Friday, March 27, 2015

Nervous As Hell

It doesn't seem like it, but it has been seven weeks since the new on-call system went into effect for our agency. Starting at five o'clock today, I will be on-call for the entire state, and will have to answer the phone every time it rings until next Friday at 5 PM. And yes, I am nervous as can be about it.
I've studied the work notes of everyone that has been on-call before me. Some people have had relatively quiet Friday nights, and others have been hit with bombs starting at 5:10 and more or less have been working like they were at their desk all weekend. I really don't know what to expect; I know better than to think that the phone isn't going to ring at all, but I really would rather not get swamped, either. It's not really because I am going to have do anything other than make a bunch of calls; it's not like I have to run down to Suffolk County or something. And I've been on-call for a large part of the last twelve years for my own program; I'm not worried about handling a crisis, really.
It's that most of our programs are foster care or respite programs across the state, and while I kinda/sorta know the rudimentary basics of foster care from sharing an office with our local foster care program, obviously I've never done things like emergency intakes, moving a kid out of or into respite, or dealt with county workers as a situation was unfolding. I've seen very little that happens past midnight thus far, and four of the seven weeks, Friday evenings have been quiet. But there have been a steady procession of calls on Saturday and Sundays during the day, and I'm glad that I am not planning on doing anything special either day this weekend, because I'm resigned to being more or less housebound. I do need access to the agency network on my computer should a call come in, and that means being home (or at the office, which I might do while Sabrina is at practice tomorrow). I haven't decided about going to the candlelight tonight; if the phone hasn't rang by seven o'clock, I might chance it.
I'm not terrified, or think that I'm so inadequate or ignorant about most of what we do across the state that it might actually be dangerous. And a Director is also on call who has been forewarned that a newbie is handling the phone this week, so it should be all right. It's just some straight-up, old-fashioned fear of the unknown in play here, compounded by the fact that my own supervisor is on vacation after today for a week and a half. But the extra money is going to look good in the paycheck in two weeks, I have to say, so I will bear with it.
As I've often told other people, it's [fill in the blank] of my life. In this case, a week. Deal with it.
And I will. There is a bunch of other stuff going on, too, that isn't helping. The big grant is coming together, there's yet another one due May 1, the Safe Harbor stuff is going to be coming down the pike in a couple of weeks or even days, and there are monthly and semi-annual reports due in April. Being a desk jockey usually isn't much of a pressure job, but this is one period of time when I am earning my pay and then some.
And there are positive things happening, too. It's always gratifying to know that other people think you have something to offer them when issues come up in their life, and a number of people have asked me recently for input and feedback. The better-than and I continue to move into new territory, and the future seems a lot different--brighter--than it has ever seemed before. Softball season is almost upon us. While I didn't get the raise I was hoping for, I am making more than I ever have before. My health seems to be improving--21 pounds and counting since January 2, and although yesterday my blood pressure was high at the doctor's, I am positive it was because of circumstances--yesterday was stressful, I was running on three hours sleep, and the bitch that works check-in at UHS Parkway would make Jesus of Nazareth flip out.
I have a weird day at the office, too. I have one section of the grant to finish because my supervisor wants to see it and review before she goes on vacation, but that shouldn't take long. I can't even really prepare for being on-call until later in the afternoon because the foster care census rosters need to be as updated as possible, I've got some errands to do, and I am probably going to do them during the day. Which is perhaps the most gratifying thing of all. I know so many people that do not have the flexibility that I do on a regular basis. If I want to walk around the neighborhood, go to the store, go visit someone, go to the nooner, go shopping, do anything at all--I can do it. I make my own schedule, I don't answer to anyone local, and I'm on salary instead of hourly pay. No, I'm not able to sit in a lawn chair and sunbathe while drawing pay, and sometimes I have to work longer days than other people do--but in general, this job is ideal. I may not get paid all that I want to or even what I think is totally just--but monetary compensation isn't the only factor that matters in making a job "good." And I have a good one, one where I actually make a difference, one where I am respected, and one that fits my life as I live it. And it also allows me to be myself, and it has allowed who I am to change over the years, too, which is perhaps more important. I don't how much personal growth one can have working at Walmart, or a financial services job, or a civil service job, or most vocations. I have evolved personally almost beyond recognition from who and what I was thirteen years ago, and that has been partially due to changes on the job, too. And my agency has let me do that. I haven't liked everything that has happened where I work, but on balance--I like my job, and I like who I work for. And a week of dealing with after-hours calls from foster parents, birth parents, county workers, and others across the state doesn't change that.
Let's get started. The sooner it starts, the sooner it ends.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Celebrating Miracles

Last night, at my home group, a friend of mine picked up his medallion for twenty years clean. It was an awesome meeting. He comes from a very large family, and several of his brothers came in from out of town to commemorate the occasion; his father, who lives in the area, also was in attendance, and it was really just a powerful, powerful experience for everyone there.
