20 Years of an Improbable Life

20 years ago today I took my last drink of alcohol. I was told it was a vodka martini. I have no recollection of anything occurring that night after the second or third one until I emerged from the blackout tethered via restraints to a hospital bed (still very drunk). My body soon started shaking uncontrollably. I remember trying to hold my body still by gripping the bed rails and willing it so, but my torso, legs, and arms just kept shaking and flailing. I could not control my own body.

I was also told it had taken four police officers to put me in the ambulance, that I bit one of the paramedics during the ride to the hospital, and that my blood-alcohol level was well above the “legal limit.” (To the paramedic I bit: I’m sorry.) Hence the need to have me restrained.

So these past few weeks as I’ve been anticipating this anniversary of sorts coming up I find myself thinking and feeling many things, but most of all feeling grateful for the life I’ve lived since that night. (My life before sobriety could be a book titled How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.) I also feel humbled, knowing that the possibility always exists that I will relapse. And so I do wonder, “How did I make it so long without ever taking a drink?” The answer: It’s complicated.

I did not take the expected path to sobriety.

Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to have had plenty of love and support from my mother, father, and sister, and later on from my wife.

I did not go to rehab (no, no, no). I refused, signing myself out of the hospital a few days after being admitted.

I don’t attend A.A. meetings.

This is not a judgment against A.A. I personally didn’t like it. But I know it works for millions of others and as a fellow addict I’m happy and relieved for them that it does. Getting clean is easy. Any addict will tell you they can get clean…for awhile. It’s staying clean that’s difficult.

Staying clean involves no longer thinking like an addict. Staying clean requires a lot of confrontation; confronting ugly truths about yourself, and your relationships with friends and family, and confronting your fundamental motivations for reaching for the bottle before the addiction took over. Confrontation is extremely difficult for addicts since addiction itself is, among other things, a professional career in avoidance. Staying clean ultimately involves arriving at the absolute knowledge that nothing in this world is worth drinking over.

Twelve Step programs help addicts do all those things and more; the things they need to do to stay clean.

I’ve done those things, just differently, mostly with the help of therapy.

Though I am by no means perfectly reformed. I still struggle sometimes with the alcoholic’s binary way of thinking when it comes to doing things; either not doing it at all or doing it to the exclusion of all else. Many times I tell myself, “moderation, moderation, moderation.” I still struggle with what I call being “emotionally constipated,” my emotions sometimes held too coiled too tightly for too long. I still struggle with the impulse to tell people I don’t like to fuck off.

Of my drinking life, I could tell you about how I can still remember the sharp calm that would fill my body with that first drink. And how every drink after that was an attempt to recapture that feeling, compound it and savor it. But that it was a fruitless chase, descending into that oh so wonderful numb oblivion…I loved being drunk, loved it more than anything else.

I could tell you about how there is a history of alcoholism in my family, (though neither of my parents are addicts).

There is much more I could tell you about how and why I became a drunk. But any thing I say in a blog post would only be a broadly-sketched outline. The crudeness of the picture would be inadequate at best, and dishonest at worst, to an accurate telling. Regardless, the why and how are not excuses for my own actions pre-sobriety, which were at times stupid, pointless, and despicable, actions for which I am sorry.

I was 21 years old when I hit bottom. I still find it difficult to characterize in words the abject broken feeling of having failed as a human being. It’s a torrid pain that burns from the impossible-to-ignore realization of how hollowed out you are inside from having lived a life devoted to a drug. Few things survive the scorched earth policy of drug addiction; in the end it’s just you and the drug.

I had alienated nearly everyone I knew, even the people I used to drink with. My former college roommates were suing me for unpaid rent when I did not return to Northern Illinois University that fall. (I probably would have sued me, too. I was a shitty roommate and an even shittier friend. What kind of “friend” can an addict ever truly be? One incident involved a drunken brawl where one roommate fractured his hand on my jaw.)

I had dropped out of college to work and save money to attend the University of Hawaii. Those plans fell apart. Why Hawaii? At the time I would tell people I wanted to sip screwdrivers on the beach in-between classes. In reality it was a desire to flee, to run away from everyone and everything I knew. At the time I was not aware that it was merely an outward extension of my own alcoholism. Of course, I had no idea that I was an alcoholic.

I don’t wish the hell that was my first year or so of sobriety on anyone. The utter clarity of the pain, misery, and grief that you’ve caused yourself and other people becomes apparent. Most acutely so after the “the fog” lifts sometime in the first six months.

