Friday, December 31, 2010

Wrapping Up 2010

I'm not much for looking back, but the end of a year is one occasion that seems to call for it, and today I will more or less gladly do so. This was not a bad year for me personally, but it was a significant one. There were changes in my life. It's been almost a full year since Sabrina was officially here five days a week, and we've adjusted very well, I think. She has unequivocally passed from childhood to adolescence, and so far the adjustment has not been overwhelming for either of us. I also have undoubtedly slid into total middle age, and while I can live without the physical issues becoming more manifest, I feel generally satisfied with the way I am living my life. I have recommitted to living my life as a (small) part of my recovery community, and larger roles are not out of the question now, too, as I have regained a renewed appreciation for the role it plays in my life.
On the other hand, honesty compels me to admit that my skin has gotten a little thinner this year, or alternatively, my patience and tolerance with those that cross lines has waned to the point where I got into more conflicts this year than I had in the previous five. Looking back, I managed to close the door on my coaching softball with Sabrina's current team, managed to hurt feelings of some of my professional colleagues, and reached a breaking point with my youngest sister and severely damaged the relationship with the other sister. I know I'm praying less than I did even two years ago, and it is something I have to get back to doing, because I seem to have forgotten a basic maxim I learned a decade ago; praying helps you more than it helps the other person, because it turns my focus away from them and me and towards God.
Where to in 2011? Not sure. The new year is going to start quietly, as Sabrina is at her mother's tonight and tomorrow and I have no plans, apart from my home group, to go anywhere tonight. One thing I am going to start doing tomorrow is getting serious about dieting; I am not comfortable straddling 200 pounds, period. I am going to combine this with something I've been wondering about since reading a few books about conditions in prison camps, and I am going to make a conscious effort, at least until Easter, to see what it is like to try to survive on a 1200 calorie a day diet. I am also going to make a bit of an effort to make some changes in family relationships. I think it will just be easier to become less dependent on largesse and convenience (such as doing laundry weekly there), because there is always a price to be paid when conflict rears its head. I have no illusions now that I am going to be treated as an equal by my siblings when my mother dies, and it would be much easier to make adjustments now rather than have to try to do so on the fly when she is no longer there to moderate their behavior. I am very grateful that I am closer to my older children, on an emotional level, than I ever have been, and am starting to contemplate what it will be like to deal with them as young adults.
And having listed a whole bunch of positive influences in my life over the last month, I am making resolutions to give those people more prominent roles in it. Like Lot's wife, there is nothing but destruction and toxicity to see when looking backward. I'm not going there anymore, and indeed can't afford to. 2012 is shaping up to be a watershed in many ways-- grant ending, significant political elections, Rachel entering college. I do not need to be caught up in entanglements about trying to resolve the unresolvable.
I have been waffling in my mind about changing the name of the blog. I do not want this perceived as an angry blog, and I do want "rant" out of the title, but this month I doubled the number of views, and don't want to lose any regulars that don't access this blog from Facebook. The URL is not changing, but the title will be, and so I would urge anyone reading it today to bookmark the blog to make sure you can find it tomorrow. I am also thinking about making a networked blog on FB as well, but that would not happen for another week or better. When I log on tomorrow morning, the name on the top will, I am 95% sure, be different. Because I am not totally certain yet, I will not talk about the new name until it is done.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Window Dressing

This happened over a week ago, but I haven't had a chance to address it yet. It's also telling of how insignificant it is in the larger scheme that it has so quicky faded from the news narrative. I am referring to the repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy regarding gays in the military.
Don't get me wrong; it was long overdue and shouldn't have been the policy to begin with. But at the risk of sounding heretical to some of my more liberal friends, I don't think it's cause for champagne or to suddenly believe that the Empty Suit is finally getting the hang of this President thing.
First of all, let's review the practical aspects of the repeal: it now means that gay people can openly serve in the military. Our military forces are currently embroiled in not one, but two overseas conflicts with no end in sight. Remember when the Empty Suit was campaigning on a promise to get a "timetable" for withdrawal? Remember the 2006 election, when a vast majority of us voting suckers made it quite clear that we didn't want to be fighting in Iraq anymore, and the Administration's response was to increase the committment? The surge was the proverbial shit sandwich; there is no more telling example of how ineffectual the alleged democracy of the United States of America has become. The people spoke, and the elite basically ignored them with impunity and told us they were going to do what they wanted anyway. The wars have almost totally disappeared as an issue these days, as the Empty Suit has more or less made clear he has no intention of ending them; people have lost faith that anyone with the ability to do so is going to pull the troops out. So now gay people can take part openly in two undeclared conflicts in two of the most unstable regions on earth, where we have earned the undying enmity of the locals. Doesn't sound like much reason to celebrate to me.
Then there is the military's treatment of those that serve. There isn't quite as much in the news these days of inadequate equipment being supplied to our troops, but I suspect that's because the media lost interest rather than any substantial improvement. If they should survive their tours of duty physically intact but with PTSD, as many do, the ongoing mental health care provided to veterans is an ongoing scandal and not likely to improve as numbers seeking services increase over time.
Lastly, serving in the military is no longer the one-way ticket to "hero" status that it once was. There is much more lip service paid to the notion than practical benefit in any case, but as the years pile up, the nation clearly has become blase, even indifferent, to returning veterans. Part of it is a reflection of a professional military--it has become clear that the country isn't at war, only its armed forces; there is nothing like the total mobilization of the country in past wars in place here, and hasn't been since 2001--but part of it is sheer overload. West Point graduates going to Afghanistan were beginning middle school when the conflict started; not to be overly cynical, but how many heroes can we take among us? The rest of us can't celebrate every service person as a hero, especially as the conflicts drag on and what they are even over there fighting for becomes less and less clear. I'm afraid with prejudices being what they are in certain elements of the population, this tendency will become even more pronounced in years to come, as openly gay military personnel return home. It will, on balance, lead to less respect for servicemen, not more respect for gays; those that this issue matters to are not going to change their minds, in most cases, because a gay person is wearing an Army uniform.
In many ways, the larger issue of gay rights--or maybe "gay acceptance" is more accurate-- is becoming subsumed in the larger cultural conflict. I think all of the minds that are going to changed on the larger issue have been changed; the 25-30% rabidly anti-homosexual crowd wouldn't change their views if Jesus himself returned and told them to knock it off. But my ultimate problem with the whole emphasis on gay issues at this time and this place is that we have so many more pressing issues facing us than whether gay people can serve in the military or get married. It's a sideshow, a circus actively encouraged by the elites so that their grip on the power and the purse of  the country becomes even more cemented. It's silly to celebrate DADT repeal while there is 9.6 unemployment, with banks seizing homes illegitimately, with states and municipalities going broke, with Social Security under fire, with the financial service oligarchy continuing to rake in obscene amounts of money while most of us sink farther down, while the withering away of American industry continues apace, while entire sectors of society become even more marginalized and lose hope of ever improving their lot. We have real work to do on real problems, and to trumpet something as insignficant as this as a real triumph shows, unfortunately, both how desperate the progressive sector of this country is for any shred of hope and how much lower expectations have become for those allegedly leading us.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book Review: BADASSES

Badasses is Peter Richmond's rather entertaining look at the Oakland Raiders of the 1970's, when John Madden was an actual coach. The team went to six consecutive AFC championship games, winning one and one Super Bowl, but has passed into legend as a collection of free spirits, roughnecks, and just plain weirdos. Most of the important players from the team are profiled here--Ken Stabler, George Atkinson, Jack Tatum, Fred Biletnikoff, Dave Casper, Ted Hendricks, Gene Upshaw-- and the seasons are reconstructed in pretty good detail, especially their battles with the other two AFC powerhouses of the time, the Dolphins and Steelers. As with any book of this nature, there are plenty of funny stories, and there was one game--the 1976 Super Bowl--that I read about with interest, because it was the last Super Bowl the Vikings played in, and reading about why they lost so badly was instructive. It also was a reminder that, systems and chemistry aside, teams are consistent winners because you have good players. You simply are not going to be a Super Bowl contender with below-average players manning even one position, and you better have a pronounced advantage at several positions over virtually any other team.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Book Review: WHAT IF THE EARTH HAD TWO MOONS?

What if the Earth Had Two Moons is academic Neil Comins' delving into a number of hypothetical scenarios about what life would be like here if certain astronomical considerations were different--more than one moon, a lower-voltage sun, the sun as a binary star, and several others. There is a certain amount of interest in what-if, no matter what the subject, and even though at times the physics involved are tough for a non-scientist to slog through, in general the book is an interesting read. One point Comins addressed that I had never seen addressed before was his examination of interstellar travel. His conclusion is that it is nearly impossible. If a craft moves at anywhere near the speed of light, it will become incredibly massive with resultant damage to the inhabitants, and any journey at a "safe" speed would take generations, as many as several hundred, and probably cause physical and mental damage as well as cause practical problems such as food supply and disposal of wastes (and the dead). Although Comins clearly believes there is other sentinent life in the universe, he also believes that we are extremely unlikely to ever learn of it, nor they of us. This planet is all we have, for better or worse.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Book Review: EYE OF THE RED TSAR

