Friday, August 31, 2012

Random Notes, Running on Fumes Edition

I managed, in the space of an hour last night, to discombobulate two computers in this house. There are four, to be sure, so I am not totally isolated or dependent on (gasp!) television for my entertainment. So if this post has the feel or sound of what Clint Eastwood apparently did at the Republican convention, that's the reason why.
That's a good place to start, I guess. Clint Eastwood was their big surprise speaker? Clint isn't even reliably Republican, for starters; he's the face of the auto bailout due to the Super Bowl commercial, his personal life is fairly typical for Hollywood but sure isn't acceptable to the wingnut brigade, and he's pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. But he's also dangerously close to senile, and from what I have seen and heard of the performance last night, it was just bizarre. Enough so that it took a lot of attention from Romney's acceptance speech.
Not that Romney's speech was going to be a world-shaker anyway. Absent something major, like the economy imploding or a Katrina moment for the President, Romney is probably going to get his head handed to him in November. And who would have seen that coming two years ago? I think Romney has no more or less qualified to be President than W was in 2000, but I think the unspoken but obvious parallels between them scare people--and that's not even taking Romney's weird religion into account. It's entirely possible that he won't match McCain's total of either popular or electoral votes. Aside from the liabilities of being the standard bearer for a party that is far out of the mainstream, Romney is one of those people we all know that the more you get to know him and of him, the more you dislike him. As more and more attention is paid to him, it's become clear that he is, bluntly, a dick. And most people do not really want to vote for a dick for President.
My daughter informed me, breathlessly, yesterday that Glee is coming back in the fall. Without a doubt, it is the television show currently on the air that most gets on my nerves. Every lame stereotype is given free rein; the musical performances have really not been that good the last couple of years; and (I can't believe I actually know enough to say so) I have no idea of what they can do for an encore, after the plucky weirdos won the national contest last season. I think rather than bury my nose in a book while the resident Gleek here engrosses herself this fall, I will actually retreat to another room.
Did you ever notice when you've been up for a long time that your mind is almost physically detached from your skull? Concentration is growing nearly impossible right now: I am feeling as though my thought process is a balloon that is just about to break free of my grip and escape into the stratosphere. And I just checked on the updating process; it is installing number 15--out of 120. It's going to be a long day.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Book Review: THE LAST MINUTE

There have been a couple of times when I have sworn off Jeff Abbott books. While he does a passable job of creating suspense in his thrillers, even for the genre, his plots tend to test the limits of belief and he is prone to all the excesses of this type of writing--in his case, 1) regular people somehow avoiding the clutches of professional killers for days and weeks at a time, 2) body counts piling up without seeming to draw any official notice or effective response from authority, and 3) the protagonist enduring substantial physical punishment up to and including broken limbs with no significant impairment in their ability to carry on their fight against nefarious forces. The Last Minute, his latest offering, has all these elements and more, especially since he is now engaging in a fourth trait of the genre I don't like (although it is a publisher's preference, not necessarily an author's), a series of books featuring the same hero. I missed the first book where the protagonist of this installment, Sam Capra, was introduced, but it doesn't really matter, since his story is gone over several times in this book. Capra's world is a dizzying tale of intrigue and sinister developments that intersperses legitimate concerns of today's world--the horrible sex trade/slavery that bedevils Eastern Europe is a vital part of the book--with an outlandish alternate world that eventually comes to resemble nothing else more than a totally-serious Get Smart. To give the author his due, this is a longer book than the standard thriller--nearly 500 pages-- and he does manage to hold the reader's interest for almost all of it. But the ending is rather unsatisfying, especially since--and this is another revolting development in the genre that is becoming all-too commonplace-most of the major players are left alive, no doubt to make their appearance in the next installment of the serial.
Part of me wants to swear off Abbott again. But there is just enough quality in his work to keep me sampling more. And to be sure, he is improving, incrementally, with every book he puts out. I will probably be willing to check his books out of the library. But if I had to pay $25 for this in hardcover, I would be severely disappointed.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Travesty in County Court

The Veronica Taft murder trial came to a close yesterday. The short version? Apparently, you do not have to be guilty of a crime to be convicted of it here.
The long version? This trial continued to stink like a bag of shrimp left out in the sun for a week. I should probably amend the short version to say that, as an interested observer, the prosecution did prove some of the charges in the evidence that was presented at the trial. Taft was charged with five counts of endangering a child, and convicted of three of them, and that seems eminently reasonable to me. There was not a shred of doubt that she consistently exercised poor judgement, that she was a terrible parent, and that she would leave her children in the care of any breathing body for the flimsiest of reasons. I don't have a problem with the conviction on those three charges.
But a conviction for murder? How could any person sitting on that jury be honestly convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that she killed her son? All the things I mentioned in last week's post remain true. The time of death occurred when she was not at home. The main witnesses against her had very obvious and clear motivations for saying it was her--one was the person who actually was allegedly caring for the child when he died (and so the most likely suspect), and another was a former "boyfriend" who is currently facing charges that could bring serious prison time on unrelated matters (I can guarantee you that he will not get substantial time on those charges, and I can also guarantee you that not a word of this leniency will become public knowledge). All the neighbors who testified to what a poor mother Taft was and that she was "always" beating her children--funny, all of them kept calling Child Protective Services, but none of them ever called the police, and as far as I know, none of the CPS calls resulted in any police involvement or arrests (and if there were, I am sure it would have come out in the trial), so it isn't as if regular assaults were taking place there of defenseless children. I have seen far, far too many cases where people call CPS on other people because, essentially, they don't like them, not because they are genuinely concerned for their children's welfare. One lousy apple does not make an entire neighborhood bad; all these people quoted in the press (the vast majority of whom were not put on the stand at the trial) are just as big reasons that the Center City neighborhood this murder took place in is one of the armpits of Binghamton. I wonder how much scrutiny their lives could stand from both a legal and moral standpoint. I am reasonably sure the answer is "not much."
The prosecution's case as presented didn't convince me that she was guilty of murder, by any reasonable stretch, either. The interrogation was videotaped and shown in court. Much was made of alleged inconsistencies in Taft's "story." And they were worthy of examination, to be sure. But at no point was there any admission that she had laid hands on him that evening. The context was totally played down or ignored; she was taken in after working an overnight shift and then coming home to find her son dead. The confusion could just as easily resulted from stress most of us will never confront, especially since she clearly has few if any coping skills to rely on, and also was trying to figure out in her mind whether the people she had trusted to watch her kids had killed one of them, instead. No, she didn't cover herself with glory--but I didn't see or hear someone who was obviously lying or trying to cover up her own culpability, either. And the best proof that my view was more or less correct was that the police shared it; she was not arrested or detained after it was concluded. She was not arrested for the better part of a year, in fact, and I remain convinced that the police, at most, were not sure that she committed the crime. ALL of the officers that testified at the trial were very careful in their testimony; not one of them explicitly said that Taft did much of anything regarding the child.
But my suspicions that Taft was charged with a crime she didn't commit hardened to certainty when I saw the chicanery that surrounded the court proceedings. The defense stated in their opening arguments that they would call CPS workers to the stand and that their testimony would indicate that there was considerable doubt that Taft was responsible for the death. When the time came to mount a defense, only two workers were called, and both were limited to a couple of questions. The defense is filing an appeal because the presiding judge would not allow much to be asked of them. Obviously, I was not present for those arguments and am no legal expert, but I would think that if it was announced in opening arguments, and not presented when the time comes, obviously the judge made a ruling in chambers in favor of the prosecution. I know who three of the caseworkers in the case are-the two that were in court, and another that people who know Taft told me was involved with the case at the time--and DSS actually got quite lucky, in that these are three of the best CPS workers that they have in the entire department. Whatever the issue was here, it was not that there was lousy or faulty work on the part of CPS... I don't know what happened surrounding the ruling. But it seems clear that something was suppressed and that it was potentially exculpatory. Given that the prosecution fought like hell to keep it out... as I said, I have my suspicions. If the case was strong, then the prosecution would have been calling the CPS workers themselves and highlighting their testimony. Someone I know with strong ties in the legal community locally said that often, information like this is suppressed either because of "confidentiality" concerns regarding child cases or that the information is "hearsay." In this case, I can't imagine that confidentiality would be a consideration, because the child is dead, and "hearsay" is usually invoked by the prosecution when it is information that interferes with their preferred version of events.
Which tells me that they chose to prosecute someone that they're not positive did it, either, and they chose to push forward because they felt the need to fix the blame on someone it might have been, not someone they really believe it was. And Taft presents an all-too-inviting target. I've spent most of my life in this area, and know the profile of a typical juror all too well. Juries are almost always manned by people who have never run afoul of the law, and there is a strong predisposition among the prospective juror pool that someone charged with a crime must have done it, or else they wouldn't have been charged. In this case, the victim was a toddler whose mother had several children by different men at a young age, who had a history of appalling judgment,  and who had a history of drug abuse and was alleged to be a prostitute (I don't remember if Taft was ever actually charged with that at some point in the past, but there were certainly allegations that she was, and there seems to be little doubt that she had resorted to it at times). You couldn't draw a picture of someone more likely to be viewed negatively by upstanding citizens--unless the child was mixed-race and the men she was involved with were black and Hispanic. Wait a minute--they were! The prosecution could not have asked for a better stereotype to play the villain, that they could paint in lurid colors as someone capable of just about anything, including killing their own child.
In short, Taft was convicted by a jury selected from "peers" that, unfortunately for her, were anything but her peers. Every characteristic of her and her life would make your average potential juror's hair stand on end. And of course the prosecution knew this, and ran with it. The visceral disgust for most of the potential jury pool for Taft's life choices certainly raised the bar for "reasonable doubt". Far beyond what justice requires. I keep saying that Taft was not an innocent railroaded victim here; she was a terrible mother and exhibited and probably still does exhibit poor judgment in every significant area of her life.
But there is no way that she was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of killing her son, even as stacked as the deck was against her in that court,  She was charged with murder, and convicted of being a white drug-using woman with indifferent-at-best parenting abilities who had sex regularly with black men. She faces the prospect of spending the rest of her life in jail because of it. There are times when I think the cruelest oxymoron of all is "justice system." There was no justice served yesterday. The tradition of Salem, Sacco and Shepard remains alive and well in the American justice system--if someone makes us uncomfortable or pisses us off, lock them up (at least she's not facing the death penalty; thank God for small positives) so we don't have to think about it anymore.
What a travesty of alleged "justice." The old joke is that you should be afraid if you ever have to trust your fate to twelve people not smart enough to get out of jury duty. And that is no joke at all to Veronica Taft this morning.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Here Comes Isaac

