The Great Experiment

26 06 2015

Bard Owl

Back to contemplating Meaning and Being while my book goes to the printer.

How does a person decide was is right? Right conduct, right priorities, right choices in who to be and whom to be with. Nearly all of us grapple with this question at one time or another, some of us more than others. We tend to buy our life philosophies off the rack. The easiest path is the one we were brought up with. Catholic, Baptist, Jewish; Democrat, Socialist, Conservative; we have ingrained guidelines, and if we are in doubt, there are authorities we can turn to.

Or, we can poke around and find out what else there is to believe, and pick something congenial. New Age Pagan perhaps, or Buddhist, or just choose a guru whose preachings resonate with you. Deepak Chopra or Dr. Wayne Dyer, or even Earl Holt III.

But why choose one over another? If we just take on a life philosophy like a suit, why ever question it? Why would a child grow to question the wisdom of a parent, or a priest question the teachings of a church? What causes that gut reaction of, “Yes, that makes sense to me,” or “No, they’ve got that wrong.”?

Because at the heart of it, we all have an innate sense of what is right and wrong. Even monkeys and dogs have a sense of justice. Much as we might want to shrug off responsibility for making moral choices, deferring to authority rather than making our own judgements and risking being wrong, the moral buck stops with us. There is some unconscious part of us that reacts to ideas and behaviors, judging them valid or invalid. And like so much else about us humans, it varies wildly.

So we can throw up our hands and embrace nihilism, relativism, or some other brand of Nothing Matters So Why Bother, or we can accept the rules of the game as given and work with them. We have to make choices. We might at well do our best to make enlightened ones.

It is quite likely that we can thank evolution for what we are, including our subconscious impulses. Empathy and cooperation solidified bonds among individuals in a group and enhanced their survival. But under some circumstances, selfish, anti-social behavior worked better, and so that was perpetuated, too. Sometimes embracing novelty is good. Sometimes sticking to what’s tried and true is good. Life is complicated and different strategies work depending on the situation. Humans excel at adapting. Our behavior can be extremely variable, thus we have an arrow in the quiver for whatever game we find.

So here we are, billions of individuals, all running a massive experiment in which life philosophy works best. Is it better to identify the enemy and destroy them? Or is it better to overcome differences and create alliances? Should we be socialistic, or ruggedly independent? Worship and obey without question, or refuse to cooperate when we think authority is wrong?

Each of us has a role to play in this vast experiment. We see how, over time, even within institutions like an organized religion, rules and beliefs change considering what works and what doesn’t. We don’t stone adulterers to death anymore. At one time, that made sense to pretty much everyone. But it proved to be a bad policy which most of us have rejected. There are still individuals out there who would advocate for it (in Saudi Arabia for example); that gut reaction hasn’t completely died out yet. But our social evolution would appear to favor mercy over retribution.

As communication improves (thank you, Internet) we have much more to consider. We have many alternatives to what we were brought up with. If we are the sort who feels that breaking the bonds of tradition is a good thing, we can strike out on our own and build a life philosophy that suits us precisely, then share it with others to see if it resonates with them. We can continue to tweak and fine-tune our philosophy as we try to live it and encounter problems. We run the experiment for ourselves. What tends to work better? Reaching out to others, or minding my own business? Trust or suspicion? Self-indulgence or self-discipline?

By my way of thinking, a practice works if it tends towards happiness and away from suffering. And by happiness I don’t necessarily mean pleasure. I mean the sort of inner peace and satisfaction that makes a person feel their life is good. And because people who feel that way are much better to be around, I want happiness for as many others as possible. So this is my contribution to the great experiment. I find Buddhism congenial, have a great respect for science, tend towards liberalism and socialism. I value compassion and empathy, and believe that being concerned with the happiness of others contributes to my own happiness. This is the life philosophy I am building (it is a work in progress) based on the person I am.

Each of us does this, more or less, consciously or unconsciously. With our nearly infinite variability, we contribute to the experiment.