Eye of the Red Tsar is a thriller by first-author Sam Eastland. The story is that of a detective in early 20th-century Russia that was a designated truth-teller for the last Tsar. Sent to Siberia when the Bolsheviks take over, he is dredged up and given a commission to find out what really happened when the Romanovs were executed, alongside his Bolshevik brother and a raw True Believer.
I try not to be harsh on authors, and especially on first timers. That being said, the book suffers from a terminal lack of historical accuracy. My area of concentration for my political science degree was comparative politics, and in the early 1980's, the point of comparison was the Communist bloc, and so I am very familiar with Russian/Soviet history. The two main actual historical characters, Nicholas II and Stalin, are both portrayed much differently than they actually were. It is understandable that some historical license may be taken when writing historical fiction, but the depiction of Nicholas II as a wise almost-intellectual and of Stalin as a sort of hard-edged cynical corrupt secret police type is so beyond license as to render the book unreadable for someone who is knowledgeable about that period of history. Basically, two characters that fit the story that he wanted to tell were created and given names of actual people, and it ruins, for me anyway, the story he is trying to tell. One other inaccuracy rankled; the city of Ekaterinberg/Sverdlovsk is depicted as a small town about the size of Johnson City, when in actuality at this point in history was closer to the size of Syracuse and, in the late 1920's/early 1930's, was a serious industrial center, not some pastoral Rockwellian slice of rural Siberia. The time frames do not appear to be accurate; the impression is given that there was a huge amount of time between the death of Rasputin and the Revolution, when it was actually two months. And for me, the most glaring inaccuracy of all was having Nicholas be in Petrograd in the months before the Revolution; he was at army headquarters directing the war effort, which is one reason the Revolution took place. Indeed, there is no sense at all given that Russia was fighting World War I during the time that Pekkala, the main character, was the Emerald Eye of the Tsar.
To Eastland's credit, there is a little summary in the back of the book that gives an actual historical roundup that, if read, makes clear that the book one has just finished is complete fiction. This is blatantly the start of a series, as the novel ends with the detective accepting a commission to fill the role he filled for Nicholas for Stalin, which is simply unfathomable to anyone who knows Soviet history, and that is a trend that I am growing increasingly distrustful of in book publishing, as it both mirrors trends in entertainment in general (the sequel epidemic in Hollywood has rendered the industry creatively moribund; the movie has, like so much else in this country now, become a cash cow to be milked completely dry, and books are headed in the same direction) and contributes to the dumbing-down of the American public, who are profoundly ignorant of history as it is and don't need to be getting what knowledge they have in episodic, television-episode, canned pap form.
The fall of the Romanovs and the building of Communism in the Soviet Union are fascinating stories that could be shaped into a compelling historical novel. This book is not that novel.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Holidays with MOTY

As I wake up on Christmas Eve, I am finding it strange that there is no urgency for much of anything today. Not strange for the day, of course, but strange in the sense that so few days are like this anymore. I have to be at my mother's house at noon so that all three of my kids can get their presents from my side of the family, and then, for the first time in ages, all three are dispersing to their mother's home. One good consequence of Shannon moving to Endicott is that she is now five minutes from my mother's house, which, as long as she stays there, is going to be convenient on holidays. Of course, there was drama there yesterday. which led to a resolution that I feel fully committed to and that is contributing to the lack of urgency.
The drama was when I texted her to tell her I would be bringing Sabrina at 2:30 today and would like to have her for a couple of hours tomorrow. I'm a big boy, and as much as I love being Sabrina's dad and raising her, I realize that in some years, the visitation schedule is going to mean that holidays fall on her mother's days, and this is one of them. I really didn't expect any issue; Sabrina spent most of the day over there on Thanksgiving on a day that was supposed to be my day. I forgot who I was dealing with. She was willing to let Sabrina go to her grandmother's on Sunday--if I dropped her off over there last night and let her stay until Tuesday, because she's not working again until Tuesday. Well, to make a long story short--no, not happening. I had to hear the whole song and dance about she needs to make up "lost time" again, and I had to tell her again that there has been no lost time, that she agreed to this visitation schedule and that she is welcome to file a petition to try to change it if she wants, and it was like listening to a bad TV show all over again. The upshot of it is that Sabrina insisted on going to her grandmother's for some time on Sunday, and since the Monster is going to his father's for a time, Shannon agreed--but I made it clear that she was acting on Sabrina's wishes, not mine, that I was not asking for it and that no obligations were to assumed about what I might do about other circumstances. I'm not budging on the other stuff, and as far as I am concerned, I am done trying to accommodate Shannon, because it's like trying to eat soup with a fork.
And I have decided that some things are going to change come Monday. I am finally, without any more delay or vacillation, filing the child support petition. There is no reason why she should not be paying. Sabrina tells me she makes $8/hour, and at $320 per week, at 17% for one child, I am going to ask for $50/week. I may not get it, but I am going to get something, and I am going to scrutinize that income sheet like a hawk, and if she lies on it, I intend to point it out to the court and let the chips fall where they may. She has no idea that for the court, it doesn't matter that her welfare fraud conviction was eight years ago; she is suspect on these matters, especially since she has the prescription fiasco on her record much more recently. And if she files a custody modification, I am going to file for one of those as well, because she doesn't seem to realize that she has it much, much better than most non-residential parents.
And it's been like a weight has been removed. I really did not want to go here; I've lived without child support for a year when I was fully entitled to it. But it is clear that she is never going to get it, that whatever is done for her is not enough, and that she has no appreciation that she is suffering the consequences of her own poor decisions. I am not going to run down all the things I have done for her over the years, the patience I have shown; even I'm tired of it. But I have made a decision that I am not going to cut her any more slack, that this will be strictly a legal preposition from here on out. Sabrina reiterated to me last night that 1) she doesn't like being over there, and 2) she doesn't like it when I get upset when I am dealing with her mother. So I will at least not do the latter anymore.
I really feel like it's the right way to go, because it feels like the right way to go. I don't have the stomach to get down in the gutter and fight with her anymore, and the great thing is, I don't have to. I am the type of person that does not look back; once a decision is made, I commit myself to making it work, and I don't play what-if. I am satisfied that I have given this woman every chance to grow up, to be an adult, for going on fourteen years now, and it isn't happening, and this is what the solution is. And disengagement, of not even paying any kind of lip service to the Big Ball of Resentment that fuels her, is the only way to keep it away from me.
It's like the old War Games movie from the early 1980's. The only way to win is not to play.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book Review: 13 BANKERS

13 Bankers is a book written by Simon Johnson and James Kwak that examines how Wall Street got to be in the position it is in today--as the driving force in American life. The crisis of 2007-8 is examined, although not in the exhaustive detail some other books I have read recently did, but more of the focus is placed on how Wall Street came to be what they repeatedly and accurately call "the American oligarchy." I ended up taking notes reading it; there is a lot of thought-provoking information presented. In roughly the order presented in the book:
  1. The period when Wall Street and the banking industry in general was tightly regulated, from 1935 until the late 1970's, was the single greatest period of sustained economic growth in American history. While the regulation wasn't solely responsible, this tends to be overlooked and ignored by the financial industry's flacks today. There were no sustained downturns, and the general prosperity levels were never higher across the spectrum of American society. The fabled huge American middle class was born and nurtured during this time frame, and bankers were part of it; their pay scales were on a par with every other profession's.
  2. The guiding ideology since Reagan took office holds that "market forces" will guide the economy, and that ideology has as its main intellectual justification the Efficient Market Hypothesis developed by Eugene Fama in 1970. The trouble is that Fama's hypothesis used three main models, and the largely unregulated and unfettered practices that have been justified by it were the third model, the one that its developer basically predicted would be disastrous for most segments of the population, even if not for the market players themselves. That is exactly what did happen.
  3. The financial sector of the economy, as the money made there has exploded upward, has drawn a disproportionate number of the best and brightest of American talent into its workforce, and the effect has become self-sustaining. This has done unimaginable damage to the rest of the country. In essence, for 200 years the best brains emerging into adulthood were utilized in the service of creating more wealth on a national scale. Since 1980, the best brains in the county have been devoted to redistributing already-present wealth to a smaller segment of the population. The country as a whole has suffered grievous damage as a result; the brain drain has become a cancer on the national body.
  4. The entire financial services industry depends on an absurd degree on the ratings provided by the three main bond rating agencies. Those agencies are paid by the banks whose products they are rating for investment suitability. It is a closed loop, and the possibility that the bank products will not be objectively rated, because it's difficult to bite the hand that feeds you, is so large as to be a certainty. This certainly has happened over and over again in the time frame, but especially during the last fifteen years or so.
  5. The country never saw a period in its history where interest rates were so low for so long as during the Clinton and Bush years. Theoretically, that should have led to a huge expansion of economic development, of the birth of new industries and infrastructure development. It did not; virtually all the money borrowed and spent during that time frame went toward the finance industry in what was essentially a gigantic casino game. Much like a gambler who gets glued to the tables in Las Vegas and discovers that weeks have gone by while he was playing, we have had no real development of capital in this country for 30 years, and we have no real base to come back now. We simply don't make much here anymore, and eventually the service/investment economy is going to peter out because the widespread affluence that is required for such a model to work is no longer present. The house has all the money.
  6. A good portion of the early part of the book is devoted to analyzing the crises of the developing world during the 1990's-- Mexico, Asia, Russia. In all those cases, "crony capitalism" was fingered as a major culprit in the disasters that occurred-- that the government was essentially diverted for the benefit of the financial interests rather than the country as a whole. This is also what has happened and is happening here--the people running the government have come from and will go back to Wall Street, and of course they have taken care of their own. The bailout, as it happened, was so generous to the banks that in any other time and in any other field it would be have been seen as a hopelessly corrupt bargain, a fixed race--but here no one really seems to be outraged. And it is instructive to note that the GM bailout was not as generous--it was done the way most bailouts are, with scalps taken and changes required.
  7. And perhaps the most nauseating development of all was the sheer hypocrisy of it all. For 30 years, we the people have been subjected to an endless diatribe from those in power and the media about how government is the problem, about how regulation kills the economy, about how government interference ruins everything--and then, when the shit hit the fan, these titans of American life begged the government to save them from their own overreaching. Of course, the government obliged, and two years later, it's like it never happened, and the predatory robber baron mentality has returned with a vengeance, as has the level of looting--there is no other word for it--of the nation.
The authors make a half-hearted attempt to provide some possible solutions to our national dilemma in the final chapters, but they're not terribly convincing. About the only certainty is that, with the opportunity for change lost, there will be another crisis. Let's hope at that time the will for change is there, or, failing that, popular rage becomes prevalent enough so that revolution is in the air. I really don't think that, with political influence and power in the system as it stands almost entirely bought a result of Wall Street money and ideology, it's going to happen under the present system.
The great American dream is dead. We've turned out to be another banana republic. It's just taken longer to get to that point here than it did other places, that's all.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Cooking

