Closer to Theology than Geology: Toward a View of Language from the Cheap Seats (With apologies to Noam Chomsky, who did this much better, although with fewer jokes)

 

A physicist, hoping to make a name for herself, is constrained by certain facts; she will not, for instance, use a model of gravity based on anything other than the equation F = G(m1m2/d2).  In physics, as in all the hard sciences, a body of knowledge exists, proven and verifiable by the scientific method, which all practitioners must acknowledge.

As another example, a veterinarian, examining a flock of sheep stricken with anthrax, may belong to any “school” regarding animals and their illnesses; still, he knows that penicillin and tetracycline are the effective and proven treatment for the disease.  While fringe groups may appear (e.g., one supposes that a Christian Scientist veterinarian would recommend praying over the flock and a homeopathic veterinarian might give only a minuscule amount of medication), their models are disproved by their results (i.e., in the example above, a flock of dead sheep).

The social sciences have no such agreement. When examining the human condition and its pathology, one finds conceptual models multiplying and turning in on themselves, with an almost exponential explosion of theories.  Although the social sciences expropriate the tools and garb of hard science, they are oftentimes closer to theology than geology; that is, both social-science theory and theology are based on indirect observation of the invisible and ineffable and offer

an attempt to build a castle of reason on the clouds of mysticism.  While the hard sciences test a descriptive model through measuring its predictive power, this is rarely the case in the social sciences, where description abounds (regardless of its relationship to observed reality) and is seen as an end in itself.  Description qua description, like art for art’s sake, tends to create a product which is internally consistent, interesting on the surface and lacking the long-term, lasting value of more disciplined endeavors.

The social scientist wears the scientist’s lab coat with the same let’s-pretend attitude as the little boy stomping around the house in his father’s shoes. Consider, for example, behaviorism, at least as espoused by B.F. Skinner. Here, if one wishes to modify another organism’s overt and measurable behavior, one can refer to Skinner and the other behaviorists for techniques which are likely to work.

Whether one wishes to extinguish tantrums, encourage the use of effective studying techniques or train a pigeon to walk in a figure-eight, behaviorism generally does what it claims to do:  through viewing humans as empty vessels, controlled by their responses to environmental stimuli, behaviorism changes the environment to change the humans within it.  This view does away with all of that is unprovable, unmeasurable and sometimes mystical in the developmentalist tradition; one need not explain stages of development, unconscious drives or urges, conscience or consciousness, for they need not, in fact do not, exist in the behaviorist’s world.  Instead, life is explained as a series of stimulus(i)/response(s)/reinforcing stimulus(i) chains; one controls behavior by controlling the environment.

Without a doubt, Skinner’s techniques can and do work well; pragmatically, one can admire the utility, simplicity and effectiveness of behaviorism, while being philosophically utterly repelled by Skinner’s theoretical position and finding his view of humanity completely unacceptable.  Although Skinnerians claim that behaviorism is not a theory or a philosophy, but is simply a set of techniques, this claim is disingenuous, for the behaviorist world view is predicated on the premise that we are ghosts in the machine, that life is a series of meaningless event chains.  Acceptance of lock-step behaviorism denies the very possibility of meaning, reducing all of the universe to a series of, as Walker Percy would have it, dyadic interactions (i.e., like the events in a billiards shot, all behavior, however complex, can be broken down into individual stimulus/response chains); on these grounds alone, one can find behaviorist world view deeply troubling.

More empirically, behaviorism does have a blind spot, one which is huge, partially hidden but somehow always discernible.  This omission is that humans are more than merely bundles of behavior, and the major piece of evidence is our ability, nay, our need, to use language, an ability which Skinner never successfully explained (see, e.g., Noam Chomsky’s blistering and unanswerable attack in his classic review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior or most of Percy’s writings on semiotics and linguistics, particularly The Message in the Bottle).

There is no behaviorist explanation for what Percy calls the triadic nature of language.  That is, Percy explains, the relationship, unique in all the universe, among the word “pigeon,” the speaker of that word and the bird itself; one cannot write a stimulus/response chain to explain or define that relationship.  It is language which offers meaning, a meaning the possibility of which Skinner must deny.  In reading Skinner on language, one senses the author knows he is on shaky ground in trying to fit the language event into his theory.  Unfortunately for the behaviorist, it cannot be done.  The human capacity for language escapes the chains of stimulus and response and shows them to be no more than, at best, a partial explanation of the human condition.  Behaviorism can offer no necessary and sufficient explanation of the language phenomenon, which in my case consists mainly of found humor and jokes.

