In Response to The Lovin’ Spoonful: NO

I don’t believe in tarot, at leastthat a group of 78 cards has any ability to read the future or determine the outcome of choices. That would be absurd. Still, I do use tarot spread to catch a quick glimpse of my unconscious, sort of like using two mirrors to take a look at that boil on your left ear. Briefly, I do a reading—typically a Celtic Cross, if you care—and gauge my unconscious by examining my immediate emotional reaction to each revealed card. It’s really just a parlor trick I play on myself, a trick that I’m too dumb to ever figure out.

I don’t believe in magick (or magic) (or majick) (or madjich) (or any other damn way to misspell the word), at least the idea one person can control nature through spells, incantations, rites or plain mumbo-jumbo. Still, I think expressing gratitude multiple times daily cleans out my mental and emotional causeways, and that sounds magical when you come right down to it.

I don’t believe in psychics, at least that some people are gifted with qualitatively different intuition than the rest of us andare able to read people at will and offer wisdom about or insight into their lives. I do think we all have some inner voice that’s worth listening to, but not that it can tell the future or recount past lives. Still, I enjoy talking with people who believe they have psychic abilities—and even those who are simple charlatans using standard cold reading techniques.

Which brings me to hamburgers in Sedona.

Last night I wanted a burger. Sedona is a great place for Mexican, Southwestern and vegan fare, but it’s not a place known for its cheeseburgers. While it may have a tastefully-colored turquoise McDonald’s, no fast-food place offers a satisfactory burger. Yesterday, after scouring the internet and asking lots of locals, I found Dellepiane Sedona, a hole-in-the-wall in a shopping center. Dellepiane is owned by some Argentinians, and their menu reflects that, but they also have the best burgers I’ve had in a long time. Here, though, I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I walked in, I saw a woman about my age sitting by herself. Using the overbearing charm my daughters have grown to hate, I asked if I could join her for dinner. When I sat down, I quickly found out she was Francine, from Sedona (by way of Tampa, Long Island and Queens), that she played keyboards and sang with a five-piece band that plays the restaurant weekends, that she’s been here a few years, and that she was a psychic. After I went through my standard interrogation of Long Islanders who’d grown up there (“Were you a Lou Reed girl or a Billy Joel girl?”), we chatted amiably. Because she’d ordered first, her meal came followed by mine. She told me she needed to leave to meet her son and her ex-husband, and needed to pay her bill. I said I’d take care of it, and a big smile came over her face.

“Stopp by my studio tomorrow and I’ll give you a free reading! I’m located at Crystal Magic.”

This morning, I met with Francine and surprised her by not wanting a reading. Instead, I showed her pictures of my three daughters, Becca, Meri (left) and Becca and Libby (right), gave her their birthdates, and asked her to be my personal shopper inside Crystal Magic, the New Age emporium we were i

n. She studied the pictures, meditated on the horoscope information, and took me inside. We shopped for maybe five minutes, and I walked out with thoughtful gifts for each girl.

I don’t believe in psychics, but I do believe the girls will like their presents.

Thoughts from a Partially Sunburned Man

Once upon a time, I was a genius. More accurately, for one brief season of my life, I belonged to Mensa, the so-called genius organization. I say “so called,” for a couple reasons. First, because the membership is based on scores on one of about 27 possible standardized tests, each of which defines intelligence uniquely and measures it in its own way. Since intelligence is a huge ocean of potential, and tests wade along the shore, I believe IQ tests are bunk. As I recall, my membership resulted from an ability to answer trivia questions about 1920’s and 30’s major league players (e.g., “The Arkansas Hummingbird,” Lon Warneke) or maybe it was my Army entrance test scores, designed to sort soldiers into various possible MOS’s (jobs). Since the military tests and measures soldiers all the time, I’m sure my IQ was plumbed at some point. Either way, no test I know of is particularly gifted at picking out the particularly gifted.

The second reason for “so-called genius organization” is that during the single year I belonged, I was in the Army stationed in Germany, and the monthly newsletters I got were written by (almost exclusively) men who thought intelligence could be defined as “an ability to construct puzzles unable to be completed by other human beings, and a willingness to mock the attempts of others to do so.” If Oliver Wendell Holmes described FDR as having “a second-rate mind but a first-rate temperament,” the Mensans I met through their newsletters had “unrate-able minds and rat-like temperaments.”  Still, I did belong, so if I’m ever called before a congressional committee, I’ll have to answer in the affirmative to the question, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of a cabal of high-IQ puzzlemasters?”

So, I was a genius for a year. So called.

Saturday, I demonstrated yet again why I am not a genius. Genius is as stupid does.