There have been many revolutionary developments since becoming a single father years ago, but none more so than the ability to cook. I was able to grill, like most American men, but that hardly counts, and the ability to eat a well-balanced, healthy diet has been a blessing I have come to take for granted. It has also allowed me to raise a healthy child who doesn't expect to eat out much of the time. But the benefits go beyond merely eating healthier.
Just as big a benefit of the healthy eating has been the economic effect. One reason I started cooking on a daily basis was, when I started working for this agency at a little less than $9/hour, I didn't have the option of eating out regularly for lunch, much less twice a day. Even now, having stocked the freezer full and with things like canned goods, rice, and flour in the cupboards, it is rare that I will spend more than $50 a week in the grocery stores (usually about $30 in Wegmans, $20 in Price Chopper). I have vegetables with every meal, eat meat 4 or 5 times a week, and have too much in the way of junk food, too. By way of contrast, two Big Mac meals at McDonald's are over $11, even pedestrian diners like the Red Oak or Danny's cost $15-20 for two meals, lunch in downtown Binghamton invariably costs $10 if you get a drink with the food, and someplace nice like Mama Giuseppe's or J Michaels is over $50 for two meals. It adds up, real quick. Even making more money than I did in 2002, it would break me to eat out regularly. I eat lunch out maybe twice a month, if that, and Sabrina gets McDonald's once a month. Maybe three or four times a year, if we are out shopping, we will go to a Friendly's, as well. I would have to imagine that I spend several hundred to a few thousand dollars less than some people in my office or my friends that don't cook do on food annually.
But I've also come to enjoy cooking, the delight that comes from making something you like to eat. I plan menus out in advance, and I know what I am going to be eating for the next week or more. Tonight, for example, I am cooking pork chops with asparagus for me, and macaroni and cheese with hamburger meat added with corn and baked potato for Sabrina, who doesn't like pork. I know I am going to be full at 5:30, and I know she is going to be full and happy at 5:30 as well. I enjoy my own cooking, and have learned to take pleasure in the cooking process, too, of making something like cheesy cauliflower or sausage bread or baking things. And I have to say, doing it regularly now, that I cannot understand why so many people claim they can't cook regularly after work. Granted, I am cooking for two instead of six, but it is very rare that it takes more than 30 minutes from the time I start cooking until the time I am loading the dishwasher. Like so many other things in this world, it appears to be a matter of effort, of willingness, for this generation, and one that could easily be done with a commitment to do so.
And that leads to the last of my twenty difference makers. I've written extensively about my friend Kathie Carroll before, and won't go through the exhaustive details of why she is important in my life. But Kathie has been one of my cooking mentors; she enjoys baking and cooking, and is always willing to share information and helpful hints. But that is just part of her larger personality, of being very giving and very committed to a home life rather than chase seventeen other relatively unimportant things. She commits to her family and to the way of life we chose a long time ago without fail. She has confronted many unhealthy aspects of her life up until recovery, and has changed in so many ways, for the better, and learned to appreciate the lack of chaos and drama in her life. She has been a tremendous, probably the biggest, role model I have had for single parenting; she raised her daughter from first grade to high school graduate without any help other than her sisters and mother, and did a really amazing job. And unlike most other NA women, she lives her life with class--you never see provocative dress, you never hear her in meetings savaging other people, there is not a steady parade of men in and out of her house, and there isn't a history of repeated relapses.
And for me personally, she has become one of my best friends. We talk reasonably often, and it's so easy and comfortable to do so. I don't know many people that grew up in this area that are roughly my age (she is a year younger than me, part of the last Binghamton Central graduating class) and who were a part of the using scene that I was (and, somehow, while having an overlap of about 65% of the same acquaintances, we never used together and only even saw each other on a few occasions over nearly 20 years. To take one example, I knew Lila since my early twenties, hung out with her constantly in active addiction, and ended up living with her in recovery, and Kathie shared a house with Lila during active addiction). We have been friends for years, with only onedustup that has been worked through., and have started a home group together, done H & I together, raised children and been a part of each other's lives in proximity.  I can't imagine my life without her being a part of it, and, considering romantic involvement is not part of the equation, that is truly amazing to me. And I am very grateful that she is always there, for me and for Sabrina.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Not Slowing Down

 I am also fortunate to have, entrenched in the OCFS system, one of the best children's advocates I have ever seen, and today's positive difference maker, Denise Dyer. Denise works out of the Syracuse office, but is always accessible to programs across the state; you never have to wait more than a couple of hours for an answer to phone calls or emails. She is always looking for ways to help us do our jobs, and by extension help the kids we are working with, by making the state accommodate the reality on the ground. I don't know how many times we have gotten helpful suggestions on how to fit what we are doing into thorny regulatory requirements, or how to approach accessing a needed service that we never would have thought of ourselves. Audits/site visits have the connotation of inquisitionst, but I have been through four OCFS site visits with Denise, and every one of them has gone smoothly, with no rancor and with the sense that when questions are asked, the answers are actually listened to and our reasons for doing what we did considered valid. And on top of the professional competence and courtesy, on a personal level she is good company, as well. She is one of the few people in this field that I wish I saw more of.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Teachers Who Make a Difference

I took my daughter and several of her friends to Skate Estate in the afternoon yesterday. While she was there, her teacher from last year, Mr. Vasquez, strolled in, there for a party, and he was very pleased to see Sabrina and asked how she was doing and all that. While she was glad to see him, I was reminded that while she ended up surviving the year, she was not really a fan of his, not the way that she was of several others that she had over her elementary school years. As she and her friend Jenna talked during breaks about their upcoming class trip today with a teacher Sabrina has raved about since the first day of school, I thought again of how much influence teachers really do have, about how a youth often chooses a direction to go in based very much on how they are influenced by a particular teacher at a crucial point in their life.
I had several of those teachers, and I am going to highlight four of them today, three from high school and one from elementary (I prefer not to remember the two years of middle school for any reason).
To take them in chronological order, Mr. Solan was my sixth grade teacher. In 1974-5, sixth grade was the end of elementary school rather than the beginning of middle school. Up until that point, although I was certainly smart and liked learning, most of it had been self-motivated; I was not a big fan of school, partially because I was in Catholic school until the fifth grade but also partially because I never had a teacher that engaged me in the entire process of education before. Mr. Solan was different. He was funny, for starters; every day something cracked us up for minutes at a time. He obviously cared; I remember one afternoon was devoted to calling a bunch of us, one by one, out into the hallway about something that had gotten stolen from the library, and talking to us about why it was not a good idea on many levels. I was already interested in world history and world events, and he was the first teacher that acknowledged that interest publicly, that made sure he told me in front of the whole class that it was a good thing to be informed about the world. Sixth grade was the first year when I couldn't wait to get to school, the first year it started to become something to be enjoyed rather than endured, and it was a good thing, because if I did not have that memory fresh in seventh and eighth grade, I might well have gone in another direction.
There were three high school teachers who were important influences in how I have lived my life; what is amazing to me is that I was not particularly fond of two of them at the time. I had Ms. Cochetti for tenth grade social studies, and she was on me from the second week of September onwards, because she realized right away that she had someone who was possibly brilliant but definitely had a tendency to not harness all of his ability. She nagged me, frankly, about coasting, about not applying myself, and refused to accept adequate or merely good work from me; she made me push myself hard to earn the great grade I eventually got. I remember falling asleep when we watched the movie Becket in class, and her making me come in before classes started three days in a row to watch it again, and I remember easily handling somebody in the class in a debate and her chiding me--actually, jumping all over me-- about choosing to undermine the other person's confidence with sarcasm and veiled personal comments rather than sticking to the arguments (one reason I detest the Limbaughs and Becks is that I know how easy it is to serve a bad agenda doing what they do). It may have taken 30 years and trying to keep my own child motivated to fully appreciate what you were trying to do, Ms. Cochetti, but rest assured the point was taken and applied.
The second one was my chemistry teacher and long-time UE wrestling coach, Frank Sorochinsky, or as everyone called him, Sarge. Sarge was an easy target for--not necessarily ridicule, but of poking fun at. He was told to exercise by his doctor after his heart attack, to take one example, and tried to ride his bike from his home in Johnson City to school one day (about seven miles) and came in cursing about how worthless the idea was--and then we saw the bike was what today would be called a mountain bike, not a 10-speed. Since Sarge was a huge man--he was at least 250 pounds and maybe much more--well, just picture it... Sarge did take his teaching seriously, and I drove him crazy, not only because I was often witty at his expense (as an example, he had a terrible time with kids' names, and I was "Sloma" from the first to the last day of class. One day, he addressed me as "Sloma" again, and I rather testily pointed out that my name was "Somma, just S, no L." He shrugged and said, "S, L, what's the difference?" and I came back with "it's the difference between Sarge and Large." That got me a trip to Mr. Lichstein's office) , but again because my work habits were not what they could be, and he repeatedly pointed out to me that whether I realized it or not, and whether I wanted it to be true or not, other people did pay attention to what I did and how I conducted myself, especially as my junior year progressed and my standing in the jock-obsessed culture that was UE in 1980 rose as my athletic career took off. The example I remember most vividly was him confronting me one day about not having homework done. We had something happen at home the night before--I don't remember exactly, but it required immediate attention--and when he asked me why the homework wasn't done, I rather flippantly said I had had better things to do. He went totally apeshit, a real rant for the ages, even ending up calling my father that night about it; when he calmed down and discussed it rationally the next day, I got the same message that Ms. Cochetti had given about not coasting and having a responsibility to use the talents I had. I resented the message then, but it took, because it is a large part of my parenting, and my outlook on my life, now.
The third teacher that made a huge difference I had twice, in tenth grade English and for an elective as a senior. Marc Lippmann was not well-liked by his peers and not well-regarded by  corporate-dominated late-1970's Union-Endicott parents. But his students loved him. He was clearly a hippie gone into the real world, and the course matter always took a back seat to what was going on in our lives. You could get extra credit in all of his classes if you kept a journal; he would read them and return them with both pointers for better usage of the language but also with comments on how you could deal with what you were writing about. As a senior, in particular, that journal was a life-saver; as my father's drama unfolded, I sometimes felt like he was the only adult who gave a shit about what it was doing to me. He always urged me to take responsibility for my life, to not passively accept being a victim but to take positive action to change what I did not like. He was the first outside person that told me, way back in 1981, that my substance use was causing problems for me, and he was the first person that pointed out that simply having a girlfriend was not going to make all my problems go away. When my marriage was falling apart in 1997 and I was seeking counseling, I was shocked to find his name listed in the Yellow Pages; he had left teaching and was now doing therapy, and I went to him for several months. Again, his insight and his empathy were sound; he just didn't have a chance against cocaine at that point in my life, but I made sure that, when I got out of the halfway house two years later, that he was paid before I filed for bankruptcy. As I told him at the time, there was nothing at all wrong with what he was telling me, I just wasn't prepared to hear it at the time.
All of these teachers taught me more than just the subject that they were paid to teach; they taught me, as a good teacher will do, values and what is important about living life, as well. They did make a positive difference in my life, even if not immediately; they were part of the reason that when the time came to redirect myself, I had some idea of what direction to go in. They are today difference-makers.

