Tag Archives: alcoholism

Losing Our Traditions

In a recent post I wrote about character differences between Americans and Brits.  Such subjects are always fraught with peril.  Reflecting on it, I may have made it sound like all Englishmen are passively sitting around doing nothing about the problems of daily life, while all Americans are tackling their daily problems head on.  That’s not the case, of course.  I have a very deep respect for the British people which stems, in part, from how they defended the rest of humanity from the Nazis for two years while being bombed.  I admire that they (in general) place a greater emphasis on the common good rather than on individual rights, as we Americans do.  That’s why they have the NHS and sensible gun laws and public footpaths.

Culture is so complicated.  I attended a wedding this weekend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the bride and groom were both Native American.  Everyone in my family was excited to attend an Indian wedding.  But the bride, my niece, is Ojibway, while the groom is a member of a Pacific Northwest tribe.  She is also half Mexican-American, and he is half Scottish-American.  So what kind of Indian wedding would it be, and how would the other strains of ancestry be acknowledged?

They did a beautiful job of covering all the bases.  The music featured native drumming, a bagpiper, a Mexican-American singer and string orchestra, and a Motown trio.  The bride wore a white dress and stilettos and the groom wore a tux—with moccasins and a leather headband with eagle feathers.

At the end of the 10-minute ceremony performed by my cousin under the authority granted him free online as a Universal Life Church Minister, the couple were draped with an Indian blanket.  The meal included salmon and huckleberry jam flown in from Portland, Oregon.  A scholar read a wedding blessing in Ojibway.  An elder from the Pacific Northwest spoke about the sacredness of water, land, and animals.  The bride read a list of all the ethnic identities in attendance, including a dozen Native tribes and a dozen European ancestries.

The bar was open for one hour, maybe in recognition of all the alcoholics and recovering alcoholics in attendance—of all ethnicities.

The venue was the fantastic Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by a Spanish architect.

This made me wonder, what culture would my son or my nieces or nephews focus on, if at all, at their weddings?  I raised my son in the Jewish faith and community but he has no longer has any belief or affiliation.  None of us have any direct connections to our European ancestors.  What are we?  Americans, of course.  But what kind?  Who is our tribe?  What are our values and traditions?  We read the New York Times, listen to National Public Radio, and don’t feel unpatriotic driving Japanese or German cars.  I don’t see how any of that would play out at a wedding, but I’m sure my creative younger relatives will think of something.

Lynn and I arrived in Shaftsbury after circling the wrong roundabout three times, then circling the right one another three times.

“It looks like there’s a wedding here,” I observed as we pulled into the hotel parking lot.  There were a lot of dressed-up people milling about.  Then I saw the hearse.

“What a strange place to hold a funeral,” Lynn commented.

The Royal Chase Hotel was billed as a historic 18th Century monastery but it had been stripped of all character and was now just another Best Western hotel.  It was basic; it was fine; we wouldn’t be spending much time in it anyway.  That’s what you tell yourself when you arrive at a hotel that’s seen better days, right?

But it was true.  We loved Shaftsbury and spent most of our two days out and about.  It is home to Gold Hill, site of a Hovis Bread commercial every English person of a certain age remembers.

We walked to the hill, and it was really scenic.  Pictures don’t do it justice.  It was Sunday evening and all the attractions were closed, so sat in silence on a bench at the top of the hill for 20 minutes, enjoying the view.

Elder, Kickin’ It

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

In the real world, there is more bad news in addition to all the shenanigans in Washington.  Every day there are reports about all the people overdosing on Carfentanil, a synthetic opioid 10,000 times more potent than morphine.  The anniversary of Prince’s death just passed; he overdosed on a similar drug, Fentanyl.  Carfentanil was developed as a large animal anesthetic.  Really?  Who takes drugs like that?

Sadly, my dad did.  It was his birthday recently; he would have been 81 if he hadn’t overdosed in a Wisconsin motel room nearly 50 years ago, aged 32.  He died of a lethal combination of alcohol and Paraldehyde, which used to be prescribed to treat alcoholism.  Paraldehyde is classified as a “hypnotic” and has mostly been replaced by safer drugs. Was it an accident or intentional?  I’ll never know.  What I do notice is how little emotion I feel about it anymore.  That’s taken a long time and a lot of work.  He loved to travel, so I like to think he would be happy about my adventures.

