Saturday, November 28, 2020

Gratitude

Not long after my father was diagnosed with frontotemporal degeneration, I stopped drinking.

Correlation is not causation -- it took me about four years from hitting my rock bottom to finally, successfully get sober. Did Dad's diagnosis tip me over the edge? Maybe. I've spent a lot of time thinking about that in the year's since, and the most honest answer I can give is that I just don't know. It's not as if I didn't have plenty of reasons to stop before that. But it's also hard not to draw a line from one to the other.

Whatever the case, over the last year or so I began to worry a lot more about relapse. As Dad's condition deteriorated I worried I'd start drinking again to cope. Then, when it became clear he was going to die, I worried I'd drink again once he was gone.

Sobriety still feels like such a tenuous thing. I still talk about it so little. There is always the fear I will say too much, announce myself as a sober person and then immediately fuck it all up. This has happened before. It could still happen again.

But for now it has not. And I am grateful for that, and for the people who have helped me along the way. As the year winds down and it becomes clear that I'm not falling off the wagon, I thought this was the appropriate time to share some of my gratitude. In a very difficult year, here are some of the books that helped me.


This was the right book that came at the right time. I found it while doing service work with a recovery group and realized it was exactly what I needed. I'd been sober for a couple of years by that point, but it was becoming painfully obvious that there was a lot more work to be done to deal with those things I was self-medicating against. This book defined what that necessary work was, and how to begin.


I've read my share of recovery memoirs, but this is one of the best. Karr writes with deep, hard-won wisdom, humor, and compassion both for others and herself. It's helpful, especially when your own sobriety might feel a little shaky, to hear stories from someone who's further down the road of recovery. Karr offers that perspective.


I read this book the week Dad died. It is short and deeply personal, written by someone who has experienced more than her share of grief -- both from losses she has suffered, and those she has caused. The exercises in this book will help you understand your own grieving; not just of people, but of your relationships, futures, and the hopes you no longer carry. Sometimes it was a difficult read, but after Stage II Recovery it felt like a crucial one.


There's something to be said for anyone who can take an old idea and make it feel new. That's more or less what Brand does with the 12 steps. There's a recovery memoir in here as well, which is funny and deeply honest, but for me this book was most useful as a reminder that sobriety is something you do every day, one day at a time.




Sunday, November 22, 2020

Edith

Back in April, I signed up for a pen pal program that matched volunteers with seniors at risk for isolation due to COVID lockdowns. For the first few weeks I wrote letters to introduce myself and my family before I began telling her stories, usually about completely banal things like how the garden was progressing or minor childhood misadventures. I took it as a given that these letters ought to offer some kind of normalcy, even if only as a brief respite from the general feeling of doom that hovered at the edges of the world.

Eventually I got a letter back. Edith, my pen pal, couldn't write as frequently as I did but she did make it a point to write when she could. I heard about her children and grandchildren as well as her own childhood. She shared her tips for fighting off pests, be they the bees eating our peaches or the whistle pig eating our tomatoes by the pound. 

There were many weeks that writing my letter to Edith was also an exercise in gratitude as I scoured the week for the good that it brought, even during the summer as my father's health declined in the weeks before his death. Edith's letters, too, were suffused with a certain optimism, even as she wrote about missing her children and grandchildren.

Yesterday, one of my letters was returned. Someone at Edith's assisted living facility had, rather bluntly, written "DECEASED - RETURN TO SENDER" across the back of the envelope. I found Edith's obituary online and learned more about my pen pal, some of which I knew, much of which I didn't. 

Although I'm not writing her a letter today, I still find myself looking for the good. I'm grateful I got to know Edith, however briefly. I'm grateful our paths got to cross. And I'm grateful that during this year, when so many people felt so far away, a stranger and I became friends.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Eschatons

If there's any one person responsible for my musical taste -- which I will concede remains fair at best -- it would be Jack Jenson.

