Saturday, May 28, 2016

Book Review: CAMBODIA NOIR

Cambodia Noir is Nick Seeley's first novel, and it is, simply, remarkable. Set in Cambodia about ten years ago, it is the story of Will Keller, a photographer who has landed in Cambodia and lives dissolutely trying to forget ghosts and bad memories. He is given an assignment to find a missing reporter, and unravels a story so compelling, so disturbing, and so entwining that the reader can barely keep up. Keller's world-weary cynicism leads to some awesome, penetrating observations on not only the surreal world of Phonom Penh, but on life in general, too.
But the real main character of the novel is Cambodia itself. Generations Y and X do not know much about the country, if anything, but to those in my generation, Cambodia was a feature of our childhoods--a secondary front of the Vietnam conflict, the place where the biggest atrocities since the Holocaust happened, and the place where Kurtz established himself in one of the best movies ever made, Apocalypse Now. And Seeley does a magnificent job in depicting a place where psychological escape is both necessary and impossible, and as a result it is essentially a moral cipher, a place where drugs are normal, sex is currency, and it is taken for granted that everyone has a sordid secret that can exploited if found out. I was reminded, when reading this, of another book I read years ago, Tom Rob Smith's The Secret Speech, about another society's attempt to survive after enduring unspeakable horror as the norm for years. And like the post-Stalin USSR, Cambodia breathes, but it is terminally damaged by the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and the Pol Pot regime-- "normal" simply is not possible, and as a result, the entire society is made up of people that cannot relate to one another in any positive way. The veneer of civility has been glued on, but everyone in this society is damaged goods, and it is both literally and figuratively operating by the law of the jungle.
The shadow of the Killing Fields is oppressive in the novel, and I suspect it is accurate to say that it hangs over the country, too. We in the West sometimes complain about our society, and the "illusion" of freedom, and I am as guilty of anyone of engaging in this sort of discourse. But we have never endured atrocities like the Pol Pot genocide in this country--not even blacks in the Deep South in the heyday of slavery. It was a time when wearing glasses was a capital offense, of every family in the country relocated and separated, a land where knowledge was actively exterminated. It is simply impossible for Americans, or any other people, to imagine a society where every human being is considered only fit to be a beast of burden, and every offense against the rulers was a capital one. And in such an environment, the basic human interactions and relations we take for granted all day every day--friendships, familial, and any others--are dangerous and possibly fatal.
And when you have lived through that, how do you function again? How do you trust anyone? How do you live with the memory of a time when every day seriously could be your last? How do you go on after living through a time when your life could end at any moment--and most of those that you cared about even a little bit was killed for no good reason? In the three years of the Khmer Rouge's rule, a quarter of the population of the country was executed. Even Stalin and Mao didn't kill this many, proportionally. A generation is not enough time to move past it--hell, Russia is 60 years past Stalin, and still traumatized. Cambodia, too, is going to suffer the macro equivalent of PTSD for generations to come.
The mystery that Keller is unraveling has a surprising and not entirely satisfying ending, but I will say this; it packs a jolt like few suspense novels ever have. And as the book comes to an end, one wonders just how Keller will find the will to go on. He is already a serious addict and alcoholic, with few if any scruples left, and even he is, jaded as he had been, repulsed and fascinated by what he finds. How does one move on from that? And that is the point, I am sure, of the book as a whole. How do places like Cambodia--and other hellholes like Liberia, Somalia, Colombia, and Afghanistan--ever recover from the surreal horror that their peoples went and go through? Yes, continued existence happens--but is existence, given that baggage, even worth the effort?
I normally deplore sequels, but this is one book I would not mind seeing another installment of. And for a book of this quality and magnitude to come from a first-time book author--Seeley was a British media correspondent for many years, but never wrote even a non-fiction book before--is remarkable, a once-in-a-lifetime event.
If you only read one book in 2015, make it this one.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Wreckage

