Fussy

I don’t think of myself as a fussy person, but I’m pretty sure that I’m perceived that way by people around me.  I think that perception comes from the fact that I develop habits and preferences and, in the absence of other options, better options, I will stick to those established habits and preferences.

For example, once I secure my cup of Starbucks coffee for the morning, I sit down to read the paper.  When I get to a certain part of the front page, I get up and toast an English muffin which I slather with almond butter and blackberry jam.  I like certain brands of the almond butter and jam so I stock up on them when they are on sale.  That means I’m thrifty, right?  Hardly fussy.  Not even close to being OCD.

However, I find I’m really weighed down when anything around me isn’t working as it should.  If a faucet is dripping, or a door is binding up, I struggle.  I feel this immense weight until I can address the problem.  I literally feel lighter and happier when I’m able to tighten the right valve or smooth the side of the door properly.

So when the “check engine” light started glowing on my dashboard, I immediately began to feel this unreasonable sense of dread.  I’d like to put a piece of black tape over it so I just can’t see it, but it’s like the dripping faucet–I HAVE to take care of the problem because all peace and happiness has left me and will stay away until it is repaired.

I’ve owned cars for long enough that I should be able to deal with it calmly. For example, I know with this particular light:

1. It’s not an emergency.

2. I will have to take it to the dealer.

3. Whatever this non-emergency repair is, it’s going to cost me about $1000.

4. I have the $1000 in the bank for problems just like this.

I got the appointment at the dealer, got the car dropped off and went home to wait for the expensive phone call.  The service representative finally called me to explain that a fuel sensor inside the gas tank needed to be replaced which would involve the mechanics pulling out the backseat so they could access the gas tank and replace the sensor.  Oh, and by the way it was impossible to do the repair without some gas being spilled on the outside of the tank. Not to worry–they’d clean up everything nice and tidy for me by the time I picked it up.

So, when I showed up to pick up the car, I payed my $1000 and was very happy to see that the “check engine” light had been retired as I started it up.   But as I began to drive home, I was almost overcome by wave after wave of a gasoline smell coming from the backseat of the car.  I turned around and wheeled the car back to the dealer where the service rep reassured me that the excess gas would burn off within a couple of days.  Totally normal.

A week later I was still getting whiffs of the gaseous odor and returned the car to the rep to have it checked out.  After he and a mechanic took it for a spin, I was informed that they couldn’t smell any gas at all.  As I walked out the the lot to retrieve my car, I could smell the reek from 5 feet away.

I’m fussy, right?  I dragged the rep from out of his cubicle and made him stand with me and enjoy the fumes emanating from my vehicle. He looked puzzled and thoughtful.  “Oh, that smell.  I guess that could be gas.”  We decided he would keep it for another day and have the mechanics rip the seats back out and double check to be sure everything was properly sealed and he agreed to have the back half of the car shampooed just in case the odor was now coming from the seats.

The next day, he called and assured me all was well, and I could come and retrieve my vehicle once again.  And, believe me, I wanted nothing more than to believe that all was well, that they had fixed the problem, and that hey, maybe the whole thing was just in my head.

As I drove off, the toxic shampoo they had used in the back of the car was almost as bad as the gas fumes had been, and I drove through the night with the windows down.  Sure enough, before I had made it home, the gas smell was back.

At this point, I’m not angry–just indecisive.  I’m not sure whether to call the dealer back for the fourth time or just to have a nervous breakdown.  I can no longer tell if my car has a problem, or if I have a problem.  I’ve made four trips to the dealer, consumed hours with this problem preying on my mind, and by now, I’m starting to think that maybe I’m defective.

Then I remember this older gentleman who owned a little car shop called The Little Car Shoppe nearby.  He specializes in BMWs, but had done some work for me years before on my daughter’s Acura.  I called him and explained my situation and he seemed intrigued.  “Bring it down,” was all he said and then hung up.

This guy is the guy you always hope you will find to work on your vehicle.  He’s quiet and thorough and doesn’t bullshit you about the cost.  I usually don’t even ask because I trust his expertise, and I know he will warn me if it’s going to be extraordinarily expensive. I’ve never heard music being played in his shop.  He always keeps the radio tuned to NPR.  Gotta love that.

By the end of the afternoon he’d found the seal that the guys at the dealership had failed to replace properly.  He had to chase down a new one and asked me to give him one more day to see if he could find me the best deal on one.  By the next afternoon, he called to say he was done.  When I got there, he showed me the dirty and pitted seal that the dealer had tried to get by with and which had allowed the fumes to escape.

“But now, it’s sealed up tight, right?  No leaks.  We’re all good,” I questioned, seeking reassurance.