Book Review: LOSING OUR COOL

Losing Our Cool is Stan Cox' examination of all the ways that air conditioning has made modern life as we know it possible, and also takes a detailed and rather somber look at the environmental and energy costs on a worldwide basis. The fact that air conditioning is the one factor above all else that has made the Sun Belt demographic shift possible was certainly not news to me, but the amount of energy it takes kind of was, and the chapter on India (where the author used to live) alone is enough to give the lie to any notion that any reduction in carbon emissions is going to take place. Perhaps the most revealing information in the book was his appraisal of nuclear power plants as a possible solution; even if the waste problem were manageable, the costs in current carbon energy of building a bunch of new plants would in the short term make carbon emissions rise significantly, just as we most need to cut back. The book reinforces something I know in my heart and don't really want to think about; the only realistic chance we have to not ruin the planet's climate is not by reducing emissions, it is by reducing the numbers of emitters, and that is not likely to happen without the catastrophe happening first.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hey, Rocco!

Today's difference maker is someone I knew for about four months in late 1998-early 1999, and yet it is absolutely clear to me that without his presence in my life, I would not be here and would not be living the life I am leading. When I got to Boca House a little over twelve years ago (December 8, 1998, to be exact), I was angry and scared, sure of little beyond a vague hope that if I completed a four-month tour in this halfway house 1500 miles from home, I might escape jail time on the three charges I was facing. Mine was far from the most desperate story there; the capacity of Boca House was 120, and it was pretty close to full the entire time I was there (there are, I must concede, worse places to spend early recovery than Boca Raton in winter). My room was a triple; I can't remember the name of the guy that was there the night I got there; he was all right, but we never were close. But the day after I arrived, Ernest ("don't call me Ernest or Ernie; only my mother calls me Ernie") Rocco came with his two suitcases. Rocco was a vibrant, almost larger-than-life New Yorker, coming to Boca from Smithers, the famous Manhattan rehab that has taken in virtually every NYC-based celebrity that has ever done rehab, and he quickly became very close to me. With a one-week exception, when he went to the higher level before I did, he was my roommate the entire four months I was there.
And we learned the rudiments of a new life from each other. Rocco was a dope-shooter, and I was a crackhead, and there were several nights when we described the depths of our personal addictions to each other. I had always thought heroin addicts were wimpy losers before I got to the halfway house, but listening to Rocco--and seeing the damage he had done to his life--I gained insight and was able to digest, very early in the process, that the drug of choice did not matter; addiction was addiction. He was a year older than me, and this was his third time in rehab, and he insisted that this was the last time, that he was done this time. I was strongly leaning in that direction myself, and it was a source of the strength that addicts need from each other to make it through those tough early months. And we watched and drew on each other to get through many crises in early recovery. I watched in amazement as Rocco fought what he insisted was a false positive; he spent a night on the beach and used the last of his nest egg to pay for a blood test at the hospital that proved that his positive actually did come from his habit of eating a poppyseed bagel each morning ( a habit he promptly discontinued). He could have easily given up; he was not going to go back to New York for a long time and had already picked up a nice clientele in Boca (he was an electrician and carpenter that did fantastic work), and he could have just found an apartment and got on with his life. But he didn't; being clean, by this time mattered to him. And for his part, he absolutely was flabbergasted and amazed that I stayed in Florida after Shannon went back to the streets before Christmas, gave birth to Sabrina, relapsed when she was a week old and disappeared again, and after Sabrina was put in foster care. I never felt like I had any other real choice but to stay, but most of the guys there didn't agree with that sentiment, and I must have heard 75 times how "strong" I was and how dedicated I was. But I had a lot of help; Rocco was not by nature a generous man, but we used to talk about where do we go from here a lot, me and him and Bert from Philadelphia and John from Long Island and Oliver and Jason and Tyrone and Todd and several others who were all in our late thirties and had nothing to show for our lives up to that point but failed marriages and a trail of devastation. Every night, we would play cards for hours and talk about the past, present, and future, what we needed to do to set ourselves right, what we were facing, how to make things better, and sharing opinions freely and breaking down each other's denial. To take one example, Rocco had Shannon called right from 1500 miles away and having never met her; when she relapsed after Sabrina was born, he attempted to find some comforting words when I was trying to find a silver lining one night, then shook his head and said, "I know it's your girl and all that and that drugs make us do things we shouldn't, but I'm sorry: that's a piece of shit, that does that." Harsh and maybe not entirely accurate, but more accurate than I was willing to credit at the time.
As  I was preparing to go home in April, Rocco did get an apartment and left the halfway house. For a city boy, he took to fishing quickly; he spent a lot of time in the Everglades the last month I was there, and often cooked what he caught in the apartment. I have no idea of what happened to him beyond June 1999, but I hope he, too, has never relapsed and made the new life go. And if not, and you should happen to read this, know that you made a huge difference in at least one life, that twelve years later, the promises we made to ourselves were kept and dreams beyond our wildest imaginings did come true. But somehow, I think he did make it work, and maybe he's got a thriving business and hopefully still taking the Friday night beach meeting hostage every week. Hey, Rocco, indeed.

Book Review: THE FUTURE OF LOVE

The Future of Love is a novel by Shirley Abbott about the tangled webs of several New Yorkers have weaved in their relationships. So tangled, in fact, that it would be difficult to try to list them, but suffice it to say that no one is happy with their "correct" relationships--the widow is glad that her husband is dead and she is with a married (old) man whose wife won't divorce him; her daughter's husband is cheating on her; there are two gay couples in the circle, and none of the peripheral characters are happily married, either. In the middle of the book, 9/11 occurs, and it serves as a harbinger of death in each of the relationships--the marrieds stop their affairs and go back home (to misery), one of the gay men's cancer kills him, and the big "committment" ceremony of the lesbian couple ends with the death of someon else. It sounds depressing when summed up, and it appears that this is the point, that the future of love is death, that it does not last, and that nothing that is wanted is going to work out. The novel ends ambigously; the death of his wife allowed one of the older couples to be together, and she is thinking of throwing him out--whether in revenge or because it no longer is what it was is not clear. Despite the gloomy tone and stark message, the novel is highly readable, even if none of the characters--not one--is sympathetic or portrayed as anything other than supremely self-centered. Which was maybe the author's point; that love doesn't exist, that we are essentially selfish creatures who have been forcing ourselves into relationships against our better natures, that "love" is artificial and false.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Paying More Attention

