Meanwhile, Back in the Beginning of the Last Century . . .

Sam and I live!  We have no electricity, and may not for another three or four days.  We have no internet access without getting in the car and driving to sit outside a convenience store, looking like a couple of potential thieves casing the joint.  (As a criminal, Sam has the perfect costume, for who would believe a boxer/lab mix would be capable of crime?)  Still, we do survive.

Here’s my post from yesterday, before we discovered the internet:

Monday, 10/30/17

I woke up at 3:18 this morning to a remake of the tornado sounds in “The Wizard of Oz.”  While the Tiny White Box wasn’t shaking, exactly, it was at the least undulating like Jell-O on a plate.  Sam (is a dog) knew I was troubled.  He demonstrated this in the way he humphed at me, rolled over and went back to sleep.  I noticed my phone charger light was out and tried the bedside lamp.  Nothing.  Here I was, alone and powerless in the Great North Woods, wind howling around the Tiny White Box and the sound of trees breaking in the gale.  I considered my options, then followed the model set by my spiritual guide, Sam, and went back to sleep.

When I woke up for the day, I climbed out of bed, put on my robe and looked out the back window.  The storage tent/shed/contraption I’d put together was still there in one piece.  Then I looked out the side window and trees were horizontal that had stood the night before.  Nothing huge and nothing near me, but a mess to be picked up.  The electricity was still out, so I knocked back day-old room-temperature coffee and recognized a series of mistakes I’d made.

When I moved in, I’d known the weather would change, but like the grasshopper in the fable, I’d let the summer breezes of late October distract me from preparing.  Oh, sure, I had a small electric heater in the box, throwing off plenty of heat in the morning.  Until now.  I had a coffee maker and microwave, along with an electric burner to take care of cooking.  Until now.  I had lamps and chargers to keep everything flowing.  Until now.

While I’d brought along most everything we’ll need for the winter, I’d left it packed in the storage tent.  If the wind had been worse and torn down the structure, most of what Sam and I will need could have been blown from here to Contoocook.  After Sam and I went on a combination walk/tour of the destruction, I got down to business.

Today, I mounted the carbon-monoxide sensor I’d bought but not needed, carried in 18 small propane canisters, refilled all the water containers, pulled all the batteries out of the back of a cabinet and turned on the portable radio.  I write this warmed by the small propane heater I’d had stored away, with the lamp burning and dinner prepared over the tiny propane burner.  We gathered all the electrical equipment that needs to be kept fully charged.  It’s now in a box, with a schedule for charging attached.  My phone and backup phone, my computer and backup computer, my Kindle, the Bluetooth speaker, the two battery power packs and both car battery chargers now, like soldiers told to hurry up and wait, sit under our bed awaiting the return of electricity, at which point they’ll each be lined up and filled.  Never again will I worry that my computer is at 32% and that I won’t be able to write for more than another couple hours.

New Hampshire Public Radio says electricity may be out for most of the state for at least a couple days, but Sam and I will be warm and snug inside the Tiny White Box.

“But He’s a Muslim”

Next month I’m being awarded a prize, the Community Service Award, from the Turkish Cultural Center in Manchester, at their annual Friendship Dinner.  I’m honored.  I’m pleased.  I’m flabbergasted.  My first thought was they had the wrong man, but since they’d sent the invitation to my post office box in Pittsburg, that seemed unlikely.  According to their website, this award is given to me as the former executive director of Liberty House, a transitional home for formerly homeless veterans, so I tried to figure out what I could have done to deserve such an honor.

It’s unclear to me what connection, if any, the Turkish Cultural Center has with the Turkish government, a government led by a strong man.  Here again I must confess to an ignorance of whether “strong man” in this case should be read as “a leader who must take firm control of a country to lead it through a crisis” (e.g., Franklin Roosevelt) or “a despotic tyrant” (e.g., Joe Stalin.) Last summer, I spent a couple weeks in England, both in London and in the north.  Countless were the conversations I had with Brits convinced the US was under a modified martial law inflicted by a xenophobic madman.  When I explained that life for the vast majority of Americans had not changed one jot or tittle under President Trump, they got the look of an elementary-school guidance counselor talking with a third grader about the bruises on her arms—“There, there, you can tell me about it.”  But I digress.

