Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dry Drunk

A work of fiction.

The alcoholics stuck together on the smoking portico. This was the only place smokers could congregate, according to regulations, and it provided a break from the monotony of the ward. Even though it was winter now, everyone stayed bundled up to not miss a single opportunity for a nicotine fix.  One man with skin like leather and blotchy places on his face told the story of his first wife.
The next wife I get, he said, is going to weigh 300 pounds and know how to cook. My last one was a looker, but good looking women are more trouble than they're worth.

The others seated nearby, taking periodic drags, cackling phelmy, throaty laughs. They were swapping stories, a regular pastime. They had five minutes to finish up before another on-site AA meeting. Though frequently intense and confrontational, AA was at least more interesting than a steady supply of lukewarm apple juice and individually wrapped graham crackers. Psych wards can be many things, but usually they are dull affairs full of forced small talk and lots of lying around, trying not to wallow in one's misery.

I was already consumed with a new way to kill time. It involved finding a ward crush. Being in close quarters with others for a long while increased the odds of finding one. During the hospitalization before last, I didn't even have to make the first move. A young woman my age acted unfailingly polite, offering me more than once the interesting-looking book she had recently finished. In the end, as I learned, it was my curly hair that was the clincher for her.

Most of the time, these efforts of mine went nowhere productive. Even if a mutual attraction existed, there was little more than we could do besides exchange phone numbers while sitting as closely next to each other as was allowed. It was like going to summer camp, if enrollment was fluid and ever-changing. Some were discharged and sent home, but new arrivals kept arriving in droves. It would be easier to form no attachments and not worry about whatever potentialities might or might not come to pass, but that's not the sort of person I am.

One particularly industrious woman, who possessed absolutely no work ethic but a genius IQ, played two interested suitors against each other. I was one of them. The two of us competed against each other like political candidates at a debate. Aware of her tactics, in my own defense, I had a weakness for tall redheads with brains. I knew I was being used, but didn't care. When pride, coupled with the promise of acquisition becomes a factor, it's extremely easy to act foolish.

It's a shame she never lived up to her potential, which was vast. I visited the pizzeria where she worked as a waitress, ten years later. By then she must have been in her early thirties. She pretended to not know who I was. I could have introduced myself, but I didn't want to brave an unwanted greeting. I paid my bill, left a reasonable tip, and departed.

The trainer for this latest session was conspicuously nervous, tightly-wound. I thought she was cute, so I small talked harmlessly, but with purpose. She talked about having obtained an overseas degree, from Oxford, I think. Then she dissected a movie she'd seen the night before.

We had things in common, a fact evident immediately. We could have gone forward from here, but like so many alcoholics in recovery, she doubted herself. We could have kept talking about something other than booze stories or broken promises. AA meetings are full of such things, full of raw nerves and shame.  

I'm not ready to be in a relationship. 

She even said it out loud, as though no one else could hear her except for me. Turning away from me, she sat quietly, in one of the seats placed in a large circle. I did not pursue her, but I took a seat directly across from me, in her field of vision. Our talk may have concluded, but I wasn't going away. The most frustrating interactions, in my estimation, are those concluded without each card turned upwards, every hand revealed.

One thing I could always promise to loved ones is that I would never lie to them about my drinking. I admitted to being intoxicated when I was. I admitted to getting behind the wheel while over the legal limit. My ex-wife never had to put me on the stand and subject me to a cross-examination. I knew I was a drunk and I made no bones about it. I never drank in secret and everyone knew that I was the first one at the liquor store, ten full minutes before it opened for the day's business.

So when other people weren't forthright with me about their own baggage, I had a tendency to get very indignant. I heard a thousand stories but always prized most the ones not couched in defensive language. I severely disliked addicts who had a particularly deplorable acumen for alibis. Those who do not want help are wasting their time and everyone else's.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Thinkin' 'bout the times you drove in my car.
Thinkin' that I might have drove you too far.
And I'm thinkin' 'bout the love that you laid on my table.

I told you not to wander 'round in the dark.
I told you 'bout the swans, that they live in the park.
Then I told you 'bout our kid, now he's married to Mabel.

Yes, I told you that the light goes up and down.
Don't you notice how the wheel goes 'round?
And you better pick yourself up from the ground
Before they bring the curtain down,
Yes, before they bring the curtain down.

