A Chance to Dance on Fitzgerald’s Grave

I began my professional life as a journalist.  I’ll never be one again.  It’s not that I won’t write, but I could never “report.”  If I ever did.

(This won’t be a column.  Or communique.  Or barely a blog post.  Call it notes from the southland.)

Just finished meeting with a newspaper reporter for about an hour, and managed to give her quotes that will make me look like a lunatic.  This was not my intention, and may not be inaccurate.  Still.  Here are some examples:

“No, I don’t think money is the answer to helping homeless veterans.  I don’t think programs are the answer.  In fact, programs either make no difference, or make matters significantly worse.  As a man who’s had to look into eyes dripping with judgement, I know what the recipient of ‘programs’ feels—like a failure, like a number, like a man with dog crap on his shoe. “

“Until folks who are getting paid to help homeless people have had to stand on line for dinner, have had to fill out the same form five times, have had to have bureaucrats look through them, they can never help anyone.”

“College boys and college girls feel superior for having done little more than sit in classes and learn the secret language version of ‘I’m better than you.’  Yes, I’ve got a master’s degree, but that doesn’t matter when you’re sitting in the unpadded chair on the hole-less side of a desk.”

“I think Jesus would hate the feel of most places that provide services to homeless folks.  The point is to do for the least of these, not remind them they’re on the bottom.”

And on and on.  I suspect few if any of the quotes will make it into the final story.  Still, here they are, ticking away, waiting to explode.

 

Fantasy Feature on Keith Howard

 

 

Keith Howard has been many things:  soldier, journalist, researcher, teacher, minister, principal, teacher, sales clerk, homeless alcoholic, aide to adults with developmental disabilities, supervisor of adult foster care providers, and executive director of Liberty House, a Manchester, NH, transitional-living facility for formerly homeless veterans.  You may notice his career arc follows that of Cinderella.  It begins low and steadily improves until the midnight clock that turns the carriage into a pumpkin, or in Howard’s case, turns a respected school principal into a homeless drunk.  From this nadir, the Prince appears with a slipper, or Howard gets sober, and it’s Happily Ever After Time.

This story is about after Happily Ever After.

Last February, Howard wrote an op-ed entitled “Leaving a Job I Love,” where he announced he was stepping away from Liberty House after five years as its director, five years that had seen tremendous financial growth and overall improvement of the organization.  In it, Howard said he had led Liberty House through the desert and was leaving it in more conventional hands—he had new hilltops to look over, figuratively and literally.  He said he would leave September 1 to begin a year of living in a converted motorcycle trailer on the grounds of Warriors@45 North, a veterans retreat in Pittsburg, on the Canadian border.

Howard has kept his word.  He lives in what he calls his Tiny White Box, a six-foot by 10-foot space, designed and built by his friend, Gavin Beland, that honestly feels more like a small ship cabin than a motorcycle trailer.  He shares this space with his boxer-lab mix, Sam (is a dog), and the two of them walk about five miles a day, Howard maintains a blog at tinywhitebox.com, works on a second novel (his first, On Account of Because was published in July), and is completing a memoir.

“I may not be much,” Howard said, “but I’m all I think about, so writing a memoir comes easily.  Fitzgerald said, ‘There are no second acts in American life,’ and I’ve been proving him wrong all my adult life, so recording that is just a chance to dance on Fitzgerald’s grave.”

Shooting a Chickadee

George Orwell wrote an essay, set during his days as a policeman in colonial Burma, about having to shoot an elephant, a beast that, by the time Orwell arrived with his gun, was doing no one any harm.  Orwell, as the armed white man representing the Crown, knew he must do something.  He fired, repeatedly, into the elephant’s heart and down his throat, but the creature was unable to move or to die.  It’s a great piece of writing, and I’d recommend you read it.  I’d love to have written it.  But I didn’t.

Instead, I’m writing this.

When I was a boy, guns were around the house.  My dad had a couple rifles for hunting deer and a shotgun for birds.  They weren’t locked up, but they were kept on the top shelf in my parents’ bedroom closet, which might just as well have been a safe when I was 11.  In my memory, I never went into that space.  When I was 11.  (Once I discovered copies of “Oui,” “Cavalier” and “Penthouse” were also secreted there, my hands-off policy vanished, although I’m certain I never fooled around with his weapons.  (It strikes me that it’s a Freudian’s field day that I wouldn’t touch my father’s guns while gathering images of disrobed women.  I’ll leave that alone.))

