Unpacking My Dreams – Part II

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pink-panga-la-paz-baja-california-sur-gus-mccreaWhat would you attempt to do, if you knew you could not fail?

– Author Unknown


In addition to the unfinished manuscript of my first novel, I found some other treasures while digging through those boxes, which included some published articles and a short story that I pulled an all-nighter to write in one sitting. Seeing these again brought me back to a time when it felt like anything was possible, and I could do whatever I set my mind to. There is nothing like getting published that can do that for a writer.  There is also nothing like the unbridled confidence of youth.

And of course, I was young back then – just twenty-three years old. I had never tasted real discouragement, much less defeat, and I was too naïve to have a clue about all the things that can go wrong in life. It was October of 1985. My latest article in Skin Diver Magazine had just been published and was on newsstands everywhere (Volume 34, Issue Number 10). What a thrill it was to visit my local supermarket and flip through each copy on the rack to find my name printed in the  Table of Contents of every one of them, without exception.  Best of all, mine was listed among the familiar names of the staff writers I had been reading ever since I first subscribed with my paper route money, when I just ten years old.

That very same month, another article of mine was also published in Underwater USA – a lesser known rag that was sold primarily in dive shops. That one also included one of my photographs I had submitted, which was printed in color, right on the front page.

Emboldened by these minor successes, I attended a writers’ luncheon one Saturday afternoon at a Sheraton Hotel near downtown Tucson, purely on a whim. I’m not even sure how I found out about it, but there was little fanfare or promotion for the event, and it was completely free of charge. It simply consisted of a small panel of editors and literary agents, none of whose names or affiliations I recognized, except for Alice Turner, who was the fiction editor for Playboy Magazine. Now, you can snicker if you’d like, but Playboy was (and still is) considered among the literati elite to be one of the very most prestigious publications in America for its short fiction. Getting published there is like going to the Superbowl, Preakness Stakes, and Pebble Beach Pro-Am, all rolled into one. It is no place for amateurs.  John Steinbeck is just one among a long list of literary giants whose works have been printed in its pages.

I didn’t know all this until I heard Ms. Turner explain the magazine’s history, however. In fact, despite my close familiarity, I was only vaguely aware that its pages ever contained more than a few sentences of verbiage. She then went on to explain what types of stories she was looking for in the few unsolicited manuscripts she had time to read. Finally, as she took questions from the audience, she offered some sage advice to another aspiring novelist like myself about the importance of first cutting his teeth on short stories to hone his craft before attempting to write a novel.

I listened with rapt attention to every word she said. I was already painfully aware that my novel in progress was drifting off, going nowhere, and I still had a lot to learn about the subtler nuances of character and plot development. What really hooked me, though, was when she named my idol, Ray Bradbury, as one of the top modern masters of the short story whom one should study to learn the art.  I had read just about everything he had ever written, short or long, at least twice.

She needed to say no more. I flew out of there before the session ended and went straight home to my typewriter and a freshly opened box of chardonnay, stopping along the way only to pick up a carton of cigarettes. I had mostly given up smoking by then, but to this day, I have to admit that the slow countdown of drags on each cancer stick, and the steady accumulation of butts in an ashtray, lends a real cadence to the act of writing – even when the pages themselves aren’t exactly piling up. Especially for a marathon session like the one to which I was committing myself that evening, and notwithstanding the fact that it just feels so damn ‘writerly.’ It cannot be underestimated how important it is to feel like a writer in order to commence writing anything of great import. Hence the cheap white wine. Red wine would have just made me feel sleepy.

There was a glimpse of a story that had popped into my mind while I was sitting there listening to Ms. Turner speak, and I didn’t want it to escape before I could capture it with wood fiber and ink. The story itself had not fully emerged, but I saw the main character so clearly – a tall Gringo, red headed, freckled and pale, standing in the hot sun on a remote beach of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. He was propositioning an itinerant band of shark fishermen to rent one of their boats, in broken Spanish. That was really all I knew. That, and the fact that he was never going to accomplish whatever mission he was on, or get back home alive. But I wrote anyway, and the pages piled up faster than the cigarette butts until the sun came up the next morning. Back in those days, words flew out of my fingertips like electricity, and writing was not the hard work that it is today. Unfortunately, I lacked any sort of voltage regulator or transformer to convert them from direct to alternating current, and I’m afraid I must have zapped my few hapless readers with a stunning torrent of run-on sentences that were replete with adjectives.

I made just one quick proofread and edit, and then typed out the second draft at double speed, amped up by then on black coffee. The adrenaline of writing had nullified the effect of wine all night, but I knew I was going to crash hard the moment I slowed down. Call it courage, audacity, or just feckless optimism, but I drove back to the Sheraton hotel at breakneck speed, determined to deliver my story directly to Alice Turner while she was still there. Nowadays, this sort of activity would be labeled as ‘stalking,’ and hotel clerks are much less obliging to release information about guests, but I had already called and verified that she had stayed the night there and had not yet checked out.

My plan was actually slightly better thought out than that. I had originally intended to head straight for the hotel’s kitchen, where I would casually loiter until I could find a room service waiter who would discreetly deliver my neatly bundled manuscript for a generous tip (with an explanatory note and self addressed and stamped return envelope inside). When I stepped into the hotel lobby, however, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had gotten there just in the nick of time, because there stood Playboy Magazine’s fiction editor herself, with luggage in tow, paying her bill at the front desk. Not only had I just saved myself five bucks, but what’s more, I had the kind of unfettered access to an editor that most writers can only dream about – without resorting to stalking tactics, that is.

With as much genuflection as I could muster, I breathlessly introduced myself and stuttered out some sort of lame explanation for our chance encounter. I didn’t give her the chance to say much in response – I then just placed the manila envelope in her hand, and fled.

As I look back on this now, it amazes me that I ever received any type of response or acknowledgement that she read my manuscript, much less a formal rejection note. One arrived in the mail just a month later, however, just a standard printed note that consisted of only a sentence or two politely declining the use of my story, but it did bear Alice K. Turner’s personal signature in ballpoint ink. Like the young, dumb idiot I was, I threw it out, for which I will forever hate myself. I was mortified with embarrassment ever since I went back and re-read the marked up first draft in the light of day, and a big part of me was hoping and praying that she had just thrown away the envelope without opening it up.

