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1971, A Hell of a Year

In June 1971, I turned 25 years old and celebrated my first six months of sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.

That same month, the release of the Pentagon Papers set off a firestorm of I-told-you-so outrage by Vietnam war protesters like me. All through the 1960s Washington insiders had been leaking to the press that the White House was lying about our involvement in the war in Southeast Asia. Anti-war organizations published newsletters and held NYT-pentagon-papermarches screaming at the government to pullout of Vietnam because there was no good reason for us to be there. When my son was born in 1967 I started sending streams of letters and postcards to the President and Congress begging them to end the draft. I didn’t want my son growing up in a world where he would be forced to kill another mother’s son.

My imbalanced emotional connection to the 60% of Americans who were against the war drove me to protest, argue, march and drink myself into oblivion. In December 1970, defeated, I finally collapsed, failing to escape the world of war, within and without.

Then, in my first year of recovery, the Pentagon Papers confirmed that Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all lied about why we were in Vietnam. We stayed simply to save face, refusing to admit defeat. Troop numbers fell from 500,000 in 1968 to 156,000 by the end of 1971, the year The Pentagon Papers were published.

And so what? The world went on. Jim Morrison died in his bathtub in Paris. I read The Exorcist, rocked out at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and women were allowed to run the Boston Marathon.

The Pentagon Papers’ exposure of the government’s lying treachery slow-cooked beyond my consciousness. My AA meetings in Point Pleasant, NJ, seduced me with a new recipe for living, replacing the bitter stew of the wearying world. A wise woman at my meetings gave me two pieces of advice: 1) don’t comment at meetings about outside issues and, 2) wear a bra. I did both and managed to attract a ne’er-do-well fellow AA’er, ten years older. Ed professed some kind of love, so I moved in with him.

Julius Roehrs Garden Center hired me to make terrariums in glass bowls, a new fad. It 805160-03-1was my first job as a sober adult. I spent all day in a greenhouse planting miniature sedum and echeveria while having LSD flashbacks and dancing around to tunes only I could hear. My son, Joe, had been living with his grandparents for his kindergarten year and came to live with Ed and me. Disney World Orlando had just opened, so we read up on how to camp, then packed our new tent, camp stove and sleeping bags into Ed’s Mustang and drove down I-95 to the Yogi Bear Campground.

It rained. Ed and I fought. He got drunk and disappeared.

I drove Joe home—1,000 miles back to New Jersey.

When Ed showed up a few months later, we got married.

First Impressions of Bill Clinton

In August 1991, twelve Democratic leaders and influencers, were seated in leather armchairs at a walnut oval table in a small dining room at one of downtown Chicago’s private clubs. I was the only woman. When Governor Bill Clinton entered the room, his th-2tall navy-suited body seemed to shift the atmosphere, moving the dust molecules away from him and clearing the air as he moved. He gave a hardy salutation and proceeded to introduce himself to each person while he circumnavigated the room, one-by-one. I was halfway around the table, and when he reached me I stood and looked up to his bemused rosy face, full of laugh lines. He had a big red nose, like Santa Claus. As I tried to introduce myself, he interrupted me by saying he knew who I was— the Executive Director of the state Democratic Party. He asked if I knew my name was the same as one of King Lear’s daughters. “Yes,” I said, “My name came from her.” He leaned over and whispered let’s keep that between us since she wasn’t such a great character. And just like that we had a best-buddies pact.

He finished working the room, told us why he was thinking of running for president, and asked us to support him. He never sat down.

A few weeks later, Bill and Hillary entered a crowded 2nd-floor meeting room in a Chicago hotel with about 50 curious political activists who gathered to meet them for the first time. He neither ushered her in ahead of him as a well-mannered (albeit chauvinistic) gentleman nor did he make her walk behind him as an ill-mannered boor. Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton (L)
Side-by-side they came to us. We all jumped to our feet and cheered before he even said hello, before he shook one hand. It was two months before he announced his candidacy for President. His nascent message stressing personal responsibility for welfare recipients echoed what I’d learned in Alcoholics Anonymous — to acknowledge that I am responsible for the choices I make in my own life. Later in his presidency I despised his welfare reform policy but for now this seemingly spiritual insight vaulted my commitment to a new height. This was my guy.

