Archive for December, 2013


Surviving Versus Celebrating

Almost without even knowing it, yet another holiday season is upon us. I could have sworn, just last week, that we were in the midst of the American orgy more commonly known as Thanksgiving.

We had a rehash of, A Christmas Story, Thanksgiving, based on the much more profound book by Jean Shepard, In God We Trust: All Other’s Pay Cash. I felt I was doing well to avoid the inherent drama when an aunt who is a lawyer (who I love despite her career) made known that she was not getting quite her share of the dark meat. Being health conscious the way I am, I had loaded her plate with white meat, thinking that, though it may be a bit more dry, white meat is allegedly more healthy (have all the ads and Weight Watchers been lying all this time?). And, of course, I was looking out for her best interest because she is diabetic after all.

This thought process leads me to the somewhat illogical conclusion that “like seeks like,” but that, my friend, is for another blog, another time.

At any rate,we watched the games, and if memory serves, the Green Bay Packers played and beat the Atlanta Falcons, even without the effort of Aaron Rogers, but I finally had enough, and as a light snow fell, I took the car for a ride, and where I live, the streets aren’t plowed with any regularity so I may indeed have taken my life in my hands just heading to Starbucks to find out if indeed they may have remained open long enough so I could get a Vanilla Rooibos tea, just to calm my frazzled nerves. By that time, Starbucks had indeed closed for the day so I let the car drift along, guided simply by the half tank of gas left. Two hours later, I pulled back in the drive and was informed, walking in the door, that our two dogs had devoured the leftovers from the feast, dark meat and all. My aunt announced that there was too much chaos and that she needed to check into the nearest Best Western.

Flash forward to New Years, no wait–not just yet. Flash forward to the approaching Christmas season. Normally we set up two trees, one real, one artificial, but maybe because of the many grey days in the Chicagoland area, I could only manage the artificial, and couldn’t be bothered with scouting out and hauling home a real tree from the Xmas tree lot.

Naturally, last year some of the pre-lit lights burned out at the end of the holiday season last year so, feeling especially virtuous, I cut them off and was forced to restring the entire tree this season. Hence: the one tree rule. Lucky for us, we have a hybrid fireplace (don’t ask, don’t tell what that means, exactly, but it involves a carefully calculated combination of gas and wood burning capabilities).

This brings me to the very important question as to whether I, or any of us for that matter, approach holidays with a sense of anticipation and joy or dread. It’s been many years since I toasted New Year’s with an adult alcoholic beverage, but I’m painfully aware that many of us need the kind of crutch that Budweiser is certainly willing to deliver. One thing about being sober, however, is that I have to guard against a feeling of superiority, a feeling that I have mastered stress without drinking myself into oblivion. I suspect that many of us have a hard enough time dealing with life on life’s terms without having that third or fourth glass of wine, or even heading to a bar for a shot of Doctor Feelgood.

So without a drink in hand, I nevertheless steel myself to celebrate Christmas. Counting blessing helps, folks, and indeed I am blessed to have my two parents both still alive, and a lovely home with a cousin who is dear to me. But for those friends caught in the miasma of a depressive fog, I’ve learned that simply asking them to count their blessings can even cause them to sink deeper into what Winston Churchill referred to as his “Black Dog Days.”

So in an effort to notice time passing, to find a reason to enjoy each moment as it passes, I treasure the gift of life. I make time to journal, to drive to a new coffeehouse, to hand write Christmas cards, to wander seemingly aimlessly through a bookstore.

The past is gone, the future is yet to be, why do we think today is a gift, why do you think we call it the present?

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The Value of Retail

What does working in retail, working at Walmart, or Target, or in a service industry like Jiffy Lube for automobiles have to do with Nelson Mandela? A whole lot more than you might expect, if you ask me.

The privileged in the world continue to look down upon the less fortunate, pity the have-nots with a self-satisfied sneer on their faces, hidden behind a crooked half frown. I was at Walmart today, and witnessed as those in their Sunday-best carefully wheeled their carts around anyone who may not be able to afford Chivas Regal, avoiding those who might not have room in their studio apt to blow up a Balance exercise ball or put together the latest Suzanne Somer’s contraption.

I cringe as I watch those who were born on third base who then thought they had somehow hit a home run in the baseball game we call life. I myself have worked several retail jobs, starting with the official title of Plant Helper at General Mills, working the line while paying my way through college at St. John’s University. And as much as I have tried to distance myself from my past, my past nevertheless informs who I have become, and I am grateful for the ability to understand that the grass is not always greener on the other side.

