Too Smart and Charming for Our Own Good

I just got off the phone with a dear, dear friend. Larissa is in her late 30’s, holds a graduate degree and works as a teacher, where she is seen by her students and peers as insightful, creative and a dynamite professional. Her classroom is always abuzz with excitement, and her students routinely say she’s the best educator they’ve ever had. Larissa has been married for 15 years, has a couple of great kids, and does volunteer work in her community, focusing on the elderly. In that, she is also highly valued and seen as near-saintly. She is smart and charming and any number of other adjectives.

One word in the previous paragraph is wrong, though, and must be amended. “Works as a teacher” is actually “worked as a teacher.” Friday, Larissa was fired from her teaching job—despite all her gifts—because Larissa is also a drunk, an alcoholic. There had been warning signs and written warnings, hand-wringing and hand-holding, pie-crust promises to change and repeated breakage of those pie crusts. Larissa has been to rehab three or four times, during the summer and during the school year. She’s stopped drinking plenty of times, but hasn’t figured out a way to stay stopped. Yesterday, Larissa’s students smelled stale alcohol on her breath, reported it to her principal, and she was fired. As she should have been.

As was I. Fourteen years ago, I was allowed to resign from one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, running an alternative high school program in a dynamic community with engaged kids. I just couldn’t control my drinking, couldn’t stop drinking, and couldn’t stop lying about my drinking. I was where Larissa is today, and it took me another three years of sinking before I finally found myself homeless. Then, I found my solution.

Talking with Larissa was like listening to tapes of me all those years ago.

“I never drank at school.”

(Although I drank enough almost every night to still be legally drunk when I drove into work.)

“Some people just metabolize alcohol in a smellier way than most.”

(Of course, some people just don’t drink, or don’t drink on work nights, or don’t drink enough to worry about metabolizing times.)

“Who are they to judge what I do on my own time?”

(Even if their concern is the ways what I do on my own time affects students, parents and co-workers.)

“I’m going to see a lawyer, because alcoholism is a disease. They wouldn’t fire me for having diabetes.”

(Unless I continued to take too much insulin or refused to eat so I was passing out in the classroom, acting shaky or confused or falling asleep regularly.)

“If it weren’t for my husband/kids/neighbors/parents/ad nauseum, I wouldn’t need to drink.”

(Although I would, because I’m an alcoholic, gifted at finding targets to drink at.)

“They’re jealous of what a good job I do, and how much the kids like me.”

(That may be, but they’re also worried about my judgement and decision making, impaired as I am by booze.)

Larissa will find another job. She’s insightful and gifted and attractive, and that’s what her references will say. They won’t say she’s a drunk. They won’t want to damage her opportunities because “She’s so great when she’s not drinking. If it weren’t for that . . .” Unfortunately, those ellipses never end without change, and that change doesn’t seem to come without work on our part.

No one ever passed on that truth about me, either. After all I was creative and energetic, if not attractive. From that lost job of mine, I eventually got a teaching job at a residential school, until I got fired from there, if not for drinking then for behavior brought on by drinking. Then I got a job as a clerk/salesman. Then I got homeless.

Larissa is cursed by good luck and bad genes. She’s got everything she needs to be successful—except for the ability to stay away from that first drink.

Larissa and I are both smart and charming, too goddamned smart and charming for our own good when it comes to booze. There, all the gifts and talents in the world won’t keep us sober, although they can keep us from getting sober.

(I’ll try to keep you posted on Larissa—I’m driving to see her tomorrow—but if I forget, please drop me an email to remind me.)

A Pompous Clown Answers Your Questions

After the other night’s “Chronicle” episode, I was besieged with messages from old readers, new readers and, I suspect, non-readers of this column. “Besieged” is not too strong a word, since the web site got about a gaziooion hits more than average, with most of those coming from first-time visitors. Welcome!