After our snorkeling day, we were herded onto the van by Mark to attend a Garifuna drumming performance at the Hopkins Cultural Center.  It took an hour for us to drive the mile distance as the crow flies.  It was a very dark night. Thank goodness there were potholes the size of bathtubs full of water, which reflected the light from the three streetlights in town.

Eventually we were ushered into a large thatched-roof hut where we waited for our supper.  A woman about my age was the cook, and she was obviously working her ass off. She had been summoned on five minutes notice to produce food for 20 people, and after an hour her young adult children served up bowls of hudutu and fry bread.  Again, it was full of bones, but we were so hungry we had no complaints.

A 30-something man in a dashiki jumped up on the stage and started shouting into the mic.  “Let’s give a hand to Elder Elspeth for the wonderful meal!”

Elder?  If she was an elder, that made me one too.

The guy, whose name was Myron, launched into a long, disconnected rant about Garifuna culture.  I had read about it in the guide books, and he seemed to be making stuff up.  Garifuna is a language and a culture brought by mixed-race slaves from the Caribbean to Honduras, Nicaragua, and British Honduras—as Belize was then called—in the early 19th Century.  I asked a question; I don’t recall what it was because he angrily yelled, “No!” at me and resumed his animated monologue.  He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder.  He was very muscular—maybe he had ‘roid rage.

Myron went on for half an hour, then two other men joined him and they began drumming and singing manically in the Garifuna language.  It reminded me of a pow wow, where the first song is really cool, the second one is good, and then they all sound alike.

Despite it being ear-splittingly loud, I was trying hard not to nod off, as were the other snorkelers. Mercifully the trio only played five songs.  Then they jumped off the stage and started selling CDs and passing a hat for tips.  It was clear they couldn’t wait for us to get out of there.

Midnight.  One hundred Fahrenheit with 99% humidity.  I lay in my bed in the middle of the room, between Trudy and Emily.  Our table and chairs had disappeared while we were gone but we were beyond curious about why things came and went.

My Restless Legs Syndrome is always worse when it’s humid.  It sounds like a silly condition, but it’s ruined more nights of sleep than any worry or noise or excess of caffeine or alcohol.  Just as I’m falling asleep, I get a creeping feeling around my knees and have an overpowering urge to Move My Legs.

Then music started up in the distance, a low throbbing beat.  This would last for hours, I thought, as I kick, kick, kicked to the beat.

Make Mine a Double

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

After hitting the gift shop at the Prado and loading up on Hieronymus Bosch refrigerator magnets, bookmarks, and postcards, we crossed the roundabout toward the Thyssen Bornemisa Museum.

But first, some lunch.  We walked into the first restaurant we saw and followed the hostess down some stairs, through a hallway, up more stairs, and into a back dining room.  It was probably early for lunch in Spain—only 1:00—so we had the room to ourselves.

I don’t remember anything about the food.  I know we laughed over some of the Spanish to English translations on the menu, and at the fat German couple seated near us who ordered strudel and beer.  I vaguely noticed the place fill with people, then empty again while we ate and drank a bottle of house wine and talked and talked.

This may be the number one thing I love about traveling with a friend.  Leisurely meals.  At home I gulp down my food while reading a magazine or watching TV.  I’m usually in a hurry to get on to the next thing.  I barely notice what I’m shoveling in my mouth.

Suddenly we realized it was almost 4:00 so we hurried across the street to try to see everything in the museum in one hour.  What a relief—it was open until 7:00.

The main art museum in Minneapolis, the MIA, has collections—like Decorative Art, Textiles, and Sculpture; or Japanese and Korean Art.  The Thyssen Bornemisa reminded me of the Reina Sofia Museum, with one or a few pieces from lots of different artists scattered seemingly at random throughout a somewhat shabbier building.  It had one masterpiece each by van Gogh, Chagall, Degas, Cezanne, El Greco, Caravaggio, Monet, Picasso, Gauguin.  It reminded me of the “Greatest Hits” compilations music companies used to publish when people still bought CDs.

There was a variation on this famous painting by Holbein of Henry VIII; the original had been destroyed:

henry-8

We bought the obligatory postcards, bookmarks, and refrigerator magnets.  These make nice small gifts, or I think they do.  Maybe people hate them.

We went back to the hotel to freshen up, then back to the square where there were supposed to be loads of tapas restaurants.  This time we were determined to find an “authentic” tapas place, as if we knew what that would look like.  We found one that looked a little run down, and were soon being served, if you can use that term, by the crabbiest waiter ever.