For instance: Two behaviorists have sex. Afterward, one turns to the other and says, “How was that for me?”

With her behaviorist cloak on, the behaviorist can’t explain the humor here, although she’s likely to tell it to her next class.

 

Leadership Lessons from a Mystical Clown

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve thought a lot about leadership, first in a series of meetings in New Orleans, and then because of some matters in Manchester. Over this time, I’ve gotten praise—some of it even deserved—for my leadership “style.” I use the quotation marks, because my “style” is being myself. Praising that is like flattering Shaquille O’Neal for being good at being tall—he didn’t have much choice, really, and neither do I.

Since I was 28 and became director of an alternative school, I’ve spent 22 years in leadership positions. In none of them was I a traditional, by-the-book, let’s-tighten-things-up-here-or-heads-will-roll kind of leader. My friend, long-time boss and mentor, Mark Roth, was once asked to give me a reference. At the end of Mark’s comments, the interviewer tried to sum things up: “Sounds like Keith’s a real no-nonsense kind of guy.”

“God, no!” said Mark. “You misunderstand me. Keith’s all nonsense; he’s just clear about what kind of nonsense he wants.”

Hence, a clown, and yet also a mystic, believing life has meaning, magic is real, and humans can transform themselves from empty bags of need to overflowing bodies, minds and spirits of generosity. As long as they don’t stop laughing at themselves and everything about them.

Still, having folks reach out to ask my advice on running nonprofits is better than a sharp stick in the eye—or indictments being handed down—so at some readers’ request I’ve put together some things I believe about me and nonprofit leadership.

Your results may vary.

  1. Take responsibility for anything that happens in the organization.

Harry Truman was not our greatest president. Abraham Lincoln was. While I want to be Lincoln, that’s kind of like setting the Buddha as my goal: aspirational but not always helpful on a minute-by-minute basis. Truman, on the other hand, a man thrust into greatness, offers American pragmatic life lessons as prescribed by William James, John Dewey and Charles Pierce: an idea is true if it works.

“The buck stops here” is one of the most realistic and responsible statements ever uttered by an American leader, and applies to nonprofit leaders in particular. As the boss, I am responsible for whatever my organization does, and I take full ownership for that. It doesn’t matter if I was lied to or misled by people who work for me; it doesn’t matter if I had no idea what was going on; it doesn’t matter if I didn’t fully understand the implications of our actions: I put on the cloak of leadership so I wear the cold blanket of blame when things go wrong.

As you can ask any number of former employees, I will hold them responsible in private, including firing them. To the world, though, the problems of the nonprofit are mine.

  1. When you make a mistake, admit it right away and try to offer solutions or ways to return to normal.

I am an alcoholic in recovery, and one of the first things I learned when I got sober is, “It’s not screwing up that leads you back to a drink. It’s refusing to admit you screwed up that gets you drunk.” Absolutely true, and not just about drinking. I make mistakes all the time and therefore I confess all the time. The funny thing is, when you’re honest about your mistakes, do your best to fix them, and try to find new mistakes to make instead of repeating old ones, the people around you start to look at you as good and honest and competent.

  1. Keep behavior flexible while maintaining inflexible values.

I think almost anything is worth trying to see if it works. From good ideas (starting an improv theater with “at-risk” teenagers; organizing

film festivals with movies directed by high school dropouts; stepping away from federal funding at Liberty House; refusing to appear on stage with politicians) to not-so-good ideas (six-hour long bus rides with teenagers to go camping; trying to make a working raft a la Huck Finn to float down the Contoocook River; paying Liberty House residents to do work at the place they lived, I’ve tried to live by Truman’s credo:  We’ll try some things, and if they don’t work, we’ll try some other things.

While behavior is flexible, values aren’t.

At Liberty House, maintaining a sober community was one of my bedrock values. It’s hard enough for a newly sober man or woman to stay that way, but being surrounded by serial slippers and sippers makes it extraordinarily difficult. On the other hand, I believe every person with an addiction can find a way out, if not on the first or fifth try, then on the 20th. Hence, a mantra I’m sure people have tired of hearing me utter: Zero Tolerance but Infinite Hope.

