Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Don't give me none of your lip





If this guy looks freaky enough to scare the Elephant Man, that's because he is.

He represents one of the biggest genetic train wrecks in human history.

How do I get on to these things, for heaven's sake? I saw a photo of Queen Elizabeth II on the cover of Macleans, a national newsmagazine in Canada. She's on her semi-regular Royal Tour, causing very elderly ladies wearing hats with veils to totter out to the edge of the sidewalk while Liz does her indolent royal wave.

All these people, these royals, and I mean royals all over the damn world, are interrelated. It's scary, but they were bred like horses back then, bred for stamina and aggression and militancy and all those desirable traits.

What stunned me, in looking at the rather hideous cover pic of the Queen in her typical mauve polyester suit and gigantic frothy hat, was how much she is starting to look like her husband, Prince Phillip.

It's bad enough that Prince Charles now displays all the worst attributes of both his parents: long horsey face, thin sharp nose, bad teeth, and eyes set too close together. And worse somehow, that William and Harry, who used to have so much glamour and seemed to have broken the family curse for ugliness, are already starting to look too royal for comfort. Even Harry, long rumoured to be the offspring of Diana's illicit affair with her riding instructor, has the long razor nose, the close-set eyes and the vulpine Windsor smile.

OK then, this is a very long way around my topic. In googling around to get more info on royal intermarriage, I struck pay dirt: an article in a New Zealand newspaper called "The inbreeding that ruined the Hapsburgs".

"The Hapsburg dynasty (more correctly spelled Habsburg, but that's too hard to pronounce) was one of the most important and influential royal families in Europe dating back more than 500 years and producing rulers in Austria, Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands and the German Empire."

These people might as well have all lived in one country. They were their own brothers and sisters. Generation upon generation of harrowingly close genetic unions gradually produced a host of medical problems, but since nobody knew what the fuck was going on, the political alliances based on blood continued, until. . .

Until Charles II of Spain, a monstrous bundle of mistakes who limped through a short life, unable to reproduce because he didn't know one end from the other. Fortunately, he was the end of the line for the Hapsburgs in Spain.

This guy lived around 1700, when every malformation was seen as demonic. And boy, was this guy demonic. Even royal portaits like the one above (and remember that these portraits had to be flattering, or the artist would literally lose his head) revealed a freakish person with a huge head, jutting jaw, small insectoid eyes, and what became known in history as the "Hapsburg lip".

This has nothing to do with back-sass, or even lips, but the extreme forward set of the jaw, so bad in poor Charlie's case that he could barely talk and couldn't chew his food. His development was so retarded that he couldn't speak until he was four, couldn't walk until age 8, and remained what was then called an imbecile, barely aware of his surroundings. He was kept in a sort of pupa for a few decades in the feverish hope that he would produce an heir. The relentless and horrific centuries-long mass of genetic deformities finally collapsed like a row of dominoes. Charles turned out to be the last of the Spanish line.

Scientists have tried to figure out his "inbreeding coefficient" and all that jazz, but suffice it to say it was ten times normal. Like the song says, he was his own grandpa:

"Charles' father, Philip IV, was the uncle of his mother, Mariana of Austria; his great-grandfather, Philip II, was also the uncle of his great-grandmother, Anna of Austria; and his grandmother, Maria Anna of Austria, was simultaneously his aunt."

Whew.

It would have benefited the poisoned gene pool of this dynasty to introduce the blood of some commoners, but they wouldn't have it. Convinced that interbreeding was the road to greatness, they manipulated alliances between uncles and nieces and cousins and half-siblings and great-grandparents (who must've started reproducing at 12), ignoring the fact that all these folk were beginning to look mighty peculiar.

Jay Leno had nothing on them. One of Charles' ancestors was nicknamed Hogmouth. They were ugly. I mean uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu-gly.

All this is odd, when you think about it. Through most of human history, people lived in little villages and never went anywhere. Inbreeding was a certainty, so why didn't the race die out like poor, impotent, imbecilic, drooling Charlie?

Is this the real reason why famous explorers struck out, going to ludicrous extremes and taking risks that only a madman would take?

I have often wondered if the explorers we know about, Cortez and Champlain and all dem guys, only represent the tip of the iceberg, the more-or-less successful ones who then established colonies in the New World. How many tried and failed, and never made it into the history books?

Lots, probably. But something in their genetic code was saying, "Get out, get out! Get OUT of here before you end up with a jaw you can set your coffee cup on."

Genealogy and mitochondrial DNA testing is all the rage now, with people anxious to find out they're related to Ben Franklin and Joan of Arc and such. Nobody wants Joe Blow the average schlub as the patriarch of their lineage, but in most cases it's probably true.

We can rest easy, however, in that none of us is related to Charles II, whose DNA coils were as damaged as a Slinky that's been run over by a Mack truck.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Today I am three




Can there be anything more idyllic, more innocent, more knowing than a three-year-old girl?
How about a three-year-old who is somehow, mysteriously, tied to you through blood and bone. How she came through me is a mystery, but it's a fact that without me, she would not exist.
When life gets me down, which it often does, I ponder this mystery: we all come out of nothing. Or seemingly nothing. All of Creation started with a void - it had to - and somehow ended up this teeming mess, this singing intricacy, overrun by crass humans but somehow still spellbindingly beautiful.
Two people meet, and sometimes nothing happens. End of story. Or they meet, and in the course of things, become sexually attracted to each other.
Sometimes it ends there.
But sometimes, when the act is unimpeded, a quarter-teaspoon of fluid, innocuous as spit, finds its way to a microscopic dot.
Result: a new human being, an individual the likes of which has never been seen before (and will never be seen again) in human history.
God creates each person once, then breaks the mould.
I search in Lauren's beaming three-year-old face for some trace of me, and I can't find it. None of my four grandkids look like me (see lovely brown-eyed Caitlin, above, with Grandma).
All strongly resemble the other side of the family. Except.
Except for Lauren's intensity, the way she comes at life full-throttle, six-guns blazing. In this, she does resemble me, but puts me to shame (but if I hadn't been squashed so flat as a child, so written off as worthless, perhaps I would have been the same way).
Perhaps this is my second chance. This echo generation, saving me. And saving the world from its awful lack-of-Laurenness.
Out of nothing, or seemingly nothing, out of a single act (an odd one, when you really think about it), "someone" comes into the world. Lauren has changed the world just by being in it; her valour and rambunctious humour in the face of juvenile diabetes (diagnosed at only 15 months) has been remarkable, an example.
All hail Lauren, only three, but capable of restoring my soul.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Letting off steam