I will respond personally to each message over the next couple days, but a lot of folks had similar questions. I’ll try to answer some of them here:

1. Music must be important in the Tiny White Box. What do you listen to when you’re writing?

Honestly, I don’t listen to music when I write. I’m more likely to put on a podcast or audiobook and use the sounds of human voices as background. Still, I do listen to a lot of music. As a random sample, the last dozen artists I’ve listened to are:

The Weakerthans Ani DiFranco Dar Williams Daniel Amos The Hold Steady Philip Glass Bob Dylan Django Reinhardt Linda Thompson The Call John Cale Tonio K.

If there’s a theme there, I don’t recognize it, I mean other than music I enjoy.

2. Would you like to get together for breakfast/lunch/dinner/coffee/a weekend away in the Bahamas?

Since I got sober, I’ve made it a rule to never turn down free food, so, yes, email me and we’ll set up a time. As for the Bahamas, they’ve never really appealed to me. On the other hand, I do have a whole bunch of places I’d love to visit. For instance:

Madagascar Mauritania Kenya Nigeria Liberia

And that’s just Africa. If you are a woman, please review the last Q and A before booking our flight.

3. Don’t you get lonely?

That’s one symptom I’ve never suffered. In fact, as someone wiser than I once remarked, I’m never less lonely than when I’m alone. Walking through a crowded mall feels much more isolating and alienating to me than walking alone in the country.

4. You seem so serious and calm. What makes you angry?

“Serious” isn’t a word people who know me well would ever use. I speak slowly, which may make me sound thoughtful in brief doses—over time it becomes apparent I’m a pompous clown. This misimpression comes from skillful editing by Paul, the Chronicle editor, who is responsible for putting together the pieces of video, sound and other scraps and turning them into a tasteful segment.

I see a through-line from Jesus to Robin Hood to Superman to Martin Luther King, Jr. Hence it makes me angry when I see the strong taking advantage of the weak. The poor in spirit (and in finances) deserve a preferential option—and we all deserve to be protected from Kryptonite. Seriously, and this has driven crazy everyone in my life, when I do get angry I become even calmer and quieter.

5. What are you looking for in a woman?

First, I’m not looking for anything in anyone. I trust the universe will present me with funny, challenging and interesting people to interact with. I think I’m funny, I’ve heard I’m challenging and I’m interested in me, so I suspect others will be as well. If I were looking for a woman partner, I’d want her to be smart, attractive, funny and between 55 and 65. Independent wealth is always nice, since it makes travel so much more pleasant.

Although it’s my goal to die at the age of 92, shot in the back by a jealous husband, I’m not interested in married women. Also, I shy away from facial tattoos, heavy drinking and and barn burning convictions.

I am a Field: What Flows through Me Enriches Me

As a jackass, I’ve no right to use Chinese ideograms. They should be reserved for Zen practitioners, restaurants serving fried rice and college students searching for just the right tattoo. Don’t worry. I’m not going to be deep here, although I do wish I had wisdom and depth as an option instead of a promise to avoid them. Sigh.

In recovery, I’ve learned I always get more out of working with others than they get out of me. Part of this, of course, is because of who I am. Although the Chinese Zodiac says I was born in a year of the dog, I believe my symbol should instead be the jackass, reproduced here for any readers needing a tattoo idea for that uninked place on the back of your left wrist. Despite my jackassery, though, when I spend time with newcomers, they seem to benefit and I know I do. One of the insights I’ve been given over the past 10 years is that what flows through me enriches me. When I channel gratitude, I experience gratitude. When I try to pass on what I’ve been given, I get more out of it than the recipient does. How unintuitive.

Tonight, though, I’m getting together with the group of men, all in recovery, who have helped me build and maintain a moral compass, my consiglieri, the small group of advisors who tell me when I’m full of crap (often) and when I’m steering my life in a positive direction. I’d like to say we’re convening to consider my next move in life ora challenge facing one of the other guys. We’re not. It’s my last night in Manchester, and we’re gathering at Gaucho’s, a Brazilian restaurant, to be carnivores, dining on unlimited servings of dead mammals. (Being only 51% male, though, my favorite is Gaucho’s salmon, with a great caper sauce.) By 8:30 or so, I will have ingested the equivalent of five footballs of flesh, laughed a lot and gotten the meat sweats. Just like a real man.