I had my own gun, nowhere near as powerful as my father’s, but impressive in my young hands.  An air-powered pellet gun I needed to repeatedly pump by hand, it fired metal pellets the size of a pencil eraser.  Honestly, it was capable of doing more serious damage than my parents must have imagined when they gave it to me.  Its barrel wasn’t rifled, so its range was limited and its ammo came out without a spin, lacking the ability of rifle ammo to go in one part of a body and come out somewhere completely different.  If I’d shot a man in the stomach at, say, 30 yards, he’d have a hole in his gut you could stick a finger in, and likely a fair amount of bleeding, but not the peripheral damage a rifle shot would cause.  Still, I was a kid, and probably shouldn’t have been given a weapon capable of putting holes in a body where no holes should be.

Whether I should or shouldn’t have had it, I did, and I practiced in our backyard, shooting at hand-drawn targets, empty cans, my sister’s dolls and, once, a discarded radio.  I’d drawn a firing line and set up the targets under the hanging birdfeeder it was my job to fill with seeds every three or four days.  It was fun to look over the damage I’d inflicted on the moment’s target, empty sunflower seed shells under my feet, and I’d morph from Daniel Boone to GI Joe to John Wayne while plunking away.  By and by, I became a pretty good shot, and took pride in that.  Even the chickadees, having gotten used to the phhhhssssst sound of the air rifle and the tiiiiiinnnngggg of the bullet hitting the target, looked down from the feeder.  With their black-masked heads, chickadees are hard to read, but I think they were impressed with my aim.   I know their bright white chests seemed to swell up with pride that the boy who fed them was such a good shot.

For whatever reason, playing with my gun was a solitary pursuit, and I’d happily put it away for a game of catch or kick-the-can or pepper.

I know my parents didn’t buy me the gun.  Not because I was somehow deprived as a child, but even at 11 I could tell the gun was old—not antique-it-might-be-worth-a-fortune old, but old enough that it wasn’t new.  Things just appeared sometimes, the result of someone moving away or getting tired of a possession.  The gun was an item the tide of good fortune had left behind.

In the same way objects drifted in and out of our life, so with people.  My parents had friends who were always around, friends who were there for a season or three and friends who might not come around often but whose stories I knew because they’d been part of my mom or dad’s childhood—that ancient time when the earth was just beginning to cool.  The Hansen family was one of the latter.  Mrs. Hansen had been one of my mom’s childhood friends, although my memory tells me her name may have been Kickline            as a girl.  Or maybe she’d been a dancer as a teen and part of a kick line?  Regardless, the Hansen’s had three kids older than me.  Whenever we got together with the Hansens, who had a lake house, one of the older Hansens was always trying to teach me something—how to dive, how to snorkel, how to water ski.  I’m sure their intentions were kind, but needing to learn things was evidence of how little I knew.

The year I was 11, the Hansen clan came for Thanksgiving.  I don’t know why.  As a kid, things sometimes just happened.  When they got to our house, the older Hansen kids adopted the boredom masks teenagers carry in a back pocket for just such events.  Not wanting a group of Big Kids to be bored on my watch, I asked them if they wanted to shoot my gun.  At first, they were unimpressed—or hadn’t had a chance to put away their masks, but with a bit of wheedling, they all agreed to come into the backyard.

I encouraged the two Big Girls and the Big Boy to hold the gun and sight down it.  Then I set up empty cranberry sauce and evaporated milk cans for each of them to shoot at.  Because of my hours of practice, I was much better than they, a first for me.  Imagine—being better than Big Kids at shooting!  This Thanksgiving was turning out to be a red-letter day in the life of Keith.

Not content with demonstrating my marksmanship skills on pieces of trash, I searched for something else to shoot.  While the windows in the house were tempting, they wouldn’t demonstrate my pinpoint accuracy, even if they would have shown I was one tough hombre.  (Here, the phrase “one tough hombre” is sometimes translated “lunatic.”)  I looked up into the trees, but shooting a branch or pine cone wouldn’t have the oomph I wanted.  Then, I saw it.  The perfect way to cap off a perfect morning.

