Lottery.

My wife is an addict.

There were a great many years when I wouldn’t have been able to type that sentence, much less express it publicly. Just the word addict was full of too much stigma, too much shame, and too much responsibility. So, I called it other things or, preferably, nothing at all. It was the topic that caused me to whisper, as if lowering the volume of our conversation would lessen the reality of it, as well.

To her credit, my wife began to wear the label long before I was comfortable with the sound of it. She attended meetings and added the clarifying “recovering,” but my discomfort remained. I worried about what other people would think, mostly because I was concerned that they would view the word — and as a result, my wife — through the same judgmental filter that I had. And then, if we’re being perfectly honest, how would that make them view me?

My wife would tell you that she knew she was an addict the first time the warmth of hard liquor hit the back of her throat. Something just clicked for her — something that never clicked for me, despite my most valiant efforts — and in that instant, her subconscious began to map out a destiny for her that would include some form of addiction. I’m not sure why that happens to some people and not to others. It’s a twisted lottery of sorts and you don’t know if you have the “winning” numbers unless you have the ticket in hand.

When Amy Winehouse, who was as famous for her substance abuse as she was for her musical ability, passed away in July, the comedian Russell Brand wrote a piece on her for The Guardian. Brand, a recovering addict himself, talked about the very nature of connection with someone in the throes of addiction.

“I was myself at that time barely out of rehab and was thirstily seeking less complicated women so I barely reflected on the now glaringly obvious fact that Winehouse and I shared an affliction, the disease of addiction. All addicts, regardless of the substance or their social status share a consistent and obvious symptom; they’re not quite present when you talk to them. They communicate to you through a barely discernible but unignorable veil. Whether a homeless smack head troubling you for 50p for a cup of tea or a coked-up, pinstriped exec foaming off about his speedboat, there is a toxic aura that prevents connection. They have about them the air of elsewhere, that they’re looking through you to somewhere else they’d rather be. And of course they are. The priority of any addict is to anaesthetise the pain of living to ease the passage of the day with some purchased relief.”

Read the whole piece here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/jul/24/russell-brand-amy-winehouse-woman

Brand’s words hit me sideways because they expressed an unspoken truth that I’d long known about loving addicts. I’ve always struggled with the disease model for addiction, popularized by 12 Step groups and the like, but it’s hard to deny the physical, mental, and emotional symptoms, whether you call it a disease or not. It’s easier to blame an addict who continues to use drugs in the face of unimaginable consequences, throwing emotional shrapnel at all those around him. Or maybe we just blame the addict for taking the very first drink, the one which started it all. No amount of blame we assign, though, will ever be able to compete with the shame they already feel.

Before our dear friend Michele passed away last year after her own lifetime of addiction struggles, we’d often talk about the “why.” Why was I able to walk away from the partying of my youth without a second thought, why was my wife blindsided by addiction for so many years only to then be able to walk a path into sobriety, and why was Michele seemingly unable to escape addiction’s grasp? It wasn’t a difference in will power or moral fortitude and it certainly wasn’t because one of us simply prayed harder than the other. I do know that shame somehow plays a part, as I don’t think any addict can reach a point of consistent recovery until he deals with the often self-imposed shame of his affliction, but even that does nothing to answer why some of us become addicts in the first place when others do not.

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with my two teenage nieces about life, high school, college… and, eventually, addiction. I’m enough of a pragmatist to realize that most kids will “experiment” with alcohol or some sort of drug. The statistics are as staggering as they are depressing. As a parent, I’m sure I’d obsess about every instance of that experimentation, threatening all manner of hell-fire for each and every teenage stupidity. However, as an uncle, particularly an uncle who has walked a path alongside addiction’s casualties, I worry more about the lottery of it all, about the ticket purchased with that first drink or binge or blackout.

As fatalistic as this all seems at times, personal experience also tells me that there is hope and there can be recovery. Recovery is, at times, a hard-fought battle against insurmountable odds, but it’s a battle worth fighting. And it’s possible.

September is National Recovery Month. Click here for more information on recovery resources and events in your area: http://recoverymonth.gov/

Blessed.

This past March, Lucinda Williams released a new album called Blessed. While I’ve been aware of her country/bluesy/folk music for some time (after all, she’s been making music for a few decades now), her hypnotic duet with Karin Bergquist — “Undamned,” a beautiful song about love and grace and redemption — on Over the Rhine’s gorgeous The Long Surrender album gave me an opportunity to reacquaint myself with her and her music. I’m glad I did.

