On Grief, Recovery, and Finding the Right Path

A few days ago, a woman at meeting was talking about a friend of hers who told her that there were certain things she had to do in recovery to somehow “get it right.” In my Open Group for Bedlam Farm, you can read between the lines of some comments and discern that there are ways that many insist need to be adhered to in order to “get over” the death of a loved one whether it be dog, person or car.

These kinds of certainty make me very uneasy for one reason, at our most vulnerable, many people will accept anything others insist is the “right way” and when it doesn’t work out, they not only feel the pain of loss and the emptiness that often accompanies recovery, but experience the added benefit of depression because whatever the “right way” did not work for them. I am conscious of the fact that when we are at the emotional gates of these experiences, we want nothing more than for the pain to go away. We do not consider the fact, because of the misguided assistance of others, many of whom want the best for us, that there is no right way to do many, many things. In fact, the most brilliant solutions for coping with these things, and really many off life’s problems often come from inside us.

Consider the wheel. It’s seemingly impossible to believe that at one time, there were no wheels. None. Then, someone said “Wait a minute, I bet I could get my slaughtered elk or bucket of water to the other side of the cave a lot faster if I had some sort of roundy rock or hard dirt clod to put it on top of.” Then boom, the wheel was invented and we got around a lot quicker. And from the wheel came the Accord Hummer and tank.

I think a person who is faced with the daunting task of losing a loved one or facing their life without the monumental crutch of drugs and alcohol, a crutch they have gotten so used to leaning on that not having it means almost certain stumbling to the floor, they will listen to whomever is slinging the most enticing snake oil. They are so confused and in need of answers to questions that haunt them (namely, how will I go on without this person in my life? What kind of a life will it be without drugs and alcohol? Will I ever be happy again, have fun again, laugh again?), they don’t realize that they themselves hold all the answers they need if only they would look inside themselves and start fumbling through the debris left after the storm and search for it.

The recommendations of others to pray, exercise, meditate and walk the dog are just that. They are only suggestions and one needs to have just a little strength, just a little, to be able to figure out their own way, their own path, and adhere to it. Maybe that path will align with the one that has worked for others and maybe not. For me personally, I can truly say that AA has provided some great guidelines like reading the Big Book, getting a sponsor, going to meetings and like that. But they are only that, guidelines, and certainly not hard-and-fast rules. If you lose your parents or your child or your best friend, maybe going to church 5 days a week and saying the rosary will help. And maybe it won’t. The important thing is to take those recommendations of others, think on them, and then decide how you walk the path in front of you. It may be a path into a gorgeous and stark desert. It may be a lush forest. Hell, it may be a kayak on an ocean with no shore. But it will be yours and yours alone. GO gently into that dark night. But bring a lantern. You may need it.

Advertisements

When you grow up as Catholic as I was, chances are you’ve done a fair amount of service work. In my life, I’ve done community service for a number of organizations and some wasn’t even court ordered. Some of it was required as a condition of completion of an academic course, probation or my residence. I’ve volunteered at a soup kitchen, a half-way house, Habitat for Humanity, another soup kitchen, you name it.

The latest round was at a Goodwill. It started as going to a store and explaining that I live in a sober-living house and as a condition of living in the house I wanted to do some work there. The store manager told me I had to call the central office. So I called the central office, who told me if the service wasn’t a condition of probation, I had to contact the store. When I contacted the store, the very unhelpful woman I spoke said I had to speak to the central office. Apparently you can’t even be of service to others in our culture until you’ve at least been convicted. Patience of a statue and all that.

So finally I just went down to the big Goodwill, the one with the warehouse attached. The one that doesn’t even have clothes, just furniture, household wares, toys and some flat screen TV’s for sale (Yes, even Goodwill will not accept regular tube televisions anymore. Because as we all know, even the disadvantaged in America won’t watch The Price is Right unless it’s on a swank Magnavox they can mount on their wall.

Upon walking in, the manager on duty informed me that I couldn’t work in the warehouse itself because, I kid you not, there had been some problems with volunteers orchestrating some thefts from the warehouse. So volunteers couldn’t go back there anymore. I’ll repeat that. People were stealing from the Goodwill. I tell ya, that’s “special plane of Hell” material right there. Anyway, what I could do was remain out in the store and sweep floors, wash the front windows and fish merchandise up off the floor. The reason it’s down there in the first place is really very simple. Every hour, the employees wheel these enormous blue bins the size of a Ford F-350 into the warehouse and back out again with a fresh supply of housewares, toys, books and all manner of brickabrack overflowing from the bins. They then line up these bins in a row and (again, I shit you not), get on the public address system to effectively bellow “Go!” to the customers, also in a line, salivating and crazed, who then converge on the bins like a gaggle of hungry jackals and literally rifle through the merchandise, casting aside that which they don’t want onto the floor. So in the process of picking up the floor, I got a brief glimpse into the sprawling waste land of American consumerism. Let’s start with the bears.

