Thursday, May 5, 2016

Book Review: NORTHERN ARMAGEDDON

Northern Armageddon is British academic Peter McLeod's in-depth dissertation about one of the more noteworthy battles in recent history (I considered it when I was doing my own list of important battles last fall, but ultimately left it off)--the Battle of Quebec in 1759. The book takes an almost minute-by-minute accounting of everything about the battle, and the historical ramifications are discussed at some length. There is one problem: the book relies heavily on primary sources, from participants and contemporaries--and it is frightfully tough reading. Despite a very interesting subject, this book ultimately just isn't very interesting.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Reliving "Decadent and Depraved"

I am on ESPN's website several times a day, for any number of reasons, and usually at least glance at all the ner content up on there, not just a particular game result or article on a team I like. I've also been a big fan of ESPN's 30 for 30 series of sports-related films since the series debuted several years ago. 30 has since diversified into several directions, including 15-minute shorts, which I usually don't take the time to watch but always at least glance at.
Yesterday, a new short was put up. It's about arguably the most influential and the most entertaining sports-themed magazine article that has ever been written: "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," by Hunter S. Thompson, which appeared in Scanlan's magazine, the premier counterculture organ of its time, in June 1970. It was Thompson's account of his and British illustrator Ralph Stedman's experience at the May 1970 Kentucky Derby. Thompson was a Louisville native that hated the city's social establishment that was on display at the Derby, and he was, after all, Hunter S. Thompson, perhaps the most acerbic, astute, and entertaining writer of the late 1960's and early 1970's.
But what HST has become known for--"gonzo" journalism, the genre when the writer's experiencing at the event he is supposed to be covering becomes the story--started with "Depraved." Even now, 46 years later, reading it brings cringes, outright laughter, knowing nods--and in at least some of us, a "man, I wish I had been there" vibe. And I have written about this a few times before, but this story, and HST's writing in general, directly affected my life in a number of ways. I refused to pursue a "career" in a traditional sense for several years after college because I was entranced by the lifestyle and ethos HST embraced and wrote about. I'm not sure if it was conscious or unconscious, but a large part of my personality at the time became molded by HST--I was brilliant, unpredictable, sarcastic, devoted to drug and alcohol use, undependable, capable of sustained bursts of activity, absolute merciless at times regarding exploiting the weaknesses of others, intolerant of bullshit while often expecting others to deal with mine, irresponsible, capable of days-long benders, generally loyal to a small circle, and a dozen other attributes and faults. The modeling wasn't complete--I never embraced guns, I tended to stick to drugs I liked, and I never quite threw caution and decorum to the wind to the level Thompson did in some of his more memorable flipoffs of the world and those that pissed him off--but it was pronounced, something I wasn't even fully aware of until years later, when I got clean and was doing the self-examination as part of a Fourth Step. No single other figure, other than my father, had as profound effect on who and what I was as a young man.
And my ambition was to be a writer, too. It didn't come to pass for a number of reasons (one of which was also a parallel to Thompson, who became enamored of cocaine circa 1975 and never wrote anything of quality again, even though he lived and produced work for three more decades), but obviously he had his effect there, too. I spent the first ten years or so after college writing a novel that never made it to the publisher's (the manuscript, nearly 2000 pages by 1998 and a few dozen pages from completion, was stored on a computer that was sold, not by me, for six bags of crack. And yes, 18 years later, I still have a huge resentment about it), and HST's influence was manifest and obvious in that work.
And in particular, there was one chapter, the centerpiece of the book as it was, that was directly derivitive of "Decadent." And it was based on a real-life attempt of me and a number of my friends to live our own version of Thompson and Stedman's epic. The Breeders' Cup is now well-established as a November staple of the sports world, a sort of Super Bowl of horse racing. But in 1985, it was brand new, and the second BC was going to be held in New York. At Aqueduct, believe it or not, the dumpiest and least attractive of the state's three main racetracks--which became part of the story. But several of us from Binghamton, racetrack rats and associates, used the event as the anchor to an epci weekend of debauchery. We drank prodigously, and some of us were snorting coke surreptiously nearly continuously. I persuaded one of my college friends, a woman that was the daughter of a refugee from Pinochet's Chile that was living in a studio apartment a block from Times Square, to allow us to stay with her that weekend, and I think she was scarred for life by the experience. We took in a concert (the famed Dead Boys, reuniting briefly several years after their stint as America's foremost true punk band< played Irving Plaza that night) in the Village, turned the tables on a would-be mugger afterwards, walked most of the way back uptown, and in general were menaces to society. Somehow we got to the track the next day, and I vividly remember first charming and then disgusting some Arabian sheik that had horses entered in a couple of races that day for about an hour all told. And in what would turn out to be a metaphor for the next fifteen years of my life, the huge bet we all made on Gate Dancer was yards away from fruition in the climactic race--until some absolute donkey named Proud Truth got him at the wire.
I wish I had that chapter somewhere; there was a paper copy of it, obviously, but it was lost when I was arrested in 1998 at the end of active addiction. My memory of the chapter was that it was hugely entertaining, somewhat pathetic, and very powerful emotionally as the reality set in that the dream of instant riches (and we were going to make a large amount of money) had been lost in about two seconds by a horse and his connections that we all held in utter contempt. It would not be the last time that something or someone that I had dismissed as not good enough would fuck up my plans and hopes...the trip home wasn't quite the debacle that the end of "Decadent", but it was close. We all stank, we all were broke, we all were buzzed or hungover, and we all had crushed spirits. Poor Rosa's apartment was trashed, and so was the inside of my car.
But we had been more than spectators at this event, and that was the point. We had termed the trip "The Trip of Vice," and we crammed a whole lot of indulgence of vices into 48 hours. It was a eff-you to the expectations that traditional, starched-collar society had on 22YO freshly graduated from college young people that had an effect far beyond attending a mere horse race. That eventually we all turned back from the precipice of a Thompson-like existence did not, in the long run, matter as much as the fact that we had sampled it, experienced it for ourselves, been a participant in something noteworthy, not merely a bystander,
In "Decadent," the horse that won the Derby is never named. Thompson and Stedman weren't horseplayers, and weren't there to participate in that part of the story. But the scene surrounding it was immortalized forever. Even now, I cannot look at the Derby on TV without recalling several scenes depicted in the story. And that is the earmark, the tell, the importance of a great work of art--when the art itself is more memorable than the scene it is portraying.
Do yourself a favor and not only watch the 30 for 30 short, but look up and read the article itself online. It's not hard to find, and it has become a staple in anthologies of American literature as well. And it should; it is positively Shakespearean in some aspects.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Random Notes, Early May 2016