In life, the means don’t justify the ends–the means are the end. What we do and why we do it matter more than our goals, because they determine our goals. The logic behind one obvious credo—you can’t lie your way to honesty any more than you can screw your way to purity—applies across the board. No matter what, you don’t lie—and if you do, you fess up right away—you don’t blame others, you don’t cut corners and you don’t bully. More on values later, but for here the message is to behave like the person you want to be instead of the person you may have been in the past.

  1. Seek a Vision. Nourish that Vision. Trust your Vision.

When you’ve got skin in the game, it shows. Your vision is your touchstone, your goal and your energy, helping you persuade instead of simply issuing orders.

For not being much of a God guy, I do find a lot of good lines in the Bible, and one of my favorites comes from Proverbs: Without a vision, the people perish. And so does the leader. While the waves on top of my oceanic vision rise and fall, the currents and tides have remained constant for decades: helping create a community where people look each other in the eye with respect and regard, where learning and growth are fostered and praised, and where the weakest are protected from the stronger and the strongest are protected from themselves.

  1. Energy and Attitude are Choices.

Simple. Simple. Simple. Be present. Be grateful. Demonstrate your passion. Give more than you take. Hustle and be the hardest worker on the team. We are what we do, and leadership grows from your behavior, not your position.

Reading over what I’ve written so far, I don’t disagree with myself, but I don’t see my love of goofiness, of lightness, of laughter for chrissake. Life is short; death is long: laugh until your throat hurts, laugh some more, and then get back to the goddamned work of creating a community. And, finally: Dammit, you’ve gotta be kind.

Note:  A stranger and almost unidentifiable version of the ideas above appears as my life mission statement: “What It Is: a mission statement in a Keatsian voice.” It has no jokes and few specifics, but it is one of the few things I’ve ever written of which I am unreservedly proud.

 

Gershwin’s Got It; Sarah Vaughn’s Got It; Tony Bennet’s Got It: I Got No Rhythm

Manchester, NH—I’m back from New Orleans, returned from the city where every bite is decadent and delicious to a city that has many perfectly good restaurants. When I go back to Pittsburg, I’ll be back on my gulag menu, so I’ve continued gorging myself while down south.  Also, I had joyful obligations while in Manchester, ranging from visiting the St. Gauden’s exhibit at the Currier Museum to a chorale in New London to horseback riding. (Don’t worry, I’m also spending time with the hoi polloi, a collection of lower companions who make up my true peer group.) Finally, I had an appointment.

Like many Americans (and most of my friends), I see a therapist. (Before the reader can make the jokes, allow me: “I read your stuff—demand your money back! Therapy’s not working” or “My God—this is what you’re like in therapy? What kind of lunatic were you before?” or “If you’re going monthly, increase it to weekly. If you see her weekly, amp it up to daily. If you’re already seeing her daily, look for an institution” or, simply, “That poor woman!”) Now that we’ve got the jokes out of the way, settle down, class. I’ve written about my therapist, Bette, before. She is an insightful and wise woman who has done me much good and appeared to understand me.

Until that appointment.

Bette didn’t break any rule of therapy or mock my nonsense (except in the most clinical and empowering way). Instead, at our last session, Bette had suggested that I come early today and take part in a “drum circle” facilitated by another vet. I had fears. I had anxiety. I had flashbacks to mangling a bass guitar in junior high school without a sense of rhythm or tune. Still, I trusted Bette. So I went.

A huge mistake.

The drum circle was a group of vets who gather weekly to get in touch with their inner rhythms, go into trancelike states and bang drums. The facilitator, whom I’ll call Joanna, was kind, welcoming me to the group. Joanna handed me a small, hourglass-shaped drum, and assured me no one would judge me. (Whenever people tell me I won’t be judged, I assume I’ve already been found guilty, but that may be one of the myriad of reasons I’m in therapy.) She said this wasn’t a test, and that no one failed at drumming.

Joanna explained the outside of the drum head makes the tone, and the inside the bass, and that drumming was a deep-seated and natural ability granted all humans. (As noted above, I understood her to mean: if you can’t drum, you’re not fully human.)

Joanna told the group to start off with a warm-up of ting-ting-ting-bong-ting-ting-bong-ting-bong. Neither tinging nor bonging, I sat with my hands above the drumhead, waiting for the spirit to overtake me, like a High-Church Episcopalian at a Pentecostal service. Nothing.

“Just do what you feel,” said Joanna.