Whether government-sanctioned or not, the Turkish Cultural Center’s Friendship Dinner is a sweet gesture of brotherhood.  I know it’s bold to say this, but I think friendship is a good thing.  I think awards are fine things (as long as recipients keep their comments to three minutes or less).  Still, I needed to justify, in my own mind, why I should receive an award.

In addition to being led by a strong man of indeterminate category, Turkey is a historically Muslim country.  (I know, I know those of you who still refer to Istanbul as Constantinople and harbor hopes of a reconstructed Roman Empire will disagree.  For my lifetime and my great-grandparents’ lifetimes, Turkey has been Muslim.  That’s “historical” enough for this context.)  I’m not a Muslim, and have made no study of Islamic scriptures, but I do have a story, and that story helps me justify this award.  Let me explain.

Liberty House has a breakfast each Veterans Day, a fundraising event where former Liberty House residents are honored for their accomplishments and each speaks for five minutes or so about what life is like now, not on what led them to be homeless and not on their time at Liberty House.  It is, quite simply, a celebration of progress folks have experienced since they left.  As director, I helped choose the speakers and introduced each of them.  Last year, Veterans Day fell less than a week after election day.  Although I was as surprised as much of the electorate that President Trump had been elected, a fundraising breakfast is no place for controversy, so I was very careful to keep my comments completely apolitical.  I thought.

Before introducing the first speaker, I mentioned that part of the Liberty House ethos is a sense of giving back, that while a homeless veteran might today be in need of assistance, that same veteran, returned to stability, had an obligation to support future vets in need.  So far, so good.  I then mentioned that in my time there, one particular veteran had gone above and beyond in giving back.

I first met Hisham (not his real name, because he wants no credit for his mitvah) when he was locked up awaiting charges related to, as I remember, gun-running and cocaine.  Hisham had grown up in northern Sudan, and had joined the United States Army as a translator, serving in Iraq.  After his honorable discharge, Hisham came to the US, got involved, like many vets, with drugs, alcohol and violence and finally ended up sitting behind bars with me interviewing him for a spot at Liberty House.

Hisham is a mountain of a man with a ready grin.  He came to Liberty House, lived with us for a while, got a job and moved on.  He was not the best resident ever, but he was far from the worst.  He was no better a Muslim than he had to be, just like the other residents were not particularly focused on their Christianity or Judaism.  He was just another good guy who took advantage of the opportunity we offered.  I like him.  We are friends.

As it happened, two or three days before the Veterans Day breakfast, Hisham came to Liberty House and donated $1,000, saying he’d been lucky and wanted to follow the practice of giving back.  He was under no obligation to do anything, and I will say no Christian, Atheist, Jew or Agnostic Liberty House resident had ever done anything so generous before.

Anyway, I told this brief anecdote, then went on to introduce the morning’s speakers.  After the breakfast, though, I was stopped by a red-faced man in a dark suit.  He looked like a man who needed either to get something off his chest or get an EKG.

“How dare you insult the President like that!” he said.

I had no idea what he was talking about, and said so.

“You had no right,” he responded, “to talk about a Muslim that way.  You know how the President feels about Muslims.”

“I wasn’t talking about a Muslim,” I said, feeling reality drift away.  “I was talking about a formerly homeless American veteran who did the right thing.”

“But he’s a Muslim!” the man said, then stormed off.

On Thursday, November 16, I’ll be given a Community Service Award by the Turkish Cultural Center.  No matter what may be said when they introduce me, I’ll know I’m receiving the award because of Hisham.  Hisham is not just Sudanese, not just a formerly homeless veteran, not just Muslim, not just a recovering junkie and not just a criminal.  Hisham is my friend, a man who does the right thing because it is the right thing.  I’ll accept that award on behalf of all the Hishams out there, whether Buddhist, Animist, Christian, Muslim or any other religion.  They are the kind of men I value and try to be.

