Paean to my parents

The parents watching their boys and my son Bennett in gymnastics didn’t turn their heads when I walked back up to the mezzanine after watching Carter at golf in a separate area of the sports complex.

“Did I miss any drama?!” I chortled, referring to two weeks past, when a spat between Bennett and two other boys set off a multi-day, Parent Summit, resulting in the other boys’ apologies to Bennett.

“Oh, yes,” said the mother. “Bennett’s been out of control. He’s been asked twice to sit out.”051709.hb19

She had barely turned her face to say this and said it only after my asking two times.   I thought perhaps they didn’t recognize my voice from behind, though we’d enjoyed some 25 Saturdays together since last fall.  Her skin, usually pale even in early summer-like temperatures, was flushed, as though she’d seen a crime. The two fathers, with whom I had become weekend-morning-close-friends, thrust their backs at me. Neither head moved.  They finally turned and set their eyes against me, as though I were in a courtroom, sitting behind an oak table with nothing before me but the witness stand, where a handkerchief-wielding mother spits out her accusation and points toward me, shouting, HE DID IT! THAT MAN THERE MURDERED MY SON!!”

Upon considering their disgust with me and Bennett, I later pondered what may have occurred in these parents’ minds.

These two sets of parents – one father (his wife has never come to my knowledge) and one couple, both of whom raise one child each – had never seen what Karen and I witness on a daily basis. And while Bill Cosby was perhaps circumscribed in saying that you’re not a real parent until you have two or more children, the comedian is vindicated by all of us who have seen siblings do what single-child parents never witness.

Granted: these two families watch tirades, back-talking, disobedience and a host of issues manifested from the evil that lurks deep within each of our hearts. And granted:  raising children at all is more difficult than running a company of thousands of employees where, if one wanted to, one could fire everyone, or take billions of dollars from some government somewhere in order to get out of a tough situation.  Parents have no bailout afforded them.  But parents of one child do not see fratricide. Plotting and deceit. Stealing. They may see a single person sinning against them and violating their principles, but they don’t see people sinning against one another under their watchful eyes, despite their warnings, their teaching, their tears.  The sin they see too often tempts them to feel the Divine Judge, the dispenser of justice rather than the recipient of mercy, while parents of multiple kids see more of a reflection than an infraction.

Not that complaining about uneven and therefore unjust video game turns rises to the level of violating the penal code, but for parents to see the breadth of pain that those equally loved can inflict on one another allows them to (a) be understanding about individual faults while not excusing them, (b) develop one’s capacity to be an Arbitrator while neither succumbing to Appeasement nor listing into Tyranny, and (c) not take too much credit for the good outcomes while also not feeling too much guilt about the bad ones.  Also, when you have two or more children who, as boys do, beat each other up one minute and then 15 seconds later point out the latest move on SpiderMan 3 for PlayStation, you quickly grow a sense of humor.  Offenses are viewed less like a virtuoso violinist berating her piano accompanist for an errant note than they are like those seen through the eyes of a symphony conductor, who sees that the trombones missed their cue this night but the clarinets were the perpetrators last week.  Or through the eyes of Patricia, a woman in AA in Jonesboro, Georgia, who used to come to meetings in her pajamas at 11:00 a.m. after waking up next to her lesbian lover.  She was 68; her lover was 35.  She would hear the weepy story of someone who got drunk the previous night and wait for others to speak and then, in a voice both calming and jarring like nails on a blackboard, she would verbally kick the shit out of the fallen, so that he would know that she both loved him and hated what he had done.  She had heard his story many times in the decades of her sobriety, from hundreds of different alcoholics, some of them still living, some of them not.  And when you listened to her, it was impossible not to fear her talking to you like this, and impossible to avoid wishing it for the love it barely concealed.  She was filled with laughter, not for the alcoholic behavior but for her sobriety, which she was reminded of each time a person got stupid and drank and then wised up and came into the rooms.  Those around her were a reflection, not an infraction.

On Sunday of Mother’s Day weekend, we took all three boys for haircuts.  Carter, 10 years old and the eldest (and most vain, like his father), cried after his locks were shorn, convinced he would be maligned at school and shunned by former friends.

“The rule is,” Karen told him, “that you have to wait three days.  And then the haircut looks better.”  Women know these things.  Carter was unconvinced.

Monday morning came and Teak, age six and our youngest, looked at Carter and said, “You only had to wait one day.”

