Zac and Kurt

There are many odd ducks in this world, but those who truly enjoy the week before Christmas would have to be some of the strangest. Whether it is last second preparations; gift buying, packing for travel, odds and ends at work before a week out of the office, or that calendar-driven dredge of our mucked filled canals we call memory, there is no shortage of stimuli designed to throw a monkeywrench into this week before Christmas.

The last couple of years, I’ve gotten to add plenty to the monkeywrench pile, whether it was the first Christmas without Anna Zarse or last year when my family had to deal with the murder of Auntie Suzanne and the death of Grandpa after 50+ years of growing Christmas trees. Everyone has some hurt they are carrying around, and more often than not it bubbles to the surface during those short cold days in December.

Christmas took on a different meaning seven years ago for me after we laid to rest Zac Gary.

In one of the most poignant scenes in one of the all-time great television shows, Mad Men, Don Draper pitches his concept for the “Carousel” by Kodak, an automatic slide projector. As he shows pictures of his wife and kids, he talks about the meaning of nostalgia in Greek, which he says means, “the pain from an old wound.” By the end of his presentation, he has a tear streaming down his cheek, and others in the room have had to walk out to avoid breaking down in front of the clients.

Zac Gary became my responsibility before he became my friend. As an aggressively average athlete, but a willing team player, it was decided that I would be tasked with making sure that the best linebacker on our freshman football team would remain academically eligible. After a couple of trips to the counselor’s office, it was decreed that Zac Gary would be put in every English class with me and that I was to do everything in my power to keep him on the field with a passing grade.

Turns out, that is not the glamorous position on the football team that every little boy dreams about, but as a people-pleasing oldest child, I did what was asked.

Trying to get Zac to pass English was tough for a variety of reasons, his academic apathy being chief among them. However, by sheer determination, we got through Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and whatever other nonsense we were tasked with reading and evaluating.

Zac and I made quite the pair in an English class, the class clown and the bored debater who had been taught more rigorous English in 5th grade than BNL saw fit to teach sophomores. One of us was always getting yelled at, and occasionally we even deserved it. Mrs. Kurtz in particular took several stitches out of both of us as I informed her that the fact that my analysis wasn’t written in her teacher’s guide didn’t make it wrong, while Zac heckled her that Moorman knew more than the teacher in his froggy, adolescent, cracking voice that seemed to rise an octave every time he got excited. (We both got sent to the principal’s office for that one. It was an early lesson in “managing up” for me.)

Every time we had a paper, Zac would come rolling over in his rust-bucket brown S-15 that he was always perilously close to putting into a ditch at high speeds and we’d start working, by which I mean that I’d start working and Zac would pull out every weapon in his comedic arsenal to get me off track.

We made it through 4 semesters before no one could justify putting us in the same English classes any longer, Zac failed plenty of subjects, but English was not one of them.

After high school, Zac did what the boys of limited academic achievement did from Bedford, Indiana in 2005, he joined the Army and got an all-expenses paid trip to Iraq. I’m sure that Zac made a great soldier. He was quick with a wisecrack and the single most physically fearless person I have ever known. After 16 months in Iraq, he was given the Army Commendation Medal for acts of courage and heroism, before getting sent home to Bedford on leave around Christmas. I saw him once that Christmas break while I was home for Bedford, and something had changed in Zac and not for the better. War has a way of aging youth into something altogether different, and Zac was no exception. Unfortunately, home was more dangerous for Zac than a warzone, and he fell victim to an opioid overdose like so many have in rural America in the 21st century, passing away on December 15, 2014.

Not having my father’s native knowledge of arcane dates, I didn’t realize that it was the anniversary of that loss last Wednesday when Kit and I sat down to watch “Unstuck in Time,” the new documentary on Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut has long been one of my favorite writers, and as a proud Hoosier, his absurd
“science fiction” satire of a world that has lost its mind hits me on levels deeper than most.  

His most famous book is Slaughterhouse 5, which was a brutally tough book to write for the man who had been a prisoner of war at the age of 22 when the architecturally unparalleled city of Dresden Germany was demolished into a post-apocalyptic moonscape of death while he listened to the “footsteps of giants” from his underground slaughterhouse holding cell.

It was enough to make Vonnegut a lifelong pacifist.

In that vein he presented us with this poignant quote:

“What war has always been is a puberty ceremony. It’s a very rough one, but you went away a boy and came back a man, maybe with an eye missing or whatever but godammit you were a man and people had to call you a man thereafter.”

Having grown up with many of the boys who became men in the mountains of Afghanistan and the hellish sandy wastelands of Iraq, I understand the unfortunate truth of what Vonnegut is saying.