I’m not sure how to “do” embarrassment, humiliation and regret, short of bursting into tears, throwing the drum to the floor and stomping out of the room. Instead, I tentatively tapped at a “bong,” like a sixth-grade girl disciplining a boy sitting next to her. I almost said, “Oh, you! Stop it!” but was afraid this might lead the drum to think I liked it.

“Just play the bass parts,” Joanna said, trying to help.

A brief aside regarding rhythm, sort of: I happen to be very good at taking standardized tests, which is no more or less significant than being a good whittler. Still, when I take any SAT/GRE/LSAT kind of multiple-choice instrument, I can, almost always, immediately discard three of the five choices, focusing on what kind of answer the kind of person who writes standardized-test questions would write. I can’t call this a gift, because post-formal education standardized testing hasn’t been a big part of my life. I’d rather know how to whittle. Still, I’ve tried to pass on this ability to read the minds of test writers by saying, “Discard the stupid answers, then read the mind of a bored high-school teacher being paid a buck a question!” This has not been helpful to anyone.

Sort of like:

“Just join in on the bass parts,” Joanna said after I’d sat, hands frozen above the drum, for 30 seconds.

I breathed high anxiety, waiting for the universe to give me a sense of rhythm while a group of veterans demonstrated the tempo train had already left my station. I gave another tentative tap at the drum.

“Like you mean it!” Jennifer said. “Show that drum who’s boss!”

Standardized tests are typically taken in pencil, so the nervous tester can change an answer. I’d be sorta/kinda comfortable taking them in pen, both because I don’t often go back over questions and to “show that test who’s boss.” I haven’t suggested this to any test takers, though.

As for the drum?

It is boss.

 

 

Cranky Wheels Get Oily

Ever since it went online 12 years ago, I’ve loved Google translate, and have wasted dozens of hours playing with it. Don’t ask me why, but the ability to translate from, say, English to Hebrew to Arabic to Igbo and back to English almost always makes me laugh out loud. Given many folks’ focus on the potential dangers of internet pornography, as a public service I present a few samples below.

Using the above language chain, here are 15 common English proverbs in their trans-translations. See if you can figure them out.

  • Those unread in history will be deprived of repetition
  • People living in non-smoking rooms should
  • Time is money
  • It’s time
  • The road to hell opens the way for good reasons.
  • Give employers a robbery
  • Many chefs take a lot
  • Two companies, but three people
  • Two errors are wrong
  • Cranky wheels get oily
  • There is no place in the house
  • Guide to food dessert.
  • Diversity is the taste of life
  • Tiger does not change scars.
  • Beauty is your reward

And here are the originals:

  • Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it
  • Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones
  • Time is money
  • Time will tell
  • The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
  • To the victor go the spoils
  • Too many cooks spoil the broth
  • Two is company, but three’s a crowd
  • Two wrongs don’t make a right
  • The squeaky wheel gets the grease
  • There’s no place like home
  • The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
  • Variety is the spice of life
  • The leopard does not change its spots.
  • Virtue is its own reward

I then took 15 unfamiliar proverbs from various cultures and did the same thing.

  • You will never get a cat that gives a home.
  • Never get rid of anything you eat.
  • What is quite encouraging how to tell the liver what smells beer?
  • It concerns how much the world changes, the guts never put divide.
  • Those who understand a resourcefulness understand how far the city is.
  • When the mice lie to the cat, there is a hole in the area.
  • Boil the water and the foam will rise to survival.
  • The boy of a mess is a mess.
  • You do not want to take our board, let us despise those who escape.
  • The hand is cut, the whole body will send pain.
  • What a sin to others is a kind of the same advertiser.
  • There is no point to offer a handshake to someone who wants to drink.
  • The wolf looks for what he left behind, and then the boat is busy for them.
  • No one keeps a record on the river, which will never be a crocodile.
  • If you are looking for a landfill land, you will find yourself in the cannabis country

Here are the originals.

  • You will never find a cat on a cold hearth.
  • Never defecate more than what you eat.
  • Who is brave enough to tell the lion that his breath smells?
  • No matter how much the world changes, cats will never lay eggs.
  • The one being carried does not realize how far away the town is.
  • When the mice laugh at the cat, there is a hole nearby.
  • Boil the water and the scum will rise to the top.
  • The child of a rat is a rat.
  • We hate those who will not take our advice and despise those who do.
  • Whichever hand is cut, the whole body feels the pain.
  • That which is a sin in others is a virtue in ourselves.
  • There is no point in offering a helping hand to someone who wants to drown.
  • The wolf is upset about what he left behind, and the shepherd is upset about what he took away.
  • No matter how long a log floats on the river, it will never be a crocodile.
  • When you are looking for a country with no tombstones you will find yourself in the land of cannibals.

