Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Life Lessons: A Tribute to Dad

Billy Joe Scholes, age 72
Born May 5, 1927

Died November 17, 1999

I’ve been thinking about Dad quite a lot the past few days. That’s not so unusual this time of year. Last week was mom’s birthday. She would have been 79, but she died of lung cancer in August 1998. Dad was suffering from the same disease and was diagnosed just days apart from mom, but his illness wasn’t as advanced so he decided on the full course of chemo and radiation treatment. As a result he lived an additional 15 months, but it was an uphill struggle the entire time with only a few periods of reasonably good quality of life.

The memory of mom’s death in August and then her birthday in September sparks days of reminiscing about her every year. The intervening days between mom’s birthday and the anniversary of dad’s death are dotted with a shower of memories of dad. So in an odd way starting at the end seems appropriate; the end being the last few days I spent with Dad.

It started with an uneasy feeling building inside me on Sunday, November 7, 1999. A sadness enveloped me that evening, for no apparent reason. I was thinking a lot about Dad, and how nice it was to see him ten days earlier when he and Wanda came to Oklahoma City for an eye exam. I picked them up at Aunt Pat's house and drove them over to Dianne and Jim's for an evening with the family.

The Jantzen home that evening was filled with the fragrance of scented candles, happiness, and the sounds of years of familiarity among a family comfortable and content with itself. Dad appeared a bit frailer than the last time I saw him, toward the end of August. Aside from a brief tour of Jim and Dianne's house, which he had never seen, he sat in a comfortable chair in the living room, happy to let the family bustle about, catching up on current events in everyone's lives. Becky and her first husband Bill were there, and Julie and Steve with Kendall. Wanda's daughter, Debbie, and her family came too. Jim's folks, Elvin and Doris, who'd lived not far from Dad and Wanda near Lake Eufaula for several years, also dropped in. Denise and Justin were there as well, so the house was fairly full!

It was a fun evening. Everyone was entranced by Kendall, who roamed the living room floor, making it his personal play pen and inviting anyone who wanted to play. A look around the room revealed the pleasure and entertainment always provided by children, evident by the smiles on everyone's faces. Dianne, assuming her matronly duty of ensuring that no opportunity for family photos was allowed to pass (inherited from Mom, I feel!), herded us together for snapshots with Dad. There was an undercurrent of awareness of the uniqueness of the event. Dad rarely came to Oklahoma City for anything, and if it hadn't been for his eye exam he probably would not have come up at all. He much preferred to stay at home, on his and Wanda's property in Canadian, OK.

Dad dozed off occasionally, and the conversational hum diminished in an effort to not disturb him. He looked tired. His head was bald from the recent radiation treatments, and his breathing was labored, even at rest. He walked with a cane, which was a new sight for most of us. He could only go a few steps before needing a rest. He seemed unconcerned, or perhaps merely resigned, to how his physical appearance had changed. Conversation was difficult for him because of his breathing, but his mind was alert and he enjoyed visiting with everyone. He sat with the quiet dignity of the elderly. At the age of 72, he finally seemed elderly to me. I never perceived him that way before.

When I dropped him and Wanda off at Aunt Pat's later that night, I drove across the yard right up to the porch so he could get inside with a minimum of movement. In the not so distant past, he would have been upset at such a concession to his physical condition. But ever the realist, Pop made no protest and only nodded his approval when I announced my intention to drop him at the doorstep. As I drove home I reflected on his worsened condition, and wondered to what extent it could be attributed to -- anything but cancer.

And so it was a little more than week later, on that melancholy Sunday, when I sat at the computer looking at the photos taken at Dianne's and wondering why I was feeling so sad. In the back of my mind, I felt Dad wouldn't be with us much longer. That realization alone added weight to every moment we spent together. Knowing I would be off work for a week and a half in just a few days, after a brief trip to California to visit friends, I resolved to drive down to Dad and Wanda's and spend some time with them.

The next day, Monday, November 8th, I went about work as usual. I tried calling Dad on the way home from work, but there was no answer. I didn't think much about it, because I knew they occasionally went for a walk or a drive. I tried again several times that evening, and by 8:30 was starting to worry. I called Dianne to see if she had heard from Dad or Wanda, and she said no. I remarked that the last few times I was unable to get an answer this late in the evening usually signaled a problem. Within a few moments, Dianne called back to say Wanda had called. Dad was in Muskogee hospital, and the news wasn't good.

We flew into crisis mode. Dianne and Jim arrived at my house, Dianne with a bag packed, just in case. I too had thrown some things into a bag and loaded it into the car. After an hour's effort we reached Denise, who had been out shopping, and told her what was going on. I suggested she pack a bag, and told her Dianne and I were on our way over to pick her up. It was after 10 o'clock before we finally found ourselves heading east on I-40, faced with a two-hour drive to Muskogee.

We arrived after midnight. Entering through the emergency room entrance, we wound our way through the quiet, cold corridors to his private room on the second floor. We found Wanda, tired but awake, in the visitor's waiting room. Dad was awake, too, rearranging his pillows and blankets when we came into the room. He was surprised to see us, I think. He remarked that we shouldn't be driving so far this late at night. He didn't appear much different from when we saw him in October, except that his breathing was even more labored than before.

The next ten days were long, exhausting, and filled with a mixture of blessings and despair. The days and nights were spent in long shifts, each of us spending time with Dad and Wanda amid waves of test results, treatments, bad news, and the doctors' prognoses. I found I wanted to be near Dad, but not actually in the room. I suppose I was struggling to be strong while avoiding the emotional pit that loomed before me.

The days were incredible. I spent hours sitting under the trees in the park in front of the hospital entrance. Autumn presented itself flawlessly all around me, with cool breezes and rustling leaves. Sunlight ran in dappled circles, chasing the fallen leaves around the benches and planters. The air was warm with the sun, but threatened to turn crisp if you dared to venture out without a coat or a sweater. This small oasis was a welcome diversion from the stark reality indoors.

