Rereading The Liar’s Club for the First Time

Last December 2015, I was walking with a friend for the first time in five years. We were walking and talking about writing: writing memoirs in particular. My friend thought she might have a few books in her waiting to get into publication. She was thinking of writing a memoir and was sounding me to find out if I could tell her anything valuable from a literature teacher’s point of view. I’m sure I didn’t.

She asked me if I had ever read Mary Karr’s book The Liar’s Club. I said I had read it. I remembered that I had listened to Mary Karr talk on NPR about her book in 2010, when she re-issued it. I bought the book, didn’t find the immediate enthusiasm to start it and shelved it for a while. One day, again on NPR, I listened to Stephen King profess has admiration for Mary Karr and for her book The Liar’s Club. I dusted off my copy and started to read it due to King’s enthusiasm for Karr and the book. I remember not being too fond of the idea of a Liar’s Club, and I must have dismissed it after a few pages because there is no way I could have read that book then, or now, without simply falling in love with the language, Mary Karr’s style, and her voice. The book is all about voice and that voice speaks to a broad audience.

I could not have read more than three pages. If I didn’t like the book, and didn’t think much of Mary Karr, then I could not have read it. Maybe my problem was that it  was set in Texas…who knows?  Bald fact: I didn’t read the book. Mea culpa.

My response to my friend was that I had indeed read the book a long time ago and that I didn’t think much of it, or much of Mary Karr as a writer. A dark shadow crossed this woman’s face. She was thinking deeply to herself, “This guy’s an idiot.” Her formally good opinion of my literary opinion stock dropped through the floor. I can’t be sure what her exact thought was coursing through her mind, but if I had to guess, it probably went something like this: “You are a pompous, arrogant dumbass, who doesn’t know good writing when you read it.” Or something to that effect. People don’t think highly of ridiculous criticism of obvious good writing, especially writing they personally enjoy. Fact. Been there.

Last week, after I had to cancel what would have been a third walk in five years, and first in three months, I decided to reread The Liar’s Club in order to find out why this book is adored by so many readers, and by my friend.

People read books for a number of good reasons. Some people like the action in a book, others are happy to read a simple narrative; still others like to read a particular genre, or read about an interesting topic; I am happy to read books others find interesting. I will always find a book engrossing, if the language talks to me with interesting metaphors, images, rhythm, tone and sentencing (variation of sentence lengths); I am a hopelessly attracted to novels that read more like poetry, and novels where I can’t distinguish between whether, or not the language has been deliberately chosen and polished, or if the author is just that damn amazing of an artist, and writes beautiful language effortlessly and naturally.

Mary Karr’s particular genius is that she understands that the sense of smell is intimately related to memory. If you are writing a memoir, it makes great sense to use the smells that evoke memories liberally. She is a master of placing an evocative image of a particular smell to introduce her recollection of a place, or event. The entire novel derives its sense of place through her numerous appeals to our sense of smell.

Mary Karr had me from her first image when she connects the sense of smell to her memory of the nutty smell of coffee and the background smell of her hometown: “Somebody had made a pot of coffee that laid a nutty smell over the faint chemical stink from the gasoline fire in the back yard. Every one tries to conjure up the sense of smell to fill out their narrative by using the smell of bacon, or coffee, and then abandons the sense of smell as a tool to evoke a minor image. Karr uses coffee, cigar smoke, Salem cigarette smoke, and then moves on to much more masterful smell images throughout the book. She repeats the coffee image: She remembers picking up her dad at work: “He brought into the cab the odors of stale coffee and of the cleaning solvent he used to get the oil off his hands.” Later in the book, when Pokey reunites with her dad, she uses “He’d been drinking black coffee during his shift, the coffee that pored like tar from the foreman’s beat-up percolator. That coffee brought my whole former Daddy back. I knew the solvent he used to strip grease from his hands and the Lava soap applied with a fingernail brush. (She moves to a tactile image: “His chin bristles scraped my neck.”) then she shifts back to smell to complete the child and father reunion: “And he must have been sweating from damp or work or worry, for the Tennessee whiskey he’d stood on the tarmac sipping was like the fresh-cut oak coming off him.” It bears repeating: Karr’s genius is her use of smell images to build her memoir because memories are richly remembered around specific smells. Karr makes fun of frozen fart smell which appear as her Dad, Pete, tells a story of “about a dozen of these round fuzzy things rolled our his pant leg. Big as your thumb, and white.” Pete continues the story: “And you ain’t going to guess what happens when they thaw. They pop like firecrackers and let off the biggest stink you ever smelled…” “They was farts?” Daddy slaps the laughs at sucking in his audience. And thus, we are introduced to the humor of the Liar’s Club and Pete’s storytelling through the sense of smell.