It’s very lonely being 21 and not drinking, and being uncomfortable and insecure with yourself, and learning again how to be a human being.

That year I told a number of people to fuck off. Figuratively burning bridges was what I knew how to do, having spent many years building them and oftentimes gleefully blowing them apart as if to revel in my own power to destroy myself. So burning bridges was the chosen method for dealing with certain relationships early on in my sobriety. As effective as it was, it was far from the best method. But it kept me sober until I could learn and develop better ways of straightening out my life.

I hit a different kind of bottom just a year after I had been sober. I was confused, depressed, resentful, and angry at where my life was (seemingly) stranded. I had dropped out of college (again) in order to change majors (again), walked away from a stint in A.A., and some of the few friends who were left in my life were now beginning to appear in a negative light to me. I believed my own life was hopeless, thinking that if A.A. couldn’t help me, then I was truly a lost cause. One day when I was lying on my back on the floor of my bedroom, wallowing in this restless broken feeling, and thinking my way through where my life had been, I said to myself, “I want to live.”

Wanting to live allows you to shove aside so many things that really are inconsequential. Wanting to live gives you the courage to understand that doubt and fear are normal but should not cripple you. Wanting to live means no longer defining your life by the things you do not want or like to do. Wanting to live means defining your life by who you are, what you want to do, and who you want to be.

Later that year I took a car trip by myself up to Minnesota to visit a cousin and her husband, then I spent some time with my great aunt on the Indian reservation in North Dakota where my maternal grandfather had been born and raised, and attended a week-long writing workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. (I had been encouraged to attend the workshop by a professor who remains a cherished friend and mentor to this day. Being there erased any doubts I had about my need to be a writer.)

From there, my life went on to become even more improbable for a drunk working class punk from Northlake, IL. I graduated college, met a smart, funny, passionate, beautiful woman with whom I fell in love, got a job in the Loop as a technical writer, quit that job, backpacked around Europe for over two months, returned to the States and moved in with the woman I loved, married her, worked at a dotcom, took up boxing as a hobby, moved to L.A. with my wife and our two cats, went to grad school for creative writing (while working full-time), bought our first home (a townhouse in Echo Park), supported my wife while she earned her Phd, published a short story, developed an Opera Habit, traveled to places as diverse as Argentina and Bryce Canyon, learned some French, celebrated the birth of our son, moved to Michigan when my wife landed a job at MSU, bought a house in the ‘burbs where deer regularly trek through our yard, became a stay-at-home-dad, became a blogger, celebrated the birth of our daughter, went to the 2008 DNC convention and witnessed Obama accepting the nomination, learned how to make pies from scratch, and…there is so much much more.

Here’s the thing: the life I have lived these past 20 years could not have been imagined by me the morning after my last drink, when I was still restrained on that hospital bed, viciously hungover, despondent, and afraid that my family wanted nothing more to do with me. Yet, there it is.


Freethinkers and Sex

This round of Recent Reads features two books: one where the indispensable role freethinkers in U.S. history is resurrected and one where sex is depicted within the context of relationships in all of its wonderful banality.

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby. “God” can’t be put “back” in the U.S. Constitution because “God” has never been in there. Susan Jacoby explains why, and so much more, in this illuminating (and necessary) look at secularism in U.S. history. She touches on a wide range of topics, from the country’s founding to the Feminist movement, the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, Women’s Suffrage, the Scopes Monkey Trial, and more recent battles over abortion, stem cell research, and evolution. All involve secularists, be they agnostics, atheists, liberal Christians, or Jews.

If there’s one thing this important book does is to restore the reputation of Robert Green Ingersoll, “The Great Agnostic.” Ingersoll was one of our country’s greatest thinkers and orators. He wrote and said many things, among them,

It is contended by many that ours is a Christian government, founded upon the Bible, and that all who look upon the book as false or foolish are destroying the foundation of our country. The truth is, our government is not founded upon the rights of gods, but upon the rights of men. Our Constitution was framed, not to declare and uphold the deity of Christ, but the sacredness of humanity. Ours is the first government made by the people and for the people. It is the only nation with which the gods have had nothing to do. And yet there are some judges dishonest and cowardly enough to solemnly decide that this is a Christian country, and that our free institutions are based upon the infamous laws of Jehovah.

