Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Shot of Lighter Fluid On A Pile of Embers

In North America, there are usually considered to be four major team sports and sports leagues. American football has become the undisputed top sport of fan interest over the course of my lifetime. Baseball, although it has undeniably slipped in recent decades, remains popular. Basketball has carved itself a stable niche as well. Ice hockey's place has always been more tenuous, and the horrible stewardship the National Hockey League has received over the length of my lifetime has without a doubt been the main factor in its very junior status among the big four; Clarence Campbell, John Ziegler, and Gary Bettman have provided consistently awful and short-sighted leadership as successive commissioners of the NHL (I'd say they were the worst in any sport ever, but the clowns that have run baseball have actually done worse since the 1960's). Hockey's unpopularity is also partially due to some aesthetic limitations, too: it is played on a surface that half of this country has no direct experience with, it is a sport that needs a considerable set of (expensive) equipment to play, and the universal helmet rule and growing prevalence of faceguards and shields means that players increasingly look like gladiators; and the presence of fighting as part of the game is undoubtedly a factor in many people's reluctance to embrace it or even view it positively.
But there are a couple of things that hockey has undeniably done right. One is that it has the best championship trophy (even non-hockey fans know what the Stanley Cup is, and it's a real thing, not some trophy made every year like the other sports have. There is only one Cup, and when a different team wins it than the one that won the year before, the previous winner has to give it back. How great is that?)  and playoff structure. The NHL caught a lot of flak in 1980 when it went to a 16-team playoff bracket, largely because at the time there were only 21 teams in the league, but a 16-team bracket means four rounds in which every team plays in every round--no bullshit byes. When the league went to all four rounds being best-of-7 in the early 1990's, that perfected the concept, and now hockey playoffs are the best of all the major sports, especially since now the league has 30 teams and there isn't quite the everyone-gets-in vibe of the 80's. Another is that for a time, the hockey playoffs pitted four teams in each division against one another, with the winner of the first two rounds only then playing other teams in the league, which led to rivalries being built up that inflamed and incited fan bases to levels of intensity that had never been seen before or, after the playoff formats changed in the 1990's, since, in any sport with the possible exception of European soccer. Even though the playoff format is different now, once in a while, by accident, one of those storied rivalries, the ones that have massive brawls in their distant past, ones where teams and fan bases truly hate one another with the flaming passion of an Appalachian feud, gets served up to hockey fans, and an already superb playoff format becomes sublime.
And this year, the Rangers are half of one of those classic rivalry series that this year's Stanley Cup playoffs have offered up. For the eleventh time in the team's histories, the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are meeting in a playoff series--but for the first time in 17 years. And to younger Ranger fans, it is hard to explain the depth of the vitriol and, yes, hatred that Ranger fans of my generation feel for the Flyers. The Flyers were the original Broad Street Bullies of the NHL forty years ago, riding a wave of intimidation, cheap shots, and premeditated fighting to two championships--and the first one came at the direct expense of a Ranger team that was one of the best teams, year after year, in any sport to not win a championship. That was the first meeting in the playoffs, but many more followed in the next twenty years, with largely the same sub-plot--skillled but somewhat physically lacking Ranger teams up against the goon squad in orange. The Rangers won a majority of those clashes, including some major upsets, and with every passing series, and every desperate attempt by the Flyers to intimidate those who would not be intimidated, my emotional involvement grew. Granted, being in college and imbibing copious amounts of alcohol and, occasioinally, illegal stimulants during televised games contributed to the passionate involvement, but that did not make it less real. I grew to hate the Flyers, Flyer fans, and for a time anything about Philadelphia itself. The last of the three has subsided--but the first two have not. The Rangers and Flyers have shared the same division all this time, and play each other often, and they still, after forty years and several generations of players coming and going, do not like each other. At all. Sometimes I watch Ranger games on TV, and sometimes I listen to the radio feed of the games when I am online--and while Joe Michelleti on the TV has a sort-of disdain for the Flyer roughhouse tactics, it is clear that he was not a part of this rivalry in his playing days (and he wasn't; he played for St. Louis primarily). Dave Maloney on the radio, on the other hand, was involved in five different playoff series as a Ranger with the Flyers, and his loathing and dislike of the team and everything about it is quite apparent, even though he is not a homer and he is one of the best analysts in the business. And Maloney retired nearly 30 years ago.
Oh, yeah, it runs deep.
But on the other hand, it has been 17 years since a playoff series between the teams, and I'm not quite feeling it on the same level as I used to. Part of it is that I am a full third of a lifetime older than the last time they met in the playoffs, and I hardly ever get deeply involved in a sports team like I used to. Part of it is that while the Flyers have some players I don't really care for, there is no Dave Schultz or Bob Kelly or Behn Wilson or Ken Linseman or Dave Brown or Dave Houda or Jack McIhargy or Bobby Clarke or Rick Tocchet or Mel Bridgeman or Eric Lindros or John LeClair or Terry Carkner or... you get the idea. I hated those guys, even players like Carkner and Kjell Samuelson that were former Rangers. And when Lindros came to New York, I never liked him; I just viewed him as a interloper, a mercenary that was polluting the Ranger uniform. There are players on today's Flyer teams that I don't like--Scott Hartnell, I'm looking at you; Zac Rinaldo, you need to get your ass beaten; Jay Rosehill, get that shit out of here. But I don't have the level of loathing for guys like Claude Giroux and the Schenn brothers and Jakub Voracek. Maybe after two or three games, it will perk back up. But right now, I'm jacked, but I'm not so jacked up that this series is dominating my mind.