Another favorite of mine that takes me right in the car with Karr: “The too-sweet smell of Grandma’s hyacinth perfume hung in the car till Mother lit a Salem.” I know that perfume and I know the smell of Salem (menthol) cigarettes and that sentence takes me back to my mother’s smoking when I rode in the car with her as a youngster, about the same age as Karr is at this point in her narrative.

Karr gains memory-evoking strength just a few sentences later on the page when she remembers: “The sheer stink of my hometown woke me before dawn. The oil refineries and chemical plants gave the whole place a rotten-egg smell.” A positive memory: “The right wind could bring you a whiff of the Gulf, but that was rare.”

That smell leads, a couple of pages later, to this revelation about her hometown: “I later learned that Leechfield at that time was the manufacturing site for Agent Orange, Which surprised me not one bit.” She is remembering arriving in her hometown after an all-night car ride: “That morning, when I woke up lying under the back slant of the windshield, the world smelled not unlike a wicked fart in a close room.”

Another example of Karr’s narrative genius is how she parallels the novel To Kill a Mockingbird without even reaching from her own life to do so. Karr is the Scout Finch of Leechfield, Texas. Both Mary Karr and Jean Louise Finch have nicknames: Pokey and Scout. Both tell the backstory of their hometown while writing about how much they adore their fathers. Scout is no slouch at setting people straight, and neither is Pokey. They both speak in the vernacular, both write in a highly literate narrative form that somehow reaches out and includes the speech sounds and rhythmic cadences of the South. Karr doesn’t appear to deliberately make the connections between the two novels, but there are clear connections in her story. Harper Lee has a unique voice that draws the reader in by telling the story with a child persona: Scout. Karr steps back into her childhood and tells her story as her younger self, modeling her seven year old voice when she asks questions of her sister and parents and then shifting subtly to an adult voice to carry the narration.

Karr lends credibility to her memoir by questioning her remembrance of certain events as though she might not be remembering them as accurately as she lived the events as a child. Both Karr and Lee echo the idea that we don’t remember events as they were, but as we were.

Another comparison to TKM I noticed was Pokey’s comment about running away from home: “What I didn’t know until I finally did leave home at fifteen was that, if I had lit our, nobody would organize any posse to sniff me down.”

Dill observes to Scout that maybe Boo didn’t run away because he had no place to run to. Dill was also the product of a mother who remarried and chose to focus more on herself and her new husband than on her child. You can see that parallel in Pokey’s mom when she divorces Pokey’s dad and remarries destroying the family bond. The children are allowed to choose which parent the wish to live with. To me, this shows the indifference of Pokey’s mom to her children. To her credit, Pokey’s mom later reunites the family.

Does everyone in the South drink to excess? Wow! There are the big drinkers: Aunt Rachel and Bob Ewell in TKM. In The Liar’s Club, everyone is a drunk. They probably don’t problem drink any more in the South than in the North, but drinking is definitely a favorite past time that has detrimental effects on both communities. The Liar’s Club makes glad I live boring, non-drinking life, that no one would actually write about.

I noticed that in Karr’s alcoholic family, each sister was willing, at any time to walk away from the other. I think this is the mark of an alcohol-affected family. For example Pokey says of her loyalty to her sister: “I wished Lecia no particular harm, but if there was only one banana left in the bowl, I would not hesitate to grab it and leave her to do without.” On the other hand, when Lecia, Pokey, and her dad were together, Pokey said, “We were just like the three curved boards for the hull bottom of some boat that only needed gluing and caulking together.

If you are still with me, you might like to think about Karr’s use of pacing to add texture to the story. Throughout the narrative, she leads us down a narrative trail, story by story, stopping and digressing occasionally to illuminate a important connection to the narrative.

