Sunday, February 27, 2011
What people did not know about Chester was that he had a kind of affliction. It may have developed in-utero or maybe it came even earlier - was in his DNA through the generations. Or he may have learned it over time.
You see Chester knew early on and understood in his marrow a logic that on a bad day could conclude that oblivion, under certain circumstances, might be preferable to the alternative; he accepted that 99% of life is something we have no control over, none whatsoever. As someone once said, "life is an accumulation of flukes" so rather than living life like a big spender on a run, Chester preferred to live small because to him small was not only meaningful - it was sacred. Chester knew that any other approach would have eaten him alive. And even though his life was getting smaller and smaller his heart was getting bigger and bigger - that was good enough for Chester.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
I read your column religiously. I’m 22. From what I can tell by your writing, you’re in your early 40s. My question is short and sweet: what would you tell your 20-something self if you could talk to her now?
Dear Seeking Wisdom,
Stop worrying about whether you’re fat. You’re not fat. Or rather, you’re sometimes a little bit fat, but who gives a shit? There is nothing more boring and fruitless than a woman lamenting the fact that her stomach is round. Feed yourself. Literally. The sort of people worthy of your love will love you more for this, sweet pea.
In the middle of the night in the middle of your twenties when your best woman friend crawls naked into your bed, straddles you, and says, You should run away from me before I devour you, believe her.
You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.
When that really sweet but fucked up gay couple invites you over to their cool apartment to do ecstasy with them, say no.
There are some things you can’t understand yet. Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding. It’s good you’ve worked hard to resolve childhood issues while in your twenties, but understand that what you resolve will need to be resolved again. And again. You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of those things will have to do with forgiveness.
One evening you will be rolling around on the wooden floor of your apartment with a man who will tell you he doesn’t have a condom. You will smile in this spunky way that you think is hot and tell him to fuck you anyway. This will be a mistake for which you alone will pay.
Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.
You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else.
Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.
One hot afternoon during the era in which you’ve gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin you will be riding the bus and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are when a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things. You’re wrong. You do.
Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.
When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss doesn’t “mean anything” because, much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with you or anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.
The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.
One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.
Say thank you.
Monday, February 14, 2011
Saturday, February 12, 2011
There is a show on TV that I stumbled upon not too long ago called Undercover Boss.
Undercover Boss is a Prince and the Pauper experience come to life and poses the question about how one's stature in an organization's hierarchy (rather than substance) may contribute to the patina that makes someone "top brass"?
Friday, February 11, 2011
"When I first entered the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous some years ago, one of the long-timers—a rough guy, with more than two decades of sobriety—pulled me aside after a meeting to share his personal view of alcoholism. We were in a bright, hard-floored church basement that carried the sound, and his half-whisper made the words sound a bit conspiratorial: 'I figure everyone is given a share of booze to drink in his life. You can drink it any way you want, and most people spread theirs out over a lifetime. But I drank all mine up. I was a glutton.'
Glutton. It’s not a word you hear much at all these days. In fact, when he uttered the archaic word, my mind rushed to the English literary giants of long ago—the diarist Pepys and Dr. Johnson—consuming enormous quantities of mutton and fowl, and paying with gouty, swollen toes. Those literary gluttons seem to be a thing of the past, and the word has fallen into disuse, too. You certainly don’t hear it in recovery circles, and indeed most sober alcoholics would likely reject this old-timer’s view of the disorder. You’re much more likely to hear alcoholism described as a medical disease, or a spiritual crisis.
But I like the idea of alcoholic gluttony. It rang true to me back then, and it still does. It cuts through a lot of hair-splitting debate and gets right to the heart of the matter: lack of self-control. Call it what you like, but at the end of the day there’s no getting away from the behavior—the excessiveness, the lack of restraint, the—yes—gluttony.
Yet labeling alcoholism as gluttony does not make it simple to understand. Indeed, alcoholic gluttony is maddeningly complex, and in a way this vice—this deadly sin—captures human nature in all its irrational nuance. Looking back now, I believe that my career as a science journalist has paralleled my drinking career; my unfolding relationship with alcoholic gluttony shaped the questions I asked, and how I asked them.
