Alan 1961

Masterpiece, Part 2

This month I offer excerpts from my two memoirs, Masterpiece: A Love Story and The Lie Called Cancer. If you want to buy them, you may. If you want a free copy, tell me in the comments.

Read Part One here

Surprisingly, I had a credit card in my pocket (these are very useful for procuring alcohol) and could have chosen the University Inn, a new upscale motel nearby, but my heart was set on the Value Motel, a seedy, rundown complex adjacent to Interstate 5 in a less desirable part of town about five miles away. I was, at that moment, beyond pretence.

It was stiflingly hot when Matt pulled into its gravel entryway, just at dusk. We rolled up under the Value Motel sign pylons. Everyone along the Interstate for a mile in both directions could see its neon glory: VALUE MOTEL. BREAKFAST. ENTER HERE. $21/$23.

He switched off the car, still saying nothing, pulled away the shoulder belt to create some slack, and turned in his seat to face me. As the sunlight faded, we were bathed in the intermittent flash of the directive arrow urging Interstate drivers to EXIT NOW!

Several families, clearly in residence, not on vacation, ignored us as children ran around the parking lot: loud, unruly, violent. The adults were too busy with their own argument to notice, or perhaps care. A pair of men stood off toward the corner of the two story row engaged in what looked like a drug deal or some other hook-up; three more nearby were throwing back some cheap beer. Everyone and everything appeared to have experienced better days, so I knew that it was the right place for me. Nevertheless, I was frightened, but if you had asked, I would have denied that as well.

I mumbled a thanks and started to get out and felt Matt’s hand on my arm as I turned to leave. I looked back at a caring face with a pair of raised eyebrows under curly brown hair.

‘See you at the morning meeting tomorrow?’

‘Yes. No. I doubt it. Probably not.’ It was an involuntary settlement on honesty. Not my default, but why lie? I had no idea what Monday would bring. Besides, the only thing on my mind, it being Sunday night, is that the liquor stores were closed until 9:30 the next morning, and I had to somehow nurse what I had until then.

Matt let me go with an AA cliché. ‘Easy Does It,’ he said.

Matt was experienced enough to know that I was in no shape to have a conversation, or receive any real kindness from him beyond the lift. Redemption would have to wait for another day. It didn’t even occur to me that he would call my family on his way home to let them know where I was, and that I was, presumably, tucked in safely for the night. I didn’t care about that (’Leave me alone!’). My only need was to negotiate the transaction for a safe and private place to continue my liquid self-immolation.

My burden of guilt and sense of valuelessness only gave me enough strength of will to spend $21, for the cheapest room (’I don’t need more than this. I don’t deserve more than this’). There was no room for my personal value at the Value Motel, only my person.

I deserve to be sleeping out in the weeds somewhere,’ I thought, out on the edge, like some of the hard cases who told harrowing stories of ruin and redemption in the thousand-some AA meetings I had attended.

These were guys who rode around the western USA for years in boxcars, or who drank or fought themselves out of one town after another. Guys who lived in dumpsters. Guys who would get tired of a logging or construction job after a while and pick a fistfight with the foreman. One guy who camped out in an empty corn crib and tried to drink himself to death after being fired as a useless farm hand. Another who got sober while living for an entire winter in an open horse trailer, becoming a successful entrepreneur and business owner. Yet another who struck and killed a child while driving in the kind of drunken blackout that was a regular feature of my life.

All true stories, all told by guys I knew and admired. They had made it out of the darkness I was still living in. They had stepped into the other side of life, the side where the sun shone, and the birds sang and there was a spring in their step and life’s equation was factored with joy, fulfilment and peace, rather than depression, restlessness and strife. In their moments of truth, they came to AA and found a relationship with God.

It was the place of my childhood, that relationship. It was what I had had as a boy, but it was now a place I no longer could imagine. My world had long since turned to black and white, all beauty washed out. And God was nowhere to be found.

But these sober guys were all in four-dimensional living color. They showed up in AA after torching their lives. I stood amazed as they grew from the ashes into dependable men, seemingly overnight, while I continued to drag my tired body down the road toward death. I had to acknowledge how they had changed, because seeing was believing. I saw them recover and become men of faith, but didn’t believe I could.

They had results, while I could only muster excuses. God is fine for you’, I thought, but not for me. If God worked for you, good on you, but faith couldn’t work for me. It had failed me long ago. If God was real, He was only real for you, not for me. God answered you, not me. I didn’t deserve anything from God anyway. Not after what I had done, and what I had been, and what I was.