The rape story demands a under current of pacing to reinforce how craftily Pokey was cut out of the herd and raped by an older boy. She mentions him. She describes him as evil. She tells how he grooms her. Then she describes the rape as it happens. It all seems to build up gradually, to demonstrate how this evil boy planned the rape. Pokey is left without any recourse to address her rape. She concludes her story by describing him walking off to the ball game, he never rushes; he is confident that he is in complete control of Pokey and Pokey’s will, and he is confident that he will never be found out. The pacing of the story reflects his confidence: slow and deliberate.

A particularly touching dramatic story Karr relates is how Lecia, Pete, and Mary enjoy a cookout in Colorado. Mary remembers it as a Halcyon moment before the family’s tight bond is obliviated by their mother’s selfishness the next day. Mary experiences the best day of her life the day before she faces her worst day.

If I filmed this book, I would choose Adele’s “Hello” as the theme song for the for The Liar’s Club. The book has an most plaintive vibe to it. One can hardly imagine a little girl growing up in such a dysfunctional family and still turning out as close to normal as most of the rest of us are (if we all were truthful about our families).

I have a special . If I really like a book I have read, I rate it by how many copies I buy on Amazon and then send to my reading buddies, or give to my friends. So far, I have given away fifty copies of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, forty copies of Gilbert’s, Eat Pray Love, twenty-five copies of Caroline Knapp’s, Drinking: A Love Story, twenty-five, or thirty copies of Ted Kerosote’s, Merle’s Door. I was so taken with Elizabeth Smart’s Story, that I bought fifty copies of a very expensive hardback to loan to my students. Each book was read over twenty times over a two-year period. That was money well-spend. If I thought I had fifty friends that would actually read Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, I would order fifty copies just to start. Sadly, I don’t think I am going to find that level of enthusiasm unless a bunch of folks read this blog and tell me how excited they are about the book.

Thank you, my friend for embarrassing me into reading The Liar’s Club. As with everything else in our relationship, you are right and I am wrong. The abyss will never be bridged except with great book recommendations. I’ll miss those in the future.

This interview and video might pique your interest in reading The Liar’s Club:

http://www.raintaxi.com/feeling-making-machine-an-interview-with-mary-karr/

https://www.facebook.com/MaryKarrLit/videos/945703705138/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Alcoholism and the Bell Jar

First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

I won’t gain too many friends by writing my thoughts today, but this topic has been on my mind for years.

 

I grew up in Casper, Wyoming. Wyoming folks, when I lived there, used to measure distances by how many six packs it took to drive from point A to point B. Drinking alcohol was that casual and that socially acceptable.

 

Alcoholism engulfed my family and me as I grew up. Alcoholism pervades every aspect of my life today.

 

Almost all my friends’ parents were alcoholics, or at best, really heavy drinkers. I didn’t know any family that didn’t have a well-stocked wet bar in their home; the majority of my school friend’s parents had a drinking problem. There was a lot of shame associated with our families’ alcoholism; nobody talked about alcoholism openly with their friends.

 

I thought alcoholism was about drinking alcohol; I didn’t understand that alcoholism was a symptom of a deep and powerful substance addiction. Alcoholism was a family affliction to almost every family I grew up with in the fifties and sixties.

 

I was a thirty-something before I even knew that it was possible to communicate effectively about the disease and communicate with an alcoholic; I’d given up trying to talk with my alcoholic mother; I shunned her for years.

 

In my thirties, I discovered a communication skill set to communicate with my alcoholic mother when I discovered a metaphor for alcoholism while watching the 1986 movie The Fly with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis.

 

I discovered a metaphor for alcoholism and I found the tool to understand and defeat the alcoholism agenda. I used that understanding to learn to accept and love and reconnect with my alcoholic mother.

 

In the movie, The Fly, Jeff Goldblum is a scientist trying to invent teleportation. In the movie, he steps into teleportation booth A and flips a switch to travel to teleportation booth B. What he doesn’t know at the time he flips the switch, is that a housefly has surreptitiously entered booth A just before the teleportation commences. The machine transports the fly and Goldblum at the dismantled molecular level in booth A and reassembles them in booth B, confusing their genes in the process. Goldblum acquires some of the fly’s genes. His body starts to grow at the genetic level of the fly, changing his body in a most grotesque manner. Fast forward a bit to Goldblum’s hospital room as he tries to explain his perception of his body’s morphing into a fly to Geena Davis, his main squeeze. He sees the metamorphosis as a disease.  Goldblum’s character states: “I know what the disease wants: It wants control.”

 

I had never thought of disease as a sentient entity before, but it made perfect sense to me.