“What?”  Carter started, confused.

“You only had to wait one day for the haircut to look better.”

Bennett’s behavior this past Saturday morning, while it required consequences, was the momentary arc of a single star in a constellation that must be understood in the broader sky.

Pity the astronomer whose telescope is forever trained on one light.



photo:  *hb19


Cleopatra-style hair and cigarettes

Since I liked the number 17, I scanned the list of sponsors’ names and found the seventeenth:  “Ray W.”  The list was written in various inks and in pencil on poster board and tacked with thumbnails to the paneled wall over the water fountain.  I wrote down Ray W.’s phone number, sat through the hour-long Open Meeting at Clayton House in Jonesboro, Georgia, and drove back to my room, which I rented from a Mormon couple about three miles away.


030809-petraAA is supposed to be anonymous, but in this small community, most people knew each others’ last names, where they worked, which Waffle House we all congregated at.  Eddy started with a hair salon, though he branched out into tanning, and I helped him procure his first tanning bed in Griffin, a town about 25 miles south along Tara Boulevard.  Tom worked at the phone company, and his live-in girlfriend Phyllis had magenta-colored Cleopatra style hair.  They both smoked incessantly yet had brilliant teeth.  (Pretty much everyone at Clayton House smoked but me.)  I went over to their house once with a few others.  Clean laundry was falling out of the dryer, which was in the kitchen, and they all smoked cigarettes as we drank cokes or lemonade or sweet tea.  The collective laughter and in-jokes were the music we all listened to, its tones and rising pitches wafting across the room with the blue-grey smoke.  Sandra was there, a woman in her late 30s, natural blonde, who still to this day typifies to me what serenity – as opposed to mere sobriety – is like.  Woody had a dog grooming shop, and his trimmed beard and shoulder-length fine black hair, always combed, made him look like an afghan, except for his diminutive height.


Joe and Frieda were the first Mormon couple I had ever become friends with.  They had a daughter in college and a college-bound son, who listened to the Grateful Dead most waking hours, and Joe seemed to have a gift for fixing the washing machine with parts that he extracted from their 15-year-old Dodge Caravan.  As I recall, I paid them somewhere around $200 per month for my 10’ square room, and I had bathroom cleaning duties.


I used their phone to call Ray W.


At the time, I had not met Ray face to face.  When I finally did, his appearance was underwhelming.  He was 6’2”, thin and bent like a homeless man, and had dark black skin and graying and aging clothes.  He wore dark glasses, and I can’t say I ever saw the whites of his eyes.  When you don’t see the whites of someone’s eyes, you wonder if they even know you or think about you when they’re addressing you.  At least I did.


And yet, when you get to a certain point in your life, when the misery is great enough, you do what someone tells you to do, especially if their names happens to fall under lucky number 17 on a list, a criterion as good as any to pick a sponsor.  Ray told me to call him every night at 7:30 to check in.  I did.  He told me to go to a meeting every day.  I did.  (At least one.)  He told me many other things as well, including insisting that I come to the Thursday night Spiritual Recovery Group at Southwest Christian Church in East Point.


It was on Thursday nights I met people like Bill and Julie.  Bill worked for Delta Airlines, and they lived in Peachtree City.  Bill and Julie, and many of their friends from SWCC in their 50s, 60s and even 70s, were the kind of people I had always assumed spent the better part of the day counting their blessings that they were not heroin addicts.  But there we sat, in a room adjacent to the sanctuary (no smoking allowed, however), and one by one we went around the room, introducing ourselves by first name.  There were maybe sixty of us.


“My name is Jerry, and I’m an addict.”  Hi, Jerry!


“My name is Howard, and I’m an alcoholic.”  Same refrain.


“My name is Julie, and I’m a sinner.”


A “sinner.”


Now, at this point, I think a disclaimer is in order.  I read recently in a NY Times article, one of many in recent years, about the supposed overlap and equation of “addiction” and “sinfulness.”  That’s not what I’m getting to here.  I’m writing about how a person who recognizes that he is broken by alcohol or cocaine, and how a person who recognizes that she is broken by sin, sit in the same room and talk about what Jesus did for them.  The same Jesus, and the same deliverance.  In fact, I noticed that the people who had been in this group for some time, people with substance abuse issues like me, would often introduce themselves as, “Shawana, a crack addict and sinner.”  Sin was at the bottom, not addiction, even though addiction often paraded around on the campgrounds that sin had the permit to.