1) I kind of like having Mondays be what Saturday is to most of the rest of the world. I don't work again until tomorrow, but just being able to do what I want to on a Monday is pretty liberating, especially now without any obligations to a relationship to contend with. And I ended up doing something I haven't done in a long time: I went to two meetings yesterday, neither of which I had ever gone to before. I'm finding out, again, a basic truth about myself that is applicable to pretty much everybody in recovery: that when life starts to get squirrelly, the way out is doubling down on the commitment to the process, not avoiding it or isolating from it. I don't feel wonderful about all that's happened in the last few weeks--but I don't feel lost, I don't feel like a piece of poo, and I can honestly say that perspective has largely reigned in my mind instead of fear, anger, and bitterness. I'm not sure what today is going to bring--but I'll say this much. I had no idea when I got out of bed yesterday how I was going to spend the day, and I ended up keeping company I enjoyed, adding to my experience base, reinforcing friendships I already had, and most importantly, was not obsessing about much of anything. I don't know what tomorrow is going to bring; it's only 7 AM. But I know a few things I want to do (a couple of calls to people I am getting to know better, Sabrina's track meet, do something about this kitchen that needs a cleaning, go to the meeting tonight that I went to for the first time this century last week), and I am feeling very little stress, much less than in the recent past.
Sometimes moving on is such a blessing that you look back and you wonder why it was such a hard step to take.
2) There are a few things going on in the wider world that I am paying attention to. The local media is trumpeting a new program that the local homeless shelter for women is implementing; they are reserving up to eight beds for women who have infants that were born narcotic-positive. I have no problem with the idea, believe me. What I do have a problem with is that the beds are not additional capacity, and therefore fewer beds are available to women that find themselves homeless for other reasons. I really wish that the county and state would stop trying to do things on the cheap, and either raise taxes on those that have high incomes (even the most blind of Republicans rarely even try to justify "supply-side economics" anymore; it's the biggest crock of shit that has ever gained widespread acceptance in my lifetime, and caused more harm than any other three issues put together) or borrow money (interest rates are at historic lows; why not take advantage of that?)
But keeping to my newfound commitment to looking for positives, it is more evidence that attitudes are changing toward the way drug addicts are handled by the community at large now. I've been saying this for a year, but the one undeniable benefit of the opiate epidemic is that it has been largely happening to young white people--and the usual excuses and justifications for a punitive approach toward drug users are losing force because of it. It isn't ideal, but it is a fact of today's world. My personal beliefs are that God works in ways both direct and indirect, and if this is what it takes to get our collective heads out of our asses on this issue, than maybe that's what God intended all along. Progress seems painfully slow some days--but when I think back to just five years ago about how addiction and addicts were treated by society and authority--my, how far we've come.
3) On a lighter note, a development I've been writing about for a couple of weeks became official yesterday. Americans don't normally give a shit about soccer in general and soccer in other countries in particular--but they should take a few minutes and check out the news stories about Leicester City winning the English Premier League yesterday. I wrote about this extensively on March 20 of this year, but briefly, this is the greatest long-term feel-good sports story of all time, so unique that there really is no true parallel for American fans to compare it to. Perhaps the closest would have been in 1981; after 35 years of very limited success and an extensive history of failure, the San Francisco 49ers came out of nowhere to win the Super Bowl. They had sort of announced their arrival the previous season by winning their last three games to avoid a third straight finish at the bottom of the league, but still were only 6-10, and no one expected 13-3 and a Super Bowl the next year. Leicester put together a 7-1-1 streak to avoid relegation last season, but no one ever expected a championship this year. It is Leicester's first time winning the top league championship--and the club has been in existence for 132 years. It is the first time that a team is winning the top league championship for the first time ever in England in 38 years. It's a Big Deal over there, much more than anything comparable in American sports.
4) And one thing has become quite clear in the last few days, as information has dribbled out about my personal situation. A lot of people I know, mostly women, have found ways, subtle and blunt, to make it known that they did not like the way my ex was treating me and conducting herself in general. I should learn to pay better attention when I'm in the middle of something.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Free