Or maybe I've just grown up. The intensity and longing for the Cup is something that, as long ago as 1994 was, no longer eats at me like it did when I was young; I do remember a Ranger Stanley Cup, which  was not the case during the heyday of this rivalry. As a matter of fact, it's the Flyer fans that are starting to feel anxious on this count; it has been 39 years since the franchise's last championship, including six losses in the Cup finals (suffer, bitches, suffer). But I do feel just a little more invested in this one than just about any other prospective matchup; the only teams that approach the Flyers in emotional intensity for me are the Penguins (because we can never beat them in the playoffs) and the Devils (because they are weasels). The Islanders have been bad for so long that I no longer hate them, and the Capitals are like an annoying neighbor kid that talks a lot and can't back it up. Those are the teams of the old Patrick Division, the ones that used to get pitted against one another every year for two rounds, and as I found out last year when the Rangers played the Bruins, the 80's and 90's had their intended effect, well past the ending of the divisional playoff format--the fan bases really can't get it up for teams outside the old division rivalries anymore. I don't like the Bruins, but I did not feel devastated when the Rangers lost to them, the way I used to when they lost to the Flyers in the 90's, the Penguins several years ago, or the Devils two years ago.
And I remember how elated I was for days when the Rangers beat the Flyers during the 80's. A couple of years ago, when the teams met in the Winter Classic and the Rangers overcame a lot of adversity to win, it kept me going on full throttle for a week afterward--and that was just one regular season outdoor game. So while I may not be showing up at bars at 3 o'clock for a 730PM game like I did when I was in my twenties--I still care more than I usually do today. And making the series even more interesting and worthy of emotional investment is that they are evenly matched; the Rangers might be marginally better, but it's certainly going to surprise no one should Philadelphia win. Let the games begin.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

More Thoughts On Sponsorship

I've recently took on another sponsee, and two other guys asked me about sponsoring them (one is not going to be taken on; the other one is still an open situation), which is a commitment of time in an already-busy life that I will gladly undertake. Sponsorship is, not to put too fine a point on it, how recovery, as opposed to abstinence, takes place; if not for sponsorship, and the Step work that ought to accompany it (although in a surprising number of instances, there isn't any work on the Steps taking place between sponsor and sponsee), I would not be sitting here this morning writing this. One of the cliches often heard in meetings that nonetheless is very true is that the fellowship is a 12-Step program, and that to recover, we need to work Twelve Steps. And as time goes on, I am absolutely blown away by the number of people that do not work the steps that continue to come around, time and time after relapse after relapse, for years and even decades, who wonder, at excruciating length during dozens of meetings, why they can't keep the drugs down.
I've been aware for a long time that there are a rather minuscule percentage of people in the program who have worked Steps all the way through Twelve. But I've been talking to other people recently that also sponsor, that have in most cases sponsored more men and women than I have, and I am beginning to see just how small this percentage is. Aldo has worked with, over twenty-one years, about forty guys, and he told me that four of us got through the Twelve Steps with him over that span--none more recently than I did, and I finished working the Steps with him in 2006. I am also the only one that is still active in the program around here and has been sponsoring others. Of the other three, one no longer lives in the area, one is dead, and the third, who for years sponsored a lot of guys himself, eventually lost the battle with the character defects that bedeviled him, finally relapsed, and has spiraled ever downward in a development that has absolutely torn up those of us that love this man. Another guy, who was part of the group around the Messagemaster for a long time, has worked with dozens of guys over the years, probably something approaching fifty men--and shared recently that a current sponsee is the first guy to get to Step Twelve with him. My current sponsor has been around the program a year longer than Aldo, and has taken one guy all the way through the Steps--and that guy no longer comes to meetings and is not available to sponsor other men. I was talking with a female friend of mine yesterday that is in the middle of working Step Four--and she told me that she will be, when she finishes it, the first woman her sponsor--who has been around for most of the last two decades, the last twelve consecutively, and has been at one point or another the sponsor of about thirty women--has gotten through Step Four, much less Twelve. There are times when I wonder about my own competence as a sponsor because I've only taken one guy through all the Steps, although another will be finishing Step Twelve within a couple of weeks. But I have to come to realize that my experience has been rather normal.
It's on my mind this morning because my meeting attendance has been trending upward for about the last year and a half, and I have come to realize just how few people actually are working the steps, making an effort to start to make decisions infused with principles, and in general moving toward our ultimate goal in recovery--becoming useful to those who come in the door after us. Yesterday, as I have been doing fairly regularly for some time now, I went to the noon meeting a block away from my office, a meeting that is heavily attended by those new to the program. I've made a commitment to going there as often as I can because there are damn few people there that have any experience with working Steps and having any sort of successful track record at living a new way of life, and voices of those that have that experience and record really need to share it more often than we do. Our lives do fill up, and it is easy to rationalize away not going to meetings or talking at those we do go to, but I've come to believe that we need to do what we can, because otherwise a message of recovery doesn't get heard at all by those that need to hear it the most. The noon meeting is infamous for a message of mess being dominant, and yesterday was no exception; there was a good 45 minutes of sharing ranging from whistling in the dark to outright insanity, with a good dose of misinformation thrown in for good measure. The sad part is that every one of the contributors left the meeting within minutes of their sharing. Sometimes you have unavoidable reasons for doing so, and one yesterday had her toddler with her; life on life's terms happens sometimes. But then there are the chronics, the people who never stick around to hear any possible solutions. The purpose of sharing in meetings is twofold--ideally, we share our experience, strength, and hope, but should we share "what's going on with me," ideally one is doing so in the aim of trying to find a solution to the dilemma--which means keeping your ass in the chair until the meeting is over so that maybe you might hear something from someone else that could possibly help you deal with what you are struggling with. After fifteen years, I am no longer surprised by it; it is essentially a manifestation of the self-centeredness that is the core of the disease of addiction. But I am still frustrated as hell when I hear it and see it, because ultimately they've wasted not only my and the other people at the meeting's time, but theirs. One of the core principles of the program is open-mindedness, and to practice it we need to be around other people giving other input. We already know what we think, and by talking for ten minutes and then leaving the room, what we think is going to remain the only input you get.