Heigh-ho! It took me 24 hours, but I just saw an example of. . . irony. Here in my very own blog.
The theme of it is supposed to be boldness, genius and power and all that etc., when the truth is, I'm about as chickenhearted as they come.
Telling everyone not to make mistakes!
And rather bitterly.
But with a certain sincerity, at least in the moment.
I don't plan on quitting, just proceeding with a hard-hat on.
I DESERVE SUCCESS. I deserve it. Ha, la!
Keep on chanting it, and, Oprah-like, it will magically appear before my eyes.
Well, maybe. I have ironing to do.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Mstakes: don't make them!


For what I am about to say, may I be truly penitent. But I just have to get this out of me.
So many well-worn phrases represent philosophies that are just plain wrong. "God never gives us more than we can handle." "Everything happens for a reason." Etc.
The Holocaust, suicide, homicide, sexual violence, catastrophic oil spills that demolish wildlife and human livelihood. . . these are all part of God's sweet plan for us.
Right.
Early on in my so-called writing career, I was told, "don't be afraid to make lots of mistakes. Mistakes are a sign you're taking risks."
Correction: mistakes are proof that you are useless and incompetent. You may get away with one, but never two. It'll be the end of you. So watch your back, and don't take risks, ever.
My dream of being published for the first time came true in 2003, and at the same time my first grandchild was born. Pictures of me then show a radiantly smiling woman who looked ten years younger than her age.
The reviews were better than I could have dreamed of: nearly all were not only positive, but glowing. My publisher called me to tell me the reviews were "a miracle" (i.e., not brought about by my own work and sweat, but some sort of weird supernatural phenomenon). Then she laid it on me: my book had had the worst sales in their entire history.
It failed.
What had I done? I was not sure, but it was surely my fault: no one else was going to shoulder the blame for this, for sure.
Though I know I am inherently unlucky, it seemed the curse might be broken when the second contract came along. But gradually, I began to realize that this whole thing was going south, and there wasn't a thing I could do about it.
There were numerous problems, all tangled together, and every move I made to try to untangle them made me feel like a horse wrapped in barbed wire. Finally I just had to lie passive and let it cut me to death.
I made some mistakes, see. I did some things wrong! I didn't kowtow to the powers that be, because they did NOT have my best interests at heart. The people whom I thought were on my side turned their backs and calmly sided with the forces that were tearing me apart.
Finally I had to let go, and watch my dream sink.
There followed years of coping with profound depression and a catastrophic sense of failure. Oh, all right, we know what's going on: she's too sensitive to handle this tough business! If you can't stand the heat, and all that.
If I sound bitter and angry and devastated, yes, I am. It doesn't matter a whit, because only one person reads this blog anyway. I was driven out of my last blog by savage remarks, made by people whom I thought had been on my side and
even praised my work.
All this happened because. . . I made a mistake! I made an assumption which the others felt was ludicrously naive, or just a bald-faced lie. It seemed I had done something unforgiveable and could no longer hold up my head, so I got out of there while some of my skin was still intact.
Mistakes are dreadful, embarrassing, destructive, and often impossible to correct. They do irreversible damage, and you don't learn anything from them at all except that the world is a harsh, unforgiving place, and that sooner or later you will be crucified by the people whom you thought were your friends.
Don't make them. Trust me. You can't afford it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bad magic