(Tickets for the Friendship Dinner are available through the Turkish Cultural Center’s Facebook Page.  If you do go, please sidle up to me and introduce yourself.  Even if it’s only to say, “But he’s a Muslim!”)

Number One, Number Two . . . I pray there’s no number 3

 

From the age of two until six or seven, most of us find two subjects both fascinating and hilarious.  Those two subjects are poop and pee.  Toilet humor is humor period for the post-toddler set.  Most of us also move on from this phase, and don’t talk much about defecation and urination, and are certainly not intrigued by it.  Until you move into a tiny house, at which point everyone you know feels duty bound (I’m tempted to say doodie-bound, but that sounds like constipation, which is not the topic) to inquire as to how and when and where you “go to the bathroom” (in quotes, beause there is no bathroom in my tiny house.  Answers will follow, but first let me share with you two genuinely interesting facts about human waste.

Number One

Until recently, a doctor wanting to positively diagnose diabetes would instruct the patient to leave the room, fill a small glass jar with urine and return.  While she sat, the patient watched her physician tip the glass to his mouth and pour in a quarter-mouthful of the ammonia-smelling liquid and perform a tasting.  It is unknown whether he aerated it properly, let each part of his palate experience the golden liquid or recorded adequate tasting notes.  Once the urine had tasted positive for sugar, the doctor either spat it out or swallowed, depending on his thirst and next patient’s unknown diagnosis, one supposes.  Regardless, the diagnosis was certain:  sweet pee meant diabetes.

Now thats an interesting bit of information about urine.

Number Two

Without going into details (because I don’t know many), the human gut, when given antibiotics for too long a time, can have its “good” bacteria destroyed and allowing “bad” bacteria to wage a mutiny.  (The quotes are included because they only apply from a human perspective.  I have a hard enough time determining good and bad for me, much less what is moral for a bacterium.)  One way to battle this is to bring in reinforcements—by inserting feces teeming with good guys back into the intestines.  This healthy feces comes from a donor and can be inserted by colonoscopy or enema.  If those seem too intrusive, one can swallow frozen poop pellets or use a nasogastric tube—introducing feces through a tube from the nose to the gut.  Snorting poop, after a fashion.

And theres a set of fun fecal facts to know and tell.

Now ends the educational portion of this column, and onto the details people clamor for—how do I relieve my body of waste products?

IMG_1418 is a picture of my primary means of urinating, a decorated laundry-detergent jug I fill with waste and empty in various different places in the woods surrounding the Tiny White House.  My daughter, Libby, is responsible for most of the decoration, although I’m not sure I told her back in July what her creation was going to be used for.  Form follows human function, I suppose.  In addition to the jug, I’m also lucky enough to be a man and to live in the middle of nowhere, making daytime urination significantly easier than it would be for a woman in Cleveland.

As for feces, my options are fewer.  I do have access to an outhouse, but already—even in this August-like October—sitting on a cold plastic seat does little to encourage the necessary relaxation.  I much prefer the heated bathrooms of gas stations and campgrounds, but these are not always available, so I also have a human cat box, a bucket with a toilet seat attached.  The bucket is lined with a biodegradable bag, at the bottom of which I’ve placed a few inches of saw dust.  Once I’ve done my business, I cover the results with another few inches of saw dust.  Once the container is two-thirds full, I go to a pre-dug hole in the woods, place the contents inside the hole and tear the bag with a stick to make biodegradation simpler, cover it with leaves and move on.

Now that I’ve explained this, when you meet me you can ask much more compelling questions like “How do you live without tv or the internet?”

 

Therapy and Feet: A Celebration

A very bad thing happened to me a long time ago.  Because of shame and guilt, I turned that pain into a joke—“Can you believe the crazy situation I got myself into?”  Over time, that bad thing was like a piece of gravel in a hiking boot.  It was small, or so I wanted to convince myself, and I should just ignore it.  Of course, like the gravel, that bad thing didn’t disappear; instead, it rubbed my spirit raw, sometimes getting infected, affected my gait through life as I tried to protect the weaker part.  And just as with that sore foot, I didn’t want to examine anything.  Taking the boot off would hurt, the foot would look gross, it would be even more painful to have to put the boot back on.  Anyway, it was just a piece of gravel in there.