Jack was this burnout kid I didn't meet until my senior year of high school, when we bonded in debate class over Philip K. Dick and Terence McKenna. Both of us believed psychedelics were the key to achieving universal consciousness and peering through the veil of reality. The big difference between us was that Jack had actual access to drugs, whereas I just had an internet connection. My beliefs were all theoreticals based on what I could dig up online. Jack, who always had the wide-eyed look of somebody roused from an unsettling dream, seemed like flesh-and-blood confirmation of what I as already inclined to believe.

As a result, I was always a little more credulous of the things he said than maybe I should have been. One day he showed up in class and gave me a fifty page document titled "Strange But True" that he'd found somewhere on the internet. In among facts about color-changing octopi and the existence of super-massive black holes were facts that proved reincarnation, ancient astronauts at Machu Picchu, and the whereabouts of the living descendants of Jesus Christ. I believed all of it.

The other thing Jack had was an older brother. This was a huge advantage, musically. My friends with older brothers or cool cousins were the ones listening to Nirvana, Pixies, Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag. My friends who lacked these influences listened to Billy Joel and Broadway soundtracks. Far be it from me to pretend I was not myself a huge dork, but I can at least take a little pride in not knowing the words to Do You Hear the People Sing? as a group of my classmates sang it on the way to a speech meet.

But I was in a tenuous position. It would not have taken much to convince me that the best way to fit in with my friends would be to memorize the lyrics to We Didn't Start the Fire. So thank god for Jack, and thank god for his older brother.

Like a lot of evangelicals, Jack was a recent convert looking for other unbelievers. His brother had arrived to college at the dawn of file sharing and was channeling this newfound wealth of music back to Jack, who in turn funneled it to me. Mr. Bungle, Squarepusher, Belle and Sebastian, Aphex Twin, Neutral Milk Hotel: Every week Jack would have a new name for me, which he'd furiously scribble into one of my notebooks to make sure I didn't lose track. Then I'd go dutifully home, find a few songs online, and spend the next eight hours downloading them.

Last week I called Christopher Isherwood a "jellyfish." What I meant by that is that something in his books always stung me -- I could drift through a hundred pages not quite connecting, and then suddenly I'd get this electric shock. It was following that jolt which led me, finally, to read A Single Man, which may be the best book I've ever read.

What stands out to me now is how much of Jack's music was like that. I'd return to all of those bands, over and over, never quite sure what to think. But there was always that jolt. Always that shock that drew me back over and over until finally it clicked.

One of the theories Jack and I liked to talk about was McKenna's take on the "singularity." This idea has been overrun by techies so that now everyone associates it with artificial intelligence. But Terence McKenna's idea was a little bit weirder. He believed in an eschatological event at the end of time that was so massive, so all-consuming it drew all of history toward itself. The guidance we receive along the way, he believed, which was the singularity's own act of self creation.

Books and music probably aren't like that. You probably just develop your taste as you get older, and learn to appreciate authors and musicians by revisiting their work time and time again. But sometimes I wonder. Sometimes finding artists you connect with feels less like a discovery than the conclusion of some inevitable process. An eschaton in every novel. A singularity in every album.







Sunday, November 8, 2020

A Single Man

 I'm not the world's fastest reader, but at my pace I've noticed I find a new favorite novel at least once a year. I don't necessarily mean all-time favorite. I just mean a book I'd add to my suitcase before I got dumped off on the ol' desert island.

(Why wouldn't I pack food? Why not a spear gun? Let's amend this to say "my book suitcase," and just assume I have other, separate suitcases for other important things like hunting dogs or a helicopter.)

I won't get into all the nightmare bullshit that was 2020. Between the pandemic and my father's dementia and death, along with everything else, I couldn't even begin. But I will say it was a good year for reading. To me, that's no small thing.