Someone once said that ninety percent of success is just being there, but someone even wiser also said that you only get one chance to make a first impression.

I didn’t give up, however. With undaunted tenacity, I polished that story as best I knew how, and sent it out to several other magazines that it was equally unfit for and got rejected by, one by one, including The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire. Eventually, I couldn’t deny the fact that the story was only growing in my head, as did the number of characters in its cast. The plot thickened, until it became a supernatural mystery that could only be told as a novel.

I suppose that’s generally what happens when you play with a short story for too long, or put it off indefinitely as I did.  Since I was still young, I stayed busy the next few years living a life that was richly textured with adventure, travel, and culture.  And then I settled down, got married, and had a family.  And then got divorced, remarried, and divorced again.  Life went on, and decades passed in the blink of an eye while my dream of becoming a published novelist sat dormant, packed away in boxes.

Today, I know exactly why that guy wanted to rent a boat, and what his intended mission was, once he got it out on the water. He’s never been far from my mind. Until recently, my real challenge has been to believe once again in my ability to write his story, without underestimating the real work and disciplined focus that it will require as I did when I was young and foolish. I’m just about there now, thanks to some drastic changes I’ve made in my lifestyle these past few months.

I have a couple of stories to tell first before I can tell the one about that Gringo, but his day is coming. Soon.


Unpacking My Dreams – Part I

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Rejection NoteIs all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

– Edgar Allan Poe


I haven’t been sleeping so good lately. Of course, insomnia is hardly anything new for me after going to bed for so many years in various stages of inebriation, since alcohol deprives the brain of normal sleep cycles. And when it would wear off and leave my system, I would invariably wake up at around three a.m., covered in sweat and unable to fall back asleep. Since I’ve given up the sauce, however, I’ve begun to enjoy a restorative, peaceful night’s sleep on a regular basis, in spite of the fact that it now takes me a while to doze off.  The only problem is, I dream too much now, as though my brain is trying to make up for time that was lost when it couldn’t dream because it was being constantly awakened. Because that’s what alcohol does – it robs us of our dreams, both figuratively and literally.

The problem now is, I have been waking up from a couple of recurring bad dreams that have come around four or five in the morning the past few nights in a row, including this one. My heart is still racing, and I’m pretty sure I was talking in my sleep. The dream is still vivid and clear in my mind, to the point that I am still working on convincing myself that it was just a dream and I’m really awake now. I’m so groggy, it would be hard to tell the difference if I wasn’t sitting upright and typing away at this moment. In fact, that is why I am typing – to make sure it didn’t really happen.

Last night, I dreamed a horrific dream that someone stole my idea for my book, and got theirs published right before I wrapped up a deal for selling mine with my agent. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Only if you’re not a writer…

This dream I had just now was much, much worse. I dreamed that I was sitting at a bar with some friends I hadn’t seen in years. Someone bought a round of martinis, and I absent-mindedly picked up the one that was set down in front of me and quaffed it in a few large sips before I remembered that I don’t do that anymore. What were you thinking?? I yelled at myself just before I woke up, feeling inconsolably full of remorse, as though all was lost.

These bad dreams are actually good for me. One serves as a much needed kick in the ass that drives me out of bed to get to work, doing what I need to be doing. The other serves as an intense reminder of how miserably degrading it would feel to backslide after coming so far in my sobriety. Because the truth is, there has not been a single white-knuckle moment or occasion in nearly four months since I quit that I’ve been even remotely tempted to just say screw it and have a taste. The thought couldn’t be further from my mind – except in my dreams, apparently.

But as I’ve woken up these past few mornings and thanked God that I was only dreaming, a terrible reality sinks in as I reach over and look at the other half of my bed that is cold and empty, and has been that way for over two months. My decision to get permanently sober came as too little, too late. Alcohol had left a permanent stain on my relationship with a woman who will own my heart forever. It is impossible to silence my mind once I begin thinking of her, particularly when I first wake up, at any hour.

And then other thoughts begin to careen around in my head. To sum them up in a word, I am bereft. I am bereft of love, bereft of companionship, and bereft of employment, although I keep expecting to hear back any day now about a couple of jobs for which I’ve interviewed. I own very little, and have less than no money to my name. I am not panicking, though – at least, not yet.

As pathetic as it may sound, there is only one possession I really have left that could even be considered valuable, but it is precious to me and I feel like a rich man compared to most. I still have my dreams.  In fact, I came across them the other day in a couple of boxes that I have not opened since I packed up and moved from California to New Hampshire back in 1999. Before that, they had hardly been touched since 1992, when I first got married and my daily writing habit all but came to a stop.

New dreams are important, of course. One should never stop dreaming and inventing the future. But sometimes this is impossible to do when old dreams have lain dormant and neglected that are just too important to forget about. Such is the case with mine, and now I have the evidence in front of me that my ambition to become a writer wasn’t just a silly dream, after all.

One of these overstuffed boxes contains what was originally a ream and a half of blank typing paper. The yellowed pages inside are now filled with several ribbons worth of ink from an electric Brother typewriter that I owned back in the day, before I bought my first Macintosh computer.   I marvel as I hold their combined weight in my hands, and recall the hours spent working on this novel that I set out to write at the young age of twenty-two, pecking away at all hours of the night. Despite their heft, however, these pages comprise less than half of that story. I begin to read, and it is very good – and also, very, very bad. I was, after all, only a kid, but that kid apparently believed pretty strongly in himself to put so much work into this. The writing may very well need to be thrown out and rewritten from scratch, but it is still a damn good story, even today. In fact, especially today.

Digging through the other box, I find a long forgotten love poem that I once wrote for nobody in particular, but always hoped to find the right woman to give it to someday.  (I did finally find her, but as I mentioned before, she is no longer here.)  There is also a manuscript for a short story, and a rejection note that was sent back with it from The Atlantic Monthly, back in 1985.  There were many others, but very foolishly, I was embarrassed by them and threw them all out, since I was unable to see them as the badges of honor that they really were. I probably didn’t mean to save this one, but I’m very glad I have it. It is proof positive that I was once worthy of calling myself a writer. I tried, and I really put myself out there back in those days. I would give anything to get back that young man’s confidence.