And there was a theme that he talked about, that his fiance talked about, that his family talked about, that his sponsor talked about, and that most of the people that spoke during the meeting about--the changes and transformation that has taken place in him, not only during the two decades of his clean time, but especially in the last five to six years as his recovery has first taken root and then taken flight. Obviously, he's been around for the entire time I've been in recovery, too, and I mentioned during the meeting how much my own journey has modeled his--the commitments made, the ability to keep those commitments, the growing lack of interest in getting involved in the drama around us. And looking around the room, and listening to some of the other people talking, I belatedly began to realize just how much birds of a feather flock together--and how much of an influence the home group I joined last winter has had on me.
Our group is not a large one; there were forty people last night, but a more typical crowd is around twenty-five. The home group members total about ten, and even the newcomers among us all take their recoveries seriously and are participants rather than passengers in the fellowship. And what struck me last night as people were talking and sharing was how many of us have noticeably changed, for the better, in the last few years. Those who were unfaithful now are faithful. Those that were divisive now are serene and conciliators. Those that were selfish now are caring and giving. Those that were struggling with keeping it down now are committed to living life on life's terms. It's not only a hope shot for those newer members that are looking for positive changes in their own life; it's a hope shot for those who sometimes doubt that solutions for some of the more intractable issues in their lives beyond addiction are ever going to be found.
And there were some common themes that anyone there every week can see. The influence of my former sponsor there is manifest; there were eight men there last night with a half-dozen or more years clean, and every one of them has done step work for a long time with either him or someone that has him somewhere in his sponsor tree. There were at least four guys there, and a couple of women as well, who have transformed from players or commitment-shy men to men capable of being in serious, long-term relationships. There were a lot of people there with children--and just about everyone of them has been not only been present in their children's lives, but has taken and taking a huge role in actually raising them. Some other developments in the fellowship recently only pointed out some of the contrasts that are out there--and every kid of the parents in the room last night is well-adjusted, loved, and well taken care of, ranging from pre-K little kids to grown adults who have kids of their own.
And when this is what you are surrounded by every week, of course it affects you, for the better. I came to this group last winter, after nearly six years of belonging to another group. I was at a point in my life where I had stagnated in my own growth, and part of the reason why was that there was I was getting little or no spiritual nourishment in my home group--and I was part of the problem, too, to be sure. And the switch in home groups, I realized rather abruptly last night, was a major catalyst in all the positive changes in myself that I--and others--have been noticing and enjoying in recent months. None of us are spiritual giants, but all of us there are pursuing not only staying clean, but also a better relationship with God and practicing living by spiritual principles, on an extremely consistent basis. And we end up supporting and nourishing each other's recovery as a result.
And the group is not a collection of old-timers; we have had a number of one-year celebrations within the group, and some of our most committed members are people who have been coming around for less than two years. A few have struggled, and a couple of drifted away, but another thing I realized last night, looking around the room, is the high retention rate we have of those that came in early in recovery. And for me, that's an even better hope shot than those of us with many years picking up milestones. The future of the fellowship is not us that have been around since the last millennium; it is those that are recent arrivals. And there are several that our messages of recovery have proved attractive enough to so that they have begun to weave their own recovery narratives, pick up their own milestones, and share their own experiences with starting to live a new way of life.
And the new way of life isn't a result of good jobs, company vehicles, stable relationships, houses, and toys and gadgets. Those things, rather, are the result of doing our best to live a new way of life. And the celebration last night was not about the house he and his fiance are moving into, or the good job that he has, or how what great young ladies his daughters have become, or how many of his family members turned out, or how great a relationships he is in. It was the program he works that makes all those things a reality for him.
And for the rest of us, too. The longer I am here, the more I appreciate my fellow travelers. There aren't many whose trail I am following anymore, but my friend that celebrated is one of them. It was an honor to be in attendance, and it is a pleasure to have him be a regular part of my life.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Credibility Gap

Human beings are, popular misconceptions aside, not naturally cynical and distrustful. If they were, no con artists would ever be able to practice their nefarious trades, and dishonesty would not be the single most divisive issue in our relationships with each other. There is a certain amount of deceit built into nature--there are animals and plants that employ camouflage, that imitate sounds of other animals, that use ruses of various kinds. So one could argue that a certain amount of dishonesty is simply a part of life--and also that the dynamics of dishonesty demand that there be someone that is fooled.
But humans are social animals, and have evolved language skills as the primary expression of our social engagement. And so lying to one another is the deceit found in nature taken to an exponentially higher level--and its effects are that much more corrosive and negative. Stripped of the anthropological veneer, lying as a matter of course destroys the relationships that are a necessary part of the experience of being a human being. And the problems associated with dishonesty manifest themselves on both the lied-to and the liar. Those being lied to get damaged and taken advantage of in the short term, and every single person on earth has dozens of examples in their memory banks of injuries they suffered because of other people's dishonesty. And ultimately, even though every human being has lied or been dishonest at some point in their life, most people do draw a line somewhere in their own minds. Most people are, for the most part, honest. Yes, there are lies told to avoid unpleasant situations or consequences, or ethical shortcuts taken in the hopes of an easier or softer way, and even white lies undertaken for motivations that are ostensibly benign--but most people have been lied to and hurt enough so that they themselves are basically honest. And without this truth, basic human society could not function, indeed could not exist--we are too dependent on one another for this not to be the case.