When I walked back into Dad's hospital room, I could see the brilliant yellow leaves of two of the most spectacular trees just outside his window. It seemed like a picture, framed on the wall in 3-D splendor. A few quiet moments sitting by his side, holding his hand and watching him sleep, was all it took to steal the beauty from the day. All the warmth from the fall scene turned cold as it came in the window. The light reflected in a silver gleam off the chrome fixtures in the room and the IV stand, ever-present by his bedside. Too clinical and impersonal, this room, for such a warm human being. I regretted the calming sound of the wind stirring the leaves outside was replaced by the low hum of the air vents, and longed to crack the window to allow the outside in. Instead there was the clicking of the IV monitors, and the occasional rustle of a professionally concerned hospital worker going about her duties.

Ups and downs. That is how we passed the days. No false hopes about him getting better, only a wish and ever-present desire to keep him comfortable. Wanda, Denise, Dianne, and I were constantly with him, taking turns so we could try to rest as much as possible. No one wanted to be away from the hospital for any length of time. We weren't the only ones there for him. Jimmy stood strong when the rest of us were tired, and Donna and Debbie were wonderful sources of strength for Wanda. There were a few visitors, a limited few who could get past a protective spouse.

I found my reluctance to be in his room suddenly replaced by a need to spend every possible moment with him. Not that there were differences to reconcile, love left to be expressed in some sad, final moment, or even to say good-bye. Just a simple wish to be with Dad, to let him know he was not alone during those alarming moments when he woke up disoriented from the morphine.

It was during those quiet hours that a flood of memories paraded through my mind. Not noisy with show, nor loud with color and sound, but a quiet procession of significant moments Dad and I had shared together.

Early memories are the warmest, I think. Fuzzy upon reflection, or maybe embellished over time, yet holding their depth and shape. I remember when Dianne and I were very young, one of my favorite things was for Daddy to wash my hair while I was in the bathtub. The bathroom was thick with steam, and I'd sit waist deep in the hot water chasing a bar of soap or a floating toy.

We added shampoo and water until I fairly toppled over with the weight of the suds, and then he'd tip me back into the water, supporting my head with his strong and gentle hands behind my neck. He'd then take a cup of clean, hot water, and pour it slowly at my hairline so it softly trickled back, rinsing the soapy cloud off my head. I remember how the water tickled as it passed through my hair and over my scalp. Not a giggle-tickle, but a delicious sensation of warmth and cleanliness while he held me in one hand and rinsed with the other. I laid there, totally relaxed, warm and safe in his hands, looked up and saw how carefully he poured so as not to get water in my eyes. I could see the look of concentration on his face even while he smiled at me. An adult view of a wonderful childhood memory.

I remember many, many winter nights driving home from Grandpa's house in Edmond, when I would be so cold and so sleepy that I would curl up in the floorboard of the car under the heater. The next thing I knew, I'd be in my room, carried in from the car and tucked into bed, all so gently that I seldom woke up. The transition to the cool bed sheets from the warmth of his embrace only a temporary discomfort for a 6-year-old boy.

There were times when I wondered how he could be so patient with me, yet he was. Ricky and Paul, brothers, were about the closest friends I had in the neighborhood when I was 9 or 10 years old. They lived two streets over, but there were few times I was able to spend the night at their place. I always got homesick, and sometimes it might be after midnight, I'd call home and ask Daddy to come and get me. He always would, and he never scolded me about it.

Ricky and Paul loved going with me to Grandpa's. He lived on the winter grounds of a traveling circus, in Edmond, Oklahoma. Grandpa was the caretaker of the property while the circus was on the road, usually from early spring to late fall. It was a wonderful place for a boy to visit. We could see llamas, camels, lions, elephants, and a lot of other exotic animals. We could ride Shetland ponies almost whenever we wanted, and watched the lion tamers practice their art. We marveled at the high-wire and trapeze performers as they went through their practice routines.

During the summer when the circus was on the road, there were few animals left behind; only a handful of tired old horses that had outlived their usefulness in the ring, and were allowed to roam the pasture in comfortable retirement. One day, Dad suggested I invite someone to go with me to spend a few days at Grandpa's. Ricky couldn't go, but Paul could, so we packed a bag and headed off with exciting plans to explore the acres of land that made up the winter grounds.

Not far behind Grandpa's house ran a creek which we loved to explore along with the surrounding area. It was filled with birds and squirrels, persimmon trees, and blackberries so juicy and ripe that we'd come home with purple hands and faces following an afternoon feast. Even on a hot day, the summer sun could not penetrate the canopy overhead, nor dispel the cool comfort of the water as it splashed over flat fieldstones and pebbles.

Paul and I had a great time that first day. We were dirty and tired after a full day's exploration, and Grandma Mary wouldn't let us in to dinner until we had had a bath. I was dismayed, because Grandma Mary was very conservative, and insisted on using bath water at least three times. Usually, Grandpa would have his bath, then I could have mine, and then Paul could have his. I never felt clean after bathing in water which I knew had soap, and the sweat and grime of Grandpa's day's work in it.

Somewhat clean, and finally fed, we were exhausted and ready for bed. Sound asleep by 10 o'clock. By 11 o'clock, I was wide awake and scared to stay the night. Grandpa tried to calm me down, but I wouldn't have it. Finally, he let me call Daddy. Within an hour, Pop was there to take me home. I remember driving off, watching Paul waving good-bye to me from the front porch, and feeling a little bit ashamed I couldn't stay the night. I slept with my head in Daddy's lap until we got home. Paul ended up staying a whole week at Grandpa's, and I went with Daddy to pick him up. Not once during that whole time did Dad ever chastise me for being afraid to stay away from home. I guess he knew I would eventually outgrow it, and I did, pretty much by the time I was 14 or so. But for the ride home, I had to listen to Paul relive his experiences on the circus grounds, which made me regret going home that first night, and resolve to overcome my fears.

