I had six months full of unprecedented – and rapid – success, so I took the chance on ENGWR 480 – “Honors College Composition” at American River College. I was enrolled full-time and managed a 4.0 GPA semester – my first ever.


That lit a fuse that I nearly extinguished soon after the semester ended. Armed with all that success, I felt I once again had control over my life (in retrospect, that is entirely laughable), and, with all that winter break “free time” to myself, I eventually came to the belief that I could do drugs “recreationally” again (I never really did, but the fantasy is powerful). That relapse proved that everything I spent nine months building could be lost much faster – and I nearly did lose everything. My grades the following spring slipped to a 3.0 GPA, and it was lucky I managed that, considering I was arrested, again, mid-semester. The fall-out continued until I was incarcerated again for a probation violation in one county and the offense that got me violated in another. By the time I got out, the fall 2004 semester was already underway. Due to being locked up, when I was released I had about 60 days clean and sober and was again at a crossroads. But this time it was much worse.


I tried to find a job, but, for a variety of reasons, could not. I was struggling to stay the course, to stay abstinent, to stay out of trouble, to stay out of jail. I went back to ARC to talk to a counselor to see what I could do with all the various and sundry college credits I did have. After some crunching, we found that one more semester at ARC would give me the necessary credits I needed to transfer as a junior to California State University, Sacramento. I decided a journalism major there would suit me and in the spring of 2005 I went back to class. With the exception of the spring semester in 2008, I have been on campus ever since.


And it is no coincidence that I have been free from all mind and mood altering drugs – including alcohol – ever since, too. The day I reported to jail on that probation violation was my first day drug-free; this past August 6th marked 16 years since I have chemically treated my feelings. I was a full-time student through the fall of 2007 when I received my BA in not just journalism, but government-journalism from CSUS, graduating magna cum laude. I worked through the spring and summer of 2008 (and before while I was still in school) as a journalist for a local newspaper before returning to Sac State in the fall of 2008 to begin work on an MA in communication studies. My plan was to take that degree and teach in a community college.


I began teaching university courses while in grad school at Sac State. I have had college students every semester since that fall and ever since the very first day of that very first class I knew this was what I would do – it would be my last career (of many). Towards the end of my MA studies at Sac State, I was once again challenged to go beyond what I though myself capable of. I was challenged to apply

for a PhD program at an R1 university. I figured my history, my age, my deteriorating memory (still, it seems), my record, and a hundred other things would preclude me from that world, but again it was presented to me in words to the effect of, “what are you afraid of?” So I applied to several schools I knew would reject me. And I got accepted – by two schools.


I accepted a funded opportunity to go to Baton Rouge in the fall of 2011 and attend Louisiana State University. I was coming up on my 49th birthday, had been a full-time student for most of the past eight years and was about to embark on one of the hardest things there is to do. For two years I had one foot in Baton Rouge and one foot in Sacramento trying to keep my personal life together while pursuing a doctorate. In 2013 I gave up on that “personal life,” emptied and rented out my house in Sacramento and moved to Baton Rouge full-time. However, that stress and too many other factors, not the least of which is that earning a PhD is hard, I only managed to advance to candidacy, cashing in my credits and my exams for another master’s degree. However, the experience is not one I would want to undo – it was and is an integral part of my journey and adds a richness, a texture and a nuance to my story that I would not otherwise have.


I returned to Sacramento in the summer of 2015, still with the intention of writing my dissertation and finishing my PhD (I held onto that dream until reality set in about a year later). I landed an adjunct professorship (lecturer, part-time faculty, temporary faculty – non-tenured faculty have many titles) and I have been working a series of yearly contracts there ever since. I have had days when I have come home and I kne

w – I just knew – I nailed it. I made a difference, I had all my shit together, I was on it.  I have had others where I knew I was floundering and I hoped my students didn’t notice. I have had times when I was rescued and I have had the opportunity to help in kind, as well. I have been lucky to work in departments where back-stabbing in the name of “career advancement” is not the way they operate, but I have heard stories where such is not the case, too.


Today, Tuesday, August 25th, 2020 is the day before the official beginning of the fall semester. Everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows this semester is going to be different, even compared to the COVID-interrupted spring. At the beginning of every semester, I am filled with excitement, anxiety, and even some fear. It is electric and those feelings are even more pronounced in the fall. It’s there this, fall, too, but without being in the classroom – the real classroom – next week, something big is missing. Being on campus, around students, colleagues, in that dynamic, energizing, engaging and inspiring environment simply cannot be replicated online. It’s funny, sort of. I should prefer this. I generally hate being around a bunch of people, in crowds, amongst hustle and bustle, but the one and only excepting is campus and, specifically, my classroom.