With a smile, he let me know the problem was fixed in the nicest possible way when he said, “I sure don’t want to see you back here with it.”

This adventure is the kind of thing that sucks the soul out of me.  It makes me question both my judgement and my sanity.  When I let it, it consumes me.  I can’t stop thinking about this “tragic” development in my life when actually it is mostly just a simple, but annoying, bump in the road.

At some point, I did manage to step back from it and get some perspective.  I told myself, “It’s a car problem.  It’s unusual, but there’s got to be an explanation.  In a few days this will get sorted out and I won’t have to think about it at all.”  Why it was so hard to get that perspective quickly and easily after all of these years, I’m not sure.  Maybe it was all the gas fumes that were scrambling my brain.

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Secret Self

Sure, sometimes I feel under-appreciated.  Who doesn’t?  The many thankless tasks that I complete that go unnoticed and unthanked–it happens.

But most recently, I’ve noticed how much credit I get for things that I just don’t deserve.  I feel like an imposter.  The general consensus is that I’m generous, “a nice guy.”  But I know my darkness.  I feel like the character William, from the film Almost Famous who explodes when the character Penny Lane declares him to be “sweet.”  “Where do you get sweet? I am dark and mysterious, and pissed off! And I could be very dangerous to all of you. You should know that about me.”

Yeah, that’s me.  Dark, mysterious, pissed off.  Just this week I purposely drove 50 yards or so down a one-way street the wrong way just to to avoid going around the block.  Dangerous.

Most recently I got way too much praise for something I did out of sheer impatience.  I was standing in line at a Kaiser pharmacy behind a young man who had to be at least 18 years old, but appeared to have no clue about the process for ordering or paying for medication that he apparently needed right away.  He showed up to get the prescription with no money and no credit card.  The attendant let him use the phone to call his parents thinking they could give a credit card number over the phone to cover the co-pay.  For some reason this was no longer (if it ever had been) allowed.  There was a lot of shrugging and “well, I don’t know what to tell you” going on and they were about to let him make another phone call while the line continued to build when I called out loudly to the cashier, “Is this about a $10.00 co-pay?”

She looked up at me, startled, unsure if she could share such privileged information, and so I asked her again speaking more slowly and more clearly.  She finally answered in the affirmative, and I leaned forward and slapped a $10 bill on the counter and said to the kid, “I got you covered on this one.”

What appears to be naked and unexpected generosity is often confusing, so it took a second for her and the boy to realize that I was willing, without question, to pay the toll for the kid’s medicine.  Finally, the boy thanked me profusely, and the cashier told me repeatedly what a nice person I was for doing this.  The guy behind me tapped me on the shoulder.  “You paying for him, man?  You’re like, paying it forward.  Man, that is really cool.”

What I was paying for was convenience and my own impatience.  It was well worth the ten bucks to get to the front of the line and not have to wait any longer for the Kaiser people to figure out what to do with this kid. but the people who witnessed the transaction were left with the impression that I was just an exemplary guy.  Extra credit, see?

After keeping the same eyeglass frames for 8 years, I changed them up recently.  One friend told me they made me look “edgy”–my true self becoming more apparent.

I also jaywalk–frequently.

For now, I’ll stick with the generally false impression I’ve created.  It helps me to navigate the world with a good reputation.  Only you, my 12 faithful readers, will know the real truth.

Depression–Again

I’ve wanted to write this piece for some time, but I wanted to start with:

“It’s OK.  I’m feeling much better now.”

I didn’t expect it would be July before that happened.

I did not see this one coming.  Near the end of March, I was about to write a piece about how well the experience of sobriety was going with one of the most remarkable things being a nearly euphoric sense of well being. I had just finished a 30-day writing challenge and had gotten to spend five days on the Oregon coast.  I was physically active and had my volunteer work going to keep me engaged. I felt great.

And then, everything seemed to go south on me.  Suddenly, I began to feel a sense of isolation and anger began to build up inside of me.  I was plagued both by self-pity and a sense of inadequacy.  I didn’t have friends to be with.  I no longer had the comfort of a bar or a brewery to use to pass the time and enjoy the boozy camaraderie.

I can’t explain the weird reversal of my my emotional state.  There was not an easily identifiable trigger.  I simply drifted into a state of withdrawal and anger bordering on a kind of rage–rage at the news, rage at nearly everyone I encountered on the road, simmering anger at every person in every bar or restaurant I entered who was allowed to enjoy their beers, when I had to deny myself.  Was it their second or third?  Why were they allowed to toy so casually with their health when I could not?