 

Somewhere in my reading, I learned that the objective of alcoholism is to degrade, demean, isolate, and humiliate the alcoholic and the people who are known, and loved by the alcoholic. Alcoholism has its own agenda.

 

The lingo of alcoholism defines the alcoholic as the afflicted and everyone else in the alcoholic’s life as the affected.

 

Everyone in the alcoholic’s life is affected by the disease until the key to extricate themselves from alcoholism becomes available to them. No one ever extricates themselves completely from alcoholism.

 

My mother choose alcohol addiction; and the alcoholism enthusiastically embraced her.

 

She lived the first forty years of her life as a brilliant, powerful, and attractive non-drinking woman who mistakenly thought that life owed her a living. My father inadvertently supported her delusion, not realizing his inadvertent role in my mother’s addictive descent.

 

Mother was so intelligent, so self-possessed, she could have run a small country. Columbia would not have been too big for her energy. Being a homemaker didn’t challenge her talents and abilities. She wasn’t up to avoiding an alcoholic lifestyle, however.

 

 

Alcoholism is not about intelligence, or lack thereof; rather, it is a powerfully negative life force that defeats one’s mind and soul.

 

On her fortieth birthday, my mother didn’t get out of bed. She had an epiphany:

 

The rest of her life became a slow slide into a slough of mental and physical decadence. She believed that she would never be as beautiful, or as popular, or as powerful as she had been in her first forty years. It was a self-fulfilling prophesy.

 

When she chose to drink heavily every day; her fate was sealed for the next forty-one years.

Whatever the cause, the effect was that she became a world-class alcoholic. The power of the disease, and the power of her brain, produced a synergy that outpaced the abilities of everyone in her life to understand, or respond to her disease.

 

In my thirties, I came to realize my mother not as a broken-down alcoholic, but rather as the wonderful person she was and always had been. She required what we all require: love, affection, respect, connection to her family, and friends, and the nurturing of her soul with their presence.

 

Alcoholism is a bell jar that completely encapsulates the alcoholic and thwarts any positive, or nurturing relationships with her family and friends.

 

A bell jar is a bell-shaped cover made of glass used for covering delicate objects, or a clear container used in a laboratory, or an environment in which someone is protected, or cut off from the outside world.

 

My dear, kind mother was a hungry ghost: she was desperate; she was starved for affection; she could never fulfill her needs: she was completely in the thrall of a disease whose agenda was to degrade, demean, isolate, and humiliate her and to degrade, demean, and humiliate everyone that she loved, cherished, or cared about.

 

Her alcoholism was a bell jar isolating her from her world: the disease was invisible to everyone including to her; like the wind that cannot be seen except by its affects on the environment, we could only see the affects of the disease, not the disease itself, or its agenda.

 

My family couldn’t separate the disease from our mother: she was a disease to us.

 

We slipped into the role of being complicit, and being participant in her degradation.

 

She contributed to her abasement by drinking, or so it seemed to everyone outside of the jar: we didn’t perceive an agenda in her drinking, we just saw the effects of her drinking.

 

Belatedly, I imagined the disease process for what it was, I seized the responsibility to respond to my mother as a person rather than to respond to her disease.

 

I fought for her instead of against her.

 

I said kind words to her.

 

I expressed affection for her verbally, and by simple acts of kindness.

 

I ignored her anger.

 

I deflected her rage.

 

I refused to respond angrily to her syrupy voice when she called me on the phone.

 

I no longer upbraided her for drinking.

 

I refused to take her phone calls when she was drunk; rather, I made a point of calling her almost daily, and visiting her in person frequently, when I knew she would most likely be sober and rational.

 

Initially, I accepted all of her ridiculous demands as a matter of course; eventually, her demands became reasonable requests as her needs for affection and positive attention were met.

 

I addressed her desires and her needs promptly and without comment. (To her, her wants and needs were the same thing; there was no need for me to quibble over the distinction.)

 

I became hyper-conscientious around her: I addressed her authentic personal needs, not her alcoholic confusion of those needs. Sometimes, they were the same; I didn’t differentiate, I just worked to meet her needs as she expressed them.

 

The disease hated my conscientious efforts to love my mother and support her growth away from helplessness.

 

The disease slowly lost its powerful grip on me:

 

I no longer allowed the disease to drive my life.