This is the occasional post about sports that I indulge myself in. The Vikings were just as bad as I thought they were going to be this year, but the plus side of the debacle is that Childress is gone, Favre and the damnable Streak are over and he most certainly will be gone after a few more weeks, and some of their "stars" have been exposed as something less than that. I don't know who is going to play quarterback next season, but it will be somebody new--although he is on injured reserve, enough was seen of Tarvaris Jackson to confirm that he is not the quarterback of the present or future. In order for things to get better for the team, this all had to happen. The tragicomic drama about the stadium just adds to the general disarray and sense of lost season, and it has also starkly reminded me that this team may not be in Minnesota much longer. They have already nearly moved to Los Angeles once in my lifetime, and I would not be a bit shocked to see the LA Vikings in 2012. If that seems preposterous, it's no less so than the LA Lakers, who also started out in Minnesota. If they do move, I'm not sure what I am going to do. This year the passion has waned anyway; it's been like the aftermath of a particularly nasty fight between married people, in the sense that this time, I'm not getting over it. My closest local rooting interest, the Bills, are inching higher on the affection chart, and if the Vikings move, I probably will become a full-fledged Bills fan rather than accept the new identity. Next year is shaping up as one of a marriage encounter; it is the final, final chance to see if it can be salvaged or if the damage has been too great.
And one reason I have been able to keep the Vikings at arms length this fall has been the emergence of one of the NHL's best feel-good stories, my very own New York Rangers. At the beginning of the season, no one dared hope for more than a team that would be fighting for a playoff spot; some of the moves were undoubtedly addition by subtraction, but was it enough to make the team good? I didn't really think so, but I didn't anticipate some other developments accompanying the subtractions. For one, it has suddenly become acceptable, imperative, for those on the team to work hard each and every night. Some nights, the results aren't there, but everyone tries hard every night, and for those who have followed this team for a long time, that hasn't happened since 2005-6, and before that season it hadn't happened with regularity since the Cup season. But what has been most amazing has been the transformation from a mediocre team with not much upward potential to a youngish team with a significantly higher ceiling. There is no real dead weight here. They've already survived losing their best player for a month, and their all-world goalie has been rather inconsistent this year, yet here they are at 20-13-1 and having beaten the Capitals and the Penguins in the last week. If they beat the Flyers this afternoon, they will be three points from the top of the conference nearly halfway through the season. Unthinkable in early October.
I think there are two endearing things about this team. One is the work ethic; of 34 games thus far, they have showed up for at least 31 of them, which, if you've followed the team recently, is amazing. Two is that there are no albatrosses. Everyone on the team can do something well; even a maddeningly inconsistent player like Christensen suddenly looks very valuable if the team gets to a shootout. Guys like Boyle, Prust, and Avery have put in efforts beyond what their skill level was assumed to be, and Callahan, Staal, and Dubinsky have moved from "potential stars" to "minor-level stars" when the team needed them to. Some players have room to improve--Anisimov is almost but not quite there yet, Del Zotto has definitely struggled as a sophomore, Frolov has not been what had been hoped (although not completely awful, either). Lundquist seems to be rounding into something approximately top form (there are still some bad goals, but he now leads the league in shutouts, too), and Biron has done what he is supposed to do. They survived losing Gaborik for a month, and haven't had Drury all season until now.
The big injury now is Callahan's; he's just a player without a weakness, and not having him until at least February is going to hurt. If they survive that in good shape, it will possible to dream again. Not quite like 1978-79 (that team was young; I want to do a post sometime on the effect of drug and alcohol abuse on sports teams, and that team in the years after would be Exhibit A) but enough to stay interested.
Today's difference maker, to stretch a point, is also a figure intertwined with sports, albeit in my own life and at a period in the past. I played football and ran track in high school, and Mike Miller was my coach for both (JV for football). I wasn't real fond of him when I played football for him; he tended to have a volcanic temper, and he wasn't the world's most effective X's and Os guy. But I have to say that although I got benched in the middle of the season, he didn't bury me, and resurrected me before the season's end. More importantly, I think he was aware of his flaws as a coach, and he always ended up highly regarding those who took the occasional verbal flogging and used it as motivation to play better. And when I got on the track team, I had no bigger booster than Mr. Miller. He had the vision to see that my qualities (perseverance and a very intense desire to win) would best be served as a middle-distance runner, even though I was built like and could have been a sprinter, and I became one of "his guys," one of those players that is depended on and asked to lead and serve as an example. And I grew progressively fonder of him; he didn't suffer fools easily, and had no patience for those who didn't put in the effort, but he had all the time and affection in the world for you if the effort was there. I really didn't really realize how much I've become like him until someone asked me about a week ago if there was anyone from my teen years that made a difference in my life. I've taken stock of my abilities and characteristics as a supervisor the last couple of weeks, and I realize that I am more like Mr. Miller than anyone else that I've had to work/play under. I'm not warm and fuzzy, but when the effort is there and basic expectations are met, my supervisees get every chance to shine, and they continue to move on to better things. Which is what a lot UE track guys did as they got grew up, both in athletic and life senses.
And as I have aged, I have taken Mr. Miller's path in other areas, too. One of the little dramas of the time I was in high school was Mr. Miller's divorce and subsequent remarriage. It was strange knowing that he had just become a father again while his oldest son was in his senior year, but many of us noticed that he just forged ahead and moved on, that he lived his life without feeling the need to justify his actions and without the need to denigrate and badmouth the other principals in the story. I thought about that often, too, when my time to pick up the pieces came, and it was helpful when it seemed like everyone in the world had an opinion and many of them were not of a positive variety. I saw a couple of years ago that he got honored by the school for his career there, and I saw he was on Facebook, although I chickened out. at the time, of actually making a friend request (I made one this morning). But that's Mr. Miller, too; as much of a curmudgeon as he liked to appear to be, he was actually pretty open-minded, and I am not surprised at all that he has overcome the oft-seen reluctance of our parents' generation to embrace the online world. If for nothing else, I will never forget one thing he did, that even though it probably wouldn't be considered the best way to go about it today, nonetheless meant a great deal to me at the time when I was going through it. My father was arrested early my senior year for fencing stolen goods, and the trial and conviction took place while track season was starting--splashed in the paper every day as it was happening. I found out late in the season that Mr. Miller had called a meeting of the entire track team, sans me, and had told everyone in the room that if he heard anyone saying something about my father, either to me or behind my back, they were off the team, no exceptions. That told me, at a time when I sorely needed it, and when more than a few adults in the community and in the school were being real judgmental about me and my siblings and family, that at least somebody had my back, that somebody cared about and appreciated me for who I was, even at just-turned-18. I don't know if I ever told him how much that meant to me, but if I didn't, I am now.
And maybe the best thing about Mr. Miller was that he was always pushing us to increase our expectations on ourselves, to never coast but to keep pushing the limits. The quintessential track story of my career directly involves him. In the Section 4 relays my senior year, I was running anchor in a curious little event called the sprint medley (one guy runs 400 meters, two guys run 200 meters each, and then the anchor runs 800 meters). I remember two things about the event. One was that I took the handoff from a guy named Mark Beaudoin. Mark was not a star, but he came to practice every day and he put the effort in. Many coaches in high school will ride their horses into the ground while ignoring half of the team. Mr. Miller did ask a lot of his strong guys, but he always found a place in our relay events for the guys who may not have been threats to set records, but who were there every day and worked hard. Mark was one of those guys, and he did pretty well in his chance to shine--I got the baton in second place. I was about 25 yards behind the guy from Vestal (who had loaded their relay with their four best guys) and I was running in the 3200 relay later in the meet, and I just was looking to hold on to second place without overly exerting myself. I managed to hold second, keeping a gaggle behind me at bay for the first lap and around the clubhouse turn again.
And then I heard what seemed to be the voice of God. Mr. Miller was one of the world's loudest men when he wanted to be, and all of a sudden, turning onto the backstretch, I hear, "HE'S DYING IN FRONT OF YOU!" I looked ahead, and the guy from Vestal was about 40 yards ahead, but starting to visibly labor. I could have just noted it and stayed in fourth gear instead of overdrive, and easily held second place--but that was not the way I was wired, and not the way Mr. Miller coached me to be. I took off after him, and those that were at the meet said it was the most exciting race they had seen in years. I made up 39 yards, 18 inches of that gap, and fell just short at the tape--but I sure remember the absolute roar of the crowd as I closed in on the far turn and coming down the homestretch. That was the way Mr. Miller wanted us to be--maybe I ended up with the second place finish I was realistically hoping to get, but I gave it my best shot, instead of coasting, and ended up running a race that everyone who was there still remembers. Mr. Miller never wanted us to just settle--you may not win, but there was no excuse for not giving your best effort.
And that is pretty much how I live my live today. I don't always "win," but my kids, my clients, my friends, my coworkers always get my best effort--and we all are the better for it. There is nothing left in the tank, nothing left on the table or on the track at the end of the day. And that, not results, was what Mr. Miller wanted from us, not only while wearing the orange and black but when we moved on to live our lives, too. He is today's difference-maker in my life, both in his coaching and also by practicing what he preached, by not allowing setbacks to keep him down. I hope he is well and enjoying his retirement.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Thoughts on Another Last Day