But what I find particularly galling in meetings is the attitude displayed toward sponsorship. I have heard people more or less blame their sponsor for not keeping them clean. I have heard people who share every meeting that do not have sponsors, and have not for years at a time--and wonder why they have incredibly chaotic lives. I have heard people complain that they can't "trust" enough to have sponsors--and inevitably, every single time I've ever inquired, they themselves have not had their confidential information disseminated through the rooms by a duplicitous individual they asked to sponsor them; it's always that "someone told me" about it happening to them (in other words, it's bullshit, a lie manufactured to justify their own unwillingness to work the entire program). There are different ways of sponsoring, some of which I have major reservations about. But even those I have major reservations about are a lot better than not doing it at all.
Three other quick notes about sponsorship. One is that talking to someone about once every complete lunar cycle for a few minutes on the phone does not constitute being sponsored; it is a regular commitment to work the steps, which means sitting down together and going over Narcotics Anonymous literature including the Twelve Steps. If this is not happening, then you are not being sponsored by anyone--and you can stop yammering about it in meetings at any time, because all you are doing is taking time away that people who are working the program might put to better use. And the second is that if you have worked with a sponsor at some point in the past and then relapsed, then apparently something was lacking in the work that you did. Recovery takes place when you work the program as thoroughly as possible, and justifications for relapses aside, a relapse is pretty firm and incontrovertible evidence that you missed something when you were doing your work. I used to be adamant that if you used while allegedly working with a sponsor, you needed to find a new sponsor, because obviously that one wasn't doing it for you--but I've come to realize that's far too simplistic to be a total, ironclad, must-do guideline. But I will say this much: if you repeatedly relapse, absolutely cannot stay clean, and have been working with the same person for months and years while this consistent pattern of stopping/using again is taking place--then you do need to look elsewhere.
And lastly, if you've had a dozen sponsors and you have a white keytag collection--it isn't the sponsors, and it isn't the idea of sponsorship. It's you. It's not a matter of you "finding the right sponsor." MOTY had fourteen sponsors in seven years. A guy whose been in and out for longer than the entire time I've been in recovery, a guy whose life just blew up again, has had at least fifteen sponsors in that time. Someone that was at the nooner yesterday is older than me, has been coming around for decades, has days clean--and has had close to twenty sponsors, including two of my sponsees in recent years...The message of recovery is all around us. There are times when there are legitimate reasons to change sponsors. But the commitment to do the work, and to actually recover, should be paramount, and at the least needs to be present for the process to work. It has worked for countless numbers of people. If it doesn't seem to be working for you--well, it isn't the process itself, and chances are it isn't the person for whom the process has been working in their own life.
Chances are, it's you. And it's you that needs to change, not your sponsor, not the program... and not your own clean date.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Emotional Suboxone

One of the raging controversies of the circles I move in has to do with the merits of a class of narcotic medications given to certain categories of drug users. Suboxone is the current ambrosia of choice for the medical community practicing "drug replacement therapy," and the pioneering drug used in this fashion, methadone, is still commonly used as well. The controversy arises because there is some question about whether or not the person is actually getting better. Yes, some of the benefits are undeniable--the risk of HepC or HIV infection is zero when on Suboxone, and theoretically the person on the regimen is weaning themselves off their physical dependence on narcotics under the watchful eye of trained medical professionals.
I'm not writing about that today. But the idea--the preferred view, in parlance of social work--behind the use of drug replacement is, when the layers are peeled away, an artificial device used to avoid pain. And something somebody said to me a few weeks ago has stuck in my mind, about how the last year or so of my life has simply a series of episodes that can quite creditably be characterized as "emotional replacement therapy." It struck a nerve, and since one of the better aspects of my character is that I am honest enough with myself to not being able to un-hear or unlearn the truth when I hear or experience it, it's opened the door to a level of awareness that I had never allowed myself to experience before. My sponsor (well, technically, my ex-sponsor, but since he and I talk all the time and he is much more available to me than the guy I am working literature with now, I still think of him as my "real" sponsor) and I have had, no joke, more in-depth and frank discussions about this area of my life in the last month than in the previous decade, and other individuals, some with a direct stake and some not, have also given their solicited and unsolicited input. I have also paid much closer attention to other people in their emotional entanglements, with a more open and less judgmental eye, and have been accumulating and assimilating the information received there, as well.
And the process has been eye-opening and not all that painful. It has resulted in a renewed appreciation for the idea that our lives tend to become a series of feedback loops, of discernible behavior patterns that lead to similar results--usually, similar emotional pain--over and over again. And, inevitably, the same results always occur.