Recently I finished a biography of Robert E. Lee, which seemed a necessary supplement to my limited knowledge of the American Civil War. For all his notorious use as a posthumous symbol, while he ate, slept, and defecated, Lee was a man who attempted to act with his hardwired sense of noblesse oblige in the endeavors he undertook.

Generals, at least those who aren’t sociopaths, are forced to expend the lives of boys and men in pursuit of political aims, for as Von Clausewitz reminds us, “War is a mere continuation of politics by other means.”  

Even success requires that lives under a general’s direct command will be lost, and those losses affect the men in the command tent both specifically and in the aggregate. That takes a toll on any general whose humanity has not been completely lost.

It took its toll on Lee, and while his more ideological underlings begged him at Appomattox to disband the Confederate Army so that the men could carry out a guerrilla war, he would not subject his home to the brutality of hungry guerillas acting as brigands to continue fighting a lost war. That single act was arguably one of the greatest actions in American history.

Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan showed us the cost in blood and treasure of trying to fight guerrillas in their native lands. Brutality, whether it be murder, rape or theft, are inevitable consequences.

Kurt Vonnegut was never a general, just a grunt looking to get through a war with his life and preferably all his appendages. He saw the meatgrinder that war had become, and saw that all glory in war was mere moonshine, even as he fought what he would always consider to be “one of humanity’s very few just wars.”

Vonnegut managed to speak to a generation during the Vietnam War, regardless of their race, status, privilege or class. He managed to speak to me as a Hoosier does, with that Hoosier accent that “sounds like a buzzsaw cutting through galvanized tin” even from the alleged silence of a typed page. While our Hoosier upbringings were about as culturally different as two men who grew up in the same state could have, with his family being amongst the pre-Depression German elite of Indianapolis surrounded by prosperous cousins, aunts and uncles and mine being in the little Rust Belt town of Bedford whose halcyon days ended 10 minutes before the Moormans showed up, there is always a level of unspoken understanding in any interaction between two Hoosiers.

Vonnegut’s contemporaries were drafted to the greatest cataclysm in human history, whereas mine volunteered to take the least shitty of the choices offered. We saw, him in real-time and mine with the distance of veterans returning, what war does to boys.

This summer, I became engaged in a short argument that was only kept from becoming vicious by the leash my wife so graciously yanks occasionally to keep me out of trouble. A man of no small means and four sons suggested sending the US military in to “clean up the cartels in Mexico.” My ire was raised by a few glasses of wine as he suggested how “easy it would be if we’d just go do it.” This man, whom I love as family, continued down this path until I looked at him and said, “So which one of your sons are you sending to fight this war?”

The leash was pulled forthwith.

Globalization and financialization have allowed Americans to “export unpleasantness.” We don’t think about the poor soul in Congo digging rare earth metals amongst toxic fumes as we mindlessly tap on our smartphones, and we don’t think about the men and boys that we sent to Afghanistan until our “cessation of hostilities” becomes a fiasco. We have the AMERICAN privilege of allowing all that unpleasantness to happen offscreen.

The first 14 years of my life were marked by the greatest rising tide of liberty and peace in human history, wherein the Soviet Union and the Lenin-Marxist experiment which brutally enslaved humans across the globe was shown to be a chimera.

Then September 11th happened, and the tide of human liberty reached its highest point and began to ebb. Pairing this with the explosion of the internet, a leveling mechanism unseen in human history comparable only to Gutenberg’s printing press, we found that freedom no longer looked very free.

We were told that the pursuit of peace required war, and having just buried 3000 of our countrymen, that logic held long enough to get us into two quagmires halfway around the world.

Those quagmires ensnared the boys I grew up with and turned them into men. Some of those men were irreparably damaged, while others came back ready to be upstanding citizens who worked daily to ensure that their children would have better options than volunteering for war at 18.

All this time, we fought a war on drugs, a war that cost us more lives than either of our military endeavors. All too often the victims of one war became the victims of another, and in my mind, those wars will always be personified in the acne-ridden face of a wildman with two first names, Zac Gary.

As we think about our blessings this Christmas season, all the while dealing with the bubbling of damaged emotions that the holidays so often bring, I’d ask you to do something positive with it. My personal causes of choice after writing this are:

The Wounded Warrior Project

Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library

I don’t write professionally, but people seem to enjoy it sometimes. If you think you’ve gotten any value out of any of it, please make a donation in honor of Spc. Zachery D. Gary this Christmas season. I’d really appreciate it.