I have been seeing a therapist who specializes in addiction medicine and I saw her twice during the month of May when things were going badly.  Before the appointment begins, I have to take an iPad and click through a multiple-choice questionnaire about my mental state and how I’ve been doing since the last visit–have I been drinking, have I taken drugs, have I felt depressed, had I had thoughts of harming myself–you get the idea.

I feel like a kid in class when I do the iPad thing, wanting to get good scores for my efforts at abstinence but also wanting to be honest about how bad this bout of depression had been.  When I got to the question about harming myself, I had to press the button for “once or twice” instead of the usual “never.”

I had not actually contemplated suicide over the past two months.  I hadn’t started to imagine how I would do it or make a plan. It wasn’t like that.  But I was feeling a deep sense of weariness, a feeling of being overwhelmed by the effort it took to say “no” to alcohol every day, and to simply cope with everyday life.  Dealing with a minor car problem seemed epically difficult.  The multitude of unfinished projects around the house made me feel surrounded by failure even though they were dwarfed by the overall beauty of our house and our yard.  I hate to use a Hamlet reference (it’s so former-English-teacher-ish), but when he thinks about death he imagines the peace that comes from ending the “heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.”  A respite from all of those “thousand shocks” was all that led me to momentary thoughts of being able to go to sleep and not get up to once again have to fight that feeling of being overwhelmed.

It is as hard for me to describe clawing out of a depression as it is to explain how I fell into it, but two things stand out as I look back at how I began to heal.

Since I retired, I’ve been a casual and occasional hiker around the county of San Diego even going so far as to join a hiking group that meets up once a week.  I was far from passionate about it.  However, inspired by my niece who has set a goal of 100 rigorous hikes during 2018, I started upping my interest as she and I began to meet up occasionally, and she introduced me to more and more challenging peaks to climb.  As I started to get stronger, I started to push myself to take on these tougher hikes 2-3 times a week. The hikes became easier and my body began to recover more quickly between them.  I found that the hikes literally cleared my mind as I was immersed in the natural terrain and the physical exertion I was putting in.

But that kind of healing takes time and 6-8 hours a week of physical activity was not going to, by itself, be enough.  When I was still deeply mired in feeling bad, I sat on the edge of our bed with my wife and admitted the obvious–something that she clearly already knew–that I was really struggling with depression once again. She did the best of all things.  She let me talk through my confusion, my anger, my sadness and just acknowledged and affirmed what I was feeling.  When I was all talked out, she held me close and we just quit talking and I could feel something melt away inside of me.  I can’t explain it.  There was no advice, no insight–just warmth and love and reassurance.  It was as if a boil had been lanced and the healing began almost immediately.

When I first wrote about my decision to abstain from alcohol back in November of ‘17, I recognized the the decision was going to force me to confront some substantial issues.  At the time, I wrote, “Alcohol had simply helped me paper over feelings of isolation or purposelessness or inadequacy.  Now, I need to confront those feelings for what they are and see what kind of growth can come from that.”  

Maybe that is what I was going through here.  Maybe this was a time of growth and reassessment of my purpose and the things I need to work on to stay connected to the people in my life.  I’m working on all of those things.

I hope it will be enough to keep the storm clouds away.

Trumpocalypse: An Open Letter To Mike Pompeo

Dear Mr. Pompeo,

You should not be surprised that after your recent meetings with North Korea, your demands were characterized as having a “gangster” quality to them.  Clearly, the North Koreans were nice to you while you were there, made vague promises to try to fulfill the U.S. demands, and then blasted you once they stopped laughing among themselves.

It’s hard to know which label to put on the most recent U.S. government interactions because we lurch from claiming to be victims of other greedy countries to making demands of sovereign nations that they have no incentive to agree to in an attempt to look strong.  We have pulled out of the Paris climate accords and reneged on the nuclear deal with Iran, one in which Iran is doing everything it said it would do–it’s just doing things that Mr. Donald (gansta-in-chief) doesn’t like but that were never part of the agreement.

Our trade policies are incomprehensible as we veer in and out of the imposition of tariffs that all seem to be hurting American businesses more than helping them.  When Harley- Davidson motorcycles (can a company be any more MAGA than H-D?) shrugs their shoulders and claims that they will need to move their operations overseas to avoid the tariffs, the gangsta-in-chief claims that they are weak and are declaring surrender.  Rather than punish our rivals and hostile countries, we have alienated our closest allies and we are becoming increasingly isolated in the world.  The “America First” attitude is turning us into “Gangsta-Nation” because we have no respect for the treaties we have signed and no respect for the norms of diplomacy. Our word means nothing to the nations of the world.

