Drug Zombies

The zombie movie has become a form in itself.  We can all think of a zombie film or two; the undead taking over and a small band of non-zombies trying to survive.  Zombies are the haunted faces of people who once were, but are no more.  As if whatever personalities, or souls they had have gone and all that is left is ravaged flesh and a sort of animal impulse.

 I read (this information is all from a recent investigative piece in the L.A. Times) that there has been a dramatic rise in the use of heroin in the U.S.  The DEA claims to have been shocked by a phenomenon of the drug business that modeled itself on pizza delivery.  Small, local franchises are left to their own devices (no interference from bosses up the supply chain) and make door-to-door deliveries in small amounts.  Drivers are coached on how to dress “middle class”, and drive safely in innocuous cars.  The nationwide phenomenon was largely successful due to the target market they so smartly chose:  non-urban white people.  When one very successful entrepreneur was interviewed, he said, “It worked great- we didn’t get robbed or have any trouble.”  Street level dealers are taught to hang out a block from rehab centers where people addicted to oxycodone and methamphetamines gather and sell them on the quality (Mexican heroin has been found to be quite a bit stronger and less “cut” than the Afghanistanian and Pakistanian competitors) and cheapness of the drug (compared to buying prescription drugs by the pill off the street).

 What has this left us with?  Well, layer this new wave of drug addiction on to a rising unemployment rate and abysmal economy (especially in rural areas), the complete failure of the “war on drugs”, and we have a zombie problem.  I am not making light of addiction.  I am trying to sort through what I have seen in the last several years in West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina (as well as other places).  Midsized and small villages have been becoming ghost towns for the past 30 years as Wal-Tar-K’s helped kill downtowns, and major industries left.  On a recent trip to a pretty typical town of about 40,000 people in Virginia, the number of street people milling around on a weekday afternoon struck me.  Young and old, black, white, and latin, male and female.  These people were in shabby clothes, with unkempt hair; they loitered around the thrift stores, around the homeless shelters, churches, and the graveyard.  They did not get on busses (I checked back later to see how many were still there) but seem to spend most of their day just hanging out.  I spoke to a few local people I knew and was told that the drug problem had gotten so bad it was not safe to go out at night in many parts of the town.  Whether this is true or not, it is clear that a confluence of problems is hitting these mid-sized and small towns, and drugs of several types are part of the mix.

 I grew up in a rural region that was poor.  I spent much of my adult life living in large urban areas.  I have seen low level drug activity as part of both cultural milieus, and certainly have seen the traditional form of addiction to alcohol going strong.  But what I am seeing now scares me so much more than anything did before.  Truly, it feels like I am driving around in some zombie film, so many unoccupied buildings, so much decay, and so many people living bottomed-out lives in so many regions of this country.  This picture seems to be a taboo subject with our local, state, and federal politicians.   In a way, I can’t blame them.  To talk about it would only upset the apple cart they try to construct, and spread more fear and despair.  But to not talk about it changes nothing, and only allows the complex problems that are behind the zombification to grow. 

 I am still surprised, still shocked when I drive to towns in my region and see the overwhelming number of people stuck in time and place, human artifacts of decay.  A few have cardboard signs and sit at street corners.  Most just mill about.  I have never had a particularly addictive personality, but like depression, I know anyone can fall.  I fear for my kids, my friends, my community, and my country.  What is happening people? 

 The guns and running solution in zombie films will not help us, nor does objectifying those who are sinking (which seems to be the popular opinion of GOP leaders).  Like a viewer at a zombie movie, I do not ask who will save us; I do not ask who is to blame.  I only ask, what will happen next? But without the thrill of a horror film resolved, or the comfort of knowing it’s just make-believe, can we simply sit and watch?


Happiness as narcissism?

Happiness is. . .Curiosity.  Being driven to explore.  Creating something out of a mash up of materials.  Being occasionally surprised by science and art. Finding the impulse to think about and do things other than focusing energy on social manipulation.