As I was Christmas shopping for my nephews today, I ran across the new Malcolm Gladwell book, David and Goliath, subtitled, “Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants.” Page six of this reflective tome extemporizes his theme when he states, “Much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”

Nelson Mandela might very well have been a mere footnote in history, not remembered or eulogized by presidents. His fate, in many ways, turned on a dime (forgive the cliches). The African National Congress, the ANC, was established in 1923, then in a white backlash, the National Party, NP, was set up in 1940 and created the term Apartheid, meaning “apartness” in Afrikaans, the official language of the South African people. Nelson Mandela was jailed in August 1962 for supposedly inciting workers to strike, a right we Americans take for granted. Initially sentenced to five years, he was retried two years later, and given a life sentence. Something was indeed “rotten in the state of Denmark” (to quote Shakespeare). The story might very well have ended there.

Steven Biko, another protestor, was beaten to death in his jail cell, and most Americans, or indeed citizens of the world, have never heard of him, but through the efforts of many, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu (a black religious man), and the pressure put on white South African president F.W. de Klerk, Mandela was freed February 11, 1990 after 27 years in prison and became president of South Africa, May 10, 1994.

Following the news coverage the past two days, Americans could very well have drawn the conclusion that Mandela, like Gandhi, achieved a level of unsurpassed greatness simply by an indomitable will, but in this case it took a village, dare I say a nation, to bring about change and social justice.

Mandela left us with an important thought to live by: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

This holiday season I suggest we focus more on what brings us together, what unites us, rather than what keeps us separate.

Drunk Dreams

Friends have told me numerous times, “I definitely have another drunk in me; I’m just not sure I have another recovery in me.” I always thought, “My God, need you be so damn dramatic?” After my drunk dream last night, however, I begin to understand their sentiment.

I dreamt last night that I was about to go on a date with Adam Levine (okay, so I gotta dream big), and I got skunk drunk, knock-down-drag-me-out-of-the-bar drunk. I naturally humiliated myself and he wanted no part of me, leaving me ignominiously on the street corner. Though the details are somewhat hazy now, several hours later, kind of like the hazy morning-after memories of those now long gone days, I nevertheless remember the panic, the feeling that this is it, I can’t possibly fathom putting together two days sober, two weeks sober, a month sober. April 27th 2007 was the last day I fell down snookered, and April 28th this year I will celebrate six years sober, God and the universe willing. I begin to understand, dramatic or not, I may not have another recovery in me so I better make this one count.

I have thought about starting up another blog site, “One Drunk to Another,” and I personally feel it might make for a great book, but I really don’t want to jinx myself. I’ve got my life going on pretty good, heading creatively in the right direction as a writer who actually writes rather than dreaming about, but not working on the Great American Novel, and most days, I don’t have to think about alcohol or the effort involved in maintaining sobriety. It often seems deceptively easy. I laid a pretty good foundation, if I say so myself, and now weeks go by without me even thinking how great a Jack Daniels would be to take the edge off or make me more relaxed and interesting, or some other such nonsense.

Plus, I surround myself with positive people, and seem to naturally draw people with similar values into my life. Even those friends who drink don’t seem to have a problem having A GLASS of wine or A BEER, or if they order a second, often leave it half finished. This is unfathomable to me, and at times I find myself wondering, “How on earth can they simply leave a glass unfinished?” During my drunk bar days, I needed to have a glass in my hand at all times, and though now the glass holds a soda water with a lime, that behavior hasn’t dramatically changed. I still feel most comfortable holding that reassuring clear-bottomed glass in hand.

Strange enough, I have made numerous friends at Northwestern who speak in code, and let me know, “I had to quit drinking, or die.” Again, these friends seem to have a flair for the dramatic, but there is truth in the sentiment. I might not have physically died, though it was certainly a possibility driving home after far too many cocktails, but I most certainly would have died spiritually and emotionally.

I have dreams again, and the courage to pursue them. These dreams are far different than the drunken stupors I once found myself wallowing in, and it is a rare reminder to have a nightmare to reinforce that all the good in my life starts with me taking responsibility for my actions. Hugh Jackman, in talking about the painful life experience of having his mother abandon him when he was eight, refuses to wallow in life’s disappointments. He said, “There comes a certain point in life when you have to stop blaming other people for how you feel or the misfortunes in your life. You can’t go through life obsessing about what might have been.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.