Looking through these packages that he left for me, and knowing what I know today, I just might yet…

Banishing The Elephant

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The worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves. We live in denial of what we do, even what we think. We do this because we’re afraid.

– Richard Bach


It has been one year and nine months, almost to the day, since I last wrote in this blog. For anyone who is still reading out there, it must beg the question – what has kept me from writing for this long? And why am I bothering to write in it again, today of all days? After all, why not just delete the whole damn thing and start over from scratch?

It’s not that I haven’t thought many times about doing just that, and it surely isn’t that I haven’t sat down to try writing something – anything – that would seem like an honest segue from my last post. Although I never intended to write on a personal level about yours truly, there has actually been a lot to say about the events of the past nearly two years – including a new job, a new love, and yet another stint of unemployment in this ever-shrinking economy. More importantly, there have been stories to tell about other Major Dudes out there who have successfully navigated around the shoals of midlife and have a lot to teach the rest of us by their examples. I just haven’t been able to write about them, because by doing so, I would have had to pretend that I was successfully steering my own ship. And that would have been a lie.

The unvarnished truth is that there has been this giant, stinking elephant in the room this whole time, and he never fails to pull up a chair beside me and read over my shoulder whenever I sit down to write – about anything. Depending on the subject matter, I have sometimes managed to ignore him and write anyway – but just not in this blog. Not a single word, much less a sentence or a paragraph. And the ugly bastard has grown fatter and smellier with each passing day that I have allowed him to take up residence, without charging him a single penny for rent.

I can’t describe for you his complexion or skin tone, since he lurks in the dark and I have done my best to avoid looking at him – but I’ll state for the record that he is definitely not one of those pink elephants that you may have heard about. It’s best to say this up front, since the question is sure to come up sooner or later. Oh, if only he were a figment of my imagination or a mere hallucination, I could just wish him away, or simply stop imbibing whatever potion that was making him appear in the first place, in order to make him quietly disappear without a trace so that no one else would find out he was ever there. Unfortunately, though, he is all too real, and the measure I must take to eradicate his presence can be neither simple nor discreet.

Today, in the form of this post, I am serving him with eviction papers and kicking his fat ass out, effective immediately. It’s humiliating as hell to air this notice in public, but I’ll gladly endure this mortification if it means that I can finally get on with writing – and living again. There is actually an entire laundry list of possibilities that will open up with his departure.

To begin this procedure, I first have to admit an ugly truth. It was me who invited in the beast in the first place. First, I set out a neon welcome sign when I proclaimed in my last blog post that I had attained “total sobriety.” Even if I had stayed completely “dry” and never so much as taken a sip from another alcoholic beverage to this day, I now know I didn’t have the faintest understanding of what the term meant when I wrote that. A true state of sobriety involves so much more than mere abstinence from drinking, and it cannot be measured by just its duration, or the ease or difficulty with which one manages to abstain.

The welcome sign brought the elephant to my doorstep, but to his credit, he never attempted to bust in. Instead, he paced slowly back and forth for several more weeks, waiting for it to open.

His patience was finally rewarded when I made a brilliant decision one day. I decided that, since I had successfully gone so many weeks without drinking or even being tempted to drink, I had been set free from the overwhelming yearning for stupefaction and numbness that overcame me during The Winter That Wasn’t. It couldn’t possibly hurt to treat myself to a nice vintage of cabernet to go with the porterhouse steak I was throwing on the grill that night. After all, I had come to a clear realization of why I had been drinking to excess, off and on over the years. It was all about anesthetizing my pain (epiphany of epiphanies), and at that moment, on that day, I told myself that I wasn’t feeling any. In fact, I felt truly happy and content, which was a real milestone for me after struggling with profound loneliness in solitude for so many years since my first divorce. It seemed only right to celebrate the fact that I was finally okay with living alone, for the first time since I was a bachelor in my twenties. More than okay. In fact, I was happily indulging myself with episodes of Three And A Half Men and frozen pizzas while hanging out in my skivvies, and skipping morning shaves on the weekends. A fridge full of beer was all that was missing from my new happy go lucky, Oscar Madison lifestyle. Of course, I knew better than to go out and stock up with a case of Silver Bullets, but what could a little wine hurt, just for one night? And besides that, it wasn’t like anyone would ever need to know. I was a free agent, beholden to nobody. That’s what being a solitary man is all about, right?

Perhaps the two glasses I drank that night wouldn’t have hurt anything, as long as I could have remained in that moment in time and managed to live a painless, trauma-free existence for the remainder of my days here on this Earth. And indeed, for many months that followed, things did continue to look up. Hope sprang eternal. But of course, it was a delusional fallacy to believe that the hard times were all behind me, and only blue skies and happier days lay ahead, simply because I had recently endured such a prolonged living hell.

Anyway, I felt so great the following morning after that steak dinner, without the slightest trace of a hangover, I sprang out of bed early the next morning and headed straight for the gym. A few nights later, I decided to try it again. And again, on the following weekend after that. In time, I was drinking every week, but I stuck judiciously to a rule of drinking only on weekends, since I took a new job and was working twelve to fourteen hour days. For a few months, I felt completely okay with drinking just a beer or two, or a couple of glasses of wine, and leaving it at that. I felt absolutely no remorse or shame. In fact, it was just the opposite – I was proud at what I had accomplished with my newfound discipline. At my favorite bistros, the bartenders called me “Mr. One And Done,” since I would nurse a martini or whiskey on the rocks for over an hour before asking for the check.

For the first time in ages, I was once again drinking like a gentleman – a man who could handle his liquor – as I had been able to do in my younger years. I had always admired men who could do that, and in spite of what I’d said in a previous blog post, I was happy to be able to once again call myself a “normal” or “social” drinker. I was well aware that it impressed women, too. Ever since I began dating after my first divorce, I learned early on that it seemed to make most gals uncomfortable if I ordered a non-alcoholic beverage while they ordered a glass of wine on a first date. On the other hand, it usually impressed them when they saw that I could slowly sip on a glass or two of wine, or even gin or whiskey, and then be done for the remainder of the night without the slightest slur in my speech or swagger in my step.