Lucinda put out a series of short “blessed” themed videos prior to the album’s release, part album promotion and part inspiration, that I found really compelling, too. You can watch them all below. They are described as follows:

Individual Testimonials of what it means to be “BLESSED”. Everyday people from the city of Los Angeles, CA sharing their story of why they are Blessed. These beautiful stories were volunteered, when simply asked to hold in their own hand writing a sign featuring the title of the upcoming album.

The overriding idea of the project, I gather, is that we’re all blessed in some way, regardless of our individual circumstances. The key is in the ability to recognize those blessings. And heck, maybe a sign helps, too.

Enjoy. Be blessed.

The whistler.

Jim & Jeffrey | Christmas, Early 70s

For as long as I can remember, my grandfather has been a whistler. Usually he’s whistling an old church hymn or, occasionally, a country tune that was around long before I was a blip on the family radar, back when country music was worth listening to, he’d probably tell you. Most often, he whistles as he walks, like a bell to let you know he’s coming down the hall. His whistle is equal parts nostalgia and joy and humor and gentleness. And I love it. It’s unquestionably one of my favorite sounds on earth. Although I have only a handful of vivid childhood memories, some of the best ones include times with my grandfather, whistling or otherwise. It was my grandfather who taught us all to fish, whether we particularly wanted to learn or not, on our many summertime trips to Lake Erie. I know now that it was never really about the actual fish, or even the fishing. For him, I think it was about the time on the water and the peace that, somehow, could only be found there. “Quiet or you’ll scare the fish away,” he’d insist. And then he’d whistle because, as he explained, he was calling the fish to us. Perch respond to such beckoning, apparently. Naturally, we believed him. The truth is, I never did like fishing all that much, but there was something about those days — maybe it was the lake’s stillness that I learned to appreciate or maybe it was just the fact that I knew it made my grandfather happy — that remains imprinted on my heart. It was my grandfather who gave a fourteen year-old me the keys to the old blue Oldsmobile — a sad looking thing with a matching blue velour interior — and turned me loose in the field behind the house, much to my grandmother’s dismay and long before I should have been allowed behind the wheel. I still remember the way that car smelled, a mixture of my grandmother’s perfume and my grandfather’s pipe. As an adult, I’ve driven BMWs on closed racetracks and piloted convertibles on the Autobahn, but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to replicate the feeling of euphoria that I felt behind the wheel of that Oldsmobile. It was my grandfather who first taught us about the importance of hard work, a lesson not taught by verbal instruction, but by years of example. By the time I was around, Grandpa had already started his own business (it’s strange to think that he was around the age that I am now when the business first opened its doors), a place where he spent most of his waking hours when I was young. The lesson was that in order to succeed, one had to work hard without griping, take pride in what you did, and be fair to people along the way. A simple business model, indeed, but one that proved successful.

Jim & Millie | Summer 1941

As important as the business was to my grandfather, he taught me an even greater lesson by walking away from it when my grandmother became ill. With my grandmother’s physical health in decline and the effects of Alzheimer’s becoming readily apparent, my grandfather took on his most challenging job yet. He would become my grandmother’s primary caregiver. The man we used to tease years earlier because he didn’t know how to set an alarm or make a pot of coffee or do his own laundry (after all, my grandmother always took care of such things and would have it no other way) now made lunch and baked cookies, not to mention all of the unmentionable tasks that are required when your loved one is suddenly unable to care for herself in even the most basic of ways. Those last years of my grandmother’s illness took a toll on my grandfather, as they do for anyone who assumes a similar caregiving role. His whistle all but evaporated during that time. Perhaps it was simply a product of fatigue and worry, or perhaps such a manifestation of joy just seemed inappropriate to him, given the circumstances. Whatever the reason, I noticed — and felt — its increasing absence and all that I assumed it meant. But then, a few months after my grandmother passed, my grandfather walked by my office one day and I heard the sound of him whistling, “How Great Thou Art.” Another lesson. My grandfather whistles a lot these days, which I credit almost entirely to his ability to keep his heart open to the possibilities of life — and love — even after losing his partner of a half dozen decades. For me, as someone who tends to build emotional walls at even the slightest whisper of potential hurt, this has been one of his greatest lessons yet. At eighty-eight years young, my grandfather is happy, in love with a wonderful lady, and full of the same graciousness that has marked every chapter of his life. I have no doubt that there are a few lessons yet to be taught. I just hope there will be the whistle of an old gospel hymn to accompany them.

A little civility.

If you’ve paid even a bit of attention to my Facebook fawnings, you already know of my affection for the band The Civil Wars. I’m a bona fide music nut, no question, with a range of musical tastes that is only surpassed by my apparent Musical Attention Deficit Disorder, or MADD. No offense to the drunk driving moms.

