clean up

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“The problem with sex is the same as with any addiction. You’re always recovering. You’re always backsliding. Acting out. Until you find something to fight for, you settle for something to fight against.” –Choke, Chuck Palahniuk

Go back and see all the things you’ve missed. Try to exit regret gracefully, as the mess you made lacked all grace. Nothing you have said or done can fix your recalcitrance. You can only be – and try to be something more thoughtful than you were before.

elasticity of compassion and dread

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I have spent a night filled with a growing, and somewhat inexplicable, dread. Now that darkness lasts longer at night, the sense of rare loneliness can creep in and make itself truly felt. This dissipates as the sun rises.

I have once more reached an impasse with someone in my life who has flowed into and out of the ‘rapids’ (i.e., daily life) for years. He has never been quite ‘peripheral’ but his role has changed. He is an addict, a compulsive liar, self-destructive and mentally ill. But all along, it has been hard not to care about him and feel tremendous compassion. Despite not being ‘with’ him in a relationship for a very long time, I still felt compelled by this compassion to be supportive, to help in any way I could. But there’s certainly a large emotional manipulation component that comes into play when he’s ‘off the wagon’ (as well as transparent deception; he isn’t good at it). I have done everything I have had in my power to give him support of all kinds and all the tools and coping mechanisms he could possibly need (that I could provide). But this is all one can do, really. At some point, as I told someone in describing this situation, compassion – despite its slack and elasticity – can be stretched to the point that it snaps. A point where self-preservation must take over. Watching someone self-harm, slowly kill himself, is just too painful.

With this as the backdrop, the night was accompanied by the rare feelings of missing people from long, long ago. Watching the Twin Peaks reboot earlier, and having a long conversation with someone from my life whom I met during the original Twin Peaks era, I remembered now-dead friendships that had meant so much – and some dormant friendships that, while they exist in that “say-hi-once-annually” way that Facebook affords, once pulsated with a kind of intensity that is almost impossible to feel in middle age. The viscous quality of this nostalgia left me feeling quite alone and quite cold, unable to shake the sticky links of the past.

But, as obsessed with moving forward as I always am, I have posed the question (to myself, and more rhetorically to others) as to whether this could be a pivotal moment. How nice would it be if we were actually able to recognize pivotal moments when they arrive? Do you ever look back and realize, “Ah, that was a pivotal moment” and lament that you did not notice, and made the wrong choice? Or even realize that you somehow made the right choice, even if you did not realize the significance of the moment as it happened? I have in recent days realized that while the surface of life and self has remained the same, everything underneath is a completely different organism from a year ago. And with these changes, perhaps it is time to make a clean break, closing the door on some of the things and people that/who linger from the past.

“While past and present continue to haunt/my future is nonchalant…”

Photo by Kev Seto on Unsplash

Memoirs & McKagan

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In between the more grueling books I’m juggling, I make room spontaneously for “spot choices” – something that I am reminded of in the spur of the moment, something I would not necessarily seek out eagerly (Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality and the Struggle for Oral Health in America, anyone?) but which might be interesting in some way. This is, as I have mentioned before, how I come to read most contemporary autobiographical memoirs. They share some background information about admired (or not) musicians or celebrities, but don’t usually set my brain ablaze. Sure, from the thoughtful writing of Carrie Brownstein and Kim Gordon, both seemingly effortlessly cool public figures, I glimpsed that seemingly universal truth that no matter how cool, aloof, nonchalant and in control we seem on the surface, there’s an insecure, wants-to-be-liked person underneath.

Even the memoirs of “regular” people (which, of course, all of these books underline: we all are regular people), such as the pleasant-enough Shrill by Lindy West and the charmingly self-deprecating All Over the Place by effusively expressive Geraldine DeRuiter (and I am dead serious here: if you don’t already read Geraldine’s Everywhereist blog, do. Also follow her on Twitter; one of my favorite Twitter feeds), forge this kind of ‘we’re all in the soup’ of humanity by sharing their everyday experiences. (Or maybe now that I look at this as a pattern, I read all of these because there is the Seattle connection to all of them but Kim Gordon.)