If you didn’t find this amusing, go back to “Two Girls, One Cup,” but please pray those two girls used mouthwash afterward, and use bleach in your eyes to forget what you’ve seen.

“My Name is Keith and . . . I’m a Glutton”

New Orleans—I woke up this morning with a hangover. No, dear reader, I haven’t returned to drinking. This hangover came from food—good food (no, GREAT FOOD!) but way too much of it. I know it’s almost as boring to hear about what someone ate as to hear dream recollections or anecdotes about who they’ve slept with, but please bear with me.

Yesterday, I ate a Creole shrimp omelet, biscuits and gravy and an order of “debris,” the shavings of a freshly-carved roast beef placed into gravy. The calorie count on this meal? Approximately 37,486. Two hours later, I had a roast beef po-boy with a side of fries. Calorie count? 12,349—the sandwich had lettuce, though, so it was healthy. Finally, for dinner I had a half-dozen raw oysters and a plate of fried oysters with fries—23,800, with a proviso that the raw ones came with lemon and horseradish, a fruit and a vegetable of sorts.

Given that, when in the Tiny White Box, I typically have oatmeal (300 calories) for breakfast, soup and crackers (350 calories) for lunch and frozen spinach with cheddar cheese (300 calories) for dinner, I ate as much yesterday as I typically do in three years. Even though I walked another 10 miles, that only burned off about 800 calories. To maintain my weight while eating like I did yesterday, I’ll need to walk from here to Patagonia and back—without stopping for snacks.

The food hangover does have certain similarities to my old friend, the alcohol morning-after. I was mad at myself for overindulging. My stomach was rumbling like Krakatoa. I wanted the hair of the dog to still my anxieties.

Yes, I gave in. Today I catch my flight back to New Hampshire and sensible eating, but I set my alarm so I could walk to a neighborhood greasy spoon and had biscuits and gravy, home fries and a Greek omelet—monkey-fist sized pieces of feta cheese and thick strips of gyro.

“My name is Keith, and I’m a glutton.”

@         @         @

I don’t actually have a written list of my favorite cities, or at least didn’t until now.  While I love London, Berlin, Seattle and San Diego, the three cities I love the most are Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco.

Although it pains me greatly to say so, Boston is number three on the list. With its often-crummy weather, its segregation and racism, and its terrible, terrible accent (the only worst accent in the world is used by non-Boston Massachusetts residents), Boston just has too many negatives to overcome. It may have been the glorious metro of my childhood, but it won’t be of my dotage.

Tied for number one are San Francisco and New Orleans. I have a plane to catch, and want to post this before I get sucked out a window, so let me just put out a call to San Franciscans to pay for a trip to your fair city soon. After all, that’s the only way I can decide.

Walking a Bathtub

I admire good travel writing. It demonstrates an eye for the illustrative detail, an ear for conversation and an ability to write crisply. Mark Twain, Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux are good travel writers. I am not, so don’t expect good travel writing here. Instead, I offer a selection of anecdotes without a punchline and snippettes of scenes. You’ve been warned.

  • For personal and, I suppose, professional reasons, when I get to a new town I like to talk with folks living on the streets. New Orleans has a plentiful band of street people, many of whom have heartbreaking or humorous signs in front of them:
    • “Alone and ashamed and hungry. Please help.”
    • “I don’t want to do this. Please help me stop.”
    • “Give enough to get me drunk.”
    • “Gave up but still need a drink.”

From the first time I visited the city back in the Clinton administration, I saw New Orleans as a perfect destination for the homeless, and determined I’d live on these streets eventually. (Really.) It’s warm year-round, it’s got lots of bridges to sleep under if it rains, and alcohol flows everywhere. What more could any drunk ask for?