Just within the past few days this “bully-first” attitude came to light at the United Nations as reports began to surface that the U.S. had tried to undermine a resolution promoting, of all things, breast-feeding that was being introduced by the country of Ecuador.  Despite all of the scientific evidence that breastfeeding is beneficial for infants in both developed and developing countries, we tried to sabotage the resolution to “protect the infant-formula industry.”  Our team went so far as to threaten Ecuador with trade sanctions and got them to withdraw the resolution.  At least a dozen other countries also refused to submit the resolution fearing retaliation.

It took the Russians and Uncle Vlad to save the day and put forward the proposal.  Not surprisingly, the American team stood down as soon as the Russians got involved.  The resolution was passed on a vote of 118-1 with the United States being the only dissenting vote.  Talk about isolation.

Once source said, “There is no scientific evidence behind the U.S. position.  It simply reflects the fact that corporate sales are more important to the U.S. administration that the well-being of women and children.”

So, Mr. Pompeo, get used to the characterization of yourself as a gangster for as long as you represent this rogue administration.  You can’t see it now, but every day you stay in this job you are creating a stain on your reputation that will never go away.  I know you can’t see it, but you are living in the low point of your career.

Death By Cliche´

Even though I lived my adult life as an English teacher, I’m not usually picky about how other people use or misuse language.  I never correct people’s grammar and truth be told, was never much of a grammarian.

However, I’ve started to notice that the use of certain cliches´ has begun to wear on me, especially those that come up in political speech.

If I hear one more congressman or woman say, “We’re not going to be holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ here ya’ know” that I may have to cancel all of my newspaper subscriptions.  Again.

First of all, I’m not sure why they are picking on “Kumbaya.”  I was going to write something here about it’s history and how it has come to be a political punching bag, but discovered that Linton Weeks of NPR already wrote a spirited history and defense of the song called “When did ‘Kumbaya’ Become Such a Bad Thing?” for the NPR website on January 13, 2012.  You should read it.

Needless to say, it is used to express a contempt for things like kindness, compassion, and compromise–certainly not the type of values that we want to encourage anymore.  We used to think that such ideas were a good thing–you know, before we elected Voldemort as our president.

Besides, if you want to bash a song with kind intentions you could always pick on the iconic 1971 jingle from the Coke commercial named “I Want To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” which may deserve mockery just because of the absurd length of the title.  If you should look up the original commercial just for fun, you may cringe a bit at the collection of Stepford-like teens that they collected on a hilltop in Italy to sing that catchy little piece.  You might also accidentally stumble across a creepy anti-sugary-drink parody that shows sickly people using the same tune put to different words that try to make the link between soda and its many potentially harmful side effects.

Also, I have wondered when did everything bad become an “existential threat”?  Certainly Al Qaeda, ISIS, North Korea, and Iran have been deemed to be our enemies and they do present a threat to do bad things to our country, but having studied existentialism, I couldn’t make the bridge to the emerging use of that adjective.  When I looked it up, one scholar suggested that this new usage implies that something (or some country, or some country’s leader) presents an “existential threat” if it threatens the very existence of our country, of our way of life.  That means the phrase is being horribly overused since none of the above, while they may wish us harm, has the wherewithal to end our way of life. Hey, I watch Homeland too, I get it. But in fact, our military budget is so huge that it dwarfs the budget of the next seven closest countries combined.  Combined. There are more serious threats to worry about.

Truly, the only existential threat that I see to the United States of America is Scott Pruitt.  This is a cabinet member so corrupt and so deeply in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry that he has taken a wrecking ball to every environmental protection that he can find.  I fully expect that if he hangs around much longer the EPA will propose that the US should be doing everything possible to encourage pollution, global warming, and climate change, and that we will be be immersed in Orwellian-style propaganda that insists that melting ice caps, costal flooding, increased droughts, increasingly violent hurricanes are things we should embrace. After all, all of those disasters do create good jobs for people.

Scott Pruitt, not ISIS, is the definition of an existential threat.

Finally, it has been an inspirational ray of hope that the country seems to have turned on gun makers and the NRA.  People now openly mock the “thoughts and prayers” response that most politicians give to the latest mass shooting–lip service being given to this epidemic with no effort to make even the most common sense changes in the law.  These horrific acts are happening with such frequency that I sense that politicians who have long supported the gun industry are afraid to utter the words “thoughts and prayers” as an offer of support to devastated communities because they now know that everyone else knows that offering “thoughts and prayers” is code for “I don’t really give a shit about you and your community.  As long as no one I know personally gets hurt, I have no intention of alienating my donors.”  Or something like that.