Although, I suppose being a social manipulator could be a form of happiness, and driven by a curiosity to see what happens “when I do X”.  But that’s a bit sociopathic and clinical.  Most social manipulators do so because they are insecure, and are driven by a need for power.  Or because it is the only way some people know how to be in the world.  Sometimes this is defined as narcissism- being self-centered with little regard for the feelings or well being of others.

But what about people who are not interested in what is often the soap opera of life, necessary for a complex dart board of human relations (various levels of intimacy from the center out)?

What spurred this line of thought, you ask?  I enjoy the show House.  Husband claims (sometimes to insult me, sometimes to praise) that if I were male I would be like House.  At first I laughed.  I am not nearly that smart  Also, the show can be silly.  But I still like the character and Hugh Laurie acts the heck out of the role. I also realize that the constant sociopathic manipulation that the character participates in is something I just can’t find time to do; there are way too many things I’d rather be doing.  For example, I am driven by a curiosity that I call “itchy feet”, the need to travel.  Even if it is only to get to know every dirt road, fire road, black top and driveway in a 30-mile radius (or more when I did not live in a geographic fish bowl).  I also read arcane, esoteric things (to my destruction- I ended up with a dissertation no one could understand much less help me with.  Four advisors might have been part of the problem.  But what is a student to do when the first one dies, the second goes mad and leaves, the third retires, and the fourth just does not know what I was doing?).  I am rarely more interested in the people of my own environment than I am people I don’t have to interact with.  I can read people extremely quickly and usually am not interested in participating in what I find.  I can be blunt, abrasive, insensitive, and unaware (or just don’t care); but I am not intentionally mean or cruel (that takes way too much energy).  If I want to bash someone about the head, they know it.  I despise having to make small talk, and complex formalities.  On the flip side, I am unusually loyal to the oddball handful of people I love.  I have been told lots of things in the past several years by my friends, the most common theme being that I am “not your usual type of person”, “you are a strange duck but I love you”, that sort of slightly annoyed but committed interest.

So, ok, maybe a little like House.

I started this blog with a slant, an in-construction voice appropriate for the title.  This one breaks out a bit.  I only know three people who read it, so I don’t worry about morphing into something different from time to time.

If being driven by a curiosity about the world with little interest in manipulating the people around me makes me happy, I can be called many things.  I think the idea of narcissism has been given a bad rap- we think of people who were off-normal, passionate, and self-centered and had disastrous results (I listed some of the classic historical folks used as examples, but didn’t want to taint the idea so I erased them).  But aren’t the delusions necessary to be happy (read the happiness project stuff ad infinitum to see what I mean) a form of narcissism?  Don’t we disregard the feelings and experiences of others in order to maintain our world view?  Don’t we have to be slightly unrealistic about ourselves to just get up and eat breakfast in a first world country?  If my self-involvement in my arcane interests and my rejection of social norms is a form of happiness, is it also narcissism?  Is it, within a certain range, any different from the desperate, insecure and often boring machinations of many people?  Can we all be called narcissistic?  Or is it just those extreme risk takers, those megalomaniacs, those Wall Street bankers and people on the fringes who are labeled with the term?

I have come to reject much of what contemporary psychology uses as a basis for existing and functioning, so I use the term narcissism loosely.  Getting a label only by degrees of clinical saturation (how much narcissism did you pee out today? Oh then you are ok; or not) does not seek to understand terms.

Anyway.  My attention is drifting.  It is late and I need to either get back to sleep or pick up one of the many books by my bed and read.  Who cares what you think.

Narcissism shmarcisissm.