If this photo seems a little misty, a little unreal, well, that's 'coz it is.
It is a chunk of my history, still bleeding and sore.
This is Park Street United Church in Chatham, Ontario, now taken over by St. Andrews, no doubt for financial reasons.
I attended this church from birth to ten
years.
When I was about six, I remember a neighbor boy saying, "There's a new minister coming. His name is Horse Burg."
He was close. The Rev. Russell Horsburgh was a man for his season, in many ways embodying the growing ferment in modern religion: social issues were bubbling up to the surface, and black people were actually starting to attend (though most of the congregation was appalled).
Most of all, Rev. Horsburgh wanted to create some new programs for the young people, who up to now had sat on their hands and yawned.
Yes. 1960: the verge of an explosion, though no one knew it at the time. We were lucky to have him, apparently, because he represented the "coming thing". He was cutting edge, just what our poky old church needed to jolt it
into life.
At first, everything went well. Hmmm - fairly well. I was six, so I didn't understand a lot of the murmurings that were going on. Some of the congregation disapproved of what Rev. Horsburgh was doing with his youth group. He was actually including kids who were "underprivileged", from "broken homes" (i.e. homes where Mom worked). At one point, to everyone's horror, he gave a series of talks on teen sexuality. No one knew how to stop him.
I only remember a few things, but they really stand out: a friend of my Dad called him a "psychopath" (a word I wasn't familiar with, and only understood in retrospect). My mother once murmured to her friend, "They found empty bottles in the basement, and cigarette butts. . . and worse." Only in retrospect did I realize the reference must have been to condoms.
So the young people were having sex in the basement? Evidently.
I remember also leaving choir practice and heading for my Dad's car. I saw several very inebriated teenage boys lurching around and saying things like, "Hey, where's the booze?" "You're alreadly plastered!" "Hey, Boozy Bozo." "Where's the Rev?" "Let's have one for the Rev."
Another time, on Sunday morning, the Rev suddenly exploded and began to rant about "mechanical men". "We're all mechanical men. Who wants to be a mechanical man?" he repeated, pointing his finger around the sanctuary.
The strangest thing of all was a church bulletin, usually typed out and mimeographed by the church secretary. But this one had a whole page covered with x's, blotted out. My brother Walt, 20 years old and a total cynic, held the page up to the window and began to read what it said: a quote from Martin Luther's infamous
tirade.
"I understand that this is the week for the church collection, and many of you do not want to give a thing. You ungrateful people should be ashamed of yourselves. . . I am sorry I ever freed you from the tyrants and the papists. You ungrateful beasts, you are not worthy of the treasure of the gospel. If you don't improve, I will stop preaching rather than cast pearls before swine."
Signed: Martin Luther
Russell Horsburgh
Obviously, something bad was going on. Bad bad. Before long, the villagers with the flaming torches closed in. Horsburgh was eventually convicted of encouraging sexual activity among minors, and sentenced to a year in jail. He got out after a few months, and gradually a pro-Horsburgh faction began to grow.
By the time he died in 1971, he had become something of a hero, a misunderstood saint who was only trying to help those poor kids learn about birth control. Or something.
I remember a frightening man who became increasingly hostile and paranoid. Did he do all the things he was accused of? I don't know. I only know I didn't want to go to church any more because he scared the hell out of me.
Seeing this picture of Park Street United (I almost wrote "Untied") woke up feelings from decades back. I googled around for Chatham sites, and even the names of streets made the hair on my arms stand up. I had buried so much.
Rev. Horsburgh became a character in my second novel Mallory, only this time he was purely evil and corrupt. Perhaps something in my soul needed to see him
that way.
A few years ago, the church I was attending was ripped off by a fraud, a minister who had no real credentials and no pastor's heart. He was a travelling salesman who had already ruined other congregations: so why didn't we find out before we hired him?
It hurt me, gored me, because I had already been hurt in this vulnerable place as a young child. I was six. Why was it happening again?

Why are people so stupid about religion?
What sick needs are met, or not met, by this casual manipulation of power? For I have never known a minister who didn't need power.
Why do I still long to find a place, an oasis, a spring in the wilderness that will quench my agonizing thirst?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Ig-pay Atin-lay

Jesus, I was happy to find this:
a whole site about "Latin Phrases in Common Usage in English". Not Latin as in Latino, i.e. Desi Arnaz, Tony Orlando, Geraldo, and, well, you get my drift, but Latin Latin, the one we all sent up in school. Oot-fray Oops-lay.
I was good at Latin. I think the year I excelled at Latin was the last year it was ever taught.
It's just so cool. You can figure out root words from it, like, well. . . capybara or something.
There were a million or so phrases here, so I just took a yellow highlighter to some of the neat-o ones. So now it's time to play. . . GUESS THE LATIN PHRASE!
I'll give the real answer, then you can give your lame, inaccurate one. Does that seem fair?
OK, Phrase 1: A Posteriori. Well, what does that mean, class? Yes! That's right! Somebody's bum, probably a very fat one. Call Jenny Craig.
Annus Bisextus. This is either leap year, or the year we leap into bisexual activity and end up on Oprah pushing a scandalous memoir.
Here's one. Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus. This has something to do with Harry Potter, and we don't like mega-sellers, so we'll leave it alone.
Homo nudus cum nuda iacebat. This might be erotic without the iacebat, which is about as sexy as wombat.
I'll group the next two, even though they have nothing in common: In Nubibus, and In Pontificalibus. This may be the origin of Supercalifragilistic, etc.
Ipse Dixit. Drinking out of a Dixie cup.
Membrum Virile. Too obvious.
Mitto Tibi Navem Prora Puppique Carentem. What the hell? This qualifies as "common useage"? By whom, some sociopathic professor who never goes out of his study?
Vita Mutatur, non tollitur. This has something to do with mutation into something you can't tolerate. Or maybe it's your dog.
Add up your score, now!
Seventeen: Go to the head of the class!
Four: Good effort.
1/2: What the fuck is wrong with you?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why I quit AA





The Tyranny of God's Will: Why I Quit AA

The other day I was lurking around in the children’s section of my favorite bookstore, trying to figure out what a four-year-old grandgirl might want for her birthday. Flipping through the $30 board books and propaganda about toilet training and environmentalism, I heard someone call my name.

I looked up. Oh, hi, Jim. Oh, I’m doing OK. Yes, really. Just doing a little shopping here. No, really, I’m OK. How are you?

It’s hard to be looked at with a mixture of embarrassment and pity, but that’s what I was seeing in Jim’s eyes. Clearly he didn’t want to run into me, as he had been making certain assumptions: that I had either “gone back out” and was drinking again, or else was in such a state of “dry drunk” rampage that I was making myself and everyone around me miserable.

Welcome to the wonderful world of an ex-AA. As with an ex-con, the sense of ensnarement never ends, at least not without a Velcro ripping-away and endless guilt.

There was a time when I needed AA like I needed to breathe. Yes, I am a real alcoholic, and I didn’t fully realize it until I crawled into a meeting on my belly in 1990. Scared sober, I became enmeshed in an organization that quickly took over my life. Moreover, the more embroiled I became, the greater the praise heaped upon me. If I went to a meeting every day, I was a “good” AA member; more than once per day, and I was a spiritual giant.

It’s often said at meetings that you never graduate. This might be OK if I at least had a sense of moving on to another level, but this is discouraged. People with 20 years sober are supposed to say at meetings (whether they feel it or not) that they are at exactly the same level as the newcomers, and are only one drink away from disaster.