There was one summer when my Aunt Ruth and her family all came to Grandpa's, and we had a family reunion. My cousin Jay and I were playing in the creek, on the thick, heavy rope swings that would take us from one high bank to the other. The ropes were old, salvaged from some circus material long discarded, and eventually wore down. Jay was swinging across when the rope snapped, and he fell flat on his back on the river bank. As he lay there gasping, I thought he was going to die because he couldn't breathe. I ran up the bank and called for help, and Dad and the others came rushing down. He picked Jay up and held onto him, telling me he would be alright, that he'd just had the wind knocked out of him. Sure enough, after a couple of moments, Jay was breathing okay. Jay was tough, though, and ready to find a replacement rope. I was ever more cautious of the ropes for the rest of the summer and preferred to avoid them.

Dad was one of the most patient men I've ever known. But when he lost his temper, watch out! We were moving furniture from our house on 8th street in Midwest City to our new house in Del City, in 1967 when I was 13. We had a bedroom's worth of furniture in the back of the pick-up, and a large mirror sandwiched between two mattresses. I remember climbing into the back of the truck, and Dad spoke sharply, telling me to get down before I broke the mirror. I said I would be careful, then promptly took a misstep and a long crack! shot through the mirror from top to bottom. I froze in fear.

Dad hauled me out of the truck by one arm, checked me over to make sure I wasn't hurt, and then sent me to my room. He followed a few minutes later with his belt, and gave me a pretty tough spanking. Even though I was hurt and crying, I could see the pain in his eyes overcome his anger, but it was a lesson I needed to learn. That's the way I've always thought of Dad. Tough when he needed to be, even when it hurt him to do so.

At the age of 12 or 13, I decided I wanted to learn how to shoot a gun. Dad occasionally went squirrel hunting when at Grandpa's, whether for food or sport I don't know. One sunny day, he took me down to the creek with a .22 rifle, and taught me how to shoot. We practiced a few times on some beer cans across the creek on the opposite bank, until I felt I was a pretty good marksman. I saw a squirrel in a nearby tree and said I wanted to shoot it. Dad said, "Go ahead."

I took careful aim at the squirrel, which sat patiently as if knowing I would miss. I shot. I didn't miss. The squirrel tumbled from the tree and lay still on the ground. Dad and I walked over to it, and I nudged it with my shoe. No movement at all. Dead. I looked up at Dad, handed him the rifle, and have never touched a gun since.

I doubt Dad knew this experience would have that effect on me. Some people enjoy hunting, but I didn't feel exhilarated by the kill. I just felt sad I had killed something that was doing me no harm, and I had no intention of using as food.

When I was 15 and a half, Dad taught me to drive. He insisted I learn to drive a stick shift. He said even though I might never own one, it was best to learn how the gears worked, and how you can control the vehicle better. He was a good teacher, and patient. I found that I preferred a manual transmission over an automatic, until a few years ago when my knee started complaining. Dad was always calm while I was driving. He never raised his voice or shouted commands, but instead would warn me well ahead of time of possible dangers or problems. I remember once being stopped behind another car at a traffic light, and gunning the accelerator as soon as the light changed. Dad calmly said, "Don't!" I stomped on the brake and barely avoided smashing the bumper of the car in front of me as it pulled away. Quietly, Dad said, "Always watch the car in front of you, not the light, Bud." Then, a moment later, "Now pull over and let me drive." There were no more lessons for a couple of days after that!

On my 16th birthday, I could see how proud he was of me when I passed my driving test with only one error. Not long after, he and Mom bought my first car for me. I guess that's when children first start drifting away from their parents; when they get their driver's license. It marks the beginning of independence for a child, and can either drive a wedge between families or draw them closer. I was raised by such loving parents that I never felt pushed away from the nest. I was allowed to go, and return if need be, whenever I felt I was ready.

One late night, Dad and I went on an errand; I forget what. On the way back it was raining and cold. It was late fall. We turned down a dark street and there was a car pulled over to the side of the road with a flat tire. Dad slowed and rolled down his window. An elderly lady sat in the driver's seat, cold and scared, clearly at her wit's end. Dad backed the car up, aimed the headlights at the flat tire, and we got out to change it for her. She sat in our car with the heater running, waiting patiently. I wasn't much help to Dad, but changing a tire is pretty much a one-person job. He got the tire changed in short order, but we were both completely soaked with the cold rain.

As he put the flat tire and the tools into the trunk of the lady's car, she got out to thank us. She reached into her purse and pulled out some money. I don't know how much, but I know I saw a $20 bill in her hand, among others. Dad refused to take the money, simply saying he was glad to help. She was surprised, I think, that he wouldn't take the cash. She thanked us again, and hurried back to her car, fumbling with an uncooperative umbrella.

Dad and I scrambled back into our own vehicle, cold and shaking, neither of us dressed for rain. We drove home in silence, watching the taillights of the stranded lady's vehicle disappear in the opposite direction, her forgotten flashers still advising caution. We both enjoyed the comfort of the heater set on high for the short drive back to the house, the stormy night splashing harmlessly off the windshield. I was so proud of Dad for his selfless act of compassion. I looked over at him and watched him light a cigarette in the harsh glare of the headlights from an approaching vehicle. When he caught me watching, he just winked at me and smiled, water running down the sides of his face.

Mark Twain wrote, "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."

Isn't that the way it always is? Children always thinking their parents are stupid? Well, not always. As I grew up, I was amazed that Dad knew as much as he did. He could do just about anything, from working on the car to roofing a house. I was never adept at such labors, although I was interested in learning. Some of the lessons were pretty tough, though.

