I Am A Moron

Before I sat down to write this I pulled on a pair of sweatpants.  Backwards.

I could just stop there, but there’s more.  Anyone can make a simple mistake.  Recently I have been on a quest for more thoughtful and sophisticated ways to screw up–like two months back when I was doing the bills, and following my system, I wrote down the amounts for all of the bills I pay on-line carefully in my checkbook.  Somehow though, I never made it over to the computer to actually get into the “bill pay” page and get the payments sent out.  I sussed it all out when “past due” notices began to sprout from my mailbox like an unwelcome weed infestation.  There are also some months where I pay all my bills twice.  It just helps to round things out.

I know what you are thinking.  He’s losing it.  Dementia.

Normally, I’d go straight for that diagnosis also.  That and brain tumor are my go-to thoughts if I get anything worse than a hangnail.

But at the time all of this happened, I was struggling with chronic dizziness (probably a brain tumor, right?).  It isn’t incapacitating, but I can feel kind of “foggy” at times.  It’s one reason I haven’t been writing of late.  I first went to see my doctor about it in April, but I’d been having problems for at least a month before.  It’s not the first time I’ve had this issue, but it was being so persistent that I decided to get my doctor involved.

That started a marathon round of appointments.  He checked me over and sent me to a head and neck specialist and recommended I see a vestibular physical therapist (yeah, who knew there was such a thing).

The head and neck specialist did a couple of tests and deemed that whatever was causing it was probably cardiovascular or neurological.  The physical therapist spent two sessions making me do a series of bizarre exercises trying to make me dizzy (or more dizzy than I was at the moment) and failed miserably.  Shrug.

Went back to my primary care doctor who thought I should go see a head and neck specialist (wait, didn’t I already do that?).  I ended up seeing exactly the same woman, who did exactly the same test, and came to exactly the same conclusions. I decided to check in with my neurologist.  He suggested I go to the head and neck department.

I sought help from my acupuncturist who concluded there were clouds of smoke in my brain and that I needed to stay away from television, politics, basically, the world.

My local health provider held a small ceremony for me where I was given a certificate of achievement for my tenacity in unsuccessfully trying to find the cause of the problem.  There was cake and everything (I’m making that part up).

Finally, I decided to quit listening to everyone and pulled down the box where I keep my daily meds and started looking at everything I was taking to see if there was anything I could eliminate, anything that might be the culprit.

Most of my meds are “old dude” regulars for blood pressure, cholesterol, and a couple more exotic ones.  I take some Chinese herbs from my acupuncturist also, you know, for the whole “smoke in the brain” thing.

Oh, and I’d been taking Melatonin.  When I stopped drinking nearly a year ago, I had trouble sleeping though the night.  I was waking up more and more often at odd hours and finding it impossible to get back to sleep.  Two in the morning is just not a fun time to find yourself awake and yet still groggy and exhausted.

When Mary suggested Melatonin, I thought, sure!  It’s over-the-counter and therefore “safe”.  It worked great!  Magic!  Later, when she mentioned that maybe I wasn’t supposed to  take it continuously, I dismissed the suggestion.  Pssssh.  After all, I bought it at Sprouts. It was doing exactly what I wanted it to do.  I didn’t even read the label until the day I began to examine all my meds.

Yes, the label that stated “If any adverse reactions occur, immediately stop using this product and consult a doctor” and “Limit use to two months with a break of one week.”  I was checking out this information, written clearly on the bottle, after taking it every night for, oh, ten months straight.

It gets worse.  I googled Melatonin and looked up possible drug interactions.  Under “serious interactions” I found one of my daily medications.  Possible side effects–dizziness.  And the timeline fit.  The dizziness had begun shortly after I started taking it.  I just never made the connection.

MOTHERFORKING MORON!

So I quit taking it right away and the dizziness did not go away immediately, but at least the insomnia returned.  It actually took three weeks before I was symptom free.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t do any permanent brain damage or anything although, you never know.  I enjoyed 4-5 weeks of mental clarity without the low-grade sense that my brain was slowly rocking or spinning occasionally.  I was quite proud of myself for chasing down my own stupidity.

And then the dizziness came back (“heavy sigh”).  What are you gonna do?  I’m just going to enjoy the ride for now.  I’ll go through the pill box and see if I’ve got something else I can toss out.  Maybe I can put my yard blower up against one ear and see if I can blow out some of that smoke on my brain.

Advertisements

Don’t Want to Burn Out; Don’t Want To Fade Away

I don’t enjoy reminders of my age although it’s hard to miss the signs when I face the mirror every morning.  I certainly never used to keep my very own blood pressure monitor tucked behind my laptop on my desk just so I can check it every now and then for my entertainment.