The first week in October, one of Clinton’s many Chicago friends asked me to join him in driving Bill Clinton to Midway Airport. We’d been at a 100-person meet-and-greet where Clinton learned I was moving to Little Rock to work on his campaign. He looked back at me in the car and asked what my boss said when I told him I was quitting my job. My boss hoped I’d change my mind, so I told Clinton he wasn’t happy.  Clinton picked up the car phone, called my boss, thanked him for letting me have this opportunity of a lifetime and said he was happy to have me on board. He ended the call by inviting my boss to bring his family down to the Governor’s mansion for a weekend. In the back seat I imagined throwing my arms around his neck and kissing the top of his ever-loving head.

I was in Little Rock by the end of the week.

At The Shore

At The Shore

Once upon a time a long time ago I got tumbled round and round and somehow knew to go limp, relax my breath, close my eyes and not wriggle toward the sky I couldn’t see. I let myself go, with, the, flow; let the tide churn my body turned-fish-turned-seashell-turned-driftwood-turned-mermaid. Sanded, winded, exhilarated and afraid I ended up splayed out on the beach—waiting for someone to acknowledge my courage in facing the swollen ocean alone and coming out alive. But they were all in their beach chairs smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, telling jokes, gossiping, hissing—the parents, the aunts, the uncles, the friends, the neighbors.

That was the summer my father taught me to swim and I made friends with the ocean.

Twenty-two years later, second-husband Ed moved me and my child Joe into flat-roofed, low-slung stucco in the tidal flatlands of Ocean Gate, New Jersey, where freshwater Toms River flowed into saltwater Barnegat Bay and made the brackish brine off our sandy backyard abundant with sealife, birdlife and shorelife. Ed, a no-good sometime-recovering alcoholic raised in the working-class Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, had spent gobs of time at the shore and had one good characteristic—he loved nature. The first summer on the bay, he taught Joe and me to fish, crab, birdwatch and seine.

In knee-deep water, Joe’s five-year old body, barely holding up a pair of trunks, stood on one side of the seining net. He gripped its wooden pole with both hands. Holding the other pole, I stretched the net six feet to the side of Joe. On the count of “One, two, three!” we dug our poles into the bottom and slowly pulled them through the sand, dragging the 220px-Seine_(PSF)slackened mesh to the shore and heaving it waterlogged onto the beach to see what lived beneath and around our sea-shored feet. We scrambled to our catch before low-flying seabirds descended to snatch up bottom-feeding young flounder; then we examined the rest of the bounty, which always contained a variation of tangled fishing line, faded lures, pieces of styrofoam, oyster shells, mussel shells, small rocks and pebbles, and once in a while a prized jellyfish, baby turtle or blue crab.

One time an osprey flew overhead scouting out what may have been his next meal. He held something flapping herkyjerky in his talons that dropped smack on the beach in front of our seining net. Screeching like seagulls we threw up our arms, jumped up and down, pushed and pulled each other screaming for Ed. Ed grabbed a stick and an old ice chest and lifted the six-foot rat snake into captivity. That snake lived in a glass tank in the kitchen for a few months eating live frogs and mice before we released it back into the seagrass.

Once upon a time a long time ago I learned to be the mother of a boy, face fear and love nature. And she loved me back.

The Reunion by Regan Burke

In the locked ward of the Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital in Monmouth County, New Jersey, I was withdrawing from my demons – cheap wine, LSD, amphetamines and marijuana – when my long-absent father appeared before me. I was 24 years old. The last time I’d seen him, the week before I was to enter Monmouth College, I’d knocked on the door of his mid-town Manhattan apartment seeking money to pay my first year’s tuition. He was drunk, wrapped tight in a dirty blue bathrobe. He wrote me a check, then stopped payment before I could get to the Admissions Office in Long Branch, an hour down the Garden State Parkway.

Fresh out of a straight-jacket, I had no clothes or shoes of my own, having arrived at the public madhouse in an ambulance after a drug overdose. I wore a short-sleeved baggy muslin dress from the institutional collection designed and made by the permanent residents.