Dad let me help shingle the roof once. He got me started and then set me to work, staying just a few feet away from me so he could monitor my progress. He'd offer a correction now and then.

Once, I was at the very apex of the roof, nailing down shingles with the total abandon of a kid who knows he has mastered a task he was totally ignorant of two hours before. I'd hammer down a shingle, scoot back, hammer down another one, and so on. Dad was moving along toward me, telling me to take my time and make sure the shingles were lined up properly. My concentration was fierce as I placed each shingle and brought the hammer down. Then, when he was two feet from me, Dad said, "Bud, don't move. Just look over your shoulder." I did, and suddenly got extremely dizzy, for over my shoulder was empty space! My feet were dangling over the edge of the roof, and with one more scoot backwards, I would have fallen 30 feet to the ground! My heart was racing, and he grabbed my elbow and steadied me until I calmed down. I wasn't the least bit amused by the grin on his face.

Another difficult lesson I'll never forget. I was mowing the yard one day, trying to prove to Dad that I could do it, because I wanted to mow yards in the neighborhood for spending money. He sat on the porch in the shade and watched me mow the entire front yard. It was hard work, but I managed it okay. When I was finished, I looked up at him and shouted, "How do I turn it off?"

He pointed to a short wire on the engine and shouted back, "Pull that wire loose."

Trusting his advice, I reached down and grabbed the wire with my left hand, and the electric shock that ran up my arm and into my chest was so strong it knocked me flat off my feet. I lay there, looking up at the sky, unable to fathom what had happened. Dad rushed over, chuckling to himself, and helped me up. I could feel the residual tingling in my arm, my heart thumping madly in my chest. I was light headed and started to cry. He hushed me, laughing, and said, "I'm sorry, Bud. But if you're going to use that mower, you need to know how it works and what you can and can't do with it. Now let me show you the right way to shut it off."

He showed me the choke for the gas and how to turn it down. If that didn't work, he showed me how to short the engine by touching the shaft of a wooden-handled screwdriver against the end of the spark plug and the tip to the metal, which made the engine die. Then he showed me how to put gas in safely, how to check and add oil, and how to push the mower up and down hills so it didn't fall on me. All the safe ways to use a mower, and how to take care of one. You can bet I paid very close attention! But you know what? To this day I think what he did was a cruel way to instruct me, and I remember being angry with him for days and days. I don't think he realized himself what the full effect would be when he told me to pull the wire off the spark plug. I have to admit, it was certainly an effective lesson. Not only did I learn how to use the mower, but I developed a very healthy respect for electricity.

I walked in on Mom and Dad once, while they were talking about adopting Denise. I hadn't heard all of their conversation and asked, "Why does she need us to adopt her?" Dad shook his head and said, "It's not that she needs us to. But we need her." I realized years later that doing the right thing as a family makes us stronger. Having the adoption on record did not make me feel any more like Denise was my real sister; I already felt that way. But aside from the legal benefits for her, I realized that we, as a family, needed the formal recognition of her, so no one could ever take her away from us. Mom and Dad were wise that way, and this is just one more example of how much they loved their family.

One of Dad's passions as a young man was playing the guitar and singing. I won't say he was a bad singer, but he could play the guitar pretty well! I remember many nights when he and Grandpa would play together, Dad on the guitar, Grandpa on the fiddle. Dad would occasionally sing a tune, and one I know Dianne will remember, and maybe Denise, is "Church in the Wild Wood."

It was one of his favorites. I have a photo of Dad with Julie and Becky when they were no more than 5 and 2 years old. Dad was playing the guitar and singing, and the girls were listening closely. I'm not sure if my memory is right on this, but I think he was singing that song to them.

I went to work at the Post Office in 1973, mostly due to Mom and Dad pushing me into it. I loved the job for the first year or so because it paid good money, then hated it because it was so dull. Dad encouraged me to get into management and was a constant help to me. He was proof that even if a man doesn't have a college education, he can succeed at a well-paying job. After high school, I was not interested in going to college. I don't know that I would have continued into management in the postal service without Dad's help and encouragement.

He was never easy on me. In fact, if anything, he was tougher on me than other postal employees. He didn't want anyone to perceive any favoritism there. But he was always fair. As I worked my way through those first difficult years, he was always there with just the right advice. I can honestly say he never steered me wrong. Now, I've been with the postal service for more than 36 years. I like to think I am continuing to serve as he taught me, with integrity and honesty.


There is a lifetime of memories in my mind. As I sat by Dad's bedside in those quiet hours during the darkest moments of the night, each memory drew my attention with its own unique sparkle, like tiny colorful jewels scattered on an infinite field of black velvet. Not like stars in the sky on a bright summer night, forever out of reach, but priceless little gems that can be touched, admired, shared, and cherished.

November 17, 1999, it was my turn. I sat with Dad as his feet dangled over the edge. I wanted to grab his elbow and pull him away from the precipice and hold him until he was calm. Holding him with one hand, I wanted to reach into my past and grab that lawn mower spark plug with the other hand and shock the sickness out of him. I wanted us to hug, to laugh, and to share the comfort of knowing you just experienced a near-miss. I wanted him to get out of that hospital bed and go home healthy, to keep making memories with me, Wanda, my sisters, my nieces and nephews, and the rest of his family.

That's what I wanted. That's what we all wanted.

Well, Dad taught by example, and I learned another one at his bedside. Be realistic and accept the inevitable. He taught me that it is okay to be scared, and it's okay to cry. It's okay to be sad. It's normal to grieve, and it's understandable to miss someone when they're gone.