I apologize for such a short column, but I will try to make up for it in two ways. First, here’s a link to the “Chronicle” show from the other night. I haven’t confessed this before, but I didn’t watch the show when it was live, but I did view it this afternoon, when Sean McDonald sent it to me. Sean and Paul, his cameraman and editor, managed to wipe the weirdness off me and actually make me look fairly normal and sane. Excellent job, there, and something I didn’t think could be done.

Chronicle Link

The second make-up gift is a link to the Chronicle viewers column, which includes links to a representative sample of earlier columns. None of them were hits, or even B-sides, but they do give the flavor of what I do.

ChronicleColumn Link

Tomorrow, I head back home. This weekend, I’ll publish one of the hardest columns I’ve ever had to write. That’s what’s known as a cliff-hanger. Please stay behind the guardrail as you wait.



False Valor on the Mantelpiece: A (non)Artist’s Confession

My goal as a child was to be a midget. If I was going to be the smallest kid in my elementary-school class year after year, I at least wanted the notoriety of midgetdom as an adult. Not knowing any adult little people, I assumed they all made their livings on stage and television, either as henchmen or comedians. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, I didn’t achieve that goal. For the record, by the time I was in junior high school, I wanted to be a major-league ballplayer—another dashed hope. In high school, my stated goal was to wage revolution and bring down the United States government. So far, that goal seems safely out of reach.

As a little kid, of course, I had other shorter-term goals. At 11, for instance, I wanted some girl, almost any girl, to want to kiss me, or at least hold my hand. At 11, I wanted to be able to play a recognizable tune on my musical instrument of choice—the tuba. (A brief aside, the tuba is not a solo instrument; to my knowledge, people may ironically call out for more cowbell, but no one has ever sat through one more note than necessary emanating from a tuba. If readers of this column have not already recognized this, Richard and Beverly Howard were saints. Imagine writing out weekly checks to a tuba teacher so you could have your musically inept son make sounds worse than a hippo choking on an easy chair. That is divine patience and love.) Finally, I wanted to make a picture or any piece of artwork that would be taped up for praise and recognition instead of held up for shame and ridicule. Kissing and tubas were clearly beyond me, but each time I’d start a picture, I’d swear this time was going to be different. If I was drawing a horse, I’d leave out every non-horse stroke, and erase any stray marks. Unfortunately, while I could recognize “horseness” in my classmates’ picture, and sense its absence in mine, I was incapable of drawing a figure that bore any resemblance to its target. I laughed on the outside about my lack of ability, but still wanted just once create a picture that would get a simple, “Nice picture.”



“What’s that supposed to be?”

“It’s a horse.”

“Horses have four legs.”

“I know, but I didn’t have room, so I made the third one really fat.”


“What’s that supposed to be?” (As an aside, no positive artistic conversation ever began with “what’s that supposed to be?”)

“What does it look like to you?”

“It looks like nothing. A box with sagging sides and spaghetti flying over it and a few melted candles beside the box.”

“It’s my house with me and my sister outside.”

“Was there a nuclear attack?”

I’m thankful that none of the school-suggested psychologists I was ever “referred” to was an art therapist. I demonstrated enough evidence of maladjustment just through my words and behavior without some Ph.D. declaring me unfit for life based on a self-portrait. I mean, maybe my mind’s eye sees four holes at the bottom of my nose and eyeballs of different sizes and shapes.

+         +         +

When I was in fifth grade, I was no more an artist than I’d been when I was five. In fact, in some ways I was worse. A five-year-old isn’t expected to produce realism—“primitive” is the operative term. In fifth grade, my skills were still undeveloped (and have since proven undevelopable), but I’d picked up some artistic flourishes that looked like makeup on a pig.