I don’t feel as old as the calendar tells me that I am.  I have a few limitations on my physical activity, but most of them are mental limitations–fear of failure or injury.  Learning how to surf sounds like fun on some days.  On others days it sounds like an invitation to the emergency room.

I can’t seem to shake the tendonitis that I have in both hands which may hamper or end my days as a guitarist although that career was always teetering on a lack of talent and a certain laissez-faire attitude toward actually practicing.

But speaking of the guitar, I do still admire the skill of others and so last night when my wife and I were enjoying the warm evening at one of our local go-to restaurants, we were pleasantly surprised by the live music on the patio.  The artist was an older guy, probably our age, who looked like a refugee from the ’60’s. He was just a gentle soul with long, blonde hair who sang simple folk songs that all sounded as if they came right out of the playlist of my teenage years.  Every now and then he’d ramp up a cover of a song by Neil Young or Bob Dylan and rouse the friendly group who had hung out to listen to him through the end of his second set.

Toward the end of the evening he began playing a song I had never heard, but as I listened to the lyrics it felt as though the writer had ripped a page out of my life and thoughts over the past months. The guitarist told me after the show that the song was “If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell and that it had been voted 2018 Americana Song of the Year by someone.

The song is a reflection on growing old with someone special so as I sat listening to it with the girl I met when we were 16, the girl I didn’t begin dating until after high school, and the woman to whom I’ve been married for almost 45 years, the words were poignant (although they lose something without the music, I suspect):

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever

Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone

Maybe we’ll get forty years together

But one day I’ll be gone

Or one day you’ll be gone

If we were vampires and death was a joke

We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke

And laugh at all the lovers and their plans

I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

I don’t wake up and begin my day by dwelling on mortality.  I mostly think about how good that first cup of coffee is going to taste, and how I really need to get down to the shop and get new tires put on my car.  But I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t noticed that 65 is a big number, and that I’m increasingly aware of the very finite nature of life.

I always imagine I’ve got maybe 20 or so good years left and let’s face it, that’s a lot of years. But that number seems smaller when I realize I’ve already burned through three times as many plus a few.

The song concentrates on the relationship and how it has sustained the couple and it made me think how meaningless life might have been for me this past 40 years without the life I’ve had with Mary and about how I would not want to grow old alone:

Maybe time running out is a gift

I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift

And give you every second I can find

And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

I actually like finding music that hits too close to home.  It’s nice to know that others think about these things.

It’s nicer still to hear her working in the room next door as I’m writing this.  And that she’ll be nearby when I fall asleep tonight.  And that hers will be the first face I see tomorrow morning and in the many mornings left to come.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Paying Off The House

I thought there should have been fireworks.

Six weeks ago, my wife and I walked into our credit union late in the afternoon, waited patiently for a teller, and then told her we wanted to pay off the balance of our mortgage loan.

It was not a spontaneous decision.  I had begun planning, over a year ago, to begin making double payments and make a push to get the final payment made in November, thirty-seven years (almost to the day) after taking out our original loan.

I guess the confetti canons and bubble machines were in storage because rather than celebration what we got mostly was confusion.  The young teller had to call over a supervisor.

“He wants to pay off his mortgage.  How do we even do that?”  She was staring diligently at her computer looking for the “paying off the mortgage” icon.  It wasn’t there.

The supervisor only knew that they needed to call the loan servicing department to ask them what to do.  Apparently, this happens so seldom, they just aren’t very familiar with the process.  We finally jumped through all of the hoops and settled up with them.  They were very happy for us and offered their congratulations.  I just had one question.

“Don’t I get something that says that I now own the house–sort of like the pink slip on a car?”

There was a hesitation.  The supervisor jumped in with, “Yes. The loan department will send you something official in a few weeks.  I’m pretty sure.”

I chose not to worry about the details. I had an expensive bottle of champagne chilling at home and was anxious to get back and sip it slowly with my wife and savor the moment.  There was a feeling of satisfaction, something akin to the feeling I had in seeing each of our kids graduate from college knowing that my wife and I had found a way to make that possible without sinking them or ourselves into debt.

Our home is a modest 3-bedroom house in a suburb of San Diego.  We bought it in 1980, a spec home that was immaculate on the inside and barren of any kind of landscaping on the outside.  Getting the yard fully landscaped has been a 37-year pain in my ass that still goes on today as I tackle previously untouched areas and try to revitalize parts that need re-landscaping.

However, every day I can enjoy my three towering pine trees planted early on from one-gallon containers, mere twigs that I stuck in the soil some 35 years ago.