And the recognition has spawned a few insights. One is that it hasn't even worked; the series of "replacements" hasn't had the intended effect. I have not been happy for more than a few days at a time in any of the "replacement" relationships. The other is that the problems I make for myself in mature recovery are still rooted in the same character issue or defect as most of the other problems in my life have been: impatience. I was extraordinarily impatient, even by addict standards, when I came into recovery, and although in some areas I have become (in my mind miraculously) patient, in some areas it is still a huge struggle--and in the area of personal relationships most of all. Time and again, I have not proved willing to wait; I always tend to jump in to whatever is available precisely because it is available, and it is available because the other people have a lot more work to do on getting healthier than I do. I always downplay the distance between myself and them, thinking I can help bring them up to a better place--and no matter how many times I end up descending, that particular fantasy dies hard. That is not to say that my judgment or eyesight is always flawed; several times in my life, I have been able to see right away what someone I am interested in is capable of becoming, which is the reason I get interested--but I can't seem to summon enough patience to let the other person travel their own journey,until they grow and develop enough to become, or close to becoming, what I knew they had in them to become.
And so I end up in situations and in relationships that, in a best case scenario, are eventually going to have to be dispensed with. I don't know how Suboxone makes one feel; I've been told that it is less of a feeling of being high than of not feeling the low or pain of withdrawal. And that's pretty much what I have done, for years. I've become acutely aware that what I have attempted to "replace" more than once, and certainly in the last year or so, is not the physical aspect of a relationship, but the emotional intimacy that is an integral part of any relationship that has substance. Proximity, physical availability, and willingness to engage in co-dependency are not substitutes for that. At best, they are temporary reprieves, distractions.
And at worst, they foster a different type of dependency. One of the things I share with friends, sponsees, and professionally is that so much of our learning curve is not knowing so much what works as knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt what does not. And I have come to know, in the last couple of days, what, in the current situation, does not. I don't know what the future holds, but I do know that alchemy does not work--lead does not change to gold. And no matter how hard I look to justify what is at heart a relationship centered two inches below my navel, I can't pretend anymore that it is anything more than it is. It is like being on suboxone, emotionally. At some point, to get healthy and to move on to a different place or different phase, the suboxone has to go. In a spiritually based, principled way, since another human being is involved here, but nonetheless, it has to go. Since the spiritually based, principled ending has not been something I've historically been able to do, that's the immediate area I have to work on next. The beauty of the recovery process is that, if I am actually engaged in it, more eventually is revealed. And I've gotten enough experience to feel pretty certain about what comes next--and more importantly, how it has to be done. I mean, I could just stop answering the phone and be a dick to her when I see her; I've done that in the past, more than a few times, when I've decided that it's time to move on. I know better now, and I know that isn't God's will. But the actual moving on, I've become convinced, is. Application needs to follow knowledge.
And I need to be truly free of emotional Suboxone to go where I'm destined to go. Wherever that may be.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Spring Break/Assessment

I just remembered that my daughter doesn't have to get up today; it's the annual spring break for the school district. She does have more to do today than many kids in her grade; she has to be at the field for practice at ten o'clock, which is something I can manage without too much trouble because of the particulars of the job I have, but must be a pain in the ass for a lot of other parents to pull off. But in general, it's a chore to try to find ways to keep kids occupied during extended breaks like this, and I have no idea what parents that work do with their kids that aren't on sports teams.
Especially since there's going to be a downward turn in the weather yet again. It was a beautiful weekend around here--seventies Saturday, low eighties yesterday, bright and sunny both days. I managed to get a lot of the grunt work done about making my garden space bigger, and at least did the preliminary work about fixing the garden box that's breaking down. But after today, it's going to rain for a day--then snow on Tuesday night, with temperatures in the fifties the rest of the week. Yes, it's spring and this crap happens, and yes, last year I remember a killing frost in May. But after getting a real good start on a natural tan the last two days, this is not something that feels right or that I want to be dealing with.
The hard part of the April crush at my job is over--I had three grants/reports to do in the last ten days or so that have been completed and submitted for signatures, and this week I can move on to setting up some outreach initiatives I've been working on. We've had an uptick in admissions, too; cabin fever is a real thing, and we always get a surge when the weather gets warmer. And it's comfortable to be in my office again; the heat recently got fixed and it's been like a sauna in there for a month. I also did my taxes last night, and have decided, after weighing the options, to pay in installments this year. I could pay it all right now, but that would really deplete my cushion at a time when I don't really want to do that because of the added expenses associated with travel team softball. The government is the best creditor there is to have; you can take six years to pay a debt with no changes in the agreement. I'm not going to need anywhere near that long, but at the numbers I owe, I could pay $20 a month and keep them happy for years. Who can beat that?
This softball thing is going to be trouble before it's all said and done, by the way. I got indirect word that the varsity coach, who is also her travel team coach, was not pleased about my confrontation with the JV coach at the end of her game last week about the wisdom of Sabrina stealing two bases in the final inning of a 12-0 blowout with a back injury that should have resulted from her removal from the game innings before. He's given her a hard time about my presence at games before, too, even though I've become more detached and less involved than I ever thought I could be. He supposedly told her yesterday at the first travel team practice that he was "going to have to talk to [me]." If so, he missed the best chance he's ever going to have, because I was the last parent to arrive to pick up his kid yesterday and he was still there, and yet nary an approach was made...I don't have an axe to grind with him. I've accepted how it is, even if I think it's a bit overboard and overdone. But I'm not going to stop being her father, either, and I'm especially not going to stop being her father when I'm paying $2000 for her presence on the team. I hope that this is merely bluster or that I've gotten some misinformation. But somehow I doubt that.