And over time, the best philosophy shall succeed.

The cover of Awake Chimera

19 06 2015

Cover Design Flat sample

As I said to Angi, it never ceases to amaze me how an artist can take a dream and make it manifest. I’ve worked most of my life to master the art of doing this with words. Crafting language to be the vehicle to transport a story from one mind to many. Choosing the words best suited to capture emotion, sensory experience, inner struggle and external striving, drama and humor. The commercial aspect of a writer’s work too often cynically drains the sublime magic from this process. But that’s another rant.

In the course of having cover art for my novel done, I have had the privilege of seeing a vague vision in my head turned into a reality that other eyes can see. This is neither simple nor exact. Readers of even the very best writing often come away with ideas of what characters or settings look like that are different from what the writer had in mind, or what others readers envision. How often has the movie version of a beloved book been a disappointment because you didn’t picture it that way at all?

Angi and I went back and forth via email (she’s in Connecticut and I’m in New Hampshire) trying to triangulate in on an image that would do the trick. We started with sketches, then moved on to a painting which had to be tweaked and modified repeatedly. Sometimes I asked her to change something that just wasn’t right. Other times she came up with something that was actually better than what I had in mind. That’s the beauty of working with a professional. I got my money’s worth.

Or should I say, my backers got their money’s worth. I couldn’t afford to pay Angi what she asked for. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to offer her less. Artists, like writers, deserve to be paid for what they do. You can’t pay the bills with “exposure”. My publisher would supply artwork, but its a small press, if a respectable one. They don’t have a stable of professional artists on hand. I’d get a cover that was striking, professional-looking, but somewhat generic.

Angi suggested crowd-sourcing, something I’d never done before. We went with Kickstarter. I did the thing I hate most, putting myself out there and begging, and by jiminy, people came forward and helped out. I got 30 backers, plus a couple who just handed me cash. Thanks to them, I was able to hire Angi. Their support helped both the artist and the writer advance their dreams.
Cover Painting cropped small

So instead of a generic cover, I got Shaka Mahdi, on her ship, watching Prilock emerge from the marsh having discovered how to become a bird and fly. It is a moment of exaltation; he is discovering his power, his freedom, the legacy he has but to rise up and seize. She is happy for him, but wonders if this also means she will lose him. What use has a god for a mere mortal creature, however fond he may be of her?

The book will be going into final production as soon as the other particulars are settled: author bio and head shot, dedication, layout of the back cover, and so forth. The publisher will take care of getting the ebook formatted and into all major outlets, and setting up the dead tree version. Double Dragon is primarily an ebook publisher, but they do make print copies available on demand. I’ll be getting a box of 50 to take to the release party at Pi-Con And no, they do not come to me free. I pay for them, and then must recoup the investment. So every freebie comes directly out of my pocket. The Kickstarter funds cover Angi’s work, and the backer rewards, plus the processing fees that Kickstarter charges. Anything left over will go towards other expenses. There are always other expenses. This is why most writers of fiction can’t afford to quit the day job. This, and readers hooked on draconian Amazon discounts. Who do you think takes the hit for those? Not Amazon. But that’s another rant.

Never mind. Today I am happier than any human has a right to be. It is a beautiful day in June, I have a fantastic cover for my book, which will be out in another month, I have Pi-Con coming up, my favorite convention, and I have friends who will make sure I get there and get home again. And, thanks again to friends and family, I am heading to the North Country this weekend. I’ll be getting out and, rain or shine, taking to the trails. Staying two nights in my friend Mary’s cabin. Restoring my soul.

Life is good.

The Fire in the Theater

12 06 2015
Artist Andres Serrano and his inflammatory work, "Piss Christ".

Artist Andres Serrano and his inflammatory work, “Piss Christ”. Note damage done by protesters.

A couple of days ago, Reddit announced a crackdown on hatespeech on its subreddits, five of which were banned because of their overt racism, trans- and homophobia, and fat-shaming. No surprise, this created a bit of a stir.