Jacoby’s book came to my attention thanks to this article in Bitch magazine about the “Old Boys Club” of unbelievers.

Recommended for U.S. Citizens and Those Curious About this Country’s Philosophical History.

Slut Lullabies by Gina Frangello. Frangello’s novel My Sister’s Continent was a book that lingered in my mind long after I had read the last page. It is not an easy book, as it deals unflinchingly with repressed memories, S&M, and the complicated tensions of a dysfunctional family trapped within itself.

With Slut Lullabies, Frangello explores the most discomforting parts of the lives of her characters. Her manner is non-linear but the prose is clear. From a cheating mother to a gay spouse-to-be who is conflicted about his relationship, to a kept woman, to a woman who suffers so much pain in her lower back that “sex is excruciating,” Frangello extends every ounce of human sympathy possible to her characters. The result is a collection of short stories about damaged and flawed people making mostly flawed but occasionally inspired decisions. Her generosity towards these people might make you want to condemn them or hug them, or both.

You’ll laugh, too. Frangello’s writing can shift from the blunt and funny, as in the story “Stalking God,”

Beaming with the authority of a woman with her husband’s checkbook in her handbag and her lover’s semen warm and glowing insider her, Mom says…

to the tragic, as in the story “Waves,”

“I’m leaving,” I promise, and then I feel an explosion, nothing like a kiss, nothing I can turn off, the opposite of my pain but equally fierce. Nothing like numbness, nothing like peace. “I think I’m leaving everything.”

Refreshingly, Frangello includes sex not to be purely titillating or unbelievably transformative, but as part of the collage that makes up her characters’ lives. As in life, sex is used, withheld, bartered, enjoyed, relished, and craved, and many other things.

Recommended for Human Beings.

Fakes and Authentic Fakes

The FBI is conducting a criminal investigation in New York regarding whether a number of paintings and drawings by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell were actually forgeries. From the New York Times,

Most of the works, which have sold individually for as much as $17 million, came to market though a little-known art dealer from Long Island, Glafira Rosales, who said she had what every gallery dreams of: exclusive access to a mystery collector’s cache of undiscovered work by some of the postwar world’s great talents, including Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn.

Anytime the following words, or a variation of them, appear you would think that experienced art experts would be immediately wary: “mystery collector’s cache of undiscovered work.”

Ah, but the potential for millions and the cachet of owning a heretofore undiscovered work created by an acknowledged master conspire to make such wariness fade swiftly away. As the Greeks first showed us, the sins of greed, vanity, and pride can each induce us to fall from great heights. Put all three together and you produce a mixture that has the potential to “go nuclear.” Which appears to have happened in this case. It is not the first time.

The fact is, if you’ve been inside any art museum, you have probably seen a fake hanging on a wall. You just don’t know it and neither do the curators. It’s a dirty secret in the Art World, one its residents almost never openly acknowledge, except under great duress.

That’s why an exhibit last winter at the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) was so surprising. The museum staged an entire exhibition on forgeries and fakery. The exhibit displayed known fake works of art from the museum’s own collection and showed the techniques used to detect and authenticate a given work of art. It also showed what were called “mysteries”; objects of art whose authenticity was under question and had yet to be confidently resolved.

Around the same time as the DIA exhibit last year I read a book that for some reason I never got around to writing about on this blog. Which is a shame because it’s a book that provides a unique and important insight into the Art World. That book is: Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo. It tells the mind-boggling story of how struggling artist John Myatt came to create art forgeries for a highly-skilled con man named John Drewe, who in turn sold the forgeries to dealers in London and elsewhere. Drewe was so smooth he even managed to con his way into gaining access to the Tate Gallery archives, access which he then used to slip in fake provenance documents. This is particularly ingenious, since “provenance” (the documented trail of ownership) is considered perhaps the most reliable way to authenticate a work of art.

Provenance is so coveted that it can be used to declare a work a fake even when overwhelming physical evidence insists otherwise. See Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?

Both Myatt and Drewe were eventually sent to prison. But Myatt now makes a living selling his own art reproductions. Yes, he’s so famous as an art forger that people pay him to make “authentic” forgeries. You can see his work here.

But before the scandal of John Myatt and John Drewe, there was Elmyr de Hory.