 

I gained power over my life as the disease lost its power over me.

 

I felt great.

 

I developed a positive relationship with my mother for the first time in my life.

 

Slowly, the bell jar lost its implacable grip on my mother and its firm grip on me; it released our family to function as a family.

 

The disease is never entirely absent from our lives: it is always in the background. Mother died an alcoholic struggling every day for the rest of her life with the affects of living half a century in the clutches of alcoholism.

 

I celebrate my creative resolution to an alcoholic relationship with my mother. It seemed a success to me.

 

I know and respect alcoholism for its power over me and for its power over many of my friends.

 

Alcoholism still has a unmistakable hold on me.

 

I ruined a friendship one December when I tried to explain my understanding of the disease process to an alcoholic. She (and the disease) did not take the discussion well.

 

My friend’s alcoholism (bell jar) understood my discussion of her alcoholism as criticism. (It was.)

 

No criticism is ever welcome, especially when it is understood by the disease as a threat to the status quo.

 

When I encounter alcoholic friends and alcoholic acquaintances, I invariably choose the wrong approaching their alcoholism. I still cherish the idea that I can challenge and defeat their alcoholism. I should leave well enough alone. I’ve never vanquished alcoholism completely in my lifetime and I’ve had lots of opportunities to do so.

 

My alcoholic bell jar shouts out to an alcoholic’s bell jar:

 

“Watch out for this guy! He really has an ‘ass-holic attitude’ about alcoholism! Avoid him! Straight-arm him! He’s no fun! Ghost him! Don’t let him play in our sandbox!”

 

As soon as I mention my thoughts about alcoholism and the metaphor of the Bell Jar to an alcoholic, that is pretty much the end of any meaningful relationship with that person… forever.

 

This is how I explain to myself why I don’t have 999 friends lined up to socialize with me: There’s a good chance my dormant alcoholism works to isolate me from many potential non-drinking friends and alcoholic friends.

 

I isolated myself from an alcoholic/psychopath person recently. I cared deeply about that person, a former student. I became addicted to the hope of saving her and the need show my love for her by sacrificing everything important to me to save her from her shitstorm life.

 

I realize now that I fueled a codependent relationship trying to rescue her from her alcoholic life; I became a controlling, crazy-person who was addicted to the hope of rescuing, and loving her as a means of saving her; she didn’t want to be saved.

 

I became the very addict that I was trying to rescue and reform.

 

I’ve moved on now; I have great respect for the addiction process. I escaped from that addictive event; I will always have the scars of addiction on my soul, however.

Lesson learned.

 

You and I

This isn’t my all-time favorite poem, but it is close.  Below the poem is my explication of how I think the poem and the poet create meaning. Of course, part of it is what I am bringing to the poem, but much of it is the realization of the genus of the poet Jonathan Potter. I’ll bet his wife (or girlfriend) loves this poem, also:

Before you read the poem, or while you read the poem, listen to Garrison Keillor’s interpretation. The sense is always, first and foremost, in the sound.”

Start at 3:30

http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/www_publicradio/tools/media_player/popup.php?name=writers_almanac/2011/02/twa_20110228_64

You and I

Jonathan Potter

 

You are a warm front
that moved in from the north,
a blind spot bearing beautiful gifts,
a garden in the air, a golden filament
inscribed with the name of God’s hunting dog,
a magic heirloom mistaken for a feather duster,
a fountain in a cow pasture, an anachronistic anagram
annoyed by anonymity, a dollar in the pocket
of a winter coat in summer.

And I am the discoverer of you.

 

You and I

Jonathan Potter

Surprise! This poem is built as a cascade of metaphors, falling one over the other, over the other, until the first word in the title and the first word in the poem become the last word of the poem. It is a cascade of air, not water. Each image suggests a discovery. The images start as nebulous air images and then gain substance; they give way to concrete images as the poem progresses, just as the relationship of the poet to his lover gains substance when he recognizes how his love is materializing for his lover: he realizes her beauty coming into his awareness.

“You and I” describes the poet’s surprise as he realizes just how special his love is. The first images evoke surprise: “a warm front that moved in from the north.” Fronts (air and moisture) tend to move in quickly and this front is a surprise because warm fronts don’t usually move in from the north.  