On the one hand, you’d be hard-pressed to make a credible defense of the specific speech involved, which not only slammed the victims brutally, but advocated off-forum harassment as well. It’s the sort of thing that would make any intelligent, compassionate person cringe. There is absolutely no justification for it, and the world is a poorer place for its existence.

On the other hand, free speech.

Mind you, as a writer, blogger, and enthusiastic supporter of a free and unregulated Internet, I believe in the freedom to express ideas. I don’t think I need to list in tedious length the number of times a society has suffered and progress been crippled because an authority decided that certain ideas were “dangerous” or “unacceptable and inappropriate” and imposed silence.

We also know that yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is not free speech but a deliberate act of irresponsible malice.

But is saying that “Fat people have no right to live” the expression of an opinion, or a deliberate act of irresponsible malice like the above example? Unfortunately, it is both. The person yelling “Fire!” is not expressing an opinion. The fat-shamer most likely is. And he knows people are going to be hurt by what he says.

There are certainly people who say things, not because they honestly believe them, but because they want to outrage. Their speech is purely for shock value, an act of verbally violent protest. (*cough* 4chan *cough*). Personally, I feel no obligation to protect speech like that. Speech that is used as a weapon, for no other purpose than to push limits, using the “F” and “N” words just because they know it will make somebody uncomfortable, gets no sympathy from me.

But, how does one prove intent? How to distinguish between the person who advocates the torment of transgender people because they honestly believe transgender people are abhorrent (an unpleasant, but honest opinion on their part) and the douchebag who says it just to see the reaction of horror? You can have your suspicions, but you can’t be sure. And once you start gagging people because you find their opinions repellant, you’re heading right into the swamp.

Meat DressAnd then there is, gods help us, Art. Remember “Piss Christ” artist Andres Serrano? He immersed a crucifix in a jar of urine to stunning effect. His intention was to protest the profaning of a sacred icon, so I am told. It also massively offended religious believers who doubted his motives or didn’t give a damn about them. How about Lady Gaga’s meat dress, which came with a long explanation from her that it wasn’t intended to be offensive to animal rights advocates, but a statement against the governmental restrictions placed on the rights of gay soldiers (a connection I have a little trouble making).  Said she, “‘If we don’t stand up for what we believe in, if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones.’ “

Guerilla art, street theater, performances whose very shock value is part of their message and purpose, all are legitimate forms of expression which a free society ought to tolerate as much as possible, as long as it doesn’t amount to the equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in that famously crowded theater.

So, back to Reddit, which has been known as a safe haven for stridently opinionated social outcasts of all stripes. It’s a free forum for the sharing of news stories, images, blogs, and, of course, comments thereupon. The volunteer moderators on most subreddits ask submitters of content to play nice, and for the most part, people do. Or they get called on it. Then there are the subreddits where you just don’t go because you know you will be unapologetically offended. I don’t go there. I stick mostly to the Science subreddit, and don’t think they don’t sometimes get a bit salty there, too. I used to subscribe to the Atheism subreddit, but grew weary of their echo chamber antics. Now I don’t go there, either. If the place makes you uncomfortable, leave it. But demanding it be shut down so no one else can go there either is a bit harsh.

As much as I wouldn’t want to be in the room, I have no right to prevent a group of like-minded people from getting together to spew contempt. (Now that I think about it, I HAVE been in that room — we were like-minded political and environmental activists spewing contempt for the government and corporations.) What worries me is that when groups like that get together, they feed off each other’s energy. They tend to gravitate towards greater extremes when their negativity is normalized by fellow travelers. They get the urge to take their free expression beyond the realm of speech and into action. That’s when people get hurt. Property gets defaced. Damage is done. (Or, in my case, marches were organized and votes gotten out. The sword slices in both directions.)