However, there is a small percentage of people out there that simply, for whatever reasons, cannot be honest. We all know people like this--not a lot, but some. People who we have learned, through experience, to not trust at all. People that, if they say it is sunny outside, that you learn to grab an umbrella before you leave the house. People that you automatically tune out, after a time. People that you finally, after long-term exposure to, wonder how they can live with themselves, because they have to know how full of shit they really are, right?
There is a special category of dishonesty, a special circle of hell if you will, inhabited by that morally compromised creature--the parent that constantly lies to their own child/children. I wrote a post a few weeks ago about the toxic effect that my daughter's mother's inability to be honest for the entire length of my daughter's sixteen-year sojourn on this earth has had on my daughter. This type of thing is unfortunately much more common than it ought to be, although in the larger society it is more often fathers that are guilty of the chronic dishonesty. In the last two weeks, there have been two more examples that barged into my consciousness of mothers whose credibility with everyone around them, and most of all their children, has vanished. One is someone that has struggled with addiction to different substances for the entire length of time I have known her, someone that has been estranged from her two older children for two decades and who now has totally lost any credibility she had left with her own tenth-grader, as well--not because of the relapsing, per se, but because of the promises made and not kept, the expressions of undying love that turned out to be conditional, because of the gap between what is said and what is done. For that young person, at least, like my daughter, her father is there to pick up the pieces and hold it together, after a fashion; she has her own issues, but at least she is not completely lost at sea.
The other is more problematic, and someone that I have a stronger connection to. Two weeks ago, out of the blue, Somebody That I Used To Know texted me out of the blue, after disappearing back into active addiction several months ago, and I ended up in a morning-long exchange of texts. There was a lot of the same rhetoric, the same vague expressions of "I'm going to do something soon," a lot of words expressing regrets for what she is putting her elementary-school age children through. I wasn't the only one contacted; most of the people she used to be close to in our fellowship heard from her that day, and there was a brief spasm of hope among some of them, a belief that maybe the person that they had thought was their friend and confidante for so long, that had so abruptly disappeared without so much as a goodbye, might be coming back and giving it another shot.
I knew better. But then, I've been exposed to the dishonesty and the con for much longer, and as I texted her, in the middle of the exchange, after about the ninth "apology" over the years I've known her for the way she acted and acts, my feelings have toughened enough so that this last time, this last departure, this last kick in the groin, I was beyond feeling pain any longer.
And so I was not surprised when there was no follow-up, and I was not surprised when one of the people that got their hopes up texted me last weekend telling me that the person had an ad up on the local escort/hooker site. That person's credibility has been exhausted. Just like MOTY's credibility was exhausted for me long ago. Just like I had stopped listening to my friend's wife years ago when she droned on for the 77th time in memory about this time being finally "done."
There comes a point when it's just noise.
The sad part, the tragedy, is that it really isn't important that they've lost credibility with me, or those that were their friends, or strangers. The worst part is that they have lost credibility with their children. And the parent/child relationship is the one example in human experience where love and affection is supposed to be, normally is, unconditional. Parents and children do occasionally lie to each other. But that bond is normally unshakable; there is nearly an infinite capacity for forgiveness, a near-desperate need for the child to believe that their parent will not lie to them about important matters--and that when that parent verbally expresses their love for that child, that the parent means what they say.
And the crushing disappointment and disillusionment when it turns out to be not true is an emotional Hiroshima that negatively affects the child for the rest of their life. No matter how deeply and how much I love my daughter, no matter how truthful I am with her, no matter how much integrity I exhibit in my own life, no matter how supportive I am to her--she has been damaged, irreparably, by her mother. There is a part of her that wonders, "What is wrong with me?" because one of the two people in her life that she has a right and an expectation to not be taken advantage of by doesn't feel she is worthy of being honest to. I see the same thing in my friend's daughter, who is in the same grade and the same stage of emotional development. And even though their exteriors have hardened somewhat, even though they have adapted, even though they cope in their own ways with it--they hurt over the dishonesty. And they feel, rightly, angry and cheated that their own mother has no credibility whatsoever with them, that every verbal exchange with them is a new exercise in pain.
That their mothers are, simply, the people that gave birth to them. Nothing more.
The third case is different somewhat, in that I do not see those kids anymore. But even when they were around, as young as they are, they already had expressed serious reservations about their mother's veracity. I can only imagine how they feel and what they think now. The younger of the two already had major behavioral issues; the older was perhaps the most worldly and cynical third-grader I had ever met, and was already openly disbelieving and at times contemptuous of her own mother a year ago--and her mother had been clean for over a year then. During that exchange of texts a couple of weeks ago, the mother passed a remark or two about not wanting that child to grow up hating her--and I thought to myself that it's already too late for that.