That said, these kinds of books are rarely ever deeply challenging, will be fast and easy to read. They may make us smile, laugh, nod in agreement and approval or even get angry or feel sympathy for the writer. These are very human books. It was in this way, in one of these palate cleansing frames of mind, that I came to read Duff McKagan’s How to Be a Man.

I don’t know how Duff McKagan ever ended up being someone on my radar, bookwise or otherwise. Somehow since junior high school in the Seattle area, he, despite my not being the Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘type’ (whatever that is), stuck out (probably being a local boy and all helped that visibility). Later, I think I was impressed by the fact that he went back to college after the heyday of GnR and worked on finding his sobriety and ways to maintain it. At another point in my life, I would not have picked up this book; in fact even if I had, I don’t think I would have taken anything away from it. But this time, having had the experiences of the last decade, I approached it differently.

But this is what I will say about it: Despite the fact that it struck me as slightly disorganized (some parts more organized than others), slightly random (although some parts were considerably slicker than others, which made me think the editing was choppy), neither of these things made the book bad. It in fact inspired the feeling and sense of sitting and listening to the guy reel off stories and opinions about his life and his experiences. Maybe that was what he was going for – the relatable (well, in tone, perhaps, not in all the activities – although let’s be clear, as Duff most certainly is – all Seattleites DO live with the ticking-clock on summer, and the damn deck/lawn/painting/housework can only be done in rain-soaked Seattle in that limited window) and conversational.

The book was entertaining and perfectly served the need I had at this exact moment:

*It flowed quickly, even if, as I stated, the editing didn’t make the content flow all the time.

*I liked the random lists of stuff, particularly the diverse variety of recommended albums and books. I would probably add more must-hear albums/artists (today I am overly influenced by the songwriting genius of Neil Finn/Crowded House and the longevity and wild creativity of Robyn Hitchcock). I would also add many books, but who wouldn’t? There are too many books in the world to be able to do justice to a must-read list, which McKagan himself acknowledges, describing his propensity for populating his personal library both in digital and paper formats:

“But a bookstore is the ultimate way to immerse yourself in what’s new. You can browse, and you can ask around, something you can’t do as well in the cocoon of e-commerce. It can be the littlest hint or clue that sends people looking for a book and thrusts their life briefly in new directions. It can be gossip you hear in line for an espresso or a movie you see on espionage. The direction of your reading can very well influence your life for a while.” –How to Be a Man

Clearly he gets what most passionate readers get:

“This is every reader’s catch-22: the more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing. There is no way to finish, and perhaps that shouldn’t be the goal. The novelist Umberto Eco famously kept what the writer Nassim Taleb called an “anti-library,” a vast collection of books he had not read, believing that one’s personal trove should contain as much of what you don’t know as possible.” –My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul

*On addiction and sobriety, he didn’t have anything new to say that I haven’t heard or read from recovering addicts or specialists in this field. But it’s nevertheless key to see some of the resounding themes: resentment and regret; again, some of this same lack of self-esteem and assurance that the other memoirists listed above have expressed, e.g. learning to like and trust oneself; that, as cliche as it sounds, it’s a one-day-at-a-time process. And sometimes the things that pull you through are unexpected and maybe even the smallest things that then go on to have ripple effects. In his case it was his ‘latching onto’ Jim Rome’s radio show, and when he appeared on the show as a guest, this prompted other listeners to take steps to regain control of their own lives. This too could sound cliche, but the kinship of addicts, and the power of these small sparks to inspire, is the same kind of things I have seen in trying to understand and connect with recovering alcoholics in my own life:

“This life is crazy. It’s the little things that can be absolute game changers.” –How to Be a Man

*Seahawks, Seattle sports and the constant, indefatigable cheering for the (hometown) underdog. Need I say more?