20140117_111037

A-freakin-dorable, right? There was a multitude of this very type of bear in the bins and I would have been gleeful to give one of them to either my niece or nephew were they not past the age of appreciating them. They’re older now and I’m pretty sure Jake is coming up on the age where he gets his learner’s permit and Izzy is probably reading Seventeen or Kiddy Cosmo or whatever is appropriate for her age right now.

20140117_132636

Another one I’d love to give me nephew, the budding bookworm. He’s into Harry Potter right now. I plan to introduce him to Thoreau or Emerson in 6-8 months. But then the bears started to get a little weird.

20140117_110955

Okay, still good, but a little disturbing given the look of uncertain joy on its face.

 

Now we’re getting into creepier territory. This one is a little too Bride of Chucky for my tastes and I’m pretty sure would have a good number of tots crying for no discernable reason.

20140117_140850

This one is just wrong. Wrong, wrong wrong in so many ways wrong. Imagine waking up on Christmas morning with this freaky thing at your bed side. Scarring.  At this point, let’s shift gears for a moment and address some of the more adult items that at first glance seem fine, until you really consider them. In no particular order we have the long sought after Fountain of Youth. Wouldn’t you know it, it’s in a bin at Goodwill.

20140117_134728

Of course, if one is a Christian and draws faith not from Ponce de Leone’s fools gold but more sanctinoius sources, one can find eternal salvation in the Gospel according to Mel Gibson.

20140117_105113

Then we have the copious amounts of literature and products devoted to defecation. Here’s a couple of the dozens I found. One can only discern that once the kid gets his first pair of Pull-Ups, mothers across the country cast various potty training products out their windows in droves:

20140117_112333

20140117_103902

Moving on, there’s many items of family entertainment that I believe were simply the product of a slightly frustrated brain storm at Hasbro or Milton Bradley at 4 in the morning that somehow found their way into the purchase orders at the production plant.

20140117_101801

20140117_103643

 

20140117_144523

Now, for those shoppers who simply shudder at the mere thought of having children, there’s a few items to heed and heed well. For those mindful of the personal and professional gambit of procreation …

20140117_113725

For those more discreet …

20140117_115321

 

And those who, in their haste, literally threw the baby out with the bathwater (well, the wrapper anyway).

20140117_115315

So, one is left asking, what can be learned from this brief tour through those blue bins at the Goodwill warehouse? Just that you can probably find everything, something, or nothing in these bins. I’m not going espouse on the disposable nature of our consumer culture and I’m certainly not going to subject you, dear reader, to a diatribe about how we’re the richest society in the world and if you took all the food we throw away every day we could feed the world’s hungry 50 times over and etcetera. In fact, it bears consideration that every man hour that went into producing this tripe probably, at least partly, contributed to one or a thousand men’s ability to feed their family. No, this is simply a snapshot into our culture’s second-hand lives. And I still can’t find a decent used TV.

 

Condoms and Crocodiles

Strength in Numbers

He leaned in, His fingers craning out His mutilated earlobe near my mouth.

“I’m sorry. Didn’t hear you. What was that?”

I stared straight ahead. “He called me a joke and squatter.” He laughed to the point that He began wheezing uncontrollably, whiskey flying everywhere.

It wasn’t even a room, just a blank white space with nothing in it save for the poker table in the middle. The table was set up for 8 people with chips at each setting and two cards Texas Hold’em style. I sat in one of the chairs as He strutted around the table.

“Whew! That is awesome. What makes it even better is that –“

“I know,” I tried to cut him off. It didn’t work.

“No, no, let me finish,” He said, attempting to speak through the giggles. “This comes from a guy you KNOW has been in and out of the Program for years. Shit, the only friends he can manage to make are the new-comers cuz nobody else can stand him! And he’s saying that about you!” He said and sat down next to me.

Everything that I have learned in the last 19 months flooded to the front of my mind. One day at a time. We are not a glum lot. Every saying and cliché I’ve absorbed bubbled into my mind and it still wasn’t enough to quiet those four little words. A squatter, a joke. Quitting my job wasn’t difficult, until I dropped out of school too and suddenly had nothing. Applying for countless jobs. Countless jobs. Trying to stay busy, going to Nebraska Vocational Rehab, all that. I know I’m trying. The guys in the house know I’m trying. Tom knows I’m trying. And then Scottsbluff Mitch told me that a couple weeks ago and the other Mitch has been eating my lunch ever since. Getting a nice 8 hours sleep while I’m twisting and turning and hearing his voice in my head.