A little more than five years ago, I’d just started a new job, a great job, the job I was meant to have.  I was in a relationship I thought would be forever, until one night I was curled up crying on our bed moaning at my partner to just leave me alone.  Nothing had precipitated this—except for 35 years of trying to walk through life with that piece of gravel always there.  The job lasted; the relationship didn’t, and understandably so.  The reason the job worked, I truly believe, is because of what the relationship’s failing led me to.  I reached out for help.

I’m a veteran and I went to the Veterans Center in Hooksett, NH.  There, I was introduced to the woman who helped me save my life and helped me find the strength to do significant things at that job.  Working with Bette, I was able to take my boot off (metaphorically—despite typical transference, I kept all my clothes on at all times), look at the wound, disinfect and bandage it, then put my boots back on.  Bette Burbank helped me talk, for the first time, about the events of my Military Sexual Trauma (MST); much more than this, she helped me see and understand that any guilt I felt was misplaced.  I hadn’t done anything wrong.

Although we did a little bit of work with EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), once Bette saw I viewed the exercise as a pile of nonsense we moved into a traditional therapist/client relationship, and she built up my trust enough that I could reveal to her things I’d never shared with another human being. From here, healing took place and with that healing Bette helped make my life worth living.  Later, as the extent of my PTSD became more apparent, Bette was an incredible advocate throughout the process of applying for recognition from the VA, even showing up at a review hearing just to be there with me.

As an alcoholic, I’d been in and out of therapy for years—sometimes self-directed, more often at the direction of a spouse, girlfriend or employer.  I have nothing to say about much of that time, because I really believe alcoholism creates an inability to be honest about any potential impact on drinking, a need to protect almost all of one’s life from the outside.  I wasn’t honest with them, and they didn’t help me much.  When Bette and I started working together, I’d been sober about five years, and I’m sure my sobriety helped.  More than just that, though, in Bette Burbank I found a human being who listened to me, who supported me, who believed in me and who helped me create the life I live now.  I am a happy man, and Bette owns some of that happiness.

 

Alcohypochondria–You Saw It Here First!

I’m not sure how one goes about declaring the discovery of a new disease, but I imagine describing its symptoms comes near the front of the train.  The other night, sitting in a meeting, I mentally coined a word, alcohypochondria.  While playing with the pleasing sound of it, I realized I had hit the triple crown:  I’d created a word, discovered it was a disease and found I was Patient Zero.  Let me explain.

As an alcoholic with no desire to moderate or, silly boy, cease my drinking, I found I had quite a few physical maladies and ailments.  Had I been a rational scientist or doctor, I would have tried to determine the cause of these problems; as an alcoholic, I needed to protect my ability to drink.  In the battle between reason and booze, liquor always wins.  (Before you rationalists get too hurt, alcohol also triumphs over family, friendships, self-respect and food.  Drink trumps all.)  Given my need to avoid examining alcohol, I still needed to find reasons for these newish medical problems.  Let me give three or four examples, along with my diagnoses, to illustrate:

Late-Onset Hemophilia

My best adult friend had hemophilia, so I’m aware it’s a genetic disorder apparent from birth—until I needed to discover its late-onset (say to a man in his mid-40s) variety.  This was the only explanation for the amazing number of unexplained bruises all over my shins and forearms.  It wasn’t that I drunkenly walked into tables and chairs or lost my proprioceptic senses while flailing my arms about—I had an elegant, even royal disease that hadn’t started until I was middle aged.

Nocturnal Vertigo

During the day, I had no problem standing upright, but come the evening I found myself falling fairly often.  Not daily, but often enough that I needed an explanation.  I had acquired a particularly rare form of vertigo that manifested only after dark.  I’d be walking, say, from the kitchen to the living room, my 12th or 14th glass of wine in my hand and without warning I’d find myself falling down, sometimes hitting my head, making this disorder co-occurring with late-onset hemophilia.