*Seattle. Yes, Seattle. (Do I sound all homesick? I swear I’m not! I left so long ago for a reason!) That place that suddenly became visible in the 1990s, from which its veil was slightly lifted with the mania that surrounded Twin Peaks during its first go-around (even though this was not technically Seattle, you’d still have to go to Seattle to get to the real-world equivalent of Twin Peaks). It is hard to believe now that Seattle was ever this unheard-of place that McKagan describes.

But true story: in junior high, I had a pen pal in California (this was 1989) who phoned me once and asked not only what time it was in Seattle (says more about his ignorance of time zones and geography than Seattle’s invisibility). He seemed surprised to learn that I had ever heard of Depeche Mode and even that I had a phone. If I recall, it was the same year that Time magazine covered the insular nature of Washington state and its ire at “rich Californians” showing up to scoop up all the land. Hmm. (I did go back to see if I could find that issue of Time, and it was, as a side note, interesting to see the cover stories – Donald Trump on the cover in Jan 1989, taunting readers that we would all be “green with envy” about his wealth – or a headline: “The New USSR?” – or Kevin Costner, just releasing Field of Dreams, or Pete Rose, just being tossed for life from baseball. Oh, hilariously, there was a cover featuring the Rolling Stones, including a headline about “aging rockers”… and we thought they were aged then?)

Back to the point. Seattle was on no one’s radar. Not in any appreciable way, at least. Not until Nirvana came along:

“I used to brag to anyone who would listen that these guys were from “my town” and that soon the rest of the world would realize that people didn’t live in tepees in Seattle!” –How to Be a Man

While McKagan framed the singular Seattle “way” within the lens of sports (and a bit in music), it is on the whole accurate about the city’s attitude and evolution.

It is a place of some stoicism, insularity and a bit of an outsider’s “fuck ’em” attitude. Claire Dederer posits in her own sort of memoir, Love & Trouble:

“Seattle is not a big city for crying. Seattle, in fact, is famously emotionally stoppered. There are many theories as to why this is the case; some say it’s because of our dominant genetic and cultural heritages: Norwegian and Japanese. Whatever the reason, Seattle is a place where you are not supposed to emote. You are supposed to endure. In Seattle, where rain and traffic are two snakes twining, choking the body of the city, forbearance is an art. We don’t cry, we just put on more Gore-Tex or maybe use the driving time of our commute to listen to a self-improvement book on tape. Though “driving” is a strong word for what happens when you get into a car in Seattle. And yet suddenly there were these crying hot spots.”

“When you visit other cities, get asked about Seattle. The people you meet want to move there. No one used to move to Seattle except aeronautical engineers and, like, rabid fishing enthusiasts. No one used to know where Seattle even was. They thought maybe it was in Oregon.”

And this obscurity from which Seattle was lifted has made it a too-hot, too-desirable place, in which most mere mortals cannot afford to live.

So… bottom line, I don’t know if I would recommend that anyone read McKagan’s book. I will, though, be giving a copy to one person who will be able to relate, and I think in that way it will help him. And perhaps that is the most one can hope for: reaching one person, especially when they need to hear your particular message, one day at a time.

The Pen Is – the controlled leak

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Fountain pens are like people,” says Richard Binder, a nationally recognized nibmeister, aka a master pen repairer. “Every one has a unique personality.”

Talking briefly with a dear old friend, JEB, I was pleased to hear how many things were glowing brightly for him in 2017: new job, new relationship.

In reference to the relationship, he explains that she is “pretty wacky in a way that’s compatible with my own strangeness”.

I ask: “Do you really have so much strangeness?”

He replies: “Oh yes. Few can appreciate it.”

Me: “I guess that’s a weird question – we all have some strangeness, at least to someone.”