I remember one woman I dated a few years ago, for whom this was a crucial litmus test that I unwittingly passed with flying colors. After just a couple of dates, she exclaimed out loud how relieved she was that I was immune to the dreaded disease she’d seen in her ex-husband, who could never manage to control his drinking once he got started, and had nearly managed to ruin her life before destroying his own. In spite of the horrific ordeal that he put her through over two decades of marriage, though, she made it clear that she preferred to date a man who could hold his liquor than one who chose to not drink at all. I didn’t get that then, but I do now. In her mind, you either have the disease or you don’t. It’s something you’re just born with, and if you are, you are helplessly under its control. (Hmm… now where did she get that notion?) Unlike him, she repeatedly assured me, I most definitely did not have a problem with alcohol. In time, I came to see that she had her own issues with drinking, but was unwilling to address them since she was also comparing herself to her ex, and fixated on his picture of what an alcoholic looks like.

I don’t need to spell out the rest of the story of my relapse, but I’m sure it’s not too different from the stories of millions of other self-proclaimed “moderate drinkers” who support the burgeoning wine and liquor industry with their hard earned money on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis. Habitual, steady drinking can easily lead to heavier drinking for anyone, in the good times as well as the bad. Everyone knows this – we are taught in high school phys-ed class about how the brain develops a tolerance to alcohol. The regular drinker forgets this information, however, or manages to ignore it as it sneaks up on him over time. And when hard times come, as they do for everyone, his happy elixir of choice quickly becomes a readily available medication with which to ward off stress, anxiety, and sadness.

The marketing campaign for the liquor and wine industry is diabolical and insidious. How many times do we see stories likes this (http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/wine-how-much-is-good-for-you) broadcast in the news like regular public service announcements that drinking a single glass a day can do wonders for the heart and circulatory system? Over and over, we hear stories about how the French live longer and better, presumably because of their daily wine intake, until it is practically inferred that complete abstinence poses a health risk that may shorten our lives. These same medical journalists fail to point out the numerous other differences between the lifestyles of the French and Americans, and almost never write about the addictive nature of alcohol, even in small doses, or the psychological danger of making its consumption a daily habit.

As I listen to the stories of so many others who have faced their own addictions to alcohol, I have found myself envying those whose problems were so out of control and over the top, it was impossible to deny it even to themselves. After all, getting busted with a DUI, followed by the suspension of one’s driver’s license, is a pretty clear and irrefutable indicator that one has a problem. So is coming home to an empty house and finding a note from one’s mate, explaining that one drink or bottle too many had finally sent her or him packing. Partly by the grace of God, and partly because I have historically done most of my imbibing at home, I have never lost or had anything taken away from me as a direct result of my drinking. Not until recently, that is. And very few people have ever taken the trouble to voice their personal concern to my face that I may have a problem with alcohol. So I was able to keep lying to myself, and by my silent omission of the truth, also to those who were closest to me.

I just wasn’t one of those hardcore drinkers that ever binged on hard liquor for days on end or reached for an eye opener before getting out of bed in the morning. I never missed a day of work, and always met my responsibilities. The only thing that was irrefutably obvious about my habit was the large pile of wine bottles that I set out for recycling each week, and the large chunk that it took out of my budget each month. Even those were relatively easy to sweep under the rug and keep out of sight. The real dirty secret that I kept to myself and worked hardest to hide was the fact that, more often than not for the past twenty-some years, I have rolled out of bed feeling like shit warmed over.

Today marks exactly two months since my last first day without a drink, on Independence Day of all days. It may not seem like a very long time, but in a way it already feels like a past life when I think back on my habit of drinking wine nearly every day, and going to bed only after the bottle was emptied.

So what makes this time different from the last time I quit – and another time a few years before that, which lasted more than nine months? Well, for starters, this is the first time that I have really considered my breakup with alcohol to be complete and my abstinence to be a permanent condition. In the past, I have always held onto the unspoken confidence in the back of my mind that I would someday be able to handle drinking at least just a beer or two, or just one glass of wine when called for to toast a special occasion, or with a special meal. After this last turn, I am completely disabused of the notion that can ever happen, because I have educated myself on the brain science that essentially makes moderation impossible for anyone who has ever crossed over the line into chronic, habitual drinking as I have. I have also done quite a bit of research and learned why drinking is just not a healthy choice under any circumstance, and how its impairment of the brain can last long after the hangover wears off. [http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/how-even-moderate-drinking-may-negatively-affect-your-brain.html]


I now understand that drinking again would throw a switch in my mind, which I presently keep firmly fixed in the OFF position. While it remains there, my thoughts of having a drink are few and fleeting at worst, and cravings are almost non-existent. I have finally learned, however, how easily this switch can be thrown back to ON with just one drink, and why it is not to be tampered with under any circumstances. So every day, I apply a fresh layer of duct tape over it so that it can’t be accidentally bumped or mindlessly flipped, and I remind myself that it is always there and will never go away. Alcohol is my kryptonite, and it will rob me of my superpowers until I am finally rendered weak and helpless – physically as well as mentally.

For the first time, I have also admitted to myself that I need help, and that I don’t have the strength or wisdom to achieve or maintain lifelong sobriety all on my own. This is not the same as saying that I am “powerless over alcohol,” however, as Step One of AA’s Twelve Step Program so strongly decrees. I categorically reject this doctrine, because as a Christian, I know that I do in fact have enormous power, because I can do all things through Jesus Christ, who strengthens me (Phillipians 4:13). I also don’t believe that it will do any good to simply turn to God “as we understand him” (Step 3), since this is too vague and terribly inadequate. There is only one Creator God for the entire human race. He has a name, and He has revealed Himself to us both through His word (The Holy Bible) and His son, who I’ve mentioned above. Any lesser god will prove powerless and useless at best for anyone seeking lasting recovery.

I have discovered that there are other sources of help available for treatment and recovery outside of AA, and it has been an enormous relief to learn that their doctrines have little to no basis in medical science. I don’t accept the idea that I will have to grapple with a desire to drink for the rest of my life, as most twelve-steppers believe to be their fate. I intend to enjoy life to its fullest, rather than resign myself to spending the rest of my days feeling deprived of the pleasure of alcohol. The truth is, there is a long list of things that I will now get to enjoy in its place that were unavailable to me before.  At the top of that list is my health – mental and physical.