Perhaps society has a right in self-defense to discourage the proliferation of hate groups and abusive speech. True, there are laws that deal with hate when it spills over into action. But a very good argument could be made that this is like waiting until the weed sprouts to pull it, while ignoring the seeds settling all over the lawn. We can’t disregard human nature and the dynamics of social interaction. We wind up running around putting out fires while matches are still being freely circulated.

But perhaps that’s the best we can do. Just keep putting out the fires, arresting and fining or jailing people who go over the line from abusive speech to abusive action. And use our own rights to free speech to express viewpoints in opposition to hate and intolerance. Argue loudly and tirelessly against the purveyors of irrational prejudice and defend the objects of their tirades. Fight fire with fire.

And you know, they have subreddits for that, too.

Taking stock of where I am

5 06 2015


It’s good, every now and then, to pause and take stock. Take a deep breath, stop dashing from task to task, look at where you are. This seems like a good time for me to do that. Actually, there isn’t really a bad time to do it.

When I meditate, I try to focus on my breath. On the sense of my body. On the sounds around me. On the thoughts that inevitably hijack my attempts to focus. I have observed that three general topics tend to be the first to intrude. Writing is number one. I think about my next blog, or my next article. I think about who I should be contacting and what I should say. Where I should go with whatever piece of fiction I’m currently working on. I think about the ms. that is out to two beta readers and worry that the reason I haven’t heard from them is because it sucks. I think about the book I’m about to publish, Awake Chimera. I’m pretty sure this one doesn’t suck, since I’ve had two SF heavy hitters praise it. I’m confident enough in it that I approached a professional artist to do the cover, and did a Kickstarter to fund it. Never done a Kickstarter before. Never attempted crowdfunding. It succeeded, and that is good. I don’t know if I could do it again. I hate asking people for money.

I hate asking people for anything. Why is that? I don’t mind when people as me for favors. For help. Why does it bother me so to be in the position of needing? Is it pride? Hating to feel obligated, like I owe my benefactors? Does accepting help put me in a position of subservience somehow? I can analyze this into atoms, but it won’t change the core attitude. I’ve got this thing about asking for help.

Which makes the other big issue I’m dealing with even worse. I got some bad information from a clerk at the DMV, and so I am looking at a summer without a license. I was very careful to ask questions every step of the way, do everything I was told, follow up promptly. But I missed a piece because this clerk assured me I was all set. She was wrong. I missed a deadline to file for an ALS hearing, and now it’s too late. Even though I’m fine with the court, and the legal system says I can have my license back June 18, the DMV, which has its own rules and procedures, says no. I have to wait until September. Yes, its a stupid, inconsistent, unjust system. It screws poor people. So what else is new?

If I’d coughed up several thousand dollars for a lawyer, I could have avoided this. But I decided against it. I’d already cost my family enough. Even now, I don’t regret that decision, because at least house arrest for the summer doesn’t cost my family anything. I’m the only one who suffers. I’d rather have it that way. Except I will have to keep bugging people for rides. I have to ask for help. I hate that.

So I’m grounded for the summer. Can’t go anywhere without a chaperone. That’s going to have a major affect on the second thing that generally demands my attention when I’m trying to focus on my breath: Hiking. Mountains. Wilderness. And me in it. Some of my happiest memories are of me, alone, out in the woods. Everything I need is in my pack; I just walk. Free. No obligations other than to get to where I’m spending the night next. This is why hiking the Appalachian Trail has such an appeal. It’s simple. Your concerns are weather, over which you have no control, and walking, over which you have absolute control. And food supply. Eat what you have, then stop and get more. Water. Fill your containers whenever you can. Occasionally an opportunity presents itself for you to bathe and change clothes. But no one expects a thru-hiker to smell like a rose.

Just walk, and experience each moment as it comes, pleasant or unpleasant, new trail with its surprises presented to you each morning. Life reduced to pure simplicity.