But it is best to remember the good times, to recognize the love among family and friends, and to cherish the memories you make together. As Daddy slipped away in his sleep, he knew I was there with him, holding his hand. He knew I would remember, as we all will, the importance of continuing the lessons of life. They're harsh lessons, sometimes, offering a well-deserved spanking or maybe the tough realization that you must sometimes let go in order to go on. These are lessons that make us stronger. Pop finally moved on and left me prepared to continue the lessons, hopefully passing them on to others as thoughtfully and lovingly as he did to me.

Thank you, Pop, for a lifetime of memories and for making me strong. I miss you very much and I will always hold you in my heart.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Turn of Phrase

My dad used to say, “I feel a lot more like I do now than I did a while ago.” He’d give you a sidelong glance with a twinkle in his eye and maybe a wink if he was in a particularly good mood as he said it. That’s one of those phrases that makes you think for a second before you realize it doesn’t quite make sense, but yet it does – somehow. If you don’t think about it too much. As I approach my nine-month sobriety birthday on September 29th, I can honestly say I feel a lot more like I do now than I did nine months ago!

When I was in detox and rehab they recommended when I got out I go to 90 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in 90 days. I managed to make 89 meetings in 90 days, missing one due to illness. I figured I might miss one or two due to the weather, considering the time of year I was going through everything, but no, it was the flu that kept me away. I was anxious to immerse myself in the program.

The very day I was released from detox, January 5, 2009, I went to my first AA meeting, even though I would begin all day out-patient rehab the next morning for two more weeks. Fortunately, the day before my release a group from AA brought a meeting to the hospital. I heard a lot of things that appealed to me and several of the group left their names and numbers behind for us to call should we decide we wanted to talk further.

One of the guys, Andrew, spoke of his experience and what brought him to AA and how it had helped him, and I really identified with his story more than most. I made note of his name and number. When I was released that Monday, I called and asked if he could direct me to an AA meeting. He gave me directions to the clubhouse where he goes, which turned out not to be very far from my home. He mentioned a meeting was just about to begin if I cared to attend, and he would be there. I drove there directly from detox. I was a couple of minutes late arriving, but I recognized Andrew across the room and he motioned for me to join him; he had saved a seat for me.

I’ve continued going to that club house ever since. My first experience was a bit nerve wracking! I had no idea what to expect; was it a cult, a religious sect, a group of drunks who sat around telling war stories or just what exactly? I suppose it could be said all of those elements could be found in the rooms of AA, and a whole lot more.

“I’m not much, but I’m all I think about.”

That’s an oft quoted line in the clubhouse that never fails to get a chuckle out of the crowd. In fact, one of the things that caught me by surprise at AA meetings is that there is so much humor and laughter as people share their “experience, strength, and hope.” The stories are often very similar but the storytellers are certainly unique. Everyone has a different spin on things. Sometimes the sharing is somber; gravid with sorrow and tears and heart-rending sobs. Sometimes it’s delivered with the perfect timing of a stand-up comic. Regardless of the story or who is telling it, it is almost always coupled with what has now become a familiar quote or turn of phrase that we hear regularly in the rooms of AA.

“My mind is a bad neighborhood and I have no business being here alone.” All too true for most of us in AA. If we spend too much time in that neighborhood by ourselves we fall in with the bad crowd again; bad thinking, bad habits, bad relationships, bad deeds, and the list goes on. We need the company of other recovering alcoholics to keep us safe in that neighborhood. Most non-alcoholics don’t understand that, and I have difficulty explaining it to them. Most alcoholics feel that “when I’m by myself I’m in the company of a madman” and in danger of drinking. “Drinking is suicide on the installment plan.”

That’s why we go to so many meetings! We are in the company of our own kind; people who understand and accept us. The only requirement to be a member of AA is the desire to stop drinking. The people in the rooms of AA are a complete mixture of social strata, from wealthy businessmen and women to unemployed half-way house residents just out of prison, and everything in between. This is not a group of people you would normally expect to associate with one another in any other circumstances. Yet in this environment, we are all equal. “Alcoholics are the upper crust of the mentally ill.” Go ahead, it’s OK to laugh.

“Take your ass to meetings and your mind will follow.” Good advice. “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Push on through! “Don’t leave before the miracle happens!” Wait for it; it’ll happen! “Come to an AA meeting and get osmosis you can!” I know our little sayings may sound “goofier than a bag of assholes,” but you “can’t stay sober on yesterday’s prayers” so “I’m sticking to this program like hair on soap!” Oh, there’s more.

Many of the sayings we hear frequently in AA are immediately clear without the need to dwell on their meaning; they’re obvious. For example:

“Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

“Pain is what we walk through. Misery is what we sit in.”

“Fear is the dark room where we develop our negatives.”

Alcoholism is a disease of the brain. Many people do not understand that. To the non-alcoholic, it is sometimes baffling that an alcoholic simply cannot correct his behavior by quitting drinking. It has been scientifically proven! Yet knowing that does not make it any easier to defeat, anymore than knowing smoking cigarettes are harmful to your health helps you to quit smoking.

Personally, I try to remain optimistic. I’m optimistic by nature, and I think that helps me in my continuous struggle against alcoholism. Someone asked me once how long I have to continue going to meetings. I replied, “First of all I don’t have to go to meetings, I choose to go. And, second, I expect I will continue going for the rest of my life.”

You never overcome alcoholism. It’s not a “was-m,” it’s an “is-m.” It’s not the best scenario I can think of, but it isn’t so bad. As a friend in the program, Phil H., once said, “Life isn’t all lollipops and orgasms.” With the help of AA and my higher power, I have reached a point where I no longer have a desire to drink. And that’s a good thing.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

(A Recollection from My Childhood, Circa 1966)

Wow, it was a hot one, wasn’t it? A blistering summer. I don’t know what I would have done without the creek running behind grandpa’s house to play in during the heat of the day. Even those giant old trees with their huge limbs and canopy of leaves swaying in the hot breeze couldn’t stir up a breath of relief. I could lie on the high, mud-packed bank of the creek, right where it bent sharply round before it disappeared under the road a little ways down the way and it wasn’t too uncomfortable. The dirt itself seemed to hold some moisture, and that made it a bit cooler. Of course, I got dirty. Aren’t boys supposed to get dirty? I laid there by myself looking up into the trees, the dappled sunlight dancing on my face in the July afternoon. I may have dozed off a time or two.