Finally, I have learned that the road to “total sobriety” is much longer and will require more mindfulness and work than I ever before would have estimated. It’s a hard truth to admit, but my brain has been damaged by the affects of alcohol, and it is going to take time and work to learn how to really think again and use it to its fullest potential. [http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/10-things-you-can-every-day-benefit-your-brain.html]

Most important of all, I am learning how to handle my emotions, and really face my fears without the help of alcohol for the first time as an adult.  Looking back, it would be easy to say that I was fearless in my youth, but I have learned that fearlessness is not the same as courage. In my younger years, I lacked the firsthand knowledge of how many things could go terribly wrong on the journey we call this life. I knew nothing back then of tragedy, or heartbreak, and I was able to love – honestly, selflessly, and without fear of rejection, or worse – betrayal.

Now that the elephant is gone, I intend to learn to love like that again…

My Secret Paradise

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“In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in the dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.”  – Dante Alighieri

It was with mixed anticipation and trepidation that I moved back into my condominium this past February.  I was dreading the specters of so many bad memories I had of the place – and not just from the past year, but also the preceding four that I had lived there since my first divorce.  There were some good ones, of course, but even those were painful to recall.  On the whole, my history of living there had been one of unending loss, and I practically expected to feel the walls still reverberating with tension from all the loud squabbles that had been fought within them, and dank from the myriad buckets of tears that had been shed – my own, as well as my wife’s.  It had become a place of pain and sorrow.

I was anxious to reclaim my own home and space, however, and the fact was that I had nowhere else to go.  So I pushed all those painful memories from my mind as I stepped through the doorway, for the first time in many weeks, into my new old home.  It was eerily quiet and half empty of furniture, but I had chosen that at the beginning of the year, when I gave away much of what I owned to make room for her stuff.

I had just enough left in savings to purchase a sofa, some chairs, and a new bed.  After a few trips to Big Lots and Ikea, I was able to pretend as though I’d moved into a brand new place.  Total sobriety still felt new to me also, since it had only been a few weeks since I’d had my last drink.  Most of all, and best of all, I had my work desk and computer set up again.  I had a place to write, and the hope sprang up in me anew that the time was finally here to turn all my loss and misfortune around, so that I could say it all had happened for a reason.  Of course, I wasn’t sure yet exactly what that reason could possibly be for making such a tragic and heartbreaking, albeit well-intentioned, mistake.

The following month, on one of the first days of spring, something possessed me to go for a walk one evening.  It was unusually warm out, and I suppose I wanted to get some fresh air and a bit of exercise, but I had no idea where I was going.  I just followed the treeline along the back lawn behind my place, until I spotted a narrow footpath that led into the woods.  In all the time I had lived there, I was unaware of its existence, and it occurred to me only then that I had never been even slightly curious about what lay hidden behind the dense thicket of woods that I had seen every day looking out from my balcony and bedroom window.

The forest seemed impenetrable, and the tiny trail nearly disappeared beneath fresh growth of vines and shrubs a few times as I followed it through the trees like an unraveled string from a ball of yarn.   I was intrigued and curious now.  So much timber had fallen in the October blizzard, it was necessary to climb over a few tree trunks that blocked my path.  For what seemed like half a mile, the trail weaved back and forth, up and down and around, seeming to take me in all directions until it finally opened up to the bank of a large, marshy pond.

I was stunned as I looked out at the ethereal beauty of this place.  It felt as if I’d been transported to the remote wilds of Maine or New Hampshire, and it was only the air traffic in the sky above that reminded me I was not far from home.  When the airplanes overhead had passed, a serene quietness returned and set in that allowed me to detect the movements and activity of its denizens.

The first thing I heard was the quiet splash of a turtle who pushed off from the log where he and his mate were sunning, just before she followed suit after him.  Looking into the water, I saw several bluegills swimming just below the surface.  Then another series of plops and splashes erupted as I drew closer to the water’s edge.  A line of frogs had all leaped from the muddy bank into the water for safety as they hear my approach.

I sat down to avoid any further disruption, and the moment I did so, a lone white swan swam silently into the frame of this surreal picture, far out in the center of the pond.  I watched it for several minutes, unnoticed until I stood up again to continue my adventure and walk further down along the bank.

I saw more turtles sunning, and more frogs, and I heard their frantic splashes despite my efforts to tread as quietly as possible.  I heard a different type of noise then, the sharp report of a slap on the water’s surface.  It was only out of the corner of my eye that I saw a plume of water rise straight up in the air, and I was mystified as to what type of creature could have caused such a large splash.  My best guess was that it was a large carp, until I walked a little further along the shore and spotted a very old and large beaver dam, whose builder I had apparently startled.

Standing on one leg in the shallow water right next to it was a very large and majestic blue heron.  Immediately, it hit me – I knew this old bird.  I had seen it fly in both directions over my place dozens of times over the years, and always wondered where it was going, and where was its home.

Since that evening, I have returned to this enchanted place several times.  It never ceases to amaze me that it exists and that it is real, and has been there all this time, unspoiled and hidden behind those woods that I am looking out at now through my window.  I have quietly observed the antics of the hermit swan as he has angrily defended his corner of the pond against unwelcome geese, and have even managed to sneak up on the beaver once as he was gnawing away on the moist bark of a fallen tree limb.  I have seen the heron again only once, but I often see him flying back and forth in the sky overhead.

These past several months, I have felt as though I was living under a curse for having ended my second marriage, and for breaking those vows I had taken “to love, hold, and cherish, for better or worse, until death do us part.”  The burden of guilt and disappointment in myself was overwhelming, and I had become resigned to living alone for the rest of my life.  Until recently, I could not allow myself to even dream of finding the happiness of being in love again, knowing how bitterly I had disappointed the woman I had promised to spend the rest of my life with.  Recently though, to my complete joy, I discovered that there is a happy ending to that story after all.  It will need to be told another time, but the relief I felt when I learned that she is doing well, is happy, and has fallen in love again, is beyond measure.  Hopefully, she has forgiven me by now.  If she hasn’t, I’m sure she eventually will.  She has found a good man – a better man for her than me.