I've been watching the news coverage of Tropical Storm Isaac with some interest. Part of me is feeling skeptical, thinking that everybody there is overreacting to what is a fairly typical hazard of living on the Gulf Coast of the United States. While tropical disturbances are never to be taken completely casually, as storms go, this is fairly tame; the winds aren't even hurricane strength yet and are forecast to barely become so before it comes ashore. It hardly seems necessary to cancel a day of the Republican convention in Tampa (although nobody I know is complaining), to evacuate New Orleans and other low-lying areas, and for the media to send a small army of reporters to the areas hit by Katrina in 2005.
But that's the rub: this is the area hit by Katrina in 2005, and the dedicated, early, and intense response to Isaac is a direct result of the ineffective preparation for Katrina. And even my normally skeptical self can both understand why there is a major reaction to a relatively minor threat and be in general approval of it. Because while this storm is not a Katrina, still, 80MPH winds and a 3-6 foot storm surge are still going to be considerable nuisances to deal with. And the overlooked part so far of all the news coverage is the rain that will be coming. I was looking at the latest forecast model when I got up this morning, and the coast just east of New Orleans will be getting eighteen inches of rain. By contrast, last year in these parts, we got about six inches of rain over two days from Tropical Storm Lee, and the result was an almost unimaginable flood. I cannot imagine a foot and a half of rain falling in a day.
Assuming that the levees and dikes in New Orleans don't give way again, the storm might well end up bringing other benefits than one less day of the Wingnut Fest in Tampa. Isaac is expected to bring 2-6 inches of rain to Missouri, Arkansas and southern Illinois, and those areas are in the midst of a historic drought. While it won't bring conditions to normal--not even close; Missouri is as much as 17 inches of rain below normal at this time--it will certainly help, and if nothing else, the Mississippi River should gather enough water out of this to at least reopen shipping channels that have had to be closed because the river level is so low recently. And while the rain is coming too late for this year's crops, cattlemen are pleased because it is now at least possible for enough forage to grow to sustain herds over the winter.
Isaac is coming on top of other climate-related news. The Arctic ice cap is at its lowest ever recorded level, and it seems clear that the day is not too far in the future when it will not form at all. This summer has become officially the hottest on record in most of the country. In our area, we are not in drought, but my electric bill was the highest it has ever been, and I am assuming that the central air conditioning running nearly all the time, even during the day when the thermostat is set to 80 degrees, is a big reason why. There have been stories in the media that the electric grid is being pushed to its limits because of, essentially, air conditioning everywhere.
The brave new world is not coming; it is arriving. While it is good to see that we have learned a few lessons from the past, it's also pretty clear that we have no idea of how to deal with what is going to be, and our leadership, of both wings of the establishment, is nearly completely devoid of constructive ideas, as well. As Will Durant famously said, "Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change at any time." And the terms of that consent are changing before our eyes. While it is on balance a good thing that we are now paying a lot more attention to the threat of major storms, the stark fact is that the occasional hurricane is near the bottom of our long-term concerns. Our Food Belt is shriveling up, and our warmer areas are going to be pretty much uninhabitable by the time our children are our age. I read somewhere that by 2050--a year that, not too long ago, I fully expected to still be alive in--the climate of upstate New York will be like the climate of lowland Georgia today. Which makes me wonder what the hell lowland Georgia is going to be like.
And where the people currently living there are going to be living then.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review: AMERICAN TRIUMVIRATE

American Triumvirate is a book that will appeal to golf fans interested in the formative years of the PGA Tour. James Dodson wrote a mini-biography of the three most prominent golfers of the sport's comeback years after the Great Depression--Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, and Byron Nelson. While all three were active at the same time, the idea of three titans clashing head to head on a weekly basis, as would happen today, is misleading. It was a different time and place; all three were club pros at various country clubs around the country, and the Tour itself did not schedule many tournaments during the summer months because the golfers were at their home clubs running the pro shops and giving lessons. Nelson actually preferred this model to being a full-time touring golfer. Nelson was the most likable of the three, and perhaps not coincidentally, was around the shortest period of time, only about a decade. Hogan would be a better human interest story today, coming from a very challenging background and surviving a near-fatal car accident. Snead, the only non-Texan of the group, lasted the longest in the public eye, and was easily the most popular--I can remember Sam Snead in the sports news when I was a kid, and Snead was the biggest reason the Senior Tour got started.
If you like golf, you will like this book. I do, and I liked it some, but whoever did the fact-checking on this manuscript needs to be fired. There were at least six instances in the book of incorrect dates being given for events, and in some cases there were contradictions in the same sentence about tournament results (things like "Snead finished at 286, a stroke ahead of Hogan's 288" are present more than once). It is also annoying that while aggregate scores are given, relation to par almost never is...the changes in equipment and course control makes comparison of golfers from different eras next to impossible, and so the game and exploits of these three men are not translatable to today's game. But in their time and place, they had a record of accomplishment that seems to hold up very well to today's stars.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Building On Fire

One of the things I was certain of for many years was that all my dealings with the Mother of the Year were unique, in that there could not be more than a handful of people in this world who consistently displayed such poor judgement,who showed a truly shocking inability to learn from experience, who really were unable to process and act upon information that did not exactly coincide with what they wanted to do, and who were unable to impede even slightly the urge to act upon whatever impulse popped into their heads. As I age, I am finding, to my dismay, that there are a lot more people like MOTY out there, and it's been forcing me to reassess my world view on a couple of levels.
One is that it has softened, to a small degree, my thoughts on MOTY. Her personality is still difficult to deal with, to be sure, and she does create more problems for herself because of the way she interacts with people. But realizing that she is not some freak mutation, but rather a product of factors that affect a lot of other people in similar ways, has helped me to understand what I am dealing with better, and because I do, I can apply some of the strategies that I find I use professionally when I find it necessary to deal with her. It has not inclined me to allow her any more of a role in parenting my daughter than she has now; if anything, it has strengthened my resolve not to. But it is much, much easier to devise ways to work around unhealthy mindsets when you know what you are dealing with, and as a result, I am not worried about Sabrina's exposure to the toxicity of the other household quite as much as I used to be, especially since Sabrina's value system and basic world outlook are already in place and it is undeniably healthy. As I have learned more recently about what I am witnessing, my gut feeling and beliefs born of experience about a kid's values and basic outlook being already in place by the time of enrollment in middle school have been validated by much clinical evidence. Sabrina's in relatively good shape compared to many of her peers.
Another is that I had assumed, due to what I have seen with MOTY for over a decade, that most people with this recipe of psychological ingredients would be more or less the same way she is--belligerently willful and unpleasant, and fairly uneducated and unintelligent. I am finding out this is not the case. In particular, I am seeing four women I know who are both very intelligent and whose personalities are much more pleasant than MOTY's--who nonetheless exhibit, regularly, the same appalling lack of judgement skills and who seemingly are unable to accept, process, and internalize input contrary to their impulses. All are mothers, two with infants, and I am watching in near-horror as the lives of several children are being badly affected by the chaos and poor choices that are being made several times a day, it seems. All four have been brought to my attention recently because the relationships all four are in--none of them healthy, although to be fair, one of the men involved has shown a level of selflessness regarding both his partner and his child that I didn't think he possessed, even if some of his character defects are not in total abeyance-- have blown up within the last three weeks. Those in their orbits have viewed, with stunning alacrity, orders of protection, the sorting of possessions, breathless 180-degree updates on Facebook, and in one case a hookup with another man with astonishing speed. I need to emphasize that I like three of these people and don't really know the fourth--but it really depresses my spirit when I see people who are not flint-hearted, who are not stupid, who are not almost comically selfish, and who possess skills and abilities to leave a positive impact on the larger world trap themselves in these awful spirals of pain and chaos by the inability to rein in impulse and make decisions that display some ability to look beyond the surface.
Don't get me wrong; I am in one of those spaces where I am more grateful for having been able to find a way through my own baggage than downing them for so far not being able to. There are glimmers of hope for all of them--but so far, the vital ability to impose a switch that will make a gap between impulse and action is not functional yet. From the sidelines, the most heartrending thing about three of these four people is reading their Facebook updates. Every new development that looks even remotely promising is posted with fanfare and an assurance that now everything is going to be great till kingdom come--and often it isn't even 24 hours before it all falls apart and all is gloom, despair, and agony again. If there is one thing that I have found more pitying than irritating with MOTY, it is this--the near-pathological expressions of what really are nothing more than fairy-godmother wishes that happily-ever-after is going to be the result of yet another new development. You can call it tunnel vision, not seeing the forest for the trees, wishful thinking, whatever is your pet term. It is painful for those of us who are capable of seeing how actions are likely to play out, of what consequences are likely to result, of seeing past the next five minutes and the instant gratification impulse to watch what we know is going to occur come to pass, and nearly always within days, and sometimes not even that long. All of us at some point in our life have done this, and felt a great deal of pain. Those of us who are not psychopaths do not wish to see those around us suffer that sort of pain.
The difference is, most of us were able to learn from the experience and not suffer through quite that level of pain again. Some people literally cannot learn from their experience. Not without major changes in their thought processes. I know what worked for me--the 12-Step process--and it has worked for other people I know. I know many people who are not in recovery have also been able to learn from experience. Three of these four people are in recovery, but none of them, as far as I know, have gotten much past the "I am blank and I am an addict" stage, and so the gut punches keep coming.. The fourth has talked about going to the fellowship, but so far hasn't.
But one of the two basic truths learned early are "drug use is a symptom, not a cause, of the real problems" and "nothing changes if nothing changes." Those are lessons that I personally felt I had a hard time absorbing, and yet both of them were internalized and acted upon well over a decade ago. I can't imagine how it would feel to be stuck in the patterns leading to raw pain and unending poor consequences for years and years and years. As I mentioned, it's probably been a good thing that I am learning so much in my professional development while all this concurrent suffering is going on away from the job; it is certainly tempering my own still-latent tendencies to judge and label people.
But it's like watching a building burn when you know people are still inside. It's awful to learn, anew, what being powerless over other people that you care about really means.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Point of It All