Actually, I don’t mind a good cliche´ now and then.  It’s the ones that drip with hypocrisy and deceit that start to grind on me after a while.  I think we just need to keep an eye out for the leaders who depend on these timeworn phrases as if they were wisdom and, please, stop electing them to office.

It’s Time

Just this morning, I took the outgoing mail down to the box and dropped in in.  Included with the monthly bills was a form letter to my former school district declining their offer to continue working for them as a substitute teacher.  I finally decided to stop teaching–entirely.

When I retired, I refused to sign up for any classes or do any kind of structured activity for the first six months.  I had been in school for 53 straight years, first as a student and then as a teacher, and was delighted to not have a daily time schedule.  I was happy that I no longer had to wait until the bell rang to go pee.

I was as surprised as anyone when I did the paperwork to become a substitute teacher after that six months passed.  I quickly discovered that I needed to put down limits. I’d only sub for English or social studies teachers (subjects I knew pretty well), only at two schools where I had friends, and only for teachers who I respected because I knew they knew how to run a classroom.  Every time I made an exception, I ended up regretting it.

For the first few years, going back to my school, was a pleasure.  It was fun to see my ex-colleagues and meet new teachers.  There was a cadre of former students still there who knew me because I had been their freshman English teacher, so I was not an entirely unknown quantity.

Going to the other school was a test, having taught for 36 years in one place, but among the groups I subbed for, I quickly became just another teacher and a sub that they (usually) respected.  You have to understand, the pool of competent subs is so thin that showing up with a level of confidence and expertise was often something kids appreciated.  I was shocked at the number of times kids actually thanked me for being their sub that day.

I learned to always ask the teachers I subbed for to email me lesson plans the night before when possible, so I could go in feeling prepared and even read what the kids had read if we were going to do something text-related.  Getting to interact with the kids without having to do any significant preparation and then walk away without any papers to grade was wonderful, and getting in front of a classroom again felt really good.

But then there were days when I’d end up showing the same film for 5 hours, or administering tests for the entire day.  I’d feel like the clock-watching students, just anxious for the day to be over.

I started turning down so many jobs that the demand began to dry up.  I had grown so used to spending time in my yard, or taking my daily walks, or going hiking that I hated being required to be indoors.  I didn’t like being on my feet all day and coming home feeling exhausted with my back aching.  Taking sub jobs meant I’d miss yoga classes or time with my hiking group or acupuncture appointments I’d been looking forward to.

So, last year, I put the word out that I was pretty sure I was done.  I volunteered for a couple of school-related things to help out friends–proctoring AP tests, being a part of a panel for senior-project presentations–but that was it.

This year, no calls at all.  I guess I am done as a teacher.  I’m not an entrepreneur.  I don’t need the time to start a new career, but I do want to have the time to learn new things and maybe become good at something that’s not teaching.  I gave 40 years to teaching.  I think it’s time to let it go.

Let’s Not Arm Teachers

I’ve rewritten this piece in my mind repeatedly trying to discard phrases like “monumentally stupid” and “moronic”  After all, I know there are some very fine people on both sides of the gun debate, and some friends of mine who I love and respect have expressed that they feel this is a good idea.

Clearly, I do not.  First of all, the shootings at Parkland were horrific, and I applaud the activism that they have spawned.  But, since that horrible day, hundreds of Americans have lost their lives to gun violence.  I fear that the conversation in some quarters has narrowed to school shootings, and that we are in danger of losing focus on the bigger issue of gun violence nationwide.

But let’s look at the school safety suggestion that Trump has championed.  If we are going to give teachers “a little bit of a bonus”, a gun, and a training course, we are going to make a massive, nationwide investment that does absolutely nothing to further the education of our kids.  One estimate suggested that if we selected just 10% of teachers to train and arm we would be talking about 1.4 million educators.  How can we justify the money that it would take to fund such an effort when states, even in a booming economy are not funding schools adequately?

His other proposal is to “harden” school sites making them more inaccessible to active shooters.  Apparently he used the word “harden” over twenty times in one statement although there were no particular details on what that would mean.  Students absolutely need to feel safe, but they also crave a warm, caring environment, not one that feels like a prison.

Here’s the other thing that I can say with some certainty as a former high school teacher.  You can give me a gun and give me some training, but as much as I love and would want to protect my students, I sincerely question my ability to draw down on someone, probably a young person, and execute them.  Clearly in the Parkland shooting, trained deputies had the same problem.  Well-trained and adept soldiers sometimes never recover completely from killing another human being.  I can’t imagine that teachers would be very good at it.