12 Steps to Freedom

“What has been America’s most nurturing contribution to the culture of this planet so far? Many would say Jazz. I, who love jazz, will say this instead: Alcoholics Anonymous.”

-Kurt Vonnegut

As I’ve touched on in previous posts, a huge part of travel is the people you interact with in the most random of circumstances. Those interactions can be as fleeting as a shared tuk-tuk ride where you get some advice on the next place you’re headed, but they can also reveal something about the human condition in a conversation just as limited.

One interaction which has taught me as much as any I’ve ever had has been the last two weeks with my Muay Thai training partner Glenn.

Glenn is an addict in recovery. He’ll be four years sober in a few weeks, he is still adamant that he is IN RECOVERY. He makes no illusions that his sobriety is permanent, any more than someone between bouts of Crone’s disease would say that he is cured.

Even the language that he uses to speak about his addiction is an important part of his sobriety. We’ve talked extensively about the 12 steps of abstinence based recovery.

1. We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10.   We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11.   We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12.   Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

I met Glenn as I was breaking my training regimen, having a few beer Leos with the trainers at an impromptu BBQ in the “break room”, a hand built shack a few meters from the gym. We were all laughing and joking, the English getting a little more broken as the Sangsum was poured and the jokes becoming a little more bawdy and physical with every drink.

Glenn walked up to ask about training at Lanta Gym, and since the best English speaker in the bunch wasn’t present, they sent him to the newly minted VP of Marketing, yours truly.

I quickly offered him a beer, as that is the polite thing that I’ve always been conditioned to do. He politely declined, saying he doesn’t drink. In their inebriated state, the trainers didn’t exactly understand this, and thought that he just felt bad about drinking our beer. He firmly declined again, explaining to me that he was in recovery and nearly 4 years sober. I called off the dogs, and convinced him that I really enjoyed training at the facility, so he signed up for a week.

It was nice to have another native English speaker in the bunch, as the only other one in the gym previously was Christian, a gigantic Swede who had been in serious Muay Thai training for nearly two years. While he is a spectacularly nice guy, he is Swedish, and from personal experience, I can attest that they are a funny bunch with outsiders.

Glenn and I became fast friends, taking most of our meals together as we were training at the same times. During our meals and through our conversations, he enlightened me about the nature of addiction in general and his specifically. He spoke with remarkable candor and confidence about his life both before and after sobriety. Those conversations quickly became among the most meaningful I’ve ever had.

I remembered reading the quote above in one of my many readings of Vonnegut, but the 12 steps had never really had an impact in my life. Aside from one family friend who broke the bonds of addiction through abstinence based recovery, my experience with them was incredibly limited.

One of the first things we talked about was the spiritual nature of the 12 steps. Growing up where I did, Christianity was the only game in town besides the handful of Hindu families that called Bedford home. I’ve often joked that I thought that Jews were like unicorns until I was 18; something you read about in books but never actually saw.

10 minutes after I arrived in NYC, I realized how comical that notion was.

The spiritual portion of the 12 steps is an integral part of the process. There has to be a submission to something beyond yourself, whether Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or New Age Spirituality. The steps don’t discriminate, they merely require an acknowledgement of a higher power.

This is important, because the nature of addiction causes there to be an all-consuming focus on the individual at the cost of any relationship, job or connection to the outside world. The balance between ego and self-esteem becomes a inverted pyramid, perilously hanging like the sword of Damocles over loved ones all around.

Glenn spoke candidly about his life leading up to sobriety. From putting friends and relatives at risk by stashing drugs in their homes, to the absolute tunnel vision that addiction can bring about. At the time he decided to get clean, he was consuming a gram or more of cocaine every day, in addition to crack, heroin and downers to come back down from an amount of blow that could probably kill a quarter-horse.

I know that many of my readers have no concept of how much that is, (obviously anyone reading from the COMEX floor knows exactly how much that is, and are probably making bets on the over/under of the amount currently on certain individuals on the floor. REDZ put me in on the over, I’m good for $20.)

Glenn’s addiction led him into countless hospital beds, whether the result of overdosing, injuries from brawls, or the total destruction of his stomach lining from the amount of corrosive substances he was consuming. He said at one point, he was lying in a hospital bed. As he came to, his mother was at the side of his bed bawling. She told him, that every mother’s worst fear is receiving that knock at the door from a uniformed policeman asking if they are the mother of so and so.

Through her tears, she told him that he had made that fear a reality time and time again, and it was physically and emotionally destroying her. Yet, his addiction was so all-consuming that even this couldn’t assuage his need for the next fix.