I raised the rifle’s stock to my right shoulder, sighted down the black barrel at my target five feet above the ground, breathed in, breathed out and squeezed off a shot.  At the speed of moral outrage, the big kids turned on me.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“You’re crazy!”

“What kind of monster shoots a little bird?”

“It’s a chickadee,” I said, wanting to salvage some pride in my ornithological knowledge.

“It WAS a chickadee!” said the big boy.  “Now it’s a nothing.”

He was right.  The tiny bird’s head had been destroyed by the shot, and its formerly white body looked like a bloody cotton ball removed from a messy surgery.  Barely recognizable as a bird, the dead chickadee didn’t move at all on the frozen ground.  The shot, after killing the chickadee, had shattered the glass front of the bird feeder, so sunflower seeds flowed slowly to the ground around the fresh bird corpse.

The Big Kids stared in horror at me, and I wanted to join them.  I wanted to be part of the mob judging me, finding me barely human, and driving me off into the forest.  Unfortunately, no matter how mush self-loathing we monsters feel, we cannot join the band of humanity, at least until the tribe has a chance to forget.

That Thanksgiving, I had much for which to be ashamed and even more for whicht o be thankful, most of all that my mother called us all in right then and, for reasons I never understood, the Big Kids didn’t say a word about my killing a chickadee.  Perhaps they remembered horrible things they’d done as little kids.  Perhaps they wanted me to suffer silently for the rest of the day, wondering when they’d reveal my evil.  Most likely, they’d never imagined a sweet kid like me could really have done what I’d really done.  For whatever reasons, they kept quiet.

After the Hansens left, I went to the back yard, picked up the dead chickadee and threw it into the bushes.  I took down the bird feeder, so my father could buy new sheets of glass for it.  I put the pellet gun away in my closet, until I was older.  Then I said a prayer for the bird, and vowed I’d never shoot another animal again.

And I haven’t.

But I’ve also never lost that shame.  I don’t know that I ever will.

What I Did (sort of) Say at the Friendship Dinner

Earlier this week, I posted the speech I wouldn’t give at Thursday’s Turkish Cultural Center’s Friendship Dinner.  A number of folks made me promise I’d give a report on what I actually did say, once I’d said it.  Before I do, though, I have to say how gratified I was by the reception I received.  Despite my inability to maintain high seriousness, the guests gave me a standing ovation.  (As evidence of that gravitas drought, I am tempted to call it a standing “ovulation,” then go into a lighthearted discussion of how men participate in such a practice.)  I was deeply moved by this, and want to thank everyone in attendance, which includes my three daughters, making the moment one of the most moving in my life.  Thank you all.

As for what I said, I can only give my recollection, since I spoke form no notes but entirely in the moment.  As background, the evening’s keynote speakers, Katrina Lantos Swett and Y. Alp Aslandogan, spoke specifically and movingly about Turkey’s transformation to dictatorship under President Erdogan.  Each of them outlined how fascism is introduced into a country—first through insults and demonization of the opposition, then through expulsion/detention of the “other,” then through emergency measures that become the norm, and so on.

My memory of what I said follows:

My introduction said Im known for doing the unexpected.  Im afraid you may be disappointed with what Im about to say, but it will be unexpected.  In listening to this evenings speakers talk of the rise of fascism in Turkey, I could only think of one of my favorite book by one of my favorite authors, a book I first read 40 year ago.  Sincalir Lewiss It Cant Happen Here, written in, I think, 1936, tells the story of the rise of fascism in America, a fascism different in some flavor from that in Europe, but not in its deadliness.  I dont think our current administration is leading to fascism, but the similarities amog Lewis book, the story of Turkey and events today are too great to ignore.  When you hear It Cant Happen Here, the only proper response is:  the Hell it cant if we dont stand up!

Given my general longwindedness, I’m sure I’ve left some things out, especially since I have vague memories of laughter at some things I said.

Life Update

My daughter Libby turns 21 on Monday and Thursday is Thanksgiving, so I’ll be staying down south in Manchester for the next week.  This shouldn’t bring a break in my communiques here, but it likely will.  I promise I’ll return to offering daily 500-1500 word essay kinds of things after Thanksgiving.