After meeting with a group of folks in recovery here in Sedona, I came back to my hotel, changed into my bathing suit and went to the swimming pool. Lying in the sun on my back, I felt so relaxed (and jet-lagged) I fell into a deep sleep. Waking up three hours later, I noticed my chest and legs were bright red. Moving, I noticed they were painful. Getting into a lukewarm shower, I noticed what an idiot I can be as the needle-prick water made me scream.

Today, two days later, I’m still in pain, although I can now move about without a Tin-Man gait. Still, not what a genius would do.

+         +         +

I don’t really like photographs, but today I went for a nice four-mile hike. Without any visual sense at all, these pictures came out of my phone. It’s Sedona, not me.

Evening Thoughts at a Pakistani Dhaba in Sedona

The sun is still above the red rocks, but the sliver grows smaller between the tops of the butte and the bottom of the yellow ball each time I look over. I’m drinking a chai—heavier on star anise than I’m used to, and absolutely delicious—on this second-floor cushion-strewn terrace, a warm but stiff breeze blowing away the dust of the afternoon.  Not a big believer in heaven, but this may be a foretaste.

After months of looking at brown, blacks, whites and greens in Pittsburg, the red rocks—orange in the setting sun—are almost obscene. What kind of universe is this where all the bright colors in the acrylic tube are squeezed out willy-nilly here while I’ve been living with the leftovers. Of course, I talked with a French woman a little while ago. She’s lived here a few years and the only other part of the country she’s seen is Minnesota in summer, finding the infinite green there so comforting after the excitement of Sedona.

Two tables away, a five-year-old girl and her mother play mancala, an Egyptian stone game, I think, likely going back three or five thousand years. I’m reminded of a day when my parents were alive, and my oldest two daughters were maybe four and two—Libby, the youngest, was still brewing, as I recall. Any Gramper and Grammy Bev and Daddy and Becca and Mary Berry picked apples at a Hopkinton orchard, and I bought honey for mead brewing as a celebration of Libby’s impending birth. I couldn’t shake the thought that day that Roman families of three generations and Polish families and Ukranian, Chinese, Kenyan, Peruvian families had likely gathered fruit in the fall just as we were doing. There were apples all the way down and all the way back.

The dhaba closed 15 minutes ago. The teashop keeper told me I could stay on his terrace as long as I like. The mother won the game of mancala, and they’ve just left. So will I, but not before saying:

What a delightful universe, where I can whine about Windows in Manchester in the morning and drink cardamom, anise and black tea on a terrace in Arizona at night.

Thank you, God—even if you don’t exist you’re holding up your end of things.

Early Morning Airport Thoughts

It’s 5:45 am at the Manchester, NH, Airport. There may be a good time to be at an airport, but 5:45 in the morning is not one of them.  If I were in a mood, I might focus on this. Instead, because I’ve got a double espresso and a croissant and an hour to kill until my flight to, eventually, Sedona for the next nine days, I choose to focus on the comforting wisdom of Ajahn Chah: “Everything Arises, Everything Passes Away.”

In eight or so hours I’ll be driving into one of my favorite places in the explored universe. In 10 hours I will have taken a shower and will be walking in the desert, or at least a desert-like space. In three weeks, I’ll be working at a new job, one which will remain unnamed for now—one of my first tasks will be to write the press release announcing my hiring, so I’d be acting as a scab to myself to announce things right now.

Am I excited about this new job? Absolutely. It offers opportunities to work with folks who are where I was 11 years ago—an active alcoholic on the verge of death, although the word “active” doesn’t really fit, because it’s not like I was playing tennis, hiking or even thinking much. Still, “benumbed, unhoused, unemployed, mouthwash-stealing and drinking” alcoholic is a little too on the nose. Relatively active alcoholic, then. I’ve met a handful of my future co-workers and they are all kind, decent folks who seem dedicated to the mission. Hell, my new employer even has a ping-pong table!

(Please excuse a brief digression:  I am an absolute fiend about ping pong. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the combination sport/game/pastime of, in finer circles, “table tennis.” While I’m not a great player by any stretch, I’ve always been good enough to hold a table for 30 or 40 minutes—at least until the big kids get out of school.)

This new job, then, offers a ton of advantages and I couldn’t be happier. Really. Still.

If I weren’t an alcoholic, if I weren’t filled with ego-driven selfishness, if I weren’t a human, for Chrissakes, I might be completely satisfied. Instead, this new job does have one fly in the ointment.

It’s a Windows shop.

