Along The Boardwalk

 

I saw my first fallen-down drunk when I was four years old.

For the first part of my life, our family lived in a remote fishing village on the east end of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. It was a place where fishermen would get their paychecks on Friday, then drink them up at the bar by Sunday. On one Sunday evening we were walking from our home to the chapel for evening service, when I looked off the boardwalk to see a man just lying there. He wasn’t moving, like he was asleep in the grass and sprawled out like he fell. “Mom what’s wrong with him?” I asked.

“Just keep walking,” she replied.

Later on at the chapel I was told that he had been drinking and that he was passed out. Since my parents helped care for the physical and emotional well being of our fellow villagers, I can only surmise they determined he was fine and just needed to sleep off his booze right where he was. They would have NEVER left him in that spot if there was danger. I don’t recall ever seeing him again. How did this impact a four-year old kid?

I remember enough of it to share the story nearly fifty years later, and know first hand what true alcohol abuse looks like.

I never wanted to be that guy. I have never laughed about it. Through my teen years I remembered him. When I had my first alcohol ever, that dude along the boardwalk was on my mind. I was dry for about ten years during my 30s, because his sprawled out frame kept showing up in my head, and I didn’t want to end up lying in the grass somewhere completely unphased by passers by. This summer, while walking to a restaurant in White Center, I passed a man who was passed out and encircled by malt liquor cans – right along the sidewalk; immediately the man in Sand Point popped into my head and said, “Yeah that was a bender.”

Even last night, as I relaxed with my wife, I looked at my beer and thought of him.

He didn’t seem glorious, or a champion, or anything remotely like a life goal. He was a sad representation of a life wasted, alcoholism, and self medication. Was he using the bottle to run from depression? Bad relationships? Abuse? I’ll never know. Maybe he couldn’t stop, which was common among many of our friends in Sand Point. We knew a brilliant painter on the island who was also regular resident at the jail, and a slave to the bottle. It happened, and it was sad. Maybe this guy just overdid it after having a good time.

But when the result of your good time puts you face down in the tundra in the Alaskan bush, maybe the end game outweighs the excitement at the start.

At 53 years old I can safely say I won’t be him because I saw him, early enough to make the right impression at the right time. I know where to drink and when to stop. I like coffee just as much as I like Rainier, and can easily switch when it’s time to be responsible. Thanks to this unidentified man, sleeping off a weekend along the boardwalk to an island church, I have stayed clear from the damage of heavy drinking.

In some odd way, that fallen-down drunk kept me safe.

Advertisements

The Life We Hide

“I always looked up to you.”
 
I commended my high school classmate for being amazing, when I had lunch with her in 2002. She is successful, highly educated, and very approachable. She has a way of making people around her feel comfortable and engaged. Always has in the nearly 40 years that I’ve known her.
 
“I was a misfit in high school,” I continued.
 
“Never completely connected socially with any one group, and I always felt out of place, not knowing the right things to say or how to start a conversation. It didn’t help that I was an awful student. But YOU. You had it all together; you were social, connected with so many people, and a great student. Everyone loved you.”
 
“Oh Kurt,” she replied. “What you don’t realize is that, by the time I was a Junior, I was coming to school drunk every day.”
 
I was floored, and had NO idea she was a heavy drinker, or that after high school she ended up running with a very rough crowd. I had no idea she sustained serious injuries during that time, and has spent a lifetime reversing that damage – both physical and mental. The force and internal fight that drew her to alcohol at such a young age is the one that defined several years of her future – and nearly killed her too. But she crawled out of the gutter; she got back on the street, and made something of herself. She thrived once she came to terms with her life.
 
But she never forgot that her day as a 17-year old started at The Bottle.
 
At that point in 2002 I realized our lives in the eyes of others can be skewed. The life we FEEL inside isn’t always visible to the outside world. Maybe this is by choice. We may do this for social stature, or as a way to lift ourselves up through denial. Some people look at struggle as weakness. We want to look strong, organized, fully in charge of the hustle. Sometimes we don’t want to be reminded that sometimes life sucks, and the quickest way to forget it is to bury it.
 
Humans can be highly skilled at hiding what we don’t want the world to know – sharing our “Instagram Lives” instead for an adoring public.
 