Because hating is not the opposite of loving; it is an expression of the same level of emotion. You cannot hate those that you do not care about. And hatred is perhaps the most corrosive, acidic emotion we experience; it damages the person that feels it more than it does the object of their hatred. It is sad beyond words that so many children end up feeling this way about their parents; I deal with this in my vocation every day, have for years, and as I mentioned, it is actually more prevalent with fathers more than mothers. But it is far more widespread than it has to be or should be. And truthfully, although in the circles that I move in, substance abuse is the most common obvious cause of the dysfunction, it is not always a factor across the wider society.
And the children are not the only ones affected. I am as sure as sure can be that MOTY and the two others that have crossed my radar in the last couple of weeks would like, more than anything else in the world, to look in the mirror and like what they see looking back at them. I have a certain amount of empathy for those that are not happy with themselves; I wasn't happy with myself for a long time, too, and there are still days when I am not totally satisfied or comfortable with who I am now. But I can say this much; those moments are fleeting, and I have learned that the only way out of the self-hatred morass is to not only stop acting in ways that even I found loathsome, but to actively change my actions to do something different... and most of all, to accept that I had lost credibility with everyone around me and that they were going to need to see a lot of evidence over a long period of time that my transformation was genuine. I made that commitment many years ago, and while I have not been in forward gear all day every day for sixteen years, there has been enough  movement, enough change, so that my own credibility isn't really an issue for most people anymore.
But along the way, I took responsibility for what I had done, and realized that it wasn't the other people's fault that they didn't trust or believe me. The innate decency of most human beings has been proved by the fact that my own credibility was allowed to build back up by those that were at the point of grabbing that umbrella on a sunny day. I experienced the rebuilding of trust with one of my own children whose earliest memories of me were all negative, so I know it can be done.
But the effort has to be made first, and on that subject, there really can't be much, if any, backsliding. I long ago realized that the best thing about having integrity was that no matter what else was done to me or happened to me, no one but me could take my integrity away from me. But the flip side of that is that it is crushing and soul-deadening to to know that no one but yourself took that integrity away from you. Unfortunately, too many people seem to just give up when that realization comes.
The problem is that those we so desperately do not want to give up on us give up, too.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Book Review: HOW JESUS BECAME GOD

I always think I am going to like Bart Ehrman's books, and I always end up disappointed. Ehrman is a an American academic with an evangelical training background that has become agnostic over the years, and has written extensively about early Christianity. How Jesus Became God is an exploration of how Jesus, or Jesus' memory, evolved from that of a mortal prophet to a divinity. The short answer is that a large number of people came to believe that he had been bodily resurrected, The long answer is contained within the pages of this book. Ehrman, as is his wont, takes a long look at the source material that goes into the New Testament, and comes to the conclusion that much of what is commonly supposed by Christians about the immediate post-Calvary period isn't accurate, that the texts don't actually say what is commonly supposed. There is also a rather interesting digression into what common crucifixion practices were with the Romans, and why the Gospel narratives don't jibe with virtually all our other available evidence regarding a Roman punishment for a Roman crime.
And Ehrman is surprisingly silent on what is, in my and a lot of other minds, the main reason why the information that has survived to this day did survive: the reaction of the Romans to the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 CE. The highly improbable parts of the Gospels regarding who wanted Jesus killed, and the peculiar interpretation of who and what Jesus was that was the brainchild of Paul, are what has survived because, in all likelihood, any documents close to the truth were destroyed by the Romans as seditious and dangerous during and after the revolt. Reading this book, you'd never know that the revolt happened, and because of that omission, this book is somewhat interesting but severely lacking in historical context.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Note From The Sports Desk, Late March 2015

1) The NCAA Tournament is down to sixteen teams now. And I could not be less interested this year. Part of the reason why is local parochialism--a great deal of my interest in college basketball is actually, I am realizing belatedly this year, interest in Syracuse University basketball, and since SU is not in the tourney this year, I haven't paid a lot of attention. But the bigger reason is that, this season, there's no real competition. Kentucky and their oily, cursed coach John Calipari, have put together an NBA team that plays a college schedule, and they are 36-0 and counting down to the inevitable coronation in a few weeks. There is no suspense, no drama, no real reason to watch.