I wasn't real sure I wanted to attend the candlelight meeting last night. It had been a long day and a longer week, and this is one of the weeks of the month when there is a speaker at the meeting. I'm more amenable to speaker meetings than I once was, but I still, given a choice, prefer almost any other format, both because I know almost everyone in the fellowship who would be a speaker at this point in my recovery and already know their stories, and because in this area, the cult of the speaker--there is really no other way to describe it--has proven toxic to the fellowship and to hundreds of individuals.
The latter point, I hasten to add, seems to be in abeyance, simply because the idol has, to all appearances, been toppled. I'm not going to focus on this development this morning, but I have to at least mention that a development I did not dare dream was possible seems to be coming to pass. The Messagemaster has been exposed in all his rancid, moldy glory, and the hits just keep coming; almost every day brings a fresh revelation of yet another underhanded, dishonest, and hypocritical dastardly deed he is guilty of. It is like he has ceased to exist; he has gone from perhaps the most prominent person in the fellowship to a complete cipher in less than three months. The bullshit and total hypocrisy is now universal news. I can't say for certain because I don't move in those circles, but even his most devoted disciples are deserting him in droves; with one or two exceptions, almost all of them seem to be visibly aligned with different people now.I hasten to declare that the nightmare is over, because he is a metaphorical vampire whom logic would seem to have dictated that this should have happened to a decade and a half ago. But it's like a significant portion of people in the fellowship are emerging from years of abuse and isolation, or are in the midst of deprogramming from a cult.
But anyway, the speaker last night was someone who has come around several times over the time I have been in recovery, which was the main part of her message: that change comes when one finally works the program and the steps, and that when the change comes, not only does life get better, but we become happier people. And I found myself nodding almost the entire time she spoke. The change she has exhibited over the last year and a half has been nothing short of miraculous; she is outgoing, warmer, and in general someone other people want to be around now, none of which were true for a long time. And after she finished, other people talked both about her message and things that have been happening with them, and I realized just how many people around the room could share a similar message--including myself. Few if any of us are candidates for Mother Teresa-like veneration--but a whole lot of us have become more patient, tolerant, and useful to others. A whole lot. And it sounds like a cliche, but all things are truly possible when you keep coming, because the change can come suddenly and after years of being stuck in a particular place. Rich and Nikki both shared about changes coming rapidly after being stuck in neutral for a long time, and I can see others whom are changing almost visibly by the day. It isn't like all the problems or the problem behaviors disappear. But for the problems behaviors to disappear, there has to be an alternative mindset in place and growing, and in many cases, I see that. Behaviors and mindsets that have been present for a decade or even two do not wither away overnight, just like a large weed does not wither away in a couple of days when the pesticide starts to take effect. But you can see it's dying, and in guys like Rich and Danny and a few others, it's taking place.
Good for them, and good for all of us. Because that's the point of being here--to not only stop being active addicts, but to be, to quote the Step Two reading yet again, "patient, tolerant, and useful to others." There is a lot of drama going on concurrently here, and to those of us that have already changed a great deal, it can be a little frustrating and wearying to see and deal with. But only a little. I am grateful beyond measure that in my own chaotic change process, there were many who overlooked the surface drama and focused on the growth taking place within me. It is a little dizzying to see all the relationship carousels, the hourly changes in status, the occasionally sniping--but I am preferring to stay focused on the fact that for growth to take place, those situations were going to have to change drastically or be terminated. It's not a realistic expectation to expect separation and detachment from those manifestations of their disease of addiction with the precision of a surgical cut and with the order of an operating room procedure. Most of us with time have lurched forward, some more than once, leaving a bloody trail in our wake.
And that is what I am seeing now. Change means movement, and movement means friction. But when the movement is in the right direction, it's positive, and it benefits everybody.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Neighborhood Disturbances

When I looked at the news headlines this morning, I saw that, not too far away, there was a shooting/stabbing. There is "police involvement" in the shooting; since the officer was uninjured, I think it is a safe assumption that the officer shot somebody. There is a press conference scheduled this morning, where presumably more details, if not necessarily more enlightenment, will be given. Neighbors interviewed for the article said that the two people involved were a couple that had been arguing all day long, and finally, after dark, someone called the cops. "It's a quiet neighborhood," one said. "Nobody ever comes down this street after dark"
And I could certainly identify, with the entire episode. My neighborhood is one of the few left in Binghamton where an incident like this would be shocking. One of the reasons why is that a good majority of the homes in my immediate vicinity are single-family, and the people living in them are mostly retired or about to be. There are quite a few two-family homes from where my house is--the top of a little rise that is as high a point as there is between Main Street and the Susquehanna River in Binghamton--to the next major cross street. When I first moved here five years ago, those homes were inhabited mostly by older people. too. The last couple of years have seen subtle changes that have gotten my attention, given the deterioration of my former South Side neighborhood when more ethically-challenged residents starting moving into the apartment complex I lived in. The two-family across the street saw an African-American family move in sometime in the spring; I don't know what happened there, but they were gone at the beginning of this month, and it looked like everything in the house was put on the curb for disposal. A few houses down the hill on my side, there has been some turnover in the last couple of years, too, and one family clearly is the fly in the ointment--he's had Code called on him more than once. But I'm not worried about my street at this point at all; it still is extremely languid and well-kept up.
The next street over to the west is much like this one--behind my house, there is another two-family. For the past couple of years, the house has been occupied by a single family; the husband, wife, and daughter live downstairs, and the elderly parent of one of the couple lives upstairs. And when I read of the story in the paper this morning, I thought immediately of this couple. They are Eastern European immigrants; I'm fairly sure that they are Russians or Belorussians, both because some of the occasional snatches of conversation I hear have familiar words in them (my ex-wife and her family are of Russian ancestry, and her grandmother, who was alive at the time we started dating, would sometimes speak in Russian to those around her) and because of their accents--well, at least the wife's; the guy doesn't have a noticeable accent, from what I can hear, in the few opportunities he has to speak. I also suspect that they are Russian because they drink. A lot. And they fight. A lot.
For days at a time, on occasion. She can bitch like few women I have ever heard in my life. He mostly takes it, but on occasion he responds, fairly belligerently. I have often been working in my yard on Saturday afternoons, wondering how in the world he can stand up to the absolute torrent of verbal abuse he takes for hours at a time. Just when I think he must be passed out on the couch or something, he will respond... it's unreal. I cannot imagine existing like that on a regular basis. I have lived with several women in my life, and I have certainly argued with a few of them. But the ones I argued with regularly were at a much lower pitch and volume, and the ones where the volume and intensity approached what I hear back there got to the point it is regularly with the neighbors maybe three or four times over a period of years. These people are at each other's throats every weekend, and on occasion during the week, too. The girl that lives there is maybe eight or nine years old, and that can't be a healthy environment to be growing up in. The old guy upstairs needs a walker and is on oxygen, and I've never heard him speak; he's actually slept through some of the arguments sunning himself on the back porch, so he's got to be used to it or perhaps he's half-vegetative like some people are after a stroke or something like that. They both smoke, too--although to be fair, neither does in the old guy's presence, at least not that I have seen.--prodigiously.
And it seems to be getting worse. When they moved in a couple of years ago, the lady did a lot of work in her back yard--which I have a clear view of through the garage windows--to make a garden, and last year she had about fifteen tomato plants. This year, she didn't do a damn thing back there; it's overgrown with weeds, and the bird feeder hasn't been filled since at least 2011. The dog used to go in and out of the house all the time; it now seems rooted to the back door, waiting for someone to let it back in (or, perhaps, that's where the interesting stuff is to be seen). I'm not on the next street over very often, but the front of the house is noticeably less well kept up than it has been in the past, as well.
And I wonder how this sidebar story is going to play out. I can't exaggerate enough how much verbal abuse this guy takes; I know I would never put up with it. And not only is the verbiage getting worse; the lady's slipping further into the abyss with every passing month. She has hacked off most of her hair (people do that when addictions take over; it's one less thing to worry about), and seems to spend much of the day when he isn't around on the phone with people, bitching about him. I really can't see these people here for the long run. And I hope the final act isn't something like what happened about a mile away last night. The neighborhood where last night's incident happened--the lower First Ward abutting Johnson City-- is a mixture of geriatrics and ne'er-do-wells. Even ten years ago, there were still some mom-and-pop businesses and restaurants in the area, but outside of Downs Avenue, those places are all shuttered now. Emma Street is one of the few that cross the railroad tracks, and so I drive through the area fairly often, and I have seen quite a few familiar faces from meetings--ones that have not stayed around long-- and even active addiction walking around in the area. I have even seen prostitutes once in a while strolling on Downs Avenue, which is a totally new development in the last couple of years. The neighborhood is slipping, in other words, and if the history of other parts of Binghamton that have seen similar developments over the past 30 years is any indicator, it's only going to get worse.
I don't know what happened there last night. But scattered acts of violence is usually the first sign that something is going south in a neighborhood. I would rather not see something of that nature occur in my neck of the woods. But the truth is that with so many older people around here, the slippage is almost inevitable; it's just a matter of when. I just hope that Sabrina is grown by time it happens.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Book Review: THE REAL ROMNEY