The world may not know the struggles we face. And alternately, the people we meet could be hiding a struggle from others. In short, we all struggle with something. The fight is more acute for some, but the fight exists. Mine is weight; I’ve struggled my entire life with extra pounds, portion control, and hunger. It’s pretty messed up; it controls my way and my day. Thoughts of food or meals seep into every activity, warranted or not, because I’m almost always hungry. Why am I this way? No clue; I’m wired for food, and it sucks. While my struggle can be measured differently against the reason a teen gets drunk every day, it is a struggle nonetheless.
 
So that person you think you know? You may not know them at all.
 
What you see on the outside is merely an aesthetic. Inside, that person might be hurting. Bad. You might not be able to see it. But be open to share in what they FEEL. If you have to, put away the politics – because pain isn’t partisan. Find common ground and build on it. Connect with their heart. Share in their struggle as best you can. And share yours with them. Love and understand that humans are humans. We make mistakes. Every one of us. When the minds align, all will be fine.
 
And eventually, you can look up to each other.

Broken Cookie

20151227_110709

The young woman ascended the stage with frailty, dragging a cane up the steps in her left hand.

The pastor’s wife stood near, ready to help her if she tipped or became wobbly. Stepping to the stage behind the woman was her husband, cradling their infant. Neither of them were over the age of thirty.

“I’m not here to tell you that our lives are perfect or great,” the woman said with a mild slur into the mic. “Our last year has been filled with garbage.”

The couple spent a good portion of the year handling her husband’s Crohns Disease flare ups, and it took a lot out of them. Then in September their child was born, a beautiful healthy baby. Two weeks later the young woman had a stroke. It changed so much of their lives. Now she talks with a slur, and walks assisted. But through it all she portrayed a strength and confidence that transcended any cane or paralysis.

“Life continues to be hard. But we have a beautiful healthy baby, and we are still together,” she said. “I could sit back and wonder why it all happened. These events were put in our lives for a reason. We’ll find out why someday, and I would rather look ahead and known that what we’ve endured may end up helping someone else.”

Her mindset reminds me of a broken cookie.

It may be in two pieces sitting there on the plate. It’s not perfect. Some might consider it unpresentable. The crack may have been unexpected, and the crack may also be severe. You can sit there and complain about the broken cookie, or you can eat the damn thing and take in all the wonderful tastes and textures it still offers even in two pieces. A cookie is a cookie. It tastes like a cookie. Work with the two parts and you still have a cookie. Expecting that cookie to be an exact circle, and unbroken, is like expecting a perfect life that only exists on paper or in a movie from the 1950s. What happened to that young couple could happen to anyone.

Expecting perfection sets all of us up for failure.

Life is real and life is unfiltered. There will be hardships, trials, setbacks and sideswipes. We don’t always get the promotion. Sometimes getting a 4.0 doesn’t mean you’re on a track to moneyville. There are bumps in the road. Curve balls come out of nowhere, and next thing you know your path has completely changed. I will admit that I don’t always react well when faced with an unexpected trip-up. But lately I’ve worked on taking a different approach when sidetracked by adversity; I ask myself “where could this take me?” I also try to look at it in a productive way. It’s not easy giving up control over something that you feel must be done a certain way. For some people, it’s nearly impossible. But consider this: It could be that the sidetrack was actually the way something was supposed to happen, and not necessarily the original plan. I’ve discovered that unexpected opportunities have presented themselves by taking the unexpected path.

I look at the cookie as a whole, and ignore the break.

If a young stroke victim can stand with her husband and child on a stage, and proclaim publicly that she’s taking on what’s being handed out, then I can look at my own life and unexpected struggles in a different way. How we see it is how it plays. Do you want to wallow or win? I choose the latter, and so did that young woman.

The cookie tastes great if you want it to.

Lighting The Past

Jack Candle 20150811 1000

“Dad? Can we light my candle?” Jack asked me yesterday morning.

I looked to the clear mason jar on the hutch in the living room.  It was magnificent.  The lid was dotted with toy gems, while the innards of the jar were filled with colored granules in a red/white/blue flowing pattern.  Jack’s handiwork had been sitting there long enough for the candle to be invisible to my eyes over time.  “Sure,” I said, despite it being the middle of Summer with the temperature hanging around 80.  “How come?”

“We were never able to use it after I made it, because of Grandma’s oxygen machine.”

Continue reading

Let Go And Let Them Scoot

Jack Scooter

“Hey Dad,” Jack said to me while he scootered to school, “if you want to get exercise and lose weight – no offense – we could do this every Monday!”

His school is about a mile from home.