Him: “Yes, but with the right person the strangeness is normalcy. I mean a lot of people find me likable, but I only show the wacky stuff to select few. Like the fact that I obsessively listen to a podcast called The Pen Addict.”

Was this perhaps the third (?) time he’s reminded me about his obsession with pens and the Pen Addict podcast? I knew someone else briefly who was obsessed with pens, and now for the life of me cannot remember if he had ever mentioned this same podcast. I feel like he certainly did, but my memory, which so rarely fails me, has misfired in this case. JEB has apparently turned his girlfriend into a pen addict as well, prompting her to ask him, laughingly “What have you done?” She took him to his first-ever pen show in Barcelona, and I somehow marveled at the fact that there are pen shows. Then, I am not obsessed, so it would not necessarily have occurred to me. My friend assures me that I should try it because it is as addictive… as all the addicts have assured me it is. Not that I doubt it.

He enthuses: “It’s the infinite customizability. You can marry any ink and any pen and have a new experience few have had. I highly recommend it.”

I halfheartedly reply: “I will look into it.” And then remember the years-ago ‘story’ I shared with him about overhearing a Russian lady at the ticket booth of a lecture hall in Iceland, just before a Mikhail Gorbachev event, telling the ticket seller in English, spoken with a thick Russian accent, “I will think about it” before walking away. Naturally I then amended my response to him: “I will think about it.

We laugh, remembering the event and those long-ago Iceland years that we two willing exiles experienced.

I hold no truck with your burning my goat

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Friday, I do believe, may have been a/the sobriety anniversary for someone I know/knew. At least that’s what my memory started telling me on Thursday – or actually Wednesday – while walking in central Oslo passing some of the things I had seen with him the last time I wandered through the city center. All those hi-fi stores – I will never understand how they all stay in business. And there was even a semi-sung rendition of “Just Like Christmas” by Low. Strange how far away all of that, and even winter itself, feels. Things that happen in the permanently dusky, fictive period that is December/holidays/early new year are like that: they happened but take on an almost invented quality later when looking back.

Yes, these spring days in cold but sunny Oslo: This time it was a work dinner (at a restaurant that seemed to serve little, other than ceviche). I winced my way through the whole day, hobbling through a good 28 waking hours by the end of it, despite feeling a kind of searing pain surging wildly in much of my body. I, however, was more annoyed at the complaints I voiced and the visible indications of pain I showed than with the pain itself. (Back pain, which has been on and off for weeks, had abated but came roaring onto the scene again after an ill-advised long drive coupled with other stuff.)

This drummed up different thoughts, none of which were linked.

For example, I wondered how one comes to realize s/he is an alcoholic in a country and culture that is technically full of them? Where is the line?

As David Sedaris writes: “Turn down a drink in the United States, and people get the message without your having to explain. ‘Oh,’ they say, ashamed of themselves for presuming otherwise. ‘Right. I should probably… quit too.’ In Europe, though, you’re not an alcoholic unless you’re living half-naked on the street, drinking antifreeze from a cast-off shoe. Anything shy of this is just ‘fun-loving’ or ‘rascally’. Cover your glass in France or Germany — even worse, in England — and in the voice of someone who has been personally affronted, your host will ask why you’re not drinking.” (from When You Are Engulfed in Flames)

I thought of a colleague who kept using the word “pivot” but pronounced it “PIE-vot”. The kind of guy who suffers from a kind of Napoleon complex, driven by a must-boast, one-up, must-be-right, I-was-there(-first) syndrome – but luckily only at first (he has to mark his territory when you meet him) because eventually this gives way to a smart, sarcastic personality that is also warm, competent and insightful. I recalled one of his humbler moments, “I fucked up. And from the fuck-ups of our lives, we learn a lot. Immense amounts.” Or another colleague (although that implies there is something collegial or cooperative about our working together) who said, “Let’s not rewrite the wheel.” What?