Those of you with a paranoid bent can rest assured:  Sam (is a dog) is with me, not trapped alone in Pittsburg and the Tiny White Box is securely locked up so no criminals will intrude.

 

 

Colostomy Guns–A New Trend?

It’s 7:30 on a Monday night, 18 degrees outside and clear—a half-moon lights the dirt path outside while not overpowering the three-million-twelve stars in the sky.  (Full Disclosure:  I was unable to count ALL the stars, relying instead on dividing the sky into thirds and counting one-million-four stars in that sector.  I understand my assumption of equal distribution of stars may be naïve.  Please feel free to check my numbers.  But I digress.)  Sam (is a dog) and I just got back from a most invigorating walk, filled with lots of thinking deep thoughts, at least by Sam.  I mainly thought about corned-beef versus pastrami sandwiches and who would win in a fight—Mr. Clean vs. three Captain Kangaroos.

I also think about guns, a subject I don’t often ponder.  I grew up with guns, or at least I grew up with a father who had rifles and shotguns.  He’d take me hunting with him, and I always enjoyed walking through the woods at dawn, but felt as though it would be as much fun to be carrying broomsticks as rifles.  My childhood included other guns as well—a pistol I found lying around and fired in the woods, terrifying myself and, I was sure, alerting police for miles around, and an air-powered pellet gun I used on commando raids to shoot out streetlights.  In the Army, I qualified with an M-16, but as an adult I’ve not thought about guns in general much.  I mean, I like the Second Amendment and its guarantee—although I’m still not sure what power that “well-regulated militia” phrase carries.  I don’t like the thought of guns being held on me—luckily, I’ve only had that happen once in my life—but overall guns don’t cross my mind as often as, say, Three Doors Down or Three Dog Night.

Living in the Great North Woods, though, and talking with other men here, the topic of weapons comes up almost as often as fishing or weather.  My fishing stories start with my grandfather ordering me out of his boat when I was four and wouldn’t shut up, and trail off after that.  As for weather, other than hot or cold, wet or dry, snow or rain, I’m pretty tongue-tied as well.  Almost every man I meet outside of town is carrying a gun, one of those things it took me a while to figure out.  I’d thought Pittsburg was a town with a lot of bladder and urinary-tract problems, since so many of the men had small colostomy bags under their shirts.  When it did dawn, the thought kind of shocked me by not shocking me.  I mean, when I lived in Manchester or Nashua or even Durham, if I’d seen a non-law-enforcement person carrying a pistol, I would’ve wanted to cross the street.  Here, though, it’s so natural, I really don’t notice anything except that I don’t have a gun.

I don’t want a gun, actually, but I don’t want to look out of place.  I’ll never pretend to have a gun—that seems like a recipe for disaster—but I do want to fit in.  I’ll be down in Manchester in the middle of the week and need to stop by the VA for a flu shot.  Can anyone tell me the symptoms I should have to get a prescription for a small colostomy bag to carry on my right hip?

An Undelivered Speech at the Turkish Friendship Dinner–Along with What I Did Say

In a couple days, the Turkish Cultural Center in Manchester, NH, is giving me an award.  This is very gratifying, if undeserved.  They offered me three or four minutes to speak, and I will likely use that time.  I don’t often speak from a script, so any remarks I make will be extemporaneous, entertaining and entirely unprepared.

If I were a serious man, a man who delivered speeches instead of a man prone to jackassery, this is what I might say, after saying, “Thank you for this award”:

I am a man of a Christian country, who grew up among Jews and who has become friends with many Muslims. The differences among us are many—from the foods we avoid, to our dress, to the ways we worship our creator.  One thing we share is a love of stories.  Whenever people gather in a marketplace or at a fire in the forest or desert, stories are told.  Our nature seeks a good story the same way we are drawn to food and sleep. I see the Old and New Testaments and the Koran as collections of tales designed to entertain as well as enlighten. If the stories in them were not good ones, the enlightenment would have been left behind long ago.  Imagine an instruction book for life with no stories.  It would be nearly unreadable.  While the Ten Commandments may be the center of the Book of Exodus, not many readers would reach them without the story of Pharaoh and Moses and the, well, exodus of the Jews.  Humans love stories—in fact, it may be our love of stories that makes us human. 