Sabrina's mother has also started to cast a lengthening shadow over this household. She apparently told Sabrina she's not going to fight the custody change, which to me is a tacit admission that she would rather give up her role in her daughter's life rather than give up her drugs. But she's also trying to work my daughter at the same time; Sabrina and I had a rather large blowup last night about her wanting to spend four hours over there again a few more times this week. I told her no; her mother doesn't live up to her obligations in any way, and it isn't Sabrina's job to help her raise a baby that she shouldn't have had to begin with and that her actions led to there being no father around to help. I was willing to bend Saturday because, under the existing court order--the one that will hopefully be changed soon--Sabrina is supposed to be there on Saturdays. She's not on Mondays, and I am not going to spend hours of a day when the responsible, working parent has to fulfill his obligations to his employer going out of his way to allow his daughter to spend time in the house of a using addict. If that makes me an ogre, so be it. The law guardian meets with Sabrina Thursday, and we are in court again next Monday. Hopefully there will be some resolution soon with that situation.
I spent the first part of yesterday afternoon fulfilling my commitment as Area Treasurer. When we all sat down, there was more participation than there has been in years in the room--representatives from seventeen different groups. And then it turned into an ordeal, and a lot of the same nonsense that turns people off the idea of serving on that level took place. I'm not going to go into a lot of details here, and I'm trying very hard to realize that I do honestly believe that most people there truly are there because they want to be helpful, because they are trying their best to help the fellowship and those who attend it. But I have to be honest; I've been Treasurer for the better part of two years, and I am very glad that my term is coming to an end. It's become a chore, and it isn't because the nature of my position has changed. And I do know, just from the three conversations I had after the rather contentious  meeting concluded, that the members of the fellowship that are younger in their recovery--those with a few months to a few years clean, the ones who are going to be the stewards of this fellowship in the years to come--were not attracted by the displays of ego, arrogance, unpreparedness, and most of all, disregard for common courtesies. There is a certain implicit understanding that we're not professional accountants or managers or lawyers, and that some leeway is given, at least among most of us, in job performance; asking questions is not synonymous with finding fault, and not having "correct" answers is not evidence of bad motivations or wrongdoing. That was not what irritated me yesterday. What did irritate me was the blatant disregard for protocol and courteous behavior--stop talking over people, stop having conversations in normal tones of voice while other people have the floor, get there on time, wait until you are called on by the chairperson before speaking, follow procedures in place for filling positions and conducting business...As I said, those who will be tasked with keeping this fellowship alive in years to come were not impressed or even filled with desire to return, and I am profoundly glad my term is coming to an end.
There were other developments that became notable by what didn't happen. There comes a point where traffic has to come down the other side on a two-way street. It's been a while since anyone was moving in that direction, and that is a case of more being revealed. I can't see the entire picture yet, to be sure, but I think I know more than I did this time last week. And I will no doubt know more in another week, and in the fullness of time my own path will be illuminated more for me.
Lastly, I have a doctor's appointment this morning. Follow-up from last month, to see if the new blood pressure medication is working. I feel all right, even if the diet changes went out the window this week under the pressure of several softball practices and games running into the evening. But I think I'm going to live.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Fellow Traveler

Sometimes, in particularly frustrating or despairing moments, one gets lost in dark thoughts. Sometimes it's a crossing into self-pitying territory, other times it seems like merely a realistic assessment of a life grown difficult. Nobody walks the exact same path, and from that undeniable fact, sometimes it's easy to indulge the logical fallacy that nobody moves in the same direction or that nobody covers the same ground. I tend to be prone less to this type of thinking than other people because of my background and subsequent immersion in a fellowship whose basis for existence is a shared set of experiences. But there are still times when I feel like "nobody has had to deal with what I have and do" and "this is incredibly difficult."
I have been the primary parent for my youngest, and for the last couple of years, my role has been evolving, first becoming more primary than ever before and, the last three months, becoming "only parent in the picture." It has been rewarding and difficult and a bunch of other adjectives all at the same time--and while adjustments have been made, and accepted, there are times when I feel like "no one knows what I go through here." Those thoughts were exacerbated by the revelation a couple of nights ago that Sabrina had texted her mother regarding her softball injury, and then ended up speaking to her on the phone for the first time in three months--and then followed by a request to go spend time at her mother's home yesterday, a few hours worth. Part of me instantly went to "are you kidding? There's a petition working its way through court that you insisted I file" (as if I didn't think it was necessary, right?) We talked about, and I relented, mostly because, all things aside, MOTY is her mother and the danger in a four-hour visit on a Saturday afternoon--a time when, according to the existing visitation order, Sabrina is supposed to be at MOTY's--is very small.
But I was still very nervous about it, and it was chewing on my insides all morning and early afternoon. The Binghamton varsity had a tournament  yesterday, and most of the JV girls, including Sabrina, were going to go watch (the fact that the varsity coach had told Sabrina a few weeks ago that she would be called up to the varsity during tournaments, and that she wasn't yesterday, has been noted and filed under "eventual resolution" with Mr. Coach by moi). I took her there in late morning, with the understanding I would pick her up from there and take her to her mother's home for a few hours. I went to the field about 30 minutes early to catch the end of the game--of course, I am a fan of our school team, and I know just about every kid on the team, too, most of whom I like and want to see do well, and many of whom's parents I have gotten to know and like.