It seems to be a constant of modern life that people move on, that fewer and fewer relationships stay close or even proximate. In our office, there are five of us that have been there five or more years, and then there is a huge falloff to two years or less for the remaining six people. A friend of  mine emailed me about why none of the difference makers in my life to this point have been people from the period when he was a part of it, too, and the reason is that, apart from Facebook, I haven't had regular contact with anyone from that time frame for years. My daughter has been a little emotional this week; she does not like her mother's new house because it is not familiar, and she cried yesterday because her new Odyssey of the Mind team is, well, new and not the same kids it had been for two years.  Aldo is not a huge part of my life anymore, and there are very few people that have been a part of my life for the dozen years of recovery. Even of some of the present more meaningful relationships will likely be memories in a few years--Colleen is a political appointee, Don may or may not be around, the school people tend to move on. It leads to a sense of alienation, of disconnectedness and drift, that ultimately makes it hard to feel as though life is meaningful.
That is what makes a relationship with God, or whatever fills a God role in one's life, so important--because it does not go away, that it does not move or turn fickle or drift away. What has happened in the last decade or so of my life would not have been possible without a strong, meaningful relationship with God as I have come to understand him. I am not religious, do not attend any church, and have not pushed religion on Sabrina, but nonetheless a belief in a loving and caring God is the axis my life revolves around and ultimately informs everything I do. While it may be regretful or even painful when relationships with other people change or wither or suffer, they ultimately do not destroy my life because that relationship with God remains central. I don't run around praying all the time or talk about being saved or the need to repent or try to convince anyone that a belief in a particular set of dogma is necessary to find meaning in a life or for spiritual nourishment; my relationship with God is shown and demonstrated simply, by living with integrity and trying to act by ethical principle in everything I do--and not viewing myself as irredeemably flawed and damaged if I do not, on occasion, live up to my ideals (on occasion, I hasten to add; saying "oh, well, I'm not perfect" doesn't mean anything, either. The effort has to be there, and so does the willingness to change, to move in a better direction). I sometimes feel like I am missing something in my life by seemingly having more of these transient relationships, but I realize that 1) I have actually been remarkably stable--same town for decades, same job for 8 years, been in recovery community for 12. It's the other people in my life that are in motion, and 2) I am generally happier and more content than I ever have been. I do get upset on occasion, but I am not unhappy with my life, and it shows.
And the non-recovering person who has much to do with this transformation unfortunately is one of those who has moved on, who had a "last day," who has been in Arizona for several years now. But Pastor Ken McIntosh came along at a critical juncture in my life. I was in the middle of the 12 Steps with Aldo, and Aldo kept talking about his own journey up to that point in time, and he talked about Ken constantly, about how helpful he was and how grounded in spirituality he lived. I was dubious; he was, after all, a pastor, and therefore hidebound and dogmatic. I finally got to meet him and know him through an initiative through my work, and I soon saw that whatever he was, he was not dogmatic and not hidebound. He had his doubts at times both about Christianity and whether he was having any effect on those he was supposed to be guiding, and he struggled at times with whether he was faithful enough. But this was and is a man who lives by the gospel messages of Jesus, who tries to feed the hungry, heal the sick, tend to those in pain, and in general help his fellow man. We began to eat lunch regularly, every week it seemed, and as we talked more and more, we began to develop a profound respect for each other's intelligence and essential decency. He told me that he had rarely, if ever, ran across anyone who knew Scripture as well as I did, even among the faithful, and who had my knowledge of ancient history, which helped him put the Bible in context, and he found my views and insights not threatening, but complementary and challenging to his own faith. And I found him to be incredibly stimulating and thought-provoking; it was sobering and challenging to me to see someone who was this obviously intelligent who believed, wholeheartedly, in Christianity. There was no way I could dismiss this guy as a lightweight or as deluded, and I had to take the whole idea of Christianity more seriously, to my benefit. I actually attended his nondenominational church regularly for a year or so, until he left the area. I felt, when he was head of the church, like a member of a community, like one of the apostles or disciples, like "we were all in this together,"--without feeling like I had to say things I didn't believe and without feeling like I was missing an essential part of the experience.
When he left the area in 2004, I was pretty devastated, frankly. He went on to Flagstaff, Arizona, and rebuilt a church community in ruins; checking the website on occasion, he has made it viable and functional again, and it is dedicated to the welfare and well-being of not only its parishioners, but the community at large. He is, in other words, tending the flock, spreading his views of the gospels by living it, and no doubt still feeling the sense of accomplishment and purpose that he usually felt. I miss you, Ken, and I still harbor dreams of joining you, when my children are raised, on your mission. It all makes sense when you're around, and I don't feel like a fool or a hypocrite by being a part of a church dedicated to bringing heaven to earth, of making us all better off. I would not be what I am today without you, and my children would not be who they are today without you, either. Even though I have not spoken to you in two years or seen you in five, even though Facebook and email communication is sporadic, you most certainly have made a difference in my life, and continue to do so on a daily basis. You really were a gift from God, and this is a public expression of my gratitude for having been such a large point of my journey. I know you wonder about the efficacy of your mission at times, and I am telling you that, yes, you do make a positive difference, each and every day.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

An Unexpected and Pleasant Surprise

This past year, much of my immediate work landscape changed. For several years, I had the pleasure of working with passionate and dedicated youth advocates in the county Youth Bureau, and I was very disconcerted and unhappy when one's position was cut and the other resigned early this year. I honestly thought that runaway/homeless programming was going to be shunted aside on a county level, which would have lessened the state's commitment to funding, which would lead to eventually the services being ultimately dependent on federal funding and oversight.
That has not happened. The new county runaway/homeless youth coordinator doesn't even have the position full-time, and yet she has brought a passion and energy to the field that has been like nectar to a starving bee. Colleen Wagner's main job title is still executive assistant to the county executive, but her work as the coordinator has been a godsend to those of us who have labored in this field for as long as I have. She not only is genuinely interested in the problems the youth we work with face, but uses her very considerable abilities and contacts to effect positive changes in the atmosphere of policy decisions. I cannot, per agreement with my chain of command, comment in detail on these sort of matters, but suffice it to say that is wonderful to know that somebody that matters is an unquestioned ally and force working in our favor.
But even more than what she brings to the table professionally, it is just a pleasure to deal with Colleen as a person, too. She lives in the same neighborhood, and we share a lot of the same concerns about living in this city and what direction it is headed in. She is a parent of kids roughly the same age as mine, and shares concerns about school district policy. She is a bit more socially active than I am, but has never made me feel like a freak for not drinking and travelling. She is very intelligent and easy to talk to on virtually any subject. In short, she is usually one of the highlights of my day, and most of my days anymore include, at least for a few minutes, some conversation with her. Colleen is today's positive difference maker in my life, and it is hard for believe that only a year ago, I barely knew who she was, because she has actually come to occupy a pretty significant place in it.

Book Review: TRAVELS IN SIBERIA

I love books where an author has journeyed through some exotic, never-would-go-there-myself locale, and this effort by Ian Frazier is a great example of the genre. Travels Through Siberia is a recounting of the author's five journeys, of varying lengths of time, over 16 years through one of the largest and least known about places on earth, Siberia. There were three main trips that he took-- one in the area directly across from Alaska, one roughly paralleling the Trans-Siberian railroad, and one in the far eastern part (the Yakutsk area, for those who played the board game Risk as youths) in search of a genuine gulag. For almost 500 pages, the reader is alternately informed, delighted, disgusted, and amazed at hundreds of small details, facts, stories, and observations that make, simply, for fascinating reading. In no particular order, for no particular reason, a very small sampling would include the horrible state of Russian restrooms throughout the country, the lack of fences in Siberia, the incredibly pedestrian nature of the Ural "Mountains" that are the border between Europe and Asia, the reason Siberia is swampy (it has some of the world's largest rivers, some miles across two thousand miles from their mouth, and since they empty into the Arctic Ocean, their sources melt before their mouths do, creating a backup), the horrific swarms of mosquitoes, the incredible piles of trash and garbage everywhere alongside highways in Russia, the visible scars left by the Mongols even almost 800 years after their bloody arrival, the emptiness by even Siberian standards of the Russian Far East, the unfathomable snow and cold that the natives are blase about, and the fact that the rivers and lakes are actual motor highways during the winter time. His longest journey happened to end on 9/11, and his account of being marooned overseas for a couple of weeks (and the way the rest of the world had nothing but goodwill towards Americans at that time--thanks, W, for completely blowing that to hell) is a perspective on that tragedy hardly ever talked about or remembered anymore.
The book also serves as an extended inquiry into my least favorite subspecies on earth, the Russian. Frazier, to his credit, does not shy away from the subject, and much of the narrative is interwoven with his delicate and uneven relationships with his acquaintances in the country. The man who guided him on his two longer tours, in particular, is almost a main character along with the author, and the way they interacted and eventually came to a sort of uneasy arrangement is a study in human relations that alone would be worth reading the book for. I came away less convinced than ever that the Russian population is ever going to be more than a blight on humanity, but Frazier came up with a novel explanation that gave me much pause and reflection: given the way the Mongols treated this country and these people, Russia and its people are very much like adult survivors of abuse, and many of their actions and characteristics, in a very broad perspective, do make sense if looked at in this way. His ruminations on Stalin are more succinct and perceptive as those of any historian I have ever read, as well. And the front section of the book, about how he came to be interested in Siberia and short sketches of those who traveled this way on similar journeys before him, was hugely interesting reading, as well. This was one of the best books I've read in a long time.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I Wanna Be Sedated

It's now mid-December, and I still am not in the Christmas spirit, not hardly. Maybe it's the non-vacation, maybe it's the caseload (it has slowed down, to be certain, but normally in December, we have nothing going on, and that certainly isn't the case), maybe it's little annoyances (woke up this morning to find that the bathroom sink is hardly running, which means calling Nancy and maybe having to deal with a plumber, and who knows what else), and maybe it's something else (I have had some very odd dreams the last couple of nights. Two nights ago it was a dead dog in my garbage, one that had entered through a whole in the bottom of the can and then got stuck and couldn't get out; last night featured Tarvaris Jackson of the Vikings playing and winning an NFL game in my parents' back yard). But whatever it is, it sure doesn't feel like Christmas.
But it certainly could be worse. Part of it, I must admit, is not wanting to part with the money that Christmas presents entail. While I am managing, and have put away some money for it, I've grown accustomed to having a little extra around, and am reluctant to part with it. I inherited my father's attitudes about money and lived that way for a long time, but it's like I've gone almost totally in the opposite direction; I have spent $1.75 since leaving Wegman's Saturday morning. Part of it is not knowing when I am going to do so; I am thinking that perhaps tomorrow would be good, even later today, to do some, but I also know it would be a lot easier early next week, after my assistant has moved on and I am accountable for my time to no one except in a general sort of way for a couple of weeks. And part of it is the lingering distaste from the Thanksgiving fallout with my sister's kids, which has led to my sister defriending me and Sabrina on Facebook; there's a part of me that wishes I had known of this before I bought their tribe presents, because they wouldn't be getting any otherwise. But overall, it isn't like I am facing anything major; it's just this sense of blah, of "let's get this over with." I used to call it halfway house syndrome, because every day for the first month I was in the halfway house in late 1998 I would actually pray to fall asleep and have it be April (when I could go home) when I walk up. That's kind of what I am feeling like; I want it to be mid-January when I wake up.
Which is a segue of sorts to today's difference maker, and the lousy holiday season he is having. Don Bowersox is probably, at this point in time, my closest friend; he transcended the sponsor/sponsee relationship years ago. He's been on his 5th Step for over a year now, and is getting close to finishing it, and like everyone else I've known that has worked that step, he has changed dramatically. He is far up the hierarchy at DSS, and he's always been someone who has been helpful to many in that respect, but this year he has really gotten motivated to be a positive force for those in need; I have never seen him so involved and active before, and it is certainly having a positive effect on the performance of his cadres. And the renewed sense of purpose he is exhibiting at the job has only been a reflection of that in his life as well; he has become more involved in his family, and his pursuit of a meaningful spiritual path, as well. And he has become much more able to deal with and work through adversity. This holiday season is not easy for Don. His mother, who had Alzeheimer's for years, died about a week ago, out in Seattle, where she lived. He has been pretty stoic about it, but of course it has to be a burden that it happened during this time of year, but it has not stopped him at all from being what he normally is; I think he realizes both from his professional and his recovering background that the best way to immediately deal with loss is to be immersed in routine and daily detail. He leaves for Seattle tomorrow (I'm not sure why it took so long to have the service, but his family is pretty far-flung and it probably took a long time to organize) and will be back shortly before the holiday, but the way he has been dealing with has been inspirational. But it is part of the perseverance and professionalism that he displays on a daily basis, one that has rubbed off on me during the time we've been friendly (sponsorship, as I try to remind him, is a two-way street). I am very grateful to have him as a major part of my life, and he is today's difference maker.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Getting Older

