Thursday, December 31, 2020

Hell in a Handbasket


I feel as though I should write something. I am tempted to say, “I don’t know what,” but the genre of New Year’s Eve writing is pretty standard, in general terms at least. It is a reflective effort. It places what has transpired into some greater context. It sets the stage for what is coming in the next year; it looks both back and ahead. Although no year is, in isolation, “normal,” this past year falls so far outside normal that reflecting upon it, as well as looking ahead from it, is not so routine. The task this year is far more daunting, the dynamics involved are broader and have many more facets. This is not nearly so personal.


But that’s probably as good a place to start as any. The personal. Personally, it has been a trying year, but not devastating. However, devastating is one of those words that, when applied in individual cases, one’s circumstances could be described as such whereas another’s similar circumstances might not be. One of my best friends contracted and, after a long battle, succumbed to COVID-19. That was devastating
to his family, certainly, and to me personally, in many ways. But in the big picture, my life, overall, for 2020, was not “devastated.” I know I am splitting definitional hairs here, but it is important to illustrate the finer points of what the fallout 2020 meant to me at a very local level. Art’s passing was (and still is) a major blow, it hurts, still, I miss him a lot, but my life in the big picture goes on mostly the same. And, in his memory, he would want that. But – and this is kind of where I am going – currently there are more than 340 thousand others who have suffered the same fate this year, and their families are permanently and significantly altered because of it. In that respect, my life has not been “devastated.”


And in many others it has not, either. I am in solid financial shape, my immediate family is safe and most of those I am close to and care about are well, too. Of course there is the psychological toll, everyone has been thrown into a discomfort zone; dealing with the unfamiliar, for many, has not been easy. And we like easy, don’t we? Our entire society is built on convenience, on ease, on comfort. But it’s also built to a large extent on community and the social nature of our species. Ironically, the technology that fosters both the ease and the community has made much of the trudge forward in the past year possible. Social media, virtual meeting software, delivery of goods and services and the like has made the isolation that so many despise workable. The very technology that makes us even more social has maintained our sociability and our functionality through this pandemic.


Of course technology cannot replace real human contact. Even though we were heading that way in very real terms – voluntarily and unwittingly – when forced to rely on technology exclusively, we have found it has significant limitations. Good. But one of the overtones I cannot help but notice, one that existed before and was already starting to bubble to the surface, went into a full boil. Incessant, wholesale and, frankly, embarrassing whining. When confronted with hardship, in the past, the people of this nation buckled down and did what was necessary. They did not whine, they did not complain, they did not bitch and moan about how hard it was or how inconvenienced they were. They did the work and they did it together. Not this time. Now we are a nation of whiners. And if nothing else, I hope 2020 shows us that and that we never succumb to it again.


So much for looking back. Looking forward, much about 2021 will be different. The pandemic will, in all likelihood, come to an end sometime mid-year. The political landscape will change; hopefully some level of decorum will return. Lessons to be learned are everywhere, lessons in courage, lessons in perseverance, lessons in empathy, in patience, in humanity and compassion, lessons in understanding one another. All of that and more are available if we, enough of us, are open to them. Our children and grandchildren will be taking the reigns and running this nation soon – many already are – and I am hopeful. More than 200 of them have been in my “virtual classrooms” this past year. They are bright and inquisitive, they are, more than ever, engaged. They care about their future and they care about their predecessors, too. They care about us. To those who have been bagging on the “millennials” and otherwise looking for a scapegoat in the younger generations, I have two words for you: Fuck off. They know who they are and, more importantly, they know who you are.


Like many of you, I am tired. Not so much of the isolation or the other hardships we must endure to get past this medical emergency – I can deal with that. I am tired of the attitudes. But I am hopeful that not just the end of this blip in history is near, but also that a paradigm shift is upon us. These “kids” have had quite enough and soon enough, they will be calling the shots. Those of you who feel that they are going to destroy the country, that because of them we are “going to Hell in a handbasket,” take heart. You needn’t worry so much. You and I will be dead before we get there.