And, for about the nine millionth time, I got some sort of indication that God looks out for me. I really have come to believe that there are few, if any, coincidences; it seems like every time I am going through something internally, I come across a situation that puts my own dilemma in perspective and/or provides a way out of it. Of all the parents I've gotten to know over the last three years, there has been one in particular that I always hang with when he's around. Two springs ago, I happened to sit down to him at a modified game at Vestal in the first inning, and after identifying each other's daughters to the other and talking about the game and other softball stuff, I noticed he had his hands full with two younger girls running around the field. They were eight and six at the time, full of life and miniature versions of their older sister on the field, and the guy allowed, in the course of the afternoon, that he was in the middle of a divorce that was not amicable at all, and that he was fighting for custody of his three daughters. The rest of that year, and all of last season, and during the summer when his daughter's City League team and Sabrina's played, we would sit down and catch up, all the while watching the two pixies seemingly grow a little every time I saw them, and his daughter on the field go through her development, too, both as a player and as a teen.
Because he got custody, and it became very clear over the last two years that the mother was more or less completely absent now. Increasingly, our conversations ranged farther afield from softball. He's been trying to buy a smaller house in a decent neighborhood for a couple of years, considering a couple on our street. His daughter that plays is a year older than Sabrina, and we shared a lot of input about teen girls having to deal with the burdens of adolescence in father-led households. And every time I did so, I realized that as hard as I found my life at times, he had a tougher hand to play, that he had two littler kids to tend to, and that he had to ask his oldest to assume a helping role more than he--or she-- would have liked, and how much he had had to adjust his own life so as to not overburden his oldest, to allow her to have as much of an adolescence as circumstances dictated. And I thought to myself that I had found a kindred soul. I have found very few men--and few single parent women, too, for that matter--that are willing to change their own lives around on that scale for their the sake of their children's well-being. Everyone pays lip service to those ideals, but few actually practice them, and it was very clear to me that this man does. We've talked a bit over the last couple of years about our respective situations, the challenges, the pain and anger accompanying the divorces, the incredulous disbelief about some of our former partner's actions and beliefs. And the joy we take in our kids, and the sense of satisfaction as they realize that they can depend on at least one parent, and the hurt in us as we see how much they are confused and hurt by the actions and attitudes and failures of the other parent to make the same commitment to them, and having to pick up the pieces and salve the hurt.
And come to grips with the fact that we, too, have the same feelings coursing through us.
He made allusions to his ex-wife's not being present, but never gave a lot of details. And then this winter, I began to realize that I knew whom his ex-wife was. He has a rather unique last name, and I began to see a woman with that last name commenting on some of my friends' Facebook posts--friends that were and are part of the Supportive Living program of the local chemical dependency recovery facility, for those who have completed the halfway house. I stalked her page, and saw pictures of the pixies on them, then did some asking, and began to realize that, as much as it would be comforting to believe that MOTY is totally unique in some of her attitudes and beliefs, just what he has been up against all these years.
Well, yesterday, I parked and wandered over to the complex looking for the right field, and he called to me from the berm surrounding the outfield fence. His daughter is on varsity this year, and one of the two pixies was there with a friend, and we chatted for a few minutes about the game, the teams, and our kids. And I mentioned that Sabrina was going to her mother's from there, for the first time in three months, and then asked him if so-and-so was his ex. He confirmed it, and I told him I knew exactly what he was up against now, and why. And that Sabrina's mother had descended into the lower circles of addition hell again, and he just nodded sadly and mentioned that his ex was now living with her mother--the unspoken implication being that she was no longer able to live in Supportive Living. I think he would have told me more, but Pixie 1 was three feet away. I had a sudden surge of feeling, knowing how many times over the years that I have had to be elliptical and less then candid when discussing similar matters, because my child or children were in the immediate vicinity and there are times when honesty absolutely needs to be tempered by compassion and forbearance.
There was no mistaking the glint of recognition and empathy in his eyes, that realization that someone else knows your pain and your struggle. And I think I had the same in mine, because of the way he was responding. I don't think that we are going to spend the next seven times we see each other talking about what it is like to be the non-active-addict parent; we've talked about everything other than our exes most of the time we've talked over the past two years. But there has been a broadening of the base of friendship and identification. And I got a reminder, as Sabrina approached and I was saying my farewells, as Pixie 1 gave her name and her friend's name in a very serious tone of voice (so I could get the names correctly; I had to laugh at how earnest she was) as prospective invitees to a proposed barbecue, that I am not alone in my journey as a single father, and that others face many of the same challenges--more difficult in some ways. I ended up less uptight about the visit Sabrina had after seeing him, and I was definitely able to process the visit better after it concluded with Sabrina last night. I know he has had similar talks with his oldest, especially about the proper way of looking out for the younger siblings. Sabrina feels a sense of responsibility toward the two younger brothers that intellectually I rebel against--but understand nonetheless. And I know his oldest daughter has gone over the same ground, and he has had many of the same discussions--because he's told me about them, more than once; it was just the subtext of why I didn't know. His oldest has also had some serious resentments and problems with her mother, much as those that have surfaced with Sabrina and her  mother since the beginning of 2014--and now that it's out in the open about the root causes and the issues, I feel like I have another person I can turn to for help when I need it. And for all I know, Sabrina and his oldest can rely on each other on a different level than previously, too.
