Thursday, July 10, 2014


I was chatting with my CEO and she spoke of someone we had known many years ago who had, er, “burnt out.”

I said, “So many of us have a past.”

“Yes. And a future!” How typical of my CEO: a future! I think she’s right.

Meanwhile, it’s too bad some judgmental folks, harsh and innocent, think that other folks, whom they don’t know personally, have no future. Now, I can’t remember meeting any such ignorant judgmental people myself, so maybe I’m just imagining them, but apparently they think all dysfunctional folks are “losers,” who never try to become functional, losers who escape ever trying to act sane because they forever “blame it all” on their parents/family/society etc., etc.  I suppose there are such people, but I've never known them.

I remember a girlfriend, spinning her wheels in life, rocking her car back and forth, who told me glumly, “At least I haven’t quit.” I can’t say whatever became of her, but I have hope. Back when she was in Alateen she referred to those oblivious kids who never had to worry about the horror of drugs and alcohol as “normies.” No doubt she and her pals felt bitter, while working towards better days.

In my experience, all the “less functional” folks I knew, however horrible their past, had hope. They tried so hard, like jungle guerrillas starving in caves for years never knowing when they would see the revolution, heroes who needed to keep not-losing until one blessed day they would wake to find the imperialists had folded their tents and left. They tried, they tried, and sometimes they realized they were trying too much. I remember a housewife, determined for years to get functional, telling me how happy she was, one day, to go to yoga class and be able, afterwards, to patiently talk with other wives merely about trivial things.

She was like the undergraduate at the student newspaper who told us one Monday how pleased she was that on Saturday she had been able to lie on the floor and just listen to entire songs. I think she was pleased not because she could take time away from studying—no one studied mid-Saturday—but because she could finally take time away from her responsibility to be always trying hard. I didn’t ask the “normies” at the newspaper whether they “got it.”

One day on the bus she told me the Women’s hospital had a sliding scale for counseling for women, and also for men too… but I was not ready yet to follow her example. At least I managed to get into a self-help group. I remember two ladies excited at getting help from a guy who did therapeutic body work. He must have released something, for they both went around angry for a week or two without knowing why. Or maybe they were angry that getting cured/recovered/normal took so bloody long. No quick fixes. At least they were managing their jobs and marriages and families, even as they felt different from society.

As for our total society, in the bigger picture of things I sometimes compare us all to people on highways with no traffic cops, people who might drive their cars moderately the first day, but then next day they go a little fast, and the next day a little faster still… they won’t hold back on increasing their speed until one day they scare themselves or crash. (By this theory, in our Brave New World there would never be a flood of people away from the reservations, not to this silly society) We now have ourselves a complex, stressful society, and we just won’t hold back to a moderate level for life or jobs. As for jobs, I once read a scenario (by Jane Jacobs) that Personnel Departments mainly value a college degree not for the book learning but as a screening device, to filter out less functional people who haven’t sustained complex demands. (This theory predicts that people from reservations would need extra help on campus) A rather cynical scenario, but not one I can dismiss out of hand.

My advice for innocent people is that dysfunction does exist, it doesn’t go away in a day, and it doesn’t just impact a tiny irrelevant fraction of the population. There is a reason personnel departments ask for references.

I work in Canada, where the field of human service has some prestige—unlike the U.S. (Go figure) As a serious professional, I don’t need to be a bleeding heart liberal, or be innocent about the world; I prefer to be realistic, like my good-hearted CEO. I think she would never set any “life-challenged persons” up for failure by hiring them for the complex demands of our agency, but neither would she advise them to give up and never seek for any jobs anywhere at all.

An advice columnist on the Internet, Sugar, was realistic when she worked with troubled middle school (junior high) teenage girls. For the girls, “Succeeding in this context meant getting neither pregnant nor locked up before graduating high school. It meant eventually holding down a job at Taco Bell or Walmart. It was only that! It was such a small thing and yet it was enormous.” (See Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed)

I remember a friend on a work program out of the vocational college having trouble getting out of bed to be on time for work: This was when she was staying in a dormitory very close to her work at Banff Springs Hotel. Eventually though, yes, she succeeded in obtaining her skills.

In an earlier part of the same column Sugar said, “The healing power of even the most microscopic exchange with someone who knows in a flash precisely what you’re talking about because she experienced that thing too cannot be overestimated.”

I agree. I liked my self-help group for the sharing, partly because we believed each other when we told things society just couldn’t handle.

I don’t know if I picked up any special wisdom from my seasons with my group, except—I can predict whether Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, back from his rehab, or Lindsey Lohan, back from her rehab, are going to make it. To me, a key detail for Ford is that upon his his return he restricted the media guest list, and didn’t want questions. For Lohan, the key detail is that although she’s had one starring part since rehab she hasn’t accepted any supporting roles, let alone bit parts or walk-on parts. Too bad. The Greeks had a word: hubris. The medical word I don’t know, the word the AA “drunks” use—and “drunks” is their own humble word—the word drunks use is “grandiosity.” I think going straight, with straight thinking, is really hard, even if you’re really humble. If instead you have grandiosity then you can just forget having “a come back.”

These days I’m too humble to scorn anyone, yet still not as humble as I could be. Life is good.

Sean Crawford
~My favorite prison warden, Clinton Duffy, once replied to a cynic, “Men are not leopards, men change their spots every day.”

~One of the things I like about the Chtorr War series, even while the author, David Gerrold, is from flaky southern California, is that his characters step up to the plate. In the story a number of impossible plagues speed over the earth; the survivors are traumatized orphans—a fact that gives them a golden excuse to "wimp out." But this is just when they need to mobilize resources to fight against a life-or-death alien infestation. And so the survivors fake being normal. “Fake it ‘till you make it.” I think what they don’t know is that “normal” was a construct all along. But I would never tell them so.

~Another view of "normal being a construct" is in the movie Boyhood according to this splendid review by an heir of Roger Ebert.

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