Clad in only shorts and a white t-shirt, I’d hop down from the bank and start splashing through the creek. It was more than just a trickle of water through a mud hole, that’s for sure. This was a full-sized creek! I could easily wade across it in about 15 steps, and at its deepest it came up to mid-calf on me. The water was crystal clear, and on the creek bed I could see a collection of bland sandy pebbles worn smooth by the continuous stream of water. It looked and smelled so pure and clean.

Three or four summers back when I was eight or nine years old, grandpa helped put up a tire swing on a thick rope. It was a lazy old swing that hung from a high, high branch above a flat crossing where the creek was very shallow and you could sit in the tire and just dip your toes in the water. My sister and cousins loved it. When no one was around, I’d climb up on top of the tire rather than sit inside it, and get it swinging madly from side to side as far as I could! I loved the groaning, creaking sound of the rope as it twisted itself around the tree limb high above. I imagined from the noise it made that it was bound to break at any moment! The rope was long and it took forever to get it to swing very far, but it was thrilling once it got going.

Occasionally I’d hear a car approaching at high speed on the country road nearby but it just whooshed on by, adding its own unique sound to the countryside symphony of summer sounds; trickling water, rustling leaves, distant cows or horses. I paid it no mind. The road was elevated 30 or so feet above the creek and no one could see me unless they made a point to stop and look down through the trees and shrubbery. I loved the isolation of the creek here. It was so quiet and peaceful.

If I got bored like today, which was seldom, I’d trek upstream a ways. The creek had welcoming, wide banks when it wasn’t raining, which made it very easy to travel at an easy pace. I’d grab a broken limb of an appropriate size to use as my wizard’s staff and take off at a steady pace, stopping occasionally to toss a pebble at a critter or turn over a rock to look at the roly-poly’s. After about a half a mile I found what I was after; a stand of mulberry trees! I picked a double handful and rinsed the berries off in the creek before eating them. Oh, my! So sweet and delicious! They’re so messy, though, and they will stain your teeth and hands if you mash them, but I didn’t care.

After I’d eaten my fill I gathered up as many as I could carry by cradling them in my t-shirt. I knew grandma would do something with them for dessert that evening. I made my way back downstream a little quicker with my bounty carefully tucked away, walking barefoot in the shallow water the entire way. I could see the sun was setting in the west as the trees’ shadows grew longer and stretched away from where they stood close to the outer banks of the creek.

A short time later I stepped out of the shade and into the evening sun and began the slow climb up the gentle hillside to my grandparents’ home. I don’t know how many hours I’d spent exploring the creek that day, or any of the days that summer, for that matter. I never tired of it. Whether I was alone or with friends, or with my sister or cousins, it was always fun to hang out there.

I clopped up the worn wooden steps of the back porch. As I pulled open the squeaky screen door the smell of supper cooking wafted out from the kitchen, mixed with a swirl of grandpa’s pipe tobacco. I smiled, knowing grandma would be happy with the berries I was bringing with me. I looked once over my shoulder at the deepening shadows beneath the trees, wondering what teeming nightlife was waiting for full nightfall to come out of hiding to begin its own exploration along the creek. I was already excited to think what I might find there tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Parting of the Ways

(Originally written Monday, August 10, 2009 at 10:44 p.m.)

The most difficult decision I’ve had lately hasn’t had anything to do with my alcoholism or my retirement! I’ve been thinking about this almost since day one, but I’ve actually decided to give up Candy.

I bet that came as a shock to most of you, especially the ones who didn’t already know.

Ever since I got her on December 19, 2007 I’ve debated whether I made the right decision. She’s extremely high strung, very whiny, skittish, and fearful. We went through a difficult adjustment period. She was a puppy that wasn’t housebroken, and I was an adult who hadn’t had a pet for over 30 years. I think she was abused by her original owners, and I think she has abandonment issues. I had a difficult time adjusting to her issues, and made a really strong effort to make things as normal as possible for both of us. You have to admit, working on it for almost two years makes for a serious effort.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love her and I am attached to her, but things just aren’t working out. As I said, it’s been almost two years now and she still has all the nagging things about her that annoy me. She whines almost constantly and is still hyper. She’s extremely needy and I get tired of her constantly circling and begging and crying.

I think the real clincher is the fact that I have lost my temper with her too many times. When she has messed in the floor a few times, long after she was housebroken, it has usually been because I gave her something too rich for her diet, so I was understanding and compassionate. But there have been several times she has messed in the floor because she didn’t get taken out soon enough. My fault to be sure, but if I was drunk at the time and didn’t notice, I would blame her and spank her for messing in the floor. I would swat her on the butt, but sometimes too hard and for too long. She would never yelp or run away, but just lay there and take it, looking up at me with soulful, hurt eyes, until the anger would drain out of me.

Of course I would feel horrible afterward, thinking I had hurt her terribly (which I hadn’t, but you can’t help how you feel). Granted, it hasn’t been a problem since I stopped drinking, until a couple of weeks ago.

I came home from work one day and Candy had messed in her cage, I mean really messed it up good. Diarrhea big time. I scolded her, but didn’t punish her since she couldn’t help it, and I put her on the patio while I cleaned up the cage. Then I took her to PetSmart to get her bathed. After I brought her home, she messed again, this time on the carpet in front of Jason’s door and bathroom door. I was furious. Jason and I cleaned up the mess.