  • Monday evening, I went to Ozanam Inn, a homeless shelter run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. No, I didn’t call the administration there and ask for a tour. Instead, I found the place through street-person word of mouth, and stopped by to talk with guys about the place. For what it’s worth, everyone I talked with had praise for the respect they were shown there. Although I was the only white guy in the room—and talked funny to boot—guys seemed willing to talk and I felt accepted. Should I decide to pursue my earlier dream and become a homeless alcoholic in the Big Easy, it’s nice to know St. Vincent will leave a light on for me.
  • Monday and Tuesday, according to my phone, I walked about 10 miles each day. Because New Orleans is as flat as a bathtub, 10 miles of walking here is about the same as four miles in Pittsburg or most of the rest of New Hampshire. With no ups, downs or have-to-go-arounds, this may be the most walking-friendly city I’ve ever visited.
  • Lots and lots (and lots) of street cons and hustles here, something I really enjoy. From the tried-and-true “I know where you got them shoes” to not-particularly agile gymnastics to musical groupings of strange instruments, every corner seems to bring a new strange sight. Favorite: a white guy “singing” Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” with no musical accompaniment and no sense of tune. With a repertoire, or victim list, of one song, he was willing to brave the jeers of folks walking by. I threw him a buck just for his lack of self-awareness.
  • If I moved here, I think I’d weigh 275 pounds. The food is everywhere, and it’s all good. Fried chicken at Willie Mae’s had a coating so delicious I was surprised to find it had chicken inside. Likewise, breakfast at Mother’s—a crawfish Étouffée omelette, black ham, grits and biscuit—was so filling yesterday I wasn’t hungry until 8:30 last night—when I stopped in a halal joint for Middle Eastern food.

Today, I walk to a site run by the nonprofit that invited me down here. Along the way? More street performers, hustlers, homeless folks and, oh yes, food.

When Alcoholism Flowers, Everyone Can Smell It

New Orleans–I walked along the Mississippi last night, having had barbeque followed by a beignet and coffee at Café Du Monde. (Cliché, I know, but there are reasons clichés become clichés.) This is my fourth visit to New Orleans, twice as an active alcoholic, and now twice as a sober man. A few notes:

My first visit was in the early ‘90’s with the Northern New England Social Change Theater, an improv theater group I acted with.  Our focus was adult literacy, and we performed all over the country, oftentimes for library organizations—they do, after all, have a vested interest in getting more people to read.  Here, we performed for, I believe, the American Library Association’s national convention. Much of my time was spent in the French Quarter drinking, but I do remember running into an old girlfriend in an elevator. Shannon, I’ll call her, had been a sprite when we’d dated 10 years before, and now she’d become a librarian. When she got on the elevator, she told me how much she’d enjoyed our performance, and called me by name. I didn’t recognize her until I looked down at her name tag—she’d gone from a waif-like girlhood to about 250 pounds. If I squinted just right, I could see her inside all that flesh, and I remember wondering what had happened.

If I could have looked honestly inside myself, I might have asked the same question. After all, I’d transformed myself from a moderately heavy drinker into an alcoholic, guided by a need to guarantee access to alcohol. At that point, 15 years before I got sober, I just needed to maintain my supply but, little by slowly, the need to drink would overcome me.  I don’t have any great insights here (nor do I there or there or Way Over There), but I am struck how gluttony is not a secret vice, but alcohol abuse can be hidden for a long, long time. Of course, once it flowers, everyone can smell it.

My second trip was in the spring of 1995, with my wife. Without going into great detail, I’d done a lot of damage to our marriage, and this trip away from our, at that time, two small kids, was a chance to save our marriage.  (Briefly—because the reader will start to make assumptions—I’d been an absolutely selfish horse’s ass, having developed feelings for another woman. Although I didn’t act on them—at least not fully—I took an A-hole’s route and confessed my feelings to my wife, devastating her. Worse, I then climbed on a high horse of righteousness by telling her I’d been “honest” after all, so she was overreacting. The trip worked for another five years, but I know I planted the seeds of our eventual divorce that spring.)

My third trip was with a friend a couple summers ago. She was coming to town for a convention, and asked me to come along. Her story is not mine to tell, but our trip ended with her sneaking out of our room and spending the night drinking in a bar, celebrating her birthday and coming back at 6 am. I’d always thought of her as a normal drinker, but that kind of stretches the definition of “normal” beyond all recognition.

This trip, I’m visiting Roots of Renewal, a nonprofit that works with formerly incarcerated folks. So far, alcohol hasn’t entered the story, and this morning I gathered with 30 other alcoholics for an hour or so.  Think of that meeting as my way of pruning back my alcoholism, so it doesn’t stink up my life again.