Stories can be diagrammed, broken down into telegram versions, the bare bones of the story.  One of our favorite stories could be diagrammed like this: 

  • A man walks a righteous path
  • The man loses his way, whether through distraction, attacks from others or a taste for sin
  • The man sees the light of the righteous path and returns to it

This is my personal story—I defended my country, then taught and led people, then became a drunk without a home, then returned to lead Liberty House, which might well be called Library House, for it is a storehouse of such tales, of men and women who defended their country, lost their way, then saw the warm glow of Liberty House’s fire and returned to lives of meaning and hope.  Jews, Muslims, Christians and people of any faith, or no faith at all, seem drawn to this story, the return to health of a man beset by sickness, the redemption of a man from a life of sin, the rediscovery of a man who had been given up for dead.   

Each of us, if not this very evening then tomorrow certainly, will come across a human whose story remains unfinished, who is at the middle part, the straying from righteousness, and each of us has a choice at that moment.  We can become some small part of heat, light and compassion, whether through a smile or kind word, a meal purchased or comfort offered.  Or we can continue to walk past.  If we choose the latter, I ask you one question:  what good is your fire, your light, if it doesn’t warm and brighten the path of another?  I am a man who has stood in the darkness, who has gazed into the faces of people who will not meet my eyes, who learned to accept scorn and judgment from strangers who knew nothing of me—and I know how much the occasional light of others meant to me.  I have pledged to share my light and my warmth—and I ask you to join me in that effort.  You can help change the arc of someone’s story, help them return to life, help transform their entire universe.  Or you can walk on. 

Thank you.

Addendum

Earlier this week, I posted the speech I wouldn’t give at Thursday’s Turkish Cultural Center’s Friendship Dinner.  A number of folks made me promise I’d give a report on what I actually did say, once I’d said it.  Before I do, though, I have to say how gratified I was by the reception I received.  Despite my inability to maintain high seriousness, the guests gave me a standing ovation.  (As evidence of that gravitas drought, I am tempted to call it a standing “ovulation,” then go into a lighthearted discussion of how men participate in such a practice.)  I was deeply moved by this, and want to thank everyone in attendance, which includes my three daughters, making the moment one of the most moving in my life.  Thank you all.

As for what I said, I can only give my recollection, since I spoke from no notes but entirely in the moment.  As background, the evening’s keynote speakers, Katrina Lantos Swett and Y. Alp Aslandogan, spoke specifically and movingly about Turkey’s transformation to dictatorship under President Erdogan.  Each of them outlined how fascism is introduced into a country—first through insults and demonization of the opposition, then through expulsion/detention of the “other,” then through emergency measures that become the norm, and so on.

My memory of what I said follows:

My introduction said Im known for doing the unexpected.  Im afraid you may be disappointed with what Im about to say, but it will be unexpected.  In listening to this evenings speakers talk of the rise of fascism in Turkey, I could only think of one of my favorite book by one of my favorite authors, a book I first read 40 year ago.  Sinclair Lewiss It Cant Happen Here, written in, I think, 1936, tells the story of the rise of fascism in America, a fascism different in some flavor from that in Europe, but not in its deadliness.  I dont think our current administration is leading to fascism, but the similarities among Lewis book, the story of Turkey and events today are too great to ignore.  When you hear It Cant Happen Here, the only proper response is:  the Hell it cant if we dont stand up!

Given my general longwindedness, I’m sure this is just a sketch, but it is an accurate sketch.

Learning to Listen and Listening to Be Entertained: Audiobooks

When I was a boy, I loved being read to.  I remember night after night when I was in kindergarten and first grade, my mother reading to me.  First, it was poems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse (yes, I do love to go up in a swing so high into the sky so blue), then A.A. Milne’s verse, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six  (James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree was not the only one to take very good care of his mother, I’ll have you know), and then, glory of glories, the two Pooh story books.   To my four- and five-year-old mind, these books were a glimpse into a much bigger (and a bit stranger) world.  By the middle of first grade, my mother had cast away stories as stories and moved on to Uncle Wiggily, a rabbit with a deep and obvious moralistic streak who told stories with titles like “The Story of the Boy Who Skated on November Ice Despite His Parents’ Warnings and Who Didn’t Die but Did get Very, Very Cold and Wet.”  This may be an exaggeration, but not by a lot.  Uncle Wiggily was a propagandist, and I let my mom know she could read to my little sister if she wished, but as a literate man of letters and six years of age, I could take care of my own bedtime reading.