Physically, I surrendered some time ago to the fact that I am have officially entered middle age. While I am not a complete couch potato, sustained physical activity is harder and harder to perform, and the achiness and soreness persists for quite a bit longer in the days that follow. Some things, like playing hockey, have slipped into the category of "things I used to do" because of the bone spurs in my feet and that my equipment is decades old and I simply don't want to spend the money to refit myself. But mentally, I have persisted in believing that I am as sharp as I ever was. But I have been getting hints here and there that this is no longer the case.
One came yesterday. One of my perverse sources of pride has been my very good memory, but most especially applied to driving. It has always, always been the case that if I have been somewhere once, I will be able to get back there again from memory, without writing anything down, without having to print out Google Maps, without phone calls en route. That is still the case, but part of the package was an innate and almost freakish ability to concentrate while driving; I don't push the limits to the stratosphere by trying to text, drive, eat, and listen to the iPod at the same time, but I have always been aware of traffic patterns and potential issues, what lane to be in, shortcuts if need be, etc. Well, yesterday was our quarterly meeting in Schenectady, and I ended up picking up not only Trudy in Bainbridge, but Vicki in Worcester, as well, in the interest of saving expenses (and, should weather become an issue, of three of us getting to leave early instead of one). The weather turned out to not be an issue (still waiting here for a lot of snow, although it has dropped about 45 degrees since this time yesterday), and the three of us ending up in deep conversation most of the time we were in the vehicle.
And I missed the Schenectady exit on the Thruway on the way up. I was absolutely mortified; that had never happened, in the 31 years I have been driving. I can recall two or at most three times when I was not able to get off the highway because traffic was squirrelly and I couldn't get over to the proper lane in time, but at least I had been trying to. I simply was not paying attention yesterday morning, and that had never happened before. I had to get off the Thruway and stay on 90 for three exits into downtown Albany before I got turned back around in the right direction, a twenty-five minute detour when all was said and done. Well, I ended up thinking, there's a first time for everything.
And it was not even six hours before it happened again. After the meeting concluded a half-hour early, we were on Route 7 in Schenectady, discussing what had gone on, and it somehow escaped my attention that I had to take the exit for 890 West to get back to the Thruway. This ended up only costing us five minutes, as a turnaround was close by, but still, I was even more mortified. There really isn't any excuse for not paying attention, and even less for getting caught up in a conversaton that I can be a part of at any time. I'm really not happy with myself for these senior moments. I realize that getting older is inevitable, but the carelessness, the lack of concentration, is something I have always disliked in others (ask my daughters), and I can't get comfortable with it with myself. So much has come so easily to me for much of my life, and I can't say I am finding it pleasant to learn that there is one more thing that I have to work at that I never had to before. I guess this is what life on the back nine is going to be more and more like.
I did get to spend the day with two more of the positive difference makers in my life. Vicki has been with the agency a little longer than I have, has been working in the program a few months less. With one exception back around 2004, we have always gotten along well, and even though we have different strengths and different ways of approaching problems, we have always had and maintain great respect for one another. She is extremely dedicated to the program and to the youth she works with, but also to the Oneonta and Otsego County community; I have no doubt she could have moved on to a dozen other jobs and places by now if she was willing to abandon ship. That also applies to the agency, too; as much as she grouses at times, she is totally dedicated to the outfit we work for (as am, truth be known, I), sometimes to her detriment (she has accepted much more in the way of setbacks and back-burner treatment over the years than I have or even would have). She is someone I have grown to depend on; she is more administratively inclined than I am, and much of the paperwork aspect of the coordinator's position, she now takes the lead on as far as running interference with the agency. But it is simply unimaginable to me that I would be doing my job without Vicki as my compatriot in Oneonta.
It took longer for Trudy and I to get closer. Our agency took over her Tompkins County program in 2007, and it was not a smooth adjustment, made worse by the fact that the program supervisor at the time, whom we assumed was favoring her and her program because he spent more time in the Ithaca office than he did in ours, was actually not paying the slightest bit of attention to her program, either. It really wasn't until this year that I began to see her as a fellow soldier in the larger fight and appreciate her strengths and her personality. I actually enjoy these out-of-town excursions with her now. She does good work within the somewhat different framework of her program guidelines, and is always very bold about getting answers to questions from the chain of command, much more so than I am, and I have learned how to be a better supervisor and supervisee from her. Again, it has become simply unimaginable to me that I can do my job without her running the Ithaca program. I am very grateful to have both these women as my colleagues, and they are today's difference makers in my life.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Weather Drama

It figures. A week after posting about how ridiculous the calling of a snow day was with a couple of inches of snow, I am faced with my own decision about what to do with anticipated weather. I am supposed to be going to Schenectady today for a quarterly agency meeting; they are considered mandatory, so unless there is a real good reason, my presence is expected. The weather is dry here currently, and dry all the way up 88. However, everyone along the way is supposed to start getting snow in the afternoon, and the further southwest one gets from the capital region, the heavier the snow is supposed to get. This meeting doesn't end until 3 PM, and I have to say I don't particularly relish the idea of driving in the dark while heavy snow is starting while temperatures are dropping almost by the minute and possibly freezing a roadway that has seen heavy rain over the weekend. I am also supposed to be meeting Trudy in Bainbridge and carpooling up, and I am sure she is less thrilled with the idea of going from Bainbridge to Ithaca after dark on two-lane roads. I sent an email to my supervisor yesterday morning warning that weather concerns were in play, and did not receive a response, and I am about a hour from having to make a decision here as to whether I am going or not.
I really don't know what to do. My normal inclination would be to go and leave early, but I had to leave the September one early, too. I'm not feeling so secure in my position that I feel like I can casually say, "I'm not going," but on the other hand, I really do not want to be driving 88 in a major snowstorm, especially in some places like Worcester and Belden Hill that get hammered whenever it snows. I guess I will watch the news staring at 5:30. Sabrina would have to walk to school if I do go (my mother will be picking her up here at 3:45 after school, so I don't have to worry about that), and I have to be out of the house by 6:45 at the latest if I am going to be in Schenectady for a 9:30 meeting.
This is one of those times when I wish Jim Doyle was still my supervisor. I want to emphasize that this is not a knock on my current supervisor, who has settled into her position overseeing the runaway programs very well; the last few months have been very smooth. But she is based in Schenectady, not here, and she has a lot on her plate and isn't as readily accessible as Jim was and is. Jim has landed on his feet; he was promoted to assistant director of our group homes a couple of months ago, and is hardly around anymore.Which is a loss for me personally. Jim, despite exhibiting the insufferable arrogance of all Steelers fans on football matters, has been, all kidding aside, an absolute godsend for me from the beginning of my career with this agency. He looked out for me as best he could when he was my direct supervisor, and when he has not been, he has been unfailingly friendly and helpful. But even more than the professional help he gave me, he is just a very good person, one that made the office a pleasurable place to be. He is still based in the Binghamton office, but he is hardly there anymore, and I miss him, because he always made the atmosphere a little less heavy and little more fun. Jim Doyle is today's positive difference maker.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Living the Gospel

Although I have come to a very strong belief in God, and that belief defines my life, I am still not a member of any church or any organized religion. Every religion ultimately rests on factors of exclusion, of insisting that there must be belief in some tenet, in some idea, that serves as a boundary, that defines "us" versus "them," and those limits, those walls, function ultimately to hinder us in our ability to fulfill what I have come to believe God truly wants from us, which is to help one another and to draw closer to Him through the living of our lives guided by spiritual (or ethical, if you prefer) principles. But I have also come to realize that there are some practitioners of religion, and some clergy of those religions, who get it, who live their lives by those spiritual principles and realize that the principles are more important than the particular dogmas or limits of their chosen faith. In other words, the substance is more important than the form. I have been blessed to know a few of these clergy in the last decade, but one in particular is going to be feted in this space today, one who has become a very large part of my life and who is doing all that she can to make her church a beacon of light and goodness in an increasingly dimming world.
Barb Hayden is a deacon/pastor ( unlike Catholicism and Orthodoxy, I've never been able to figure out what the standards are regarding Protestant clergy) at the Redeemer Lutheran Church, has been for about four or five years now. I actually knew of Barb before I knew her in person; she used to facilitate the Alpha group, a sort of seminar/club that several of my religious-leaning recovery friends (Aldo, Edwin, Bill)  attended regularly several years ago. When she moved from Christ the King to Redeemer, Redeemer was a dying parish, and she has thrown herself into reviving the parish by making it an activist part of the community. Redeemer is located right in the middle of the 'hood on the West Side; there's a shooting gallery four doors down on the street it sits on. But Barb has worked that neighborhood since the day she got there, and has served as a reminder to many lost souls wandering like shades in the Elysian Fields that in fact, all is not lost. The building that the church owns next to the actual church has been given over to several community organizations free of rent, including ours; it is where our satellite office is located. Barb is always, always looking for ways to engage kids, and I have noticed that she does not push the religion as much as she pushed the gospel--good will towards men, love one another, we're all in this together. It is an inspiration to watch and a privilege to help with.
And on a personal level, Barb has become not only a valued partner with our program, in a number of ways (for example, she sits on our program advisory board), but has become a friend. I have had several deep theological discussions with her, and I have discovered that she views dogma and intricate catchecisms much as I do--as impediments to people receiving the message rather than a help. Barb will never worry about a person's religious beliefs; she truly sees only what a person has to offer and how they can help spread the real message of the gospel, not spread the religious persuasion. I look at the other organizations and people using the building, and I am pretty sure that none of them are Lutheran--but all are welcome and appreciated for what they are accomplishing in making the community a better place. And, like me, I am sure that many of their individual lives are richer and more full because of Barb's presence in it, as well. Barb Hayden is today's difference maker.