In retrospect, it’s no wonder that I was taken in by such a pack of lies. My worth had long before drained out of me like spent dishwater when the plug is pulled, leaving only a scummy residue. My life needed a good scrub, but instead I chose to protect my freedom to drink. And so it was that I drifted into the Value Motel, knowing it would give what I thought I needed for one more night. (’Leave me alone!’)

Tomorrow could wait. That was my powerless and repetitive excuse to avoid facing the guilt and shame that filled my life.

For $21, I had a room with no frills, a view of the freeway and no TV. Heavily stained carpet. No air conditioning, but a window with no screen (too close to the ground for an effective suicide attempt). A sink but no towel. A cracked sink. There was a mirror over the sink, to be ignored. A button lock on the door but no deadbolt; a security chain whose missing receiver was marked by four damaged screw holes on the plastic door frame. A door to a shared toilet. The lingering stale smells of cigarettes and urine. The room had been painted white once long ago and superficially cleaned, possibly within the last week.

The evening’s entertainment was liquid, which, as always, produced a bad movie inside my head. It was the same old plot with the same old cast of characters, a seemingly endless string of complaints, resentments, assessments of victimhood, lists of unfair circumstances, people who had turned against me or who simply didn’t understand, angry diatribes, mournful memories and unresolved problems. I was very engaged in mental conversation with people who weren’t there, but who made my life miserable nonetheless.

My victimhood was complete.

At last the bottle was as empty as my heart, and my anger was spent, and I passed out of myself into a restless, dreamless, uneasy sleep. I came to with a start hours later, sweating, vaguely sick but not yet craving more booze, although that would come soon enough. It was maybe sometime shy of five in the morning, the time of day when the body is at its lowest ebb. I had no watch or clock, but as I lay staring at the ceiling the slowly growing light told me the day would begin soon enough. Another long, hard, empty day with no hope beyond the knowledge that the liquor store opened in less than five hours. I didn’t plan to be late.

Alan 1961

Masterpiece, Part 1

This month I offer excerpts from my two memoirs, Masterpiece: A Love Story and The Lie Called Cancer. If you want to buy them, you may. If you want a free copy, tell me in the comments.

“No personal calamity is so crushing that something true and great can’t be made of it.” – Bill W., co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous

It was a day exactly like every other day in recent memory. I woke up and started drinking in secret. Always in secret.

Like every other day, I couldn’t predict what kind of day it would be. Some days I would drink all day and feel unaffected, as though it was only water passing through my system, not hard liquor. Other days all bets were off. As soon as the cycle began I would pass into The Blackout Zone, where I was walled off from the awareness of self, thought, the needs of others, and most important, how I felt about it.

It was a vital daily job – the most vital – because there was a lot to feel, all vastly uncomfortable, and it piled up into a larger mass day upon day, all to be avoided. My life became a landfill where nothing ever decomposed, where everything was saved, and I just couldn’t keep myself from compulsively picking through the trash.

Some days I would drink all day and be able to hide it well enough to keep from being caught out. Other days it was painfully obvious to everyone, despite my denials. My life was out of control.

I had been sober off and on for several years since rehab – mostly off, but I had (I thought) become very skilled at hiding my condition. Months could go by (it seemed to me) before anyone really caught on to the fact that I was drunk. Whatever. It was worth the pain and effort, the incredible hard work and focus of will needed to be slightly squeezed all the time – even if I was caught lying once in a while. That’s the lifestyle of alcoholic bondage, where drinking to kill pain only creates more pain. It was a vicious circle.

A family member told me that coming home to me was like the story about the Lady or the Tiger, and it was never clear which I would be. Frank Stockton’s tale features a courtier who has to choose between two doors for his one chance to win his love’s hand. One door opens to the lady herself and a lifetime of bliss. The other reveals a ferocious tiger, ready to devour without mercy.

On this particular day, August 4, 2003, I had neither what passed for normalcy, nor oblivion, only depression. Or so I thought. Later, when people came home, it was clear to them that I had lied one more time, and had overdone it one more time. There was no hiding. I was more drunk than I thought, and this time they had had enough.

‘Do you remember what we told you the last time you got drunk?’

‘No.’

‘We told you that if you got a bottle, you were going to have to get a room.’

And so the old heave-ho was underway. I quietly gathered a rucksack with a change of shirt, my wallet, my phone, what was left of my bottle (the most indispensable item). Shrugging it on, I headed toward the door, keys in hand. I was reminded not to drive, or a call to the police would follow.

So I took off on foot.