When I was a parent, I loved reading to my daughters.  As a single parent with three girls with a five-year spread, I had to choose wisely and spice up the reading through the use of “cool kid points,” which I awarded arbitrarily based on each girl’s answers to either literal or inferential questions.  For instance, when we were reading The Golden Compass, Libby, then four, would earn points for saying the main character’s name, Meri, then seven (and spelling her name Mary, by the way) would demonstrate mastery by explaining why Lyra was hiding in the scholars’ retiring room closet, and Becca, nine, would need to predict why the scholars were trying to poison Lord Asriel.  Honestly, I was sad when the girls, one by one, chose to read books or comic books at bedtime, and hope someday to have children to read to again.

Now that I’m an older (but not old) man, I love to be read to.  Unfortunately, my mother has long since died and Sam (is a dog) can’t turn the pages of a book, much less read the words on them.  Today, I listen to audiobooks.

As with ink and paper books, I’ve usually got four or five audiobooks going at a time, so I can listen to whatever fits my mood.  For instance, right now in rotation are:

The Sympathizer by Viet Than Nguyen. A literary thriller—if that’s even a category—following the life of a Vietnamese Communist who becomes a South Vietnamese aide-de-camp to a corrupt general.  Beginning in 1954, when the narrator is nine, it jumps back and forth between the States and Vietnam.  There’s not really a ton of action—but the characters are really intriguing.

The Early Middle Ages (Great Courses Series) by Philip Daileader.  Also called the Dark Ages, from roughly 400 to 900 AD, it’s fascinating to see the devolution of the Roman Empire into smaller, less organized kingdoms.  With each new ruler,the glory that was Rome seems more and more like a fever dream.

Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving.  I admire John Irving.  I envy John Irving.  When I’ve gone to hear him read, I liked John Irving.  When it comes to his novels, though, I either LOVE John Irving or want to cast him aside, like a date returning to an empty table.  For instance, The Water-Method Man is one of my favorite all-time novels, Garp and Hotel New Hampshire were almost as loved.  As for the rest?  Meh.  This goes into that pile, and I will likely delete it from my phone instead of listening to the remaining 20 hours.

Homo Deus:  A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Hurari.  Hurari, who wrote Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind, is one of those popular historians (like Bill Bryson and Jared Diamond) who seem to KNOW so goddamned much it’s scary.  That each of them is also a clear and entertaining write makes their work a joy.

Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart Ehrman.  Here, Bart Ehrman combines what psychology believes it knows about human memory (it’s very fallible and very malleable), oral traditions (they change over time) and cultures that rely on oral traditions (they don’t much care about accuracy—they want a good story) with the fact the Gospels were written long after Jesus’ death by people who’d never met the man (or The Man) in Koine Greek, a language none of Jesus’ disciples knew.  For this former Baptist man of the cloth, the conclusions aren’t as important as the ride to get there.

Looking over this list, I sound like a very wise man indeed, or at least a man who’s trying to listen his way to wisdom.  Soon, I’ll share my list of most-listened-to podcasts, which may disabuse you of this notion.

 

Between Tide and Traffic:  Alcoholics of My Type

My problem has never been alcohol. If alcohol had been the problem, I wouldn’t have needed to recover.  I would have just quit drinking and my problem would have been put on the shelf.  There it could stay forever—never again would it need to trouble me as long as I didn’t drink.

My problem was not alcohol.  My problem was that my only solution to life was alcohol.  It may have been a solution that carried lots of future complications, but alcohol was the one surefire way I knew to feel significantly better about life.

I know algebra drives some people crazy, but let me try to illustrate this

If, ALCOHOL = My Problem, then when I remove the left side of the equation (ALCOHOL), then the right is balanced by removing My Problem.

