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Low-level holiday misery vs. The hydrogen bomb

Lisa,

You’re E-mail today reminds me what a lucky woman you are. I know the grass over the fence gets you higher, and all that, but it’s good to hear about your family visit in their small town.

I don’t know if you are around your parents, siblings, or relatives. That doesn’t matter. I don’t even talk to my parents or siblings. We can see in Christmas presents how I rate with my parents:

Virginia, Snuggies, DVDs, $75 gift card, Target
Sydney, $100 gift card–Barnes and Noble–$50 cash
Nick, Tonka Toys, Legos, Spy kit, $150 gift card–WalMart
Patrick, $20 gift card–Home Depot

I crack up just writing that. It’s so ridiculous. My dad’s so obsessively anti-union, anti-modern, and reactionary that he won’t even look my way except to talk about the arcane things he made up about how weather’s made. My parents and I have never really talked about anything.

Plus, they were people who bought the 1950s-60s white-flight business. Sad. When they moved from Kansas City (my dad’s effort to relieve himself of the “stress” that made him drink), they moved to suburban Reno, NV. Of course, he found the same “stress” there and he and my mom have drunk themselves silly for the last 27 years.

So, if we visit them, which I don’t any more–those other people around here can do whatever they want–we have to stay in a crappy suburban shitbox in suburban Reno, NV. Reno! The whole place is a crazy parody of itself. When you go anywhere, you get into the car in a housing tract, drive for thirty minutes, and get out in the same place twenty miles away. Everywhere is a half hour away. How does that happen?

My siblings and I left home and never looked back. It was a real human-beats-dog kind of place, where everyone was struggling to survive by abusing someone another step more powerless. We never talked about anything really important. Nothing held us together other than mutual guilt and fear. I’m sorry for that, really. But we are so far apart now, we really have nothing to talk about.

My sister is the suburbanite’s suburbanite. She drives around in SUVs, calls herself an environmentalist because she recycles her plastic water bottles, and sics the neighborhood association on neighbors who leave the garage doors open for too long.

My brother’s a drunk electrician in Reno. Poor guy’s bigger than me and always looks like he’s going to explode. Too heavy, blood pressure too high, and way too obsessed with football, his rusty El Camino that’s “going to be worth a lot someday,” and the siege he’s under from the rest of the world.

I can only describe my youngest sister this way: We adopted her son three years ago.

But, please remember, I write these things not to demean your experience with family. Regardless of how we might add up the miseries, they are all the same. They all cause suffering and pain. And no matter how much we think our pain is greater than someone else’s or someone else’s greater than ours, it’s all pain. Period.

This is the way I learned that–and ultimately came to peace with my own (anti-) family:

Some people I met when I first got sober seemed to have problems that were so trivial compared to mine. After all I was 27 with a bulging liver, kidneys that felt meat-tenderized all the time, and daily DTs. They were having problems like choosing another dog food if the brand they always bought was sold out at the store, eating donuts in the morning and getting jacked on sugar all day, or trying to dodge a judge on another DWI charge.

But I learned something very important very quickly. Other’s problems were just as serious or more than mine. If I wanted to judge those problems, I only had to remember that whatever it was, it was too much for them, just as my problems were too much for me. Whatever the problems were, they brought us to consider seriously giving off drinking and admitting to alcoholism.

Plus, if you think about it, my problems were a hell of a lot easier to get over (again comparing what we should not). I ran into a wall and was on the edge of disappearing into the jungles around town, killing myself, or being mentally or physically incapacitated or dying. And I was 27. I’d been drinking since I was eleven, and was drunk three times a week to every day since I was 15. That’s pretty momentous stuff. And it was easy for me to realize that it wasn’t demons, issues, or persecutions that made me drink. I drank primarily for the effect produced by alcohol and could not live without it. I couldn’t live with it, either. I had to do something.

Imagine if I had believed a sugar obsession led me to drink. Or that I had to drink to relieve the pain I felt over a scratch on the SUV or the absence of my favorite dog food. Or, even, let’s say, the “stress” my living gives me, the way the unions are causing the nation’s demise, how the neighbors trim or don’t trim their yard, or the way my El Camino glitters in the sun.

That’s some really serious, debilitating shit. These are so slight, trivial, and ephemeral that people can’t see around them. Problems like these obscure the truth about drinking: They drink because of the way alcohol makes and LETS them feel.

I also don’t write this to put myself in a position inferior to your own or to highlight my difficulties. I write this, I suppose, to work through some things I’ve been thinking about lately. Not because of Christmas either. I have been thinking how I would like to have a house in a small town or on the land somewhere for weekends and, perhaps, retirement when I become a famous, independent author/writer (Ha!). It would be good for the kids to have a place to stay when they wanted or to visit when we are there. If they have kids, which I doubt in Syd’s case anyway, it’s a place to come and learn to destroy things, play with fire, and pester the wildlife.

But, frankly, the kids already have so much more on the ball and so much more going for them. They have a different set of handicaps that do not include physical and verbal violence, intense competition between siblings, and between siblings and parents. They also have parents that are more mature than they are. In my case, not much more mature. But still…

So, I’m glad to get little glimpses of family misery in your notes. Of course, I don’t understand and I’m reading a lot into what you write. But it has set me to thinking. The thinking makes me glad I don’t have to worry about the future or the past much anymore. It reminds me on a day that looms so large in the imaginations of people all over the world that today is just a day. I’m sitting here right now. And I’m happy to know that right now is, at least for me, a pretty damn fine place to be.

Patrick

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