I was actually afraid, somewhat, to check Michael Kranish and Scott Helman's The Real Romney out of the library when I saw it. There is not a chance in hell I would ever vote for him, and I think I've had him pegged pretty well all along, but I thought that maybe, in a book of over 300 pages, even in a book that isn't a campaign biography, there would be some information given that would cause me to reassess, even slightly, my view that he is a narcissistic spoiled rich kid without any real philosophy of governance who would be an unmitigated disaster as President of the United States.
Not to worry.
As I sometimes do when reading a book where there is a lot of information that I want to discuss in a review, I took notes. In more or less the order found in the book:
1) He is the youngest of his parents' four children, and moreover, was born after his mother was told that she could not safely carry another child to term. So not only is he actually a spoiled rich kid, he is the "miracle" baby child of rich parents. There is not a better prescription for creating a narcissistic adult with a colossal ego and sense of entitlement.
2) There has been some comment in the news over the last several months of Romney's "pranks" while young that bordered or crossed the line of bullying. Those episodes are recounted in the book. However, these are not "youthful indiscretions;" he has been the same way as an adult. There was an incident chronicled in the book of him driving the boat while a friend was water-skiing, and when the friend told him to make wider turns and slow down, he instead made tighter turns and sped up until the poor bastard had to let go of the tow rope. Fucking hilarious.
3) The incident with strapping the dog in a crate to the roof of the car when driving from Massachusetts to the Ontario shore of Lake Huron has been well chronicled in the media. The tendency displayed of Romney being inflexible and rigid when he really wants to do something--in this case, get to the cottage in one day by not making unscheduled stops--even if circumstances change is not a characteristic I would want in the leader of the country.
4) When he served, as most adult Mormon men do, as an official in the church--in his case, as a bishop--he was, to put it bluntly, an asshole. The story of him telling him a woman in the congregation that a termination of a pregnancy that was threatening her life has been given some media play, but not nearly enough. But there were several instances where he was self-righteous and unfeeling in his capacity as the local representative of the church.
5) His much ballyhooed founding of Bain Capital and making it a success turns out to be somewhat fraudulent. Turns out he did not embark on it without being assured by his employer of a serious safety net, and also made his employer agree to publicly lie if the venture failed and he had to go back to his previous job, so as to not damage his reputation. Hardly a risk-taker and a visionary; almost anyone would set out on their own if their back was so totally covered. And he made it clear he wasn't budging unless those nets were in place.
6) For all his touted "expertise" and "success" running Bain, half the deals and acquisitions it made lost money.
7) The 1980's and 90's were the time of the leveraged buyouts in the corporate world, and Bain under Romney was an enthusiastic practitioner of the practice. Many of the "successful" deals were LBOs, which rightly have earned a great deal of notoriety for being good for nobody but the financiers involved.
8) Romney has said many times that his business philosophy is "creative destructionism," and that jobs lost and lives affected are unfortunate side effects of the destructive side of his actions. It is an easy philosophy to hold when one has never had to worry about making ends meet or having any needs met for the entirety of one's life.
9) One of Romney's biggest business partnerships when getting Bain off the ground was with Michael Milliken, he of Drexel Lambert fame that went to jail for two years for his role in the junk bond scandal of the late 1980's.
10) Romney's Bain Capital ended up having to bail out the company it was spun out of, Bain Financial--after the corporate board of the latter took enormous amounts of money out of and nearly capsized the company. He had to lay off a significant portion of workers and "renegotiate debts"--stiffing a number of creditors--in order to stave off insolvency.
11) One of the companies Bain controlled was eventually prosecuted and convicted of defrauding Medicare of a lot of money while Romney was running Bain. He claims he wasn't in charge and didn't know anything about it, but that seems very unlikely for someone who is a control freak in virtually every aspect of his life.
12) Even as a "successful" businessman, his strength was taking the ideas of others and making them works. Almost all of his own initiatives lost money or failed during his time at Bain. It reinforces the sense that he is out of touch with mainstream American life.
13) There is an extensive analysis of Romney's "job creator" claims in the book, with the conclusion that they are sketchy at best and dead wrong at worst.
14) Romney's first political race was his challenge to Ted Kennedy in 1994. One of the most interesting comments to come out of that race was one by a Republican operative at that time saying Romney was "philosophically vacuous." In other words, his overriding concern was what was good for Mitt Romney, not any vision of governance.
15) In 1994, a  lot of the problems with his campaign now were problems then--he had no real ideas of his own, but was latched unto others' and would try to "manage" them to work.
16) Another instance of deja vu; Romney could not put a price tag on those policy ideas he said he wanted to implement in 1994. This has also been an issue in 2012.
17) Out of touch deja vu: Ann Romney was quoted in 1994 that she and Mitt struggled while he was in college "because the only money we had came from Mitt having to sell stock."
18) After he ended up losing to Kennedy badly, a Massachusetts Republican delivered this epitaph: " His main cause seemed to be himself."
19) His next main stage was the Salt Lake City Olympics. I did not pay a lot of attention at the time, since I was in early recovery when this was going on, but a big problem with the Olympics was that the Mormon Church was using the event both to make money and proselytize, both in direct violation of laws mandating the conduct of tax-exempt organizations. Romney, in Utah, didn't distance himself very far at all from the church, raising legitimate questions about what role the LDS church would have in a Romney White House.
20) Romney's decrying the stimulus and the idea of the federal government dispensing money in general seems more than a little hypocritical when one of his first acts in taking over the Olympic effort was asking for, and getting, $382 million in federal funding to help get the Games back on financial track.
21) Romney contracted with several companies that he sat of the boards of to provide services to the Olympics, an obvious conflict of interest that he refused to back down from.
22) Romney told the guy he replaced to plead guilty to charges of embezzlement  "for the good of the Games." Given that the guy hadn't embezzled anything, he refused, and the charges were thrown out. The guy said publicly that Romney's motivation seemed to be to position Romney as the savior of a corrupt enterprise.
23) During the Games, Romney, stuck in traffic, F-bombed a volunteer directing traffic, which might have been understandable and forgivable--except he lied about it, even after a videotape of the incident surfaced. I'm not crazy about a guy running the country who lies even when there is irrefutable evidence to the contrary.
24) Romney refused to give members of 9/11 victims' families free passes to the games, citing "policy"--and then turned around and gave dozens of free passes to Utah state legislators. There was considerable comment at the time that Romney only was willing to help those who were in a position to help him.
25) Honesty deja vu: Romney told the incumbent Republican governor of Massachusetts in early 2002 that he was not planning to run for governor-- two weeks before announcing.
26) Tax issues deja vu; Romney had to endure a legal challenge to his running for governor because he has listed his place of residence as "Utah" for the previous three years. It came to light that he did so because it provided him with a significant tax break. It is quite possible that his refusal to do so at present is because he might well be doing the same thing now.
27) Romney kept a pledge as governor not to raise taxes--by increasing fees on virtually everything in the state. This is, in effect, a regressive tax, as those fees are more of a hit to those who are not wealthy.
28) As governor, Romney's first two years were conflict-ridden, as he could not work with a Democratic-controlled legislature hardly at all.
29) He now claims he created jobs as governor. The authors examined the evidence, and concluded that the increase was tiny, and was likely due to the national economy improving during his term, not anything he did.
30) He created a big stir nationally while governor when he tracked down the official in charge of highway projects and upbraided him, on camera, for not returning his calls. The fact that the official was on the scene of a major construction accident consoling survivors and coordinating rescue efforts did not seem to matter, and the official eventually said that it sure seemed to him that Romney was more concerned about who got the credit for a quick response than any real empathy for the victims, and that Romney's sole focus was on "insubordination." The official was fired quickly thereafter.
31) Out of touch, revisited: Romney owns at least four different residences.
32) Romney left office with a reputation for not delivering on his end of agreements: one official was quoted as saying, "nothing is ever a two-way street with him. It's always about how does this benefit him."
33) The Mormon Church again ran afoul of federal laws by openly starting a political action committee. Romney claimed he knew nothing of it and blamed "overzealous" supporters.
34) Romney put a lot of effort into trying to get more Republicans elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 2004. He failed miserably. He spent more days out of Massachusetts than in it during the remainder of his term.
35) Honesty, as nauseum: after deciding he was going to run for President, he repudiated nearly position he had ever espoused during the previous twelve years in order to appeal more to conservative voters.
36) In order to secure passage of the Massachusetts health care law, Romney promised not to veto any provisions of it--and then vetoed eight of them when it came to his desk. They were overridden, but many legislators accused him of a double-cross, of putting poltical expedience above serving the people he is supposed to be governing on behalf of.
In short, the evidence shows that Romney has a massive sense of entitlement, and that when he stands to benefit, moral concepts such as honesty mean nothing to him. He is a first class piece of shit, even worse than I already thought he was. And if he should become President, the Mormon Church will have no compunction about aggressively using the United States governmental apparatus to its advantage.
God help us all.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Unusual Morning

