Thank You, Charlie B.

Two years ago today, a friend of mine passed. Charles F. Brennan, III—my friend Charlie (November 2, 1960 ‒ April 7, 2014)—was my sponsor for a time.

His funeral mass card carried a quote from Emerson: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

At the top is a copy of The Serenity Prayer in Irish, whoch we found in his apartment:

An Phaidir Suaimhneas
A Dhia,
deonaigh dom an suaimhneas
chun glacadh le rudaí
nach féidir liom a athrú,
misneach chun rudaí a athrú nuair is féidir,
agus gaois
chun an difríocht a aithint.

What follows was first published two years ago. Thank you for reading it:
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Getting Better, One Day at a Time

A friend told me about eating out with her “sarcastic” friend—we all have one—when they saw a toddler, bundled up in winter layers, bounce off a closed glass door and fall because the child had not perceived the door.

The sarcastic friend said, sotto voce, “Get used to that, kid.”

Life is a clear, freshly cleaned, plate glass door that no one notices is a door, even with a shiny metal door handle at every-door-you’ve-ever-seen’s-door-handle-height on it, because we are too busy thinking about life until someone bonks into it. Loudly.

When are we too young to learn that? or too old to be reminded?

I bonked into my own life, repeatedly. Another friend has an analogy: Whenever he lived like he thought he was the “captain of his own ship,” he would run it aground, back it up, direct it in what he thought was a new direction, fire up the engines and re-launch full speed ahead, only to find that it was not a new direction at all and he had re-grounded it in the same spot, but deeper in the muck.

Ten years ago, my SMA symptoms were probably beginning to manifest themselves but I was still walking everywhere, and even if I did notice any changes I was not someone who was going to say anything out loud about them to another human being. I had terrible leg cramps. My right leg would spasm out from under me if I stood still for long, but it had done that for years; my reflexes would catch me and pop me back into place. That happens to everyone, right? I fell in my own apartment, a single-level, one bedroom, hard-to-fall-down-in apartment and twisted that ankle sometime in 2004. SMA? or something else?

It is possible it was my leg misfiring, a neuromuscular something-or-other, as well as something else. In 2004, I was still active in another disease, alcoholism; that stumble that I mentioned is not something that I actually remember as I was in a brownout that night, an ambulatory blackout. I remember awaking in pain and with a foot too swollen to put a shoe on it. Ice and aspirin and I was fine within days or never.

AA_Anniversary_Medallion_Cobalt_BlueHad my alcoholism not gone into remission four and a half years ago through a lot of work, I would not: be writing; know about SMA; know that I was born with SMA; or be walking at all, probably. I would not have the income that I have (Social Security Disability), which is a very small stipend but it is regular; I would not know eighty percent of the people I now call friends; I would not be in the relationship that has outlasted the few relationships I had ever adventured my way into and out of over the years.

I would not be walking because I would not know what was happening, would not have complained to anyone, much less a doctor, and probably would be on a walker by now instead of a cane. I would have silently suffered with a fear that my condition was one I “had drunk myself into,” which would probably frequently be a thought immediately preceding another guilt-riddled binge. (SMA is a genetic disease, and its symptoms would have appeared when they did even if I had been a teetotalling professional athlete.) When I was active, I liked feeling bad, feeling guilty, feeling self-pity, even, because I liked the relief for those feelings that I had in a bottle. I enjoyed feelings, good and bad, only insofar as I could suppress them.

Alcoholism is a disease, a psychological and physical one, in which craving supplants all emotions and that emotion directs all actions. All addictions seem to share that simple self-centered rule and draw vitality from this circular emotional logic. The solution is simple but difficult; for me it involved getting involved with life, doing for others, with others, and noticing that I am not the center of the universe and that you all are not my creations, figments of my imagination. The trick was getting me to want that, to notice that I did not know or had forgotten all this.

About ten years ago, maybe eleven, I tried to contact my future self, the 2014 edition of me with several years of sobriety. I called the A.A. hotline and some nice person listened to me for a bit and then he told me he would get me in the morning and bring me to a meeting. I of course did not go. The first step in recovery is to admit “we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” I knew my life was becoming a wreck already, even with a good job, but … I knew nothing else. Ten years ago I was on Step Zero—I knew that MY life was wrong somehow—but I did not come into recovery until 2010; I do not wish those six years on anyone, even people I detest.

I do not wish SMA on anyone, even people I detest, too. The beautiful thing about bonking into real life is that the best people I know are alcoholics and addicts taking their recovery seriously and people with neuromuscular diseases—like SMA and SCA and Friedreich’s ataxia—people who expand their lives and their possibilities even as their boat changes course on them and coach me to do so, too.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 15 asks, “Present-day you meets 10-years-ago you for coffee. Share with your younger self the most challenging thing, the most rewarding thing, and the most fun thing they have to look forward to.”

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Daily Prompt: Ten Years Out and Four Back

The WordPress Daily Prompt for August 6 asks writers to write about writer’s block, a question that would on the surface seem unanswerable: “When was the last time you experienced writer’s block? What do you think brought it about—and how did you dig your way out of it?”