While I know a ceasefire has been reached in the silly Mac vs. Windows wars of the aughts decade, I’ve continued to fight, like one of those Japanese soldiers discovered on an island in 1962. I may have been a late convert to Macs, having used Windows machines from 1993 until 2004, but once I bought my first one I haven’t looked back. Now I must.

I must return to the world of virus fear. I must return to the world of security. I must return to the world of kludge. And I will.

I will also sit in the comforting wisdom of Ajahn Chah: “Everything Arises, Everything Passes Away.”

Even Windows PCs.


“In Hopes that He May Peak Again!” (and find Beth Austin)

Yesterday, a lifelong dream came true. Really. Lifelong may be a stretch, but it’s not a break with reality. Let me explain.

I’ve mentioned my childhood best friend, John Warnke, in this space before. We’ve reconnected over the past couple months, which has been nice for both of us. John’s father, an Army officer paralyzed in a Jeep accident in Jordan as I remember, was a true American hero. Mr. Warnke, despite being wheelchair bound and having limited upper-body dexterity, reminds me of John McCain, a man whose life was no silver stair but who combined a sense of duty with a sense of honor with a sense of humor. This is not about Mr. Warnke, but I know he is the kind of man I’ve always wanted to be.

To my knowledge, John, my friend, had never been in a Jeep in Jordan, although the Warnkes didn’t move to Durham until we were in third grade so it could be that six- or seven-year-old John was tooling around desert dunes, although that’s not the kind of thing an eight-year-old boy would be likely to leave out of his biography. (That lengthy sentence is not even a digression, because I haven’t begun the journey. Call it a gression, and let me get back to my dream come true.)

John and I were both writers, or as writerly as third, fourth or fifth graders can be. While none of our childhood work survives, one of our favorite literary activities was to dramatize literature we’d liked. More honestly, we liked to write plays starring us with plots lifted whole from books, more horse theft than homage. Our tour-de-force came in fifth grade in Mrs. Quackenbush’s class, when we wrote our masterpiece.

Dangerous Island by Helen Mather-Smith Mindlin, involves gold bars, a cave on an island that only appears every two-hundred years, two boys and a girl who become stranded on the island and a helicopter. A challenge for staging in a classroom, the story intrigued John and me, and we wrote the play over a few weeks. As I recall, more time was spent on the final helicopter rescue than on characterization or dialogue. When we finished, we knew we’d written a perfect piece of art. After all, it had implied romance, treasure, potential death and survival. It also had a helicopter.

Since John and I had co-written the play, and neither of us was a girl, we split the two male leads between us and set out to choose our femme fatale. As I recall, most girls didn’t pay John much attention at that point; I, on the other hand, was positively rank with girl repellent. No fifth-grade girl wanted to be seen with me, much less be recruited into a play, even if I’d tried to convince her this was a great honor and a potential stepping-stone to television, movies or, at least, further opportunities in the theatrical future of Warnke-Howard Productions. It would be up to John to recruit the girl we both knew would be perfect for the part, and not just because she was too kind to say no.

Also, we both had crushes on her.

Beth Austin may not have been the prettiest girl in the world, but she was to me and John. Beth Austin may not have had the most dynamic stage presence in our grade, but she did to John and me. Beth Austin may not have been the most adept line-learner in our class, but she was to John and me.

Also, we both had crushes on her.

Much as I’d like to regale you with the details of that show, I won’t. My memory and the truth have likely long since parted ways. Still, I know writing and acting in that play was an unlikely capstone to an elementary-school career primarily constructed on a foundation of wasted potential and extreme jackassery.

Beth Austin moved away after that year, so was unable to appear in any future productions.

As an aside, John and I were together in school for three more years, through eighth grade. After that, John went to a parochial high school, then on to West Point, then on to a successful career in the United States Army. I spent years trying to balance a life on intelligence without hard work, wit without wisdom and various herbal, powder and liquid chemicals. Today, though, we are both happy men pushing 60.

In eighth grade, though, I’d revealed to John that Dangerous Island from three years before felt like the pinnacle of my life, and I doubted I’d ever reach such heights again. In my yearbook, John wrote: “To Keith—In hopes that he may peak again!”

I began this by talking about a dream becoming reality. It’s also a hope and a prophecy fulfilled. Yesterday, John Warnke called me to tell me he’d read my novel, On Account of Because, and proceeded to ask me thoughtful and insightful questions, about character, motivation, authorial choices. He was exactly the reader I’ve always wanted. I had peaked again.

Because has two primary male characters, Clayton and Shiny, but really only a secondary female character—Clayton’s mother, Lucinda, a horrific and evil drunk. When our fifth-grade class has its next, and first, reunion, John can play Clayton, I’ll play Shiny, who, at novel’s end, is sitting drunk with Lucinda.