The carpet wasn’t even dry and we had barely turned our backs when she messed again, in the exact same spot! This time I lost my temper and spanked her butt, once again too hard and too long, feeling angry and guilty at the same time.

Later that evening I was walking her across the street and my friend the veterinarian, Dr. Mike drove by and I told him about her problem. He came by to see her later and said she probably had colitis. He gave her a shot and gave me two types of antibiotics to give her twice a day for a week. He also told me to give her Imodium to stop the diarrhea, which I did. I made sure to take her out every couple of hours for the next 18 hours or so until the diarrhea stopped, and she gradually got better.

Of course, once I realized she was actually sick and not just “acting out” because Jason and his dog Cody had moved in (which had been my original thought since she kept messing in front of their bedroom door), the guilt was overwhelming. It made me feel even more like I wasn’t the right owner for a dog with her type of personality and needs. I just don’t have the patience. She is extremely high maintenance, especially with what I call her “nervous condition,” which I’ve even tried to treat with medication recommended by the vet, to no avail.

I’ve never thought of myself as a violent person. And I think if someone else saw how I spanked her you wouldn’t say I was being cruel necessarily, but in my mind I was being too harsh and I don’t like the way it feels. I also don’t like that she can bring it out in me.

While my friend Brian was living here for several months, Candy and he bonded and became extremely attached to each other. So much so that he asked me at one point, that should anything ever happen to me would I make sure that he got to keep Candy. I’ve seen they way they dote on each other, so of course I said yes. They really do cherish each other.

Brian moved out in early May, but still comes over to see us frequently, and Candy always loves to spend time with him. He hadn’t been over in probably three weeks when he came by last Thursday to pick up some computer parts he’d left behind. Candy and I were outside for her potty break when he came up, and she about wet herself because she was so excited to see him! And I thought Brian was going to cry, he was so happy to see her.

I had told him a week or so earlier I was thinking about giving her up. After his visit last Thursday, he sent me a text message on Friday asking if he could have her. He said he didn’t know if he missed her more, or if she missed him, but after seeing her the day before he really felt like she would be better off living with him than for me to give her to a stranger.

It’s sad to say, but I have to agree.

So, on Saturday this past weekend (August 8, 2009) while I was at the movies, Brian came by, picked her up, and took her home with him for a “trial period.” He’s been keeping me updated on her progress. She’s got her own bed and toys he took with her. She has a back yard to play in, and she can go out through a doggie door whenever she wants. There is another, older, dog in the house and they get along very well. Candy doesn’t exhibit any of the jealous behavior toward Brian with the other dog that she did with me when she was here and Cody tried to play. I imagine that’s because this was her territory and she was protecting it (and me), whereas over there, she’s the newcomer.

Brian says she’s settling in very well. He sends me photos of her now and then to let me know how she’s doing. In a few days we’ll talk again and see how they are doing, and how I am doing without her.

So how am I doing without her? Well, okay I guess. I miss her, of course. When it’s just the two of us here, she’s relaxed and very affectionate, although still timid and skittish whenever I’m on my feet. But whenever Brian is visiting, she’s always at his feet or sitting by him with her head in his lap, and he never gets tired of her company. He has far more patience with her than I do, and I think they are good for each other.

When I think ahead to my retirement and the plans I want to make in the few months extending into it, having a pet doesn’t fit well. I want to make several driving trips over the next year, and I can tell you already Candy does not travel well! There’s no way she would do well on long car trips, and I know I would not have the patience it would take to have her with me.

She’s an outdoor dog, and knowing she has a back yard now where she can play anytime she wants really makes me feel glad for her. I think I’m adjusting to the idea of her being gone already, but only because she’s with Brian. I know he loves her and will take good care of her. I think he’d take better care of her than he would of his own kids if he had any.


Life Decisions, Stress, and Alcohol

(Originally written Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 11:05 p.m.)

Wow, how silly do I feel? I only noticed tonight how I titled my first two notes here. I didn’t know how Facebook would date them, so I thought I would just title them with the current date. However, in my strange mind I must have been thinking ahead to my retirement years because I wrote February instead of July! Now that I see Facebook dated my notes correctly, I’ve re-titled the notes to something a little more descriptive.

So here’s my third effort: Life decisions, stress, and alcohol. I’m in the middle of what has become my last “budget cycle” at work, traditionally the most stressful time of the year for me. It is a time when my staff and I hunker down and hammer out the budget for every post office in the Oklahoma District for the next fiscal year commencing October 1, consisting of work hours, volume, productivity, overtime, sick leave, salaries & benefits, non-personnel, other personnel, revenue, etc. Most people don’t know the intricacies or the level of detail involved, and the amount of effort put forth in the number crunching can be exhausting.

The stress in years past has been oppressive to a near breaking point at times. My job as the manager involves being the liaison not only between our Area office in Dallas and the District, but between the District staff and my staff. I am responsible for coordinating between the functional managers, all of whom are higher level managers than me, and most of whom have egos that need tending. Coordinating this activity while facing technical deadlines would cause unbelievable pressure for me.

This year is strangely different. A few short months after entering Alcoholics Anonymous I began to let go of everything that was causing me stress. I’ve already written about the fear of economic insecurity leaving me. I listened to what the others were saying in the meetings and read the big book, and gradually realized I was not in control of most things in my life that caused stress. Once I realized I couldn’t control the stressors, I learned I could let go of them. Letting go was the key. Leave it behind.

I thought as the budget cycle approached I would have difficulty maintaining my serenity, and even worried I would begin to crave alcohol again as a way of coping with the stress of the job. So far it hasn’t happened! We’re more than half way through the budget process now, with a little more than two weeks to go.

Add to the job stress a major life decision – retirement! Having made the decision to retire at roughly the same time as the budget cycle started, you’d think I might have bitten off more than I could chew. Oddly enough, that was the least stressful decision I’ve ever made. A thorough review of my financial standing and an inventory of my ambitions and desires for career movement lead me to a clear decision. It is time to leave the Postal Service after 36 and a half years.