I doubt I’ll be able to pull off hiking the AT any time soon. In fact, thanks to my inability to drive, I can only walk locally. No way to get to the mountains I love. Unless I get a ride. See paragraph three.

It’s only one summer. There will be others. But that equation means something different when you’re 58 as opposed to 28. I’m running out of summers. I’m running out of years. I had lunch with an old friend the other day. I enjoy the company of adults of all ages, but there are certain life experiences that you can only share with somebody your own age. We both are facing something similar. When you’re down to your last few dollars, what do you spend them on?

The third train that pulls into the mental station when I’m trying to maintain meditative focus is my husband. A lot of good years with a good man. Through no fault of their own, people change. Their goodness doesn’t change, but life has its effect. We all find ourselves bushwhacking through the jungle, and we come out places we didn’t expect. We pick up a lot of scratches and bruises along the way. It can strengthen a partnership or fracture it. One wants to go in one direction, the other doesn’t. Both feel strongly and both are right.

My sons and I often take walks in the evening. We talk, or I listen to them talking about stuff I barely have a clue about. Video games, Dungeons and Dragons, music. I don’t mind, because I want to know what they are into and what they think. And sometimes, like when they are talking about creating their D&D characters and backstory, I can help a little. Otherwise, I’ve discovered it’s best to keep my mouth shut. When things get heated between them, I feel the urge to play mom and try to settle things. Nope. They are adults, now. I’m here if they ask, but otherwise, I’ve done my thing and now they need to do theirs. So I listen.

In many ways they are so much alike. Geeky, passionate about science and truth, outraged by cruelty, injustice, and irrational behavior. But they each have their own take on things and get into vigorous debates, tugging in opposite directions like a couple of terrier puppies. From the outside, I can see the validity of both sides. I also see the impossibility of them coming to an agreement. Neither is going to convince the other. They’ll argue all the way up Blakes Hill Road and back down again while me and the dog trot along behind. Maybe they eventually work their way to some tentative resolution, but on the whole, they have to agree to disagree. That’s just the way it is.

Both feel strongly. Both are right. Coriander: It’s delicious; it’s disgusting. Hiking: It’s the best experience in the world; it’s difficult, exhausting, and pointless.

Whichever way you feel, nobody is going to change your mind. Because, from where you sit, looking out of your eyes, feeling what you feel, having walked your path and picked up your bruises and scars, you are right. You are entitled to your assertions and justified in making them.

Certain choices can lead to disaster. We try to avoid those. But we don’t really know where our choices are going to lead, or what might lie on the other side of an apparent disaster. Or an apparent success. That’s the problem with big decisions, the ones that keep us up at night and gnaw at us. We are scared we’ll do the wrong thing and regret it.

But maybe, just as there can be opposing opinions that are both just as right, there are no wrong choices. Just choices that don’t take you where you anticipated going. Decisions that don’t pan out the way you hoped. There are so many factors out of your control, factors you couldn’t possibly know about. All you can do is roll with it. Improvise. Check you compass, consult your map, scratch your head, and go from there. If you turn left, and you don’t like where it goes, who’s to say you would have liked turning right any better?

So, in this summer of ball and chain, I will take stock. See where I’m at. Do things I wouldn’t have done if I’d had the freedom to go as I’m accustomed to. Wherever you go, there you are.

Here I am.


31 05 2015

Success Owl


My Kickstarter is now officially over, and to my surprise (I’m such a pessimist) and delight, I have met my goal and more. I needed to hit $1,000, and my project has been backed to the tune of $1,066 (plus $10 that someone just handed me and said, “This is for your cover art. Good luck!”).  A total of 30 backers–31 if you count the generous Luddite who preferred to go with cash–some of whom I never would have expected.

Like Phyllis Yaffie, who I know only as a regular library patron, someone with whom I’ve had friendly conversations, but did not expect a donation from. Or Martha Claverie, a childhood chum who I haven’t talked to in what, at least 40 years, but who heard about the Kickstarter from a mutual friend on Facebook. Or the woman who babysat for our 21-year-old son when he was a toddler and she was a teenager. She’s all grown up with a family of her own, but she remembered me and found the cash to contribute.