The tables were covered with old linoleum.  Ours had some squeeze bottles of unknown contents and a pile of three thin, miniscule, nonabsorbent paper napkins.

“D’ya want something?” our waiter demanded brusquely in Spanish.  His clothes were rumpled and stained.

Lynn, always cheerful to servers, asked for red wine in English.  The waiter scowled and I repeated in Spanish, “vino tinto, por favor.”  He walked away without a word and returned with two smeary glasses of red wine, which he slammed down before us.  This place was authentic, alight.

“Para comer?” he demanded next.  To eat?  Lynn pointed to menu items and again he walked off without speaking, returned, and threw down some plates.  The food was basic but good.

I watched over Lynn’s shoulder as our waiter poured a half pint of beer, dumped in two very large shots of tequila, and poured it all down his throat.  Within minutes he was relatively cheerful, even coming to our table to ask if we liked our food.  I felt moved, imagining he got by like this hour by hour, night after night.

As I write this, I’m about to leave for Belize and Guatemala.  I’ve front loaded the blog to post throughout this trip, but I never know what kind of condition I’ll be in when I return so no promises about when the next post will be.

I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but I’ve been on enough trips where I come home sick, or to some crazy family or work situation, so I’m cautious about committing to anything too soon after I get back.

Down and Out In Dublin

In my last post I wrote about the river of “what ifs” going through my head about my upcoming trip.  After writing it, I thought back on the worst things that have ever happened to me in my life.  All of them have happened at home.  The worst things that have happened to me while traveling?  Well, they’ve didn’t turn out so bad in the end.

For instance, I accidentally wound up in a brothel in Dubai.

But the story starts in “the other DUB city,” Dublin, where I was working for Oxfam Great Britain on contract for the summer.

Everyone thinks Ireland would be a great place to live, and that’s what I had expected.  But I hated it.

This was at the height of the inflationary period they called the Celtic Tiger—right before the Great Recession hit—and everything was colossally expensive.

I stayed in a 12-bed dorm in the Four Courts Hostel until I could find a flat.  The other 11 beds were occupied by immigrants from Poland and the Czech Republic who were almost out of money and facing the prospect of going back home as failures.  One woman was so depressed she stayed in bed all day with the blanket pulled over her head; I never actually saw her.   The only good thing about The Four Courts was the talking elevator that announced, “Turd Floor” in an Irish accent when it reached our floor.

I could go to the Oxfam Ireland office to work, but they didn’t really have space for me, so I worked out of the hostel dining hall while everyone else was out hustling during the day—except for the woman under the covers.

The streets were full of drunks, Irish and otherwise.  Lots of Brits and Dutch and Germans came to Dublin for their stag parties.  One morning I literally stepped over a drunken man vomiting in the gutter.  I don’t know how they afforded it, because a pint of unremarkable beer in a pub cost $8.  And maybe because Ireland’s economy was roaring, it seemed like the Irish were over being friendly to travelers.  The only friendly overture I had from an Irish person in my first few weeks was a shopkeeper telling me to “Have yourself some crack, now!”  That freaked me out until I realized he meant craic—which means “a good time” in Gaelic.

I had pictured myself working away in a cozy pub and making all sorts of new Irish friends, but I was bored and lonely.

In the UK and Ireland, it is much more common for people to share a flat or a house than it is in the US.  Having roommates is not just for young or poor people.  I would go to look at a flat and there would be a dozen desperate potential renters crowded around the front door.  When the landlord deigned to let us in, we would find a dingy, dirty, little hole with a bedroom featuring a sagging twin bed and a window looking out on a brick wall.  The rent for that bedroom and sharing everything else with two or three strangers was $500 a month each, easy.

Every night I climbed up to my top bunk and hunched over with my head against the moldy ceiling to read, hoping this would be my last night at the Four Courts.  Oh, did I mention I had broken my collar bone in a bike accident in Oxford a week before, and my arm was in a sling?

Everyone used a website called Gumtree to look for flats and jobs and probably to sell their bodies to pay rent.  I arranged to meet a potential landlord in a pub rather than go to his house alone.  It was love at first sight, for him.  Eddie was a good 10 years younger than me and at least a foot taller.  His teeth were brown from smoking and crooked from not being an American.  I wasn’t attracted to him and I knew it would be a bad idea to move in to the room he had for rent, but I agreed to come and see the place the next day.

To be continued …

Justice, Sweet and Sour

Summer is over, and so is my break from blogging.  In my last post, I listed all the things I was going to do with my extra time: sit outside in the morning with my coffee and listen to the birds, plan a fall trip, and figure out how to publish the first year of the blog as an e-book.  Oh—and write a novel.