And yet I found myself tuning in for about an hour yesterday, between periods of the hockey game on opposite it. I watched Michigan State play against Virginia for part of the afternoon. Michigan State is always good, it seems, while Virginia is nationally relevant for the first time, it seems, since Ralph Sampson was going there. And the game was, frankly, terrible--actually, the game wasn't, but the quality of play was. Neither team has anyone on it that can actually score with any regularity; the announcers kept talking about the quality of defense, and maybe it was, but there were a lot of shots missed that weren't due to the defense. I really don't think that watching a rebounding clinic is entertaining basketball. I also had the Duke-San Diego State game on for a bit, and that was just as unwatchable, both because Duke was clearly better and because Grant Hill was one of the three announcers. Hill is a Duke alumnus, supposedly quite insightful and thoughtful, but his level of "analysis" was as pedestrian and lame as anyone I have heard in years. Maybe he does a better job on non-Duke games, but I'm not really willing to find out now. And it's time to put Bill Raftery out to pasture; he really doesn't have anything to say anymore other than an annoying chortling that grows very, very old in a very, very short time. I've never liked Jim Nantz announcing anything, so...the CBS coverage was an ordeal, made worse by the arguing heads at halftime. Charles Barkley is mildly entertaining and insightful as an NBA analyst, but is completely and totally out of his depth as a March Madness commentator--it is painful to listen to. And his presence 1) clearly annoys the guys that do know what they are talking about, and 2) cuts down everyone else's airtime.
What a fiasco the entire tournament is. And Syracuse is not in the tournament because, after a good thirty years of rumors and false flaggings, they finally got caught doing some things. I'm not going to get into this morning, but the Jim Boeheim legacy has been tarnished, and even though the reported issues are not as ugly as some schools' violations have been, it just is disheartening as hell to see the program implode. And part of my personal disillusionment is that this team playing in the ACC doesn't meet the eye test or the smell test. It's jarring; it's wrong. And it's a turnoff. Combined with the inevitable crowning of Kentucky's collection of the mockery of college athletic ideals as champions--well, who really gives a shit? I don't.
The one saving grace is that the NCAA itself, already deeply embattled because of the Penn State, O'Bannon, and Northwestern union issues, really can't afford the optics of a Kentucky win--Kentucky is so glaringly not an example of the student-athlete ideal that the NCAA's raison d'etre is severely compromised by the mere fact that what Calipari is doing is permissible under existing rules, at least as far as we know. If this travesty of March Madness hastens the end of the NCAA as we know it--then go Wildcats! Otherwise, let's move on to other interests...
2) The best team in the National Hockey League is the New York Rangers. Not just the best record, although they own that, too. But what they have done since December 6 is remarkable:
December 6-31: 9-1-0
January 2015: 8-4-0
February 2015: 10-2-2
March 2015 (so far): 9-1-1
That's 36-8-3, for those scoring at home, 75 out of a possible 94 points, a percentage that would approach the NHL record for most points in a season by a team. The remarkable thing about this stretch is that their all-world goalie hasn't played a game in two months--and they've played better without him. Rick Nash, the team's one bonafide start, has scored three goals in March--and they keep winning. Their second-best player, Martin St, Louis, has been injured--and they keep winning. They were winning games with offense earlier in this stretch; now they haven't given up more than two goals in a game in March. They have scored 55 goals more than their opponents this year, the best in the league. They have left their own division in the dust, have the most points in the league, and don't look like as though they would have trouble with any team for any reason from here on out.
Last night was supposed to start a stretch of "quality" games, against the Anaheim Ducks, who have the best record in the supposedly stronger Western Conference. I've thought the Ducks were a paper tiger this year; their goal differential is more representative of a just-above .500 team, and they are an incredibly lucky 29-1-7 in one-goal games. But even I did not dream of a 7-2 rout last night... Tomorrow the Stanley Cup final rematch comes to town. The Kings, whom everyone more or less orgasmed over last spring when they beat the Rangers 4-1 (three times in overtime) in the finals, currently sit outside the playoffs. It's an interesting contrast, and one I am eager to see how it all plays out. The Rangers can go a long way toward ensuring that their nemesis will not stand in their way this spring by winning this game. They also several games against likely first-round opponents coming up--one against the Bruins, two each against the Capitals and Senators.
But even in 1993-94, the vibe about this team was never this good. It sounds crazy, but the one possible derailing factor is the perceived need to get Lundqvist back in shape. He has started slowly in three of the last four seasons, and at his age, it is likely that he isn't going to give them top-quality efforts in his first few games. And I am seriously considering a Brady/Bledsoe Effect here--would it really be possible to ride Cam Talbot as far as a Cup? Alain Vigneault is not made that way--witness the continued presence of Tanner fucking Glass in the lineup every night--but I suspect that the Lundqvist/Talbot situation is going to cast a shadow over what has been a remarkable story.
3) What is turning into a most decidedly unremarkable story is the final season of Jeff Gordon's NASCAR career. Gordon finished tenth yesterday, his second top-10 of the year out of five races. He has had some bad luck, but he has also never really looked like the guy that was the best car on the track much of last year. He sits outside the Chase line at the moment, and although that will probably change, he doesn't appear to have any chance of actually being a true contender this year. Part of the reason why is that Kevin Harvick looks like a motorcyle in the Tour de France so far this year--but something is definitely not right with the 24 car, either.