I agree with this part: I’ll never be safe to drink again, and I’d better not forget it. After years and years of having this fact jackhammered into my head, I think I’ve accepted it (for after all, “acceptance is the answer to all my problems today”).

From the very beginning, I was disturbed by certain pervasive beliefs in the organization. Conformity is one. Don’t ever speak outside the pre-set AA rhetoric, or other people will assume you’re not doing it right, fighting the mighty and immutable truths of sobriety. There is such a thing as AA dogma, often promoted by what is called the elder statesmen: one elderly man, a veteran of World War II, came to the same meeting at noon every day (supplementing it with evening meetings nearly every night) and talked at length about The War. He talked about The War as it applied to AA, of course, about how he drank his way through the horrors of the battlefield (who wouldn’t?), came home to a wrecked life, and began to set himself straight on the Road of Happy Destiny.

I can’t begrudge an old man the comfort and safety of sobriety, but why do exactly the same dynamics have to apply to a 15-year-old kid? In AA, one size fits all, and if it doesn’t fit, YOU are made to fit yourself to it. If you ever hear a criticism, it’s always couched in terms of “well, I used to object to this and that” (I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see). But glory hallelujah, now I see the light.

The 12 steps, forged in the ‘30s by a failed stockbroker and an inebriated doctor, are all about breaking the will, surrender, and absolute reliance on God “as we understood Him”. Though the founders were in some ways quite spiritually evolved, leaving the door open to diverse interpretations of the divine, the actual practice of the program involves the God of Sunday school and revival meetings and “that old-time religion”. As usual, the practice is light-years removed from the original text.

We constantly hear things like “ninety meetings in ninety days”, “it works if you work it”, and reams of other cute sayings (my favorite of many acronyms: sober stands for “son-of-a-bitch, everything’s real!”). None of these are found in the main text of Alcoholics Anonymous, usually known as the Big Book. Though many members preface everything with “the Big Book says”, their interpretations are often pretty far off the actual content.

But that’s not what made me quit.

Though there was one defining crisis that caused the actual split, there had been a steady accumulation of episodes that disturbed me. No one seemed to be willing to talk to me about any of this, as they were too busy going on and on about humility, surrender and the “incredible journey”. (Many AA members I knew literally had no friends or even business associates outside the program, and had brought their spouses and children on-board. Those who didn’t usually ended up divorced: AA widows abound, and affairs rage in spite of the organization’s unrealistically pure motives.)

Item: I was a couple of years in, doing well, stable, sober, and going to five or six meetings a week. Anything that bothered me about AA and its principles was relegated to some sort of seething pit of doubt that was without question my fault, due to my arrogance, lack of surrender and refusal to absolutely rely on God.

For you see, “everything happens for a reason”, everything happens “the way it’s supposed to happen”. (When my son’s roommate was savagely kicked to death outside a bar, an AA member I knew said it was “all part of God’s plan.”) You hear this at nearly every meeting. Though I didn’t voice my objection, because you don’t do that at meetings, this seemed like passivity to me. “Self-will run riot” was the ultimate evil, but it often seemed that having any individual will at all was somewhere between a sin and a crime.

My friend Louise told me this story: she had been horribly abused as a child, bullied by a sexual tyrant who was now beginning to abuse his grandchildren. As she sat around a campfire meeting, an exclusive club in which your deepest feelings were expected to be revealed, she finally shared the agonizing decision she had made: “I’m going to lay charges against my Dad.”

There was a brief, embarrassed silence, followed by this from the meeting’s ringleader: “Louise. . . I believe you have a resentment.”

There followed a long discussion (or rather, a series of uninterrupted soliloquys: AA doesn’t do “cross-talk”) about how Louise had to surrender, let go of her anger, forgive. This was what she “should” do. I met her several months later and asked her how she was doing. “Much better. I’ve left the program. I was tired of twisting myself into a pretzel.”

Another episode, even more harrowing, involved a young woman who had been systematically tortured by her father. Her sponsor told her she must pray for the person who abused her, and wish for him everything she would want for herself. If she forced herself to keep doing this for long enough, she would actually want these things for him and feel mercy and forgiveness towards him. She was also told during her Step 5 (the confessional step) that she must always look for her part in everything that ever happened to her. She wrenched her brain around trying to figure out what her part was in being sodomized at five.

She stood up at the meeting, looking fragile as glass, with tears running down her face. “I just don’t know how to make amends to my Dad. My sponsor says I’ll feel so much better if I do. But I feel like killing myself. I guess I’m just a lousy AA member. This is supposed to work! I’m not supposed to feel this way. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”

I would have talked to her after the meeting (God knows what I would have said) except that a phalanx of members swarmed her afterwards, eager to make her case fit the unquestioned (and unquestionable) model. I wonder what happened, if she ended up like Hannah whose background was similar. Unable to endure what had happened to her, she committed suicide. Members talked about “people with grave emotional and mental disorders”, and carried on.

If I am painting AA too darkly, if I am leaving out the tremendous compassion I found at those early meetings, then I apologize. But as time went on, I found I couldn’t keep the dogma fresh. Except for some of the stories in the back, the Big Book has not changed since its first printing 70-some years ago. What other self-help program wouldn’t update itself in so many decades?

What about all the discoveries we’ve made about family dynamics, about heredity, about mental illness? What about issues of race, of gender, of sexual orientation? (There are a few “gay AA” meetings in which members are held in quarantine. But in the general assembly they have to keep their mouths shut. I once saw a man at an open meeting refer to coming out, prompting an old geezer to literally stomp out of the meeting saying, “I didn’t know this was a meeting for fags.”) No, it’s all swept into the great gulf: obviously the program “works if you work it”, so why make any changes?