My secret pond has served up the perfect metaphor as a reminder that paradise can still be found just on the other side of whatever hell I may think I’m going through.  God still wants to pour out His blessings upon me, however unworthy I may be to receive them.  First, though, they must be sought out, discovered, and received with open eyes, open hands, and an open heart.

For the first time in a long while, I am now open and ready to receive whatever blessings may come my way.  And already they are beginning to fall down like rain…

The Decision I Made & The Choices That I Chose

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“If you did not write every day, the poison would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both.”

~ Ray Bradbury: Story of a Writer

Yesterday was officially the last day of summer, and I am grieving yet another passing of my favorite season while at the same time relishing the burst of productivity that will ensue now that the siren’s call of balmy weather can no longer be heard outdoors to make me fidget in my chair or lure me away from my desk.  With the same uncanny timing that I have seen almost every Labor Day weekend for the past twelve years I have lived here in New England, summer’s calendrical ending has been punctuated today by grey skies and dreary rain that arrived like pre-ordained clockwork, just before dawn, and is forecast to continue throughout the week.  You wouldn’t have guessed this to be possible, however, if you had looked out my window just twenty-four hours ago and seen a perfectly clear blue sky that was strewn with only a few wispy plumes of cumulus floating high up in the atmosphere.  It is like a switch gets thrown on this day each year.

Metaphorically speaking, however, the sky has cleared and a very large and somber cloud that was hanging over me these past few months, whether I’ve been indoors or out, has finally lifted with the dénouement of my second divorce.  While it was still overhead the past few months, the feeling often crept up on me that I had been cursed, and deservedly so.  Usually, I was able to shake it off by reminding myself of the utmost necessity of our split, but sometimes it became unshakeable whenever I would think about the pain that this was causing the woman who I pledged to spend the rest of my life with.  Of course, then I remind myself of the greater pain we would both endure if that promise could have been kept.  I am at peace now, and I hope she is, too.

Our final separation seems like a lifetime ago.  I had arrived at Tuff Decision Farm on the second day of November with my pillow tucked under an arm, carrying my shave kit in one hand and holding a battery-powered lantern with the other.  The power was still out in most of Connecticut, and it would be eight more days before it would be restored there to that heavily wooded town that was the hardest hit in the state.  I was grateful for this refuge, however, and I can’t begin to imagine where I would be right now if my friend had not taken me into his home.  Little did either of us know that I would be there for nearly the entire winter – the winter that wasn’t.  (https://dudesatmidlife.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/the-winter-that-wasnt/)

When I arrived there, I believed I had just one major decision to make, and I felt at the time that I had already made it.  I had decided to end my marriage of 10-months and file for a divorce.  As time went on, however, I grappled with this decision and went back and forth when my wife made it clear that she still wanted to work things out.  God knows we had tried already, but I was willing to give it another shot while we were still living separated from one another.  I was certainly in no hurry to get divorced a second time.

Anyone reading this must be asking the question that I’ll be asked for the rest of my life.  Why did I marry her in the first place, and why did I marry her so soon after we met?  The simple, basic truth is this:  I married her because I’ve never met anyone with such sterling character as hers.  The woman is incapable of telling a lie, much less cheating – at cards or anything else.  She is also beautiful, in a way that is both stunning and natural, but that is the least of her qualities. She is a woman of the caliber that many men never get to find.  (For a full elaboration of what I mean, see Proverbs 31:10-31.)

The deeper, God’s honest truth is, I married her because I thought that being married to such a good woman would help make me a better man.  In turn, she married me for the better man who she envisioned I would soon become, instead of seeing past my flaws to accept me for the good man I already was. When both of our fallacies were exposed, I felt doomed, and completely robbed of the optimism and hope I so confidently felt on my wedding day.  Worst of all, I lost all faith in myself.

Here is the bitter irony – the silly truth that I must now confess.  Ever since my first divorce, I have had a dream of writing – and publishing – a book that tells men how to become better men by finding themselves, post divorce.  If I could successfully impart this knowledge and wisdom, it could change the world and make it a better place.  I knew it could be done, and I even knew how it could be done from studying the paths of others, but the real truth is that I had never done it myself.  I had broken every rule I had written for getting on with one’s life, in my quest for love and the validation I was seeking that I am not unlovable.  I was a fraud, I told myself, and so the writing came to a dead stop.

Then, my brief but odious stint as a generator salesman came to a very acrimonious and abrupt end.  As I reeled from that ego crushing experience, there were other huge, daunting and pivotal decisions to be made, and they stared me in the face whenever I looked in a mirror.  Bereft of a home to call my own, or a career, much less a job, I was at a terrifying crossroads.  What the hell was I to do with the rest of my life, and where was I to go?  My original family was far away, and the connection I felt to my second wife’s family was a tenuous strand at best that had been badly frayed by our many fracases.  I felt helplessly adrift, with my anchor dragging loosely across the ocean bottom.  Worst of all, I completely lost my courage to look out over the bowsprit, much less ascend to the crow’s nest to keep an eye out for rocks and shoals.  I retreated below deck and fell into a state of putrid oblivion.  The truth is, I became a drunk; in the truest sense of that term.

I have been a drinker my entire adult life, but I had crossed the dreaded, invisible line that so many folks talk about as they describe their alcoholism.  I had gotten to the point where I no longer derived any real pleasure from drinking, and pleasure was the last thing that I was craving.  For the first time ever, I craved nothing more than to immerse myself in stupefaction and nothingness, because the only something that I could feel otherwise was unbearable pain, self-pity, and self-loathing.  And the more disgusted I felt with myself, the more disgusting I became.  Please pardon the cliché, but I truly hit rock bottom, with little hope of getting back up.  And so, when my second wife made it clear that she was not ready to give up on me or our marriage, I clung for a little while longer to the hope that she would somehow be able to finally rescue and redeem me.

It was the return of my children to Connecticut that truly rescued me, however.  I had never gotten used to them living so far away, and my attempts to travel down to where they lived were foiled by impossibly expensive holiday plane fares and day-long itineraries with multiple connections and no direct flights.  In the blink of an eye, that phone call from their mother gave me purpose and direction.  My anchor immediately caught and held fast, since New England would still be the place I would call home – at least, for the foreseeable future.  The minute I got off the phone, having agreed to go down there and move them all back up, the first thought that came into my mind was that I needed to get strong again, and of course this meant that I needed to get sober.  My marriage had officially failed and I had now failed twice as a husband, but failure as a father simply wasn’t an option.