I am taking a personal day from work today. There are a few things regarding myself that I have been putting off for far too long (a haircut most prominently; the moustache and goatee is a cultivation, the hair looking like Bob Seger has been a sign that I simply have not have had time or extra money to get it done). Sabrina has to get a physical for sports today, too (I'd rather do it today than the day before school starts). And most poignantly, this will be the last day I will see my eldest daughter before she departs for college on the weekend. It hardly seems possible that the baby girl I used to sit on my lap and read to is now old enough to live away from home. But just are our own lives are journeys, so are our children's. She's at the point in hers where it is just starting to get interesting, and I have no selfish wish to keep her within view.
The unusual part of this morning is the disruption of normal routine. One of the biggest changes in the way I live my life over the past ten to fifteen years has been the imposition of structure upon it. I used to take pride in "spontaneity", which really was a code word for living more or less by impulse. That started to dissipate some when I got engaged, married, and then became a parent, but after about nine years of that, I rebelled against it during active addiction, and it was a long time before I realized how necessary structure was for my life to remain manageable. I sometimes wonder if I have gone too far in the other direction; it sometimes seems to me that I am far too structured now, that any deviation from routine makes me uncomfortable. This morning is a prime example. I am not doing anything wrong or underhanded; I have over four weeks of paid time off accrued, and my employer very much wants us to use our time to keep us from burning out. This is our slowest time of year, too; it isn't like I am swamped with work, especially since the grant I thought I would be working on in late August has not been released yet. And yet part of me feels as though I am acting irresponsibly, that I am goofing off somehow.
There has been a lot of rhetoric in the news recently, as the election cycle heats up and position are defined and disseminated in the media, about the nation as a whole's work ethic. A lot of conservative commentary--indeed, policy positions, truth be known--is based on the premise that a substantial portion of the American public (with the usual broad hints, in many quarters, that the guilty have darker skin than the speaker or writer) are not interested in working hard, or even working for that matter. Everything wrong with the country would just be solved if "these freeloaders would just get a job." I'm not going to dissect this fallacy in any detail, at least today, but the implication there is that a large number of Americans do not possess a good work ethic. I have not seen any evidence that this is true for the great majority of us, and there is in fact a lot of evidence pointing in the other direction. Studies have shown over the course of my life that Americans take less vacation than other nationalities and spend less time engaging in leisure activities than almost any other people on earth. Americans work more overtime than other national workforces do, and Americans as a people put as much or more time into volunteer activities than other nationalities. Whatever the problems with the nation, work ethic is not one of them. We are not a nation of idlers, not even close.
And apparently I fit right into the mainstream, because it feels very unusual to take a day off. But it's a feeling I am going to try mightily to overcome in the next hour or two.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Revelation, Revisited

When I am in good space, I accept that there a lot of people in the world who learn at different rates than I do, and that as a result suffer more consequences than I will because their ability to learn from experience is not as keen as mine is. It's helpful to have that outlook on life; it keeps my focus on feeling grateful that I don't have to go through some of the things that other people go through.
But there are days when it is next to impossible to keep that gratitude, when you see people that matter to you make the same goddamn mistakes over and over again. It's doubly distressing, both because I don't want to see people that matter to me embark on courses that are going to lead them to more pain--and because when the consequences of the bad choices inevitably ensue, it is going to fall to me and others like me to help and "support" them to get through their personal debris field.
But there comes a point where the well goes dry. I thought about this yesterday when I was reading news reports describing how the Mississippi River has been closed for navigation in some spots because of low water levels, while reviewing my notes and handouts from the training I went to last week. And it dawned on me that many people are not going to ever learn to make better decisions. The two individuals that crossed my path yesterday both are trauma survivors; both have made really bad decisions in their personal lives on a repeated basis for years, and both show not only show no signs of learning from their experiences, but seem intent on doubling down on lousy hands. I like both these people a great deal, and I don't want to blow them up here. But I (and other people who do care about them) can only take so much, only have so much to give. It's frustrating as hell to see someone methodically destroy what's left of their own lives, and realizing that there really isn't a lot one can do about it.
I had a sponsee at one time that spent an hour every week discussing what a train wreck his relationship at the time was. After, seriously, about 18 months of this, of talking through things and sharing experiences and mapping out goals and exploring possible solutions, the subject had to come off the table. The problems and solutions had been thoroughly hashed out, but the ultimate result as that he was not willing to make the changes in practice. My view was "you ask for my experience and advice and how to proceed. I share it. You agree with me. You continue to do the same things you've been doing. You get the same results. You feel the same pain and discuss the same issues with me, and ask me for my experience and how to proceed. After a while, it's pointless to continue to talk about it." He eventually found another sponsor, and the saga went on for another couple of years until finally circumstances beyond his control did what he couldn't do for himself. And variants of this happen all the time. People, I think in my darker moments, don't want solutions, even as they are asking you for help; they want, and only want, someone who will co-sign what they want to do, and will end up moving heaven and earth until they find someone who will justify the action they want to take.
There's another situation going on with a woman that I know of but don't really know. She and her significant other have been an ongoing drama for a few years now, and she has a small child with him now. They are breaking up yet again, after he allegedly put his hands on her. She claims that they are "done." I am skeptical. And even more than the current situation--how do you even get involved with someone who is married to someone else at the time you begin seeing him and expect loyalty, love, and respect from that person? Why, if someone has a twenty-year history of conflict, of treating the people he is with like crap, of (in this particular case) using the fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous as a jury in his disputes with his partners, do you think it's going to be different for you if you get with this person? How in the world, after three years of an incredibly volatile and incendiary relationship with this person, do you have a child with this person? And more to the point, after four years of virtually everyone you know telling you that you need to end the relationship, how do you take those people to task for "not supporting you" in your time of need? It blows my mind, and yet it doesn't, because I have seen this movie about sixty times over the years and the ending doesn't change. But people still willingly reenact the same scenarios over and over and over and over again, and somehow, the people causing them their problems don't come in for the opprobrium that that those who genuinely tried to alleviate their distress do.
There comes a point where you just don't want to get involved at all anymore, because it's a waste of oxygen to do so. The drama seems to cycle through time in the circles I move in, and we are certainly in a peak cycle at the moment. There are a lot of people drawing a lot of water out of the emotional reservoir at the moment, and a lot of shoals and sandbars are appearing as a result. Again, much of the time, I am grateful that I have the gift and/or the ability to learn from experience, to not repeat patterns endlessly for decades of my life. But there's a part of me that thinks, "You know, I was as fucked up as you were, a decade or so ago. The reason I broke the cycle is that I did my step work in a committed fashion, and I did it with someone who actually was practicing spiritual principles, not just talking about practicing spiritual principles. It wasn't magic. There comes a point when the problems have been identified and solutions arrived at, and you have to make the commitment to follow through on those ideas. And when, for whatever reasons, you don't, it is not anyone's fault but yours." There's been one episode percolating for a few weeks now; someone is now talking about going to the other fellowship in the aftermath of an ended relationship. The latest log on that fire was someone blabbing to her ex everything she said when she spilled her guts a few days ago. Ummm... you know at least a dozen people that are circumspect and trustworthy. Did you spill your guts to them? And if you did, is the reason you went to someone else because the circumspect and trustworthy told you things you didn't want to hear? Going to the other fellowship isn't going to help if that's the case. I hear variants of this nonsense all the time, too, that the entire fellowship is horseshit because the people they hang around with, and carry on with, act like immature fools. Well, it's not the entire fellowship. It's a big tent, and instead of blaming everyone under it, you might want to consider why you've been standing in a particular corner of it. And if you can't see clearly because of all the flies congregating around the piles of shit in your corner---then move! And not out of the tent, necessarily, just away from the people who are adding to the dung pile.
My favorite phrase in all of Narcotics Anonymous literature is found in the Why Are We Here reading: "through our inability to accept personal responsibility we were actually creating our own problems." If it's not working for you, then you need to change what you're doing, and change the people you are listening to. No one in their right mind would ask a carpenter for advice on how to program a computer, or a bricklayer how to sew a dress. So why would you ask people whose lives have been one long history of conflict, failed relationships, and train wrecks for advice on how to live your life? Why would you look for love and acceptance from people who don't exhibit those qualities? And why, especially why, would you go back for more when it hasn't worked for you previously--indeed, has almost killed you?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Book Review: THOMAS BECKET