The focus on school shootings, long overdue no doubt, ignores that mass shootings are happening in the streets, in our churches, in movie theaters, in night clubs and at concert venues.  How are we going to “harden” our churches to make them more safe?  Are we going to arm and train pastors, the kid who sells you popcorn at the movies, bartenders, and concert security guards?  Do we really want pistol packing preachers?  Do you want to go to the movies knowing the teenaged usher may be carrying a Glock under his jacket?  We have to think about the problem more globally.

I’m not sure why I would bother to end this by making suggestions of what should be done.  We all know exactly what Congress will do about this issue: absolutely nothing. So rather than reiterate the same proposals that come up after every new outrage (banning assault weapons, limiting the size of ammo magazines, or creating a truly efficient method of background checks) let me suggest just one thing.

Make owning a weapon more expensive.  Slap a 25% surcharge on every gun and every bullet sold in America.  Say to people that no matter what the NRA tells you, no one is coming for your guns.  However, if you really want it, you’ve got to pay more.  The government could collect this surcharge and put it to any number of uses.  We could create a fund for the victims of gun violence.  We should absolutely fund research into gun violence as a national health problem as soon as Congress removes the ridiculous law that bans such funding.  We could provide free gun locks to any gun owner who wants one.  Hell, let’s give every gun collector a free gun safe.  Then maybe we could prevent a few first graders from accidentally shooting their playmates on the playground of their “hardened” school campus.

There is plenty of precedence for this approach.  We do the same thing with tobacco.  If your product creates a burden on society, you have to pay more to help offset that burden.  Tobacco taxes are used to help fund anti-smoking campaigns and study the effects of the way in which tobacco is marketed.  No one is ever going to take away smokes from those who want to use them, but when your pleasure becomes a burden on society, you need to contribute to easing that burden.

Let’s at least try this before we become Fortress America and turn every school into a Green Zone.

Hope and Despair: Ripped From The Headlines

 

Since the election of November 2016, I’ve really tried at times to insulate myself from the news simply because there seems to be so much happening that tears at my heart when I see the direction in which our country is being led.  That direction seems to be so dedicated to abusing the interests of people in need, the disenfranchised, and the environment that it is painful to read about.

One glimmer of hope is that I know I am not alone in noticing.

So, I have returned to reading the paper with my coffee in the morning and steeling myself against the worst of the news I might face.  Today was a pretty bad day.

Headline:  White House Proposes $4.4 Trillion Budget

The despair:  There is a lot to hate in this budget.  It seems to slash at the programs that help people the most.  Just to point out two things.  It proposes cutting the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency by over 20%–you know, that little department that until recently worked really hard to make sure that we had clean air and clean water?  That ensured that we would move forward toward a future of sustainable, renewable energy?  That we would support world-wide efforts to battle the causes of climate change?  By contrast, the budget increases spending on the military by 13%.  That is a whopping increase, and it is hard to buy the argument that somehow Obama “hollowed out” our military preparedness when the previous budget exceeded the military budgets of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Britain, Japan, and Germany combined.  To help pay for this enormous increase, the proposed budget suggests cutting the food stamp program.

The hope:  Congress has ignored most of the draconian cuts to social programs and even made substantive increases in health care and other services, but they will wrap themselves in the flag and pass the military budget with no questions asked.

Headline:  Transgender Student Protections Curbed

The despair:  Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions are at it again, rolling back protections for trans students to use the bathroom that corresponds with their chosen gender identity.  It seems this decree only helps adults who are made uncomfortable by the existence of trans people and fervently hope they will just go away.  Living in California where gender-neutral bathrooms in most public spaces are becoming the norm, their action does little harm.  However, it once again, codifies this administration’s hostility toward the LGBTQ community.

The hope:  It will take years, as it did for gay marriage, but stronger legal protections for the trans community are coming.  We will have to wait for the Trump aberration to pass and for societal attitudes to evolve, but I believe that I will see it in my lifetime.

The Headline:  Woman, 84, Held Over Gunshot

The despair:  Yeah, just in case you missed this one, in rural Northern California an 84-year-old woman was arrested after she took out her rifle and shot in the direction of her neighbor’s 8 and 10 year-old children because they were being too noisy.  Apparently the kids were riding motorcycles and after arguing with the parents, the woman got her rifle out and took a couple of shots toward the kids.  No one was injured.

The hope:  (Sigh) I’m not even sure what to say.