He is surprised as her beautiful gifts materialize, having been hidden just out of his sight, or better, they have been there all along, and he just notices them. Potter uses alliteration (blind, bearing, beautiful) to highlight the growing awareness of her presence as a gift: nothing is apparent (blind), something is coming (bearing), and the gift is revealed (beautiful). The placement of the word “gift” at the end of the line emphasizes the surprise process when he at last notices her.

The poet uses “gift” to start the alliteration of the next two lines: (garden, golden, and God.) The garden in the sky image evokes beautiful star-filled heavens, whereas the golden filament inscribed with the name of God’s hunting dog is the divine connection of loyalty and love between the poet and his love connected by nothing less than the thinnest of connective tissue: a golden filament ties him to the divine and to God’s hunting dog. God’s hunting dog helps the poet find the love and loyalty of his love that the poet can’t discover on his own.

The feather duster transitions the poem to more concrete images. Dusting off the everyday routine of their relationship, he discovers a covert love passed down to him as a magic heirloom that has been passed from her family. She comes from a loving past, and he is surprised by the revelation of that love.

The “fountain in the cow pasture” is a concrete image of the sublime being made manifest from the mundane. There is the surprise at the discovery of water (an image of the presence of God) flowing from the mundane (a cow pasture). 

“An anachronistic anagram annoyed by anonymity” is a fun attribution to the feelings of the “You” in the poem. She is annoyed her presence in the poet’s life is not recognized immediately. He is a little slow on the uptake of her love for him; it takes him awhile to appreciate who she is (the anagram).

The penultimate surprise is the dollar lost in the winter coat (a reference to the warm front surprise), until he discovers it in the warm summer of their love. In other words, as their relationship grows, he continues to be surprised by her love and her presence.

The second stanza’s meaning comes directly from the form of the poem. The poem is about two people discovering love (You and I). The first stanza is the “You” of the poem. It starts with the word “You.” The second stanza is the “I” of the poem. Notice how the title is used in the first words of each stanza: “You” as the first word of the title, “And I” as the first two words in the second stanza. The poet completes the relationship of the title and as the discoverer of “You” (his love).

So what is the back-story on this poem? I have no idea. What is my take on this poem? It is one of my all-time favorite love poems because it reflects how I first discovered my love for my high school girlfriend, and it describes the discovery of when I first knew I was in love with my wife Eva.

If you actually stayed with me this far, let me know how how you liked this poem and this explication.  Don’t be shy: I feel like I am writing in a vacuum.

 

The Way You See the Problem is the Problem

I like fun stories! This is a fun story from the book, Zen and the Art of Happiness. Chris Prentiss is making a point about “As you believe, so it is for you.”

 

Acting on the basis of what you believe is what brings about the conditions of your life and the degrees of happiness you have experienced. In the breakthrough 2004 film What the Bleep Do We Know!?, physicist and author Fred Alan Wolf, Ph.D. observes: “There is no ‘Out There’ out there, independent of what goes on in our minds.”

Take the story of Max. Max owned a thriving sandwich shop. There were always people waiting in line to eat at his little shop. He gave away free pickles, free potato chips, sometimes a free soft drink, and his sandwiches were famous for being overstuffed.

One day his son, who lived in a distant city, came to visit. They had a good visit but as the son was leaving, he told his father, “Since I have been here, I’ve been observing how you run the sandwich shop, and I have to tell you for your own good that you’re making a big mistake giving away all those extras. The country’s economy is in bad shape. People are out of work, and they have less money to spend. If you don’t cut back on the free items and on your portion sizes, you’ll be in a bad way before long too.” His father was amazed, thanked his son, and told him he would consider his advice.

After his son left, Max followed his son’s advice. He stopped giving away free items and he cut back on the generous portions of food in his sandwiches. Before long, after many of his disappointed customers had stopped coming, he wrote his son: “You were right! The country’s economy is in bad shape, and I’m experiencing the results of it right here in my sandwich shop!”

The poor economy that the man’s son saw all around him was real. Despite the poor economy, though, the father had been running a successful sandwich shop. He didn’t realize that times were hard, that many people were out of work, and that money was scarce. He was treating everyone with great generosity and he was reaping the rewards that such actions always bring: a positive, generous outpouring of good things. But after his son told him about the “bad shape” the country was in, he began to act as if it were so, bringing about the only possible result—a negative, fearful, ungenerous experience that he believed was “out there.” Was it “out there”?

The answers are never “out there.” All the answers are “in there,” inside you, waiting to be discovered.