The figure of Thomas Becket has been etched into my mind since the tenth grade, when I had to see the 1964 film of his life, starring Richard Burton, twice because I was caught sleeping in class while the teacher was showing it for the first time. Becket also figured prominently in one of my favorite books of all time, Lillian Stewart Carl's Lucifer's Crown, and So when I saw John Guy's new biography Thomas Becket in the library, I checked it out.
It's an interesting read. I knew Becket's basic story--friend and confidant of King Henry II selected as Archbishop of Canterbury to lead the English church, who then proceeded to astonish and piss off the King by actually taking his role seriously and refusing to allow the King to run the church, and eventually paying for the conflict with his life. I did not know Becket was a commoner raised through merit to Henry's chancellor, I did not know Becket spent most of his term as archbishop in exile because of the conflict (he had only recently returned to England when he was murdered), and I had forgotten that in the mid twelfth century, the ruler of England also ruled half of what is now France, too. King Henry, decades after the Norman Conquest, barely spoke English, and spent at least as much time in his French possessions as England. Which was a big root of the conflict; the King treated England like the conquered province it was, not as his primary realm. The importance of the pope in this era is also something completely alien to modern readers; these people did not fear much, but the threat of excommunication and interdiction was taken seriously enough to force some very hard people to yield.
Becket's murder in his cathedral and subsequent canonization have led to a great deal of legend and hagiography about his life. The reality was that he was a man with many "defects of character," as some would term them today, but nonetheless, he did stand on his principles and strove to make redemption for his errors in judgement, and they were directly responsible for his death, a death he knew was coming and accepted. Stripped of its legendary aspects, it still is a compelling story and one that is worthy of attention, especially in a world where, in many places, the conflict between secular and ecclesiastical authority is still present. The irony is that the conflict''s root cause was over secular matters--the king's power over the temporal assets of the church. But the moral principles eventually staked out were the antecedents of the separation of church and state that have characterized this country since its inception.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Home Group Celebration

One of the better things about being in recovery is that we do not depend on the rest of the world to provide social entertainment. Most of the rest of the world drinks (or more) when they "recreate," and obviously that is not an option that works for people in our circumstances. Narcotics Anonymous has a subcommittee that concerns itself exclusively with making drug-free activities available to us all, and not infrequently, members of the fellowship take it upon themselves to host get-togethers at their homes or other places, in addtion to "official" events. It's fun, it's safe, and it's a reminder that none of us is in recovery all by ourselves, that we need each other to continue down the path of life.
The candlelight meeting marked its 25th year of existence in June, and today, at Kate's mother's house, we are having a party to celebrate the milestone. The party is not just for home group members; I suspect a large number of our compatriots are going to make appearances, and of course they are welcome. There have been a number of developments in the fellowship over the past several months, not just in our home group, and I can't help but think about how it is an organic entity, how it evolves, grows, falls ill, and heals over the course of time. Different faces and voices come to the fore, and yet, as the years pass, a lot of the same people have remained and become the pillars of the community. A fair mix of both are going to be there today.
The best part of it all, from my point of view, is that I am totally comfortable within this community. One of the most surprising discoveries of the entire Step process was that I have never really felt like, despite a great deal of accomplishment and some periods of fraternity, I had belonged anywhere for any length of time. Even at times when it appeared differently, I was rarely truly comfortable in a larger context, and even when I was, there was always a sense of foreboding, that it was going to come to an end at some point in the (near) future. The last year and a half of high school and the last year of college both, on the surface, were a great time, with a lot of people close and everybody deeply involved with and caring about one another. But there was always the certain knowledge that it was temporary, that everyone would be moving on soon. I knew that I missed both those periods when they ended, badly; it fueled a great deal of alcohol and some drug use at the time it was happening. But  the underlying need that those connections filled went more or less unrecognized for what it actually was. And one of the ways I reacted was to try to recreate those comfort zones, those groups with shared camaraderie, with smaller and smaller groups after college. I still recall, 25 years later, the spring and summer of 1987 very fondly because every Saturday at 1 PM, I was part of a regular golf foursome (me, Butch Smith, Joe Behil, Dave Hayes) at Endwell Greens, and then usually at least a couple of us and sometimes all four would head off to the Galley afterwards for the evening. Part of the reason I got so into horse racing in the years after college was that it was a small, tightly knit community with common interests--but again, it seemed to be finite and impermanent. Even my marriage was, on some level, an attempt to build one of those comfort zones, and it was rather devastating psychologically when even that didn't meet the need, that I couldn't keep what was essentially a group of two together.
After the marriage crashed and burned, I crashed and burned, too, and found myself in recovery right before the turn of the century. I initially embraced the fellowship because I more or less was clinging onto anything that kept me above the water. But I stayed not only because I was able to keep the drugs down; I stayed because of the acceptance and affection I was given, the fact that my presence was valued at a time when literally the rest of the world had major problems with me and was visibly contemptuous of all that I was at the time. And as time passed and the outside issues resolved themselves, I still found myself wanting to stay because of two reasons. One was that the feeling that I had fleetingly experienced at times of belonging to a great larger whole was being experienced again. The second was that it was dawning on me that this one didn't have to end. Several times during the first five or six years, I watched developments in my friends' lives with bated breath. I remember when Aldo got a promotion at his job and wondering if he was suddenly going to be "too busy" to sponsor me. I remember when several people had children and wondering if they were going to stop coming around. I remember other people getting jobs, girlfriends and boyfriends, houses, achieving goals--and wondering if that was going to be their ticket out. And of course, in Narcotics Anonymous, there is the constant specter of relapse, that members you have grown to love are going to find themselves back on the other side of the addiction fence.
And to be sure, there have been some losses. Some did leave the fellowship. Some have died. Some have relapsed and not come back; some are still in the revolving door all these years later.  Some are still part of the fellowship, but have moved to different areas. I think back to those first couple of years, and how many people I was close to that no longer are around. One of my best earliest friends was an intellectual guy named Alex--who stayed clean but just stopped coming around. Howard, Denise, and Vernon are dead. Bernard and Del are long gone, and guys like Dawood and Louis died on relapses. The party today would have been at Chris P.'s house twelve years ago; she's doing the same type of stuff now, only in Pennsylvania where she now lives. I can't tell you the number of people who have relapsed and come back over the years--but I can tell you it is literally in the hundreds.
But there have been plenty who have stayed, people who were a part of my life then and still are a part of my life now, going on fourteen years later. Aldo, Kate, John, Nancy, Kathie, Danny, Richie, Kristen--some have taken timeouts, and I haven't always gotten along with all of them, but they're still here. Others have joined the circle as the years have passed and remained more or less fixtures. And as the years have passed, I have begun to realize that what I always really, truly, deeply wanted was this--a group of friends and colleagues that didn't vanish as time passed and our lives evolved. It changes--but there is always enough of a core so that the essentials are not lost. You never know the future with certainty--but it certainly has the look and feel of being timeless. Or at least of being so until my time is up.
And it is renewing itself. There was an explosion, when I was young in recovery, of children being born into recovery. I'm sure others have their own ideas, but in my mind, the NA Baby Boom ranged from Kareena's oldest--who's 20 or 21 now--down through Nancy's--who is now 7. There are at least two dozen children of long-time NA members born in that time frame. Some are graduating or have graduated high school, and all are growing up almost on a visible daily basis. The first time Sabrina was at a party at Kate's mother's house, she was a toddler who had to swim with one of those swimming diapers on; she napped for a couple of hours that day, and her dad played spades while she slept. She's been there when she was six, when she was eight, when she was eleven, and now again when she is thirteen. Kate's oldest was a second-grader the first time I saw her; she goes away to college this week. Kate's youngest is three years younger than Sabrina; I remember when she was born. Newbies are being added to the NA family. Kat just had a baby. Misty is a couple of weeks from giving birth.
Misty, in fact, had a baby shower last week--another of those "normal" events that people in recovery engage in just like earth people do, something that almost everybody who comes in the door wonders about--whether recovering people do all the things that are a part of "normal life." There was a picture posted on Facebook of the event. I was told this week a couple of times that other people had seen the picture, and thought it was cool--but were asking, "Who's the woman in the middle? I don't remember seeing her at meetings." The "woman" is Sabrina. It's amusing, but there's a larger point there, too. I would so much rather that Sabrina have all these people as part of her life (and their children, too) than not. I'm glad that she fits right in. Because even though she is only 13, physically she's really more adult than kid now. Time passes, and life is truly a journey, not a destination. It is so much better when everyone that matters is on the trek. There are members who build walls between their families and their recovery. I honestly think all that accomplishes is that it makes your own recovery harder. This is more than a fellowship--it's a community, not just something defined by the absence of drugs. And even kids find it attractive when the members commit to it wholeheartedly. I am not going to have to twist Sabrina's arm to come today, far from it. Her only disappointment is that one of her friends is allergic to chlorine and so is not going to come with her today.
This is not going to be a celebration of a home group. It is a celebration, a festival, of a culture, of a way of life. I actually find myself at times feeling badly for other people who don't have this sort of thing in their life. There is no greater sense and feeling of satisfaction and contentment than feeling completely at ease as part of a larger whole--and I have that sense every single day of my life. Who can really ask for more?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Thoughts on the Taft Murder Trial