But I have come to believe that if the program works, it is because people sublimate their individuality, their power to differ, discern and object. The fact that the 12 steps have been applied to every addiction and disorder in existence alarms me, as if the steps truly are the holy grail of recovery, unassailable, irreplaceable, and beyond question.

My irritability mounting as the years went on, I finally hit a real crisis in 2005. I had suffered from some kind of psychiatric disorder all my life, and in spite of years of good remission I feared a return, but was repeatedly told in AA that it would never bother me again if I stayed sober and constantly relied on God. It was obvious to them (though not to me) that it had all been caused by the demon alcohol.

I secretly took two drugs to control my whatever-it-is (and in all that time I’d never had a correct diagnosis, because the psychiatric system is so incompetent, abusive and full of shit that it deserves to be torn down forever). Suddenly I learned over the ‘net that both these drugs had been recalled at the same time. My doctor had no idea this had happened. So I was left with a choice: try something new, as my doctor recommended, or go “drug free”, as all my AA friends had been urging me to do.

My first reaction was a huge flush of euphoria, of tremendous energy, and an eerie turning back of the clock. I had never had so many compliments about my appearance: I looked ten years younger! Looking back on photos of that time, my eyes were like pinwheels and I was constantly beaming, but apparently no one thought there was anything wrong with this.

Oh, and the compliments on finally being “clean”! “Oh, thank God you’re finally off all that stuff.” “I knew you could do it!” “See, you don’t need to lean on pills because you have God in your life.”

My sleep was whittled down slowly, but by the time I was down to two hours, strange things were starting to happen. In deep hypnosis (by a friend who didn’t know what he was doing), I had an encounter with the Divine that was completely shattering. Almost at the cost of my life, I learned that “meeting God” isn’t at all peaceful or pleasant. The ancient belief that we will die if we see God face-to-face turned out to be true.

The sickening free-fall that followed, the dive into a depression that pushed me below ground, is beyond my powers to describe. It was three years before I began to feel like a human being again. I am now on five drugs and have finally found a decent, competent psychiatrist on the recommendation of a friend. I no longer take medical advice from people who aren’t doctors or try to “heal myself” on milk thistle or coffee grounds But when I think how close I came to giving up and committing suicide, it makes me shudder.

AA did not help me during the most harrowing time of my life. All I got was more unhelpful rhetoric. I wasn’t surrendering, I wasn’t practicing the principles, I wasn’t adhering to the tenet of “no mind-altering substances” (another thing that’s not in the Big Book, but often “quoted” by members with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other).

In other words, it was my lack of commitment that had made this happen. Almost everyone assumed I had “slipped” and was drinking again (which I wasn't – I had a healthy terror of the stuff by then). At first it was subtle, but then I felt roped off, excluded, unable to strike up a conversation with anyone. I stood in the crowd after meetings looking at a lot of turned backs. Even my sponsor always seemed to be busy.

I had been a loyal, sober member of the program for 15 years.

It didn’t really occur to me, because I had been so thoroughly indoctrinated, that there were other, equally effective ways to be peacefully sober. So I ventured out. I rediscovered a close friend who had also dropped out, and we compared notes. I began to realize that in any other case, if a human being were relentlessly exposed to the same simplistic information over and over and over again, it would be reasonable to assume they “got it” and wouldn’t need any more exposure. Do we go to Sunday school until we’re 47? Do we need to have the Golden Rule blasted into our ears by loudspeaker every morning?

OK, I realize that if AA no longer means what it used to, I don’t have to attend. But the guilt still sometimes jabs at me like pinpricks, even two years after I left. The pity in Jim’s eyes, the sense of “oh, she’s going to fly apart at any minute” was palpable. In his view, there is simply no way that an alcoholic can ever stay sober and be happy and productive (though the program is not very big on “productive” and even seems to discourage normal ambition) without relentless exposure to the principles of the program.

I hope I don’t drink again, but I know there is no guarantee I won’t. I am profoundly committed to the sober life. I do appreciate what I was able to learn from my many years in AA, but I don’t think I’ll attend meetings again unless my view changes or I find myself in a dangerously slippery place. And if I do, I will not expect “fellowship” or any kind of a welcome. I can imagine what they would think if they saw me again: some smug or even pitying version of “I told you so”.

I no longer see AA recovery as real recovery: as with “that old-time religion”, no one questions the tenets, assuming they are infallible. Longtime members creep me out. They are broken records of recovery, parrots fed on the same bland diet, grateful to be huddling together in a place where everyone accepts them and nothing ever changes.

But that’s not life. Things don’t stand still except in old Jimmy Cagney movies, forever frozen in time. Life necessitates constant adaptation to change which is often unexpected, wrenching and unwelcome. But we are not taught that in AA. We are taught to rely absolutely on God “as we understood Him”, to believe that everything happens for a reason. When adversity hits, we’re told it’s “all in God’s plan”.

If this is so, then I think I’ll make a plan of my own.


Hey, if you're not cool enough to know what Mad Men is, why are you reading this?








Let us now praise famous men. Famous men like Jon Hamm. I don't care if he has a silly name. Where has he been all my life?

Jon Hamm is one of those actors who was sleeping in a pupa for 10 years before finding the role that not only defines him, but a whole era. The show's executive producer Matt Weiner has been quoted as saying, "Mad Men IS Jon Hamm."

Watching the show is like the Time Tunnel or something. I step across the thresshold into the wonderful land of Ahhhhhhhs. Period details don't just leap out at me, they jab me: the "Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy" TV campaign jingle I hadn't heard since I was five; the "High Flight" TV signoff while Pete Campbell was screwing an anonymous sweet patootie (with her elderly mother on the other side of a folding door); Don Draper's little kids running around with dry cleaning bags over their heads.