A few months ago I saw the movie F for Fake by Orson Welles. A documentary of sorts, it centers on the famed art forger Elmyr de Hory. Elmyr created countless fake works of art in the middle of the 20th century that were sold through various dealers and ended up hanging in some of the most prestigious art museums in the world. Elmyr was a charming and irrepressible person who always claimed that he was the victim. Though at one point he says, “I don’t feel bad for Modigliani. I feel good for me.”

But it gets even more interesting because Elmyr’s biography was written by a writer named Clifford Irving. A few years after telling Elmyr’s story, Irving would go on to write a biography of the billionaire recluse Howard Hughes, claiming that Hughes had given him unprecedented access to him. It turned out that the biography was a complete fake. Hughes even came out of seclusion for a bizarre phone press conference to proclaim he didn’t even know Irving.

Welles uses all of this to explore fakery, deceit, authenticity, and the expertise of a critic’s judgment. It is one of the most fascinating and playful films I have ever seen. (F for Fake was also the last film Welles completed and released during his lifetime.)

All of this is a reminder of how tenuous an object’s relation to being “art” can often be, which without a doubt does call into question the authority and role of the critic. Which I think is part of what makes these stories of high-stakes fraud so intriguing: someone is deceiving the critics, and few people are sympathetic to critics. (Orson Welles certainly wasn’t.) That thing called “critical consensus” about a given work or artist sometimes waxes and wanes over time based on fashion (again, see Welles). Fashion is defined by what’s perceived to be fashionable, perceived to be of value.

On the other hand, with the sums paid for many of these forgeries, it’s difficult to not be stunned by the scale and therefore sympathize with the defrauded buyers. They perceived themselves to be buying something of value, which turned out to have no value at all. To bastardize Balzac, as long as there is great fortune in the Art Market, there will always be the potential for great crime in the Art Market.

Reading Roundup for October

While I was offline, I did a lot of reading (like always). I’ll have a few posts up like this in the coming month. Here’s a sample of what I read.

The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy. Chalk one up for the “Angry Young Woman.” This viciously funny and deftly crafted novel by the author of the also wonderful The Dud Avocado kept me laughing with a turn of each page. A young woman lands in London in the early 60’s with one particular older Englishman in her sights. Why is she after him? Is Honey Flood her real name? To find out, you’ll have to read the book and follow the plot’s credible twists to its ludicrously touching and funny end. Recommended for Angry Young Women.

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt. A very different book than The Last Samurai. This satire of corporate culture, especially the language used in sales is funny. Joe comes up with a way to better manage the tensions which sexual harassment creates in the workplace. His unique solution proves compelling and wildly successful, but not without some very funny practical obstacles.

As enjoyable and playful as this fantasy of a novel is, I couldn’t help but think that the opposite would have occurred. If you discretely offered male workers a literal piece of ass whenever they wanted it at the workplace, the intended effect would be just the opposite of what DeWitt proposes. By encouraging and promoting the objectification of women’s bodies (which already occurs enough, just look at any form of advertising anywhere) in such a stark way, that sexual harassment would actually increase.

Full disclosure: I have picked up some Gender Theory here and there while being married to my wife, who happens to be a Gender and Immigration Scholar. Recommended for Corporate Sharks.

Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude by Neal Pollock. Writer and unrepentant cynic Pollack gets into yoga. Big time. He details his initial dabbling in yoga at the urging of his wife to trying different kinds of yoga in yoga studios around L.A., to going to Yoga Potlucks, to participating in a yoga conference for an article in Yoga Journal, to attending a retreat in Thailand in order to take classes from a particular guru, and ultimately teaching his own class.

All the while Pollock smokes pot. A more apt title for this book would have been “Stoned Yoga.” Pollack toked up before class in the morning, class in the evening, whenever he could get stoned. He even found a quack doctor in L.A. to prescribe him medical marijuana, thus offering himself up as the poster boy for critics of medical marijuana.

Regardless, “Stoned Yoga” presents one cynic’s journey of self-discovery through yoga. It is funny, entertaining, and rarely dull. (Did you know that Bikram yoga is copyrighted. I didn’t. I mean, really? Like someone could copyright a type of Kung Fu or Karate. ) It’s only when Pollack goes into detail behind the Sanskrit words for the yoga positions during certain scenes that his story gets boring. But then I don’t practice yoga. So maybe those parts would be interesting to people who do practice yoga. Recommended for Cynics and Yoga Practitioners.