It’s not that I hate my job or that I’m unhappy with the Postal Service. Quite the contrary! The Postal Service has been very good to me over my career and I certainly have been well compensated. I expect nothing more from my career and will leave the Postal Service as a very happy retiree.

It’s a good place to be. I haven’t felt this peaceful with myself in a very long time. Alcohol free for more than seven months, and the future looks bright. I’m feeling zero stress in spite of being in the midst of what should be a very stressful time at work and having just made a very stressful decision to retire! I’m counting down the days until my final work day, December 31, 2009. The whole world will be celebrating my retirement on New Year’s Eve!

The Promises Are Coming True

(Originally written Monday, July 27, 2009 at 8:28 p.m.)

(From the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, pages 83-84)

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and selfpity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.


I added the bold and underlined part in the above quote from the Big Book. All of the above promises are gradually coming true for me, but the part I highlighted is especially important as I contemplate retirement. Just a few months ago I sat in fear of even paying my bills between paychecks! That hasn't happened to me in 25 years. But thanks to the AA program and my recovery, I've been very lucky to regain my financial security. Well, at least I'm on the way to it.

It's amazing how much money I used to spend on alcohol. I didn't drink it all myself! I was one of those guys at the bar who had to always buy for his friends. And if I was drunk enough, which I frequently was, I'd buy rounds for the entire bar. Not to mention hosting the party condo for a couple of summers. It didn't matter; isn't that why credit cards were invented?

Two and a half years and $30,000 later I was suddenly drinking because financial problems were in my life, right? Not so, not so. It was my alcoholism. That was the root of all my problems. My disease, over which I had no control, was running rampant. I could see in the distance that it might eventually impact my retirement but I thought I had plenty of time to put the brakes on, whenever I thought I was ready to stop.

The fear of financial insecurity paralyzed me last November/December. I knew I would be eligible to retire in May this year and I felt I was fizzling out mentally and emotionally and on the verge of burnout; I needed to retire. But I wouldn't be able to with my financial situation the way it was. Worse still, my health was deteriorating.

In a way, that was the more fortunate, if you can call it that, wake-up call. If my health had not been threatened I doubt I would have hauled myself to detox when I did. There were a host of events, thought processes, emotional issues, etc., that lead to the decision to admit myself to detox. The bottom line was this. I didn't want to die. All I knew was that I had to get sober. I didn't know how that would happen after I got through detox, but I knew I had to make the first step.

It was during detox and rehab that I was introduced to AA. I haven't regretted the decision to join "the cult," as many people like to call it, jokingly or not. Whatever you want to say about it, one thing is true. Go to enough meetings and they will certainly interfere with your drinking! LOL

Thanks to AA I not only have my physical sobriety back, buy my emotional and spiritual sobriety as well. Working the steps and continuing the meetings keeps me grounded and centered. I made the decision just in time, back in December, because my health has completely recovered. I've gradually regained my sanity and serenity. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on drinking and buying drinks, I am paying off credit card debt and planning for retirement.

Am I where I could have been without alcoholism in my life? Of course not. Am I even where I wish I could be now? No way. But I have achieved something in seven months of sobriety I never expected. The fear of economic insecurity has left me. That's a significant improvement.

I will be able to retire soon! In fact, the official date is January 2, 2010, 159 days from today. My civil service retirement will be intact, although my thrift savings fund, which was already significantly impacted by the economic crisis of the past year and a half or so, will be seriously depleted in order to pay off my remaining debt when I retire. What's left (mortgage, car payment, etc.) I will be able to manage comfortably without having to work, unless I want to. I'll have some left over to continue saving and a cushion for trips, or maybe that extravagance I've got my eye on - a big-screen TV.

Considering how it could have turned out, I feel extremely fortunate! Don't think that money is the most importing thing in my life by any means, everyone. This is a topic currently in the forefront of my mind because I've been actively researching retirement the past few weeks, but trust me, my recovery through AA has more to do with my health, family relationships, friendships, emotional and spiritual wellbeing than my financial stability!

The Beginning!

(Originally written Sunday, July 26, 2009 at 2:12 p.m.)

They say you shouldn't make any major decisions in life during your first year of sobriety. It's been almost seven months since I got sober. Over the past few months I've been thinking about retirement. Actually over the past couple of years. The alcoholism spiral nearly ruined those dreams, but I think I may be able to pull it off after all. I won't be quite as comfortable financially, but I still need and want to retire in January 2010. Emotionally I am more than ready to retire.

While this definitely qualifies as a major decision in life, it is certainly not one I'm taking lightly or quickly. It is a carefully researched decision, and one I choose not to let my alcoholic past and current recovery jeopardize. In fact I view this decision as part of my recovery. Work over the past several years has become a drain on my emotional wellbeing for a number of reasons. My interest and ambition has long disappeared. Staying at the post office has turned into a daily chore rather than the pleasure it used to be.

Now that the decision is made, I'm excited about it! I'm looking forward to the challenge of the next few months, working out the financial kinks, staging the next part of my life in retirment, etc. It isn't that I hate my life at the post office, I'm just ready for change. Thirty-six and a half years at the same place is a long time!

I plan to continue working in retirement, but in a drastically different way. Not immediately after I retire for one thing. I want to travel first, for a while. "Impose on friends" for a bit. Visit some distant friends for a few weeks at a time and take a few car trips. When I do work I want to do something more in line with my hobbies; travel, photography, reading, writing, etc., rather than finance and spreadsheets. I am also only interested in working part time at the moment, just to make a little vacation money and to keep my self busy.

So, that's the current update. I'll see about keeping this journal going and posting a few videos along the way. Feel free to comment and provide your advice and encouragement!