Older Apple computer owners are familiar with a peculiar form of maintenance for their computers known as “firmware updates” – downloadable algorithms that somehow update the circuitry of their machines, rather than the software or operating system.  These updates are  irreversible and unalterable, and this is the best metaphor I can find to describe what a man goes through when he first becomes a husband, and then a father.  Once I became married and then had offspring, there was just no way of going back to being a swinging bachelor or a newlywed groom.  First and foremost, I am a father.  I am also a writer, and by holding fast to these truths, I am still here to write today.  When I denied them, I nearly destroyed myself.

As to the extent of my drinking issues, I never received a clinical diagnosis.  I just knew I was drinking too much.  In the eyes of some, I was just a regular, steady drinker.  In the eyes of others, I was a dangerously habitual, heavy drinker.  Few people ever bothered to come right out and tell me that to my face.  As long as someone said it with a drunken smile so that I knew it’s only in jest, I didn’t take offense at being called a drunk.  The “A-word,” however, was something I was not willing to accept as long as there is so much disagreement over the definition of what and who is an alcoholic.  According to the conventional wisdom of AA, alcoholics are genetically deficient and they’re born that way, you know – born with a disease and a defective liver.  Alcohol is something that only “normal” grownups can enjoy, and the sooner an alcoholic discovers that he or she isn’t a “normal drinker” and can’t try to pretend to be by playing in the same sandbox as all the other normal grownups, the less miserable his or her life will be.

I have since discarded the notion that there is such a thing as “normal” drinking, and instead embraced the fact that it is perfectly normal to simply not drink.  And by the way, anyone can become an alcoholic.  For some, it just requires more practice than others.  I also learned that it is not nearly as relevant to gauge one’s condition by how much or how often one drinks, but rather why one drinks.  And I certainly knew that I had a problem on all three counts.  Whether or not I fit the textbook definition was a moot point, though.  I was ready to climb out of the grave I had begun digging for myself, and just stop drinking.  At least, for as long as it would take to stop craving something that I no longer enjoyed and get myself completely healthy again.

I was to discover that giving up alcohol isn’t simply a matter of making a simple choice to quit drinking, however.  In fact, I’ll postulate here that the real work of beating any addiction is to come to the decision about whether, when, and how to go about doing so.  It’s a matter of examining the why’s, the what-if’s, and the what-could-be’s.  Laying out all the pro’s and con’s, as silly as it may seem to suggest that there are any con’s to giving up a toxic substance.  In an addict’s mind, there are serious con’s that are terrifying to consider until they are brought into the light of day and reason.  In this sense, it can truly be likened to climbing a mountain.  Coming to that presence of mind requires concentration and contemplation – two faculties of which the addict is robbed while indulging in using his or her drug of choice.

It is essential to get to the top of that mountain first, however, in order to clearly see the what lies on either side.  Most of all, to be able to look out and see the promised land – the valley of endless possibilities and opportunities that is waiting if the mission is a success.  The valley on the other side, the valley where you’ve been living, well, you only need to take a hard look at the certainties that exist if you make the choice to return there, because if you retreat to go back after standing on the mountaintop, that’s probably where you’re going to stay for the rest of your (shortened) life.

It helped tremendously that two stories appeared in the news while I was struggling with my decision.  Josh Hamilton, the tremendously gifted outfielder for the Texas Rangers, suffered a very public and humiliating relapse that threatened to destroy his career and marriage.  Less than a week later, exactly one day after I took my last drink, Randy Travis (one of the greatest songwriters in Country music) fell off the wagon after many years of sobriety.  These two men who had so much to live for, and so much to lose, bore a powerful testimony to the awful, destructive power that alcohol has to rob a man of his self-control and everything he has worked for, every relationship he holds dear.

Once the question of if I wanted and needed to quit drinking had been answered, and then reinforced, it just became a matter of figuring out how and when.  After all, of all the substances out there to which one can become addicted, including meth, heroine, crack cocaine, and ecstasy, alcohol alone can kill you if you detox from it too suddenly after years of heavy drinking.  This is what killed Amy Whinehouse, and it can be a very non-sobering fact to consider.  My dependency on alcohol was not advanced anywhere close to that degree, thank God, but it was essential to anticipate the pain of withdrawal that I would suffer, and brace myself to cope with it after first tapering off.

The fact that I am presently sitting here and writing this bears testimony to the fact that I succeeded at getting sober – for the present, at least.  My drinking had gotten out of hand to the point where I completely lost my ability to form a coherent paragraph.  So what has changed?

In a nutshell, I instilled in myself new cravings to replace my craving for inebriation, stupefaction, and numbness.  Today, I crave lucidity.  I crave clarity.  I crave strength and power, and the ability to persevere.  Most of all, I crave the ability to create that can only come from a sound mind, and the satisfaction that can only come with the accomplishment of set goals for my creativity.  Just like everyone, of course, I also crave joy, affection, admiration, self-respect, good health, and an abundance of blessings in my impending old age, but it is not enough to just crave these things.  Every day, I must coach myself and feed the hope that a happier future is not only possible, but it is within my grasp even still, after all my failings and missteps.

Of course, all of this is ultimately made possible by the fact that I am writing again…

Unanswered Prayers

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Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers

– Garth Brooks, Unanswered Prayers

Exactly four days after returning from Gainesville with my family in tow, I was back at Tuff Decision Farm when an email came in that nearly made me cry at first when I read it.  Then, as I pondered the possibilities of chance and odds of random coincidences, I had no choice but to laugh out loud.  It was the email I had been waiting to get for eight months – the email that would turn my life around from being a living hell to a joyous and prosperous heaven on earth.