Sunday, December 06, 2020

Forty Years of Adulthood


Forty years ago, at this moment, I was looking forward to being magically transformed into a legal adult. That happened, of course, and certain things changed - my attitude did, certainly, for a while anyway - but besides that intangible change in legal status, I remember nothing “special” about that birthday. On my 16th birthday I got my driver's license, but beyond that, again, nothing special. The same goes for all prior birthdays except my 5th - on that day my parents gave me my first bicycle. I'm sure there was cake, too, but as far as celebrations go, I don't remember. My 10th, 13th, any others, I have no recollection. Moving forward, with just one exception, I cannot recall anything noteworthy in terms of celebrations for the yearly anniversary of my coming into this world. I remember quite a few for other decidedly non-celebratory reasons, but except for one strange, but nice “surprise party” 10 years ago, I remember the celebrations for others, many of them, but not my own.


There are a lot of possible reasons for that. I know that my 21st birthday fell during finals week while I was attending San Diego State University. Even Playboy Magazine's “#1 Party School” wasn't partying that week. It's not as though I ever passed up a chance to party, but my 21st birthday did not present such a chance; a pitcher of beer and a couple of enchiladas with a friend at the local Mexican food place was my big shin-dig. Although my birthday has never been a big deal, there have been a few that I sort of wanted to be, that I felt like they should be, but they never were. Turning "The Big 5-O," for instance, is supposed to be kind of a big deal, but as it turned out, it kind of wasn't. However, I am mostly content letting them pass quietly by - especially considering those that were not so quiet. This one - 58, or 40 years since my 18th - is only noteworthy because it has been 40 years since the privileges (most of them) and the responsibilities of adulthood have been thrust, or bestowed, upon me.


What am I going to do? Nothing special. Nothing different than most any other Sunday at the end of most any other fall semester. I'll answer a few phone calls and texts from friends and family wishing me well and I'll "like" a shitload more from Facebook friends (not judging - I do it, too), when I get to them - maybe I'll take my Harley for a little ride to get some wind therapy (and I have a nice cigar I've been saving, too), but the reality is that it's just another day. It's been coming for a while and until a couple of days ago I haven't really given it much thought. I don't need or want a “birthday month,” and, to be perfectly honest, I feel a little disingenuous even writing this - drawing attention to what I say I don't really care about. Some will say, “You must care a little or...” And they are right, to an extent - there is some truth in that. But I also process shit this way - I write about it - and those who really know me know that.


I have a lot of friends who have passed this mark and I have a lot who are still years away, but none of that helps me understand what 58 is supposed to feel like. I know how I feel physically and, considering what I've put my body through, I cannot (and do not) complain. But the very idea that I turned 18 years-old 40 fucking years ago is hard to wrap my head around. There is a lot to be said for experience - far more than my 18 year-old self would ever grant. I use that experience And when I can, I try to share it. I remember stuff first-hand that my students learned about in K-12 history classes. And although my earliest memories, sketchy as they are, predate that 5th birthday, I distinctly remember that day 53 years ago when I got a brand new red Sears bicycle for my birthday. That birthday is still the best one.



Tuesday, November 17, 2020

What If...

It seems that everyone passes through a “reflective” time of year. Okay, maybe not everyone… I should qualify that; everyone who has lived long enough to have some years to reflect upon. And that time of year can span several days, weeks, even months. It tends to be centered around some major milestone, often one’s birthday, but we collect other major mile markers as we move through life, too. To the extent that they will “cluster” at some point in the year, that seems to be the place where an ever increasing cascade of reflection takes place. That process, for me, began in early August and will culminate on my birthday in early December. By the time the holidays and New Years Day come around, it will have been processed – no “new year resolutions” for me, ever.