“You have a visitor,” the nurse said before escorting me from my cell-like room to the end of the hallway into a clean and airy space she called the Day Room. There were windows along the wall opposite the door, starting maybe six feet up from the floor and reaching the ceiling. For the first time I realized my confinement was subterranean.

My father turned toward me. His brown felt fedora, soft brimmed with a hand-creased crown, topped his elegant duds: white open-necked shirt, tweed sports jacket, gabardine trousers and cordovan wing-tips. A miasma of feelings engulfed me. I feared him. I missed him. I loved him. I hated him.

Why didn’t she say it was my father? I had no idea how to talk to him, or anyone else for that matter. My body shook and rattled as I searched for some kind of appropriate words. I knew only hippy language.

“Hey, man. Far out. You’re here. I’m a little strung out.”

He told me his story of recovery from alcoholism. He loved the effect from his first teenage beer. After that, once he picked up the first drink he binged until he was forced to stop. He had been in and out of jail for getting in fights, drunken driving and cashing bad checks. He couldn’t hold a job. In the end, he holed up in the New York apartment drinking quarts of scotch round the clock until an old friend knocked on his door.

“Had enough, Burke?”

After years of trying on his own, these bewitching words got him to open the door and allow a few men from Alcoholics Anonymous to enter his life. The obsession to drink lifted. “A miracle,” he called it.

He told me about an AA meeting at the hospital. He didn’t suggest I go, didn’t offer to take me, didn’t tell whoever was charged with moving me around my current existence. He just laid the words down. And then he left. He never removed his hat.

About 25 years into my own recovery — admitting defeat, examining resentments, practicing forgiveness, making amends and consciously increasing a spiritual life — that reunion with my father came back to me. I now know supernatural love and courage drove him to bestow his abundant legacy, the gift of sobriety.

Morrigan Go Bragh by Regan Burke

On the southwest coast of Ireland known as West Cork, I monitor a murder of grey-backed black-crowned crows cruising around the wild Irish garden of the home I’m visiting in the hills above the harbour of Baltimore, an old pirate town. I’m not a thbirdwatcher, but enough of a bird lover to know these elegant, regal beauties are not something I see in the trees in or around my home in Chicago.

I sit in the peace of soft rain watching three Grey Crows preen on the dead unpruned branches of an ancient apple tree less than 50 feet from my morning coffee. I throw kitchen scraps onto the stone veranda adjacent to the dining room to entice the 20-inch long birds to come nearer to me. They swoop gracefully from their perch, plunk down and waddle toward the bounty, as I knew they would, like their foraging junk-eating U.S. cousins, the American Black Crow.

I open my laptop and look them up. Wikipedia has not only facts and figures of the Grey Crow but also a link to Celtic myths and legends of this western European corvus. I click into the world of Irish folklore where the Grey Crow is known as a manifestation of  The Morrigan. The Morrígan is a mythical figure, a foreteller of doom and death, deriving her name from the word “mara” connoting terror or monstrousness as in night-mare. Mara is my older sister’s name. The “rigan” in mor-rigan translates as queen, as in my name, Regan. Mara-Regan equals Mor-rigan, or the nightmarish queen, manifested in the Grey Crow keeping watch o’er my morning. So here I am on my Irish vacation, hiking heather and heath, having great craic with my Irish host, Vivienne DeCourcy, when I’m reminded that my sister Mara and I are ferally joined for all time in blood and tradition.

“Mara” has a place in many traditions. It means bitter in Hebrew, demon in Sanskrit. My mother benignly named my sister, thinking it a noble Gaelic name for Mary, never researching the root of it. The human Mara lived up to the historic iterations of her name: she killed me off before I was born, bullied and tormented me as a child until, as a fully-ripened adult, she declared she no longer considered me a part of her family.

This new knowledge awakens old fears and crams them into a contemporaneous morass. Is The Morrigan perched outside my window an omen on this mid-August day in 2017 as Donald Trump is heralding white supremacy in mythological statements that intertwine fact and fiction? Some say ancient Irish bands of young lawless warrior-hunters who lived on the fringe of civilisation were dedicated to The Morrigan similar to the white supremacists’ infatuation with Trump. The tenants of this wild Irish countryside fear Trump is a modern-day Morrigan cawing out lunatic signals, picking at trash and digesting hate. I trust Trump is a temporary danger, unlike Mara whose talons are forever embedded in my soul.