This year I read and loved Leigh Stein's novel Self Care. I adored Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Either one might, some other time, have edged its way into my suitcase. But the outstanding winner by a long, long ways was Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man

My first (intentional) Isherwood was Prater Violet. I bought it specifically because it was slim, and because I'm always on the lookout for slim fiction. I don't know exactly how the publishing industry works, but doesn't it seem like a lot of books are too long by a third? Too many to be a coincidence. Somewhere there has to pressure for longer books from either publishers or readers, but it seems to bloat a lot of literature.

(The one exception to this, weirdly, is genre fiction. Somehow all those fantasies clocking in at 700 pages never seem to overstay their welcome. A smarter critic than me could probably point to why. I suspect it boils down to the story. Regardless, when I'm in the mood for a doorstop, it's horror and fantasy and science fiction I go looking for.)

So: Prater Violet. I loved the set up, and I was deeply moved by the end. But the middle was kind of just ... meh. Still, it was enough to keep me interested in Isherwood.

Some writers are jellyfish that way. You're floating along in their prose and suddenly something stings you. You may not even know exactly what it is, just that it got your attention. Isherwood was like that for me. I didn't love Prater Violet, but whatever part of it connected, it got good and under my skin.

I read The Berlin Stories next. Again, mixed feelings: I enjoyed Mr. Norris Changes Trains. I was lukewarm on Goodbye to Berlin.

What was it, then, about A Single Man that made it resonate so much more deeply? And why did I read it now instead of leaving it on my shelf to languish with all the other impulse buys? I don't know if I could answer the latter. All I know is that it turned out to be exactly the right book at exactly the right time. During the height of the pandemic, when my entire world seemed to shrink to the size of my living room, here was this lovely, introspective narrative of a single day in the life of George Falconer, a man still deeply in grief while the world expects him to perform all the mundanities of life unchanged.

I said above that Prater Violet was my first intentional Isherwood. That's because I didn't realize, until much later, that Isherwood also translated a very popular edition of the Bhagavad Gita, the same one that I read in college. This comes back around at the end of A Single Man, which closes on a beautiful description of the ebb and flow of tide pools as a metaphor for the mystery of consciousness itself; the drop of water that returns to the ocean.

It is a novel by a writer at the height of his powers, written with a lifetime of experience, deep thought, and close attention. And it was a reminder, during a year when the walls seemed to close in, that a lifetime isn't measured by how many days it is long. It's measured by how deeply we look.


Sunday, November 1, 2020

Skeletons

Our street never goes all out for Halloween. There's a few houses with candy, a few with some pumpkins, but it's not the kind of neighborhood where troops of children march up and down the sidewalk without end. We might have gotten a couple fewer kids last night than we would in a normal year, but then again maybe not. We sat on the porch and waved to the kids while they picked up Halloween bags from a socially-distanced table we set up down by the sidewalk. It might not have been normal, but it was at least in the ballpark.

We don't go all out for Halloween at our house, either. There was one year when I got seized by the notion that I was going to dedicate myself to skeletons. Every year, I thought, I'd just buy a couple more skeleton decorations. Within five, maybe ten years my reputation as "The Skeleton Guy" would be secured, and families would wonder each October 31st what new additions I'd acquired.

The hiccup here was that I never actually started buying the skeletons. For one thing, a human-sized skeleton decoration isn't cheap, and I figured I had to have at least three if I was going to call it a theme. So I put it off that year, and the next, until now here I am, at a time when I should be renowned as The Skeleton Guy, without a single bone to my name.


Publication News
My almost-seasonally-appropriate "A Christmas Story" was picked up by Manzano Mountain Review for their noir-themed issue. Holiday shopping for your best friend is always tough, even if you stole what you're giving. But when your friend doesn't quite trust your motives, you gotta get a little creative.


Stolen Wisdom
"The best way to deal with people who are better than you is to ask them questions."
-MK Asante


What I'm Reading This Week

Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure, by William Ferraiolo


What I'm Listening To







Either/Or

Lately I've been in the bad habit of not quite finishing books. I get antsy toward the last twenty pages or so, distracted like a fickle...