This is a thing that will be looked back on as that thing in 2020. It will be seen as a surreal nightmare that came with all those other things that same year. We will either be able to say we rose a

bove it, we survived it, we conquered it or that we succumbed to it. But all that doesn’t matter right now. It’s fall and I am still excited. I am still anxious, I still have that same familiar fear. And it’s not because of  COVID-19, it’s not because of 100 percent online, “distance” learning, it’s not because of a global pandemic or an ugly election year or racial or economic inequities. It’s because the fall semester is about to begin. And, despite all this shit that is swirling around us, I still love what I do, even if I hate how we have to do it.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Sweet Sixteen

Today is Thursday, August 6th, 2020. Exactly 16 years ago today I was preparing to turn myself in to the authorities at the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility – the Nevada County jail. I was sentenced to 60 days on a probation violation – with “good behavior” I would be released in 40 days. A week later I was to turn myself in to the Calaveras County jail on a 90 day sentence for the offense that got me violated in Nevada county. With good time, I would be out in 60 days; since that jail was overcrowded, I was out in eight – the only “good luck” I had probably that entire year. Those crimes and all other legal trouble (beyond simple traffic infractions) were directly or indirectly related to my inability to “control” my use of alcohol and other drugs. “Control” is a relative term, but in my case, they were the common denominator in most of the problems that plagued every area of my life for, roughly, 25 years. 


 This day, 16 years ago, I did not drink or use any drugs. That was not my intent, but my life at that point was such a train-wreck that I could not even hustle up one joint. I suppose I could have managed to scrounge up enough for a six-pack of beer, but that wasn’t going to do it for me and I knew it. Why bother? I went to jail “clean and sober” that day and, as history has played out, I have not found it necessary to chemically alter my consciousness since. That does not mean I have not wanted to. Many times, particularly those first few months after being released from jail, I wanted to. I wanted to escape the wreckage and the pain I caused, but the upside was not what it once was and the downside was a promise from the judge that my next home would not be a county jail, but a state prison.


And yet, that in and of itself would not have been enough in the long term. Even in the relatively short term, my default “Fuck this!” would have prevailed if not for the help and support of a “recovery community.” Recovery from addiction, whether it be drugs, the drug alcohol, or other destructive obsessive-compulsive behaviors (gambling, food, sex… the list goes on) defies “will power.” Indeed, my problem was not a lack of will – I went to extraordinary lengths to get what I wanted when I wanted it. This thing, whatever one wants to call it - and I am purposefully avoiding the “disease” terminology, it is not necessary for the general public or even those afflicted to accept that – is a real thing, whatever it is and where ever it came from. It’s been around forever and we have, for better or worse, a great deal of experience with it. Through that experience, some remarkably effective treatments, paths to recovery, have been discovered. There is no “one-size-fits-all,” but this communal aspect seems to be the common denominator among them – whether it’s a 12-step program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous or some other method, the self-help, we’re all in this together, mutual support is the corner stone of them all.


 And so it is with me. My story, the one that today celebrates not just 16 years of total abstinence, but also all of the success that comes with it, does not happen without a lot of help from a lot of people who are doing the same thing and, crucially, many who have been in my shoes, who have walked my path before I have. While all of our stories are unique (that is true of everyone – we all have a unique human experience), much or the nuance, the feeling, the hopelessness and the hope, are shared. I want to be absolutely clear – I could not have managed anything close to my 5,844 consecutive days of abstinence if not for those who supported me and showed me the way. And that ability and willingness to ask for and rely on the help of others (grudgingly, at first) has been pivotal in my success beyond recovery from addiction, too. That success includes earning not one, not two, but three degrees from legitimate, accredited universities and through that work, the career I am honored beyond belief to have been graced with – teaching at one of those universities. I have relationships that have an authenticity that I only had with a very small handful of friends prior – and those relationships have grown even deeper. But most importantly, I have mended and continue to mend my relationships with my immediate family, especially my three sons. That is, by far, my most cherished gift from this new life.


I was a bull in a china shop until, almost, my 42nd birthday. Although for much of that time I was what some might call a “functioning addict,” that is a euphemism and much too generous. I did parts of being a grown-up, but I was never the total package. I was present for my boys, we did stuff, they might even tell of many of the good time we had – and we did do stuff, and we did have good times – but at what price? I put them through too much, and this despite the absolute fact that my love for them is greater than any love I have for anyone or anything else. Period. Full stop. I am not special, this is not unique, most parents could and would make the same claim. Yet, the drugs were more powerful. That is not a fact that is easy to admit, but it was the truth and, if I allowed them back into my life, could easily be again. Pass. Hard pass. So, with all this under my belt, all these days, these years of experience, I should be good to go, cured, as it were. I got the help I needed, got my life together, now it’s time to move on.