And looking at objectively...NASCAR is strange to casual sports fans for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest is that despite the obvious individual effort and talents involved with the drivers, there actually is a team involved. The crew chief is more like a head coach in other sports than is generally supposed, and Gordon's crew chief, Alan Gustafson, has a track record that is replaying itself with eerie consistency with Gordon. Gustafson started as the chief for Kyle Busch, had moderate success with him the first two years before slipping. Then he took over Mark Martin's team, blew the doors off for two years--and faded. This is his third season as Gordon's chief--and after a near-championship last year, the team is struggling badly this year. And I would  not be a bit surprised to see the struggles continue all year.
Which is too bad; it would have been nice to see Gordon go out on top. I really think that if he had won the championship last year, he would have retired. But this has been painful to watch this year. The saving graces have been 1) everyone looks like they are driving Matchbox cars compared to Harvick, and 2) some of the other "names" are struggling a lot worse than Gordon is. Tony Stewart is done. Greg Biffle is done. Gordon is still second-level competitive on some days, and he may get into the Chase simply because he is still in good equipment and can still drive. But the chance at the fairy-tale ending vanished at the end of last year.
4) I have watched, with growing horror, the Buffalo Bills this offseason. The coach abandoned ship, which was a positive, and Kyle Orton retired, which would have been a big positive if there had been a decent quarterback available to replace him.
Know this: Matt Cassel isn't the answer. The LeSean McCoy trade was defensible. The Charles Clay signing, not so much. The Jerry Hughes re-signing? Ugh. Rex Ryan is the new coach, and while he is an undeniable improvement over Doug Moron, er, Marrone, I fail to see what Ryan brings to the table that the Bills didn't already have. The defense wasn't an issue here. Ryan showed no aptitude at all for effectively coaching an offensively-challenged team while in New York; the team was never really good when they had the ball, and slowly descended into complete ineptitude over Ryan's time as coach there.
This has disaster written all over it. I have watched a third of my life go by the boards waiting for the Bills to be relevant again. And I am going to wait, apparently, a lot longer.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Spades Tournament, 2015

As it turned out, I didn't play with the partner I thought I was going to yesterday. For the first time in recorded Narcotics Anonymous history (and that is only a slight exaggeration), an event actually started on time, and my erstwhile partner was a couple of minutes late. If my name had come out of the draw toward the bottom of the bracket, we would have been fine, but since we were in the top half, I got paired with a floater instead, a woman that I get along with pretty well but who was, and is, woefully inexperienced at playing spades. I anticipated a short afternoon.
Instead, wonder of wonders, we made a pretty deep run. We lost our first game, as I expected, but in the loser's bracket, in the first round we hung around for several hands and then somehow nosed ahead at the end, and then in the next round, actually won easily. My partner got to the point where she could play her own hand pretty well, but the nuances that make a competent spades player (or any other game, for that matter) a really good one only come with experience. We had a chance in the next round, but getting set back a hundred points for ten overbooks killed us, eventually, and we ended up getting set twice, the second one in a do-or-die game where, if we didn't set the other team, they were going to get enough points to win. But the last thing I expected to be doing at 7 PM last night was still playing in the tournament.
If I had had my original partner--who knows? But as the old jingle goes, "if 'ifs and buts' were candied nuts, we'd all have a hell of a Christmas." And whatever small doubts I had in my own mind as to my own competence were resolved. I won the first tournament this fellowship had held in years a couple of Octobers ago; my preferred view of that outcome was that I had gotten play from the partner in that tourney that hadn't hurt us any, and I carried the flag home. I went out early in last year's tournament, with a player whose reputation was pretty good, and I wondered if it had just been crappy cards, largely him, or largely me that was to blame. I didn't think it had been me, honestly; I have been playing for a long time and I know I'm good. And I've seen the other guy enough to know that behind the show and the bluster and the trash talk, there's a decent player (he wasn't there yesterday; he and his fiance bought a house, and they are moving in this weekend). And lousy cards do happen. I used to play euchre a lot when I was in college, too, and we ended up having a dorm tournament; before it began, my friend Randy and I, who beat everyone on the male floors like a drum in casual games, were considered overwhelming favorites, but we got absolutely awful cards for a solid hour and were gone in the second round, so I know sometimes "We didn't get shit for cards" isn't an excuse, but reality. There is a lot of skill involved in playing cards, but you really can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Not for six rounds, anyway.
And an honest appraisal of yesterday is that I played pretty damn well. I didn't have a real strong hand the entire day--I remember bidding more than three out of my own hand once--and we played for several hours. And I am even more proud that when my inexperienced partner made mistakes that inexperienced players make, mistakes that cost us chances to set the other teams, I kept my cool and my composure, so much so that one of the players on an opposing team said, not entirely in jest, "you must have a hell of a program, because I would have blown [my partner] up." I did point out, gently and in a conversational tone after the games had ended, what she had done and what she might want to do in a similar situation in the future, and that was by far the best way to handle it, even if the stakes had been a lot higher than they were. It is natural for someone that hasn't played a lot to focus on their own hand; it doesn't become second nature to pick up on the subtle indications of what the other players, including their partner, are doing until a lot of hours are logged at the table.