Squatter.

Joke.

“You really shouldn’t worry about it, Andy.”

Dustin sat down at the poker table next to him and screwed the cap off his bottle of soda. Looking slightly put out, He scooted His chair back a few inches.

“Come on, man. You’re better than that and you know it.” Brad sat down on the other side of Him, pushing Him further back from the table.

“Really,” Luke reclined back in his chair, puffing on his e-hookah with his arms folded in front of him like Professor Plum. All he needed was a monocle.

“Total bullshit. And you know it.” Paul leaned into the table and considered his chips like a general contemplating where to move his troops. He stood behind Paul and began to speak again. “Ah, clam it and beat it ya vulture,” Paul said, looking directly at Him.

“You are much better than that remark.” Tom sat next to me, glanced at his cards. He was already calculating the hand. With Him looking over his shoulder at his cards, Tom elbowed Him in the gut without looking up from his hand and knocked Him to the floor.

Phil shuffled the deck and he and Christopher simply looked at me, shook their heads slightly and smiled knowingly.

“Andy, consider that remark for a second, then consider something else. A person who says that about another doesn’t have a very high opinion of themselves,” Dustin continued. “The voice we talk in is the one we hear inside our heads, saying the things we think about ourselves.”

I exhaled softly. I had been experiencing fits of violent rage in one random moment, staggering depression in another, trying to expunge the specter of what Mitch had said for almost 2 weeks. To put it another way, I was all cried out and exhausted from beating the snot out of myself. One of the Mitch’s had told me very derogatory things about the Mitch in question, the one who had said these terrible things about me. In and out of the program for years. Two-faced weasel. I knew from experience that he shunned other housemates at meetings, attempting to make himself look better. Double-talking when confronted with the things he had said to guys he didn’t know were also my friends.

“Knowing everything you do about this person, are you really going to let some offhand remarks own you like this?” Dustin asked me earnestly. “And more important, don’t you know in your heart all the reasons why you are still out of work?”

“Yes, I guess I do,”

“Then let’s hear them.”

“I have a college degree in history. And seven years’ experience in a field that has nothing to do with it. With no formal training to do anything, marginal clerical skills, but a passion for animals that isn’t going away.”

“So …”

“So I just need training to do more with animals. And most likely a job in the meantime to pay the bills.”

“And?”

“And I don’t want to be on Unemployment benefits, but my parents shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of me being out of work. So I keep on keeping on until this, too, has passed.”

“And what is the most important thing? The thing that our friend here said …” he motioned to Brad who was piping on his hookah and considering a $3 card game like an ambassador to the U.N.. Brad looked up at me expectantly.

“However long it took you to throw your life away on booze and drugs …”

“Always remember that,” Brad and Dustin said in unison. He muscled in between them, putting His hands down on the table, knocking over chips as He opened His mouth again to deliver lambasting invective. Dustin cut him off.

“Don’t splash the pot,” he said calmly. “Go on, beat it. You’re outnumbered.”

Hunched over with my arms on my knees, I pulled my head up to see Dustin shuffling Him back to a door that had appeared a few feet away. When he had dispensed with Him, Dustin returned to the table. “So who’s in,” he asked, glancing at his cards.

“I’m in,” I said and anted up.

Puff Daddy Indian Bear

Puff Daddy Indian

“Did you come up with that name?”

“Yes.” Mitch said.

We settled in to smoke our cigars. It was a little cigar bar just down the street from the ¾ house. There was a Texas Hold’em game going on the same room, so I felt right at home. I liked Mitch. He moved in to the house about a month ago. Tall drink of water, he got a job right out of the gate unlike some narrators I know. From Scottsbluff, NE on the opposite side of the state from Omaha (Author’s Note: Some of you may know that I’ve taken to calling guys in recovery “Mitch” if they have a less than admirable past so as to protect their innocence, if they have any left). Mitch didn’t (have much innocence left, that is. God I love parenthetical phrases).

I know nothing about cigars. I choose cigars like Patton Oswalt chooses wines. If they have a neat-o superhero on the bottle, Patton’s made his purchase. If I’m smoking a cigar, I’ve decided the darker the better. Mitch says the darker ones are “spicier.” Um, okay. What is “spicy” to him is “grittier” to me. I mean hey, if I’m gonna smoke a cigar, I want to feel as much like Tony Soprano is I can. And I’m a soul on the mend, so if smoking a grittier cigar is as close as I’m going to come to life as a mob boss, so be it.