 

Learning the Art of Patience by Dave Schanding

by Dave Schanding

Mom asked dad, “Can you find some duct tape or a rope so we can tie this boy to a chair and get him to stop moving for a little while?”

Four weeks ago I had hip replacement surgery and two weeks ago I wanted to graduate from a walker to crutches. I felt like the walker made me look older (I’m 64). And now I was re-entering the real world, and crutches looked younger and more athletic. I could pretend like I’d had a skiing accident or sprained my ankle doing a triple Lutz at Millennium Park’s ice rink.  Well, at least I could pretend my hip didn’t just need replacing because my over-sized body wore it out prematurely.

I had in-home physical therapy on the Friday before my transition day, and I asked my physical therapist if I could practice walking with crutches outside. Thirty feet into my walk she grabbed the back of my jacket and asked me to slow down. There was no need to rush. We would get where we wanted to go in plenty of time. But I handled crutches like I’ve handled most things in life—with little patience.

I flunked the Palmer method of handwriting. I guess I was in too much of a hurry to carefully form letters. I don’t know who Palmer was, but Catholic schools seemed to love him or her. My mom saved all of my report cards and my kids loved seeing that their dad actually got an “F” in handwriting one year. I got the usual, ‘you should be a doctor when you grow up because no one can read their writing either.’ Even at age 64, I continue to take classes and take notes. Many of the courses use Power Point and have lights dimmed. My punishment for not doing well in writing in grade school is that I can’t read my own writing today.

Let’s try putting together a model car or airplane. Or maybe a LEGO set with instructions discarded.

Model cars that I put together were liberally smeared with glue as I wasn’t patient to wait for two pieces to truly bond together before trying to add more. While I finished quickly, I was reluctant to show my messy finished product. And I was frequently compared negatively to my one year younger brother, who did everything slowly, deliberately, and to perfection. So I realized impatience had its shortcomings.

But the world is against my mother, my third-grade writing teacher and my physical therapist.

We drove down the Kennedy expressway (Chicago) on Sunday in a snowstorm. A BMW was apparently in a hurry and zig-zagged between cars in the express lanes as we neared downtown. I oftentimes wonder what drivers do with that precious 30-60 seconds they gain by putting us all in danger. I did learn patience here.

For me, trying to learn foreign languages is an exercise in patience. I must be doing something wrong. The TV commercials say one can learn a language in a weekend with their revolutionary teaching system. I remember hearing that we speak hundreds of words every day. And some of today’s words are different than yesterday’s words. Can one really learn 800 words of vocabulary in a weekend? One night many years back, our son put on headphones and started the CD of a language program. They promised fluency by morning. I guess the headphones must have fallen off sometime during the night. I have learned that worthwhile accomplishments take time, and I’m more patient with my language progress.

In my working days, I was director at a time when our agency was just getting computerized. Computers would freeze up, crash, and occasionally wipe out things we didn’t want wiped out. I was able and willing to plow through getting these temperamental machines up and running again. A co-worker diagnosed my seeming endless patience to having children. One hopefully learns patience as children go through stages of development. They learn some new tasks quickly and others much more slowly. I seemed to have become more patient through that process.

Now TiVo has a feature that allows one to speed up a television show by 14%. At this enhanced speed, speech is minimally distorted, and a 30-minute show, which can be reduced to 22 minutes by speeding through commercials, can now be further reduced to 19 minutes. So between 6pm and the 10pm news I can watch almost 13 shows in the time that I would have seen 8 shows at regular speed with commercials. I should become an expert on solving Wheel of Fortune puzzles and selecting the right house on House Hunters. I’ll also have to figure out how to shave 14% off meal preparation, dinner and showering.

Being impatient has had its pluses and minuses. I have my printed photos in albums, where many buy albums but never managed to get their photos out of those envelopes from Walgreens (large drug store chain). I have scanned all documents and old photos so that I don’t have paper clutter. On the one hand, these are handy accomplishments. But most people are content to not get these things done. So my impatience has only led to partial satisfaction.