To take one example that happened, she led an ace of an off-suit and I threw the king on it. Now, the king is the second-highest card in a suit, and the only reason that I would throw it on a trick my partner has in the bag is that it is the only card of that suit I have. And knowing that, my partner should lead right back with the same suit, the queen if in the hand, a low card if not--I would throw off on the queen and cut a low card. She led another suit (that the other team cut) instead, and although we ending up making our bid, we lost a chance to set the team on that hand. We ended up winning the game anyway, and I explained to her after the game all that I just wrote. When a similar situation occurred in the last game we played, she played it correctly. A slow burn or loud bitching probably would not have made the point as well--not to mention that no one plays well when they are scared of making mistakes. An idea that several people there, people that, from available indications, are not going to die on a cross, ought to get with.
It took about two hands to get used to the strange rule package. And of course, no matter how much you try to take the element of chance out, or think that we've covered every possibility, you find out within five minutes that something was missed. One thing that I don't think occurred to anyone was that with only thirteen trump instead of sixteen, the likelihood that hands dealt without any spades was much, much higher. I've been playing spades for three decades, Before yesterday, I had never once, in my entire life, been dealt a hand with absolutely no spades, and I can count on one hand the number of times it had happened to other players. In every other game I've ever played in over the course of my life, the rule was that if there was a hand dealt with no spades, everyone threw their hand in and the cards were redealt. The possibility of a no-spade deal was not listed in the rule package yesterday--and I got dealt a hand with no spades three times yesterday. Amazingly, we actually made our bid on one of the occasions, but I would rather that those hands be a throw-in, and so would, judging from comments from other tables, would a lot of other people. 2015-16 Activities and Event Subcommittee members, take note...
There were a couple of instances, in other games, that came up that caused major problems. In any gathering of 30-40 people, you are going to get some prickly personalities. In a gathering of recovering and semi-using addicts--there were people there yesterday whose clean time, I would bet, would be best measured in days, and maybe even in hours--, it was a given that there would be some people acting out, and so there were. It didn't happen in any game I was playing in, but it was a small room, and I saw enough of some people to know whom I would never trust in any circumstance, and whom I would hang myself with my intestines if I got stuck in an elevator with them. If you have to cheat at a friendly tournament like this, when the first prize is candy and movie tickets--you're nobody I want to be around. There was one person in particular that allegedly has more clean time than I do that appalled me--just a loud, profane buffoon. There were other people there that are entirely too competitive, in my view; they didn't cheat or bend the rules, but this is not the World Series of Spades--lighten up a little.
And there is one thing that needs to be said, unfortunately. I really have a tough time understanding why someone that was about three minutes late for the starting time couldn't play with who they were supposed to--but someone else was allowed to take what turned into a 90-minute break to go register a flipping car. The entire event ended up getting backed up for an hour because of this. If someone is in the tournament, then, unpleasant person or not, they should play by the same rules as everyone else. Period. The fact that the same person ended up causing another twenty-minute delay by insisting that something that happened in their game that was against the rules wasn't actually what it clearly was...well, it was a test of my new sense of serenity and decorum, let me tell you, and I wasn't even playing in that game. It's unfortunate that when some people get loud and unpleasant enough, they get their way.
 But overall, it was a pretty minor blip on an otherwise good day. Which was something completely unexpected. And two of my good friends ended up winning, which was only just because they had to cancel a dinner reservation they had made because the tournament ran long because of the accommodation made for the unpleasant one. Truth, justice, and the American way triumphed after all.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Evolving From Simon to Peter

For the third time in 18 months, there is an NA spades tournament going on. The rules package is odd, and even though I have played spades for many years, I have never once played a game under these rules. Which is why, unlike the last two tournaments, I am not real cocky about my chances for winning it before it starts. I do have a good (and interesting) partner for this tournament, and he assures me that he is familiar with playing this way, and so I should not worry. I just actually hope to have a some fun, enjoy the company, and hope to get deep into the tournament. Sabrina's not going to be around, so I don't have to worry about taking care of her (she will be with her cousin and my mother). 
What I am finding most interesting of all about this development is that the guy I am partnering with is someone I never dreamed I would share the same room with comfortably ever again, much less sit across a table in a joint endeavor, only a few short months ago. There's a history between us, but honesty compels me to admit that, regardless of circumstances, the way I handled the last issue between us, about fourteen months ago, was very wrong. I knew it a day after it happened, and in many ways, looking back, the fallout from this particular event was the catalyst, the beginning point, of the evolution of my spirit that has truly transformed my life in that time. There were other factors, to be sure, but this was the one defining event, the one point where it all came together, where not only did I reach a breaking point with my own character defects, but I became more receptive than I ever had to the blowback that resulted. And was able and willing to change my beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors in a meaningful way as a result. 
