With my hand on the wheel and my brain in neutral . . .

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My Tolerance for Drunks

I’ve been around drunks my whole life, so I’ve always accepted alcohol abuse as just part of human reality.

When I was a child, my Uncle Pete would take me for evening rides in his fast little red motorboat, and just the way he’d talk and play with all of his nephews and nieces made him the favorite uncle.  Like most everyone else in the family he had always been a social drinker, but somewhere around age 30 it took over his life.  He became as close to being a gutter drunk as you can without actually living in the gutter.  Despite my one aunt’s offers for him to live with her, he spent the second half of his life living in a small room that smelled of stale piss above a shitty little bar.  He looked like hell, not much more than skin and skeleton.  It was amazing that any human body could continue to function for so many years under such mistreatment.

Out of high school I did a hitch in the Navy, and no, we did not “drink like sailors”: we drank like 18, 19, 20, 21-year-olds a couple of thousand miles from home.  It wasn’t due to military service itself: compared to the rest of the ship our Division had an inordinately high percentage of young men going through NASAP, the Navy’s Alcohol and Safety Awareness Program.  The memory that comes to mind as I write this is the Halloween night we were drinking mojo (a grain alcohol punch) and somehow “Arturo” wound up on the top of a palm tree throwing coconuts down at the Shore Patrol guys.  Clearly my Navy years were my introduction to first-hand experience with alcohol abuse.  You know how some people laugh and joke about how it’s a wonder that they survived their young adulthood?  Ya, I can relate.  We did some really stupid things, like foot-racing at night rooftop to rooftop.

Since then, from college through what feels like both a blink of the eye and several lifetimes, I’ve had many friends, a lover, workmates, and neighbors who were some kind of alcoholic.  Once you become aware of the patterns, once you see the common denominator, it abruptly gets old and rather distasteful.  And I mean really see it, not just with your eyes or with your head but with your heart.

Also, I have or have had relatives, friends, workmates, and neighbors who have been involved in what has for some time now been so euphemistically called “substance abuse.”  I rankle at that term.  “Substance”?  What are we talking about here, mistreating Formica countertops?  Wasn’t “dope” just as all-inclusive, more accurate and truthful?  Where did the term “substance abuse” come from anyway, Hollywood celebrities’ PR agents, or the Politically Correct police?  (Side note: remember the old line about the difference between a fiddler and a violinist being just the amount of money each was paid?  Isn’t the difference between a substance abuser and an addict / druggie / dopehead just the amount of money he can pay for rehab and lawyers?)

Once, while mediating a “domestic disturbance,” (another term that’s been way too sanitized) I watched a woman stand up, in no hurry walk to the other side of the room, then swing a ceramic picture frame to whack her boyfriend in the head.  He was sitting down, and he turned in time raise his forearm to protect his head, but the ceramic picture frame shattered and exploded all over the place.  To his credit he just remained seated, and he looked at her not with the rising steam of vengeance but more of a look that he was thinking something like, “What?  Are you trying to tell me that maybe our romance is over, that you no longer have tender feelings toward me?”  (Dumbass.)  She yelled, “See what you made me do!”  (She was referring to the shattered picture frame, not her attempt to break his skull.)

Even though I had witnessed the whole event including the many angry words that led up to it, I did not even come close to sharing her opinion about the cause and effect.  Denial is not that river in Egypt, but it is just as strong, just as powerful, and just as sneaky.  The invisible currents will grab you and take you downriver without you knowing it until you suddenly realize that no, uh-oh, you are not heading toward your intended destination, not by a long shot.

Invisible currents?  As you read the preceding few paragraphs your reaction fell toward either end of the spectrum.  You might have thought, “Of course!  A blind man could see the dysfunction there!  What an idiot!”  Or, you might have thought, “That’s nothing!  Let me tell you a story . . .”  I want to address the first perspective.

Once, years ago, while brown-bagging lunch around the conference table with about ten of my office mates, we were chatting about the previous night’s episode of a popular TV crime drama.  It had centered around domestic violence.  One young woman at the table said something like, “Ya, it was a good story, but it’s not like stuff happens that way in real life.”  Half the people at the table dropped their jaws and yanked their heads around to stare at her, but no one said anything.  We traded telling glances, surely all of us thinking some version of the same thing: what a naïve, sheltered, comfortable, easy life she must have.  Maybe she also thought that all homeless people should, could just go get a job.