Horizontal Cranial Blood Pooling

I have only the vaguest idea of how the human body works, which I suppose is a shame, but it does make it much easier to identify new disorders.  For the last 10 years of my drinking, I woke up every morning with a King-Hell pain in my head, like my brain pan had been scooped out and filled with a a diseased egg yolk.  My explanation for this was that when I lay down at night, blood was somehow pooling in my skull, causing pressure on my cranium leading to headaches.  As I stood, my blood flowed back to where it belonged and the headache was relieved.  Toward the end of my drinking, I discovered  swallowing blood thinner helped quicken this process, so I should reveal to the world that vodka, wine and even a large bottle of vanilla extract are excellent blood thinners.  I do hope this doesn’t put the manufacturers of Coumadin out of business.

Single-Symptom Diabetes

I’m adopted, and my biological mother had diabetes so severe she’d lost a foot before she was 20, so this was a natural.  I had inherited only part of her diabetes.  I didn’t have increased thirst or hunger, blurred vision, tingling or numbness in my extremities.  Instead, my single symptom was increased urination, particularly in the late evening.  Often, this urination would continue throughout the night even as I slept.  I accepted this condition with aplomb, glad I could live with wet sheets and wouldn’t need to have it treated.

I realize much more research needs to be done into Alcohypochondria, primarily by those in the field of psychology.  It’s not likely to appear in the DSM until DSM-VIII or IX, but I trust the process will begin today.  I also understand I’m not likely to be given credit for its discovery, but I do ask, Constant Reader, that you remember this:

I saw it in me first, and you saw it here first.

 

Hap-Hap-Hap-Hap-Happy Talk

I am a straight man who loves old Broadway musicals.  This may not qualify as an oxymoron or a paradox, but a meeting of similar people in my county could probably meet in a minivan.  Part of this love can be attributed to my upbringing.  My mother belonged to the Columbia Record Club and at least every other month she’d get an LP in the mail.  “Lil’ Abner,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” “Oklahoma” and “The King and I” were just a few of the album covers I still have imprinted on my memory.  As you can tell from this list, though, my mother not a discerning fan of musicals, although she was voracious.  It couldn’t just have been parental influence that infected me, though, because I don’t remember my parents instructing me to treat learning as sacred but school as a boring mockery of learning.  I figured that out all on my own.

The first album I waged an active campaign for was “Mary Poppins.”  (Here, since I was seven, “waging a campaign” can be defined as whining, wheedling, begging and shamelessly singing the score until my parents decided they’d rather hear Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke than my warbling.)  While I know the “Mary Poppins” soundtrack was not a Broadway musical—it was written for the screen and was a Walt Disney film—the principal stands.  If you disagree, I’ll start singing “Feed the Birds” or “It’s a Jolly Holiday” and not stop until you’ve changed your mind.

In addition to enjoying the hummability of musicals, I honestly, really and truly learned things from them.  Not just Civil War history, although I’d never otherwise have known of Jubilation T. Cornpone (“With our ammunition gone, and faced with utter defeat/Who was it that burned our crops and left us nothing to eat?”)  Musicals also taught me that love came like malaria, on the night air across a crowded room on some enchanted evening, and that in dreams begin reality, whether they are impossible or not.  This last song, from “Man of La Mancha” was the theme of my first year as a baseball fan, 1967, the Red Sox’ Impossible Dream year.

With all seriousness, one song in particular has never flickered in my heart, never gone off my hit parade and never ceased to be “sung” by me.  The word “sung” is in quotes not just in recognition of my inability to carry a tune, but because I’ve often used the song as a weapon, chanting it maniacally, as though it were the flip side to Sid Vicious’ desructocreation of “My Way.”  That song is “Happy Talk,” from South Pacific.  I know it’s sung by Bloody Mary in a pidgin offensive to today’s ears; still the message is a touchstone that has helped me though much of my life:

“Happy talk, keep talking happy talk.

Talk about things you’d like to do.

You’ve got to have a dream.  If you don’t have a dream

How you gonna have a dream come true?”

As sit beside a slowly flowing stream, nearly-bare late-October trees on either bank, the 70-degree sun shining on my head and Sam (is a dog) dozing beside me, I feel as though a dream has come true.  Once I’ve posted this, I expect I’ll nap, so I can dream more dreams for the universe to make real.

