Thursday, March 26, 2015

Coffee Break

Eli, my coat and me cooling off in the "Stripey Hole" at
Eastern State Penitentiary 
"Wow, that is an orange jacket." The check-out lady at the IGA, commenting on my raincoat. I stopped in to buy a coffee on my way to a meeting.

The jacket is orange, but not obnoxiously. More like pumpkin soup than a traffic cone. People comment on the color frequently. Enough for me to have a prepared response.

"Right, I rarely get shot at when I’m wearing it." This flippant statement will seem incongruous to most readers. I expect this. I grew up in a close-in Washington, DC suburb. As an adult, I relocated into the city. Orange as a safety device is not understood by city folk. But ten years ago, I moved to this rural setting. In my new town, hunting is a popular sport.

I own three coats. A heavy winter coat, worn a handful of times each year – on very cold days when I'm outside for long periods – sledding with my kids, on snowy hikes, at the New Year's Eve fireworks. A mid-weight fleece jacket for all other cold weather occasions, layered over sweaters or flannel, depending on my destination. And my raincoat. Which, besides being orange, is completely waterproof, even in summer-time cloud-bursting thunderstorms. Primarily though, I wear it as a windbreaker. My go-to jacket for any weather that doesn't involve frozen precipitation or woolen caps.

As the cashier gives me my change, she says "Well, I like it anyway." I walk out into the early-spring morning wondering if I received a complement.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Broke on Through

Jim Morrison – right, the singer from the Doors. They're on my mind recently. Specifically, it's Morrison that is on my mind. I read a Jim Morrison quote about fear, and that got me started. It's been more than a month, and I'm still on-topic. Still mulling it over. We have a long history, the Doors and me. Hooked in 1978, at age sixteen. Their self-titled debut always on my turntable. It's practically a greatest hits album. Like many bands, many artists, their first published work is their best. The stuff good enough to get the world's attention. After their debut album, their library is spotty. Some songs are good, some great, and a lot of crap. Crap like Crystal Ship and The End – two cuts they should have left off of the first album. Back in those days, before everything was digital, there was effort involved in skipping songs.

The quote: “Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” It's a nice quote. Accurate, but over-simplified. Step-one in a long road to overcoming phobia. But at least it is a step. Morrison's image was being in control, worry-free. He liked to appear above the concerns of the ordinary. Uncaring about what people thought of him. Part of this persona was that he was better than everyone else. This quote plays right into this image. He is free because he is unafraid. He faces his fears head on.

The word often used to describe Morrison is narcissistic. When listening to his lyrics, reading his poetry, reviewing interviews with him, this is an easy assumption to make. Self-centered, it's all about him. When looking at photos taken of him during his heyday, he is brimming with confidence. He loves himself, or so it seems.

I'm not a Doors scholar. I'm more of a fan. I've read the popular biography “No One Here Gets Out Alive.” I own the DVD of the movie “The Doors” based on that book. And I listen to the music, but not in an analytical way. But I'm enough of a fan to have opinions about Morrison. I embrace the criticism that he was sophomoric, that his 'deep lyrics’ were adolescent. But at times the Doors really gelled. Morrison had a strong voice, well-suited to the rocking-blues his band played so well. They left a legacy of some phenomenal music, and Morrison, despite his silly Lizard-King image, was a person of some depth. He reminds me of myself.

I've never read anything about Jim Morrison suffering from social anxiety. The Doors are an old group and Social Anxiety Disorder is a new term. But this disorder is as old as humanity. Essentially, a socially anxious person is overly concerned with others' perceptions. So concerned, that they develop behavior patterns and personality traits to minimize their anxiety. Shy, awkward, weird, aloof. These are adjectives often applied to the socially anxious. Another common adjective is 'drunk.' These days, there are safe medications to help overcome social anxiety symptoms. But throughout the years, many found relief in alcohol and drugs. They still do today. I should say we still do.

Morrison's quote about facing fear is a give-away. His tell. He overcompensates. He is too confident. The iconic image of him, shot by Joel Brodsky, a photo steeped in Jesus imagery, shows a man who is so present, it's eerie. His focus on the camera is intense. He seems to be seeing the soul of the photographer – or the viewer – of the picture. This is part of what makes the photo so great. And it plays a lasting role in Morrison's image as a direct, confident person. But this is the same Morrison who was so over-come with stage-fright, he was unable to face the audience as he performed. Initially needing to sing facing his band-mates, his back to the crowd. Later, singing to the audience, but making sure he was seriously f***ed up every time on stage.