Informing the hand

 People who work with their hands have, I have found, an interesting relationship to work.   Cognitive and neuro scientists have determined a function called kinesthetic memory, or muscle memory, which is a result of just using our bodies, especially our hands.  It helps us orient our bodies in space, and do actions in ways that are back-grounded (think about typing-  if you have done it often enough over many years, your fingers seem to just “know” where to go).  This is not without mistakes, but in general if we use our hands in specific, functional ways for a long time our brains learn too, and it creates a sort of action feed-back loop.  It’s really quite amazing.  Some educators are using this information to focus more on small and large motor development in early childhood, and some even into elementary school.  The idea is that physical passivity not only makes us lethargic and overweight, but actually deters learning- core functional learning in our brains.  This does not mean more tortuous gym classes, but finding ways to expand what is done in classrooms to encourage active, physical behaviors as part of learning.  Some aging specialists even think this focus can help people with dementia.

If I could talk to my great-grandfather again I am sure he would say the equivalent of “duh”.  So much about everyday life required using one’s body, one’s hands, a hundred years ago.  If we agree with this line of thought, then we run smack into what develops from using our hands:  the issue of quality, or competence in these actions, dare I say craftsmanship? 

Husband has a secret language with people who are expert users of hands.  I have always admired men’s hands.  The strong wrist, the slight bit of hair that escapes from a dress shirt, contradicting the starched formality of the suit.  The blunted finger tips, the calloused and worn skin.  Women use their hands too, but I have always preferred to let a stare linger over men’s.  Husband’s fascination is more of a sort of secret handshake, an understanding that can be difficult to express. 

We met a master baker over the weekend (http://www.europeanpastry.com).  He is “retired” in the way many experts are.  As he explained, “If you don’t use your hands (he holds them up) then you forget.”  Husband nodded.  Husband later expanded on the idea telling me it is more than the sheer loss of large and small muscle strength, which is annoying, but also the loss of a sort of magic, the forgetting how, the feeling rusty-ness that sets in and gets worse with time (He is struggling to avoid all that right now, as he has taken on more administrative duties and has had less time in the studio).  Our baker friend even taught himself pastry and chocolate making (which would have been separate businesses from bread in Europe he told us, in his Italian accent) to keep his hands, head, and bank account busy.  He shrugged and said “But we are in America.  It is all the same here.  I mostly make bread because I can’t find it like I like it.”  His shop is only open on Fridays and Saturdays, and those in the know order cakes from him.  It isn’t easy to find, he and his wife run it out of the back of their small post-war house in a tight residential district.  You have to take the alley to get to it; there is no parking, and only one small sign.  But inside is an expert space of machines, materials and the products of many years of using hands correctly, with skill.

I could rhapsodize over the lingonberry and lemon tart.  I could drool while telling about the crunch of the batard, the perfectly balanced oil, herb and fluff of the bread in the focaccia,  or the flakiness and rightness of the cinnamon to apple ratio of the apple dumpling, or many of the other things we bought and shared as a family that day.  It should be enough to say that the “it all tastes the same” feeling of most commercial bakeries is due to the use of industrial materials and techniques that MAKE the products all the same (regardless of shape, color, texture, or label).  The contrast are real bakers and pastry makers, who try new flavors, know how to manipulate delicate materials and, as our baker said, “. . .use only real things- butter, farm eggs, sugar.  None of that other stuff.  No.”  He also lamented the lack of time-taking in many bakery efforts, saying that good bread needs time, directing us to what he considered was a good U-Tube video showing how to make real bread (using pre-heated cast iron pans), saying “even a six year old can make it”.  I would say a six year old can start to understand it, the real meaning of bread.

Experts of the hand have a respect for their tools, which they come to feel are extensions of their hands.  They know their materials well, and can literally “feel” when something is not right, and in Husband’s case, even “hear” when a tool is not being used correctly (students who are not using a hammer or torch correctly for example, he can hear from across the room, even in a messy din).  We also know people who work with cloth (also known as fibers artists), iron (blacksmiths), wood, and glass.  I know gardeners who have these traits as well.  The issue of craftsmanship is, I believe, so deep in the nature of who we are as human beings that it has been both derided and made exclusive, and every level in between, yet the use and informing of the hand does not go away.