The night before, me and Mitch and Mitch had a long talk until 3 AM about our varied pasts (I know, the “Mitch” thing can get confusing. Sorry. Just roll with me here, okay?) Scottsbluff Mitch (there, that should make it easier) was telling me and Grandma Mitch (I’ll explain in a minute) about his history as very successful, voluminous (literally) drug dealer that had gotten in some pretty sticky situations. He had been shot. He had traveled over state lines with some cargo. And one year previous to his sobriety birthday, his best friend had taken a header off a tall structure and ended his life.

Meanwhile, Grandma Mitch (He has been taking care of his grandmother for a few weeks while his parents attempt to find suitable in-home care for her) had his own checkered history (a lot more black squares than white) complete with dealing out of his parents’ house as his father slept with a pistol below his pillow in fear and culminating in his entering a treatment facility. He’s got a year or two of sobriety under his belt. I shared my story about the brain surgery, fall from grace, all of it. We shared stories about all our parents laying it on the line for us in the form of an intervention. And in the course of this conversation, I realized something very important about recovery.

Everybody has a different bottom, that goes without saying. And everybody has their own set of issues about dealing with the pitfalls of recovery. I dislike the Fox Hole and almost everybody I’ve ever met at an AA meeting there, including Mitch (Different Mitch, we’ll call him Monkey Mitch. He changes oil and stuff for a Jiffy Lube or something. Hence, Grease Monkey Mitch. Monkey Mitch for short) who I also live with. Scottsbluff Mitch told me that his sponsor knows Monkey Mitch and we shouldn’t take anything he says seriously because he’s been in and out of the program for years. Then there’s Moldy Mitch. He came to the house about a month ago too and recently told me he finally “gets” the First Step. Moldy Mitch is an old-timer in age only, been in and out of the Program many times as well. But I guess it’s better late than never. I mean good god, when I was Providence, RI last year and went to a meeting, there was an 81-year-old guy who came into the Program 16 years before. Let me reiterate that. He got sober when he was 66 years-old because he finally got the message.

I don’t know what makes a person decide to get sober. Some guys see a friend commit suicide. Some guys get into their late ‘60s and decide enough is enough. Some guys have brain surgery and still don’t get the message until 9 years later. But I do know that there is a certain way about a guy who has made the decision that is unlike others who are in the Program getting a court card signed. We have a certain quiet commitment to doing the deed others don’t have. And I certainly don’t think that I have sobriety figured out either. For me, it’s always moving forward. Going to the gym was a start. Sending an email to a local Buddhist temple to inquire about meditation sessions was the next move I took yesterday. Getting a job to get some money coming in in order to pay for yoga lessons is the next step. When you are early in sobriety, you are frantically trying to outmaneuver your demons. And sometimes, you are afforded the chance to share with others the intricate nature of the demons, what motivates you to keep them on the run. I told the Mitches about Him and they didn’t applaud my innovation. They didn’t look at me like I had 9 heads and a tutu on. They just nodded. They knew. I listened to their stories and shed a tear or two. I knew. With some guys, you just know.

I’ll go back to the cigar bar with Mitch. Probably try an even “spicier” cigar. And eventually, my life will even out from the tumultuous nonsense I’m going through now. There’s guys in sobriety you click with and some you stay close to and some, you don’t. But every last one of them has taught me what true suffering is and how grateful I truly am.

The Introduction

Yesterday I wrote the introduction to a book project I’m working on. I’d tried to write it once before, but it requires me to go into a very dark place where He lives. For any newcomers to this blog, He is the persona that I have created to represent my addiction to alcohol and marijuana. And I had to tell a Facebook group that I wouldn’t be posting said introduction, despite assurances I had made earlier that day that I would,  because I couldn’t give any feedback it’s just due. And besides that, facing Him is exhausting enough.

Now before you start thinking “Oh spare me. He’s doing that artist thing where they talk about their “creative space” as if it’s something that they have over on the rest of us.” Not at all. It’s just the way that I parcel out my mind, have to parcel out my mind, so I can be a functioning human being in this world and not start grabbing the knives. I think most people have encountered enough other people that are not quite right in the head that they wished had created a coping mechanism for their madness to know that mine is actually quite healthy. And I figured if I couldn’t share my writing with others, I could share my thoughts about my writing with others. So yeah, this is that.