I could go into all the machinations and intrigues of the advertising agency Sterling Cooper, but let's not, shall we? Recently they canned art director Sal Romano, my next-to-Don favorite, maybe for being gay or too nice or something. Meantime, Don trudges on. At the end of the third season, his company has disintegrated, his wife has run off with some ugly-looking Senator whom she doesn't love, and he has run out of Lucky Strikes for the third time today.

There is a weirdness about Mad Men (i. e. Robert Morse as the eccentric company Zen master, Bertram Cooper: where have we seen him before? He starred in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in the early '60s, perfect period timing, not to mention Mad Men irony), a sense that, in spite of all the deja vu, we've never quite covered this territory before. A man can get his foot run over by a John Deere tractor during a drunken office party (causing the cynical Roger Sterling to quip, "It's like Iwo Jima out there"). A thick-headed husband can get brained with a vase. But most of all. . . most of all, we can spend some quality time with Don.

Don has many faces, the hardened masked face of the office, the creased-brow expression during the numerous boyhood flashbacks (the only part of the show I really detest), the softer face when he is with his kids (and in spite of being emotionally crippled, he really does love his kids), the roughed-up, carnivorous, rrrrrrrrArrrrrrw! face when he's in bed with some woman (a different woman every week). Yes, in bed he's a whole 'nother guy. Every once in a while, he even screws his wife. God, what a body, and he has that good man-smell that somehow mysteriously comes across on the screen. (Men either smell good - George Clooney, Harrison Ford - or they don't - Matthew McConnaghey, Brad Pitt). Just enough hair, and a build that is devastating but somehow doesn't call attention to itself.

So what would it be like to have sex with Don Draper? Has he read the Kinsey Report? (I don't mean that loser guy in the office.) Does he know what a clitoris is? Does he, "you know"? Do "everything", as Elaine used to say on Seinfeld? They can't show too much, of course. But it's implied. "I might scream," one of his conquests, a naive young school teacher, gasps. "Don't," Don replies. Another time, well, he ties someone up, but she deserves it because she's such a slut.

And what is Jon Hamm reallyreally like? The photos I see show a goofier person, his smile a little too broad. A person who can't quite believe his good fortune at being famous, at having a really juicy and challenging part at last (and according to legend, he spent a whole decade as a waiter). I think he's probably pretty hyper. But seems to have one steady girlfriend, un-Draperlike. He gave a long interview for the Advocate, and for a moment I was heartbroken, afraid it was maybe Sal he loved all along. But then they mentioned the girl friend, and everything was all right again.

Maybe. (But who is she?? I'll scratch her eyes out!)

The thing about Jon Hamm is that he is a somewhat more rugged version of Anthony Perkins in his youth. Perkins had a sort of supernatural beauty before age and AIDS withered him up into an old walnut. Hamm naturally has a sort of GQ look, that "I was born to wear a tux" aura that is so rare in men. Cary Grant had it, but I've never felt any sort of attraction to him (in spite of the fact that he was probably also a good-smelling man, if gay).

So how does JH smell? A hint of warm sandalwood; some aftershave remeniscent of Old Spice; a neutral deodorant we can't name; a soupcon of bourbon, but maybe from yesterday; Lucky Strikes, not the smoke but the unburned shreds of tobacco with its golden, molasses-y scent; fine quality wool; leather jacket worn earlier today; clean shirt, with the man-smell just barely sifting through.

Sheer torture.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Let's slip away, shall we?


OK, was everything really brown then? Like it is right here?
I don't remember it being brown, but then, I was sitting in the middle of the floor sucking my fist (and come to think of it, I was probably sitting on something brown). Shadows of those early memories still pass across my neurons. They went like this: "SEE the real coffee flavor." "SMELL the real coffee flavor." "TASTE the real coffee flavor."
When I see these things again, and I just saw a slew of them on a not-very-good DVD compilation (too much repetition: do we really need 15 ads with Mr. Whipple squeezing the Charmin, or '60s color ads so degenerated you can't tell what they're selling?), it shakes something loose. I have a reaction. Maybe infantile,
I don't know.
When I saw that classic Maxwell House ad with the coffee percolator, geez, I could smell the goddamn coffee. It's probably the most brilliant ad ever made: starts with a very close shot of the top of a "coffee perc" (the only way to make it then), with that sound to represent the percolation, a sort of coconut-shell melody in irresistable intervals. The type of jingle that fries itself into your brain.
Then the voice-over telling us we WANT TO SMELL and TASTE that coffee. A shot of a very wide, round white cup on a saucer, surrounded by a lot of empty space, slowly being filled.
Then, total genius: a shot of someone picking up the cup and bringing it up to their lips, so that the steaming black coffee gradually fills the entire frame.
I won't tell you the rest. Lots of repetition. The use of circles (ask Walt Disney: that's why everyone loves Mickey Mouse). Clean, uncluttered images. Simplicity. This ad is fucking incredible, and I watched it maybe five or six times, then made my husband watch it while he shook his head at me.
Oh, and then! There were others. "Meet the Swinger, Polaroid Swinger." This was probably the first instant camera. They were "only nineteen dollars, and ninety-five". I don't know if I had one of these, or my brother did. The ad had Ali McGraw in it before she was anyone, and the camera ate her alive. I remember how you had to pull off a disgusting layer of goopy plastic film when the picture had developed, and the warnings not to get it on your skin.
Then this, oh yes: "It's new! It's now! It's flash cube!" This was an incredible invention that allowed you to take four pictures before you had to change the bulb.
Gear.
Beer tabs. This was announced as the greatest invention since the wheel. No more need for those pointy openers (all right, I know you've never seen one). You just - watch this - zip this strip off the top. The woman was left holding a 3-inch, curved, razor-sharp blade. People later reported ripping their feet open on these things. It took the industry a while to get them right. Once they were made smaller, people dropped them inside the can, then swallowed them. You can imagine.
Oh, and this was maybe my favorite. I love those old bubble-shaped cars out of the '40s, what I call Popeye and Bluto cars, bulbous and low-slung. Huge, by today's
standards.
By the '50s, cars had turned ugly. O-o-o-o-o-gg-leeee. I don't know how they ever got so ugly, and fins began to develop and gradually enlarge like mutant
appendages.
I sat through an awful lot of these ads, but the one that made me bark with disbelief was one that began, "They'll know you've arrived - when you drive up in the 1958 EDSEL!"
For those too young to know, Edsel was the white elephant of the car industry. Named after Edsel Pretzelgruber, it was considered to be a can't-fail deal.
Nobody bought it, and no wonder. This car was ugly enough to scare your mother. Enough said.
I liked this one. It was called Slip Away, and at first I thought it was sort of like Pam. It was an aerosol that you sprayed all over your frying pans to make food slide off. But something strange was going on here. You had to bake them in the oven for half an hour. Yes. Bake them. The coating would stay on "for months", though they later described it as permanent.
Well, we know why: the spray was made of Teflon. That's right. In those couple of months, your family would eat the Teflon right along with their fried Spam. This gave a whole new meaning to "permanent".
Various celebs popped up, and most of them were boring, but there were some incredible 15-second spots for Hefty Bags starring Jonathan Winters. These were weirdly funny, like Winters, but most of all they extolled the marvels and obvious virtues of plastic bags.
They were all good! And they kept the place clean and sanitary. This philosophy caught on too well, to the point that we're now having a spot of trouble keeping the planet clean.
Another fave little chuckle: in an ad for Bounty paper towels, a woman's trying to get some ketchup to come out of the traditional glass bottle, and it sprays all over the place. "Ohhhhh! I wish someone would invent ketchup that goes where you want it
to."
Well, dear, hm, yah, maybe, just maybe they've done that, but at what cost? Billions of plastic ketchup bottles sitting for centuries in landfills.
But a small price to pay for hitting that hot dog bang-on.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"AND. . they are mild"