Last fall we sat in on a lecture by a man who is called an expert in the theory of craft in art.   I found him neither an expert (his philosophical ideas were circuitous, unarguable, and uninformed by current theory), nor a person who understands the hand in any fashion (or a do-er, as Husband says).  We spent most of the evening after the lecture ranting to one another about what was and was not said, and finally decided we should write the book that has not been written about the topic.  Husband also began designing a class to “inform the hand”: A summer course of four weeks in which students would have two days of intensive, active learning with master hand users.  Two sets a week of blacksmithing, wood working, baking, sewing, glass blowing, etc.   Students would be required to turn in a paper in the end reflecting on these experiences, comparing and contrasting the use of hands through materials, tools and techniques, and what they have learned about craftsmanship.  Struggling to transform into words that which can seem to difficult to express- and thereby better practicing both the understanding of hands in craftsmanship, and written expression as well.

This morning I will make pancakes.  My kids say I make the “best in the world”, and I love that they say that- even with their limited experience and direct motivation.  But it is husband’s grudging respect for something he can’t do well (yet) that I love the most.  Materials, experience, practice, experimenting, and the hand I say.  Even if it has only been used in making pancakes, we can all understand and pursue informing our hands.

He who works with his hands is a laborer

He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman

He who works with his hands, head, and heart is an artist

(Attributed to Francis of Assisi)

The Rules

I’ll be blunt: I grew up eating BBQ.  I learned from experts how to assess, eat, and appreciate BBQ.  I am not a vegetarian, no matter how rational the arguments are for that food style.  Do I feel a little guilty?  Sometimes.  Have I seen meat changes that scare me?  Oh yeah.  For example, when I was a kid, beef was grass fed on local small farms (such as ours) by necessity.  We took a bull to the butcher every year and had a freezer of small white packages to eat (but my mother drew the line at brains).  No fuss, no pretensions.  There were no massive nationally packaged meat recalls (even if there should have been).

This week we made the mistake of again trying beef labeled BBQ at a Virginia restaurant that gets high ratings every year from locals.  The brisket was not poorly trimmed, the ribs were not dried out.  But it was NOT BBQ.  They can wish all they want out here, but in ten years I have yet to find anyone who can do BBQ correctly.  No, I won’t be diplomatic and recognize what they call “Carolina” BBQ as BBQ (for the un-initiated, it’s roasted, boiled, or steamed meat with vinegar on it.  That’s not BBQ).

So here are some simple rules:

1.     BBQ is not toy food.  No cutesy buckets for bones, no cutesy oversized or cartoon stamped napkins, no hats.

2.     Smoke.  If there is no smoking of the meat, there is NO BBQ.

3.     BBQ is not haute food.  Not nouvelle cuisine.  No tiny portions with exotic toppings.

4.     Once past smoke- there is flavoring.  It can be rubbed into the meat (known as a “dry rub”) before smoking, or it can be bottled in an old Ball jar to ladle out on top at a customers discretion, but it is never, ever, just ketchup.  Or ketchup with a little Worcestershire thrown in, then slathered on meat when serving.  No no no.  And NO VINEGAR.

5.     The best BBQ comes from Memphis, Kansas City, Austin, or parts around these cities, 99.9% of which are WEST of the Mississippi river.  Sorry Chicago; never had good BBQ in the whole greater area, even though I love the town and lived there for several years.  Not in Detroit, not Jackson, not Atlanta.

6.     Beef is primary, brisket and ribs being the mainstays.  They used to be the crap cuts, and now one has a hard time spending the cash for them in the grocery.  Go figure.

7.     Pork is secondary, but a strong second.

8.     Chicken is third and tricky to do right.  It dries out fast, and the skin can be really disgusting if not dealt with properly.

9.     Sausages are not BBQ.  They can be extremely well crafted, and thrown on the smoker late in the game with other meat, but they are not BBQ.