I've spent the last fifteen years in the human service field, and as such I have gotten a very good look at what we as a society have wrought since the sea changes in our social fabric and norms during my lifetime. And it ain't pretty.
There is this odd dichotomy in American life. On the one hand, almost everyone pays lip service to the idea that our children are incredibly important to us. George Carlin memorably made fun of his tendency, and he had a point; we have almost fetishized our love for our children, trying to "protect" them from every semblance of danger and in general making an ideal of smothering our kids. On the other hand--well, there's a lot of people out there that sure haven't treated their kids right. I headed a runaway/homeless youth program for a decade, and there was never a time when we had a caseload of zero--and in at least three-quarters of our cases, the kid was only showing eminent good sense and survival skills by wanting to get out of a household where the main parent (usually, almost 90% of our cases were kids where biological mom and dad were not together in the household) wasn't parenting very well. And my current job is with an organization where the parents don't even custody of their kids; some are absent entirely, and I've already seen, in a few weeks here, that those kids whose parents are absent entirely are the fortunate ones. I learned at my previous job not to give specifics of my job out in this space--but I've seen enough already to know that some of these people are failed human beings.
Frankly, it's depressing as hell to deal with every day. And there are a whole lot of other kids who aren't in care, who aren't running away or leaving home, but nonetheless are being parented by selfish twits, or distracted parents, or people that can't make a good decision to save their lives, or people who are emotional adolescents themselves, or... you get the idea. It's endemic, and everywhere.
I fear for our future. There was somewhat more I had to say on this subject, but I'm at work and duty keeps beckoning--and the first draft of this gave way too much detail, too. If I get a chance, I'll edit and refine this later in the day.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

My Good Deeds

...for the day? Sometimes it just is being able to see that no matter how right you may be, making a big deal out of it would be counterproductive. I did write a post yesterday about something that happened at a meeting Tuesday night, but it wasn't up twenty minutes when I realized that it really wasn't worth the drama that it was going to cause, and so I took it down. And I'm glad I did. I will have an opportunity to discuss the matter that irked me so with the person that did it soon enough, and that's more to get it out of my system than anything else, because he sure as shit isn't going to change his mind about the matter.
I went on a job interview yesterday, based on my top level performance on a civil service exam in the winter time. I'm not sure how it went. The lady that asked most of the questions definitely cooled when I mentioned that I had scored on the top of the program coordinator test four years ago and had turned down the job that I was offered then; her body language and facial expressions made it clear that she has been working for a long time where she is, and would dearly like to rise as high as the level I turned down. The other lady doing the interview was more impressed, I could tell, but I still am not sure I'm going to be offered the position... and if I do, I probably won't take it. There are mandatory union dues, a 37.5 hour work at a slightly lower salary rate than I'm getting now where I am at, and the former saving grace of civil service jobs, benefits, aren't what they used to be--health insurance isn't cheap, limited in coverage, and newbies are locked into it for three years instead of the one they formerly were. I'm not sure working 8 to 4 Monday through Friday is worth it.
I went to my former home group tonight, and it really wasn't all that satisfying an experience. I've picked up a new sponsee, and I think in the future, we're going to be meeting Wednesdays at 630 or 7, because there isn't a meeting out there that I would truly miss at that time, in either fellowship. But I did manage to sit through the entire meeting without leaving, and I felt like I accomplished something positive.
And the staff meeting at my job this afternoon went well, too. We have one kid that takes up 95% of our time, and I can't say I find it pleasurable to deal with him, but he isn't going anywhere, and I do have more overtime coming in the next couple of weeks. And there seems to be a general consensus among both kids here and staff that I'm an effective member of the team. I haven't gotten into any hassles with any kids other than the problem child, and my boss seems very happy with me.
But what I feel best about today was being able to step off the ledge with the post. I don't have pieces to pick up today, and the drama I used to cause didn't happen. You take your victories where you can get them.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Expanding the Comfort Zone