I never met Jim Morrison; I was six when he died. And I'm not a mental health professional. My only qualifications and expertise on diagnosing this disorder stem from my own experiences. Possibly, I'm over thinking this – a habit of mine. Looking for deeper meaning where none exists. But as they say, “my blog, my opinion.” My teenage and young adult behavior mirrors Morrison's so closely, you would think he was my role model. I feel like I knew him. Or at least I know how he felt in this world. Socially awkward and self-conscious when sober, out-going and confident when drunk or high. Like Morrison, I was a daily drunk, and I was a confident person. Over-confident, in fact, sometimes to the point of being obnoxious. But during this period, I was popular. Fun and opinionated and always ready to party. I had dozens of friends, scores of acquaintances. The more I partied, the more popular I was.

That was years ago. And the farther I move from that drunken lifestyle, the more I've struggled with awkwardness. It was a slow progression. A new girlfriend who was a light drinker, and completely drug-free. I tempered my alcohol intake to a level that wouldn't scare her away. Gave up illicit drugs entirely. Marriage, home-ownership, continually finding more self-control. New experiences – like actually driving home from a night out. Not leaving myself with the chore of picking up my car in the morning.

Since my daughter was born, I've been sober. Sober meaning not drunk. Drinking, but never enough to slur, to stumble, to blackout, to be hungover. As I gave up intoxication, I lost my edge, my confidence, my comfort level in my group of friends. It seemed like I had less to talk about. Nothing in common, no shared interests. Not only with my friends, but pretty much with everyone I met. In conversations, my brain seized. I had nothing to say. Nothing that I thought was interesting anyway.

This has been going on for thirteen years, but I continued to drink daily. Usually, two glasses of wine, sometime three. To the edge of a buzz, but never crossing that line. To be relaxed, as a reward, a way to cap my day. Maybe just to hold on to part of my self-image. I'm overly reliant on self-image. Using labels to define myself. A drinker, a runner, a writer. Losing a defining activity felt like losing a piece of myself.

And to some degree, this was true. Giving up drunkenness affected my lifestyle, my relationships. Because I feel less confident in social situations, I'm less social. Almost reclusive. And this weighs heavily on me. Something I lie awake at night regretting. While I no longer drink to get drunk, I've certainly been drinking – a lot. Not at once, but a moderate amount every single day. I've used red wine like a junkie uses methadone. A safe daily dose. Just enough to offset the need. Enough to avoid being a drunk.

Until January. Seventy five days ago. I quit drinking... except on weekends. I'm not trying to give up alcohol, I'm trying to break the habit, the dependence. It's gone well. Two and a half months with no falters. Some weeks are more challenging than others. At times I find myself counting down to the weekend. Knocking about the house or going to bed early because I don't know what to do with myself without a glass of wine. Alcohol still has a hold on me. Yesterday I bought a bottle of Cotes du Rhone. I went to bed anticipating the enjoyment I would get from it on Friday night. Sort of the way I might anticipate seeing a new movie I've been awaiting for months.

The benefits of this change are easy to list. I'm more clear headed. My aging body feels better. I weigh less. I'm spending less – decent wine is not cheap. All obvious and unsurprising. But what I didn't expect: I'm happier without any alcohol than with a small amount of alcohol. A weight has lifted off of me. I don't spend my days anticipating a glass of wine after work. I don't spend my evenings measuring out my dose, feeling regretful when it's done. I don't wake up every morning with harsh judgment of myself – beating myself up because I had an extra drink.

And even less expected: My comfort in social situations has improved. I feel less awkward, less self-conscious talking with people in chance encounters – at the grocery store, at the gym. I'm joining new groups, I'm making new friends. I'm becoming social again.

There's truth to Morrison's statement about fear. It has to be faced directly. I started doing this three years ago. I do it with writing, and I do it with therapy. When I immerse myself in my fears, I begin to understand them. Their power erodes, some. My fears don't disappear, I don't overcome them. But I know them, I understand them, they don't surprise me any more. None of it is comfortable, but ultimately it is all rewarding. It is a long-term process with break-throughs, plateaus and set-backs. A rough ride, but so far, the general direction seems to be up.

Alcohol and relationships are two problem areas I've avoided. Too hard and too scary to attack. Intertwined in ways I'm just starting to understand. There are no quick-fixes for psychological problems. They take effort, tenacity, courage. Now that I've started on this path, I intend to continue. To ride the ups and downs. To find comfort with alcohol, or without alcohol. And to find comfort with people.

Jim Morrison? He was a bright and creative guy. With more time, it's likely that he would have truly faced what he feared – which I believe, was himself.  

Friday, March 6, 2015

World War Three

Today' s blog post is from my heart, not my head. This is written on a topic about which I have very little academic understanding, but I do have strong feelings and opinions. Typically, not the best combination. I welcome feedback, debate, and education. But not with shouting, posturing and belittling comments.
You need war to achieve peace.” This gem dropped by the pool manager at my work, Carla. It was during a staff meeting. I work at a non-profit community center – child care, fitness, swimming and enrichment programs. Looking around the table, several heads swinging a slow, shocked “no” just like mine. Part of our mission-statement says we are to promote peace, but it doesn't make any suggestions on how we should do that. Apparently we need some guidance. We have differing ideas.