I mentioned earlier in the week that the trial of a woman who is accused of killing her 2YO son had begun. And as the trial progresses, and I read the articles on the TV station website (for some inexplicable reason, the local alleged newspaper has not seen fit to cover the proceedings), I am becoming more and more convinced of one thing.
Something here stinks. Badly.
The details are horrifying as to what actually happened. And no one involved in this sordid episode is an innocent victim. I fully agree that the mother was an awful parent, one that probably should not be entrusted with the care of plants, much less other human beings, and showed appalling judgment in almost every area of her life. But the more I read and the more I hear about this trial and the case that is presented, the more I am convinced that she is on trial for a crime she did not commit. Why do I feel this way?
1) There was a very long time lag between the date of the kid's death--at the end of 2010--and the arrest of the mother for murder--a few weeks short of a year ago. My brother has been an attorney for 25 years, my father was friends with half the sheriff's department, and my own job has brought me into contact with many people in the Department of Social Services and the Probation Department, and so I have a pretty fair working knowledge of normal investigative and judicial procedures and what causes deviations from such. I don't know with certainty that this is the case, but the usual reason that there is a gap of that length between crime and arrest--especially one where all the suspects were right in front of the police from the discovery that a crime took place--is that the police didn't feel there enough evidence or cause to arrest someone. And unlike on television, police interest and investment of resources diminish greatly with the passage of time. I would be willing to bet that the police investigators did not and do not feel that the mother is the one who killed her child.
1a) Then who did make that call? The District Attorney's office conducts investigations of crimes as well, especially the higher profile ones like murders. And quite honestly, I have some experience with the DA's office and their investigators, and I have not been impressed at all. The one time I had extensive contact with them, they were still trying to find evidence to bring someone to trial several months after his alleged victim had told a roomful of professionals that the events had not happened and that the account had been made up specifically to get the accused person in trouble. I have no idea of whether this is common practice in that office or not. I can tell you that I know more than one person who believes that it is, that investigators in the office become convinced that a person is guilty and pursue that line of inquiry long after the point when it is clear to neutral observers that the person did not commit the crime.
2) The coroner testified a couple of days ago that the time of death of the toddler was "3 AM or earlier." The woman was at her job from 11AM to 7PM. Now, granted, it is possible she could have beaten him before she left for work and put him in his bed, and that he died some hours later. But I would think the obvious focus would be on the people who were in the house at 3 AM before looking at others. The person watching the children in that home overnight was her "boyfriend" at the time, someone with a long history of drug possession and sales. There has been testimony that he came to the house right before she left for work, and that the children were already in bed. I am suspicious of that testimony because I have been told by people who knew the couple that the guy actually was living there. I also think that, even if the kid was in bed at 11AM, there is no reason why he could not have woken up after that--indeed, a kid waking up in the night is a trigger for anger in a lot of people, especially if it wakes them up and/or disturbs people who are doing things they shouldn't be doing. Again, the prosecution's contention is that the kid had absorbed his fatal beating before the night watch showed up. I'm not buying it; it is far more likely that something happened to the kid at the hands of people who were actually present when he died.
3) There has been another long gap between the time of arrest and the beginning of the trial--a few weeks short of a year. I can tell you that this is unusually long, especially combined with the gap between crime and arrest. Knowing how the system works, I am assuming that a good portion of this time frame was taken up with trying to get the mother to plead. That she has not is a very strong indicator to me that she did not do this. I want to emphasize that I am well aware that the mother is far from a sterling citizen, and was a very poor mother and had made a bunch of really bad choices in her life up to that point. But I can also tell you from personal experience and knowing of the experiences of others that people who have major addiction issues will react in the same way when accused of something that they have not done--they will insist that they are innocent with every fiber of their being. It is almost like a psychological need, their own assurance that despite the damage they know they have done to themselves and those around them and the myriad moral compromises and defeats they have endured, they are not monsters beyond redemption. Conversely, almost every addict is already saddled with guilt to a degree that most people will never know, and with that much time to reflect and to let their conscience burden them, the admission of guilt in a guilty person--especially when combined with a possible lessening of potential consequences--nearly always is forthcoming. Veronica Taft has not gone this route. It is possible that she is one of the few that would be able to sustain denial in these circumstances. But I don't think so, especially since...
4) If she had killed her son, there would have been some tell, some giveaway, when she returned to the house after her work shift was done. The 911 call was played at the trial yesterday, and her reaction was what "normal" people's--and innocent people's--would be: she was hysterical to the point of incoherence.  If she had killed her son, then that was an acting job worthy of an Oscar. I am emphasizing again that this woman was not a good parent, and had not done well by her children at all, something that people I know that know her have repeatedly emphasized. And anyone is capable of deadly violence when angry. But it takes a ice-cold heart and a degree of emotional numbness to pull off deflecting suspicion, and I have heard nothing that suggests that the mother was capable of that. I think it is much more likely that what she did--lose her shit, essentially--was her honest reaction, and that is exactly how a big majority of people would react in the same circumstances.
Most of the testimony to this point has been weak on evidence that she killed her son, and strong on painting a picture of a mother who shouldn't have been entrusted with the care of children. That may be largely, even entirely, true. But she is on trial not for being a lousy mother, but for killing her 2YO son. And not only is the evidence not convincing, but there is a reasonable and more likely alternative explanation. The prosecution clearly hoped that she would plead, and now that she has not and will not, is portraying her as some sort of Casey Anthony and counting on a jury to react with revulsion to her poor parenting. But even with all that, it is becoming clear that there is no real case here. The venomous and vitriolic comments on the TV station website have diminished with every day of the trial. There have been a lot of hints that CPS is somehow responsible in part for this death because they left his child with such an obviously unfit mother--but again, it is not CPS' job to keep kids away from poor parents, but rather only dangerous ones. There has been no real evidence presented that Veronica Taft was dangerous in any sense beyond extremely poor judgement abilities. And I would say that she bears some--some--indirect responsibility for her son's death by allowing the person who actually killed him access to him.
People being what they are, though, the prosecution is getting a lot of help with a very flimsy case. The TV station coverage, in particular, is nauseating. The reporter covering the case is a young woman roughly the same age as Veronica Taft, and is clearly repulsed by everything about her. The self-righteousness of the reporter is very familiar to those of us in recovery--the idea that "I would never do these sort of things, and I and the most of the rest of us are morally superior to this piece of garbage" informs every report she has made both on the air and what is posted on the website. As an example, it was noted in the coverage of the trial yesterday, after the 911 call was played, that despite the mother's hysteria, she "never actually told the dispatcher what had happened to her son." As if it would have been entirely normal for a mother returning home from her job to dispassionately state "I just came home and my baby is dead and could you please send the police over here..." It's not uncommon to run into this attitude, and in many cases, it's not entirely unjustified. But it cannot be emphasized enough that this is a murder trial, and the true issue is "Did she kill her kid?"
I am reasonably sure that she did not cause the injuries that killed her son. This trial is a travesty. She has been charged with murder, but is being tried for being a lousy mother. It would be truly awful and a real miscarriage of justice if she was found guilty of the former because of being the latter. Call me old-fashioned, but I would rather that people be found guilty of crimes they actually commit, rather than be locked up for decades because she was an easy target.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Random Political Notes