Thanks to my husband Larry who regularly got it onto the Twittersphere, where I have not yet boldly gone. (It’s all I can do to keep up with Facebook. I’m socially awkward, media-wise.)

And then there are the organizations and groups who helped me get out the word, especially in the last week when I was so close yet still short of my goal: Broad Universe, the crew of the UBS Shameless, and the Pi-Con convention committee. You folks are awesome.

Finally, thanks to Angi Shearstone, who held my hand through the whole process (Kickstarter? New — scary — what do I do?) and to Jeff Warner, who planted the seed at Boskone.

Angi is already gearing up, getting her pad and pencils ready. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with. I’ll keep you all posted, of course, and hope that I’ll see some of you at the release party at the end of July. More on that later.

Here are the names of the backers, those who have helped me with a critical piece of the greater struggle to get my work out there. I’ve been a writer all my life, a published writer only recently, and by the gods, if success means you have fans and folks who believe in you, then as of now, a successful writer is what I am.

Awake Chimera Cover Art Backers:

Roberta Gatehouse
Phyllis Yaffie
Michael Whitehouse
Kristina Wolff
Martha Claverie
Debbie Nelson
Kat Toomajian
Terri Bruce
Annie (you and I know who you are)
Michelle D. Bouchard
Holden Richards
Samuel Montgomery-Blinn
Anna Erishkigal
Elaine Isaak
Michelle Murrain
Samantha Bryant
Lisa Cohen
Bruce Gray
Laura Fry
Anne Dube
David Katz
Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert
Trisha Wooldridge
Mary and Nick Jolles
Vernon John
Patrick Brennick
Dana van der Bijl
Maureen Mann
Audrey Burgwin

Your good karma is already on its way. Those who have chosen reward packages, they’ll be coming later.

Support your local writer (and artist)

6 05 2015
"Gearaffe", a sample of Angi Shearstone's work (and one of the perks for donating to the Kickstarter).  Click on the image to see more of Angi's work.

“Gearaffe”, a sample of Angi Shearstone’s work (and one of the perks for donating to the Kickstarter). Click on the image to see more of Angi’s work.

To all my friends and fans of my work, I need your help now. If you’d like to show your support for small press authors and artists trying to earn a living with their work, here’s a chance to do it. I’m running a Kickstarter campaign through the month of May to raise money to hire Angi Shearstone to do original artwork for my new book, Awake Chimera. It’s a science fiction novel due for release in July by the same publisher who released Archimedes Nesselrode. The publisher would, of course, provide artwork, but Double Dragon is a small press and can’t afford to keep a stable of professional artists on hand. They do a good job coming up with striking images for their covers, but not specialized artwork. (Please note: as a publisher, Double Dragon is great to work with, capable and conscientious, which is why they have been in business for 15 years, growing from a single imprint to eight, with over 1400 titles.)

We all know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the fact is, people do.  Isn’t that what attracts you, a reader, to pick up an unknown author’s book and look it over? You might glance at the cover blurbs (for Awake Chimera, you’d see this:  “Justine Graykin is a terrific writer, and Awake Chimera is a wonderful read. Gender politics, philosophy, and slam-bang action make for a heady brew in this first-rate story.” — Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Red Planet Blues). Then, intrigued, you might check out the plot summary (I’d have the following: “What does the asexual shape-shifting governor of a remote outpost in the swamp have in common with a hermaphrodite native struggling to fit into human society? Much more than either of them expected. United in their mutual dislike and distrust of the humans that dominate their world, their friendship develops into something more, something that might prove dangerous to them both. And when a deadly menace invades from the distant mountains, Shaka Mahdi and Prilock become the key to the survival of the very race they resent so much.”).