In an effort to gain some wisdom by stealing from the best, I am currently reading The Book of Joy, a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu as recorded and stitched together by author Douglas Abrams.  Abrams poses the question how one should cope with the despair that many people feel with all of the injustice, and pain, and suffering that we see in the world.  The archbishop responded this way:  “Despair can come from deep grief, but it can also be a defense against the risks of bitter disappointment and shattering heartbreak.  Resignation and cynicism are easier, more self-soothing postures that do not require the raw vulnerability and tragic risk of hope.  To chose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s chest to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.”

I like that he asks me to embrace hope as an active, vital, and valiant choice. It is a choice made by a warrior, someone ready for action now, but also confident in the good things that the future will bring.

My Community Service Project: The Trash Man Cometh

Before

Being retired not only gives me more time to become irritated over fairly mundane things (see Grumpy Old Man), but it also provides me the time and opportunity to do something about them.

So, day after day, when I saw a small, dilapidated RV parked along the frontage road that leads to the road that leads to my house, I became convinced that this eyesore was either abandoned or that even worse, someone was using it as a residence.  I contacted the local sheriffs who told me to contact the Highway Patrol whose non-emergency number is always busy.  Somehow, though, when I wasn’t paying attention, the eyesore disappeared.

However, the owners left behind a pile of refuse, and as I looked up and down the frontage road, I realized just how trashy the 150 yards or so that I drive past several times a day had become.  The dirt pathway along a fence that parallels a freeway entrance is a walkway for many middle school kids who frequent the local Starbucks and the convenience store on the corner and leads to two or three apartment buildings down the way.

Initially, I thought I was just going to clean up after the RV dwellers so I grabbed a couple of trash bags, a rake, a pair of gloves and went down to survey the damage.  What I found was that they had jettisoned two wooden valances and an enormous pile of trimmed cactus.  I’m not kidding.  Huge chunks of cacti, all cut and cleaned, were dumped in a muddy pile.  I loaded the mess into the back of my SUV and carted it home  to my trash bins.

But that wasn’t enough for me.  Spending some time down by the fence made me notice just how awful all of that trash looked and how badly it needed to be cleaned up.

I became a man on a mission.  I bought a fresh box of trash bags, spread some plastic down in the back of my vehicle and decided to go to work on the problem. It felt fun to have a project like this.  Smelly, but fun.  I spent about an hour a day for four days to get the area cleaned to my satisfaction.  The typical haul on each day was 2-3 bags of weeds and trash.

The variety of trash was impressive.  I found the kinds of things you’d expect–lots of drink containers, fast food packaging, cigarette butts, and plastic crap of all kinds.  In addition there was clothing, a pillow, many small liquor bottles, and one used condom.  My neighbors are clearly not intimidated by the single sign that threatens them with a $1000 fine for littering.  All in all, I ended up with about 10 bags of trash.

As menial as it was, the work was incredibly satisfying.  Every day as I drive by, I survey the work I have accomplished and take note of any new litter that has begun to accumulate.  I suspect I will become like the guy who purportedly used to spend his days painting the Golden Gate Bridge from one end to the other and back year after year.

And while this may be a Sisyphean task, it feels good to see the neighborhood look a little cleaner.  Today, as I was finishing up, two different strangers stopped to introduce themselves and thank me for the work that I was doing.  It was not important to me to get the recognition, but it did let me know that others had seen the problem and appreciated that someone took some action.

While it will take some continued effort to keep it clean, I now feel a sense of ownership.  I’ve started to keep my eye out for other areas nearby that are showing signs of neglect that may need a little love and attention.  If I keep this up, I may need to get a cape and a secret identity–maybe take to cleaning up only under the cover of darkness.

People will wake up in the morning to marvel and whisper, “Trash Man has been here!”

After

Trying Out Sobriety

My entree into the world of heavy drinking was as slow as my exit was abrupt and unexpected.

I can find notes in journals that go back as far as the 80’s where I was making resolutions to cut back on my drinking, but it wasn’t until the past 15 years or so that I developed into a much more heavy and habitual drinker.

I can’t offer a substantive reason for how it developed, but there was a confluence of events that influenced me.  In 2000, my son left for college, and I felt a seismic shift in my life as I saw my role as “dad” begin to shift and, in my mind, diminish.  At the same time, I discovered the comfort one could find in being a regular at a local pub or in the bar of a local restaurant.  I liked bartenders knowing my name, knowing my drink, making space for me at the end of the bar, fronting me a drink from time to time, giving me attention that I felt, for that brief moment made me special, a friend.

Living in San Diego a new brewery began to open up almost weekly and so frequent trips to visit those spots weren’t drinking; they were research.  It seemed important to have tried the latest beers to keep up in conversations with other beer geeks. Beer festivals became a monthly diversion.