I have seen several similar scenarios in my life; the story rings true for me.

Hungry Ghost

In the Buddhist Wheel of Life, there is a realm called the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Hungry ghosts suffer from extreme hunger and thirst. They wander constantly in search of food and drink, only to be miserably frustrated any time they come close to actually getting what they want. For example, they see a stream of pure, clear water in the distance, but by the time they get there the stream has dried up. Hungry ghosts have huge bellies and long, thin necks. On the rare occasions that they do manage to find something to eat or drink, the food or water burns their neck as it goes down to their belly, causing them intense agony. (Wikipedia) The hungry ghost image is a metaphor for modern day addiction.

This text was originally posted on my Facebook wall in December 2015. Lots of people have read it, and I was encouraged by their response. It felt good to write the story; it was both necessary and cathartic to put this experience down on paper:

 

I am reading In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate. I mention that by way of having met a “hungry ghost” up close and personal this morning.

The morning started with the intention of riding my fat bike to the Knik Glacier. I wanted to change up Nature’s chessboards and play by wilderness rules for a while. I took Kenai and Jack (loopy Labs) for a five-mile walk early morning walk to get them tuned up for being left behind all day. Sometime on my walk, the electric power grid  shut down all over Wasilla.

I returned home to a dark house. I keep flipping the light switch on an off to light up the living room. Frustrated, I woke up to what was happening. My daughter, Samantha woke up with a request to make a trip to Carr’s grocery store to pick up some bacon and milk for her breakfast. Ever the dutiful dad, I drove into the dark, rainy morning in search of bacon and milk.

As I drove down Church Road in Wasilla, in the dark, in a pretty strong rain, I saw a young girl who looked exactly like my near neighbor to the south. I flashed on her face noting that she wasn’t my neighbor, and kept driving a few hundred more feet until I got a heart message from my Good Samaritan grandmother telling me to turn around, pick this girl up, and take her where she needed to go. I made the u-turn remembering the last time I played the good Samaritan role: I sustained a severe dog bite on the left calf from a crazy Jack Russell terrier while trying to extricate some woman from under her car. That’s another story.

Did I mention that this girl was walking in Church Road and not on the bike path parallel to the road? She was dressed in black; her clothing barely adequate for the weather. I rolled down the passenger window and asked her to get in.

She said, “I don’t want to get nail polish on your car.”

She thought better of it, and she opened the door and got in.

She was clearly “tweeking.”

She reeked of nail polish, but otherwise seemed harmless. I asked her where I could take her. She didn’t seem to make much sense at first, focused on her drying nail polish, but she rallied and said, “Knik and Railroad.” As we drove toward Knik, she asked my name and then introduced herself in a tenuous voice as “Kaylee.”

She definitely knew the house she was trying to find. She walked into the house and came out shortly afterwards saying, “They are all asleep… they don’t want me there.”

Okay. Next stop, the east end of Wasilla.

I asked her where she went to school and she thought for a while and said, “West.” Continuing, (I’m pretty predicable) I asked her if she worked in Wasilla and she said, “No.” “Do you work in Anchorage?” “No.  I’ve never worked before, but I need to work on that.” “Good.” (Again, pretty predictably clueless, as I can be.) “Did you just graduate from West?” “No. I’m thirty-one; take a left here.”

We ended up in a cul-de-sac surrounded with wrecked cars and discarded motor homes. I said I would wait for her to get inside the motor home she indicated before I left. She looked into a wrecked car on her way to the motor home, considered something in the car, and then just stood outside a dilapidated motor home as I turned my Subaru around.

I stopped. She got back in the car. “Where now?” “I don’t know, they were tripping in there.” “Okay, I’m on a bacon run and I need to stop at Carrs. How about you  come into Carrs with me and I will pick up my bacon and milk and we can figure out where to drop you off afterwards?” “Could you buy me some nail polish remover?” “Sure.” The power was just coming back on in Carrs. I got Sam’s bacon. I got Sam’s milk. She followed a store manager to find the nail polish remover.

My first thought? Ditch this girl!

I found myself standing by her as she selected four “pretty” colors of nail polish, nail polish remover, and clear polish. She held them up to me and said in a child’s voice, “Aren’t they pretty?” I said, “Pick two and put the others back.” “Okay, thank you.” At least she had “thank you skills” built into her operating system. Expressing gratitude will get you a lot of small gifts in my house.