As I am currently in that period leading up to my 58th birthday, the warehouse of reflective material is full. It is not just due to surviving nearly six decades, but also due to nearly not surviving. But I have hashed and rehashed that and much else of my “new life” that began with the violent beginning of the end of my old life twenty years ago many times, most recently on the 20th anniversary of that specific date. Today, my musings took me in a different, much less foreboding (and, consequentially, much less climactic) direction. Today it has to do with “what ifs,” my nature, and would it have mattered.



Briefly, I wasted many years of my life wandering aimlessly through it. I had no real direction, no real goals, no real plans – I don’t remember ever having an answer to, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I didn’t think anything of it, I was just a kid, but that aimlessness eventually manifested in a lot of unhealthy behaviors that included drug and alcohol abuse. I worked, I even had careers (plural), I was a husband – briefly – and a father and, if asked, that was my purpose, my main job, and the only thing that really meant anything to me was being a father. However, addiction is more powerful than love and eventually even fatherhood came in second. Obviously there is much more to the story, but that sets the stage of aimlessness and highlights that, while lifestyle played a part, it was more symptom than cause.


That part of my life literally crashed in on me a little more than 20 years ago and the life I lead today took hold for good a little more than 16 years ago. The transformative process took some time – hence the beginning of the end was not the same as the beginning of the beginning. Suffice it to say that I have been completely abstinent from all mind and mood altering substances, “clean and sober,” for more than 16 years now. It is a point of personal pride for me, but it also moves this story along to our next plateau. Prior to that line of demarcation, while I had many jobs and many of those jobs constituted what could be called careers – and I went to school for some of them – none of them “stuck.” Usually a personal crisis of one sort or another would conveniently coincide with a subconscious, “I’ve been doing this long enough,” and I would jump ship. Long-term commitments were not, apparently, my thing.  


But that is likely only partially true. The fact is that there are several areas in my life in which I enjoy some very long-term commitments. And, since 16 years ago, one of those has been of the career/educational variety, too. I went back to school, but this time it was to finish my bachelor’s degree. After that was a master’s and after that I attempted a PhD and, although I only managed to advance to candidacy – never completing my dissertation – I was awarded another MA degree. Furthermore, I have been teaching undergraduate university students since my first semester in graduate school in 2008, a job I have now been doing full-time since 2015. That is, by far, the longest I have ever stayed in one job.


So much for the Reader’s Digest of what got me here. My musings for the past couple of days have been based around “what ifs.” I know it’s just a mental mind-fuck and if I am not careful it can take me down a rabbit-hole to a place of self-loathing for all the time I wasted, but it need not be so dark. I wonder, what if I had found this prowess for academia when I was in my 20s? What if the dedication I was able to muster in my mid to late 40s and early to mid (now late) 50s was available to me when I was younger, when I had more energy, when I had more memory, when I had more drive? Worthy questions, all. What I really want to know… would I have made it to Dr. Althouse? Would I have had more success in earning that PhD? There are several factors driving this question, but one is a subtle but distinct change in attitude of certain others once I decided to not go through with the final step of writing a dissertation. That decision, the one that essentially awarded me the conciliation prize of another MA degree, seems to have disappointed certain others – but disappointed is not exactly the right word. The right word denotes action – it’s an attitude that captures the feeling. I am not sure a good word exists – it’s not ostracized or shunned, neither of those words are accurate, but a lesser version, perhaps? Knowing what I know now – and forgetting stupid lottery scenarios – would it be any different?


I think yes – and no. In terms of the destruction and dereliction I ran my life into, and in terms of much (but not all) of the wasted time, yes, some of that could have been avoided and my life would have benefited. Indeed, not just my life… However, I cannot discount my own nature, those core things about me that make me who I am. Some things I can deal with, modify, work around – and I have, in many respects, but others are just there, characteristically me. The questions about that “drive,” the energy to pursue a longer-term goal, to be see things past “good enough” to absolute perfection – in most cases, I can’t see it. That wasn’t me before the drugs, it certainly wasn’t me during and it has not been me since. Even when it comes to this – writing clean, clear prose – something I know, now, that I am good at, that I embrace and nurture, I will not pour over endlessly striving for some standard of perfection. True, my line for “good enough,” for this, is much closer to perfect, but I am not nor will I ever be – or was I ever in the past – that guy. About that PhD… I have no fucking idea, I really don’t. And regarding how others feel about my failure to achieve their dream. I’d suggest they read that last sentence out loud.