And there are 20 relatively new iceberg rose bushes that now rim our lawn, the same lawn that provided room for softball and soccer practice for so many years.  I visit my vegetable garden every morning, which produces year-round now that I’m retired, and marvel at the beauty of home-grown food.

The inside of the house seemed firm enough when we bought the place but turned out to have a certain elasticity to it that I could not have imagined back in 1980 when Mary and I moved in.  It seemed huge at the time–3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living, dining and family room with a two-car garage just for the two of us?  Are you kidding me?!

Then in ’82 when Nico was born, it got a little smaller, shrunk a little, now having this tiny person sleeping across the hall from us.  When Emily came along in ’87 our study evaporated and the house continued to contract as the kids grew bigger and simply sucked more air and space out of the house.  We nearly reached critical mass and thought long and hard about moving to a bigger place, but decided to sit tight and wait for the kid’s planned exits to college to give us more space again.

And the magic happened.  Nico headed off to UCSB in 2000 and Emily departed for UCLA in 2005, and late in the night I could actually hear the house give off a sigh as it stretched and once again grew to the size it had been when we first moved in.

So yesterday, when I sat down to do the bills, for the first time since I moved out of my parents’ house in July of 1973, I had no one to whom I needed to give money so that I could continue to live in my place.  It truly was my place for the very first time.

“Retired, Not Dead” Turns 100!  My Ten Favorite Posts: A Retrospective

It never occurred to me that if I just kept writing, I would end up publishing 100 articles in this blog, but this entry will be #100.  For this landmark, I decided to go back and select 10 articles for which I had a particular fondness.  If you are a regular reader or have just accidentally stumbled across the blog for the first time, I hope you will take time to browse a few of my favorites.  Please drop me a comment if you are inspired to do so.  I love to hear from my readers.

My first post was on March 5, 2014.  These are listed from oldest to most recent:

“Thank You, Paul McCartney” recounts my introduction to French kissing and I am forever grateful to the young woman who introduced me to it so kindly.  The moment coincided with Paul McCartney’s song “Maybe I’m Amazed” which is why it is dedicated to him.

“Just The Facts, Ma’am–The Top 5 TV Detectives”  I loved this project.  Once I decided on my list I spent a full day on each one–reading up on them to collect background, watching clips for memorable moments, and at times watching whole episodes each morning.  After all, I was doing research.  Right after lunch, I’d start on the detective’s profile and get it posted by the late afternoon, building the article in serial fashion, posting detective #5 on Monday and #1 on Friday.

“Dish Bitch”  wherein I complain bitterly about being the only member of the family willing to empty the dishwasher and then slowly come to terms with my fate.

“So, Hypochondriacally Speaking…”  This one explores my own paranoia about my health and how I seem to overreact to every odd fleeting symptom that comes along.  I might have picked this one just because I liked the play on words in the title.

“Dude, I Said I Was Sorry”  This one tells the story of my encounter with an angry bike rider who claimed I had almost run him over when I actually had never even seen him.  In this one I played with a technique used by Joseph Heller (Catch 22) where the character’s thoughts sometimes become part of the on-going dialogue.

“Watching Icebergs Go By”  This is a story from my teaching career where I was once again reminded of how little I actually know about the lives of my students.  One particular student makes a heart-breaking revelation in the very last class on the very last day of the school year.

“Competitive Backpacking”  Yes, one would think that backpacking is the ultimate team activity, but when my friends and I were active in the 1980’s there were always contests to one-up each other, sometimes with very funny consequences.

“Men: Why It’s Important To Keep Your Mouth Shut”  The complexities of communication between men and women is a source of constant fascination for me.  Over time, I think I’ve learned when it is most important to shut up and listen.

“A Day In The Life”  I think some people might skip over my blog, assuming from the title that it is a record of the glories of retired life.  However, those kind of entries make up a small fraction.  This one, however, tries to answer the question I get from working people who cannot fathom a life without work:  “Just what do you do to stay busy?”

“Honestly, I Lie All The Time”  Honesty should be simple, but in this one I discover times where I had to evaluate just how often I tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

“Grumpy Old Man”  I’m better now, but I went through a few months where everything seemed to annoy me.  In this one, I describe both my symptoms and a possible cure.

OK, so I picked 11 and couldn’t decide which one to cut.  So, shoot me.  I find that I was much more anxious to reprise articles that made me laugh than the ones that were more serious.  The serious ones are in the archives if you feel like exploring them.

Thank you to everyone who has been so encouraging and who regularly leaves “likes” and comments and to those who pushed me to start off on this journey 3 plus years ago.  I’m looking forward to more writing ahead.