This would hopefully be enough to catch your interest and make you want to read the book. But first, that cover art has to get your attention. That’s where Angi Shearstone comes in. I met her at Boskone, a science fiction convention in Boston where we were both peddling our work at the Broad Universe table. Thanks to the suggestion of a mutual friend, I contacted Angi and we got to talking about various projects, including illustrations for Archimedes Nesselrode, possibly even a graphic novel version. But I’ve got a book coming out in July, and it seemed a logical first step to see how we worked together on the cover art for that.
cat brush painting

Angi is a professional who makes her living by illustration and design. It’s not easy. And she can’t afford to give her work away for free. And why should she? Writers and artists deserve to be paid for their work. A lot of effort and struggle goes into what we create. It takes time and materials, not just to create the work but also to promote it. Publishers — even the Big Five — do next to nothing to help writers promote their work. If they aren’t on the NY Times bestsellers list (and sometimes even if they are) authors are expected to do all the promotional work themselves.

This is where crowdfunding comes in. As individuals, most of us can’t afford to become generous patrons to some promising talent. But we can kick in a little bit. This is the grassroots way of saying to heck with the big corporations telling us what we ought to be consuming. This is the consumer saying we want some control. We want to choose whom to support. That’s you, folks. Whether it’s a game developer, musician, playwright, director, performer, or writer and artist like Angi and me, you are helping to make our dreams happen. And you enjoy the benefits of it.

So follow the link to my Kickstarter project, read about it, and check out the video (it’s pretty cool, and it has cats). Then, if you can, make a donation. Some folks have already made some very generous pledges. But we’re still a long way from our goal, and if we don’t get there, we don’t get anything. Help us reach our goal. We’ve got lots of options at all levels with some pretty interesting rewards for donating. Check it out. Then share it with someone else who might be interested.

And for whatever you can help with, thank you, thank you, thank you.

The Group pt. 2

4 05 2015
Because guns and alcohol are so cool.

Because guns and alcohol are so cool.

Another item ticked off on the complicated and expensive list of things I have to do to get my life back to normal: DHHS approved Impaired Driver Education Program complete. And I gotta say, this is the first thing in the whole wretched process that actually does some good.

First, a couple of details. The classes are being conducted by Chrysalis Recovery Center, headquartered in Concord on Airport Rd. They have a number of options to try to accommodate folks, from weekday evenings to weekend overnights to two consecutive weekends during the day. That last option is the one I was in, with about a dozen other first-time offenders. Only this week, we lost one of our group. She just didn’t show. That’s bad news, because she’ll have to start over. Can’t just make up the one day lost. And unless a major medical emergency or death was involved, she’ll have to pay the $300 fee again. Sounds harsh, but Chrysalis deals with a lot of no-shows, and has had to adopt a strict policy.

Ours is a pretty low-risk group. None of us are habitual offenders (yet, and the classes aim to keep it that way) so we are not likely to skip out. It’s tough when you can’t drive and have to depend on others to get you there, but we manage. But when you are dealing with troubled people who have substance abuse issues, legal issues, and whose lives are likely complicated with any number of heart-breaking problems, yes. They miss court dates, blow off classes, and otherwise behave irresponsibly. It’s ironic. The ones who most need the help are the least likely to get it, for the very reasons for which they need the help.

None of us in the group particularly want to be there, but it’s what we have to do. We’ve had a dump truck of ugliness emptied onto us, and we need to dig our way out. That’s what we are doing. Answering the questions, doing the exercises telling our stories, watching the videos, some of which are, to be honest, pretty lame. It’s not how any of us would want to spend our weekend, and that includes the instructor.

We make the best of it. Each day, we arrived to boxes of excellent muffins, with coffee available if we didn’t bring our own. Yesterday, the instructor brought her dachshund with her. The little mooch wandered around begging for attention and bits of muffin. We reviewed what we had learned last weekend and talked about it. We do a lot of talking, sharing experiences. Serious stuff, but also laughing and joking. We get breaks every hour to stretch our legs and go outside. A lot of folks take advantage of the break to smoke a cigarette. I walk around the outside of the building to clear my head. By the very nature of what we are talking about, it’s difficult for me. The experiences surrounding my arrest and the fallout from it have been pretty traumatic. I’ll confess I’ve had a really hard time staving off a plunge back into depression.