In case you've been wondering where I've been over the past few days (for I am sure my hordes of readers will be worried about me), I've been trying to pull myself out of a funk of non-writing, based not so much on the work itself as the miserable process of trying to get it noticed.

So I'll do something else for a change! Something besides ordering Minnie Mouse panties (size 4 - they're not for me) or out-of-print books or cheap DVD sets on-line.

Ah. Cheap DVD sets. This takes me to an orgy I allowed myself to indulge in yesterday, with deep regret later: I think I watched about a billion ads on a 3 DVD set called 1001 Classic Commercials (and I haven't even looked at Disc 3).

These weren't as fascinating as I'd hoped. I love old ads - maybe it's the reason I watch Mad Men with such fervor (that, and Don Draper's magnificent body, often depicted half-nude). The reason being, this was a very sloppily-compiled set. Ads were slapped on the discs with very little care for the quality. Ironically, the '50s ads were often in pristine condition, in the kind of crisp black-and-white I enjoy in old movies.

The ads from the mid- to late '60s were atrocious, barely discernible in the blur of neon orange. You have to wonder what happens to color film over the years, if it rots or melts or what. I skipped over these very quickly. They never should have been included.

Ads are a-spose-ta tell us everything about a culture at any particular moment. Aren't they? Women all seemed to want to look like Donna Reed, her blonde puffed helmet hard enough to repel schrapnel. One hair spray ad claimed that "your hair will still feel like hair", as if that were an aberration. Men's hair products were simply disgusting, rendering a decent head of hair into a slick of oily black sludge full of comb-tracks. Supposedly, women loved this: "they'll love to run their fingers through your hair!" Eeeiiiicccccchhhhhhhhk-k-k-k.

I didn't realize before how obsessed these early ads were with proper meals, nutrition through the warped lens of the 1950s. The words "wholesome" and "nutritious" popped up everywhere. Vitamins were mentioned constantly. There were modern-day wonders like canned zucchini (hmm, what's a zucchini?) and Tropi-Kai Mixed Hawaiian Fruits (? Probably another variation on fruit cocktail. Mmmmmm, those gaudy red maraschino cherries.)

"Eat well. . . but wisely," the authoratative male voice-over advises us. Right. Jell-o was nutritious, apparently, as was every kind of sugary cereal (all made in Battle Creek, Michigan - oh, how I remember sending away those box tops for a plastic fire engine!). This strange guy, a nutritionist called Euell Gibbon, told us that all sorts of bizarre things were edible (holding a cat-tail in his hand), then said he loved Grape Nuts. Did no one else see the irony?

No one knew how to pronounce "protein": it was "PRO-tee-an" (a term no doubt conflated - remember that term, boys and girls? - with "protean"). This was a whole different shoe size. What sort of yearning was lurking under the glossy surface? You judge.

Then came the creme de la creme of astonishing advertising: the cigarette commercial. All these had very catchy jingles, and mostly depicted young people running along beaches with dogs. "Kent. . . satisfies best," "Come all the way up to Kool", "Winston tastes good like a (bop-bop) cigarette should." This one has become infamous on the 'net because of a cartoon ad of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble smoking in the back yard while their wives slave away at the yard work. At the end of the show Fred lights Wilma's cigarette while he sings the jingle wildly off-key, and she takes a luxurious drag. The shot of Bedrock at night while the credits roll is overwhelmed by a giant sign that says "WINSTON". Can't hurt the little buggers, can it?

Camels brag that they send hundreds of thousands of FREE cigarettes to veteran's hospitals every year. Hospitals. Where most of the men lie dying of cancer? Denial was rife in the ads, constantly mentioning how mild and easy on the throat these sticks of dynamite were. Some were even recommended by doctors. A particularly tough and virile man (and most of the men were tough and virile, no pansy-ass fags here) claimed, "It's a treat, not a treatment."