When one is in the throes of a block, the helpful suggestion to write about “anything,” even to “write about writer’s block,” feels like an excuse for justifiable homicide on receiving it.

Anyone replying to this prompt is not at present in its throes, so, good for us; I am patting us all on our collective shoulder. Because it feels like a physical ailment, writer’s block. First, it presents a heady sensation of having multiple thoughts at once, of a richness of topics and sentences available at all moments (justpickoneanyone!) … except this one, followed by a dread that one has committed to the wrong topic or married it to a disaster of a sentence, followed by a helpless sense that one always picks wrong, that one has no right to give privilege to any single thought, sentence, syllable over any other. No right to! Don’t finish, never start, just drool.

In his great novel “The Information,” Martin Amis describes the self-torture his character Richard Tull endures:

For an hour … he worked on his latest novel, deliberately but provisionally entitled Untitled. Richard Tull wasn’t much of a hero. Yet there was something heroic about this early hour of flinching, flickering labor, the pencil sharpener, the Wite-Out, the vines outside the open window sallowing not with autumn but with nicotine. In the drawers of his desk or interleaved by now with the bills and summonses on the lower shelves on his bookcases, and even on the floor of the car (the terrible red Maestro), swilling around among the Ribena cartons and the dead tennis balls, lay other novels, all of them firmly entitled Unpublished. And stacked against him in the future, he knew, were yet further novels, successively entitled Unfinished, Unwritten, Unattempted, and, eventually, Unconceived.

For years (the novel was published in 1995) I would set “The Information” down upon reading that passage (it comes early in the book, after Amis describes Tull’s middle-aged inner self-knowledge of his self-failure in only 20 or so sentences), because that was the bookshelf in my mind, too. And I was not going to describe it better than the master, so why attempt to? My own inner self-knowledge of my self-failure extended to believing that someone else had done a better job of describing my inner self-knowledge of my self-failure. Amis is a great novelist and essayist, one of my favorites, but he is not in my head (lucky him). (There is a pun there.)

I would read and re-read that passage, though, almost recite it like a sick mantra. Because while I could see the comedy in it—it is extremely funny, after all—I could not laugh at it with anything more than a mournful, rueful, “Heh.”

Whatever failures I have as a writer, and as a person for that matter, being too critical of myself usually was not one of them. If anything, I was not critical enough, often enough: If I was not going to attempt to try but was going to get all showy-mournful over the loss of my attempt, how was I “my own worst critic,” as I sometimes hear people describe themselves?

Through the 2000s, I did not write. I was in a writer’s block that felt terminal. (Some may wish it had remained so.) Oh, there was the occasional email of some length—I shudder at the memory of an attempted mimicking of Bill Simmons before he was famous (we even exchanged emails once) that described an afternoon at a Cubs game that I sent to friends—but the breaks between attempts grew longer. I moved part-way across country and then back, with some friends not knowing I had returned, because they did not know I had left four years before.

The irony is that for five of those ten years, I was professionally a writer, first at a factory, then for IBM. My work with a radio comedy group dried up, too. Ultimately, it all ended. I attempted this very blog in 2006, something which I had forgotten about until I started The Gad About Town in October 2013 and was told by Blogger, “This email address already has a blog, would you like to see it?”, requested the password, and discovered that I had started two posts, neither of which had a complete sentence. (It was kept private then and will remain so.) If there is a Rosebud to my writing life, it may be in those half-paragraphs.

For someone who has only wanted to do one thing, write—my family still has furniture I marked up with crayons, drawing words instead of pictures on every surface when I was two or three—the experience of not writing was a painful one. It meant that my psyche was left alone to receive each perturbation and clash like it was a brand-new, unique, and uniquely awful thing.

Until July 15, 2010, I was deeply engaged in doing the one thing I did best: Get drunk. My will to engage in much else in life was slowly being sucked away, but I also believe that my writing block was partly the result of a perverse sense of integrity and honesty: Nothing that I could or would write was going to be honest. I could not write out an honest shopping list, since the one thing I was actually leaving my house for was not even on the list. Any blog post, comedy piece, essay, memoir, to-do list was a lie of omission, and I do not like to lie. So, “Unpublished, Unfinished, Unwritten, Unattempted, Unconceived.” Until I was willing to blush while saying (or writing) the words, “My name is Mark Aldrich and I am an alcoholic,” nothing else was going to come from me.

That coin you see up top? I am pretty proud of it. (I tried to photograph the actual one but it is too shiny.)

So for the last year, I have been writing regularly. The Gad About Town has over 60 published posts; 13 of them responses to the “Daily Prompt.” But the lack of confidence that a writer’s block presents, that still visits. It did so this spring. My girlfriend’s help—really, I am a lucky guy—and my choice to do the Daily Prompt every day (even though it “is not me coming up with the ideas. Grumble”) have me writing now. So responding to the Daily Prompt every day is part of how I can respond to a Daily Prompt about writer’s block, a topic that would be unanswerable if I was in one.