Some brief observations from the political/financial world:
1) I doubt anyone at all in the 40% of Americans who aren't going to vote for The Empty Suit under any circumstances is going to pay the slightest bit of attention, but... the stimulus, flawed as it was, worked. The United States economy, sluggish as it is, is in a whole lot better shape than virtually every country in Europe. Almost every country there that has implemented deep austerity budgets is in economic free fall--Greece, the UK, Spain, Italy, Ireland. Of all the Euro zone countries, only Germany is wealthier than it was in 2008, and even that gain is looking increasingly tenuous. While Europe is in some aspects different than the United States, in economic terms the Euro community is the closest match that exists in the world for our own economy. Those loud voices calling for cuts and austerity should really look across the pond and see actually happens when such policies are implemented. And one story conspicuously absent from the bleak economic vignettes is "rich people going bankrupt." If imposed here, the pain will not equally distributed, much less inflicted on those who could easily bear it.
2) One of the downplayed stories of the year so far has been the MF Global Security scandal. A months-long investigation into how over $1 billion dollars of investors' money went missing from a high-profile hedge fund has resulted in,no criminal charges being filed. Instead, the conclusion has been "chaos and porous risk controls" led to the money going missing...I'm going to have to remember that one. "Detectives, it was chaotic at the supermarket, and there were porous risk controls in place that allowed the money from the register to go missing." Somehow I doubt that's going to fly very far. What this means, in practice--and we have been moving in this direction for many years--is the reimposing of a medieval justice system, not so much in the way of wanton cruelty (although there are elements of that disturbingly present, too) but in the way that increasingly, anyone wealthy does not pay consequences for crimes at all. Of all the calamitous financial implosions since 2007, the only one that has been prosecuted and incarcerated for a long period of time is Bernie Madoff--and the only reason he was treated so harshly was because his victims were not the "average" investor, but the super-rich and famous. While the justice system has always been kinder to those with wealth, in the United States over the course of its history, rich people have been held to higher standards of accountability regarding criminal activity than almost anywhere else on earth--but that is increasingly no longer the case. It's bad enough to get a fifteen-month sentence at a minimum-security prison for theft on a grand scale--but in the last 10-15 years, we are seeing, almost without exception, monstrous theft not being penalized at all, and the financial parasite class operating with complete impunity.
3) The Republican presumptive Presidential nominee made news again yesterday by claiming he has paid at least 13% of his income in taxes for "years," and furthermore that with his charitable contributions factored in, his effective tax rate is 20%. Umm.. not a shred of evidence was offered in support of this. For a guy who has been caught repeatedly lying over the course of the last year or better, "because I say so:" ain't cutting it--not for me, and not for anybody with a functional cerebral cortex. And as usual with Romney, the "answer" raises even more questions. I would assume that the Mormon tithe would be included in his "charity." But if he's paying 13% in taxes, and his total hit with charity is 20%, that leaves 7%in charitable contributions. The tithe is 10%. So even in the unlikely event that he is telling the truth, Romney's shorting his church... the evidence is clear and incontrovertible. Romney is a lying weasel, and there is something not right about his finances. When someone engages in these kind of contortional gymnastics for such a long period of time--there's something there that cannot be revealed without torpedoing his hopes for winning this election. I don't know what it is, exactly, but it's become inarguable that there is something there. Even a clueless spoiled bullying rich-kid-grown-up with a sense of entitlement that dwarfs those of hereditary European nobility would not be engaging in this much obfuscation and stalling unless there was something there that cannot be revealed. The best antiseptic is sunlight; that this much effort is being expended in keeping this aspect of Romney in the dark is not a good sign.
4) Ryan picked a conservative poster boy, Paul Ryan, for his running mate. Ryan is the name attached to the Koch budget plan that has been offered as an "alternative" to a real federal budget in Congress--going back to point one, an American austerity budget. Even our domesticated press has shown signs of rousing themselves from torpor to check out the details of this "plan,"--and not surprisingly, it is full of unsupported assumptions and straight-up falsehoods. Even more amazingly, although any rational person knew without looking too closely that the math didn't add up, it is shocking to hear both Romney and Ryan say publicly that they "haven't run the numbers:" when questioned about some of the details that don't add up. Umm... even if they are made up, even if they are pure fantasy, how can you not have some numbers to voice when talking about a flipping budget? This really defies belief and I think demonstrates more than anything else Romney has said and done his utter contempt for the great majority of us. He really thinks that a majority of Americans are stupid enough that this shit will actually win him enough votes to win the election. There's a small chance that he is right, too. God help us all... there is a possibility that I don't like to spend a lot of time thinking about, even though I have voiced it before. I would not put the possibility of putsch past Corporate Rich America this time around. Seeing the lameness of their electoral effort this far, can intelligent people--and the super rich and wealthy are not stupid people, whatever other faults they may have-- really believe that this is going to work in their favor? Are they really going to just accept their likely defeat? Granted, The Empty Suit is no FDR, and their privileges are in no real danger. But I sometimes suspect that this is just a smokescreen to obscure what's really in the works. I guess we'll find out at the end of the year.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Revelation

I've been attending a training on trauma-informed care the last few days, both because our agency is in the midst of implementing it as our base model of care over the next few years and because the federal agency we get most of our funding from made it such a big part of the grant guidelines this year. While I'm not going to get too technical about what is, essentially, shop talk, I have to say I have been surprised by two things that I've been learning. One really shouldn't have been, I suppose--that so much of the recovery process is now validated by official "social work" models. The one place that TIC doesn't go that the Twelve Steps do is the emphasis on Higher Power, but almost all of the values embedded in a therapeutic treatment model are familiar to me from being in recovery. Which, when one comes to think about it, makes a lot of sense--addiction is one long trauma, and by the time an adult addict is broken down enough to contemplate change, the trauma has been incubating for decades. I find it almost amusing that "science" will tiptoe around the necessity of spiritual matters by using buzzwords like "values" and "core," but still, it's been kind of refreshing to see that belatedly, people have been paying attention to what has worked for countless numbers of people and trying to copy it for general usage with those who most need it. It's a start.
The second is that, as the training has gone on longer, it has been like watching a video of the last fifteen years in some ways. There is not a symptom of the traumatized person that MOTY has not and does not exhibit. I have known since I first knew her what a miserable childhood she actually had--I believe the word I have used several times is "abomination"-- but as I see these Power Point presentations with listing of behaviors and characteristics of untreated trauma, I find myself almost unconsciously nodding, because I have seen each and every one of those bullet points dozens and dozens of times when dealing with her. And none of these things are going to change on their own. It has reinforced yet again that I have done the right thing by Sabrina to insist upon and taking the lead role in raising her--in no small part because I confronted my own trauma and made necessary changes and adjustments in my beliefs, and broke the cycles that caused the trauma in the first place. 
But it also allows me to cut some slack to her. Yes, Shannon is responsible for her own choices and the consequences that ensue. But at the same time, you can't help but feel some very deep empathy for someone who literally never had a chance to develop any healthy beliefs and values when she was a youth. In some ways, the fact that she has gotten to 38 years old without losing her mind completely or just curling into a permanent fetal position is admirable. Not for the first time, I have also contemplated how fucked up her parents really are--although I am sure that they didn't drop from the sky all screwed up, either. By now, Shannon's ways are more or less set into stone, and she's probably never going to rise above the trauma and heal in any way. I guess the part of this training that is affecting me the most is that the things that have driven me crazy about dealing with her regularly--the inability or unwillingness to learn from experience foremost--are 1) not unique to her, 2) unfortunately, not likely to get better absent some sort of intervention, which doesn't seem likely, and 3) not entirely voluntary on her part. To use a rather homely but effective metaphor, the operating program in her mind has a virus that impairs her thought process. It's almost like she's on autopilot.
And not for the first time, I am so grateful that, by whatever miraculous process, I found the willingness from about 1999 onward to take recovery seriously and the courage to be able to break the cycles. I didn't really even seek to change my own values and beliefs, although that has ended up happening. My motivation at the beginning of the process was twofold: I was tired of paying consequences and feeling pain on my end, and most of all, I did not want my daughter to grow up carrying the same baggage I had and made a real commitment to parenting her differently than I had been parented. And to be truthful, the second motivation was probably closer to the surface and easier for me to intellectually grasp the need for changes in behaviors and beliefs. I understood intellectually that expecting a toddler to have the attention span of an adult was silly--and it helped make me a more patient person and less likely to yell at her or manhandle her, to take one example that has repeatedly crossed my mind the last two days. But I'm also not sure that I would have found the necessary reserves of patience without also concurrently working Steps at the same time. A huge part of that patience I exhibited at that point in her life was applying the central insight coming from the pursuit of a relationship with God that I was doing through working with my sponsor. One of the many thunderbolts that have had lasting applicability over the years came at that time, when Aldo said to me that my child was not capable of abstract and meaningful thought about God and spiritual matters until he/she is at least middle-school age--and her ideas about God when that time came were going to be a nearly perfect reflection of her views of me during the formative years of childhood. As I realized that my views of God from about age 11 to about age 40 were in fact my feelings and thoughts about my father, it seriously was like being hit with a bolt of lightning. And you better believe that it influenced and shaped my parenting and the way I dealt with Sabrina. Ten years later, I can tell you that it was the right way to go, and I am so glad I did so.
But it sure wasn't easy, and in some ways it almost felt like a betrayal of my own parents, because it necessarily involved departing from a good many of the values they instilled in me, Without the desperation accompanying hitting rock bottom in addiction, the willingness to do so may not have ever been able to be summoned. And one of the many truths I already knew from recovery was that everyone's level of pain tolerance is different, and that the willingness to change may not ever come for some people, even though it is causing a level of pain in them that I would never tolerate. And sadly, this is the case for Sabrina's mother. I can't imagine being that miserable all the time. But on the other hand, what does it say about the life she was born into, that that level of pain and misery is "normal" to her, that she is comfortable on a deep level with it? I don't have to enable it to feel a great deal of empathy and, yes, sorrow regarding it. I truly wish it was different for her.
But that doesn't mean I want our daughter to become comfortable with it, or to even experience it. More than ever, I am convinced that I have done, in a broad sense, the right thing by everyone involved for a long time. I'm not perfect, and I'm not all that and a box of chocolates too--but I have broken the cycle not only for me, but for my daughter. And when my life is over, no matter what is written in my obituary about my jobs and other milestones I achieved, that will be my greatest accomplishment and my greatest legacy.