I am a happy man.

Three-Dimensional Russian Roulette

I used to be addicted to heroin.

I am addicted to heroin.

I will always be addicted to heroin.

Verbs melt and blend and lose their meaning when talking about addiction.  And so does life.  No matter that I have not been physically, medically, existentially addicted to heroin in decades.  Once you’ve found the way to eradicate pain, you never forget the path.

I was 18 when I first used heroin.  I was in the Army and had already been shooting speed for a while.  I loved the energy, the awareness, the LIFE crystal meth gave me.  I could do things never been done before (like spend a full night bending metal coat hangers by hand to make an ashtray holder of exactly the right height), write things that never been written before (like a 30-page taxonomy of hunger) and think thoughts never thought before (like “Every single person on this train wants to see me dead, my carcass torn apart by dogs in the streets”).  I’m not saying meth gave me good or worthwhile deeds, words or thoughts, but it sure gave me a lot of them.

My friend Chuck introduced me to heroin, as a break, a respite from speed.  From the minute I pushed that plunger and the dope started flowing through my veins, I felt I’d finally found home after living life as a castaway.  Even vomiting that first time felt so damn good, I knew I’d released all tension in my body, my brain, my soul, tension I’d not even known I had.  I knew comfort in every dimension.

Heroin was my opiate, but I know any opiate offers the user relief from the pain of life.  Once I’d gotten high on heroin, all other drugs seemed like they’d just been misguided milestones helping me to find THE ANSWER.  I’d never have guessed the answer consisted in giving up questioning, but now I knew how to make life fit me.  Just a shot and life wasn’t a loose garment; the shot let me know that going naked was perfectly okay.  Everything was perfectly okay.  I was perfectly okay.  I mean, I was playing three-dimensional Russian Roulette with my body, my brain and my soul, but that seemed like a slight risk to take when compared with the absence of pain.

If life required inner resources I’d never found or manufactured, heroin was a credit card that let me spend the way I wanted to spend.  Of course, like the charge card in the hands of a college sophomore, after the freedom, after the spree, after the peace comes the day of reckoning.  For the sophomore it’s the first unpayable monthly statement; for me, it was recognizing I no longer just wanted to get high, I needed to get high.  Soon, I wasn’t even getting high, really, I was just keeping away the empty terror of not being able to score, to use, to keep from jonesing.

My experiences are mine, I know, but I think most addicts recognize what I’m talking about—the script has been flipped and instead of chasing joy, you’re running from fear.  And when addiction is the hellhound on your heels, you blow right past a whole graveyard of “nevers.”

“I’ll never share needles.”

“I’ll never buy dope from someone I don’t know.”

“I’ll never steal to get dope.”

“I’ll never sell myself for drugs.”

You’re so busy running, you can’t even look back to see those nevers.  At some point, “I’ll never say never again” makes a hell of a lot more sense.

As I say, heroin was my opiate.  I’m an older (but not old) man, and didn’t have access to pharmaceutical painkillers, but I suspect today’s disappearing nevers are simply the same old poisoned wine in new wineskins.

I write this from a rest area in Lincoln, New Hampshire, just some thoughts that wouldn’t allow me to continue driving until I got them out.  In the last year, I’ve been to eight or nine celebrations of life, celebrations of people in their 20’s and 30’s.  The cause of death?  Overdose or suicide, and I know it would take an insightful philosopher-coroner to figure out which.  Close friends of mine, some of them, some just people I’d met in meetings of various kinds.  Each and every gathering, though, had that fog of regret at the brevity of the deceased’s life.  Too soon.  Too soon.

I don’t have the solution for an attraction to a powder/pill/liquid that takes away all pain—at least for a while.  I wish I did.  I do know I’ve escaped, or at least put enough distance between myself and those dogs that I can live a quiet, normal life without disappearing nevers.  Still, as far away as the baying of those dogs may be, every day I remember:

I used to be addicted to heroin.

I am addicted to heroin.

I will always be addicted to heroin.