But I write about it and share the whole mixed bag with my readers, and that helps me to process it. This blog works better than any counselor I’ve ever had, partly because I feel I’m doing some good with it. Ordinary folks make mistakes. Bad things happen to good people. If we hide the stuff we’re ashamed of, and only present the stuff we’re proud of to the world, we all get a skewed idea of what normal is. We each end up thinking we’re the only ones who have screwed up. By writing about what’s happened to me, perhaps I can demystify it a bit and help somebody else.

So here I am in the Chrysalis Recovery Program, being treated for a problem I don’t have. But never mind, I am still learning a great deal. I’ve learned that early in my life I was probably perilously close to becoming an alcoholic, but managed to avoid hitting my trigger point. For the past twenty-five years I’ve toggled pretty solidly between being a phase 1 and phase 2 drinker (phase four is the danger zone), and the older I get, the less I drink. The classes have given me good guidelines about what is safe and healthy. I’m in no danger. This is comforting.

I’ve learned a hell of a lot about the law. Perhaps I am nowhere near being a problem drinker, but when it comes to driving a car, the laws are extremely harsh. Now that I have a blot on my record, they are even harsher. For my own safety, I need to make a rule never to get behind the wheel of a car if I have had the slightest amount to drink. Even if I was drinking hours ago. An aggressive cop could nail me on my blood alcohol level even if I feel stone cold sober. A .03 is enough, and I could still have that in my system if I drank the night before and thought I’d slept it off.

Scary stuff, boys and girls. You can’t help feeling a little sick when you realize that behavior you thought was perfectly legal and harmless was a nightmare waiting to happen. But thanks to this class, I know better, and I’m not going to let myself get nailed by this legal game of Gotcha.

I am still furious at a society that traps people by confusing them with a flood of conflicting messages and information. The horrors of drunk driving are demonstrated by seriously impaired people weaving down the road, ricocheting off of guard rails. Alcohol abuse is sensationalized by its extremes. Well, sure, don’t we all want to get those people off the road? But we aren’t them, are we? We don’t drink to the point of staggering and passing out. We never get behind the wheel when we feel impaired. But, surprise! The laws are written such that you don’t need to feel impaired to be illegal. You don’t need to be anywhere near the extremes to qualify as a drunk driver. And every day people who had no idea they were doing anything wrong get busted.

Classic BondAnd what about the Bond effect? Those movies and TV shows that make drinking so cool, so sexy. All those people you’d love to be like, sophisticated, successful, desirable, they are swirling the bourbon in their glasses, or knocking back the shots, the beers, reclining by the pool with their glasses of wine. They go out to bars, drink in restaurants, meet on balconies for a nightcap, and then drive off to the next dramatic scene where they are offered a drink and coyly accept. Break for commercial, where beautiful people having much more fun than you, are drinking and laughing and buying another round.

And none of these people ever get busted for DUI. Not unless they are all over the road and an obvious danger to themselves and everyone else.

We are not rational animals. We like to pretend we are, and we do have a wonderful ability to override our instincts and impulses with our very clever brain. But the bottom line is, we don’t always make rational choices. We are susceptible to advertising, peer pressure, culture and superstition. We are vulnerable. We each try very hard to be personally responsible, but we screw up. All of us do. As a society, we have to do our best to allow for that. To make it as easy as possible for people to make the right choices. To give them all the information we can, be as flexible as we can, as supportive and understanding as we can.  (For more on the latest research on the most effect ways to treat addiction, follow this link.)

Our policies, laws and treatment of alcohol use and abuse are a splendid example of how we as a society are failing abominably.


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