Jeff Dewing was different. He was really good at everything artistic, from sketching to sculpting to silk-screening. For example, when we were given copper sheets and styli, I scratched out a dog that resembled a piece of gum shoved under a tabletop. Jeff created a Roman soldier in profile, complete with galea, the Roman helmet. Jeff’s carving captured the glory and sadness of the soldier far from home; mine looked like a lint-ball. When the teacher returned our projects, Jeff got his usual A or A+ and I my C-. Amazingly, to me, Jeff looked at his grade, considered his etching and threw them into the wastebasket. Although I was no artist, I could appreciate his gift and scrambled to rescue his art from the dump, then shoved it into my book bag, planning to hang it in my room. It never made it there.

When I got home and poured my book bag out, a huge grin spread out over my mother’s face. I knew it wasn’t for my half-eaten PB&J scrunched into a plastic bag, my Encyclopedia Brown book with the torn cover or the C+ on my spelling test.

“It’s . . . beautiful,” she said, gazing lovingly at Jeff’s etching. “Keith, I’m so proud of you! I didn’t know you could do something like that.”

I couldn’t. And can’t. But I also couldn’t break my mother’s heart yet again, not after all the phone calls home about my behavior, my wasted potential and, especially, my attitude. I just looked at the floor and let her believe what she wanted. And do what she wanted, which was to take the copper Roman soldier carving and place it not on the refrigerator—where no picture of mine had been magneted—but on the fireplace mantel. She’d taken Jeff’s work and not just built a shrine to it but elevated it to Mount Olympus.

For the next two or three years, when we celebrated Christmas or Thanksgiving or birthdays, or my parents had friends in for drinks or we had a New Year’s Eve party, all the adults would ooooh and aaaah over Jeff’s work then cast an appreciative eye at me. The smile I offered back was unsure, crinkled and fleeting, but it was not the confession it should have been.

By the time I was in eighth grade, my “difficulties” in school had blossomed, my kid sister’s genuine artistic talent had budded, and my inability to create anything like Jeff’s, er, my earlier work had led to Jennifer’s work taking over the mantel and the Roman soldier to be put into a drawer. I snuck it out, folded it like a study-hall note and threw it away, the last, if completely false, evidence of my artistic ability.

“Untitled” by Keith Howard (from the Private Collection of Jennifer Kilar)


Welcome Chronicles Viewers! Here’s a Smorgasbord of Tiny White Box Columns

So . . . you’ve seen the Tiny White Box on Channel 9’s “Chronicles” program. Thanks for watching, and thanks for stopping by. As I write this, I haven’t seen the segment, so I don’t know its theme. Let’s assume it didn’t call for villagers to burn me out of the Great North Woods, and that you’d like to see what I’ve been doing.

Below are the 25 most popular columns on the site. Clicking on a title will take you to the column, but I’ll bet you knew that already. (Full Disclosure: “most popular” is a weasel phrase that includes a few pieces that I like better than readers did. Do enjoy. Do respond. And do keep visiting.

Drug/Alcohol Rehab Stuff

Three-Dimensional Russian Roulette: Heroin and Me

Alcohypochondria: The Disease I Discover, Describe and Suffered from

Swimming Together, Not Drowning Alone: Thoughts on Alcathons

I Wasn’t an Alcoholic. I Just Drank to Stay Sane

There is No God, But that Doesn’t Stop Him from Working

A Pair of Christmas Miracles

Childhood Stuff

Shooting a Chickadee

Silence is Golden, Slumber is Final: A Fishing Story

Cute, with a Side of Evil: Making My Grandfather Cry

Murdering Chatty Cathy:  A Fairy Tale

Totaling a Car at 11: I was Trying to Get Out of Trouble

Adoption Stuff

Sally Piper Words, Words, Words: A Brief Sketch of Sally Piper, a Woman I Never Knew

Sally Piper Had A Peck of Unplanned Pregnancies

Political Stuff

A Patriotic Rant with a Twist: A Veterans View of the National Anthem

“But He’s a Muslim”: The Reason (I think) I’m Being Given an Award

An Undelivered Speech at the Turkish Cultural Center’s Friendship Dinner (along with what I did say)