My point is just because we live in the same part of town, or went to the same college, or even grew up in the same family, doesn’t mean we live in the same reality.  So what is blaringly obvious dysfunction to you and me may not even be noticeable to someone else, especially – no, certainly not – if he’s in the middle of it.  People tell me they can hear my Western Pennsylvania accent, but I can’t.  Long, long ago I intentionally ridded my speech of Pittsburgh-ese words like “youns”, and even though I haven’t lived there for 30 years, some people still peg me as a Western Pennsylvanian from my accent.  I’ve asked them to explain, to describe to me what they hear, and we’ve repeated single words back and forth to each other, but I can’t hear the difference.  Starting points have a lot to do with determining perspective and vision.

What if someone’s starting point is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the naïve woman at the lunch table?  What if that person grew up in an alcoholic but otherwise functioning family?  I am not the first to proclaim that the damage done by alcoholics to their kids carries in to adulthood, years, decades, lifetimes after the children have last laid eyes on their mother or father.  You might read about it in books, you might see something about it on TV, and you might even feel a little morally outraged about it, but damn, when you witness it up close and personal, when it’s in your face, it will make you nauseated.

Alcoholic parents put a permanent stain on their children’s lives.  Sometimes that stain is worn like a tattoo.  The same way I can usually identify former Marines (be careful with that: they’re quick to tell you there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine), I can do the same with adult children of alcoholics.  Sometimes I can spot it pretty early in their acquaintance; sometimes it comes later when a story of theirs comes out, and then, just like when I finally place a semi-familiar face, I hear myself thinking, “I knew that!”

As the poem Heroes and Heroines remind us, we all deserve respect for the struggle of being human.  Solutions to other peoples’ lives seem obvious and correcting changes easy to make, until you take in to account that they are dealing with demons that hide just outside of their consciousness.  Maybe you can point to the demons, but they just can’t see them, they just can’t hear the accent in their own speech.  So how are they supposed to get a hold on them?  I do not admire drunks, but I do give them basic human respect.

This whole big, broad concept of mental health, only a part of which is alcohol abuse and other addictions, does not have an absolute scale.  Well, it does – for medical and legal purposes.  But for social purposes?  It doesn’t take a genius to realize that some people have traveled a long, long road, uphill, just to get to a normie’s starting point (mental health-wise speaking).  And some of them are carrying some mighty heavy baggage.  They might have already put more effort into staying sane than most of us ever will in our entire lives.  They might be surviving (emotionally) on only crumbs of positive response; they might have lived their whole lives on only crumbs of nurturing love.  You don’t know because you can’t know.  So no, I don’t feel morally superior or overly proud of my strong character (or what passes for it.)

These days (these decades, actually) I like my vodka tonics, and I like my gin and juice, and I like my sippin’ whiskey, and I love, love, lo-o-ve my red, red wine (it is truly one of the very few cosmic gifts bottled and available through retail distribution.)  And no doubt about it, after a long day of some kind of muscle work in the heat, a cold beer in the shade is a wonderful thing.  However, I can not remember the last time I drank enough to deserve a hangover.  I have casual drinks all the time, but only every couple of years do I put on more than a buzz.  Even then, it’s more of a surprise (whoops!), and if I’m moving slow the next morning, I’m mad at myself for not living with any more skill and style than I did many, many years ago.

I’ll go a little further with that, too.  If my friends get accidentally drunk more than maybe once a year or so, I don’t want to be around them.  I might as well witness them kicking a puppy dog.

I write all of this as a preface, to make it plain and clear that it is not with ignorance, not without tolerance, but with more than a little heartache and fatigue and maybe even just a little bit of well-earned and healthy fear that I say that these days, I have little to no tolerance for drunks.  Little to none.  The purpose of my life (and remember, a life is made up of a few minutes and then hours and then days and nights strung together) is not to indulge someone else’s blatant self-destruction.  I do not need those waves of negativity rippling into my life.

Easily, I’d rather be surrounded by recovering alcoholics, have no human contact at all except for with recovering alcoholics, than to have to deal with one more drunk inserted into my life.  I’m sorry; I’ve been through this movie before.  I’ve held middle-aged men as they sobbed and snotted up my shirt; I’ve helped my friend to bed the night he thought he was pissing in the snow but was actually just pissing in his pants; I’ve attempted to mediate way, way, way more than my share of unnecessary domestic disturbances.  By the way, y’know, of course non-drinkers occasionally get sick, but when they throw up they don’t get vodka spaghetti strands coming out of their noses.  Alcohol abuse is not pretty.  And all of this is one thing when you’re 25 and a whole ‘nother thing when you’re 50.  I’ve had enough.  Drunks: been there, done that, more than once, more than one way.