I'm getting back to a point where I am comfortable with my daily routine and my life again. The idea of Monday and Tuesday being my days off is starting to feel somewhat normal. The job I work has settled into a bit of a routine; other trying to get one difficult youth out of bed in the morning, there really isn't any hassle at all to it. The money isn't great, but it sure could be worse. I'm starting to figure out a new "normal" as far as everyday/week tasks such as housecleaning, laundry, shopping, etc. I am back on schedule with my sponsor and sponsee. I have adjusted to my daughter's new level of independence, and we are getting along a lot better now than we have in months.
And although I still feel occasional pangs of regret that the last relationship is over--well, it grows less regretful every day. One reason is that I am aware, more and more every day, that the age difference between us was simply something that could not ever be overcome; in some aspects, she is mature for her age, but in retrospect, she was/is very reminiscent of how I eventually came to perceive Lila--parenthood came too early, and as a result a lot of adolescence, and the experience that comes in a "normal" adolescence, was simply missed out on. And I'm not at a point in my life where I want to or can afford to have someone acquire that experience while I am involved with them. I stuck with Lila for a long, long time, and the end result was a catastrophic detonation of our lives that took years to clean up and move on from. I'm not going through that again, for anybody. There is still some feeling/affection there; I do miss her, to a degree. But there's also a realization that it just  wasn't meant to be. I'm OK with it. With a renewed commitment to being sponsored and working Steps, I realize that one of my focuses needs to be why I end up being attracted to women exhibiting this characteristic; it's quite possible that I have my own missing pieces of adolescent development that I am looking to somehow experience later in life.
I suspect that it's not going to be an issue that will be figured out in an hour or two, either.
But I am not feeling isolated or alone. I've been going to some sort of meeting almost every day. I am talking to a lot of people, men and women, regularly. I am making new friends with people just entering recovery, nurturing old friendships, and recommitting to some parts of the program. I am not dating anyone, but I am finding myself attracted to--and attractive to--women as I am moving through this adjustment period. But I am also learning that, like any other impulse, attraction doesn't need to be acted on immediately, and the results are already apparent. My life is very manageable right now, and I am not helping making anyone else's life more chaotic than it already is, too. And these contacts are leading me in unexpected, spiritually nourishing directions. I have dabbled in the other fellowship recently. I am experiencing a Christian-based group--I'm not really feeling the Jesus-as-Savior vibe, but I am rediscovering that many people whose relationship with God is steeped in Christianity have much in common with me, because we are both interested in further developing a working and viable faith in God, and I'm reasonably comfortable with these people, enough to keep going back.
And with the weather turning, I am finally revisiting and reexperiencing the outdoors. I turned the garden yesterday, and will be planting the food plants I bought Sunday today. I've been keeping the grass cut, and in general am trying to stay interested in the things that have kept me busy for years during the summer months.
Because I am also rediscovering a basic truth. Internal changes are necessary as we experience life; that's essentially the definition of growth. But it's rare when we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, where everything needs to be changed. It's a job change and the end of a relationship; it's not like the end of active addiction or a legal issue or a physical injury. It's a matter of adjustment, not a wholesale repudiation of the life I was leading. There are times when a withdrawal into self-reflection--or more bluntly, curling up in a ball and hiding from the world--is necessary, but this wasn't a change on this level, and frankly, I don't think that's ever going to be necessary again. It's a fact of life that uncomfortable things are going to happen, but the way to get through them is to challenge, and eventually change, my comfort zone.
And I keep doing it because it works. And I am a lot more comfortable with myself than I used to be. Yesterday, a high school classmate of mine that has devoted a huge amount of time to digitalizing the local newweekly chronicle of our youth posted the article of my first 800 meter race.. It was one of the more formative experiences of my life, because I had never run that distance before. It was a cattle-pen start, and I caught two elbows in the first couple of steps, and I distinctly remember thinking "Fuck this" and shot to the front of the pack. I am very competitive now, and was even more so then, and once in front, I was not going to be passed. I led the entire race, until the last fifteen meters or so, when the best half-miler on our time finally came abreast of me...and that's the last I remember, because I hit the proverbial wall, my legs seized up from lactic acid buildup, and I fell down a couple of steps from the finish line and couldn't get up. It went down as a DNF, and it seemed like the entire school--area, actually; runners from other schools told me several times over the next couple of years about it--knew about it as soon as it happened. I dealt with it at the time, used it as motivation to improve (and to learn to pace myself), and I can't say I was happy with the story being all over the newspaper in pictures at the time--what 17YO would want that? But yesterday, I didn't feel much of anything as I saw it. My friend private-messaged me and asked if I wanted it taken down, and I actually laughed; it was 36 years ago, I told him.
But it's largely because I am comfortable with who I am now, much more so than I was then. It's the difference between 17 and 53; it's the difference between being adolescence and adulthood. A lot worse and more embarassing stuff has happened to me then hitting the wall five meters short of a finish line in a race since then, and I've dealt with it all and came out stronger for it. It all has passed, and the current issues, too, are passing, as my discomfort eases and I find new paths to move down. There's nothing to be embarrassed or angry about.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Book Review: BIRDS OF PARADISE