I have been tempted to see it that way, many times over the years. And, with the recovery community disrupted by COVID, like everything else, it has been trying for any “fellowship” to actually fellowship. Because, we do like to get together. A lot. In my case, it’s not such a disruption, however, the temptation to put everything that worked aside is one that I still need to resist for a couple of reasons. First, I have seen what happens to some people who leave, some with more time than I have, thinking they “got this” only to come crawling back with their asses kicked once again. I am not one of those people who thinks that everyone who ventures out of whatever program they recovered in will relapse – in fact, I know that is not true – but many do and the potential is there. It would be foolish not to at least consider it. The other reason actually has more impact for me, and that is to be that person with some time and success to show someone who is struggling to get clean and/or sober that it can be done and, if asked, to help in more tangible ways. It was done for me and I can’t do that if I’m not around.


But… I also don’t have to maintain a daily presence - and I don’t. There are many who have made the recovery life their life, and it that works for them, I am in their corner. However, as I mentioned above, one size does not fit all. There is a part of the path, a process of discovery that parallels the self-discovery process that will, if we pay attention, provide indicators regarding how much is enough. I don’t know what is “right” for anyone else. Hell, half the time I am trying to figure out what is right for me. I guide, never dictate. I wish, sometimes, others were not so damned sure what the “answer” is all the time. How the fuck do they know? Tell me what worked for you, not what will work for me. I am - we are smart enough to see good examples and follow them. And, hopefully, we are smart enough to see good examples of bad examples and steer clear.


I have made a few mistakes in the last 16 years, and some have been pretty monumental, but none of them have taken me back to where I came from. In fact, in the longer-term retrospect, they weren’t really all that bad anyway – nothing like the ones I made prior, one of which, almost 20 years ago, should have killed me. That was the beginning of the end, and a story for another time, but even with that near-death experience, even for a so-called “smart-guy,” I went back to what almost killed me. The life or death aspect of this pair of milestones is never lost of me. That I get to sit here, outside my hotel in Sturgis, SD, watching the world go by while attending the Black Hills Motorcycle Classic, in the middle of a global pandemic, celebrating this anniversary here for the seventh year in a row is a gift. And I don’t ever take it lightly.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Floods and Shoes

This time of year – for the past few years at least, I am usually filled with anticipation and excitement. Things are about to happen and I am like a little kid who knows he’s about to go to Disneyland. Okay, maybe not quite just like that, but all hyperbole aside, things that I look forward to all year are about to pop off. The big one is my big motorcycle ride that centers around the annual quintessential motorcycle rally in Sturgis, SD – the ride to and from, much more than the actual time spent in Sturgis, is always the highlight, at least since the my second time there. The spectacle of the event, the Mecca that is Sturgis used to be the highlight, it was the first two times I went. But not much changes there year to year, really, I still go because it’s like a hub; “been there, done that” and I get the t-shirt every year.

There are other things coming up as well. My newest grandson celebrates his first birthday in less than a week, a brand new fall semester at California State University, Sacramento (Sac State) is only about a month away and some of my own, personal, annual milestones of significance are also on the horizon. All of that, however, is clouded by a global pandemic, by COVID-19. Everything is different now and, while all of our lives have been significantly altered, I am not complaining or joining any “for” or “against” movements. It’s a fucking virus, it doesn’t care what we think, if we believe in it, if we don’t, whatever – it will do what it can, it will flow where it can, just like water does. My job is to make sure it doesn’t wash over me or mine… I’ll come back to that later.

My ride to Sturgis this year was going to be epic, much more epic than normal, much more epic than it is still going to be, despite the pandemic. I would already be gone more than 10 days, more than several thousand miles and, by now, on my way up to Nova Scotia. I don’t ever firmly nail these things down (which helped when the pandemic hit – no reservations to “manage”), so I’m not sure exactly where I would be, but this was the “coast-to-coast, border-to-border,” 10,000(ish) mile summer. It was (and still is) a bucket-list ride that would be in progress right now. As is, it will be just another two-week, 5,000 mile, five or six state “normal” Sturgis ride. I know, it still sounds epic – it is – and, to more than a few, perhaps a bit reckless, even stupid, but it’s my job to keep the water from washing over me and I can do that. However, there is more to say about that, too – and I will.

All of those other things and more – not just my things, but everyone’s things – have been affected by the pandemic, and that is true whether or not one “believes in it” or not. (Just as an aside: Writing that, and it’s not the first time, always strikes me as odd. It’s tantamount to writing whether or not one believes in science.) Of course, those who are discounting some or all aspects of it are more angry about the ramifications, about their “rights” being taken away, but we’re all, graciously or not, suffering. Some have been refusing to suffer, refusing to deprive themselves of the comforts our society has built, refusing to believe the science, and the results are beginning to accumulate. One of those results is one of my closest friends who is in the hospital fighting for his life right now. He is not a “science-denier” or a hoax-believer, but to say he was taking to virus seriously would be false – he was not being careful. Many of our friends have not been and at least one other has been hospitalized, though in his case the severity is not as bad – he is recovering. Both are very social people and have been, gradually, as the weeks went by, more and more social. They are not the only ones.

