The Triple Threat

Written on 9/19: 

Nick’s replacement guy came yesterday, so Nick is taking off later today. The replacement guy immediately reminded me of a helper they gave us on our first fire this year, who was sweet but not very intelligent. Turn out they’re brothers — this guy was like, “Oh, you worked a fire with so-and-so? He’s my far less intelligent brother!” (9/28 update: I’ve since learned its because the smarter brother dropped an axe on the head of the other one in early childhood so now I feel like a jerk, and should probably just delete this whole tangent :-/). I really like them both, but the more intelligent the better, for coworkers. If there’s ever a point of diminishing returns on that, it might be with pets. I’m not sure an octopus or honey badger would be very fun to have around, always outsmarting you.

The replacement guy brought a very nice rental pickup, but it’s got a short bed.  Nick and I are stressing about getting all the barbell stuff plus everything else in there, but we’ll just have at it this afternoon and make it happen.  The barbell itself is going to stick way out, and require flagging.  

Our specific camp (there are many, attached to this fire) supposedly got two or three hundred reinforcements yesterday, in the form of US Marines from Camp Pendleton.  They’re embedding a Type 2 fire crew with them to show them the ropes.  We’re expecting the shower to get busier but so far that hasn’t occurred.  The new guy handled the evening “rush” while Nick shut himself in the trailer office (with me, incidentally — I was super sleepy and also menstrual, but couldn’t retire in the normal place because we gave the new guy the tractor for his sleeping quarters.  Also didn’t finish my blog yesterday because it was time to show him around, so I’ll circle back to that, after this) so Nick could be the guest speaker for an AA meeting via Zoom.  

If you’ve never heard an AA guest speaker, you’re missing out big time.  Meetings are set up so each individual can share for several minutes, but it’s also common to have a 20m or so speaker who’s known to have a special influence.  There’s one reason exactly why this is such a massively unique event, relative to what goes on in the rest of human social discourse, and I think it probably takes an outsider like me to really grasp it: AA guest speakers create a braid of 3 contrasting but deeply interconnected strands — personal chronology, public self narration, and private self narration.  They all do it, and I don’t know that they do it on purpose, but it’s just a natural function of the perspective they embody, having arrived at the point where they’re able to serve in this capacity.  

So, just to really spell this out, you have definitely heard people orate personal chronologies, relative to a given theme, all your life.  A new employee introducing themselves at a work meeting, for instance: Hi everyone, really glad to be here and join the team.  I grew up in [wherever], and first became interested in [whatever] [why ever].  I worked [something] and then [a couple other things] and we focused on [some damn thing], and I learned a lot.  Then I retired and got into consulting, and we worked primarily with [this, that, the other], and then I was given the opportunity to come here and [something], and I’m excited to get cracking.  

Something like that.  In the arts, it’s expected that this all gets a little more personal, but it’s a very polished, dare I say sanitized, form of personal: When I published my first book, I was doing [something else] full time, and had a family with young kids, and finding time to write [in some heroic fashion], and it wasn’t until my second book that I was able to quit my job and focus entirely on my research, which meant a lot to me because I’ve always felt that [something] and it’s really important to me to [be about that somehow]. And that’s the really dry version. If you’re at a creative writing event or poetry slam, the public self narration will sort of masquerade as private self narration, but not really pull it off.  

I listened to all of Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University CD’s several years ago, for instance, and that guy is a great speaker.  He’ll tell you about the shitty old coffee table they had when they first got married and how they almost got everything re-po’d and x y z financial struggles and what they did about it, and little quips and jokes about he and his wife’s personalities and marital stressors along the way, how that cohered with their money situation, all that.  That, relative to the highly sanitized baseline of sharing and oration that we’re all used to, represents some real intimate stuff, particularly because it’s about money, one of our least transparent but constant considerations.  