Birds of Paradise is a recent novel by Diana Abu-Jabar that focuses on a sort-of wealthy Miami family with a secret--their teenage daughter is living on the streets, has been for years. The novel starts with a missed meeting between daughter and mother, and progresses through the varied arcs of each member as they go through a summer month--the mother's fascination with a Haitian neighbor that may or may not be a voodoo priestess, the father's consideration of desperate measures focusing on empty symbols of affluence, the son's dream enterprise caught up in wordly considerations, and the daughter trying to reenter the world of responsibility and emotional commitments. As the family lurches toward each other, Hurrican Katrina approaches Miami--it did hit Miami before reentering the Gulf and more famously striking New Orleans--and the resultant storm serves as a nice, if obvious, metaphor for the storm that had been affecting the family breaking and then passing. This is a pretty good novel, if not necessarily subtle; it took me over a week to read because of circumstances, not because it was dull or lacking.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Fighting the Good Fight

There are just a few hours to go in this work week. I am slowly getting used to the staying awake at night bit, but I am also resorting to drinking a full 2-liter soda containing caffeine every night to do so, which is not doing my determination to lose weight any good.
But I am going to persevere, because that's what I do. I was thinking all day today about how hard I have to work to maintain even a semblance of middle-class life, and ultimately I am quite possibly not going to succeed at doing so. For someone that has made one major mistake in his life, for someone that has worked the vast majority of the time since graduating college--well, that doesn't speak well for what America has become during my adult years. It bodes darkly for my daughters' generation and their prospects. And it points out the illusory nature of "financial security" most of all. There is no such thing.
But I am not giving up. For one thing, I still haven't given up on some ideas. The novel I picked up work on during the winter has stalled again (largely because the person I was counting on to be my editor, a very literary young woman that I knew through recovery that was on Drug Court has been locked up again, and I have no idea if and when she will be at liberty again. I haven't looked real hard for another possibility, but I should, because I do want to finish the manuscript, which I estimate as being about half-done), but I know there's a great story there that people will want to read, and it will get done sometime. And I also am not wired to quit, anyway. Even dating back to high school, I have been noted for the ability to endure, even things are not going my way.
And one thing I have seen for myself recently, as the shape of my life has changed yet again. For me to give up would let down a lot of people. I may be having a lot of trouble finding a life partner or a job with substantial financial reward--but I have gotten all sorts of reminders nonetheless that a lot of people value my presence in their life. And corny as it sounds, yeah, it makes a difference to me. And I already have seen many times over that more people pay attention to what I do and say than I would have ever guessed--and my continuing to strive to move forward and to grow has not gone unnoticed. And I do take heart from all that.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Seminars in Decision-Making