I may not have a crush on her, but I do finally get the girl.

Beth Austin, where are you?

The Journey to Sit Still (with Big News)(or, honestly, a tease of it)

I came north last August, planning for the beauty of the fall, the frigid isolation of winter, the softness of spring and the joys of summer. Some of those things have happened. The rest won’t, at least not for me, but I’ll get to that by and by.

First, though, the last nine months in review. (No, there are no babies magically appearing in this narrative. Like Freud’s cigar, sometimes nine months is just nine months, not a hint of the human gestation period.)

Fall in Pittsburg is defined differently than autumn in the town inwhich I grew up. In Durham, summer runs until the beginning of October, making that first month of school torture. (Being in school qua being in school makes the rest of the school year unbearable.) Here, though the trees were already turning beautiful colors in mid-August, and, despite some Indian-summer short-sleeve days, the earth locking of fall begins in October. The ground concretizes, and jackets are always within reach. Autumn here is brief but glorious, like life itself, and from its beginnings the death knell of winter sounds inthe background.

I loved the Tiny White Box in autumn and was glad to have begun the journey of sitting still.

I’d assumed winter would make me crazier than the gods have already decreed, that I’d develop cabin fever and go mad. It didn’t, and I didn’t. I talked with my friend, Doc, yesterday about this past winter. Doc’s been up here a while, and said this past one was pretty typical, except for getting three northeasters in 10 days. Usually, there aren’t more than two. We had a week or 10 days in January when it didn’t get above 0 degrees, but we also had days above freezing. I wrote a lot, drank a lot of coffee and didn’t feel any crazier than usual. The Tiny White Box, thanks to the genius of my friend and its builder, Gavin Beland, stayed insulatedly warm enough that I kept a window open all season. Really.

I loved the Tiny White Box in winter and was glad to continue the journey of sitting still.

Spring began, I think, the day before yesterday. We’ve still got ice on the lakes and some snow on the ground, but I hike on mud instead of ice these days, and I write this in short sleeves sitting in the sun.  While the winter was whites, blacks and browns broken by the clear blue of the sky, now we have infinite shades of green added to the palette. Tomorrow I may wear shorts, exposing the fish-belly whites of my legs for the first time since last summer. This, of course, is another advantage of living alone in the wilderness.

Which I’ll do for another three weeks.

I’ve written about my trip to New Orleans a few weeks ago. Although some readers guessed, that was in connection with a job which was in connection to a column I wrote six weeks ago. That column, which I think of as an open letter to the universe, garnered a fair amount of traction. Think of Mary Poppins when Jane and Michael Banks’ letter describing the perfect nanny, which Mr. Banks tears up and throws in a fireplace in the second or third scene of the movie. Somehow, my letter traveled all over the country and was responded to by a number of nonprofits looking for quirky leadership with a skewed vision.

I visited New Orleans to talk with Roots of Renewal, a truly impressive organization. There, I interviewed for the position of executive director, ate a ton of good food, hung out with great people and learned all I could about Roots. It deserves your attention and support, and has worked miracles in many folks’ lives. Still.

Aphorisms aren’t usually reversible, but I’d like to talk about one that is. Voltaire is often quoted as saying, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” by which is meant “focusing on achieving the transcendent can prevent us from enjoying immanence” or, “don’t let your desire for infinite wealth keep you from grabbing the 20-dollar bill on the floor.” Its near-opposite, though, is also true: “the good can be the enemy of the best.” The Roots of Renewal position demonstrates this.  It is a good, even a great, position in an unreservedly great organization. Still, I withdrew my name as a candidate in favor of the best position for me at this time, a job even designed for who I am and what I stand for.

What job is that?

You’ll have to tune in later to find out.

I will continue to live in the Tiny White Box, and will sit with what I’ve learned on this journey to sit still.

Terror is the Given of the Place

I’ve had a lot of lives, one of the advantages of not dying. In addition to being a disk jockey, an improv actor/director, school principal and drunk, I’ve also been a special-education director. Going through some files the other day, I came upon the following essay, written during that period, on the challenges of diagnosing students with emotional and behavioral disorders, what used to be called emotional handicaps by special educators and out-of-control pains in the ass by many teachers. I share it now, not because I think it has great insight, but because I don’t think things have changed much since I wrote it.

“Terror is the given of the place.”  So Joan Didion began Salvador, but it might also serve as an introduction to the world of the chronically mentally ill.  Although our culture has glamorized mental illness over the years, in such books and films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, King of Hearts, A Beautiful Mind and Harold and Maude, the reality is much grayer, starker and more frightening.