Back to the book. Actually getting inside, totally inside, my mind and talking with Him was rough duty. I wouldn’t recommend it. Well, He doesn’t live in your head, so there’s no danger of that happening. At least, not talking with my Him there’s not. You may have your own Him. Take my word for it, throwing off the gloves and facing Him head-on instead of shirking around trying to pretend He’s not there is much more effective and, oddly, satisfying. Plus, if you ignore that your Him is there, not only will that just make Him infinitely stronger, it will also piss him off. And not in a good way. More like that Rocky Balboa “Eye of the Tiger” way. Me, I just grabbed the bull by horns, son. And when I got done with the Introduction, that freed me up to really think about the book itself.

I’ve always had a problem with just letting go and start writing, punctuation and spelling grammar be damned. I get writing three or four lines and I instinctively and immediately proof read those lines (Dammit! I just did it with that last sentence) and if I want to maintain some sort of cohesion or flow, I can’t do that. I think all writers, to some degree or another, are their own worst editor (I just now had to stop myself, finger hovering the back arrow key). That’s why we get so miffed when our editors have the audacity to, well, edit. It’s like “Thanks Captain, but I got this and require no further input from you. Just run that bad boy straight to the proofer. Thanks.”

Anyway, the intro is done and now I can concentrate on … um …. Well …. Shazzbut. I have no idea where to start. Any ideas?

Go Start the Car

IMG_1951

 

“Happy New Year!”

“It’s the 6th,” I said and yawned a mighty yawn.

“Whatever,” New Year Baby said and ashed his cigar in the trash can.

“You’re late. Weren’t you supposed to get here, like 5 days ago,” I said and swung around to a sitting position on the bed.

‘I’m never late. I show up when your mind tells me to show up,” he said and hitched up his diaper. He took a big draw on his stogey, then blew several smoke rings into the air. “So here I am.”

“You’re not supposed to smoke in here. In the garage or on the patio.” I stared straight ahead and let my mind shuffle the deck for the day.

“You’re not off to a bang-up start,” he said.

“I don’t make resolutions.”

“Please, don’t tell me what you do and don’t do. For the last several years, you haven’t done anything except booze and feel sorry for yourself.”

“Except last year,” I said, turning to him.

“Except last year. And your table is set for this year and I applaud you for it.”

“It was nothing, just doing what I need to do.”

“Well, you’re right about the second part. But it’s certainly not nothing. A lot of people don’t get 18 months right out of the gate like that and you need to give yourself some credit. I mean, you did make it onto the Birthdays List with all your other sober poker buddies. So at least as far as they’re concerned, you are in it to win it. Then chairing one meeting and cherry-picker at another? That’s nice work my friend.”

“I’m just getting started.”

“You’re just getting started is right. Time to step up your game.” He tossed me some jeans and a snow-white T-shirt from the dresser, then sat back and stroked his beard.

“I like the crown,” I said smiling. “Nice touch.”

“You like that?” he said and experimented with cocking it to the side. He turned and looked in the mirror to examine himself. Scrunching his lips to the side, he scooted the “2014” on the brim of the crown to the side. “There. Makes me look more devilish.”

“Like my smirk.” I said, grinning a bit.

“Exactly,” he said, stood up, threw me my boots and began pacing.

“There’s a lot of stuff you need to do and I’m gonna make sure you start doing them. Going to the gym every day was good and certainly had its therapeutic benefits. Today, you’re going to get bean bags.”

“Bean bags?”

“For juggling. You are going to treat yourself to a little juggling kit and learn to juggle.”

Now I smiled. “Okay.”

“Next you are going to that temp agency Bryce told you about. Then you’re going to call some of the numbers on that list of employers. Ask about a resume and all that.”

“But I want a job at the Humane Society or a vet clinic or –“

“Blah blah blah.  You’re going to start working again, let’s start there. Remember what you said last night? Get a job, then get the apartment, then get the new dog? Yeah, well, this is the first step homeboy. Put your pants on,” he said and left the room. By the time he came back with two cups of coffee, I was dressed.

“What about the voice-over stuff Nancy suggested? And the Mud-Factor Race? And starting work on the book?”

He looked at the calendar on the wall. “Well, you lost a couple days stewing about bullshit. But again, that’s why I’m here. Fly’s open.”

I zipped up.

“And yes, there’s all that stuff, too. But you gotta start one step at a time my friend. Mentally and physically. Start simple with the job. You do that, and things will start to fall into place. Right where you need them to be, too.

“Okay, but what about … “

“A woman? Well, that’s an easy one. Two ways you can go. You can either hit on the sick chicks and get laid. That’s one option.”

“I’m done with that nonsense,” I said. “That’s what I used to do. I don’t want that anymore.”