This is about the level that even really good, really wonderful orators are sharing at.  Preachers, motivational speakers, people who’ve founded companies, TED Talk experts.  It’s so formulaic but you might not even realize.  It’s a carefully calculated level of intimacy.  It usually starts out with a personal story which is specifically chosen to introduce the subject and warm up the audience, and then goes from there, with its trajectory established based on, you know, the problem, the solution, a wrap up, like that.  

Here’s the thing: we aren’t allowed to go deeper than that, with each other, even were it to occur to us, which mostly it doesn’t.  We might go deeper than that in long, wine-soaked hang outs with our closest friends, but this is much more a back and forth, and so the oration aspect is surrendered in favor of actual intimacy, so it’s not the same thing. When I hear public speakers, I’m always wishing there was a ticker tape at the bottom, connected to the thoughts their private self is thinking. But when you hear an AA guest speaker, you don’t need that ticker tape, because they come right out and tell you.  

AA speakers, or grass roots orators, tell the story of their addiction and sobriety, in most simple terms.  The interesting thing about that is that it touches every single other thing, so it’s the least compartmentalize-able theme ever — it wraps up and around family of origin, childhood, dating, marriage, occupation, friends, health, money, all of it, but you only have 20 minutes so it’s a triage.  And it’s not, as you might assume, a story of “here’s how bad shit got for me”, although that’s an important aspect.  

Like Nick’s story, last night.  He was like, “My rock bottom wasn’t any of the things you’d assume.  Being homeless (because if I went home I’d have to be sober), sleeping under bushes, getting almost killed in hotel drug deals gone bad, having died and been resuscitated on several different occasions by the time I was 23 — I could handle all that stuff just fine.  I could roll around in my rock bottom in total comfort, in a sense.  That wasn’t the problem.  I’d get released from the hospital or from jail and go right back to my dealer’s house.  The problem was that I couldn’t stand myself, and the drugs weren’t working anymore.  By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I literally couldn’t do enough drugs to keep myself from being conscious of myself, and I wanted to die of shame every single second I was conscious.”  

I can’t emphasize enough how absent this level of self-reflection and honesty is in our normal discourse, and necessarily so!  If we were to self-disclose at this level — and I don’t even mean about stuff this “bad” but about the real emotional angles of however good, bad, or ugly things are for us, and conveyed through time — we’d be ostracized.  So by no means am I criticizing our normal level of oratory intimacy, per se?  I’m just recognizing that authenticity is this thing we all want, from ourselves and others, and we all need, and we’ve made sure it’s not actually welcome or permitted, at most levels of our dealings with each other.  If we disclosed to one another the way addicts do at meetings, people would shit a brick.  We’re entirely unprepared for it.  

So in a sense, and this is what exposure to a couple of these AA guest speakers has caused me to recognize, we are three different aspects, when we orate, casually or professionally.  We are a highly polished chronology self, a crafty PR-minded soft-sell self (look! I’m telling a quirky, revealing, self-effacing story to get you to like me!), and then an utterly stunted, confused stepchild locked in the basement, who never comes out or sees the light of day, self.  

That emotional bastard stepchild is the part of ourselves that’s left over, after we’ve advanced our calculations about how to be seen as good in the world; and because it’s not part of that calculation, it never gets to grow up.  It’s stunted.  We feel deeply exposed and violated and naked if it ever happens to make its way up the stairs while company’s over.  We want to fix it with a frontal lobotomy, like Rose Kennedy.  

Or maybe that’s too pessimistic.  People who are not spiritually sick are perhaps able to love and nurture this deep inner self, this self who we can recognize as valid and lovable whether or not it contributes to our PR image in the larger world, and so it’s in that case happy and well cared for, but still not seen or exposed in mixed company.  That’s the best case scenario.  But in my estimation, at least, even in our most honest moments we can’t entirely include that self.  