I did not, and do not consider myself an alcoholic, but my habits surrounding my drinking became more and more unhealthy.  Four beers a night felt like my ceiling and I felt cheated when I didn’t get there.  That meant happy hour had to get started earlier on some days, and that, at times, I would ditch my night-time walk to sit outdoors in the cold and enjoy a 22-ounce beer, alone, and content with the isolation and the quiet.  If I was feeling good, I didn’t mind breaking through my self-imposed ceiling.

I told some friends that I was aware that I was “drinking like there was no tomorrow” and I meant that literally.  If I felt good at the moment I was drinking, it was easy to convince myself that an extra beer or two would not hurt me in the morning, no matter how many days I’d wake up with a bad stomach and have to fight through dizziness for most of the day. No matter how many plans I made to cut back, they all failed.  As soon as I began to feel better, I was good to go again.

In the back of my mind the bigger “tomorrow” of how I might be affecting my health always pinged at me too, but to a lesser degree.  I had developed a kind of fatalism as I grew older and seen younger, health-conscious friends and colleagues felled by accident and heinous diseases.  I became convinced that if I was going to get sick or disabled, it was going to happen if and when it was going to happen, regardless of my drinking.  In fact, it was more reason to enjoy what I liked while I could.

What made me change direction was a doctor’s visit that was prompted by increased heart palpitations that I was having.  It is a condition I’ve had for years and I’ve been through every test and monitoring protocol that they offer with no definitive result.  Caffeine and alcohol were certainly potential triggers, but so are dehydration, exertion, stress, anxiety–take your pick–I’m prone to all of these things.

However, I was frank with my doctor about my drinking habits and he just cut through the bullshit and said, “I think you should quit–entirely–so we can see if you feel better without the nightly alcohol.”  I was a little scared at the thought.  I wasn’t sure I could do it.

That was six weeks ago.  Friends and family members had urged me to moderate my drinking for years, but I suck at moderation.  Quitting, it turns out, I can do.  Moderating, not so much.

While I found I did not suffer from any physical withdrawal symptoms, I spiraled pretty quickly into a depression that was full of self-pity and anger–anger at having to change my ways, anger that I hadn’t changed sooner, anger that I might have actually done physical damage to myself that I’d now have to deal with.  I felt fearful that I’d resolve to make this change and quickly slide back into the well-worn ruts of my long-established habits and disappoint myself and the people closest to me.

I felt like by making this decision I had created a void in my life–no more breweries, no more happy hours, no more wine tasting, no more catching the game at my local sports bar.  I couldn’t imagine doing those things as a non-drinker.

I think what hurt the most though was knowing I was leaving behind the thing I liked best about drinking.  It was the sensation that I would sometimes get, especially when I was out somewhere on my own, sitting outdoors on a warm day, that there was absolutely nothing to worry about, that all was truly right with the world.  The hazy, carefree numbness that alcohol gave to me was its greatest gift.  It somehow took away the worries I carry, the sense of always needing to be responsible, the sense of needing to always be doing something.  With a couple of beers under my belt, I could put my headphones on and be thoroughly content–at least for an hour or two.

In working with an addiction medicine therapist to help me navigate this change, I’ve gained a lot of insight. She has helped me to shift my concentration away from what I felt I was losing to what I was gaining.  First off, I discovered that I had not created a void by giving up drinking.  The void had been with me for a long time.  Alcohol had simply helped me paper over feelings of isolation or purposelessness or inadequacy.  Now, I need to confront those feelings for what they are and see what kind of growth can come from that.

I discovered that my denial that drinking had become a problem for me had become a huge burden, one that I could now unload.  I had no idea how exhausting it had become justifying my excesses to myself.  I didn’t realize how much guilt I was carrying around until I no longer needed to do so.

I thought social events would be troublesome, being around so many other who were able to drink with impunity while I was having to walk the straight and narrow, but again I found a sense of relief.  Throughout the night, I didn’t have to think about how many drinks I had consumed, or how many more I might be able to allow myself.  I didn’t have to worry if I’d be OK to drive.  The one down side was that I found it hard to simply relax without the aid of a few drinks.  I guess maybe that will come with time.

It’s only been six weeks.  Six weeks of sobriety after 800 weeks of indulgence give or take.  I honestly don’t know where this all leads for me.  It would be so very easy to slide back into my old habits.  I’m not trying for life of pure abstinence.  I expect that there will be some cheating going on from time to time.

And that seems OK to me.  But for now, I like where I am.  It feels good to be able to change.  It feels good to be on a new pathway. It’s why I liked the quote I chose for the beginning of the post.  I’m not expecting some kind of sudden perfection.  I just want to keep moving forward.