Book Review: THE POLLUTERS

The Polluters, written by Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter, two members of an environmental think tank organization focusing on disposal issues, is both more and less interesting than I thought it would be. Less because it was very academic and focused on studies and scientific disputes and debates. More because it is a vivid reminder that there is nothing new in corporate America, that given a choice between the making of money and the safety of all of us, America's industrial concerns will always choose more money. This has become a more pressing issue now that global warming is a front burner matter and the role of the industrial concerns in quite possibly dooming us all is looming larger, but it is certainly nothing new, and with the avowed control of the government in wealthy hands, it isn't going to change.
The book is a monograph that stops at 1980, but several of the most notable environmental problems of the 20th century are discussed in middling detail--smog in LA and around Pittsburgh, the burning river in Cleveland, Love Canal. I was also kind of surprised to find out that at least one major company, DuPont, wasn't completely irresponsible on environmental issues. But the overall impression is that the chemical industry and the energy industry would rather subvert, stall, and ignore environmental concerns than change. That's true today, and that stance has a long history. It is significant to realize that almost all of the effective environmental protection we have came into being in an eleven-year period, from 1969 until 1980. This is not the first time I've noted this anomaly, but Richard Nixon, for all his negatives, was responsive to the moods and desires of the electorate, and when those desires were liberal in scope, he acted. Carter, too, was environmentally conscious, but that ended with Reagan and has never really regained momentum. And with American industrial concerns so much more in control of the political process, and the American citizenry so much less organized than ever before, the momentum for meaningful change is likely to never reach critical mass. Most of us overwhelmingly want climate change addressed, for example, but among the tiny group of Americans that don't are the majority of Congressmen.
Which pointed out to me an essential difference between the USA and the rest of the world. It is becoming clearer with every passing year that we are not going to turn out to be a long-term historical exception, that our experiment in democracy is going to end as all others in history have, with an entrenched upper class in control, regardless of whether the forms of democracy are maintained or not. There has always been less democracy here than our propagandists have insisted upon, but as time passes, I am beginning to see that the uniqueness of the USA in history is not that there is no oligarchy here, but that this is the first country in history that the oligarchy was not land-based. In ancient societies, in medieval societies, and in most modern societies, those that owned the land were those that controlled the political process, and in those places there has always been tension, and a conflict of interests, between the landowners and the merchant class over control of the government. The fact that the interests of the landed oligarchy were not, indeed usually quite incompatible with, the interests of the rich kept the rapacity and natural inclination of the merchant to exploit those who made him rich in check. In this country, the landed aristocracy was indeed in control at the beginning of the nation's history--but as the nation moved into adolescence, the industrial revolution took hold, and the landed aristocracy did not have the time to consolidate their total control of the levers of power. The fact that the House of Representatives was based on population, and the Electoral College functioned, in large part, as a reflection of the House membership, meant that political power shifted inexorably toward where the people were--and the people were where the money was, as the Industrial Revolution took place. The two decades before the Civil War saw every means being tried by the landed aristocracy to maintain control of the reins--and when those means were exhausted, they attempted to wall off their base territory and shut the moneyed class out entirely of their bailiwick. Obviously, they failed, and one of the results of the Civil War was that the counterweights to the forces of money were removed, and the oligarchy became the exclusive province of the industrial barons, in the time between 1865 and 1900. The twentieth century was too complex to be simply reduced to an easy summary, but one theme that can be clearly discerned was that the struggle to hold the industrial oligarchy in check ebbed and flowed for 80 years--both Roosevelts, Wilson, Eisenhower, Truman, Nixon, and Carter attempted more or less consistently to limit it (and notice that only four of those seven were Democrats). With the advent of Reagan, though, the battle seems to have been decided in favor of the oligarchy; Clinton and now the Empty Suit are as much in thrall to it as the Republicans are.
Anyhow, the book had some good information in it, but like many monographs, wasn't exactly an engrossing read.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Wintertime on the Homeless Front

Not, thank goodness, on the youth homeless front; on the job, I am in the midst of the annual December slowdown. I am down to three clients, with only one possible admit looming on the horizon. What I am referring to is the adult homeless population. Once in a while, the Addictions Crisis Center (ACC) will ship their clientele out to our home group for their daily outside 12-Step meeting, and last night they did so again. Normally, when ACC comes, the meeting will have about 25 to 30 people rather than the usual 12-15. Last night, there were 42 people there, and by my count, at least 25 of them were from ACC.
What was more surprising to me was that most of them actually stayed in the meeting, and a fair number participated. Many times, half or more of the people there spend the meeting outside smoking cigarettes and hitting on the members of the opposite sex in the facility with them, and sit there staring at the walls when they are in the meeting. But last night, almost all stayed in the meeting all night. They got to hear the good (John was in top form last night, I carried a pretty good message, Staten Island John shared very positive for him. Jesus was very positive), the bad (Don C. always shares negatively, but if you're going to share about what a good listener you are, you really ought not to immediately get up and leave the meeting after you're done talking), and the ugly (Roz was there for the first time in ages, and apparently she is starting some sort of penitential world tour because she got into an altercation at the Heart-Shaped Box meeting--excuse me, Our Wessage is Recovery--sorry, Our Message is Recovery-- last night. I cannot imagine getting so worked up about NA matters that I would get in any situation that would jeopardize a meeting place. I like Roz, and she's a lot more mellow, usually, than she was when she first arrived in this area seven years ago. But as she said, she relapsed on behavior Thursday). But several of them shared with us, and it was an interesting cross-section. There was the 60-day know it all, a number who still define what they are going through in terms of the substance they misuse, but there were also a few who seem genuinely beaten, that had no idea where they go from here but are very sure that the way backward is going to be fatal.
And there were a couple that were just plain homeless. I cannot imagine sleeping outside this past week, but at least one guy apparently did. He didn't even admit to his using being a problem, but he said he had managed to get himself kicked out of both the YMCA and the VOA this week, and that he knows something has to change. I suppose saying it is a start, but it's not a hopeful sign when you'd rather take your chances in single-digit temperatures rather than follow staff directives at a shelter.
Still, I was glad to see them, and remain very happy as my recommittment to our group enters its third month. I said in the secretary's report last night that there were 40 people there last night, and I was going to be less lenient than normal with the sharing time management. Instead of the usual 8 or 9 minutes, last night the standard was 7 1/2 minutes, and I almost had to intervene, as I was trying to get Roz' attention when she shut it down. But we heard from everyone that wanted to talk, which I had major doubts that we would be able to when the meeting started. It's become a sort of joke that I "ride herd" on everyone, but as I keep reminding everyone, it's the secretary's job, not mine; there have been two weeks where I wasn't in the chair and the task fell to Kate. But it's working; we are increasing our numbers of regulars slowly (Angela was back last night, with her 18YO daughter), and the meetings have been uniformly good for 3 months now. It's become a refuge for our element, a change from the usual chaos of other meetings.
Which led me, again, to thinking of Aldo, who hasn't been around regularly for two years now. I did hear from him recently, and he wrote that he is trying AA looking for a level of maturity and interest in spirituality that he is not finding in NA (although he didn't sound overly optimistic about finding what he was looking for). Which saddens me; Aldo has made a profound and lasting impact on many lives, but none more so than mine. I have gotten several reminders recently of how angry and overbearing I was in early recovery, and while I can say with confidence that I am not a mellow conciliator-type now, I am nowhere near what I used to be like. And even though he always deflects his share of the credit, saying only that God chose him to be His instrument to reach a person who was ready to hear His message in that way at that time, the fact is that Aldo is by far the biggest catalyst for my changing, and by extension, he has affected a lot of other people, from my clients to my kids to the guys I sponsored to the people whose lives I am a part of. He showed, more than taught, me what a recovering life was, by the way he lived his own. He displayed integrity, was open about the areas he needed to work on, committed to the process, gave back freely what was given to him. His openmindedness about God--and his faith that there was something to find--opened doors that had been closed for 25 years to me, and led to every single positive change that has occurred this century for me. His guidance about control tendencies also led me to view my problems and issues through the proper lenses, and allowed me to finally learn how to let go of problems and people that I could not change--and be freed from the chaos and unmanageability that inevitably follows. His own journey through fatherhood not only allowed me to believe that it was possible to become involved in my children's lives--not a given in 2000, when I started working with him--but gave me a living, breathing example as to how it might effectively be done.
And more than a sponsor, he became a close friend. We spent most Saturday nights together for about five years, shared a home group for three, and he became such a big part of my life that it left a serious void when he wasn't around so much anymore. But if there is one thing I learned from him, it was how to set aside the natural self-centeredness and see matters from different perspectives. I know that he has not moved onto the place he is now because of me or anything about me; it is simply where his journey has led him, and of course I wish him well and want him to find contentment and peace. And I am sure that he is positively affecting those he is in contact with now. I miss him, but I have no desire to hold him back. I just want to say, to the whole world, that I would not be the man I am today without Aldo Rogers' presence in my life for so long. He is today's difference maker, a man who has unquestionably made his corner of the world a better place for all of us.