Sober addicts maybe have an advantage, here, only in the sense that if they’ve survived at all (and often they don’t), it’s only because their inner Golem has been dredged to the surface and pinned down and exposed like the raw nerve it is.  That’s where the Higher Power thing comes in, which critics of AA don’t resonate with, but it’s because they don’t get it.  I mean, let’s say your inner Golem, your entirely stunted stepchild locked in the basement, is literally killing you (for most of us that’s not the case, and so we don’t ever have to fully deal with it), and it becomes a matter of dredging that thing up to somehow love it, or die.  So you dredge it up, okay.  But love it?  Love it?  No way can you do that.  It’s the scapegoat for every horrible thing you’ve ever done, the reason everyone you’ve ever loved rejects you — and while you’ve been running around up here sticking pins in yourself like a voodoo doll, feeling nothing, this fuckin thing was in the basement taking the hits.  How can you ever look that thing in the eye?  

God, that’s how.  Because you can’t, no one can.  No one can love that thing, being through what you’ve been through, whatever that is, and so God is literally the only answer, because hating the basement stepchild is what got you here in the first place, and only love can get you out, and you can’t be that love, but God can.  This is why sober addicts are so much better at walking with God, by whatever private definition, than the rest of us.  We have all these grand, failed, mostly prissy ideas about what God is or isn’t, and addicts are like: God is whatever can love that aspect of me, so I’ll just keep it dredged up and pinned down, here, which is in itself not enough and I know it.  Most of us can function indefinitely, not loving ourselves or having a clear conception what it would mean to let God take a whack at it.  For addicts, it’s so much simpler because it’s so much more dire.  

To be clear, it would be possible to share with others on this level, even were the themes to be more casual — as indeed is the case with most sober people’s interactions and conversations, even about minutiae.  I mean, I think the goal is to have our hidden, emotional self become as functional and healthy as our other parts, able to come out and play, or choose not to, in a routine way, but of course the more we hide it, the more dysfunctional and embarrassing it is.       

So it’s frankly tough, having been exposed to this level of public sharing through vicarious AA consumption, to feel really impressed with oration otherwise.  Fortunately you do find authenticity coming through, by fits and starts, in all kinds of settings, and it’s always easy to reward authenticity with our attention.  It’s like a magnet — we can’t not.  I’ll even see talking heads on TV or the internet flowing out some real authenticity, from time to time, in the course of saying whatever they’re saying, and it’s like an extra sizzle of charisma.  I’ll also feel its void, and that’s sad because that void means the person’s emotional bastard stepchild has been locked in the basement for so long, and is down there so abused, they themselves have even forgotten about it.  It’s pretty gross.  

So yes, the three part braid of AA oration, which is personal chronology, public self narration, and private self narration, is something we all theoretically could pull off, if we worked at it, but it simply doesn’t even occur to most of us.  It’s riveting, though, absolutely riveting.  And it has this trickle down effect, in AA meeting culture generally, where — I mean, let’s say you go to a meeting for the first time, and you’ve got all this fragmentation going on, obviously.  You just sit and listen, and you hear ten people in a row say something really authentic and intended to be of service.  That’s the other thing — the service aspect absolutely saves people, so in that community, the people who’ve figured it out don’t have to choose between serving themselves and serving others.  It’s literally the same thing, and sober addicts who don’t serve others don’t stand near as much of a chance, and they know it.  So ten people say their piece, offered in almost perfect authenticity and truly intended to be of service.  That can’t not affect you.  That can’t not shape your level of inquiry, establishing some really refreshing left and right margins for what’s going to fly, in that environment, and what’s not.  

I love the way sober people shut each other down, lovingly, as well.  That’s another thing they get really good at, as a function of their community, that the rest of us hardly ever do.  It’s like a room full of Donald Trumps, comfortably able to point at you and say, “That’s fake news”.  Try harder.