Surrender. Letting go. Free yourself. Step away. Doing what you need to do for you. All of these slogans are staples of 12-Step meetings, statements of basic truth that are concise, somewhat annoying in their simplicity (because they are all much harder to do than to say)--and basic building blocks of moving forward in our lives.
I have been involved, for the better part of two years, with someone else. There have more downs than up, but perseverance proved to be the right move, because I found the willingness and the ability to become a better man. Any relationship is between two people, though, and without casting aspersions on character, it has become very apparent that it wasn't working and that it was not likely to work going forward because of a fundamental difference in values and what we want out of our lives and each other. And I knew that it had run its course because I was not emotionally suffering when it became clear that the differences were unbridgable, but rather was just looking for a dignified and appropriate way to acknowledge the obvious.
And the obvious has now been acknowledged. And I can tell that it is the right decision because I feel relieved more than anything else. Yes, it has left a bit of a void, but it is not an abyss, and there is absolutely no pain. This was not a deep wound, not this time; it was more like a bleeding out.
It's time to get on with life. There have been a lot of fundamental changes in my life recently, and this has the vibe of wiping the slate clean. It wasn't what I was hoping, for a long time, would happen, but there is honest relief in letting go of something and someone that is either unwilling or unable to make the effort needed to move forward on the journey. Understanding dawns as more knowledge is gained, and I know enough now to realize that it's time to move on.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Readjusting--and Re-evaluating