And so this is how I met Bill and Julie, and Ray W. and Jim Dyer (the founding pastor of the church, and founder of this group), and Joe O. and Hendu and Cheryl and so many others, most of whom I can remember faces of if not names.


Ray W. told me what to do, and I did it.  I did it half out of fear for what would happen if I didn’t, and half out of certainty that he knew what he was talking about.  Ray was supervisor in a halfway house called S.O.A.R., a ministry that SWCC founded and funded.  A lot of the guys I met in Clayton House were living there and would get jobs at a Waffle House or gas station, wherever they could walk to, since their driver licenses had been revoked.



photo:  :petra:

In the morning trash


Through the clear plastic recycling bag and pressed against the Tropicana orange juice carton and Dannon yogurt cups, I saw a flattened cardboard six-pack container for O’Douls Amber.  One of those “fake” beers.


“Ah,” I thought.  “Another alcoholic lives nearby.”


This was on 85th Street between Broadway and West End, about two blocks from home.  It was steps away from the Victoria’s Secret to my left on the corner of 85th Street and Broadway, a store whose floor to ceiling windows I self-consciously avoid staring at, 021509felipe_bedoya1with its posters of nine-foot “Amazon women” (as a friend refers to them) beckoning to men to shop for other women who will not wear the stuff.  I glanced instead to my right toward the kosher restaurant, whose red awning sported the inviting tagline, “And bulls will be sacrificed.”  My left hand navigated the iPhone song selection, while in my right hand were two opaque plastic grocery bags with Entenmann’s donuts for the boys, two Luna bars for Karen – one for now, one for later – a half-gallon of milk, a quart of half-and-half (“not fat-free, please!” Karen had reminded me, still groggy as I shuffled out of our apartment) and a Sunday Times.


The first copy of the paper I thumbed through seemed to be lacking the Book Review, and I found satisfaction in being the kind of New Yorker who would return the paper to the stack since it lacked this particular section.  (As opposed to being without “Automobiles,” which is read, after all, by people who move here from the suburbs and haven’t really gotten over the parochial love of cars.  My father always looked first for “Arts & Leisure.”)  After I paid the $4.00 and started to walk away, I felt a pang of guilt that I had not let the kiosk owner know that the first copy was incomplete.  Then I rationalized away my negligence by assuming that most people would not care, and if they didn’t check for the Book Review to begin with, then they wouldn’t mind missing it later as they sat in their living room poring over the Rangers’ or Knicks’ box scores.  Or the Automobiles section, heaven forbid.


Elitism in my heart had been restored.


As I passed the O’Douls box, I paused mentally for a moment and wondered why the drinker would have chosen that brand over the options – much better in my opinion – of Becks N.A., Kaliber, St. Pauli Girl N.A., or even Buckler.  I wondered if maybe they were the designated driver and simply chose for one night to drink beer with no sting.  No, I told myself, there’s no reason for someone to drink this stuff unless you really want to drink the real stuff but can’t.


I started to wonder about this drinker whose life was spoken of in the garbage.  I felt an affinity, because he or she had suffered as I had.  Maybe still does.  (This, of course, is the chief way we feel an affinity:  either one relates to how desperate it is to stand in a soup line, or one confesses to a peer the pressures of managing an eight-figure retirement portfolio.  We all “suffer.”  It’s how we do that creates our commiserati.)  Now, back at the apartment, having read a Times Magazine article on the Houston Rockets’ Shane Battier and new metrics to understand basketball players’ contributions on the court (not really a sports story so much as a business innovation story…just so you know), and having started a Book Review article on the financial meltdown, I was compelled instead to think about that O’Douls box.


Most of my friends in A.A., at least those in small-town Jonesboro, Georgia, and I’m quite certain elsewhere, would strenuously object to my drinking non-alcoholic beer.  First, they’d point out, it isn’t 100% “non-alcoholic.”  That each bottle contains less than 0.5% alcohol by volume is 0.5% too much, they’d say, and I am in denial about my addiction.  Second, they’d claim it’s a trigger to others, if not myself.  In defense of their position if not their intent, I did indeed worry for some time that others who knew my story and saw me drinking a Kaliber at a party would wonder if I had fallen off the wagon or, worse, was a hypocrite.  Talking like a recovering alcoholic but acting like an active one was a much worse state than either extreme in most people’s eyes.