Wouldn’t It?: Response to the Texas Church Shootings

Tiny House Stuff

Tiny White Box Profiled in Vagabond Monthly

“My Name is Keith and I . . . Live in a Tiny House

A Phrase that Will Not Pass My Lips

Veterans Stuff

Today is Not a Good Day to Die: Waiting for My Murderer (or a sad man) (or no one at all)

The Hermit with the Pastor’s Heart or How I Managed to Avoid Death, Make Some Jokes and Maybe Help a Veteran a Little Bit


Rejected Book Titles

More Rejected Book Titles

Mocking My Betters:  Luckily the World is Filled with Them









Mission Statements and Me: A Battle I’ve Finally Won

Management theory is bunk, as is most management practice, really. Oh, I’ve managed organizations large and small, and done a good job, as measured by improved outcomes and increased incomes.  Because of this success, various traditional organizations have found me useful. Until they decide they want a mission statement, at which point I become an impediment to progress.

For those of you lucky enough to have dodged this practice, a mission statement purports to set out an organization’s purpose, its products, its target market and its selling points. For readers not familiar with the word, “purport” means “to claim falsely,” which can be reduced to “to lie.” Hence a mission statement is a series of agreed-upon lies regarding an organization. What separates a mission statement from a public relations lie is the former uses much more business jargon and many more buzzwords.

For example:

“Our mission is to provide just-in-time service

in a gender-neutral and environmentally stable manner.”


“We exist to maximize client-centered outcomes

without sacrificing holistic social networks.”


“We interactively develop disseminatable strategies

with a focus on deliverables.”


“Our mission is to facilitate cross-cultural communication

utilizing state-of-the-art organically-sourced

primary, secondary and tertiary electronic channels.”

Perhaps I was a bit harsh in using the word “lies” above. After all, for a statement to be labelled a lie, we need to demonstrate its divergence from the truth. Since mission statements typically say nothing at all, they are octopus ink—they exist to obscure any truth rather than present an alternative.

I’ve spent my life injecting absurdity into formal situations while bringing order to chaos, so you’d think mission statements would be right up my alley. Here, you’d be wrong, because I’ve also spent my life refusing to take oaths that contain even a phrase I don’t agree with. A mission statement, as typically written, can’t be agreed with or disagreed with—it has no substance.

Still, I’ve had to sit through more than my share of mission-statement-generation retreats/meetings/seminars, driving other participants crazy with my damnable desire to actually say something. The one time I wrote a mission statement it ended up a 20-stanza prose-poem. Needless to say, it was not adopted. Until the Tiny White Box came into existence out of nothing.My mission statement may not have the necessary buzz-per-syllable ratio typical of the genre, but it is an oath I can take, as long as I can have a drink of water halfway through.

What It Is

A mission statement in a Keatsian voice

It is not about liability.
It is about reliability

It is not about what a judge would say.
It is about judgement.

It is not about hiding.  It is not about shame.
It is about following that still, small voice within.

It is not about the passive voice.
It is about the active voice.

It is not about being acted upon.
It is about acting.

It is not about being an object.
It is the subject.

It is not about you.
It is about I.

It is not about me.
It is about us.

It is not about rights.
It is about responsibility.

It is not about money.  It is never about money.

It is not about the law.
It is about being honest, true and reasonable, regardless of the law.

It is not about breaking the rules.  It is not about following the rules.
It is above, beyond and behind the rules.

It is about a code engraved in the mind, written on the heart, tattooed on the soul.

It is about doing instant moral calculus in your head.  It is about taking time to check your work.

It is not about the times table.

It is not about time.  It is not about beginning and ending.  It is not about precedent.
It is about now.

It is not about covering your butt.
It is about covering the bases.

It is not about not doing the wrong thing.
It is about doing the right thing.

It is not about agenda items, setting priorities or action plans.
It is the right action at the right time.

We are the right people.

It is about taking responsibility.  It is about being responsible.  It is about making choices.  It is about seeing that there are always choices.

It is not about blame, excuses or retribution.

It is about being rational.
It is not about rationalizing.

It is about appealing to that which is best within us.
It is not about comparing ourselves to the worst of those about us.