We paid for the items. The cashier and the carryout guy clearly recognized the hungry ghost by my side. She was still fidgeting and tweeking pretty noticeably. They looked at me, and then at her, and then at me again, trying to make a connection. I could feel my patience and my goodwill starting to flag.

Outside the store, I told her I would take her back to her mother’s house. “Okay.” We sloshed through the rain to Church Road, the lights had come back on in the neighborhood. As it turned out, she lived down Mystery Street a few houses off Church Road in a house where someone had been shot and then arrested about a year ago. I had just walked past that house an hour before while walking my Labs. She lived barely a thousand feet from me.

As we pulled up to a house, she asked me if I “partied.” Pretty predictable. What encounter with a hungry ghost would be complete without that question?

I said “No” and added lamely, “I’m sixty-five.”

She said, “You could come in if you want.”

I demurred. She walked to a truck in the driveway, looked into the vehicle, opened the passenger door, sat down and closed the door.

I backed out of the driveway and said to myself, “Goodbye hungry ghost. Don’t spill your nail polish remover.”

I wonder if this encounter had anything to do with me declaring to myself yesterday that I no longer believe in karma. For me, Karma is an artificial construct; but maybe not.

A hungry ghost… “But for the grace of…” Well, I was looking for a different chessboard to play on this morning.

 

 

 

 

Drinking to Distraction

That blog title should get just about anyone’s attention.

Continuing the theme of writing about what I like, I offer a book recommendation for today’s blog. The gold standard of books concerning alcohol addiction and subsequent rehabilitation to an effective life is Carolyn Knapp’s memoir Drinking: A Love Story. Drinking to Distraction was written after Knapp’s memoir.

 

Why would anyone read two books in one week about alcoholism? Who knows? Both books are well-written; I like good writing.

 

I started and finished reading Drinking to Distraction, written by Jenna Hollenstein, in two hours. This book is short: about eighty pages. Her story is not dramatic: she didn’t drink and drive and kill someone; she didn’t wake up in bed with a strange man after a knockdown night of drinking; she just got tired of using alcohol to ease her anxiety in social situations. Hollenstein gradually decided it was time to stop drinking. She recognized that she drank to cope with her empty life when she was home alone in her apartment. She drank every night and her drinking continued for ten years. All of her friends drank excessively. That pretty much describes a formula for addiction with no easy escape.

 

So what sets the book apart from the average addiction memoir? Hollenstein’s discipline is extraordinary; she recovers her life from the ash heap of addiction with very little outside help.

 

With a gentle nudge from her therapist, Hollenstein opted to dry out in out in an outpatient rehab setting for four weeks. Afterwards, she tried AA; she left AA because it didn’t work for her. Hollenstein struck out on her own and used the process of introspection to conquer the hold addiction had on her. She carefully redefined her values: she replaced couch time with physical exercise (running) to distract her from hitting the bars after work and to reduce the time alone at home. She read (and initially ignored) a book on meditation before she decided to quit drinking. She recalled from that book that meditation helped people live more simply and calmly. She worked hard to learn how to meditate. Her description of her first meditation session is classic: she never gets control of her monkey-mind; she can’t even sit still for ten minutes. Hollenstein looked up the author (Susan Piver) of the meditation book The Wisdom of a Broken Heart. Pilver and Hollenstein both lived in Boston so Hollenstein called up Piver and went to her office to learn the discipline needed to meditate. In her quest to stay sober, Hollenstein explored Zen meditation, and incorporated those ideas into her life. She practiced tremendous self-restraint by mindfully forcing herself to avoid the triggers that drove her to drink. When she could consciously slow down her response to those triggers, she gained the control she needed to resist her temptation to drink.

 

My take away from this book is that it is possible to conquer alcoholism and establish a meaningful life through thoughtful self-examination and through tremendous self-discipline. AA didn’t work for Hollenstein; she found a more effective way to get control of her life by taking control of her mind and reprogramming it to not respond to temptation. She became the author of her every next moment.

 

The book is well-written, short, and might just help an alcoholic find a path to a more effective life. I hope a female friend who is an alcoholic can find inspiration and direction in Hollenstein’s text. It is worth reading just to observe the power of Hollenstein’s determination.

 

Oh, and did I mention she quotes Shakespeare in her text? Always a plus.