I'm not close with my co-workers. But we've been working together for years, so I think I know them pretty well. I certainly know when they'll excel, and when they'll fail at company-directed initiatives. Because we don't share many personal interests, I rarely spend my off-work time with them. So while I know their work-skills, what I don't know is their personal opinions on political topics. I live in a rural community in Pennsylvania, the patriot-zone. An area where being a war-veteran is cooler than being a brain-surgeon. It surprised me that so many of them would take offense to Carla's statement. It surprised me much more than hearing her make the statement.

This was years ago. Carla, a mother of two young children, is so Christian that once during an all-staff briefing, she said our organization's primary purpose was to glorify God. She's a devout follower of the “prince of peace.” But she has bought into the myth that war is the proper road to peace. Even though I can’t find a Bible verse where Jesus says that. “No, you need war to achieve submission, that isn't the same as peace.” My response to Carla. And then the conversation was over. But tension lingered for the rest of the meeting, and maybe still today.

The God and Country set, prevalent in my area, enthusiastically supports military action against the shifting shape of “haters of America.” To my neighbors, it is a holy war. Christianity against Islam. Citing passages from the Koran to prove Muslims simply want to kill us. And of course many of them do. A growing number, it seems. But it also seems like it is the United States' intention to kill all of them first.

After the September 11 attacks, many Americans suggested that it was time to reevaluate our national positions on the Middle East, on Israel. These questioners were immediately branded unpatriotic. Shouted down as unsympathetic to those who were killed. 9/11 was a time for unity, for a response. The air-liner attacks killed three thousand Americans, the vast majority, civilians. This was reprehensible, it was murder. Likewise, our response - vast bombing raids. Indiscriminate and lethal. An eye for an eye. In the two years that followed, the United States led military coalition killed as many Afghan civilians as were killed by the 9/11 terrorists. But we were just getting started.

We've been at war for fourteen years. We have not achieved peace. We haven't even achieved submission. All we've managed to do is seriously piss-off a substantial percentage of the world's Muslim population. And this isn't just by our actions. The Islam world is rallied by our rhetoric as well. Our vow to light up the sky with a “shock and awe” campaign against Iraq. As if the war was nothing more than a fireworks display put on for the American public. And our threat to “bomb Pakistan back to the stone-age” if they didn't get with our program against Al-Qaeda.

I used to think World War Three would start over scarce resources – flooding coastlines, the lack of potable water and food in our post-climate-change world. Now, I believe WWIII has already started. It might seem like we're battling over religion, but the real issue is respect. The Christian west, especially America, has attempted to rule the world for decades. Dictating who's in and who's out with alliances and policies. Policies that bow to the desires of lobbyists. In the middle-east, the Arab world, this means Israel and Saudi Arabia. The rest of this region has been marginalized – or declared evil. It is human nature to feel like an outsider when you are different from those in power. And in the west, power rests fully with the Christians.

Americans are all too ready to brand the violence against us as Islamic Extremism. That's a short-sighted convenience. Using religion to motivate an army is hardly a new strategy. It has been the default for millennia. From the crusaders until modern times. I live near a civil war battlefield. The park is littered with monuments that contain Christian imagery. Avenging angles and crosses are everywhere. The prevailing rally-cry during that war? “For God!” It works - an army with divine sanction has an edge in battle. What we are seeing now is only different in that Islam is the motivator. When Al-Qaeda, ISIS, et al, invoke Islam, we respond with our own religious dogma. And the appearance of a war of religious ideals continues.

It clearly isn't helping. The recruiting pool for our adversary is massive. Almost a quarter of the world practices Islam. And many western Muslims find our rhetoric to be racist and anti-Muslim. Not an attack on the violent doctrine and actions of these groups, but an attack on their heritage, their religion. For some, it spurs a response. Suburban kids from the United States, Canada, France, roots strongly set in western culture, are walking away from their lives to join to fight against a bully.

This trend will increase. As it gains traction, we will be fighting civil wars all around the globe. A war with no defined boundaries, and no way to label the enemy except by their religion. And this will only intensify the rhetoric and the response – on both sides. The only way out of this situation is maturity and empathy. Accept each other's differences.

As long as Americans like Carla remain in the majority, with their belief that the only path to peace is through killing our enemies, peace will elude us. You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist. I didn't make this up, Indira Gandhi did, and it is necessary to embrace. In the sixties, sober adults mocked the live and let live ethos of the hippy-youth. Fifty years later, it clearly has merit.

So while that inevitable climate-change war, World War IV now, still simmers. We have our current war to end. Not with bullets and bombs, but with understanding and respect. And not from only Christians or Muslims, but from everyone. Perhaps the place for me to start, the place to gain some understanding, is with Carla.