It is about continually and constantly questioning the worthiness and wisdom of our own actions.

It is about assuming the best in others.

It is about acting as if this were a perfect world, and making choices that will help to make it so.




Random Journal Entries #16

Consider these, then, notes for a series of unwritten poems.

Premise:  The Wizard of Oz is exhausted from pulling on the bellows, monitoring the entire nation, injecting magic into the world and, ultimately, getting Dorothy back to Kansas.  Being an energetic genius is hard work, and he is weary.  Dropping back into his well-worn leather chair, he drifts off into a dream of you.

Premise:  A land parched for years, so dry that no life appears possible.  Sun-baked, the desert shows nothing but death, no, beyond-death, a place so lifeless that even the memory of conscious movement is gone.  Unbidden, a small translucent cloud moves across the horizon, stopping above the least hospitable part.  Barely one shade removed from transparency, the cloud lets light through, but not sunbeams themselves.  Rain drops appear beneath the cloud, the moisture sucked up by the need below.  Life, long gone, reappears.

Premise:  A stand of trees.  Between them running into a bright green forest, a long line of doorways, each one different from the last, some large, some round, some nailed shut, some made of paper, some of stone, some of glass, some of wood.  A guard, armed but beautiful, directs all visitors away alternating between claiming no doorways exist, explaining the doors don’t open or opening fire to protect the doors.

A stranger, neither tall nor short, handsome nor ugly, approaches the guard and listens to her explanations.  He stays next to her.  Although she keeps her gun aimed at his mid-section, she does not shoot.  He looks into her eyes, she looks away, then back, then away again.

He asks her why.

Why what, she says.

Why do you guard?

I guard the doors.

From what?


Her weapon slowly points to the ground.

How is your hearing?

My hearing?

Could it be that you misheard your orders?

My orders?

Your orders to guard.

Could it be the order was to guide and not to guard?  And could you be my guide?

She slings her weapon and reaches out her hand.

Premise:  Notes on Liberty House


In speaking of “group” and “community” and “process,”

I find me editing my words,

removing the theological terms:

Covenant, Chosen, Love, Sacrifice,

even Spirit


god forbid,



in examining a church or other religious institution,

I am drawn to the words of sociology

“mass delusion,” “emotional needs met” and “belief systems.”


One wonders why the language of

geology never slips into biology,

geography into biography


necrology into gynecology.

One wonders but can never know.

Premise:  Weight controls him.  Not weight itself, but its measurement.  Each day he records, to the ounce, the numbers on his scale.  As his weight goes up, he feels joy—he does need to gain weight for medical reasons—tempered by guilt and shame.  Imagine an Almond Joy bar with Drano-laced coconut.   When his weight goes down, he feels disappointment overpowered by pride.  Imagine a skull-and-crossbones imprinted brownie.


Pus Theory (a joyful dirge)

You just wait for the pressure to build up, you just wait for the build-up to blow,

Then what you spew out of your mouth, mind, or hand can be called a piece of art you know.

Whatever pops into your mind and plops out on a page

Artistically represents your joy, sorrow, loss and rage.


Art is art when an artist has found it,

Take a blank wall, put a frame around it

Don’t waste time trying to master your craft

Just set sail on the ocean of art with your ego as your only life raft


You don’t have to be that clever, you don’t have to have much soul

Jackson Pollock didn’t know what he’d get when he poured that paint out of a bowl.

You don’t have to study your craft, you don’t have to be that clever

When you subscribe to the pus theory of artistic endeavor.


Art is art when an artist has found it,

Take a blank wall, put a frame around it

Don’t waste time trying to master your craft

Just set sail on the ocean of art with your ego as your only life raft


Artists of a feather gotta hang together so they won’t hang separately,

Vision is a tired anachronism; you want marketability

Money is really what matters; vision is really quite garish

Never mind what the Bible says; it’s without mammon that people perish


Art is art when an artist has found it,

Take a blank wall, put a frame around it

Don’t waste time trying to master your craft

Just set sail on the ocean of art with your ego as your only life raft