Eventually he saw the light, and saw that the road he was on was leading either to death or prison. Forced to sell drugs in order to fund his own addiction, the numbers, amount and risk leapt exponentially higher and higher. He knew that at any moment he could receive a knock on the door that would be the police or worse, an armed intruder coming to steal his cash and drugs.

He was lucky, and as he said, addiction is a down elevator but you don’t have to go all the way to the basement in order to get off. He attended a meeting and never looked back.

Even at this stage, nearly four years after he smoked, drank or consumed any pill with a narcotic effect, he is still working through the steps daily. Several times, I’ve knocked on his door to see if he is ready to go to dinner and he is standing there with his 12 steps workbook in hand, still working daily to beat an addiction which at any point could overcome his will to control it.

He spoke about the different individuals who have helped him. There have been sponsors who have held him from the abyss in moments of weakness as well as those who have bravely shared stories at meetings that continually affirmed the fact that he was stronger than his disease.

He’s spoken about the meetings he’s attended while on travel, from Thailand to Cambodia, with men and women who have been IN RECOVERY for up to 25 years, but still attend the meetings religiously as they believe that it is both necessary and to re-commit themselves to helping others looking to take control of their condition.

My hometown has a drug problem to rival any in the nation. One of my best friend’s father has been our county sheriff for years, and he has been on the front lines of a battle that has morphed from alcohol, to CAT to that most insidious of proletariat drugs, meth.

Sisyphus himself pities that endless struggle, but God bless that man for suiting up every day and trying to push the rock up that hill.

I can’t open the website of my local newspaper without seeing the skeletal faces of those addicts who have not made the decision to confront the disease. Former Boys Club kids of mine, who I remember as 3rd and 4th graders playing dodgeball and pranking me behind the counter, looking older than me by a decade as the drugs have destroyed their youth. One of my best childhood friends is currently behind bars for heroin, a good man whose personal life spiraled out of control while he found temporary solace in a drug that sought only to destroy him.

I can’t even count the number of dead that attended high school with me, both from prescription drugs and street.

Glenn has also talked at length about the additional reading he’s done outside the meetings, trying to understand the true nature of addiction. He’s found some interesting things, both about addicts and the human condition in general.

One thing that I’ve found interesting is the various ways that addiction manifests itself. Addiction is more than a drug or alcohol problem. It can show up in gambling, shopping, eating, or even seemingly positive things such as working out.

Glenn spoke about the fact that after he got sober, that his addiction manifested itself in a manic devotion to the gym. While most people would be ecstatic to have the drive to be at the gym for three hours a day, Glenn eventually realized that it was just a substitution effect. His relationships were still suffering because his addiction was stealing away the time that he needed to nurture them.  This was still the disease driving his behavior, whether the outlet was “healthy” or not.

Many Americans have found themselves with hall passes for addiction. Somehow a scribbled note on a piece of paper reading Rx allows people to believe that they don’t have a problem.

As the friend of several men cut down long before their time due to prescription drugs, please let me disabuse you of that notion.

That nightly ritual of a half bottle of white wine and a Zanax is no less an addiction than the man injecting heroin on a street corner. The fact that a “respected doctor” sanctions it does nothing to change that fact.

Addiction is without question a disease, but it is one that most people are terrified to talk about.

My family has had more than our fair share of struggles with alcohol. My father has spoken often about the familial carnage that an alcoholic leaves in their wake. He found respite in Al-Anon as a young man and he credits that with helping break a cycle which sees so many children of addicts struggle with the same issues that ruined their own childhoods. There is a cycle of co-dependence and childhood trauma which can run destroy generations of otherwise loving families.

I thank God that my father had the bravery to confront the painful issues of his childhood before they came to affect my brother and me. I’ve seen others in my family who never did deal with those issues, and even when the cork was in the bottle or the fork was in the drawer the effects of addiction were never fixed.

Glenn’s own father put the cork in the bottle some 20 years ago. He did it the hard way, through sheer piss and vinegar, steps and God be damned. While he’s been stone sober for the past 20 years, his addiction is no less a problem today than it was when he was drinking. He merely let his addiction manifest itself in work instead of the bottle. The problems, while fewer, were never truly gone.

There was never the submission to a higher power, never the rebalancing of ego and self-esteem, and never the painful but necessary amends made to those who fell victim to the addiction.

That’s what the 12 steps are about, a full and continuous recovery from a disease that can strike anyone, regardless of circumstance or social standing.

There should be no more shame in addiction than cancer. Addiction is not a moral failing, it is a disease that affects those from all walks of life. An addict is neither good nor bad, merely one who suffers from a disease.

The only shameful thing is to not acknowledge it for what it is; a disease to be battled, every single day.