So “what if” I could go back and do it all over again, knowing some of what was in my path ahead. Well, first, regarding the danger signs of addiction, take them seriously, get help early and have 35 or 40 years clean and sober by  the time I turn 58. Next… nothing. I don’t think that anything I could do, knowing or not knowing what my future held, would provide me with the necessary motivation beyond what I found in my later life. In other words, my success would likely be similar, perhaps aided by the increased energy and memory of youth, but perhaps hindered by the distractions of youth, sans drugs. While musing about what might have been is somewhat entertaining, it is, when put in proper perspective, also gratifying in that I might not have wasted as much time as I think. And, unless someone invents a working time machine, it only matters in the here and now anyway.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Over-Celebration: National Holiday Day — rev. 2020


I wrote the following essay for a column writing class more than a decade ago. While it remains one of my favorite pieces, there are parts of it that reveal just where I was at the time — as a writer, as an observant member of society, as a member of the human race. These overtones would not be apparent to anyone else, save perhaps those who know me personally and have read me closely over the past many years, but there is one theme that was emerging and is apparent to me. The idea that we, as a society are so very grandiose about so much. We “celebrate” everything, all the time. And often, many times. How many times have we heard (or have you said), “this is my birthday month.” Seriously? Like one day isn’t enough? Although that’s an easy target, it speaks to this penchant we have in America, and in the west generally, to par-tay. And why, not — we’ve earned it, right? Well, yes — and no.


We absolutely should celebrate our achievements, our milestones, our victories and the like. There is nothing wrong with that — in proper moderation in relation to the event. A 50th birthday party? Kind of a big deal. A 44th birthday shindig? Not so much. And I am not here to dictate what the “right” amount of celebration is — I have no fucking idea — however, it is clear that we do push the boundaries regularly. Proof? Easy.


Today is a Wednesday. It is also Veterans Day. A lot of people have the day off, with pay. It is a federal holiday and all government offices are closed. It is a day to recognize the men and women who have served our nation in the U.S. armed forces. Memorial Day is for vets who have passed, Veterans Day is for those who have served. They are both solemn days, days of reverence, days of respect, days to reflect and be grateful to those who made our cozy lives here possible. Veterans Day was originally on November 11th, but is was part of the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act that moved its “observance” to a Monday, thus creating a three-day weekend. Guess what happened. The vets saw it and pretty quickly had had quite enough “celebrating.” In 1978 Veterans Day returned to being observed on November 11th, no matter what day of the week that fell on. Go ahead, have a Veterans Day barbecue at the lake, break out the ski boat, crank up the music and have too many beers. On a Wednesday.


The celebrators hijacked Veterans Day. They have also hijacked a lot more than that. Think about all the major holidays, their origins and their current Madison Avenue made images. Never mind the “made for TV” holidays that have emerged just to sell stuff. We have all bought into it. And why not — it sure feels good. It felt good when it was all much smaller, when I was much smaller. And now that I have turned many calendar pages, those holidays have grown more massive, their preceding seasons are longer and more is certainly better, right?


And now the rug has been yanked out of nearly a year of celebrations. By the time it is over, everyone will have lost out on something to COVID. The whining is, at times, almost deafening. We sure have gotten used to our celebrations. Then there are, as of today, 240,040 souls who will never celebrate anything ever again. In the meantime, today is Veterans Day — go thank one for his or her service - and party some other day.



