Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rain for days now, soaking, drenching, gentle and then hard, stopping and starting, heavy downpour to light drizzle, thoroughly wet through and through, mud puddles, backyard swamps, RAIN. We keep repeating, "We need it," to each other through shivering lips. Everyone says it. the cashier at the grocery store, my Little Sister's grandmother, my friends and I:

"We need it, we need it. Thank God for the rain. They've been predicting the worst drought in twenty years for California, maybe this will mitigate it."

Yes, it's great for the thirsty earth, for the dry garden, for my neighbor's corn, for the vast orchards of asparagus and lettuce, for the peach trees, for the depleted reservoirs which were showing their bones when we drove up to Ashland last summer, under the heavy pall of smoke from two hundred separate forest fires all around the state. And when I read about what's going on in Australia, I want to run outside naked in the downpour, to splash and shout, "More, more more!"

It feels like hope, it feels like a reprieve from all the doom and gloom of the economic news. It feels like Obama winning the election.

On the other hand, it's a bitch to drive in. Friends who are in wheelchairs are more housebound and hampered than usual. And my feet are cold.

Sunday was the second day of classes for the certificate in counseling drug addicts. I love the class--the teacher knows his stuff, he is expert yet humble and real. There's TONS of material, more than I can assimilate, and there's all the initial stress of finding a strange campus, parking, wandering around looking for the right building--in the rain. Sunday I stupidly left my car lights on when I rushed into class, and when I came out my battery was dead. This necessitated waiting around in the rain and growing darkness for campus police to come give me a jump. I was chilled to the bone, but when I finally got home C had made his incomparable black bean soup with chunks of pork.

And class, as I said, is good. For one thing it's just good to be learning something new. There's so much to assimilate in this field: family dynamics, legal stuff, psychology and physiology of addiction, different kinds of therapeutic interventions and protocols. It's very practical, measurable and results-oriented--you can measure success by the addict not relapsing. That works better for me than being the kind of therapist with patients who just have general malaise. (Can you imagine treating Woody Allen? I'd jump out the window. Of course, I'd land in a big pile of dough, so maybe it wouldn't be that bad.) It's also, embarrasingly, the kind of therapy client I always was. How can you tell if you're getting better or if you're just getting better at complaining? It's so subtle and elusive.

Sitting in class for seven hours a day, listening, is hard. The other students are mostly working in the field--there's a nurse, a couple of therapists who want to learn more about addiction issues, and some social workers. Some are in recovery themselves.

The main fear I had going into this was that because I don't have an alcohol or drug problem myself, I would be less qualified than someone who had real exprience of recovery in their life. I have struggled with addictions, but most of them have been behavioral--co-dependecy, addiction to procrastination, playing computer games, and sugar. The teacher, who is in recovery himself, said that the counselors who helped him the most were not former addicts themselves. The crucial ingredient is caring and believing, not one's own personal history.

I did find that in the last ten years or so my attitudes have shifted. I am more conservative than I used to be. When I was working with addicts in the nineties, I was inclined to see the face of angels in each and every derelict. I got enthralled with the drama and the romance of the stories and was a bit starry-eyed and overcome with the meaningfulness of it all. Now I feel more anger and exhaustion at the waste. I am more sympathetic to the people around the addict, and less inclined to buy into the charm of larger than life personalities.

The teacher showed us a movie called Shattered Spirits with Martin Sheen playing the alcoholic father of a classically dysfunctional family. The movie was a bit corny, but it hit the marks very accurately in terms of the unpredictability (yet predictability) of the father's rages, and the children's different responses to it.

There was the heroic child, the daughter who did everything right and took over parental responsibilites. The scapegoat was the middle son who acted out, got poor grades, and was made to bear the brunt of the father's rages. The youngest was the "lost child," introverted, solitary, living in an imaginary world. I saw aspects of myself and of friends and people I have known. But mostly I just wanted to slug the alcoholic father. I had little compassion for him. Perhpas it's my age--women with declining hormones get less empathic and more irritable--but as the credits rolled and the classroom lights went on, I saw many of my classmates were wiping away tears. I was fuming and wanted to swim 20 laps. Interesting.