When the Kid’s Not Into It, Or No More Music Classes

One of the great things available for kids where we live is the MSU Community Music School. It’s run by the MSU Music Department and they have classes for people of all ages and abilities.

Among their many programs are the ones for infants and toddlers, and pre-schoolers. It’s all about teaching the kids to associate movement with sound. The kids get to use sticks, toy microphones, bean bags, scarves, and even get a chance to use xylophones and other musical instruments. Kids can participate as little or as much as they like. There is no pressure. It’s about fun (as it should be for kids that young). Most kids start out not doing a whole lot and by the end of the semester are much more excited and involved. It’s a blast to watch the kids develop and transform, each in their own way.

I took our son Henry for music classes when he was a toddler and pre-school aged. He loved it for the two years we did it. I even met some parents there who came to be good friends to my wife and me.

Our daughter Meredith, who is now three and a half, has seemingly enjoyed the classes based on her enthusiasm for wanting to go. “I wanna go to music class!” she exclaims. And I say, “great” and then we get in the car and drive. And then we park the car and she gets out and runs to the entrance, hits the blue handicapped button to open the glass doors, and then walks fast down the hall toward the classroom, and then we sit in a circle with the rest of the kids and their parents and then, like we’ve done for the last year and a half, I participate far more than Meredith does.

Oh, Meredith knows exactly what she’s supposed to do. She just doesn’t do it. She doesn’t dance; I’m forced to carry her. She doesn’t do anything with the sticks or other items. Sometimes she even tries to stop me while I try to be a good participant. Or she’ll make a suggestion for doing something with say the beanbag (putting it on her foot or over her eye) while we sing and the teacher tells her it’s a great idea and then commences to lead the class in doing it, but then Meredith simply sits and watches the class.

At first I thought this was a phase she would pass through, that she would eventually participate at least half the time. But that has not happened for three semesters now. So I’m not taking her anymore. The class is for pre-schoolers. Not adults (though adult participation is necessary). If I’m going to do the majority of participating in a music class I might as well learn an instrument.

I think it’s important to recognize when your child is just not into something. After three semesters of half-assed/non-participation, I think it’s safe to say my daughter is simply not into the class and it’s time to move onto something else.

(Also, the mother and good friend of ours whose son is the same age as Meredith is no longer enrolling her son in the classes either. We had made sure these past few years to sign our children up for the same classes. So the social aspect is also not there. Socialize with the other mothers, you say? Ah-hahaha, there’s a post or two about being the only man in what is assumed to be a mothers’ space. 🙂 Some other time I’ll write about that.)

What that something else will be for Meredith, I’m not sure. Maybe some sports like soccer or gymnastics. We’ll see.

I can say for sure that it will most definitely NOT be swimming lessons. I tried that last month. It was an unmitigated disaster with lots of kicking, screaming, crying, and shouts of “I scared of the water!” at the pool, all in front of the other kids and parents, and the very nice instructor. Thankfully, the YMCA credited us the amount for the class so we can apply it to something else later on.

There is no predicting what a child will like or want to do. Factor in that our daughter is three and is every day doing something that is the very embodiment of the word “oppositional” and you have a recipe for absolute unpredictability.

Which I suppose is no different than what should be expected in the ultra-marathon that is parenthood.

While I Was Away…

I took a break from the Online Life (blogging, Facebook, Twitter) to get a few things done. Which I did. It was a productive break. I read a lot and wrote a lot, too. There will be a burst of blog posts for the next week then a short break until January when I will be online for a large chunk of time every day.

While I was offline the past few months,

  • There was some redecorating here on the blog. What do you think of the new layout? WordPress is constantly adding new themes. It’s one of the many reasons I like WordPress so much.
  • I survived my first season as an assistant coach for my son’s first grade soccer team. Did I mention I knew very little about soccer before the season started? It was a fun for me and my son, and I got to meet a great group of kids and their parents.
  • My sister and brother-in-law celebrated the birth of their first child, a beautiful girl named Vivian.
  • So all those different songs were by the same band? Foster the People? Cool. And The Pack A.D. kick ass.
  • Penn State officials ignored cases of sexual abuse by one of its own.
  • OWS is now a nationally-recognized acronym.
  • The first Big Snow of the season arrived yesterday, closing the local schools, and even knocking out power for a few hours. Our kids were very happy.
  • Here’s a random link: The Top 10 Relationship Words That Aren’t Translatable Into English
    My favorite of these is the Norwegian word Forelsket.