Yet the more I listened to scores and even hundreds of people talking about alcohol, I realized that the substance itself had taken on a mythical power.  We were “powerless” over it, and we had turned over our will to a higher power.  God, as some would say, would be our guide and would – after assuming control of our lives – remove our defects and shortcomings.


The more sober I got, however, the more unsettled I became with the tendency to ascribe every addictive evil to the substance itself and not more to the drinker.  I was the problem, not it.  So when my friends frowned on “non”-alcoholic beer, perhaps some were worried that 0.5% would lead me to 5% and then to 10% and on to 100-proof.  And perhaps there were enough stories of that happening and they were/are right.  But perhaps I am an anomaly, because I have drunk N.A. beer for 12+ of my 14 sober years, always stopping at two if not one, and never has it left me wanting something stronger.  I have acquired a taste for the concoction and an obvious snobbery for the imports.  Perhaps, too, they know that many who finally admit that they are “alcoholics” realize that their body chemistry cannot tolerate alcohol at all – they have a disease – so that N.A. beer indeed could lead down a slippery slope.  To date, not so with me.  (I suppose there’s always tomorrow.)


Regardless of whether I am of the disease-variety of alcoholics or the Repeatedly Failed Life Choice variety, my musings on the reputed shame of addiction may be anachronistic.  In our western society of proactively exposed sin, self-revelation, and introspection, which when written well garners multi-million dollar book advances, it is almost fashionable to admit that you don’t drink because you had a problem with it at some point, causing relational firestorms, excessive credit card debt, and “tore-up cars” (a favorite subject for those living in Jonesboro).  (And it is certainly more fashionable for one to state in religious circles that you don’t drink because of your moral failings than to admit in secular circles that you don’t drink because of your religion.)  When you share your story to people outside A.A., the more grotesque the outcome of your misery, the more stunning your fall from grace, the louder the implicit applause you receive from a grateful audience accustomed to seeing life through eyes trained by either Greek tragedy or Hollywood narratives.


To be a failure, when handled correctly, can advance your career.


Not only does the audience feel a sense of both awe at the failure-turned-success and their own good fortune of but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I-ness, but also the speaker gets adulation and has a whole new idol to find a support group for:  pride.  That’s what we now need:  Prideful Alcoholics With Names.


There is indeed a peculiar and sinful delight I take in telling my story.  I demur at first, of course, when someone asks me to tell it.  I kid myself:  Oh, I am too humble and too insignificant.  God has done so much for me.  Who am I to tell this story?  Yet, what always crops up – what always hisses in my ear – is that small and then growing sense of uniqueness.  Among the lives of many whom I tell the story to, there is little suffering of the scale and luridness that I describe.  When I sense the person has been relatively upstanding, my story becomes more bleak – not embellished in any way but rather digitally remastered in its presentation of facts.  Headlines of gross irresponsibility and self-destruction are organized in my narrative in a way to impart maximum effect on the listener.  Events that are less sensational, even if they are key to the plot (like my first glass of wine, at age nine during intermission at a Broadway performance of Godspell), are moved to the middle of a paragraph.  I am analyzing the listener as I speak line by line:  I am watching for where they want the story to go.  Which train wreck in my life will shock at which point?  What accumulation of facts in which order will stun them into admiring me more for my weakness?  After telling the story so many times, I tend to know which elements are the most hair-raising to the listener.  These parts get played by Brad Pitt or Will Smith; the event is muscular and charismatic.  The more pedestrian episodes get Dom DeLuise.


On the other hand, the more the person I am sharing with has suffered, the more buffered my story.  I tell it chastened.  I tell it as an apprentice would.


And of course, once I venture into a room at AA, there is such universal suffering – admitted and denied – that my story contains little in the way of dramatic effect and includes even a constricting of individuality.  I indeed skew toward anonymity while sitting in that metal folding chair in the church basement and drinking that awful coffee made by a Bunn that is forty years old.  I hear the same jokes and one-liners from women and men I sit with in meetings day after day, like the guy with no front teeth and such a strong Southern accent that I could never quite make out what he said to recreate here in a quote, but somehow I knew it was wise.  I would watch the nodding heads and hear his tone, one of reluctantly assumed authority.  I hear their stories, or pieces of them, over and over, like looking at parts of a large-scale installation artwork one at a time, not able to grasp the entire parking-lot-sized steel structure in one gaze.  Their stories, told again and again until their edges are smoothed, finally become like burnished bronze, reflecting light rather than emanating it.