You see, right at the time I learned that my ex-wife and kids were moving to Florida, I also learned about a job opening with a large magazine publisher in Orlando.  It was not just any job, though – it was my perfect dream job that would have my name appearing on the mastheads of three monthly magazines.  There’s no such thing as coincidence, right?  So it seemed like my destiny was unfolding before me, guided by heaven above.  Yes, the time had come for all of us to leave Connecticut, and it all seemed to make sense now that everything really was… happening for a reason…

Right away, I applied, and kept pestering until I finally heard back.  “You’re perfect for this position,” I was told.  “If only we had received your resume a week or two sooner, the job would be yours, but we’ll let you know if anything changes.”  My heart sank and the tears started to form when another email message came a second later, marked confidential this time:  “P.S. – We do expect there will be a change, eventually, but just can’t say when.  Please stay in touch.”

This then became the core issue in my new marriage.  From that point on, I clung to the faith and conviction that it was just a matter of time before a Northerly wind would come up to push me South where I could live closer to my kids.  I was also dying at the thought of being able to enjoy a fulfilling career once again.  After ten long years of working in an endless sea of cubicles for a Fortune 50 corporation, I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to that or any type of job that felt stale, meaningless and empty.

My new bride felt very differently, of course.  Her kids, who were all grown, lived a hundred miles away in the opposite direction, in Massachusetts, and they had given her three adorable grand-babies.  So we fought like cats and dogs over moving North versus moving South, until we finally agreed that the only reasonable compromise was to remain at anchor here in Connecticut.  I will submit, however, that compromise is not always such a great thing in a marriage.  Sometimes, it means that instead of one person getting what it is that he or she wants, both people agree to accept something that neither one wants, and settle for being equally miserable.  After all, fair is fair – right?

Every day, I was on my knees praying to God that I would hear back about the job in Orlando, certain that it was just a matter of time.  By summer’s end, though, my hope and optimism was beginning to wane.  Worn out by all the fighting, and tired of being unemployed, I was all too happy to take a job here and settle the issue for good.  And if you’ve been following this blog back as far as this post (https://dudesatmidlife.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/the-winter-that-wasnt/), you already know how well that turned out.

And now, after all that, and just four days after my kids had returned home, already back in their schools, I could scarcely believe my eyes as I stared at the email on my screen that read, “Dear G – the Director’s position is once again open, and we’d like to know if you’re interested…”

When my tears and laughter subsided, I finally wrote back:  “If only I had received this email a week or two sooner…”

This was not the tough decision to which I’ve alluded.  I didn’t agonize over it for a second, although God knows that for months, I had fantasized about getting the hell out of here and leaving scores of bad memories behind for the balmier pastures of the Sunshine State.  And then, as my second marriage was ending and I found myself twice unemployed, I found myself a man without a country, without a home. Without a doubt, if that email had come in before I got the call from my girls’ mother, I would have told her to stay put.  Now that my kids were back, though, Connecticut was once again their home and mine, ineradicably.  Leaving here suddenly became out of the question.

I felt whole again.  It may sound trite, but I am at a loss for a better way to describe it.  Like a man shaking off an evil spell, however, I was now fully aware of how badly diminished I was, physically, spiritually, and mentally.  It would be a few more weeks before I would be able to leave Tuff Decision Farm and return to my empty condominium.  My strength was returning quickly, though.  For the first time in months, I was finally able to sit down and write.

A Calming Wind After The Storms



Control-sensitive people can be very hard on themselves, especially when the quality of their lives erodes to such an extent that a flat tire or an unpaid bill can cause anguish, panic, or despair.  As the strategies of control continue to fail and frustrate you, as you become more and more depleted by worry or depression, one inescapable truth begins to emerge: control is an illusion.  Life cannot be controlled. – Self Coaching, by Joseph J. Luciani, Ph.D.

This is a hard truth that I learned all too well this past winter.  Life cannot be controlled, not with any amount of determination, good intentions, or perseverance.  You can set out on the water and hoist your sails, but there is no way to make the wind blow, or change its direction.  The best you can do is chart your course well away from the rocks and shoals for a margin of safety, and constantly tend to your sails and rudder, adjusting them with knowledge and skill to make the best of whatever wind is blowing.  Most importantly of all, check the calendar and be sure to sit out the hurricane season to wait for that time of year that offers the most favorable conditions for both the wind and the tides.  Or at least, stay close to a safe harbor at all times until the season arrives when it is safe to venture out over bluer waters.  You have to know the seasons…

In my determination to control my life, I ignored these basic rules of nautical science.  I jibed when I should have tacked, and a vicious headwind tore my sails to shreds and left me a marooned castaway.  In early January, after our best attempts to save it, a final fracas occurred that erased any lingering doubt that my second marriage was simply not meant to be.  I was now a man with no job, no money, no family, and no home to call my own.  I wasn’t even sure where home was for me anymore.  I only knew one thing for certain – I couldn’t stay at my friend’s home indefinitely.  There was only one thing to do now, since my rescue off this island was going to take a miracle.  I prayed, of course, straight from my heart, to the One who controls the wind and tides.

Ironically, my friend’s property is named Tuff Decision Farm.  I had certainly arrived there with more than a few tough decisions to make, but now I thought I was left with just one.  Since I felt like there was nothing holding me in New England anymore, I was now bent on leaving at all costs and moving back West to live with my folks.  The only question was whether it made sense to rent a truck to move the few possessions I had left in storage, or just leave them there for a few months and make a dash for safe harbor with whatever clothes I could jam into my car.

Exactly one day later, just as I got off the phone with Penske, my phone rang.  It was my ex-wife – the first one, calling from Florida.  The first words out of her mouth left me stunned and speechless.  It was the last thing in the world that I expected to hear, and it took several seconds to sink in.

“I want to come home,” she said.  Then, after a pause with no reaction from me, she added, “We all do – the girls miss Connecticut, and we just want to get out of here and move back as soon as possible.  There’s nothing here for us.  I need your help, though.”

Suddenly, I didn’t have any more decisions to make.  Only a choice.  Thank God, I chose to stay put and be a father again, and to crawl out of that pit of despair into which I had fallen.  I was getting my kids back.  This meant, of course, that I still had to not only get my strength back, but become stronger than ever.  In the meantime, my parents needed me back in Colorado, since my father was having surgery on his back.   I booked a flight to go help them for a week, and then I booked another one for Gainesville the week following.

When I returned, I would still have one more Tuff Decision to make – a tough choice…

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