So, my new neighbor who has cocktails for breakfast and is mumbling by noon and soon after swaying as he stands . . . I have nothing against you, and I wish you well.  Just don’t talk to me.  Don’t.  Really.  Just don’t.

 

2014, Mik Hetu, author of Napism.Info (for people who take their naps “religiously”)

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Parking Garage Paralysis

The only explanation I can come up with for why people (other people, not me, of course, nuh-uh) suddenly drive in a numb daze as soon as they enter a parking garage is because the little ticket booth with an automatic gate is actually bombarding vehicles with some kind of Bozo Beam.

How is that you can be behind someone for several downtown city blocks, watching him in front of you as he weaves back and forth through lanes to insert himself into nearly evaporated pockets in traffic, squirts through yellow lights to gain every imaginary advantage, dodges jaywalkers and suddenly-opening parked car doors, and generally drives like an over-caffeinated kid playing a video game, and then, after he turns in to the same parking garage you happened to be aiming for, he suddenly becomes . . . what, overwhelmed by the task of navigating an open garage full of parked vehicles?

The parking lot is rectangular, one lane spiraling up, one lane spiraling down, parking spots slotted on both sides.  WHY do some people drive through this at barely walking speed?  Yes, for safety you want to go slow enough to stop should someone walk out from between the cars or back a car out right in front of you (un-park it.)  But when you can see the length of half a football field in front of you, and you have two lanes empty in the middle, and it’s in the middle of the day so it’s a safe bet that nearly all of the cars on the first few levels are commuter rides and not going anywhere, why do some people feel the need to ca-rawl up the ramps?  A little faster than walking speed – 5 mph – is too fast?

And WHY do they keep looking to the left and right at the parked cars all the way up the straight ramp – do they think maybe one of the parked cars will spontaneously disappear to open a space for them?

And WHY do they get to the top of a ramp and STOP and look both ways?  There are two lanes making the wide U turn between ramp levels, and no incoming traffic coming from THE WALL on the right . . . (And no, it’s not because they’re trying to send me a message because I’m tailgating them, emotionally pushing them to go faster.  I hang back because I need time to brake if they brake for one of those spontaneously-appearing parking spots . . . )

And hey, didn’t we figure out the layout of the garage on the first 6 or 7 half-level ramps we’ve already successfully put behind us?  Seriously, is there something about spiraling roadways that blows some people’s minds?

And no, after the car in front of me went through the Bozo Beam, no, I was not subjected to an Angry Ray or an Impatience I-Ray . . . I had just come out of downtown traffic with at least a couple hundred ka-zillion cars, so I was not fazed by one dazed driver in front of me when I’m essentially at my destination.  Puzzled, bewildered, yes; surprised, not at all.  We’ve all seen this before, haven’t we?  This is just one of those things that remind me of my nephew when he was young and just learning to talk: “Why ‘dems do ‘dat?

 

2014, Mik Hetu, author of Napism.Info (for people who take their naps “religiously”)

The Details in Dreams

This morning I woke up with a dream, which is not remarkable in itself, except the dream had incredible detail. What the human brain can create when it’s “running on automatic” repeatedly amazes me.

Okay, short dream, short description, I promise. The storyline was one middle-aged woman in serious clothes at a table in the middle of a floor, facing a row of about eight elderly women sitting behind a long and raised desk, like judges. The solitary woman explained something about what she wrote down, gesturing in the air her handwriting. All of the elderly woman, who up till then had looked rather stern and severe, immediately playfully imitated her handwriting in the air, giggling and laughing so hard at themselves that they were sliding down in their chairs and their heads were falling on each other’s shoulders. The feeling of their laughter wasn’t mean or condescending or anything negative: it felt fun, like a bunch of old women temporarily acting like little girls.

Now, the detail. The elderly women behind the raised desk were highly individuated and displayed on the movie screen of my mind in perfectly-focused photographic clarity. The shadings of wisps of hair, the line between lenses in their bifocals, the pattern of wrinkles near their eyes, their exposed teeth as they laughed, the light in their wet eyes, the various voices and kinds of laughter, the jewelry only some wore around their necks, the textures of their clothing, etc., etc.

What the psychoanalytical meaning of the dream is I don’t know and I don’t care: it felt fun and good and that’s enough for me. The analytical mystery that won’t let me forget the little dream is why and to a lesser extent how the human brain creates such dreams in such detail.

It’s been said many times and in many ways, and this very brief, non-dramatic episode in my life prompts me to say it again: there may be billions of us, but each one of us is an amazing, mysterious, wonderful creature.