I remembered also all those times people said things to me that smacked of other motives than what they thought they were transparently offering, betraying true intentions that lurked just beneath the surface. Much like a child who draws attention to his transgression before there is ever any suspicion aroused. The, “Oh, I might have this Mexican woman move in as my new roommate. But she’s not my type or anything; I am not attracted to her.” Hmm. Did anyone say you were? But you just showed your hand, friend. Or, “Nothing happened. I just got her phone number because she has the right look for my photography.” Um, okay. All the things that illuminate without lights.

But then, just as quickly, the mind shifts to asking what the difference is between ceviche and poke. Or to figuring out if I can finish reading all 13 books I have going right now before the end of April. Or to how expressions get muddled – the aforementioned “rewrite the wheel” or, my favorite flubs from Mr Firewall (of which there are many), who at least can laugh at himself first and longest, saying “burns my goat” instead of “gets my goat” and “tans my hide”.

Many thoughts but nothing too coherent – that’s how it goes in the delirium of too little sleep. Often it comes back to Pessoa:

“All that was lost, all that should have been sought, all that was obtained and fulfilled by mistake, all that we loved and lost and then, after losing it and loving it for having lost it, realized we never loved; all that we believed we were thinking when we were feeling; all the memories we took for emotions” –Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Photo by Medena Rosa

Likenesses and the unseen hand

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“To read is to dream, guided by someone else’s hand. To read carelessly and distractedly is to let go of that hand. Superficial erudition is the only method for reading well and being profound.” – Fernando Pessoa

An unseen hand (not Adam Smith’s invisible one) guides my reading choices from one thing to the next and each is a link to a mighty, unbroken, infinite chain – coincidental mentions of concepts I had just been contemplating. Thinking and writing obsessively about mirrors and suddenly I decide, “Now is the right time to read Vonnegut” – and woven throughout is the concept of mirrors as “leaks” – “holes between two universes”. But even in the book I improbably read on teeth, dentistry and oral health, what springs off the page? “A “photograph is more than a mirror. In the face of mortality, it offers hope for a permanent self.” Or in a contemporary Japanese-German short story by Yoko Tawada:

“Eighty percent of the human body is made of water, so it isn’t surprising that one sees a different face in the mirror each morning. The skin of the forehead and cheeks changes shape from moment to moment like the mud of a swamp, shifting with the movements of the water below and the footsteps of the people walking above it. I had hung a framed photograph of myself beside the mirror. The first thing I would do when I got up was to compare my reflection with the photograph, checking for discrepancies which I then corrected with makeup.”

And perhaps more deeply than mere reflections in a mirror, reading Vonnegut’s work and rereading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, their warnings and observations about American and/or totalitarian societies provide obvious parallels:

“It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.” -from The Handmaid’s Tale

“Seems like the only kind of job an American can get these days is committing suicide in some way.” – from Breakfast of Champions

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. … They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.” – from Slaughterhouse Five

At no time is this more timely – in these works of fiction, or as a red thread sewn through much of modern non-fiction, such as other books I’ve recently read, such as the incisive Age of Anger, White Trash, Teeth and even the books on addiction.

Other parallels are not as obvious – in Atwood there are the “Marthas”, ominous-sounding household servants, and in Breakfast of Champions, “Marthas” are large designed-for-disaster buses converted into ambulances.

It fascinates me to no end that despite dipping into and reading from the broadest range of disciplines, there are connections between all of them: Virtually everything can swing back around to this perverted idea of uninterrupted “progress” and the selfish, perverted definitions society gives to the word “progress” – in the individualism described in Age of Anger, embodied by the Boomers, leading to the hungry ghosts and spiritual emptiness Gabor Maté discusses and diagnoses. And then the effects – ranging from the dismal and often fatal results of the healthcare and dental care system in the US as described in Teeth, to the “long-term losers” described in Age of Anger, such as the degradation of any hope for a country like Congo (about which I also recently read a book): “In Dostoyevsky’s view, the cost of such splendour and magnificence as displayed at the Crystal Palace was a society dominated by the war of all against all, in which most people were condemned to be losers.”