October 18, 2007


Christmas is nearly upon us once again. Many would call it the undisputed heavyweight champion of all contemporary holidays. It has it all - decorations, gifts, a grand, multi-course meal, family tradition, religious undertones, symbolic icons, parades, music and extreme consumerism. And, like only a handful of other holidays, it has an “eve” to welcome its arrival. It even has its very own season with its very own greeting... "Season's Greetings." Yes, Christmas might just represent the pinnacle of what every holiday aspires to be.


If Christmas sets the bar, all other holidays are lacking by comparison. Where’s the justice? Why should one holiday receive all the glory while others deserve only a footnote on the calendar?


There are other holidays that have religious overtones, perhaps even more so than Christmas. Take Easter, for instance. Not just one day, but actually three starting on Thursday night, through Good Friday (aren't all Fridays good?) and ending on the evening of Easter Sunday. Talk about holiday potential. Instead of one day, there are three solid days for gift giving, parties and festivities. Imagine the commercial build-up. Imagine the spectacle. Throw in a Monday and it can't lose.


But no, all we get is a cheesy bunny. He somehow lays multicolored eggs and then cleverly hides them. If we’re lucky, he pushes out some that are made of chocolate (don’t ask) and puts them and other candy in a basket with plastic grass that gets everywhere. But there is a parade. And songs. And apparently Easter bonnets, though I cannot recall ever seeing anyone ever wearing one.


Speaking of candy, what about Halloween? Here’s a holiday that’s not a holiday. There are the parties, sure, and decorations second only to Christmas (yes, second, again...), but there has never been a day off work. Any self-respecting holiday simply must come with a paid holiday day. Halloween is so disrespected not even banks and the government give it deference.


There are holidays better known by the dates they fall on like the Fourth of July or, hijacked from our neighbors to the south, Cinco de Mayo.


Then there are the “Monday” holidays. These are the holidays that are on one day, but “observed” on another. In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved Veterans Day, Memorial Day and George Washington’s Birthday (before it was given an identity crisis by combining it with Lincoln’s Birthday into “Presidents Day”) from their original date to a convenient Monday so federal employees would have more three-day weekends.


The act also created Columbus Day, the dumbest holiday of all time - glorifying a wayward sailor who got lost and discovered… India. No. America. No - India. No, ok, America, but let’s call the people there “Indians.” Oddly enough, there is no nationally designated Indian or Native American Day. It wasn’t a “new” world to them, they knew it was here all along.


After protests by veterans groups, in 1978 Veteran’s Day was moved back to its original November 11th date. The vets felt it had lost its importance and had become nothing more than just another three-day weekend.


Lost its importance?


Well then, let’s move on to some of the more innocuous holidays. In no particular order and with no particular importance, some of the most pointless are: Groundhog Day, Flag Day, the afore mentioned Presidents Day , Pioneer Day, Patriot’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Saint Patrick’s Day, and the ever-popular Grandparent’s Day.


And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, here are some of the “unofficial” holidays created to commemorate who knows what: Bloomsday, Buy Nothing Day, Friendship Day, Husband Appreciation Day, Wife Appreciation Day, International Talk Like a Pirate Day, International Kitchen Garden Day, Mole Day, Monkey Day, National Gorilla Day and a day that needs no description - No Pants Day.


Yes, seemingly there is a holiday for every occasion. Not yet mentioned - Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I have one of each and I am a father - these are among my favorite holidays. It was not always the case - when I was young, there was the perennial question children always ask, “How come there’s no Kids’ Day?” The reply, always the same, “Every day is kids’ day.”


And so it is.


That must be why adults need so many damned holidays.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Ground-Breaking & Ceiling-Shattering


While we either celebrate the win or lament the loss of yet another old white guy for the highest office in the land, let's remember something that occurred the last (and only) time an old white guy did not win. In 2008, a younger guy with dark skin won the presidency for the first time in our nation's history. Many, myself included, felt it was about time; it was way overdue. And that sentiment was shared even by many who were not Democrats - people who genuinely feel that one’s character is sole the measure of the man. Of the man… Hold that thought. Of course, systemic racism combined with a hidden undertone of personal covert racism was still lurking beneath the surface, every so often peaking its head out with seemingly innocuous enough questions like, “Is this nation ready for a black president?” The answer was, obviously yes. And no.