The teacher was honest when I raised this point and said that inside of every addict lived Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They are all--and of course, we are all--capable of evil or greatness. It's a primal question, a primal problem, just made more stark and dramatic by the choice the addict faces about whether to put booze or drugs into his body. If I drink a glass of wine, my morality and ethics do not hang in the balance. I don't risk turning into another person, someone so ugly I would rather die than be her. But the addict does face that.

On the other hand, I have faced ugliness within myself, and sometimes watched, horrified, as a part of my mind and psyche that is capable of thinking terrible, destructive mean thoughts, let itself be heard. I do live cognizant of my own shadow. It's pretty dark. I am capable of hatred and vengeance, of pettiness and meanness and grudge-holding, of bitterness and withholding. I'm grateful I don't act out of it much. When I do let slip, I feel terrible. But there it is. Part of being human.

Because I was in class all weekend, I saw my Little Sister yesterday. We made chocolate chip cookies, a la a seven-year-old. She loved squishing the gooey mass of dough between her fingers and getting flour all over my pants and sweater, all over the table and floor, over everything. She insisted on making one huge "cookie" which turned out surprisingly well once we had cut it into tiny chunks. then we watched Pride, a better-than-I-expected movie with Terrence Howard playing a swim coach. Watching the fine rippling bodies of the young swimmers was a great motivator for me to get back into the pool.

I'm reading Exit Ghost by Philip Roth--my Dad sent it to me. Dad loves Roth. I wasn't so enthusiastic--I read the first of the Zuckerman trilogy, when he's a young man, meeting his idol, Lonoff, and liked it in spite of myself. The second one, not so much. It felt too solipsistic, too much of the writer writing about sitting around isloated in his own study--and the guy is so sexist and so in love with his own sexism. It's hard to get over that. But he does make beautiful intelligent complex literate sentences and his take on America--or a certain slice of it--feels accurate and vivid.

My discomfort with Roth is personal and I own it--I don't want to ever be like him, solitary, self-absorbed in a hall of reflecting mirrors. (He's great at narrative, but all his characters sound just like him.) And I suppose I see a side of myself that gets so obsessed with my own work, my own process, that is capable of that kind of narcissism, and I recoil from it.

In the second Zuckerman book, the one I didn't like, Zuckerman the writer-hero is suffering from some mysterious pain. By the end of the book he is in the hospital, finding some measure of relief in self-forgetfulness, helping to tend the other patients and seeing that everyone suffers.

In this third one I'm reading now, the poor guy is seventy-one, incontinent and impotent because of prostate surgery a decade before. He's as lust-filled as ever, but I have more compassion for him. And his description of the zeitgeist of New York around the time of the 2004 election is fascinating, especially in light of how dramatically things have changed recently.

I reluctantly must admit that Roth is a major important great writer. I might not want any woman I care about to date him, but he did his work faithfully, and he's a pleasure to read. And here I have to admit another thing. I loved Junto Diaz' book Drown but I set aside Oscar Wao in order to read Roth. Oscar Wao isn't wowing me the way I thought it would. Yes, the language is amazing, but the story gets confusing. (Same for A History of Love by Nicole Krauss, which is a great novel, but I got lost halfway through the plot.) I'm not getting a clear enough narrative through-line to keep me turning the pages. There. I said it. Heresy.

Okay now I'm going to go swim because I sat on my butt eating raw cookie dough and popcorn all yesterday afternoon. And whenever it finally stops raining it will be close to summer, and sleeveless shirts and a wedding gown.


Kim Flournoy said...

Hi there! I recently pulled together a site for Oscar Wao with some translations and pop culture reference definitions - hopefully it will help! http://www.annotated-oscar-wao.com

Anonymous said...

The sun just landed on my desk, just as I was thinking to myself how amazing you are. I know, human; I'm not going to subject you to a nosebleed up on a pedestal, but your generosity in these postings is so appreciated.

And I like how you keep Carla on my mind.

To sun on your side of the country.


Alison said...

That's so sweet. Thanks, Marian.


Alison said...

p.s. Thanks for the reference for better understanding Oscar Wao. I will check it out. I get most of the Spanish, I think. Where I'm getting lost is the plot--the sister leaves home, then she's in the D.R., then I don't know whose p.o.v. I'm in, who is telling the story, whose story it is. And it does begin to feel like a lot of telling, rather than being inside the skin of one narrator. I do love the polyglot effect, the languages and cultures and music of it. And I like that it's a challenge.