10. You can add an endless variety of herbs and spices to your rubs and sauces, you can lay bundles of herbs on top while smoking.  You can use a single type of chip or charcoal to smoke, or a combination at different stages of the process.  You can use honey, molasses, brown sugar, or even kool-aid in your sauces.  But the sauces are usually, heck almost always, and I’ll be honest I’ve never had a good one that wasn’t, a variation on a reddish-brown in color.

11. You can fist fight over plain smoked meat, or sauced.  But it still has to be smoked first (number 2 needed reiterating).

12.  Places that advertise themselves as BBQ restaurants with cutesy logos, dancing pigs, fat men in messy white aprons and goofy grins- all do not bode well.  BBQ is understated.  It is serious business about the art of smoking meat.  Not vegetables, not fries, just meat.  BBQ was the food of the poor, the cattle herders, the communal church feasts; it was a way to cook, and preserve meat as well as make it tasty.  Remember that.

13.  Smoke takes time.  You can get amazing BBQ at a neighbor’s house, a shack, or a white linen table cloth place (but in my experience this is unusual, unless the eatery has been around for years and is on old railway and cattle drive routes).  It is truly not that difficult to do, but few restaurants seem to want to put in the time. 

14.  If you experience good BBQ, you’ll never go back.  You’ll be poisoned with wanting, begging, someone to surprise you and actually make BBQ instead of just advertising that they sell it.  Especially on the East Coast.

15.  Husband has mastered the basics of good BBQ and is experimenting every year.  This is one of the reasons I love him.  This is one of the reasons neighbors within a four block radius lift their noses in the summer, close their eyes, and wonder if we are going to have another backyard party soon.  It’s also the reason in our first years at our house, neighbors would come into my yard, faces creased with worry, because no one was home (I had gone to the grocery) and they saw smoke rising from the big black barrel shaped smoker in the back yard.  No, it was not an unattended or accidental fire.  They have since learned (oy, the East Coast).

     This is not an exhaustive list.  It’s probably not all the rules that need to be posted.  There are, I am sure, as many rules as there are BBQ competitions, and all of them posted somewhere on the web.  These are my rules.  The rules of my parents, grand-parents, and the people they came from.  These are my expectations, and the reason I am, like a fool, still sampling restaurant fare, and always expecting better.

     There are not a lot of places where smoking is an acceptable word.  This summer get out and smoke.  Read about how, ask around, you’ll figure it out.  Talk to a butcher- really, find one and talk to them.  Learn how to ask for a cut.  You might try to get to know a local farmer or two as well, someone who actually lets the beef on hoof eat pasture grass.  Think about going “co-op”, and buy a side or whole carcass with a friend, and have that local butcher cut it up for you.  Then start smoking.  Play with the herbs, eye ball that big stock pot and think about mixing up some sauce.  Oh, and number 16?  Have fun.

Still Standing

Iris Chang was a young woman who wrote a famous book (The Rape of Nanking).  She became a symbol for many Asian-Americans, and blurred the lines between journalist and historian.  She was to all eyes a very confident, competent, attractive woman who “had everything”.  Yet her internal life went into free fall and she committed suicide at the age of 36 in 2004.  I just finished reading an inquiry into her life and death (Finding Iris Chang) written by her good friend, Paula Kamen.  Suicide seems to be a theme this week, with several young celebrities going that route.  I had been wondering about Ms. Chang for several days when I woke up at 3 a.m. completely at peace with an understanding.

Depression and degrees of sanity are part of the human condition.  When we slip into such degrees that it becomes clinically diagnostic is a question artists, philosophers, and most recently psychologists have been wrestling with for a long time.  Anyone can fall.  Just as anyone can slip and fall in their own house, anyone can slip, and start a decline that even they lose the ability to understand or stop.  That may be one of the reasons depression and insanity are so scary to us, because we know it could happen to us as well.