I sat outside with my coffee once.  I am planning a fall trip to Italy, Malta, and Spain.  I didn’t write a novel, but Vince and I have started working with an editor on the e-book.

Mostly, I’ve tried to live in the moment.  Summer is so brief.  There were fun moments.  At a family weekend at a cabin, someone brought a Donald Trump piñata (Made in Mexico, appropriately).  I fostered a litter of seven kittens which drew visits from friends and family.  Vince and I went to the State Fair where, at the FabBrow booth, he insisted he wanted a uni-brow.  The makeup artists got back at him by making him look like a community theater actor.

pinatakittens

fabbrow

I spent a lot of time outdoors.  There were hikes and bike rides, and one day a friend and I spend hours making jewelry down at the river. Other times I packed a book and a beverage and biked to some quiet spot at a lake or the river.

The big local news this summer was of the killing of Philando Castille by a cop.  Castille was black.  The cop, Jeronimo Yanez, was Latino.  Castille was pulled over for a broken taillight.  He had a gun in his glove compartment, and believed that the proper procedure when interacting with a cop was to inform: “I’ve got a gun, and I’ve got a permit to carry it.”

I suppose Yanez didn’t hear anything after Castille said “I’ve got a gun.” Blam!  Shot point blank five times and left to bleed to death.  Castille’s girlfriend live streamed his last moments on Facebook.  I have not watched that video, but hundreds of thousands of people have.

I live within walking distance of the Governor’s mansion in St. Paul, where the inevitable protests took place. Traffic was blocked off by the police for a month and I was kept awake a couple nights by helicopter noise.  The protestors blocked off the nearby interstate and either police were patrolling with helicopters or it was news media copters, but they were loud.  Not that I’m comparing my minor inconvenience to the Castille’s family’s loss.

govs-mansion

This week marked one year since Vince was released from prison.  He is doing so well.  He just started a new job in catering, and he’s excited.  In a month he will go off intensive supervised release, which means he’ll be able to stay out past 10:30 or go to Wisconsin to visit cousins.  Best of all, he won’t have ISR agents showing up day and night asking him for urine samples.

Another event prompted me to write this post.

In 1989, an 11-year-old boy named Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a stranger at gun point in a small town in Minnesota. He was never found.

Vince was the same age as Jacob.  Vince became a Bar Mitzvah, got his first job, moved out, turned 20, had a serious girlfriend, had serious drug and alcohol problems, went to jail, got clean, relapsed, turned 30, moved to Lanesboro, went to prison, got out, and has two years of sobriety.  In a few months he’ll be 38.

This week, a man confessed to abducting, sexually assaulting, and executing Jacob Wetterling by shooting him in the head, then burying him—and returning a year later to move the remains.  Lying handcuffed in the last moments of his life, Jacob asked the man, “What did I do wrong?”

Vince was sentenced to over four years in prison for drug possession.  Because the statute of limitations has expired, Jacob’s killer will get 20 years on a child porn charge.  He’ll be a cho-mo—the most loathed prisoner among prisoners.  According to Vince, they are also considered a “protected class,” by officials, perhaps to prevent prison vigilantes from meting out real justice.

As the Wheel Turns

Sunday was Father’s Day in the U.S.  Vince texted me at 8:00 am and asked if he could stop by.  He had already invited me for brunch, in recognition that I was/am both a mother and father to him.  But when he showed up he had a Roku stick for my T.V., and even better, he set it up for me!

And so I was able to watch the new season of Orange is the New Black on my T.V.  How ironic, that a year ago he was in prison, and now I am watching a show about prison thanks to him.  This coming weekend he will mark two years of sobriety with a barbecue.

So people can be redeemed and restored to sanity.  No situation is ever hopeless.  Never lose hope, even when it’s all you’ve got.

I’m going to take a break from blogging for a while.  I’ve been posting 700 words every other day since September 2014.  The first year, half of the posts were written by Vince, although I did spend a fair amount of time typing and actually posting them.

Now I devote every Saturday and Sunday morning to writing, and each post takes about an hour and a half from blank page to Pending Publication.

Writing, editing, finding photos, researching things like the State of Missouri’s motto—I get into the zone, aka, in the now, and that’s great.

But it’s summer!  I’d really like to sit out on my deck with a cup of coffee, read the (real) newspaper, and listen to the birds.