Talkin' 'bout a girl that looks quite like you.
She didn't have the time to wait in the queue.
She cried away her life since she fell off the cradle.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Chloe Angyal and the Roots of Rape Culture

Before I begin, I want to state that I’m a Chloe Angyal fan. A feminist, a columnist, an activist, a lover of romantic comedies, and a former dancer, Angyal has been blessed with many talents. Those of us who write while wearing their heart on their sleeve, with an occasionally vicious compulsion for constant self-reflection, must stick together. I’ve watched as she's matured and progressed over the years. I’ve expressed sympathy for her tearful breakups with boyfriends, triumphed at her publication successes, and seen parts of myself in her example.

While an interview subject on MSNBC with Melissa Harris-Perry, back in December, Angyal made a particularly strong statement that some might say was a little inflammatory. She said, emphatically, that we live in a culture that hates women. Prior to that, she said, rather dramatically, that those who doubt the stories and accounts of sexual assault are stabbing these victims in the heart. Both statements were made in response to the numerous and all-too-frequently documented instances of rape on college campuses. Many are, as we know, never reported. But unlike Ms. Angyal, I wouldn’t go quite so far.

When I was in undergrad, a fifteen-year-old girl attained early enrollment. I got to know her a little because she was in my English composition class. I edited a few of her papers and she edited mine. Class over, our paths never crossed again. Within a year, I heard that she’d become the sexual plaything of several athletes.

Her numerous charges of sexual assault and supplying drugs and alcohol to a minor while on school grounds never went to trial, but were instead settled out of court with the university. At the same time that these offenses were being committed, I lived in a dorm on campus. Entering after hours required a magnetic key card, but not much else. Certain dorms were semi-policed, but it was easy to sneak in visitors and alcohol, especially.

Campus security where I attended school was notoriously lax. Only the most intense incidents required the police force of the city of Birmingham. Colleges and universities have only reluctantly agreed to be a semi-parental, a semi-law enforcement presence towards its student body. It is a lack of accountability and adequate on-campus security that leads, in part, to rapes and sexual assaults. This culture doesn’t hate women. Hating women, as is Ms. Angyal’s position, would require special effort. Most colleges and universities don’t focus enough attention on the problem at hand to hate much of anything, except for more work for them.

I do agree that we live in the midst of rape culture. A culture of misogyny with undercurrents of physical violence towards women exists. But in the end, someone must be responsible. We’ve said that rapists ought to not rape, and that it’s unfair to shift the burden onto women. An easy answer would be hiring more security or cops on the beat. But that’s only a protective, defensive response. We have to get inside heads and change behavior.

Getting the message across that No Means No alongside the notion of informed consent is more difficult. Recent advertisements and commercials have noted that everyone has an obligation to prevent rape and sexual assault. This is true. But the roots of criminal behavior, of which rape certainly is, are never that easily dissected. Some say we ought to blame the parents. Others say that a violent culture and the crime that goes along with it is responsible most of all. Each of these answers is correct in part, but not entirely.  

Education is not an answer in and of itself. Women are raised to be deferential, rather than persistent. In a case of trauma, women are even less likely to vocalize and report what happened to them. This requires a quantum leap in gendered expectations. These aren’t products of a culture that hates women. Our culture doesn’t like to think about survivors of any catastrophic event. We don’t like to see veterans with missing limbs and we don’t want to see the bruises of the battered wife. Seeing rape victims reminds many of us of the horrible parts of humanity.

As much as feminists emphasize their own views and their own protocol, a truly successful anti-rape strategy is going to need to include many moving parts. I’m not intelligent enough to eradicate an odious practice that goes hand in hand with wars of conquest and generally evil behavior. It's been around for a long time. But I do know that it will require more than anger, more than simply righteous rage. Even law-abiding citizens will rape and pillage when the opportunity presents itself.

That’s in the DNA of many, usually to be unleashed under terrible circumstances. And unless we examine its great taproot, which is within us, rape and sexual assault will continue. A harsh kind of punishment like this doesn’t hate women, it hates for the sake of hatred. Sometimes I think we ought to more closely inspect what makes us hate before we can ever ask what makes us rape.

Quote of the Week

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me- Bob Dylan, "Visions of Johanna"

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Saturday Video

Can't stay at home, can't stay at school.
Old folks say 'You poor little fool'.
Down the streets I'm the girl next door.
I'm the fox you've been waiting for.

Hello, daddy. Hello, mom.
I'm your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!
Hello world! I'm your wild girl.
I'm your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!