Anyway, the cigarette ads put me in a stupor after a while, so I had to dwell on something else: the odd popping up of celebs, some of whom were not yet famous. Gene Wilder (his nebbishy voice unmistakeable) did two voice-overs, one for Alka-Selzer ("Ah! The blahs!"). Alan Arbus, the psychiatrist on M*A*S*H showed up. I swear I heard Mel Blanc's voice more than once (the Frito Bandito?).

The brilliant Buster Keaton, a man who worked constantly until his death at nearly 70, did a perilous pratfall backwards off a platform, making us wonder how he ever survived.

Jack Gilford did his charming thing ("When it comes to Crackerjack, some kids never grow up"). A very drunk Arthur Godfrey did a Lipton's Chicken Soup ad as part of his show (for in the past, hosts had to do the ads). "The chicken is there. You might not see it, but it's there."

After a while the whole thing was a blur of impressions, some of which I remembered from my childhood: "Gaylord, when you pull his leash he walkety-walkety-walks with you (arf, arf!)". "Mystery Date". Lucy and Desi, looking at each other fondly and smoking. Sugar Bear sounding like Dean Martin. A toy called the Great Garloo, some sort of remote-control robot on a long cord. And oh, Chatty Cathy. The doll from hell!

You can't see the angst and despair. But it's there.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Why did I keep this? Oh well. . .


Sometimes I'm like, I mean. I'm like, and he's like, and I'm. An icon, I mean. Iconic.
There. Now that I've got(ten) that out of my system. . . 'Jever wonder why it's so hard to throw some things out?
Like the bouquet from your wedding or something, now withered into a crumbling yellow horror with cobwebs and life forms living in it?
Hey?
So here's mine, what I can't throw out. Old columns. I started writing columns for teeny community newspapers in the mid-'80s, and soon became hooked. I kept them all. I was afraid, if I didn't, I would disappear (or at least the writing would).
I have kept everything I've ever written for publication. Over 25 years of weeklies, not to mention all the dailies and magazines, that's not just hundreds - it's thousands.


Okaysothen. So then, my best friend, the sister of my soul, the sister I never had coz my own sister is a poisonous banshee (and I hope she reads this!), the sister God sent me when I was about to fall apart, is going through a hard time about her high school reunion. She phoned me about it the other day.
Say the words "high school reunion" to the average sane person, and it will have about the same effect as the word "biopsy". It is not a good thing.

For you will see all the thrivers still thriving, or pretending to. Everyone else will have died, or won't show up.
Myself, I am sure nobody would remember me. Jeez, four years of my life! I was a cipher who drank on the weekends and attracted 35-year-old married men. A freak.
I got a whole novel out of it, Mallory (Turnstone Press - I'm afraid you'll have to get it used).
But in this crumbling old column, I played it for laughs. I can't find any other way to transcribe it except to take a quill pen and run it between my legs (oops) and write the damn thing out. But here it is, Margaret Gunning's Between the Lines, published in the Hinton Parklander on October 28, 1986.
Do you remember her?
She was the girl who sat in front of you in high school - the one with the long, straight blonde hair that always looked like something out of a shampoo commercial.
She also had a model's figure, a pert name (something like Pammie or Casey), perfect teeth, hundreds of friends, a Corvette, and a straight-A average. And oh, yes - she was head cheerleader in her spare time.
You don't remember her? Well, maybe you remember him. Roddie played the romantic lead in all the high school musical productions. (They didn't just pick him for his looks. He also had perfect pitch.) He was a pretty busy guy - captain of the football team, head of the debating club, president of Student's Council - so it was a wonder he ever found time to go out with that blonde-haired chick who sat in front of you.
But he did, every Saturday night. You'd see them together at all the dances - Pammie and Roddie, the dream couple of Everywhere High. Two perfect smiles, without the benefit of braces - and nary a zit between them.
One of my favorite activities in high school was dreaming up sadistic futures for these two. You see, I was one of those girls with a "nice personality", which meant I spent most of my time sitting by the phone and praying it would ring. It's not that I was jealous of them. Oh, no. Why should it bother me that they seemed to have every human advantage ever invented?
But sometimes I would get a little bored during science class, a little sick of staring at that perfect platinum waterfall of hair in front of me. When I wasn't devising sneaky ways to stick a wad of gum on the back of Pammie's chair (so that her fabulous tresses would get stuck the minute she leaned back), my mind would start to drift.
I'd dream that Pammie finally married Roddie, and on the first day of their honeymoon they'd discover they couldn't stand each other. Pammie would break out in a hideous red rash whenever she looked at him. And Roddie? The minute the honeymoon was over, he'd start making advances to his secretary.
From then on, things would deteriorate. Pammie's mother would move in with them and start cooking rich, greasy, fattening meals that would ruin Pammie's pert little figure within six months. Roddie would get caught up in some crooked investment scheme and be thrown in jail. They'd lose their home and have to move in with Roddie's mother (who made Pammie's mom look like Julia Child).
Meanwhile, their seven children (aged eight to fourteen) would all become juvenile delinquents.
Ah, me - the sweet fantasies of youth! Do you want to know what really happened to this golden couple, this Barbie and Ken of my teens?
I'll tell you. They've been happily married for the past 15 years, with a lovely home in a nice quiet suburb. Roddie is a corporate lawyer, and Pammie is a clinical psychologist. Their income allows them to take nice little jaunts to Europe every summer while their 2.2 children (who both have perfect teeth) stay home with their live-in nanny.
Pammie still has that long, straight blonde hair like something out of a shampoo commercial. She weighs the same as in high school, and can still fit into her cheerleader outfit. And Roddie has become even handsomer with age. Sort of like Paul Newman.
Is this fair? Of course not. But neither was high school.
So, I've decided I'm never going to go to my class reunion.
Or if I do, I might just accidentally leave a wad of well-chewed Juicy Fruit on the back of Pammie's chair. . .