Because it hurt us when our partners chose drugs over us (not so much clean with MOTY, but yeah, it's a kick in the ass when someone chooses to return to the drug over being the mother of our baby, my baby)--but we were able to process it as adults. It's worse and harder for children, and the way that we can help them deal with their mash of feelings is by continuing to deal with it as adults, and also by letting them know that they are not the only people in the world dealing with these problems. I know that teenage girls do not generally share details of their home lives with many people, and problems of this nature with one or both parents are simply off the table almost all the time. But knowing that other kids deal with it is very helpful. Maybe Sabrina and the other Patriot player can be able to help each other in the future, or possibly other kids going through this stuff that think no one else has ever had to deal with their problems. Because there are other kids who do.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Book Review: THE LAST COWBOY

It is a measure of busy and full my life has become in the last several weeks that it took me almost two weeks to read Mark Ribowsky's The Last Cowboy. Ribowsky is one of the best sports biographers around; his last work, about Howard Cosell, was one of the best biographies I've ever read. This book, about long-time Dallas Cowboy coach Tom Landry, is in the same category--another reason it took so long to read for me; I wasn't about to give up on it.
The first third of the book covers Landry's early life, own playing career, and the time he cemented his reputation as a football genius as an assistant coach on the Giants in the 1950's (where his defensive wizardry was complemented by the offensive coordinator of the team, Vince Lombardi). Obviously, those years formed the Landry the country came to know as coach of the Cowboys, and there is a lot of interesting material here, including just how much of a rivalry there was between the two assistants on the Giants, and how much this underlay what happened in the Ice Bowl years. The author says that much of the modern defensive strategy and alignment came out of Landry's innovations in the 1950's, and it's a hard case to argue with; the basic form of a 4-3 with a four-man secondary was a Landry scheme, as was the occupation of lanes and zones rather than blockers so that other defensive players were free to make tackles. Even in this day and age, this is basic defensive strategy; it is one of those matters that is blatantly obvious, once someone has thought about it. Landry was that someone.
I'm too young to remember the early years of the Cowboys, but I do remember the time in the late 1960's-early 1970's when they "couldn't win the big one." And the year-to-year excellence of the team--they missed the playoffs once between 1966 and 1985--was the defining fact of football in my youth and early adulthood. The last two-thirds of the book was both a trip down memory lane for me, and a fountain of information about players, seasons, and incidents that I had forgotten about or never knew. I'm not going to rehash all the names and seasons, but there were two things in particular that I do want to mention as worthy of attention. One was the quarterback issues of the team until the Roger Staubach years. I was under the assumption, given how famous he was in my youth, that Don Meredith was a great player. He wasn't, and one reason why was that he was both a physical wreck most of his career--and because Landry was forever messing with his head. Meredith was a frequent target of boobirds his entire career, and he actually retired relatively young because of them. I am old enough to remember the indecision between Staubach and Craig Morton, and certainly the Danny White years, and the overriding theme/mantra/motif of Landry's entire career was control--he had to have it, and actually was happier losing with a quarterback following his directions than a quarterback freelancing and winning. And in a nutshell, this is why, as good as Dallas was during most of Landry's tenure, his record is not as good as Lombardi's or Paul Brown's, the other titans of his era. Lombardi was famous for not caring how the objective was achieved, as long as it was achieved. Brown was as much of a control freak as Landry, but Brown accepted deviations somewhat better; Brown never freaked out about audibles by quarterbacks as much as Landry did. An unheralded reason for Staubach's reputation as a fourth-quarter comeback artist was that in the two-minute drill, he was allowed to call his own plays without Landry's input, and even those successes came with a cost--Landry never was as comfortable with Staubach as one would suppose, given the success that he had. Even at Staubach's Hall of Fame induction, Landry made mention of his tendency to go off the reservation at times, and it was not a flattering reference.
The second illuminating theme was the racial divisions on the Cowboys during the entire time of Landry's tenure. It is not an open question that black players were treated differently than white players were; the question is how much of that was Landry and how much was other Cowboy management and the atmosphere in Dallas, especially in the 1960's and early 1970's. There isn't a definitive answer, and the most logical is that black players did get a shorter leash--but the more damning factor seemed to be talent. Players like Duane Thomas and Hollywood Henderson had major problems, but were tolerated because of the quality of their play, but this was also true of some white players like Lance Rentzel. Landry wasn't alone in this tendency, of course; all coaches and all teams do this as a matter of course. The reason Landry was held to such scrutiny was that he was, as a scathing biography published twenty years ago was titled, God's Coach. Landry was perhaps the most visible fundamentalist-Christian type in American sports history, and his career spun on this axis.
Indeed, the entire book and his entire career basically takes place in the gap between that image (which was, to be sure, largely based in reality) and what allowances had to be made to accommodate the realities of coaching a major sports team. And for five hundred pages, it makes for a fascinating story. It is safe to say that there is no way that a Landry could be in today's NFL--as a matter of fact, coaches can't dress in a suit and fedora like he did now, by rule. And the game had passed him by many years before he actually lost his job. And his image has survived and been burnished by both the way he was let go when Jerry Jones bought the team, and the subsequent and on-going failure of Jones to establish the record of long-term excellence that the Cowboys had under Landry. Jones won three Super Bowls in the first seven years he owned the team, and hasn't been to a conference championship game in nearly twenty now. Landry's record in Super Bowls was 2-3, and his record in conference championship games was 5-7--marks that seem as far as away from today's Dallas franchise as the records of Bobby Layne do for today's Detroit Lions teams.