My scientific interest in boozing preceded my own excesses, because my father died a full-blown alcoholic. But my memories from childhood were not of a reckless man, but rather a vibrant, engaged man—a hiker, a sailor, an educator. Then somewhere along the way things changed, for no obvious reason. There was no tragic trigger, just the usual disappointments, and he drank more and more. I recall sitting at his kitchen table late in his life, and he was drinking Passport Scotch disguised with OJ—his drink of choice—and thinking: He’s chosen this path freely, with full understanding of the tradeoffs. But I watched him clinically and warily, because I knew I carried some of his genes, and his transformation reflected back on me.
As I watched my father’s alcoholism progress—and then my own—I began asking other questions: Do we have a brain disease? Are there particular neurotransmitters run amok. I read widely in the literature about genetics and addiction and stress, about suspect neurotransmitters, and brain anatomy related to pleasure and risk and will, and even wrote a newsweekly cover story on the interplay of genetics and misfortune. None of this got me very far. Alcoholism appears to run in families, and many experts believe there are genes—probably a handful of them—underlying the disorder. There are candidate brain chemicals and structures. So I probably inherited a propensity of some kind. But so what? As one geneticist explained to me years ago, there is no elbow-bending gene. That is, no genetic or neuroscience findings will ever alter the fact that alcoholics—at every stage of their drinking history—are making decisions. Every time we pick up a bottle or pour a finger of whiskey, it’s a choice—it’s the option we’re freely selecting, at least for that moment.
So I moved on from what I now saw as a reductionist neuro-genetic view of alcoholism to an interest in cognitive psychology. Specifically, I wanted to know how we make decisions and judgments and choices, and why so many of our choices are not in our own best interest. Ironically, my preoccupation with irrational decision making coincided with a sharp spike in my own drinking. I was increasingly isolated in my alcoholism—skipping my favorite watering holes for a bottle at home; I drank at lunch every day, and often in the morning. The “holidays” I took from booze were more and more difficult. My drinking life wasn’t feeling like a choice—but I had no other way to explain it. I couldn’t blame it on anyone else. Even self-destructive decisions are decisions, and I began devouring the scientific literature on emotions and distorted thinking, looking for an explanation for my own poor life choices.
And that’s where I am today. My research as a science journalist led me to the study of cognitive biases—the heuristic traps that, once helpful, now lead us all too often into perilous territory. I focused on irrational thinking, and as my own head cleared in my chosen sobriety, I explored all kinds of distorted thinking—culminating in a book on the topic, called On Second Thought. On Second Thought is about the surprisingly automated lives we live—often at the price of our happiness—and it’s also a guide of sorts to more deliberate thinking. It’s not about alcoholic gluttony, but the title could well describe my own questioning of my own harmful life choices—and the change I made.
My next project—in the works—is on alcoholic gluttony. In the course of researching and writing On Second Thought—I was sober by then—I kept stumbling on psychological science that illuminates the process of recovering from alcoholism. Much of it is counterintuitive—the need for powerlessness, the dangers of self-reliance, the power of moral inventory and honesty. Many recovering alcoholics see the steps of recovery as a spiritual path, with no need for scientific explanation. I don’t argue with that, but I also think there’s a breed of sober alcoholics who are curious about the workings of the mind as it chooses—first a destructive path, then a life-changing one. They are the audience for the next book. Let’s call them recovering gluttons."
This post comes from the BPS Research Digest's Sin Week. Each day for Seven days BPS posted a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The posts coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month's Psychologist magazine.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
Tri-Stan (50’) a sit-trag/concert monodrama for mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger and ten players (flute, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, horn, trumpet, percussion, piano, violin, viola, and cello), is a setting of “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko” by David Foster Wallace, a piece of short fiction from his collection Brief interviews with hideous men, an updated retelling of the myth of Echo and Narcissus. The classical myth is imbedded in a complex (and very funny) matrix of mass-media and high culture; 1980’s-TV meets grand opera, featuring video projections by multi-media artist Suzie Silver.