None of these overlaps should be a surprise. It should also not be a surprise that Dostoevsky is cited in almost every book I have read no matter what discipline, time period in which it was written or what genre, fiction or non-fiction. Dr Gabor Maté quotes Dostoevsky in his book on addiction; Dostoevsky figures prominently, as quoted above, in Age of Anger. And even in Vonnegut.

“Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.

Seeing and making the connections is gratifying, but much like an alcoholic seeking long-term sobriety, just going to meetings (or in this case connecting the dots) is hardly enough. The addict needs to commit to engage with all the steps to make progress, and the reader must start to process and form her own ideas about the connections identified.

Largesse

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“Unconditional acceptance of each other is one of the greatest challenges we humans face. Few of us have experienced it consistently; the addict has never experienced it—least of all from himself. “ -from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr Gabor Maté

While knowing that generosity is not true generosity if there are expectations attached to it, it’s impossible not to attach hope. What I mean here is not so much that I expect something in return for anything I give. I just find my heart filling with an aimless and misguided hope that by offering virtually everything I have, it will somehow finally be the thing that makes everything click into place for someone else. Knowing fully that the problem is in them – it’s their fight, their fire. There is absolutely nothing I can do, or give, that can offer anything but – possibly – a slightly softer place to land when they inevitably come crashing down over and over again – I nevertheless find myself wishing otherwise.

I just finished reading two books that deal in some detail with addiction. Dr Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and Dr Carl Hart’s High Price were engrossing and relatively quick to read, even if they touch on some of the chemistry, neuroscience and psychology related to addiction. And it happens that my readings of these books coincide with yet another case of someone close to me relapsing – again – along with wrapping up phase one of a project I am working on in this very field.

Despite all the wisdom in the words and the science explaining addiction, it’s still very hard to grasp. Maté writes:

“the bare truth: people jeopardize their lives for the sake of making the moment livable.”

“Addictions always originate in pain, whether felt openly or hidden in the unconscious. They are emotional anesthetics.”

“Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience. A hurt is at the center of all addictive behaviors.”

“Boredom, rooted in a fundamental discomfort with the self, is one of the least tolerable mental states.”

“No human being is empty or deficient at the core, but many live as if they were and experience themselves primarily that way. Attempting to obliterate the sense of deficiency and emptiness that is a core state of any addict is like laboring to fill in a canyon with shovelfuls of dust.”

“Addiction, in this sense, is the lazy pilgrim’s path to transcendence.”

“Addiction is primarily about the self, about the unconscious, insecure self that at every moment considers only its own immediate desires—and believes that it must behave that way.”

“In Canada my book has been praised as “humanizing” the hard-core addicted people I work with. I find that a revealing overstatement—how can human beings be “humanized,” and who says that addicts aren’t human to begin with? At best I show the humanity of drug addicts. In our materialist society, with our attachment to ego gratification, few of us escape the lure of addictive behaviors. Only our blindness and self-flattery stand in the way of seeing that the severely addicted are people who have suffered more than the rest of us but who share a profound commonality with the majority of “respectable” citizens.”

Reading all of this, and all the stories and evidence in between, I try to return to this compassion I’m always harping on and sometimes struggling with. And to remember truths, such as:

“To live with an addict of any kind is frustrating, emotionally painful, and often infuriating. Family, friends, and spouse may feel they are dealing with a double personality: one sane and loveable, the other devious and uncaring. They believe the first is real and hope the second will go away. In truth, the second is the shadow side of the first and will no sooner leave than will a shadow abandon the object whose shape it traces on the ground—not unless the light comes from a different angle.”

“Unconditional acceptance of another person doesn’t mean staying with them under all circumstances, no matter what the cost to oneself.”

No, I really do not have to be the glue – or even try to be. Maybe I can only create softer landing places and shine a light from another angle.