Likewise, such psychologists as R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz theorized mental illness out of existence, declaring what we call “insanity” a sane reaction to an insane world.  Unfortunately, this panglossian view does not match reality.  Instead, we must look to the harsh day-to-day existence of Susan Sheehan’s Sylvia Frumpkin (in the non-fiction masterpiece Is There No Place on Earth for Me?), with her repeated suicide attempts, her ever-unsuccessful stays in group homes and her complete lack of social skills, nay, her mastery of anti-social skills.  Sylvia’s life in and out of various psychiatric institutions is a far cry from Ken Kesey’s fictional McMurphy and the other lovable lunatics of Cuckoo’s Nest.  Likewise, Mark Vonnegut’s classic memoir, The Eden Express, presents a realistic and unflinching report of his experience with schizophrenia.  Although Vonnegut’s acute psychosis has passed, and he became a successful pediatrician, the reality of his struggle with reality lingers and horrifies.

While we glorify a type of mental illness in the abstract and on celluloid, we demonize those who suffer from the real thing in the here and now.  The deinstitutionalization movement, despite its theoretical and philosophical moral strength, unleashed thousands of folks with mental illness literally onto the streets, so that many Americans’ most vivid experience of serious mental illness is the vacant-eyed stare of the crone digging through a dumpster.

Certainly not all children identified as emotionally disturbed or behavior disordered are mentally ill; still, children and young adults with mental illness, whether schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other major illnesses are so identified.  Because of this, clinicians and educators must take great care in recommending this label for students with emotional problems which interfere with learning.  One could, in fact, make a case that the label “emotionally disturbed/behavior disordered” is the most stigmatizing educationally handicapping condition.  Even mental retardation seems to have shed its once-prevalent connection with sexual deviancy and potential violence and has been, quite rightly, sanitized through the use of less judgmental labels such as “developmentally disabled” and “cognitively impaired” and through the example, for instance of Sean Penn’s character in I am Sam.  Realistic and chronic mental illness, contrariwise, has no such poster boy.  Because of the potentially negative power of this label, then, it should be applied only as a last resort, after all possible attempts have been made to provide academic and extra-academic support.  While this process should, of course, be used in the identification of all disabilities, it may be nowhere so important as with the emotionally disturbed/behavior disordered population.

One of the major difficulties with this label is its very broadness, including five separate characteristics.  Because of the scope of this disability, it encompasses the socially isolated child, the depressed child, the school-phobic child and the actively psychotic child.  While it is true, for instance, that the category “cognitively impaired” includes both the child who is identified as moderately intellectually and developmentally disabled, with an IQ of 60, and the profoundly intellectually-disabled child whose IQ is for all practical purposes unmeasurable, the continuum in that disability seems, at least in most teacher’s perception, more clearly demarcated.  That is, teachers may be reassured by the apparent objectivity of the IQ scores used as signposts in identifying the degree of intellectual disability; the apparent subjectivity of clinical interviews and projective testing done by psychologists may not offer the same clarity and confidence to a teacher.

Along with the caveat that the emotionally disturbed/behaviorally disordered label is potentially stigmatizing comes the dictum that the net not be set too widely in searching for such students.  That is, too often in education the belief and practice is that diagnosis must precede remediation, that diagnosis is in fact transcendent over the immanence of remediation.  This view, drawn from the clinic, does not always serve the child well, particularly in cases where remediation can conceivably be offered sans diagnosis (e.g., a student can regularly see a school psychologist or outside therapist without being formally identified as emotionally disturbed/behaviorally disordered) or, more chillingly, if no known remediation exists (e.g., the child whose psychosis does not respond to medications).

Likewise, the special education team must ensure that its judgements are culturally and racially as value-free as possible:  oddness does not equal illness.  Whether examining the inner-city African-American child, whose experience with justice and violence may make his world-view strikingly different from the examiner’s and other team members, or working with a child of members of an exotic snake-handling Christian sect, special education teams and psychologists must try to distance themselves from their own values and determine rationally the best interests of the child and whether these interests are served by coding the student or whether the necessary remediation can be offered without a formal diagnosis.

In summary, in looking at the theoretical, psychological and social issues involved in the detection of children with emotional disturbances/behavioral disorders, one must always be aware of the potential stigma attached to this label and its effects both in and out of the classroom on a child’s growth toward adulthood.  Along with this, one must consider the possibility, even the likelihood, of a self-fulfilling prophecy; teachers told that a student is emotionally disturbed may, consciously or unconsciously, expect inappropriate or even bizarre behavior and through their very expectation, help to bring about the behavior and attitudes they fear.