With his short legs and prosthetic limb, that distance would take over an hour and wear him out to the point of exhaustion if he were to walk. He had been talking about scootering to school all weekend, and this morning he insisted once again. I first said no, because the weather was changing and I was fearful that it would take too too long. Then I saw an article link in my FB describing how a father hauled his disabled son up to the top of an amazing outlook in a National Park because he thought his son would like the view – a trip that would have been impossible for someone with his disability. ‘Jeez Kurt,’ I thought after that, ‘get out the dang scooter.’

Jack rolled his way to school in twenty minutes.

Let ’em loose and find out what they can do.

 

The Secret to Staying Skinny ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know

Smoking Truck Driver

The news has been filled for several years of reports that Americans are getting bigger.

It’s being called an epidemic, a problem our society will need to address in short order to keep from destroying any chance of America having a healthy future. But for many – like me – maintaining a healthy weight is a constant struggle. What I fight – in my opinion – is actually an addiction to food, which is also an addiction to the very thing that is also supposed to sustain my life. How does one battle that? It’s not like a person can just not eat. We all must eat to live, but somehow my body seems to be greedy. I’ve grown to tolerate – because my body can’t accept – the ties between portion size and feelings of hunger; if I eat regular size meals I’m constantly hungry.

Maybe there’s something wrong, or maybe I’m weak.

Ten years ago a doctor told me she couldn’t help with the hunger I felt. Three months ago – in the hopes that medical science had advanced since my last request – I asked a doctor again to help me, after losing 35 pounds and enduring comments from the nurse that I should lose weight. Doctor Two couldn’t help me either, stating there was “no magic pill” which would take that feeling away. Oh, and I needed to retrain myself while waiting for my stomach to shrink.

So that means medical science can create drugs like Viagra and Cialis, yet they can’t produce something to keep mankind from eating themselves to death.

I feel my body telling me to eat twice as much as I need to live. As I write this my hunger is nagging at my middle, but also down by 45 pounds from the summer of 2011; it has been the toughest struggle to get there. But I will say this: The hunger I endure – even right now – gives me compassion for the multitudes around the world who feel this inner emptiness every day / all day – and not by choice.

With doctors and the media telling us that our belt lines continue to increase, it makes me wonder how we Americans ever stayed thin in the first place.

Pictures from our historic past show well-proportioned landscapes of slender people working the magnificent jobs of an industrial America, void of any body fat and simply beaming with weight-healthy bliss. The Library of Congress archives on Flickr are teaming with these images, presented in vivid Kodachrome to further push our ancestors’ color-filled birthright of thin living on the rest of us. It’s a memorable image, ripe with sentimentality and patriotism.

“Honor our forefathers, who forged this landscape with the muscles in their backs and the remaining fingers of their bare hands.”

The can-do spirit of this majestic endeavor, creating a free land for all at the cost of a few, can be felt in Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy. But my question remains: How is that 1940s Man could go to work a 12-hour day on the budding infrastructure of America, while holding a paper sack holding only a simple sandwich and an small apple? I have a theory; a crude and untested one, but mine alone.

They all smoked.

Yes, the industrious worker of the 1940s was also a two-pack per day burner, enjoying with billowing freedom the toasted flavor of a filterless Lucky Strike while completely forgetting that his body needed more than nicotine. The ashtrays gracing the armrests and bathrooms of older theaters and 737s will attest to the breadth of the practice of replacing food with a good smoke. And why not? Doctors standing next to big Chryslers – while citing junk science like nicotine satisfying the N-Zone of the brain with little or no medical after effect – were telling readers from the ad pages of the 1950s to relax, and grab a light for that smooth rich tobacco flavor.

But now we’ve traded one epidemic for another.

From where I sit, food has replaced cigarettes as America’s guilty pleasure. State laws doom smoker-friendly restaurants like The Pine Cone, while giving permits to build another fast food restaurant that is rumored to use Pink Meat Paste. As I look at the calorie counts at restaurants – any restaurant to be honest – I’m amazed at how may can serve meals which contain an entire day’s allotment of energy. I use to eat like that. Three times daily. Okay, four or five. Now I only wish for it, looking sadly upon the menus while ordering something light that is sided with steamed broccoli. I’m thinking maybe the doctors couldn’t help me because the only weapon they had against hunger was a pack of Pall Malls. It’s the secret to staying skinny they can no longer let us in on, and the secret to staying skinny we can no longer use.

Think I’ll go grab another burger…I mean apple.

Originally published Feb 29, 2012