I thought about this a lot at the meeting last night. The actual rapprochement with him started at Christmas time, and we've talked a few times since as well, but it's become about much more than whether or not I'm getting along with him or even the amends I owed him. The amends I owed were to everybody, I began to belatedly realize about a year ago. The judgmental attitude, the lies of omission, the lack of compassion for some people suffering from some character defects, the attraction to those who were chronically dishonest and unspiritual and my imitation of those people and the way they were conducting themselves, the lack of faith in the recovery process and in God--they weren't as present as they might have been a dozen years ago, but they sure weren't as much of a thing of the past as I wanted to believe, either. Much like the original surrenders in very early recovery, I really had backed myself into a position where there wasn't really a lot else I could do other than commit to changing--drastically--or to lose my way more or less permanently. To listen to voices I usually dismissed as irrelevant or ignorant. And to become willing to change the way I behaved much more than I ever had before. 
Last night was a celebration of another addict's first year clean, and I shared not only my congratulations, but listed the ways she had helped me since she has been around. She has been very quietly but firmly committed over the last few years to her relationship, in difficult times--and by being so, she gave me a window into what a true commitment to someone that is paying the consequences of their mistakes is. Which is precisely what I have been trying to do for months now. None of us is assured of happy endings, but I know this much--by making the effort and keeping the commitment, the happy ending is possible, while if I don't, it isn't.  If the person is, deep down, who I think they are, they will need support and affection--and will return it, too, as best they can. If they turn out to not be--I still have acted in an upright and spiritual manner, and I can still look in the mirror every day and be happy with what I see. After I finished talking, the guy sitting behind me, who has known me for two decades, said, not entirely in jest, "You're turning into one of these rosy-sounding guys. And I like him a lot better." 
And as we were gathered in the circle, I thought about all the good things that happened just in those ninety minutes. The benefit that the honest effort to make amends had made to my spades partner. The ability to offer constructive input to a struggling parent. The ability to not react when an oaf made a remark about a young woman not too much older than my daughter that I found extremely offensive. The ability to be civil to someone that I have found difficult to be civil to in the past. These things have never come easy to me, and while they still aren't quite second nature yet, they are coming easier by the day. 
And even though by some surface standards, my life is a struggle--finances are really tight right now, work is extremely hectic, juggling softball and school with Sabrina is difficult (and I am not liking the way the wind is blowing with that, either; the reservations I have always had with the coach have not, to be kind, been eased)--I have found that it is very manageable nonetheless. I am not adding to my own burdens, and when the chances to repair, salvage, or mend past problems comes up, I take those chances to heart and do my part to make it better. I don't have everything I want. In a more perfect world, all these grants I'm writing will be awarded and I will be secure in my job for another three years, I will be making another ten thousand dollars a year, Sabrina will be the undisputed top catcher on the varsity, and the better-than-friend will be home and the relationship will thrive. But you know what? All of this is still possible, if I keep plugging away and continue to move down the path I started on last year this time. At that time, I was crestfallen and getting desperate, tired of the tumult and the consequences of repeated behavior relapses and indulging my defects of character. 
I'm not crestfallen any more. Faith is more than a word, and it's more than a thought process; it's an action. I've been hearing about "doing the right thing for the right reasons" since I got clean--actually, I've been hearing it my entire life, because "goodness for its own sake" is a different expression of the same thought. We always, always talk about God taking care of us if we do the right thing, but almost of us really struggle with doing that consistently and willingly...I understand, much more clearly than I ever did before, what "we didn't become addicted in a day" means now. I'm not going to be dramatic or dishonest and say that my life a year ago was as big a shambles as it was in the fall of 1998. But in some ways, I felt the disorder and the consequences of unspirituality much more keenly--because I felt like I knew better than I had been doing. I had a fleeting image, a mental snapshot, last year about this time, during the Easter season. I am not religious, and I don't believe in many aspects of Christian theology. But one reason Christianity has had the staying power that it has over the centuries is that there are many things about Scripture that any of us can identify with. 
And last year, as the shit storm was coming down, I felt like Simon Peter in the garden as the cock crowed for the third time. I had been warned many times about what was going to happen if I did not change, if I persisted in continuing with attitudes and behaviors that did not stand on principles, and if I let fear continue to be a Higher Power in my life instead of God. It was perhaps the most bitter feeling I have ever felt when I realized what I had been doing, how I followed emotions and fears to a place where I was holding my head my in heads muttering, "Oh, my God, how did I get here?" But that moment, in the scriptural story, was the turning point in the life of Peter; it was the moment when slippery, sketchy Simon reached saturation point, and the hardening into Peter the Rock started to occur.
I know too much and am too aware of my own fallibility to think that it is forever upward and onward from here. There have been times in the last fourteen months where I have not acted on principle. But I have been committed to moving forward and to practicing principles much more of the time than I ever have before in my life--and the results show in the general quality of my life. I don't know how we are going to do in the spades tournament today--but the fact that I am going to play with the partner that I am playing with is a bigger victory, over the Dark Side, than the prizes that are going to be awarded to the winning team by the Activities and Events Subcommittee of the Triple Cities Area of Narcotics Anonymous ever could symbolize.