Probably obvious but still important to say: I’m by no means attempting to claim ownership or even familiarity with this community or its processes.  I’m just inspired, from time to time, to pay homage to something that I’ve come to really love, from the outside looking in.  The whole brilliance of the AA model is the recognition that non-addicts really can’t help.  The whole modality prior to the rise of 12 Step was, let’s have normal people try to help abnormal people become normal, and that shit don’t cut it.  I don’t have one single thing in my life that works that way, as a non-addict.  I don’t have one single sword of Damocles that’s hanging by a frayed thread over my neck at all times, regardless of other events and circumstances, that’s built in to the design of my entire psyche.  I’m really glad I don’t, obviously, but the addicts who do find this community, and don’t die first, and do work the steps, and don’t convince themselves they’re out of the woods just in time to kill themselves anyway, and build the service aspect into their lives as a means of literal self-preservation, are some of the luckiest people on earth, in several senses.  Lucky like, odds were against them, and lucky like, no other friend group can be as meaningful and invigorating as this friend group.  

Nick was like a shiny new dime after his meeting, as he always is, and I know this season has worn on him in that way as well.  He wants to be all-the-way plugged in to a sober community again at his earliest opportunity, and I’m really excited to be part of that as well, peripherally.  The great thing about AA is it’s everywhere, Hawaii included, so when we finally conclude our summer nomadicism and autumnal migration, there will definitely be a sober roomful of addicts to welcome him, and by extension me, on arrival.  Following bullshit quarantine, of course.  

So, today will be a sad day, saying goodbye to him and the bugaboos and the weights.  Six months of constant togetherness coming to a temporary close, in service of some major life undertakings.  I’m just thinking of all the shit we own, all the shit my dad owns, and feeling overwhelmed on Nick’s behalf but he’s unstoppable, particularly after a meeting like had had last night.  He’s going to bring one of his best sober friends with him from Flagstaff to go deconstruct our Albuquerque HQ, and I know they’ll have an awesome time.  They both used to work for Firemen Movers, contracted to move large heavy things for thirsty middle-aged women (to quote Joe Biden, I mean, think about it: what demographic is most likely to hire a company called “Firemen Movers”, and on what motivational basis?), so as much as I loathe all things ‘moving’, Nick and his buddy are actual veterans of that kind of work.  

Then it will just be me and New Guy, and he’s very nice and much more intelligent than his brother and we’ll just be at this fire!  Probably five weeks from now, I’ll fly or drive home, if they haven’t demobed us yet.  And I pray they don’t.  I’ve broken down camp and relocated a bunch of times, so it’s not like I don’t know how, but I always had Nick’s enormous strength before, mentally and physically, to organize the process and do the literal heavy lifting.  I’ll be doing the heavy lifting, in the event of a pre-Hawaii demobe, so…yeah, that’s be great if it could just be someone else’s job after I split.  Please god.  I mean, I’ve been heavy lifting with the weights all summer, but the work related kind is like, I might accidentally cut off my finger trying to slide the generator back into its spot, type heavy.  I don’t know how women date men weaker than themselves.  I’d be like, “what is the point of your existence”.  

I got a bunch of hate on Reddit, actually, a few months ago.  I hardly ever comment there, but there was this girl saying she wants to work out and she likes looking muscular, but her boyfriend keeps telling her not to, and that he’ll protect her (they’re in a long distance relationship lmaooo), and that it’s his job to be strong.  Reddit is many things, but one thing it consistently is, is women doing emotional yoga to figure out how to date these useless fucking men.  That’s been a big takeaway for me, at least.  So I hardly ever comment, but I was like, “Work out, get as strong as you can, and find a guy who’s stronger.  There’s nothing wrong with men who are weaker than you — they’re called ‘platonic friends’.”  I got absolutely so much hate from this comment, and a warning from the moderator.  “Who says men have to be this awful toxic stereotype, you regressive bitch!”  I was like, Why on earth would I date a guy weaker than me, when they’re hormonally predisposed to being stronger?  It literally makes no sense.  I was actually blocked from commenting on that sub, later on, due to saying something else totally innocuous, so I guess Reddit is too woke for me.  Oh well.  I still enjoy the dumpster fire of people’s solicitations for advice.  

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