His eyes went wide and he opened his mouth in mock amazement. “You mean,” he said and gasped. “You mean you want to like, talk to them like an adult first, get to know them, maybe go on a date or two?”

“Shut up,” I said, and smiled my big toothy smile.

“You think too much,” he said and tossed me my boots.

“Hey, it works. You’re here aren’t you?”

He blew smoke rings again. “Good point.” He said. “Look, just ignore all the stuff that’s swimming around in that little head of yours. Keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t get all bogged down in the stuff that doesn’t matter. Keep it simple. “

“It’s so cold today, dude. Like 11 below,” I said, but let him help me put my winter coat on.

“Oh please,” he said and handed me my hat and gloves. “Tell that shit to the tourists. Go on. The world is waiting.”

 

Go Start the Car

IMG_1951

“Happy New Year!”
 

“It’s the 6th,” I said and yawned a mighty yawn.

“Whatever,” New Year Baby said and ashed his cigar in the trash can.

“You’re late. Weren’t you supposed to get here, like 5 days ago,” I said and swung around to a sitting position on the bed.

‘I’m never late. I show up when your mind tells me to show up,” he said and hitched up his diaper. He took a big draw on his stogey, then blew several smoke rings into the air. “So here I am.”

“You’re not supposed to smoke in here. In the garage or on the patio.” I stared straight ahead and let my mind shuffle the deck for the day.

“You’re not off to a bang-up start,” he said.

“I don’t make resolutions.”

“Please, don’t tell me what you do and don’t do. For the last several years, you haven’t done anything except booze and feel sorry for yourself.”

“Except last year,” I said, turning to him.

“Except last year. And your table is set for this year and I applaud you for it.”

“It was nothing, just doing what I need to do.”

“Well, you’re right about the second part. But it’s certainly not nothing. A lot of people don’t get 18 months right out of the gate like that and you need to give yourself some credit. I mean, you did make it onto the Birthdays List with all your other sober poker buddies. So at least as far as they’re concerned, you are in it to win it. Then chairing one meeting and cherry-picker at another? That’s nice work my friend.”

“I’m just getting started.”

“You’re just getting started is right. Time to step up your game.” He tossed me some jeans and a snow-white T-shirt from the dresser, then sat back and stroked his beard.

“I like the crown,” I said smiling. “Nice touch.”

“You like that?” he said and experimented with cocking it to the side. He turned and looked in the mirror to examine himself. Scrunching his lips to the side, he scooted the “2014” on the brim of the crown to the side. “There. Makes me look more devilish.”

“Like my smirk.” I said, grinning a bit.

“Exactly,” he said, stood up, threw me my boots and began pacing.

“There’s a lot of stuff you need to do and I’m gonna make sure you start doing them. Going to the gym every day was good and certainly had its therapeutic benefits. Today, you’re going to get bean bags.”

“Bean bags?”

“For juggling. You are going to treat yourself to a little juggling kit and learn to juggle.”
Now I smiled. “Okay.”

“Next you are going to that temp agency Bryce told you about. Then you’re going to call some of the numbers on that list of employers. Ask about a resume and all that.”

“But I want a job at the Humane Society or a vet clinic or –“

“Blah blah blah. You’re going to start working again, let’s start there. Remember what you said last night? Get a job, then get the apartment, then get the new dog? Yeah, well, this is the first step homeboy. Put your pants on,” he said and left the room. By the time he came back with two cups of coffee, I was dressed.

“What about the voice-over stuff Nancy suggested? And the Mud-Factor Race? And starting work on the book?”
He looked at the calendar on the wall. “Well, you lost a couple days stewing about bullshit. But again, that’s why I’m here. Fly’s open.”

I zipped up.

“And yes, there’s all that stuff, too. But you gotta start one step at a time my friend. Mentally and physically. Start simple with the job. You do that, and things will start to fall into place. Right where you need them to be, too.

“Okay, but what about … “

“A woman? Well, that’s an easy one. Two ways you can go. You can either hit on the sick chicks and get laid. That’s one option.”

“I’m done with that nonsense,” I said. “That’s what I used to do. I don’t want that anymore.”
His eyes went wide and he opened his mouth in mock amazement. “You mean,” he said and gasped. “You mean you want to like, talk to them like an adult first, get to know them, maybe go on a date or two?”
 “Shut up,” I said, and smiled my big toothy smile.
 

“You think too much,” he said and tossed me my boots.

“Hey, it works. You’re here aren’t you?”