Yes, I know it's been three days since I posted. I am still getting used to working nights again, and this week turned out to be a lot more problematic than last about getting a minimal amount of sleep to be able to function. But I've also been coming to realize some basic truths about my life and the way I had been arranging it. I mentioned a few days ago that I had gone to a meeting that I hadn't been to in a long time, and I ended, after some soul-searching, making a commitment to getting back to being an active part of the fellowship that has allowed me to--well, not to put too fine a point on it, but allowed to have a life.
And I realized that I had been devoting more and more of my time to something that leading me away from not only the fellowship, but leading towards somewhere I don't want to go. This is not a "dethronement" piece, but the bottom line is that abstinence only does not work for any great of length of time, and I am already starting to see evidence of that in someone that I've been very close to. I also have been extremely accommodating and helpful, but also realized that I needed to establish and stick to boundaries--and when I held firm to one, it caused some tension, not explosive but one that has led to a bit of a stepping-back. And with the different perspective, I am seeing some things more clearly than I had been.
I don't know that the future holds, but I've realized a few things. One is that regardless of what others may believe is best for them, I need, for myself, to be a part of the fellowship. Two, the fellowship is my home, and my frame of reference, and the axis my world revolves around. Three, I can't pretend to see what isn't there, and I can't pretend not to see what is there--and I'm not going to go any further down that path than I already have. And four, I have plenty of friends and plenty of people that respect me and find many things about me attractive, on all levels; there is no need for me to get wrapped up in stuff and situations whose net effect is to cause feelings of unworthiness and lower my sense of self.
And so, as so many times before, I am reevaluating and readjusting what my reality is. I do not know what the new picture and shape of things to come in the near and far future will look like, But I do know that I am not going to step any further down a pathway that I know all too well--from the stories of misery that I have been hearing for seventeen years about how relapses and painful experiences occur. Including, frankly, one of my own. I have thought more about Lila this week than I did in the previous decade; I am experiencing some deja vu, and believe me, some of those flashbacks are not things I care to relive, on any level.
I am not afraid to do what I need to do. At the moment, I'm not totally sure what I actually do need to do--but I do know what I can't continue to do, and I've made a commitment to changing. And it's only been three days, but the difference is obvious and welcome. We will see what happens from here.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Book Review: THE SHARDS OF HEAVEN


The Shards of Heaven has brought a lot of acclaim to Michael Livingston, for a first time author. I am wary of books that deal with Roman history, though, because Colleen McCullough spoiled the genre for everyone attempting to write about Rome by her excellence, and this book is unfortunately not an exception. It was all I could do to continue reading after the first fifteen pages, when people referred to Julius Caesar in dialogue as "Julius". People in Rome at the time of Caesar would have used his first name--Gaius--or his cognomen (essentially a nickname)--Caesar, but never would have referred to him colloquially as "Julius," The story did get better, not least because I found out the intellectual genesis of a lot of my own views on God and religion (I was positive that my take was not unique to me, but I had no idea that it was old news in the ancient world, and in fact predated Christianity). The plot revolves around relics of immense power and the attempts of several of the characters to get them. I'd say more, except there is going to be an inevitable sequel, and also because the historical inaccuaracies extend to the famous Antony/Cleopatra romance and bugged the crap out of me, too.
This isn't the worst book I've ever read, even about Roman affairs. But it could have been so much better.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

An Unlikely Boost

Between disruptions to my regular routines and some choices I've made, I've been drifting away from the fellowship for months now. Yesterday, after another disappointing afternoon that made it clear to me that more changes need to be made, I decided to do something different. I considered attending a meeting of the other fellowship that isn't too far from my house, but before I committed to that, I realized that I wasn't in that frame of mind.
So I did something I haven't done this century; I attended my fellowship's Tuesday night meeting, which I hadn't done since Sabrina was a toddler. It has had the reputation over the years of being large and unruly, of drawing an element to it that I'm not in tune with, and of being more of a social club than a meeting. All of those things have been true at times, but last night, I saw and heard something not too different from meetings I like--middling attendance, realistic and largely positive messages, and familar faces. I actually got something good out of the meeting, and more importantly, I filled my tank up with courage and resolve to do what I know I need to do in the next few days/weeks. There's nothing like hearing your story from someone else's mouth, and three different people shared things last night that I can strongly identify with.
Not every path that one embarks upon leads to a better place--but that doesn't mean the trip was wasted or wrong. The journey of the past couple years has changed me, irrevocably and largely for the better, and I don't have many regrets. But I can see a dead end looming. And I don't have to get to that point.
Some days, a day at a time is more than a cliche. I have a rather busy day today, and a perfect opportunity to alter course, if not necessarily turn completely around. And then I go back to work tonight. I have a tough nine days until the next paycheck, but I got an unexpected gift yesterday from a credit card company, of all places, and I think with a little determination, it won't get all that desperate around here until next Friday comes.