It happens often… I’ll come across a new band or musician that, for a moment, just might be the best thing I’ve ever heard. Muscial perfection, I’d tell you. And then, like a junkie looking for his next fix, I move on to the next great thing. This has been my unapologetic routine for years now and I have the music library to prove it. Every once in a while, though, I come across a band or a performer that just “sticks,” for whatever reason. The Civil Wars is one such band.

The only problem is that when I find myself prattling on about The Civil Wars, as I tend to do, someone will inevitably ask me how I first heard about them. Then I have to admit that, while under the sort of television viewing duress that can only happen in marriage, I heard one of their songs on (the infernal) Grey’s Anatomy. Of course, I don’t remember anything about the particular episode — although I am sure Meredith’s weepiness was making me contemplate the benefits of carbon monoxide poisoning — but when I heard just a clip of “Poison & Wine,” I was hooked.


Chelli and I went to see the lovely duo live a few months back and I am happy to report that now she, too, is completely hooked. We already have tickets for their Columbus show this fall. While I love their recordings, seeing them live is something else entirely. They are two of the most engaging performers I’ve seen. Even though their music is often melancholy (my favorite kind), their delivery has the sort of charm that makes it all okay.


So humor me. Take a listen. Download their free live set, Live at Eddie’s Attic, on their website [http://www.thecivilwars.com/music.php] and see if you just might get a little hooked, too. At least you won’t have to tell somebody that you first heard about them on Grey’s Anatomy.

The truth about snark.

I’ve been called “snarky” a few times in my life. Today. Heck, in the last hour. Sometimes I think it’s meant as a compliment, but other times, well, I’m sure it’s not. I’m okay with it either way, of course. And that’s a good thing, too, because it’s little more than a reflex at this point.

When I was a kid, we called it “sarcasm” and it was not always appreciated by The Powers That Be. When I say “The Powers That Be,” I’m talking about you, Mom… and a few teachers, ex-girlfriends, and law enforcements officers. Sarcasm, you see, usually insinuated some sort of juvenile eye roll (or, maybe a few times, an extended middle finger), whether it was real or imagined. Yes, I maintain that the officer imagined it.

I’m all grown up now, so we call it snark to make it sound like the charming personality trait that it is. When I converse with my snarky friends — and my god, do I have some seriously snarky friends — it’s called banter. And I love a little banter. Now, to be clear, I have friends who aren’t snarky. Plenty of them, in fact. But I have very few friends who don’t “get” snark. Not for lack of effort on my part, I should mention. They just don’t want to be friends with me. And I’m okay with that, too.

But here’s a truth about snark that the snarky among us don’t readily admit. It can be a wonderful barrier. A wall. A safety net. Sometimes, that’s by design. I can be all sorts of “social,” even entertaining, without ever being personal or the least bit revealing. That’s great at dinner parties, especially dinner parties full of guests that I don’t ever intend to see again, and it’s a godsend at the sort of work functions that have you mingling with people wearing “Hello, my name is” nametags in a too-cold conference room in the middle of some nondescript city.

Other times, though, it’s the kind of barrier that isn’t intended. Or healthy. Or especially relationship-edifying. That’s a lesson often learned the hard way, as my string of pre-marriage entanglements might indicate. My wife isn’t snarky, at least not much, but she gets it. More than that, though, she can cut through it like nobody else I know. When we were dating, at that awkward three month mark where it’s time to put up or shut up, I did what I always did. I snarked my way toward relationship demise, expecting the snarkee to wither away quietly into the night. Needless to say, Chelli didn’t wither. And so, I married her.

Let this be a lesson to you all.

[Side note: The picture above, which I love, was created by animator Matthew Simkins, who can be found at http://mattressy.blogspot.com. Talented guy.]

Hello.

Yes, it’s true. I have always been of the opinion that for someone to blog — to decide that his or her words, however inane, should be read by others — well, it takes a certain level of narcissistic asshattery. And yet, here we are. Pleasure to meet you.

The truth is… I have no real plan, no objective, and no vision for what might become of this little adventure. I realize that’s not the best sales pitch and yet, I’m okay with it. These days, I’m just not that big on plans. Mostly because when I spend a lot of time obsessively making them (why bother doing something if you’re not doing it obsessively?), life usually has another in mind anyway. Isn’t that just the way.

And so, we begin. Maybe this will become a thing. Maybe you’ll read it. Maybe we’ll get to know each other better as a result. It could happen. Stranger things have.

Sometimes I ramble,
JAW