He blew smoke rings again. “Good point.” He said. “Look, just ignore all the stuff that’s swimming around in that little head of yours. Keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t get all bogged down in the stuff that doesn’t matter. Keep it simple. “

“It’s so cold today, dude. Like 11 below,” I said, but let him help me put my winter coat on.

“Oh please,” he said and handed me my hat and gloves. “Tell that shit to the tourists. Go on. Time to get to gettin’.”

The Horrible Agony of Sitting Still

When the man I thought was my friend told me
he was moving backwards, not forwards
I had a sucker in my mouth
This slid a dagger across my gut

“Sorry, Ahab. You’re here for the duration!”
He said.

I’ve seen guys come and go
That’s fine
I’ve tried to set a good example
For the new guys, so green they’re flourescant
I’ve tried to be of a good cheer, to help if I could

“He’s a joke. He’s a squatter.”
No job, no school, no life.
And yes, I know that guy just moved back home, too.
That doesn’t soften the weight of the anvil
Hanging over my head
The weight of shame
The cold bucket of courage squelching water
That waits around every corner of this house in His grip

I’m done with comradery
I’m ready to do this on my own
I gotta start sometime, right?
I can’t live here forever
There’s always going to be a walk, a hotel room, a break-up, an ad
To cry the question “What if?”
I’m strong in this Program, I’m done with being scared
I’m ready to go
Patience is key
Patience because it’s not yet time,
(whatever the goddam reason is; Thanks, God)
To go.

Who Brought the Sheep Parts 1& 2

The summer before I embarked on my collegiate adventure in Chicago, my brother Dave took me backpacking for the first time. Well, let me go back. It was “backpacking” in the sense that yes, we did indeed load up backpacks with tents and food and camping stoves and many socks and trek out into the natural world. But it was in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This wasn’t exactly Tibet. But it was my first such trip doing anything remotely like this and the Black Hills is a gorgeous place to spend 3 days traipsing around the woods.

We headed out in the summer months, a damn fine time to do it. After the first day of hiking, we set-up camp, cooked our dinner on the camping stove, and enjoyed some simple brotherly comradery. My brother is 4 years older than me, so we never went to the same school after St. Margaret Mary’s parochial elementary school. When he was high school, I was still at St. Mag’s. When he was starting college at Creighton University, I was a freshman at Creighton Preparatory School. We never really had any of the highs or lows involved with brothers who were in the same school at the same time. I don’t remember why he suggested we make this trip, but it was a helluva an idea and we’ve been pretty close ever since.

Our first morning in the “outback” (seriously, Mt. Rushmore and it’s tourist trap Keystone, SD were literally just over the next tree line) we munched on some trail mix and fruit for breakfast and I made my cup of instant coffee. My brother is a not a coffee guy. I am a coffee guy and sipping my mug in the woods really does have a special air of “This is Livin!” about it. However, anybody who does drink coffee knows of its diuretic effects. When you are hiking all day, your digestive system is kicked into 3rd gear and coffee ups that to 4th. Shortly after we began hiking, I informed my brother of my physical demands.

“What do you do when you have to ahhh …”

“Take a dump?” he asked and produced from his bag a roll of toilet paper and a garden shovel.  “Make sure you dig the hole deep and cover it with dirt when you are done. And go pretty far into the woods.”

Okay. No problem. All part of the adventure, I guess. I shuffled off into the woods while he turned and sat on a rock. I walked into the woods, did my thing, shoveled some dirt onto the pile, and returned to the rock. Dave stowed the shovel and T.P. Within a minute of us heading off again with Dave in the lead, I heard him exclaim “Dude! I said go far into the woods!” I walked past where he had just been and saw my deposit not 10 feet from the trail. And apparently I hadn’t covered it very well because there was 3 dozen or so flies buzzing around the pile. Okay, first time. I’ll know for next time.

The next morning, same routine, except this time, two days of walking in the woods had kicked my system into 5th gear. Again, not 5 minutes after we started hiking, I needed to act and act fast. I rooted in Dave’s pack, got my supplies, and squelched my cheeks together as I baby-stepped into the rough and found what I thought was a suitable spot. With my ass in the air and my shorts around my ankles, I heard giggling. No, wait, this wasn’t giggling, this was gut laughs. I turned and, again, I hadn’t walked far enough it the woods. But this time, I hadn’t just not walked far enough. I had also walked in the wrong direction. I was squatting pretty much smack in the center of a small crossroads in the paths with my bare ass exposed in many directions and Dave was just nearby practically doubled over with laughter. Whatever. I finished and at least this time, I dug a deep hole and covered it with dirt, rocks, a few branches and a dead groundhog I found nearby. Later that day, Dave and I stumbled upon a lovely little lake with a park restroom (I told you it wasn’t much of a “backpacking” trip). Dave smiled at me, took the t.p. and went to go use the relatively nice facilities offered by the South Dakota Park Service. Shitting in the woods: Andy – 2, Dave – 0.