If there is an overarching theme of Ribowsky's story, it was that people grew to hate the Cowboys over the term of Landry's time without growing to hate Landry. And that mirrored my own experience and my own feelings, as someone who grew up during Landry's career and was a huge football fan, as well. I hated the Cowboys and still do--but Landry himself never inspired that kind of feeling. And after reading this, it's not a mystery to me anymore why I felt that way all those years ago.

Friday, April 11, 2014

New Season...Sigh

With the exception of her travel team, it seems like my daughter is doomed to be playing on teams that aren't real good. One of the reasons that I wanted her to play on varsity this year so badly was that the varsity Binghamton team is going to be pretty good this year, and for the remainder of her career, simply because the main pitcher on the team is 1) in the eighth grade, and 2) already damn near unhittable. But keeping her on JV this year was a defensible decision, one that I don't really have a huge issue with; she will be playing pretty much every inning of every game behind the plate, and she will be the number one catcher on varsity for three years, barring something really unforeseen, starting next year (the current top catcher is a senior). I am also trying to get out of the habit of publicly critiquing strategies, roster composition, and other aspects of coaching; I understand that maybe other factors come into play, and the varsity coach has been quite clear that his main objective with the two lower grade squads is developing the skill bases of the players more than winning games, per se.
Having said that... this is going to be a long year. The season started Wednesday in Elmira, and Sabrina managed to get herself injured in the first inning of the first game, hurting her groin and back on an awkward slide. Yesterday morning, she woke up with the back being stiff and sore, and was still a bit touch-and-go by time the first home game started yesterday afternoon. They were playing Horseheads, a team that was a lot better than them last year, and Horseheads beat them all over the field again yesterday. Even if the team had played well, they wouldn't have won, to be sure. But they didn't play well, and it's getting really frustrating to watch year after year. Some of the same players that were displaying some talent but no discipline four and five years ago in the younger City League haven't progressed a bit in the meantime. There are often disparaging remarks heard at Patriot practices about the quality of play in City League, remarks that have a lot of truth in them, but the mental mistakes being made in the field are being made by players who have been on Binghamton teams at the modified and JV level for the last three years, as are the lackadaisical and selfish attitudes displayed by over half the team. If the stated purpose of the modified and JV  program is player development, and the players aren't developing... well, maybe they  need to reevaluate how they're trying to accomplish the goal.
I can't believe that kids on their third and fourth years in a program don't know, by now, that when a center fielder calls for the ball on a fly ball, you get out of the way. I don't know how, by this point, a right fielder is standing still looking at a center fielder coming in to catch a liner in center-right field and not backing up the play, or isn't backing up first base on grounders in the infield. As a former outfielder, I have been appalled since I helped coach City League 9-12 about the lack of time and coaching devoted to outfield play, and it still is the redheaded stepchild of player development at the highest scholastic levels. And some real basics of other parts of the game continue to be ignored. Plate discipline is atrocious all around; there are no more than five players, out of fifteen on the team, that actually work the pitcher in a plate appearance. Sabrina has three walks in two games, and I am willing to bet that only two other players on the team are going to get three walks all season. I could go on and on, and probably will, at some point this season, but what I'm trying to get across now is that by time kids are 15 and 16, they're not going to be learning these sort of nuances. That's what modified is for, ideally.
And I comment on this every season, and it drives me crazy, and I'm going to say it again because there's no excuse for it. It's not rocket science to put together a lineup that can score runs. Ideally, you get your fast little middle infielders/outfielders in the first two slots--but all the speed in the world is useless if you don't get on base. You don't need speed at the top of the lineup; you need kids who get on base regularly. My daughter gets quite the ego trip out of hitting cleanup, but she's got doubles power, not homer power, and she's the most patient hitter on the team. There's another kid who's very slow, but is also very patient and gets the bat on the ball when she does swing, and gets her fair share of singles. And I would love to see just one game with that kid leading off and Sabrina hitting second, with the hitters currently batting fifth and sixth hitting third and fourth, and see how many more runs this team would score. Sabrina runs reasonably well--for a catcher, and the other kid is slow, period.  But they're going to score ten more runs this year than some of the faster kids because they're on base in half their plate appearances, and the fast kids get on base once every two games. Triple ugggh. At the very least, we wouldn't start off every game down four runs after two innings.
And I'm not even going to get into some of the poor attitudes there. There are a number of players on this team that were on the City League all-star team she was on last summer--if you remember, the team that was by far the most talented team on the field in both tournaments, and didn't win either because they played, frankly, cocky and stupidly. Let's just say it doesn't appear that many of the prime offenders learned from the experience. The coaching staff has emphasized from the first winter practices how and why they assign playing time. I guess some kids thought they were kidding, or didn't mean what they were saying. But when complaints are being heard after two games... more uggghh. And the thing some of them don't seem to have any awareness of is that they are playing for one spot on next year's varsity team. There are only two seniors on this year's Patriots varsity team, and one of them is the catcher, which is going to be Sabrina next year and the next two after that. One...spot...will...be...open. I know I would be doing my damnedest to make sure it was going to be me, and the way to do that is play well, play smart, and not complain all the time.
It's going to be a long year. The only bright side is that it's great to be 15 and in great shape. Forty-eight hours after the injury, Sabrina seems to be pretty much normal, and with no practice until Sunday (and that's a travel team practice) she should have no ill effects. Amazing resiliency at this age.