 

2014, Mik Hetu, author of Napism.Info (for people who take their naps “religiously”)

I’m a Firm Believer in the Power of the Subconscious

Somewhere along the line I came across an excellent working definition of intuition: the subconscious processing of consciously gathered facts.  It can’t be forced; it can’t be called upon, but when it speaks, when it whispers, it can provide solutions.

I was reminded of this over this past weekend while working on my Jeep.  I was replacing the front sway bar supports, which are rods about a foot long, a slight zig-zag bend in them, and a bushing at each end.  A bolt at the top, a bolt at the bottom: an easy job, zip, zap, zowie, done.

Nuh-uh.  Said bolts have been in place for 16 years, and the one on the top right did not want to come out.  After loosening the rust’s grip on the nut with some PB Blaster, with the help of a cheater bar (a 2-foot long length of 1 1/2-inch pipe) for leverage, I was able to remove the nut.  But the bolt was rusted firmly in place.  I applied PB Blaster, solid taps to shake the rust free a few molecules at a time, more PB Blaster, heat from an electric heat gun, more PB Blaster, more solid taps, more heat from an electric heat gun, more PB Blaster, more solid taps, more of the same, for different periods of time over 24 hours, literally.  I tried alternately a prying fork, a strong C-clamp, and a hammer to remove the bolt, and in the end, it came free with a satisfying whack with the hammer.

The starboard side (that’s the right side for ye dirty-fingered landlubbers) took a total elapsed time of 24 hours for the PB Blaster to do its thing; the port side (that’s the other right side for ye dirty-fingered landlubbers) took about 24 minutes for removal and re-installation.

But, I digress, sort of.  While I was having great fun beating on the underside of my Jeep with a hammer, and while I was in a calm but nonetheless slightly frustrated mood, a friend of mine stopped by and suggested removing a cover plate on the front of the Jeep.  I had already removed and replaced that cover plate, so although I knew it wouldn’t be helpful, with a socket wrench I spun out the four little screws holding it in.  I put the cover on the hood and the four screws on the cover, one of which promptly rolled off into the pea gravel and dirt, coincidentally about the same color as the errant screw.

We looked and looked for that damn little screw.  We even did a miniature SAR (Search and Rescue) grid pattern under and around the Jeep, being careful not to inadvertently cover it up or push it down with our footsteps, knees, or the heels of our hands.  After I don’t know how long I called it off; it was just 1 out of 4 screws on a cover plate and no big deal at all until I got around to replacing it, or even if I ever got around to replacing it.  I resumed heating and whacking on the rusted bolt.

The next day, after I had completed replacing both sway bar supports and reinstalling the cover plate with only 3 screws, I bent down by each front tire to put my wrench on the bolts one last time, more just to feel how tight they were than to tighten them any more.  When I moved from one side to other and bent my knees to crouch down, my eyes zeroed in on the missing screw lying on the pea gravel.  It was not in my line of sight at all, about 2 feet to the side of where I was working, but my eyes found it.  It was well within the borders of our search grid, but when we were looking for it, we could not see it.  I saw it by accident, found it just moments before I was going to pack my tools and get cleaned up.

No, this is not just pure coincidence, and I’ll tell you why.

First, although of course a healthy, genetically sophisticated eye can register information a lesser eye can’t (eagles have better vision than moles, no contest), the eye only gathers information for the brain.  It is the brain that determines what that information means; it is the brain that determines the significance of a slight color or shape variation in a field of pea gravel.

Second, Navy watchstanders are taught to find something (like a man overboard) out on the water by looking for it but then to keep it in sight by looking just a little, little bit to the side of it.  This is because the eye gets tired and sometimes does not send complete visual information to the brain even though both the eye and brain are focused on the very same thing.

Third, there’s a reason the old saying about solving a problem by “sleeping on it” is an old, old saying: it works!  Sometimes your brain needs a little time to reorganize and relate and reconnect.  How many times have you and your friends had the name of some movie actor on the tips of your tongues, said forget about it, and then a half-hour later in the middle of some totally different conversation someone shouts, “Eduardo J. Pumpernickle!  That’s the guy!”  The Napa Sutra’s SSTMS (Seeking Solutions Through My Subconscious) Nap style is only partly a joke, because it does actually work.

One last point: it is crucial to do everything you can to find the solution before you turn it over to your subconscious.  How can your brain process information it doesn’t have?  Explore every avenue toward a solution, then go do something else, or take a nap or go to sleep for the night.  The next thing you know, you’ll have at least an idea toward the solution, maybe even a “lucky” idea . . .

Getting my feet wet

Hello, World!

I’m just getting this blog started, so to make sure you have something to find here, I’ve posted some of my fiction – just look under the “My fiction” tab.

I’ll be back soon!

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