A Long Road

Every alcoholic in recovery has a collection of anecdotes that can be simultaneously heartbreaking, outrageous, and hilarious. Perhaps they are hilarious only to fellow alcoholics; perhaps they can not even be listened to by outsiders. For an outsider, most alcoholic anecdotes may as well conclude with the same dark punchline, an interchangeable rubber-stamped ending: “And then I got away with it again.” Or, “I didn’t die that time, either.” And then comes the next hair-raising—or eyebrow-raising—tale.

Every alcoholic in recovery is living a story with a weird ending, if they remain in recovery. It is that two-word pair there, “in recovery,” that provides the surprise, the weirdness, a period of life as surprising to behold as some of the antics, the many bizarre actions and activities and inactions and inactivities that were surprising for outsiders to watch unfold in the previous life.
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Making Change

In his bestselling book, “Earth in the Balance” (1992), Al Gore recounts the story of watching his six-year-old son be hit by a car, and the months he and his wife spent nursing the boy back to health. That six-year-old is now in his 30s.

He writes that “something changed in a fundamental way” for him that year, 1989: he turned 40, watched his son almost die, and lost the 1988 Presidential election. (He came in a distant “don’t remember him running that year” in the primaries to Michael Dukakis.)

On the same page as that list, page 14 in the revised edition, he writes that,

This life change has caused me to become increasingly impatient with the status quo, with conventional wisdom, with the lazy assumption that we can always muddle through. Such complacency has allowed many kinds of difficult problems to breed and grow, but now, facing a rapid deteriorating global environment, it threatens absolute disaster. No one can now afford to assume that the world will somehow solve its problems. We must all become partners in a bold effort to change the very foundation of our civilization.

(The former Vice-President does a far better job connecting the personal with the political than I did for him just now, immediately above; reading the long quote on its own, as I was typing it, I was reminded of a tire-screeching/pulling-the-stereo-needle-across-the-record sound effect. I thought to myself, “One minute, he was talking about turning 40, and then? This is connected to climate change how?” Okay. He spends the first dozen pages in the book laying out his political credentials as a leader trying to avert the environmental catastrophe that we are now 20-plus years closer to than when he was writing. And then he reveals something that few politicians admit, especially politicians who still think they have elections to run in: open vulnerability and teachability.)
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The Greatest Story Never Told

“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.”—James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” was published in 1791, a little more than six years after Johnson’s death. It is not a biography as readers may think of a biography: the recounting of incidents from a life of action. The poet W.H. Auden said that writers are “makers, not doers” and thus he, Auden, was not going to write his memoirs. We need biographies of the doers in order to learn what was happening behind the scenes, how close the men of action came to disaster and saved their (and sometimes, our) day, he suggested. Johnson’s life was the life of a man of letters, a life spent writing plays, compiling the first major English dictionary, compiling an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, writing weekly columns on every topic his extraordinary mind could entertain. He was a maker.
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Schadenfreude and Other Tongue-Twisters

The term schadenfreude literally means damage-joy. When one enjoys the news that a rival is encountering trouble, one is experiencing a sense of schadenfreude. Most of us have experienced this feeling at some point in our lives, but most of us also have been jerks at some point in our lives, and the two sometimes come at the same time.

There is no real-world term for its opposite, so some people have begun to use a made-up word, freudenschade, to describe the distress one feels when a friend or rival is doing well or has had a success.

And then there are some people, I am thinking of the late Gore Vidal here, who appear to take pleasure at others’ distress at one’s success. Vidal confessed to feelings of schadenfreude over other writers’ freudenschade. (That is as hard to type as it is to say.)
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Henry Beston’s Cape Cod in Winter

The photo above was taken at Nauset Beach on Cape Cod on a December afternoon in 2010; the white glaze covering the footprints is ice and snow, and the Atlantic has ice in it—some of the white caps were frozen, and the waves merely swelled them, shifted them.

Henry Beston wrote perhaps the best physical description of Cape Cod in the opening lines to his classic book “The Outermost House“: “East and ahead of the coast of North America, some thirty miles and more from the inner shores of Massachusetts, there stands in the open Atlantic the last fragment of an ancient and vanished land. For twenty miles this last and outer earth faces the ever hostile ocean in the form of a great eroded cliff of earth and clay, the undulations and levels of whose rim now stand a hundred, now a hundred and fifty feet above the tides. Worn by the breakers and the rains, and disintegrated by the wind, it still stands bold.” He depicts a heroic shoreline, a land that declares its own terms of surrender against a hostile, battering sea. Given that from the air Cape Cod resembles a single raised fist jutting into the sea, a heroic, Byronesque, cliff face is only appropriate.
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