We lived in an exurban area north of Vancouver, Washington – just across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. Between the subdivisions were main roads with steep ditches and no shoulders. Walking on the road was the only option. Someone called my friend Matt who lived nearby. Matt and I had started attending Alcoholics Anonymous about four years before. Matt had stayed sober and I had not, even though the meetings were still a daily ritual, side-by-side with my secret drinking.

This was the schizophrenic nature of my life, as though I were professionally two-faced. I wanted all the benefits of AA and all the perceived benefits of being drunk. Sometimes I would leave a meeting and use a bottle hidden under the seat to get drunk before I drove out of the parking lot.

Oh yes, I drove drunk a lot, possibly several thousand times. Only the grace of God kept me from the gift of a DUI and all that entails: arrest, fines, court fees, mandatory treatment, jail time, not to mention humiliation and despair. Only the outright mercy of God kept me from hurting or killing someone, either in my car or with my car, including my family.

Life without booze seemed inconceivable, yet I was so sick of it I couldn’t imagine drinking one more drop. It was a daily madness that lied to me about the drink being the only cure for the feeling of hollowness that the drink itself caused. Each morning I would come to consciousness and be hit by the craving.

The craving was a gnawing, crawling, grabbing, clutching thing that overpowered all inhibition, removed even the thought of inhibition, because of the certain knowledge that the first drink will bring blessed relief from the emptiness – an emptiness that comes from drinking way too much, way too often, for way too long, an emptiness that becomes a self-perpetuating creature with a will of its own.

Alcoholic bondage is an almost seamless life, where the only demarcation is the unconsciousness of sleep. Life’s one desire is that you leave me alone. In the end, it was all I was able to choose: to be away from you and end all relationship, because if you don’t know me, you can’t hurt me. And I didn’t want to be hurt any more.

Why did I hurt so much in the first place? It was a daily question I couldn’t answer, and I was reduced to knowing only one response to make it go away, a long, dulling pull on a bottle of Windsor Canadian Blended Whiskey.

I had stopped using a glass years before. Why pay the middleman? The plastic bottle was a welcome development. It was pliable enough to be squeezed so that the liquor would push out faster through my gullet. That first drink of the day was very important. It had to come as fast as possible so the relief followed as fast as possible. No matter that true relief only lasted about 20 minutes and the rest was maintenance. As July became August of 2003 I knew no other path.

Matt and I shared the same AA sponsor until John fired me for lying to him about my drinking. That was about two years before I found myself lurching down NE 10th Avenue late that hot summer afternoon. I had just gone by a spot I knew well, where a small brush-lined creek passed through a culvert under the road, a place I often went when I needed a safe place to drink outside the house. Matt rolled up alongside in his Camry. A mission of mercy, but not for me – for my family, so they might know that I landed somewhere safe.

He powered down the window. ‘Hey buddy…’

‘Someone called you..?’ It was a statement more than a question.

‘Yep.’ A pause, a once-over. ‘What’s up?’

‘I got kicked out of the house, need to get a room somewhere.’ He motioned. I got in.

‘Where to?’

Good question. I was one of the fortunate ones. I had yet to drink myself out of everything I owned or professed to love. Somewhere in the back of my mind I denied that I was only enjoying house and home on sufferance. I was at the cliff but hadn’t leaned over far enough to fall into the abyss that ends in a life on the street.

Life in The Blackout Zone prevented thinking about that, or making any plan beyond the next drink. Life was reduced to a simple state of need: getting loaded, and being left alone to do it. Eventually, the abyss would come in its own time, of its own accord. But I denied that inevitability as well. Little did I know how close it was.

black continental silenta typewriter

What It Is

(A six-minute read)

What is journalism? I asked this question back in April and then took almost fifteen hundred words to outline what it is not.

I broke my own rule, which is: define yourself by who you are, not by who you aren’t. After all, that’s what God does. Oh well, I’m only human.

To sum up my previous observations: self-proclaimed journalism today is unrecognizable to one who was trained in the craft forty years ago.

Please understand that, while I do have my own biases (as we all do), I offer the following analysis without regard to ‘left’ or ‘right’. No one is blameless in this – no, not even your favorite outlet, whatever it is. It’s the rotten state of a rotting industry.

And yet, in the midst of rot, new life springs up. There is still real journalism out there, and it’s worth paying for. Use some of the tools below and go find it. It’s worth the search.

Think For Yourself

If you look hard enough and spend time thinking about what you read, you can avoid falling into a pit of your own biases. Yes, I know how comfortable it is to consume things that reinforce what I already believe. But gaining knowledge means going where the information is, even into an unfamiliar neighborhood.