If there is anything that I have gotten out of the last couple of years, it is the certain knowledge of two things: 1) I make better decisions than I used to, and 2) I still don't always make good decisions, and when I don't, they sometimes cause more damage than bad decisions used to, precisely because they are less frequent occurrences than before.
And I am finding myself on the cusp of several major decisions that I am going to have to make in the next one to four weeks. It took me over five months to find a job, and the one I have now pays reasonably well and isn't all that hard (aside from being third shift). But some of the steps I took when I was unemployed are also now bearing fruit. I took a civil service test in early March, and the results have come back--I'm on top of the list. As such, I am interviewing with a unit of DSS Wednesday morning, and I am reasonably confident that an offer will be forthcoming, and then I will have a decision to make. In favor of staying put, there is the possibility of moving to other positions in this agency; the fact that the pay is decent and the job easy; overtime at times; and the job is only a few blocks from my home. In favor of moving on, there is the pay being nearly the same, automatic raises every year, better insurance available, and day shift hours... I'm not sure which way I will go. I'm not really not.
Then another opportunity came up this evening. I have lived in the same house for nine years. My landlord is a good friend of mine who has been more than fair with me, and has cut me a lot of slack with the rent and other things as my financial situation cratered in the last year. Out of the blue, another good friend that lived a block away wants to rent her home to me, for the same (low) rent and amenities. On the stay side, there is gratitude and loyalty, the money I owe, and the fact that moving is a gigantic pain in the ass, especially since I do not have the money to pay a moving company right now. On the moving side, it's a single family house, with a fenced in yard and garage, and some of the things that are not great about the current situation (lack of storage, some issues with maintenance) won't be an issue. What to do? I'm not sure.
And there is the domestic situation with me. I recently got out of a relationship that was, to be kind, draining and somewhat debilitating; indeed, my commitment to it is a factor in the financial straits I am in, and even though I grew as a person immensely during the time I was with her, the fact is that I wasted a lot of time and attention and other stuff on someone that really proved to be not worthy of it. I have discovered, in the few weeks since the end came, that there are others that are interested in me--but all of them have potential drawbacks to consider, and in any event, I am financially limited and work four nights a week, including both weekend nights. On the other hand, I admit that I do not like being alone, and at 53 and having trouble keeping weight off, there is the nagging sense that if I don't get with someone, there may not be another someone in the future. So what do I do?
And no, I am not really looking for answers in this space. I have come to firmly believe that if I pray and wait for a path to be revealed, all will be clear in due time. I am resisting impulsive behaviors, and also resisting quick decisions. My daughter is affected by all three of these situations, and her input needs to be sought out and considered. I have to rationally weigh all factors, including the emotional ones. And again, I think I have to make sure that I am practicing an Eleventh Step and seeking out not only God's will, but the power to carry it out. And that's going to take a little time to figure out.
And part of the process of that is paying attention around me. I have seen a number of adults make consistently poor decisions around me, mostly because they cannot differentiate between temporary desires and long-term needs. I work in an environment where I am surrounded by teens (and some staff, too) that cannot make good decisions on their own, and have to live with those consequences. Even some of the people I look to for guidance have made hard decisions that in retrospect may not have been the best ones... like I have at times. I've actually come to believe that even bad decisions can be positive learning experiences. Recently, for example, I have had plenty of cause to rue giving my ex another chance, and even to give her the first chance nearly two years ago--but it is also undeniable that I have become a better man for the experience. I know now that I am capable of loyalty, of fidelity, of commitment, and in the past there was a lot of question whether I could be. That she turned out not to be worthy of it doesn't alter the fact that I changed my behavior and my attitudes to become the sort of man that can make a committed relationship work. In other areas, too, the "bad" experiences turned out to be opportunities for growth. I doubt I would be as committed to this job if I had not had to wait so long to get one--and I learned the value of perseverance and dogged pursuit of goals again.
So this is what I think about at 2:45 AM when the world is asleep.