But this is not about that. Barack Obama remains insanely popular and at the same time, his very name raises the hair on the backs of some of our less evolved fellow Americans. Racism is dying a slow death, but to the extent that we can hasten it along – that I can push it over the cliff – we should. But what about this notion of character being the measure of the man? We have just elected the first female to the second highest office in the land, a “heartbeat away” from the presidency. Character measurement is, apparently, no longer limited to men. Kamala Harris has made history not only by being the first female to be elected to be Vice President of the United States, but she, like Obama is also happens to have darker skin.


Disclaimer: At nearly 58 years old, I am an “old, white male.” I am also fiercely independent — long without party affiliation. The terminologies used to describe various groups, including my own, have changed over the years. Keeping up has sometimes proven challenging, but in every case I try to respect how those I am referring to wish to be referred. My own perspective is and always has been based on character.


Like Hillary Clinton being the first woman to be the presidential nominee for a major party, Harris winning the vice presidency is ground-breaking – or, more accurately – ceiling-shattering, regardless of whether one supports her politically or not. It is also reason to celebrate for anyone who, like myself, celebrates and champions equality. Many of those on the left see the recent loss of seats in the House as a defeat, but hopefully they will see that many of those seats lost were won by women – yes, Republican women – but still women, and further progress for equality. Because, like racism, sexism is not dead. It is still systemic, institutionalized and lurking beneath the surface peaking its ugly head up every time a comment as innocuous as one regarding her “outfit” or “her face” makes the news.


Kamala Harris is the Vice President Elect of the United States of America. Whether you like her or not, whether you support her policies or not, whether you are liberal, conservative, Democrat or Republican or something else, if you are American and embrace the ideals and values enshrined in our Constitution, you should be happy that women and those who are not white are being taken seriously for our highest offices. That should be good news, even if you are against the person who won the office. If it is not, I challenge you to examine what, exactly, your values are – and then go find a nation that matches them. Because it’s not the good ole USofA.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Aunt Sally


Depending on which [old white] guy they voted for, around 70,000,000 (give or take a couple million) of your fellow Americans voted for the guy you despise, the one you think is any number of the worst qualities ever to be exhibited in one human being. A good percentage of you truly believe that anyone who would support such a person does not represent America, American ideals, American principles or American values (as though the good ole US-of-A invented virtues such as liberty, equality, opportunity and such - please...). Indeed, I have seen many of you, hiding behind a veil of quasi-anonymity from the safe distance of the Internet, armed with your trusty keyboard accusing your fellow Americans - and, indirectly your own friends and family - of being un-American for daring to vocalize support for anything that ventures outside of your own tiny world view.
Based on... what? Your own extensive study of the history of our nation? Your own philosophical inquiry into the work of Hobbes and Locke and, the Articles of the Confederation and the Federalist Papers prior to the contentious drafting of our Constitution? Is that it? Is that all it takes for you to unleash your shotgun blast vitriol on groups of people that contain your own friends and family who happen to think somewhat differently than you? Oh, you didn't mean "them." Well, you'd better add a disclaimer list:
"You're all libtards! Except you Aunt Sally, I didn't mean you ~heart emoji~"
There will be a winner of this presidential election soon. He will have won the number votes necessary - just like Trump did four years ago. When the dust settles - and it will settle - all your friends and family members are going to remember what you said about them. Yes, we know you were not naming names, you did not "mean" Aunt Sally, but that's the thing about shotguns - you don't aim them - you point them. And there were a lot of shotguns pointed indiscriminately at a lot of Americans. You might not like Trump or Biden - you might even despise them, and you might not understand how anyone could vote for one or the other, and you might not think much of those who do - you might even despise them, but if you do, you have cast the same judgement on HALF of the electorate, around 70,000,000 Americans. A lot of them are your own friends, family and neighbors - even if you don't know it. Every time you denigrate supporters of the "other guy" as being any of the derogatory terms on the hit parade today, you are saying it to Aunt Sally - and no amount of disclaimers will take that back.
Chew on that.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Power & Peace