My employer, Sac State, and the entire California State University system, made the decision early on to migrate the majority of our classes to online, distance learning. There are some courses that must take place on campus, in a classroom or, more likely, a lab, but all of my sections will take place virtually. There are obvious advantages, but they evaporate when compared to the collaborative learning environment that is lost. Add in the additional (and in my position, unpaid) work required to migrate curriculum to an online environment, and all of the commute/parking/flexibility advantages don’t even rate. However, the water will not flow over me or my students and despite being adjacent to the American River, there will be no flood of any kind at Sac State.

The pandemic will affect all those other things I look forward to, as well. However, for those who might be following the news, for those in the “biker” (I hate that term and what it represents, but it’s about to prove itself useful) community, the “controversy” over whether or not to hold the 80th Annual Sturgis Rally is over, the rally is on and that is that. There are many reasons why is was not cancelled, the main one is that is not a discrete “thing.” There is no singular “Sturgis Rally.” There is the town of Sturgis and it participates. There are the various campgrounds, like the Buffalo Chip, and they participate. There are other local municipalities, like Deadwood, and they participate and finally there are various organizations and they participate, too, but no one “owns” it. It grew organically over the years and is a regional event, a festival not unlike Mardi Gras – it can’t be wholesale “cancelled.” Only the South Dakota governor could do that and she was not inclined to. And even if she did, the bikers were coming anyway.

Many organizations did withdraw, many vendors did as well, but many, like the City of Sturgis, after much deliberation, decided to participate. As I said, the bikers are coming anyway, the city does not have the authority to “shut down” the city and, by participating, not only collects a ton of money, it also pays for and institutes regulations and controls, including an increased law enforcement presence. The control this year is greater and includes pandemic-related safety measures, but I predict that many if not most of those will be ignored. Because the demographic consists of a lot of freedom-loving, hoax-believing, science-denying “bikers.” Not all of them, certainly not me, but a lot. Am I riding into a hornets’ nest – or a flood?

Yes… and no; I can protect myself and I will, but the how is not the point of all of this. Because the reality is that if everyone did the simple shit and kept their spit to themselves, we would be able to do most all the things. Almost all of them. Those who are saying that the virus is so small it will pass right through masks are either ignoring that viruses don’t travel that way (they need a vehicle and the vehicle, in this case, is spit, water droplets that are very small but too big to get through masks) or they are ignorant. Pick one. The same goes for the distance – six feet appears to be the magic number where those heavier tiny spit particles fall out of the air before making their way into someone else’s mouth, nose or eyes. It might seem kind of gross that y’all been living your life catching other people’s spit all day every day, but you have. Deal with it. That, and transfers from your hands to your face (mouth, nose and eyes) is how you catch most illnesses. They, like this one, are preventable. But first you have to believe it’s real.

I have friends and family who are concerned that I am going to a place where so many others who are not concerned are congregating. I get it. I am fortunate in that my experience with Sturgis and the attitudes of the “biker” population will help me with avoiding certain over-populated areas and I will certainly wear an N95 mask when I cannot avoid them. Furthermore, and I actually made this decision pre-COVID, I’ll only be there for four nights and only three of those will be officially “rally” nights. The five days there and the five days back are not going to be an issue – staying away from others while on the road is easy – and it is what I seek while on the road anyway. As far as the Sturgis crowds, the spectacle and all… I enjoy observing, “people-watching,” but I’ve never been comfortable “in the mix.” I’ve seen enough tits, drunks and shiny stuff to last a lifetime, I won’t be missing a thing if I never set a foot in downtown Sturgis, Deadwood, Keystone or any of the other “hotspots” (and I never go to the campgrounds anyway).

These are a lot of words that probably don’t much matter. I want my friends to take this shit seriously. I want the so-called “bikers,” to continue to love their freedom, to question authority, to remain non-conforming but to not ignore reality when the flood is coming. And I want that for others, too. This is not and should not be a political issue, it is and should only be a medical one. Once “sides” started getting taken, everyone started losing. If you think a mask is controlling you, if that is the ground you’ve decided to stand on, you already lost. Your fucking cell phone has more control over you than a mask or the government ever will (except you do know the government can access that, too, right?), but you’ll never give that up, will you? I know, I know… it’s really hard to be consistent in the ever-changing world. Every time you turn around you’ve become a hypocrite all over again. Well, maybe now is a good time to talk about shoes and how well they fit and whether or not y’all should lace them up and wear them. Some shoes work better in floods than others and not all shoes are waterproof.