On this our third day, Dave looked at the little map he had obtained and determined that we could either take one path and hike for another day or take another path and be back at our car in a few hours. We opted for the second alternative and, upon returning to the car, used another restroom to change clothes and proceeded to the nearest bar to the park and put down a few beers. Well, even that isn’t really true. We went to Keystone and put down many bottles of the white man’s firewater (Dave’s words, not mine. And actually he confessed to that being a horrible thing to say right after he said it). The next day, we said goodbye to the Black Hills and headed for the Badlands and my first real brush with death.

 

My brother and I trekked off to Rapid City after our short sojourn through the Black Hills. Because we had another day on your trip we wouldn’t be spending in the Hills, we decided to journey down to the Badlands. Dave had a friend who was studying to be a Jesuit (think Pope Francis) at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, so we decided we would spend the night at the top of Sheep Mountain in Badlands National Park nearby

That photo above is what the entire park looks like. It is simply breath-taking. And in the summer, it truly does carry the aura of this desert wasteland on the South Dakota/Nebraska border. I found this video of the view from the top of the mountain to help paint a picture:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SPNdiHkRVY

On one side of the road leading to the top was the drop-off to the valley below. In some places, there was a few feet of grass and sand before the drop. In others, one could open the door and nary a foot would touch the ground before

you plummeted to your death. I don’t know how far the drop actually was as this was a long ago, but to my untrained eye, it looked like miles.

The drive to the top of the mountain was spectacular. Just spare desert everywhere you looked. I’ve had a thing for this area of the country since before Dances with Wolves, I’ve read Crazy Horse and Custer by Stephen Ambrose (same guy who wrote Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan). And if I didn’t already have plans to retire to Alaska, this is where I would spend the last of my days on this earth.

When we got to the top, it was really a ceremonious last night to our first real trip together and my brother and I threw our arms over each other’s shoulders and wept (okay, not really, but looking back, we really could have.) We didn’t suit up for a day hike or anything as it had been kind of late when we got there. Instead, we cooked up the last of our food and spend the rest of the evening and into the night laying on our backs and sharing our dreams for the future, for love and the roads that lay ahead (okay, again, we did no such thing. We’re guys). We pitched the tent and crawled on for one last night, paying little attention to the dark gray clouds that we’re moving in over us.

At some point in the night, I awoke and Dave was sitting up in the tent. He was staring at nothing that I could tell, but his look was intent. He appeared to be gauging something. The sound of a soft rain on the tent was peaceful, as was I. But Dave wasn’t going back to sleep.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Well, I was just thinking.” He said.

“About that sign.”

“What sign?”

“Impassible when wet. It was by the side of the road as we were going up.”

The electric sensation of a bucket of a fear splashed over me. “What?” I was fully awake now.

“Well yeah, and I was thinking of we could …”

“If we could what?” I asked. I was growing quickly frantic.

“I was wondering if we should but out the pots to catch water. Y’know, in case we’re up here for a while.”

Was this guy serious? Should we catch rain water in case we’re stranded in the desert?! In South Da-fuckin-Kota?!

Dave might have still been in the tent when I started packing it up to put in the car. I’m not sure. What I do remember is blathering something about him being out of his mind as I shoved everything we had taken out of the car back in the car, then getting into the passenger seat. I wasn’t sure how long it had been raining, but I sure wasn’t gonna be drinking rain water two days later because my brother wanted to be Davy freaking Crocket and live out his little “Riders on the Storm” fantasy with me. No sirreebob.

When we started our gradual descent, the road was still safe and stayed that way for a little while. I cursed myself for being a Sally May Tenderfoot (apparently I carry my mother’s neurotic gene, at least a little) and dozed. I was jolted awake when Dave had to do a small correction in his driving to keep us stable and looked out my window to stare into the inky blackness of the sharp descent that started where the road ended only inches away. In front of us was about 3 feet of lit road, then nothing beyond. I don’t remember much about the ride down to the base of the mountain, but I do remember saying the entire rosary from the Joyful Mysteries to the Glorious (this might be the only part of the story that is most likely true) until we reached terra firma. Once off the mountain, we drove to the small house where Dave’s friend the Jesuit was living and caught a couple hours of sleep in the car until morning.

I never thought I’d be so happy to see a priest’s house in my entire life.