In a little more than a month, I will turn 58 years old. I don't really like to think about being that “old.” I certainly don't feel “old;” I don't even know how I am supposed to feel. To say my perspective on how old "old" is has shifted is a monumental understatement, but besides my body showing some wear and tear and some difficulty recalling some things (names seem to be becoming an issue - that might be a blessing in disguise), I don't think about myself in terms of being “old.” But as little as 10 years ago, people who were my age now, were old - or at least very close to it. And 20 years ago? We were all ancient and about to die. I guess at 30-something I was going to live forever. Funny story - I almost didn't make it to 38.


 Anyway, I am not looking to begin some sort of “birthday month” or anything like that. In fact, I'm not interested in celebrating it at all - my track record of birthday celebrations has been pretty dismal. My 50th – the “Big 5-O” – was a big 5-zero. No sense in rolling the “will this be a good birthday celebration/party” dice - pass. Hard pass. And, in all seriousness, it’s not my get-down anyway. But that perspective shift I mentioned earlier does have a couple of other dimensions, or dynamics, that I hadn't thought much about before today. I was inspired by a particular Facebook post that really has nothing to do with where it led me, but such is the nature of inspiration. And Facebook. 

I mentioned that I don't really “feel” my age. That is only true is some respects, important ones, but only some. I don't feel old in terms of my mental vitality. In fact, I have greater mental acuity and energy than I ever have. I also have a more heightened awareness of what is going on around me in my immediate circle, locally, nationally and globally. I am paying more attention to my surroundings than I ever did when I was younger. These are important aspects of living and to the extent that I AM living, I do not feel as though I have lost either a step or a beat. The physical aspects of aging are important, but less so, at least in terms of the kind of “feeling” I am talking about. I feel those aches and pains and I pay a daily price for the abuse I put my body through, but while it is inconvenient and annoying, it is not debilitating. Not yet, anyway. 


 But there’s more. There are some things I desire more now – much more. It’s not “love” or “companionship” or “someone to grow old with” or a “life-long partner” or any of that other fairytale, pie-in-the-sky romantic bullshit. Those days have come and gone, if I was going to have that – if I really needed it – I’d have it. That stuff might be nice, but I’m not looking for nice. I am looking for peace. And it’s more than just a search – it is a demand, because with my age and the place I have both found myself and worked toward, I have a certain amount of power. I choose to muse that power to eliminate, to the degree that I can, drama from my life. Maybe it is age, but I simply do not have the patience for it anymore.



 Related to that, I suppose, is the ability to let so much more go. Our egos… Check that: my ego – has not been my friend. Maybe yours is, I don’t know, but mine has caused me to hold onto “truths” and ideologies long past their expiration dates. I don’t need to be right and don’t care if I am wrong. If age brought me that, I wish I got old faster. It makes my life much less stressful, much more peaceful and eliminates the drama from at least one source – me. When push comes to shove, there is a third choice. Walk away. It’s so easy I don’t know what took me so long to figure it out.



 A little more than a year ago, I was had to make a choice. I chose peace. I chose drama-freedom. From that moment to this day I have no second-guessed that decision nor have I regretted it. It was the right decision. It could have been made in a better way, it could have transpired with less drama, but it also might have been the best way. Rip the Band-Aid off quickly and let the healing begin. I have made numerous decisions, consciously, since then with the same simply criteria in mind – does this potentially or likely introduce drama and conflict into my life? If the answer is yes, it doesn’t matter what the upside is. Indeed, there is no upside – the price is too high. I have lived enough years of conflict and drama, as much as is within my power, my remaining years will be peaceful and as drama-free as is within my power. Fortunately, with those years, I have amassed considerable power to be able to do just that.



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.