If, though, ALCOHOL = My Solution to Life, then removing alcohol simply leaves me adrift, alone and answerless.

Let me give two concrete examples of what I mean, each of which took place long before I got sober.  In 1978, in the Army in Germany, I was using a lot of alcohol, primarily powdered alcohol although a fair amount of liquid as well.  The powdered alcohol that brought me down for a 10-count was heroin.  I’ll detail elsewhere this time in my life, but let me say I was lucky enough to have a commanding officer whom I could go to and explain I was addicted to dope and ask for help.  Instead of starting discharge proceedings against me, Captain Baines referred me to an intensive 28-day rehab program at Landstuhl Army Hospital.  Despite the program’s having no intellectual, spiritual or theoretical center—it used a widely-discredited treatment called Scream Therapy—it helped me stop using drugs.  (Once I was out, I simply transitioned to an all-liquid alcohol regimen, but that’s another story.)  My only problem during the 28 days was they wouldn’t let me use any of my solutions to life.  Of course, after four or five days I was safely detoxed off my physical addiction to heroin, but that didn’t stop my need for a solution.  Little by slowly, like a man in an airproof room recognizing he’s running out of oxygen, I began to lose my mind.  By Day 26, without having a clue this might be related to my need for something, anything to help me get out of myself, I slashed my wrists in the bathroom so I could watch the blood pool on the floor.  Of course, I was discovered, sent to the psych ward and observed there for a week before being allowed to return to rehab and graduate.

In 1986, I was a seminary student at a conservative graduate school, a married Baptist minister, who couldn’t let people know I drank at all.  It hadn’t been so bad when I’d lived 45 minutes away from the church—I could still have a few beers when I felt like it (or get drunk and pass out on Christmas Day on my in-law’s couch).  My wife at the time and I, though, moved to be closer to our church, and once again I became the man using up oxygen.  Within a couple months, I had invented a new sport—throwing myself face-first down flights of stairs—started feeling I was crazy and cutting my wrists.  I ended up in another psychiatric hospital—where I was treated for depression but not asked in any detail about my drinking. I managed to complete my stay in that psychiatric hospital, get a divorce, leave the church and begin drinking again—like a gentleman.

Again, if my problem had been alcohol, I wouldn’t have needed recovery.  I would simply stop drinking, my problems would dry up and I’d go about my business.  My challenge was that drinking worked in an immediate way—with alcohol, my life might be unmanageable, but without it, my life was in danger.  My experience taught me avoiding alcohol led to suicide.  Like a man living on credit cards, I might know in one part of my brain that this couldn’t continue, while the rest of my being cried out not to stop.  I got very good at ignoring that first part of my brain and continued drinking for another 20 years, sometimes more, sometimes less, but with a steady upward climb.  By the end of my drinking, I was a man on the Golden Gate bridge, trying to decide whether to jump left into the bay or right into the oncoming traffic.

I’m not a God guy today—whether there is a Big Joker in the Sky or the universe is an unsigned masterpiece makes little difference to me—but I know something happened to me at the jumping-off point, so that I sought help instead of destruction.  Instead of drowning or jumping into traffic, I got off the bridge.

And so can you.

This very moment, you may be reading this with the shock of recognition, of identification with my predicament.  It may be you have grown used to headaches in the morning, an ever-increasing sense of dread deep in the gut, the knowledge you shouldn’t go on but you CAN’T STOP NOW.  It may be you’re contemplating suicide, homicide, uxoricide (a real word—look it up), bossicide (a made-up word—sound it out) or any of a number of –cides out there.  It just be that alcohol and drugs have drained the color from your world, and these shades of gray offer no excitement at all.  Whether you think you might have a bit of a drinking problem, or you know you’re an alcoholic, you can get help—not just from professionals with letters after their name (although they are not to be scoffed at) but from other men and women who have been where you are, where I was, and where you don’t need to stay.

Go to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous (NH Meetings:  https://nhaa.net/  National Meeting List:  https://www.aa.org/).  Call the AA help line (Go hee for local help lines by state https://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/find-local-aa).  Hell, if you can’t bring yourself to do those things, write me (keithhoward@gmail.com) and I’ll find some way to connect you with help.

Or you can stay on the bridge, choosing between tide and traffic.