And since I am terrible at just sitting and doing “nothing,” here’s my to-do list of projects I’ve got queued up.  I’d like to publish the first year of this blog—the posts focused on Vince’s and my prison experience—as an e-book.  That feels like it could be a contribution to reform of mass incarceration, or at least a good read.  That’ll take some time.  If anyone out there has any advice for me, I’m all ears.

Then, and this may sound grandiose, but I’d like to try my hand at writing a novel.  The big, sprawling, character-packed type like Dickens or Tolstoy.  Not that I’m comparing myself to them or would even expect to get published.  I don’t have a master’s in Creative Writing from Yale, I’ve never been to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I don’t live on the east coast and I don’t have any connections in the publishing world.

But I think it would be fun.  About a year and a half ago, my uncle died.  He was a retired English professor and I carted home some bags of classic novels and have been ploughing through them.  They’re like crossword puzzles composed of intersecting people and events.  These are the old style books that people would collect and display proudly on their living room bookshelf.  They are “lavishly illustrated” and have beautiful leather bindings that are, sadly, disintegrating.

So I’ll just publish and e-book and write a novel this summer.  Ha ha!  Then there’s travel.  I’ve been stockpiling my paid time off, and I could take as much as five weeks off at the end of the year.  It also looks like I’ll be going to east Africa for work.  So where could I go from, say—Ethiopia?  India?  South Africa?  Japan, Myanmar, Australia…so many choices!  Trips take a lot of planning, so I need time for that too.

I don’t know how long my break from blogging will be, but the next post may be a report from afar.  Have a wonderful summer, or winter, depending on which hemisphere you’re in.

Me, Mom

Before I continue to the exciting conclusion of the road trip, I am sharing this post from Vince’s blog he wrote for Mother’s Day.

Mom, I know I’ve let you down. Over, and over again I’ve made a mess of my life and brought both of us shame.  There were years where you were unable to explain my whereabouts to family and friends, and times where you yourself didn’t know where I was. I’ve put you through more pain and distress than I care to recall.  I’ve not been a son to you for many years, and I have lost your trust far too many times.

But for some reason, you still love me. It’s an unconditional love that I’ve felt nowhere else. Even recently when we didn’t see eye to eye when we lived together, there was never any doubt that you loved me.  I wish I could promise that I will never be lead astray again by the temptation and allure of alcohol and the world of drugs, but I cannot because it’s the nature of the disease that I am always at risk of going back. Tomorrow, when we go out on our secret trip to an unknown location for Mother’s Day lunch, I will be repairing some of the damage I have caused. I will be repairing the bond that had been broken for so long as a result of my actions. I have nobody to blame but myself, which leaves only me to clean up the mess. And so far, I think it’s working.

It’s hard work, searching inside myself to figure out what’s been broken for so long. But through writing this blog, attending A.A., and working with a sponsor, I’m starting to change my life. I no longer do these things to avoid going back to prison, I do them because I want to be out here living life and being with my family as much as I can.

Although you had help from some family members raising me for a small portion of my childhood, I know that you were solely responsible for bringing me up and I know that you not only did the best you could without a father present, you truly were an amazing Mother, I just didn’t see it until later in life.

You imparted upon me how to be a good, loving person, and it took me about 20 years longer than it should have to recognize that. The things you showed me are the things I strive to emulate now because I know that they are righteous, moral, and honorable.

It doesn’t get any more honest than that. You were instrumental in keeping me sane throughout my prison term. You wrote to me, sent me money, and answered my calls. Not everybody is as lucky, or has a person that loves them no matter what. You moved just to accommodate me living with you when I got out, and I am so grateful for that. I may not have acted like it when I lived there, but that was because I was ashamed of myself, and I shut myself in my room, and my own little world where I felt comfortable. I’m breaking out of that shell slowly, and I won’t forget that it’s because of you that I’m even out here in the first place and had a warm safe place to sleep. Sometimes it takes a while to realize what I have to be grateful for, but eventually it comes.

Tomorrow is your day, and I’m excited that I have the ability to take you out for the day, and the means to make it happen. I think this will be the best Mother’s Day we’ve ever spent together, and I look forward to many more.

Mom, I know I’ve let you down. But I’m going to make it up by becoming a good son, and making up for all the hurt I’ve caused. I love you, Mom.

I told Vince, over the sushi feast he had planned, that I appreciated the post. I also told him that by changing his life, he is making amends to me and he never has to apologize for his past actions again.

Sushi n MeSushi n V