It’s like properly reading the Bible. I have to read what Jesus said about hell and my chances of going there just as much as I read about how much he loves me and will forgive me when I confess and repent. Picking and choosing only what I like leads me into error there, just as it does as I peruse what’s written, published and broadcast.

Back to journalism. A classic definition of journalism is, ‘writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation (emphasis mine).

In two short decades we’ve gone from that to almost endless presentations of opinion, without a necessary regard for the facts. Opinion used to be called opinion. Opinions were like a certain orifice: everybody had one. Now these orifices are on full display, relabeled as journalism.

Like so many other things, the definition has changed for the convenience of the People In Charge.

Our Upside-Down World

We live in an evil-is-good, Scripture-is-hate, man-is-woman, feelings-are-truth, subjective-is-final counterfeit-rainbow sort of world.1 And in this, opinion is now masked as journalism. What the People In Charge decide is right becomes truth.

I’ve said before that the term ‘echo chamber’ is a misnomer. The highly politicized social culture that has evolved in the absence of real journalism has moved us way past ‘echo chamber.’ We are now stuck in a copy machine, which cranks out page after endless page of an idealized version of real-time events as the People in Charge wish them to be.

There are now two things masking as journalism that call themselves journalism. And many of those who practice it are finally admitting that they must help you, Dear Reader, by interpreting the truth for you. But the occasional small glimmer of light isn’t enough – at the moment – to offset all the misdirection that’s out there.

Narrative and Myth

The vast majority of what we see, hear, read and are told now falls into two categories, Narrative and Myth.

Narrative is a political or social point of view that is pushed by unseen publishers and editors to influence what is reported, how it is reported and, much more important, what is not reported. Much of modern ‘news media’ product of all sorts falls into this category.

Myth is the construction of a narrative around a made-up point of view, i.e. so-called conspiracy theories or the assertion of conclusions as fact, without actually citing any facts. Myth-making is a convenient strategy for news media elites to underpin the narrative stories they tell for their own aggrandizement.

Ooooo-kay. What Now?

Here are some tips to help you know actual journalism from narrative or myth.

True journalism:

  • Presents information without bias. Look for headlines without the following: could, should, might, may, believe, possible, possibly, reports say.
  • Contains no clickbait.
  • Only makes an assertion with a quoted source, sometimes two.
  • Relies on named sources, not ‘sources say’.
  • Verifies every story independently, as opposed to simply republishing someone else’s work without checking it.
  • Has no ‘fact check’ column, because the checking of facts occurs in the writing and editing of stories before they are released.
  • Gives you information without labeling it as what you need to know about ___
  • Describes any criminal charge or accusation as ‘alleged’ until a court has rendered a verdict.
  • States any institutional point of view up front. To that point, carefully watch story selection for ‘slant’ or ‘exclusion.’ A true journalistic venture will have roughly equal numbers of stories (in aggregate) from various points of view.
  • Runs easily seen corrections when mistakes are made.
  • Doesn’t change copy without announcing it.
  • Publishes stories that go against the general editorial position of the outlet.
  • Has reporters follow the money and the paper trail, not the loudest voices.
  • Has publishers and editors make editorial policy, not a mob of junior line employees or worse, social media.
  • Doesn’t tell lies with a straight face.

Hope Remains

Pre-industrial, pre-scientific humanity had a myth-weaving culture. Stories were created to explain things people could not understand or fathom: creation, the nature of good and evil, the seeming impartiality of natural forces. These myths all reflected local biases and experience.

As civilizations advanced, each group developed its own version of these myths and told these stories over and over. Through this, narratives were born.

Eventually, as the rule of law superceded the rule of men (h/t John Adams) it seemed wise that a well-informed citizenry was crucial to maintenance of a stable pluralistic society. Journalism served this function. In the American republic (and indeed in all free Western nations), this free flow of information was available so people could make up their own minds about things.

Yes amazing as it seems, ordinary people were trusted with making up their own minds.

Incredibly, people were trusted with raw information.

Sadly, The People in Charge are afraid to do that now. If we know too much, we might throw them out. Well, as Mulder and Scully said, ‘the truth is out there.’ We’ll see how that works out for the People In Charge over the next few years. If it does work out for them: tyranny. If not, freedom may yet prevail.

In Conclusion

If wishes were fishes and cattle were kings, the world would be full of wonderful things. But they aren’t.

1. Go ahead. Cancel me. It will say more about the state of your heart than mine.

Image: Skitterphoto via Pexels