 I think supremely competent people are as susceptible, even if we don’t want to believe they are.  We all develop habits, and when those habits of mind and action are all we have to fall back on to block any pain or anxiety we have, they can stop working for us and begin to work against us.  Yet we keep dong them, because they are safe.  Those habits are knowns.  Ms. Chang worked.  She followed her habits of work because it was what she knew best.  She had responsibilities to her husband, son, and extended family.  She knew how to be forceful; she had learned how to perform.  But perhaps there came a time when she, like many of us, just did not want to do it anymore.  I’ll call it “pulling a J.D. Salinger”.  When people just say STOP.  They change their lives, and quit doing what they had been- no matter how successful it seems to people around them.  Many times, these people get happy.  Sometimes after long stretches they go back to what ever they had been doing (for better or worse).  I woke up at 3 am and I just knew that Ms. Chang had not been able to say STOP, when she may have really wanted to.

 The consummate achiever and self described geek with rough social skills may have just not known she had that option, or felt too ashamed to take it.  It’s a cliché to say Asian people commit suicide more frequently than any others, and often do it out of a sense of shame that is difficult for Westerners to understand.  Ms. Chang was second generation Chinese-American, and while that may have played a role, I think it was complicated.  What was not, it seems, was the clear inability for her to feel any differently than she did.  She fell, and could not get up.

I read recently about a forest in Japan that has been around a long time, but is a taboo subject for the Japanese.  It is a place where people go to die.  To commit suicide.  There were gruesome photographs of bodies everywhere in various states of decay, like some over populated CSI training lab (the likes of which they have in this country, using donated corpses).  Is it part of our world now that especially in first-world countries, suicide is just a fact?  I sympathized with Dr. Kevorkian when he lobbied to be able to help terminally ill people end their lives sooner rather than later.  That is an agonizing thing, to be sure, but an option I believe ought to be available for people who have terminal illnesses.  I know with complete certainty that if I develop Alzheimer’s and treatments have been useless, I want that option.  But this forest of lost souls, this is something different, I think.

 I talked with Husband about the value of real friends, and strong friendship-based marriages.  He agreed that we need those few folks in the center of our dartboard, the bulls-eye, who know us well enough to help us when we don’t even know we need it.   Those most intimate with us, not the rings and degrees of less intimacy that spiral out from our cores.  We need those central stabilizers, those perspectives.  Especially those of us with strong minds and hearts, whom others rely upon and seem to “have it all”.

 Developing such friends is not easy, and not overtly rewarded in our culture.  It takes a tremendous amount of work, and willingness to shunt some folks off to more superficial levels of friendship or eliminate them from our lives all together.  It also takes time.  We live in such geographically fragmented, fast-paced, demanding realities that the very idea of slow anything- slow food, slow friends, slow entertainment, slow work- seems impossible.  But the lesson I take from Ms. Chang is that anyone can fall, and fall fast.  Three things may have helped- I do not know, but I feel it to be true for myself.  1- knowing that anyone can fall, and letting oneself ask for help, and say STOP.  Change it up, let the ego go.  Pull a Salinger. 2- Teach my children the value of intimacy, real friends, and laughing at oneself in joy as much as self-deprecation; and living it as an example.  3- Live slower and let go any anxiety about what is let go as the compromise.  One last addition to this list is the “don’t put it in your head” rule.  There is so much suffering in the world, and we can read about it, see it.  We must, I believe, be a form of witness.  But also, we have limits to how much we can stuff into our head and try to balance.  So I choose not to watch violent fiction, or read it.  There is too much fact I have to carry around, and I don’t need the added images, ideas, or darkness.

 I have known depression, more than once.  I can’t say for sure what pulled me back from the edge, from falling over an edge I could not come back from.  But I know I have a very few good friends who helped.  I also know that I felt shame, I made huge mistakes- and I still suffer regret, but I am letting it go and trying to stop beating myself up about it.  I also know I am now middle aged, and I probably won’t be the high achiever I wanted to be.  I have to say, “oh well”, I pulled a Salinger of sorts in the past and now I am slower for it.  Oh well.

 Life goes on for me.  For many of us.  Sometimes it is enough not to know why, but just to be glad it does.