Stone age love and strange sounds too.
Come on, baby, let me get to you.
Bad nights causing teenage blues.
Get down ladies, you've got nothin' to lose.

Hello, daddy. Hello, mom.
I'm your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!
Hello world! I'm your wild girl.
I'm your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!

Hello, daddy. Hello, mom.
I'm your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!
Hello world! I'm your wild girl.
I'm your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!

Hey, street boy, want some style?
Your dead end dreams don't make you smile.
I'll give you something to live for.
Have you and grab you until you're sore.

Hello, daddy. Hello, mom.
I'm your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!
Hello world! I'm your wild girl.
I'm your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!

Cherry bomb!
Cherry bomb!
Cherry bomb!
Cherry bomb!

Friday, January 23, 2015

The March for Life and the Limits of Religious Choice

I was on the subway yesterday on my way to an appointment. As I approached the platform, about to board the train, I noticed that at least four cars, maybe more, were completely full. Their contents were high school students, girls exclusively. By means of identification, they wore the same knit caps in purple and white. The word "Life" was prominently displayed across the brim, along with an acronym I didn't understand.

Through direct inquiry of one of the students seated nearby, I learned that they attended the same conservative Catholic school somewhere in Maryland. My first polite inquiry had been summarily ignored by an older male adult chaperon, perhaps a teacher, so I asked a teenage girl seated nearby for more information. Earlier during the day, there had been a large Pro-Life rally, the so-called March for Life. That was the reason for the "Life" designation on everyone's headgear.

I'm about as pro-choice as it comes, even referring to pro-life supporters as anti-choice. Though my libertarian father and I differ in many ways, his stance on abortion rights led him to be on the local board of Planned Parenthood for a time. This is to say that I don't understand the arguments made by those who would end legalized abortion. What mainly troubled me yesterday is that I find it distasteful when children, even older children like teenagers, are used as props to advance some greater ideological point.

One could even suggest that at fourteen or fifteen, kids simply aren't old enough to form their well-reasoned own political views. It took college for my nascent political consciousness to emerge, to question and weigh out the politics of my parents and decide what my own should be. It is said that a person's political views are not set into cement until around the age of twenty-four.  

A public school would not have been able to get away with a thing like this. Doing so would be asking for a lawsuit. Even if a minority group of students who identified as pro-life wanted to go on a trip to Washington, DC, to protest, I doubt the request would be granted. The only loophole I foresee was if the group agreed to not directly advertise the name of the school with which they were affiliated. This was not the case with the Catholic school I mentioned earlier.

Though they were cautious to not spell out directly the name of the school, even initials can be incriminating. This is what concerns me most. We're a nation supposedly built on the notion of a separation between church and state. But when it comes to schools with a religious bent, we allow these sorts of activities to proceed. The recent Hobby Lobby case is one such example and there are others yet to come.

I've never heard of a group of young Quakers enrolled in a Friends school that collectively headed to an anti-global warming rally or a pro-choice day of solidarity. Should I be wrong, I welcome anyone to correct me and I take no offense. If parents choose to take their children and their marching shoes to the streets, then that's a very different situation. If a minority group of students under the auspices of a school club wanted to attend, then that, too, is a different matter. But if the entire school was compelled to participate, or the event was a formally scheduled school event, the nature of the argument changes.

What I observed seemed more like a field trip than a group outing. The girls chatted casually with each other, but I didn't observe a kind of intensity of purpose that I do with many who consider themselves serious activists. They acted like students thankful for a day off from school. I've fallen into that category myself when I was that age.

Religious exemptions have always been a political hot potato. I'm sure that, in this instance, the private school in question was likely within its legal rights. What I object to is not so much the cause they support as the way in which they went about airing their grievances. Teenagers are still children, still very much minors. One of my major pet peeves is when I observe adults using kids for cheap emotional appeal. Whether they knew it or not, these students were representing a particular issue by virtue of their very presence.

I try very diligently not to force my religious beliefs down anyone's throat. The same is true with my political views. I enjoy pleasantly chatting with those who share a common cause with me, and I keep conversation at a surface level with those who do not. Many liberals have a kind of paranoia and hyper-vigilance when it comes to questions of whether they observe other people being manipulated against their will. Though it has basis in fact, these nagging worries may be little more than projecting. Some have even dismissed organized religion in any form as inherently toxic and designed to brainwash others. That's not necessarily so.