Not only do I not feel pride in telling my own story, but there is no space for pride.  It cannot flourish or even exist in those rooms.  It is like a flame put under an overturned glass jar:  there is no oxygen to keep it burning.  If the jar is lifted and the fire flares, there is someone with twenty years or more of sobriety who will step in and snuff it out in the breath of one brief statement, usually with more expletives than nouns and usually with the effect of a veteran comic on an over-zealous heckler.  Like Ann, a 70-year-old lesbian who married a 30-year-old one and wore bedroom slippers and sweatpants to meetings.  Or Sue, who finally realized she had a drinking problem when, in a whiskey-blind stupor, she accidentally pulled the trigger of her husband’s loaded 12-gauge shotgun and blew off half the head of her 5-year-old daughter.  In that kind of atmospheric heat, pride and pretense evaporate.


We are all the same, we alcoholics.  Our sin, our addictions, our idolatry of alcohol, which was essentially an idolatry of self, was so consuming that to tell the story of it among each other does not bring us glory.  Rather, to tell the story of what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now is to tell the story of the strength of AA.  The strength of friends in AA who helped us.  The undeniable strength of that higher power to which we all turned to for help and, when completely surrendered to, changed our lives.  Telling the story helps us remember; it is also used by another force than our own to beckon to the one who suffers yet hasn’t admitted or surrendered.  Whether the sufferer turns or not is up to her.  As is often said, “A.A. is not for those who need it; it’s for those who want it.”  Truly, one must willfully turn over her will.


Telling one’s story rarely translates faithfully outside those rooms.  The temptation of pride on the part of the narrator – at least for me – is always there, always too much to bear.  Always stronger when we’re alone with someone who’s not an alcoholic than when we’re with a fellow sufferer.  For the listener, the inability or lack of desire to identify is always a mountain to climb:  a feeling, a bias, a judgment that the storyteller is somehow different.  A difference in essential kind or type:  upbringing, social class, fate.


And there is a temptation for either person to assume that just because you didn’t blow a child’s head to smithereens with a shotgun that somehow you’re in the clear.





art:  Felipe Bedoya

“One small step for man…”

She always said, “Don’t walk out five minutes before the miracle happens.”  Harriett (not her real name) was morbidly obese, probably around 300, 350, and she drove a yellow Pinto station wagon she’d bought for $200 from a friend in her AA meeting group.  Her husband, after they had divorced, had been executed for a capital crime.  But Harriett loved Jesus and had built her life around him, convinced that even though she lived in public housing and her washer kept overflowing and her car listed along State Route 1632 in Morrow, Georgia, she was bound for glory and nothing could get her down.


Don’t walk out…


She had told me this sitting in Riverwoods, a private hospital behind what is now Southern Regional Medical Center and which caters to those about to walk out early.  I had lapsed quickly into a manic state, March 1995, not ten days after being released from that same hospital, after the minivan that she and I were passengers in, and driven by an AA friend, backed into a metal stanchion in a McDonald’s parking lot.  For some reason, that jarring, though it did little damage to the car’s fender, pushed me over the edge.  So much so that five minutes later I thought I saw my parents’ deceased cat, Pippin, sitting on a car hood in front of a house.  It was an altogether different breed as it turned out, which I learned only after stepping out of the minivan door to inspect it more closely while saying, with a straight face, “One small step for man…”, and believing I was entering a new universe that had different air quality and chemical composition.


Harriett and I sat in an examination room at Riverwoods and she spoke to me about God.  She told me what it was like to have God’s arms wrapped around you.  To hear his voice.  To know his love.  I looked at her, wrapped in excess flesh, and saw a splendid soul peering back.  While I’m sure she had a cross word for her enemies – for none of us are without sin, I’m to understand – I for one never heard her say anything harsh about anyone.


I often hear this remark of hers – “Don’t walk out…” – reverberating in my mind during hard times like late last week, when I had the first bout of depression since this new doc increased one of my medications, allowing me six weeks of depression-free living, a first since moving back to the city in December of last year.  Before mid-July, every two weeks or so I’d feel like my mind was walking out, even if my body and soul were staying put.


Harriett laughed well, and when she did, she revealed corroding teeth, all of them present, but yellowed, usually caked in food particles.  Her gums extended down, it seemed, so you saw more pink than enamel.  Or maybe it was that her lips curled back more than most people’s.




photo:  fdecomite