But I do think it's worth questioning whether the conduct mentioned above is acceptable. Should religious schools be allowed to take extremely partisan positions and involve minors in the process? As noted above, the cynic in me feels that teenagers might summarily dismiss the activity as harmless and quite perfunctory, rendering my anxieties needless. Even so, I know that the intention of this group trip is to reinforce a particular ideological issue, one in which I do not agree. I wouldn't want a pro-choice group of high schoolers from a Quaker school to participate collectively in a mass protest, either.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Notice

I've been asked to write a pamphlet specifically for a Quaker audience. Because of this new assignment, I will likely be posting a little less for a few weeks. I'm having to brush up on my Chicago Manual of Style, for starters. Grad school, now a full decade ago, was the last time I had to worry about a style manual of any kind.

Every publication has its own unique guidelines. A team of editors will meet together as a single body to determine whether they're satisfied with the finished product, or whether it needs more work. I know enough by now to recognize that no one's first draft is perfect and without correction, least not my own. I know the topic already and intend to use previously published material along with the newly written passages. Mostly this is an exercise in compiling, rather than strict creation.  

My Meeting is supportive of this task and I don't want to let them down. I know I'm writing for only a handful of Friends, maybe only a few thousand, but I know I have insight to share with those of my own faith.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Seat at the Table for the Mentally Ill

I lost the ability to sleep naturally, to the best of my reckoning, about eight years ago. To keep away insomnia, I take a very strong sedative that doubles as an antidepressant. Last night I didn't get much rest because I'm currently withdrawing from another medication, a tranquilizer known to most Americans as Valium. One can't come off of Valium or any of what are categorized as benzodiazepines cold turkey, and yet I've had to because I couldn't get in touch with my doctor.

Obamacare, by my direct observation, has been very effective in some areas and minimally effective in others. Psychiatrists in this city charge $700 out of pocket for a first-time appointment and around $200 for follow-up visits. Because I cannot pay enormous bills like these, even with Obamacare coverage, I have to go to the worst, least funded clinic in the District. Doctors will counter that health insurance companies don't reimburse them adequately enough to allow them to make much money. If that is the case, then our next set of reforms should ensure that a psychologist can make as much as a heart surgeon.

My psychiatrist is sharp and well-trained, but when the money and staffing isn't there, one has to improvise and prioritize. It shouldn't take me ten days of persistent inquiry to get medication refills. In a much more affluent setting, a nurse on call would handle this request within 1-2 days. Or, in some cases, a psychiatrist himself or herself would, in about the same amount of time. For every single area of specialization besides mental health, my insurance covers most of the charges I accrue.

These are the things money can buy. Dreams are wonderful things, but concrete plans are even more wonderful. Last night I heard President Obama talk about making sure to include those with mental illness in this grand coalition of our nation's population. I'm glad that I was finally noted in a Presidential address. Mentioning mental illness of any form in so public a forum would have caused deep shame and discomfort to everyone in my grandparent's generation. That's how far we've come and, don't get me wrong, I'm grateful. Yet, I kept hoping the President would offer specifics of where the money would come from and who would pay for it.

Health care in this country is still about access to coverage and the money to ensure it. The system needs to be fixed when a psychologist in private practice will charge upwards of $150-$200 per session often without taking any insurance because Medicare and other insurance plans only pay $60. As it stands now, my psychiatrist charges $150 for each session, but I'm sure his actual take-home pay is much less. Modern medicine should be a holistic experience, where a doctor takes the time to get to know his or her patients. Instead, patients are often rushed in and out for the sake of profit.

Again, I know that throwing money at a problem is no solution. But fully funding clinics for every American would provide, at minimum, jobs for nurses, doctors, physician's assistants, and secretaries. It's short-sighted in the extreme to overlook a pressing need such as this one. Though, as I noted above, we have come quite a ways in general mental health awareness, but a tremendous amount of stigma and misinformation still exists with mental illness. Far too many people are not being treated because they are being denied access to coverage. They can't pay the cost or take off work easily to be properly treated.

The American health care system is still based on profit. I don't expect a single-payer system to ever be passed into law. What I do know is that it will take time for Obamacare reforms, as enacted, to show evidence of their stated goals. Rural Maryland needs psychiatrists and psychologists as much as Washington, DC. The difference is that more profit can be collected from affluent urban dwellers than rural residents. Capitalism and our continued reliance on it continues to trip us up. Casting blame on one group or another isn't fair. We are shackled together by a system that will always reward privilege and increased income first.