So where is this impatient young man today? I feel less driven on a daily basis as I don’t have the energy I had in my youth. I still want to feel like I’ve accomplished something each day, but I’m more content with what I actually manage to do. I still like my way of doing things, so I will likely still try to learn languages, type out my class notes, and rid my life of most paper clutter. Mom never really duct-taped me to a chair in my youth, and I think she’d feel a partial success in getting me to become more patient. And, no, I haven’t started watching television 14% faster yet either.

D-O-N-K-E-Y by Dave Schanding

D-O-N-K-E-Y is a card game for three or more players. There are clothes pins in the middle of the table—one less pin than the number of players. Each player is dealt four cards. The object is to get a four-card pair, then grab a clothes pin. Once one person grabs a clothes pin, everyone else is entitled to grab one. The player that doesn’t grab a pin gets a letter.

In Hamilton!OH folks hung out their worsh (Chicago translation: wash) to dry, and everyone had clothes lines in their back yards and a basket of clothes pins to pin the wet clothes up. On rainy days and late evenings, our family sometimes played DONKEY, borrowing some of mom’s clothes pins. With a family of six kids, we could usually muster up at least four kids and one parent to play. There was strategy, of course. Greg was quiet and quick of hand. Margie distracted everyone by talking constantly, oftentimes bringing up real or imagined embarrassing stories to unnerve. Jane was quiet and moved a little slower than the rest, so sometimes a clothes pin would be nudged her way. Chris was wiry and also quick of hand. Little Kath was the youngest and shortest, and, since she couldn’t reach the middle of the table, she also was the recipient of frequent nudged clothes pins. Dad and Mom had enough years’ experience with card games to provide for a strong advantage. I probably played it the straightest—no real strategy other than to look for a four-card pair.

After the dealer distributes four cards to each player, he or she begins looking at cards in the remaining deck. Discards go to the next player, who examines these cards against the ones in his hand. Each round continues until someone manages to get a four-card pair and picks up a clothes pin. Then a mad scramble takes place, with the final player getting no clothes pin and gaining a letter. The first time you don’t get a clothes pin, you get a “D”. Second time is an “O”. You get the idea.

Greg and Chris were quick-handed enough that sometimes they’d grab a clothes pin, then continue passing cards along. A game might go a minute or two before someone realized that a clothes pin was missing from the middle. Then the mad scramble would begin. Sometimes one of us would grab for a clothes pin and not have a pair. This fake grab might draw others into grabbing one for themselves. While this stopped play, I don’t recall anyone being penalized for grabbing a clothes pin when no actual pair was present, but we had fun fooling one another.

The deal rotates, so each person gets first-shot at looking for pairs. Sometimes someone will notice that the threes or queens are passing by, alerting a player down the line to consider collecting them. According to rules, a person should never have more than five cards in their hand, and should discard one before picking up another in the rotation. As a practical matter, as time passed, players would grab a small handful of cards. The downside of having a mitt-full of cards is that it’s harder to free up a hand to grab a clothes pin.

Aunt Julia was one of those persons that always lets the child win. She was known to announce, “I have four fives.” Everyone, except her, would grab a clothes pin. We kids generally didn’t like this strategy. While we liked the adults giving us breaks, we wanted the game to be competitive.

One might think that it would take hours for all participants but one to get DONKEY. Here, the second phase of the game begins. Once a person is a DONKEY, his or her task is to get the other players to talk with him.

Margie could annoy as she never shut up. Chris was more cunning and would ask the player next to him if they were saving, say, sixes. If the person responded, they became an instant DONKEY. We rarely got mom or dad to talk—I guess they had too many years’ of card playing experience. It didn’t seem to take long for all but one to become DONKEYs, either by clothes pins or by talking to a DONKEY.

After I married and began a family, I introduced the game to our children, and the first thing I had to do was acquaint them with clothes pins. We always use a clothes dryer and have never had a clothes line in our back yard. Even in recent years, when I have returned home visiting Hamilton, we now-adult children have been known to dig out the clothes pins and play like old times. Margie still talks too much. Greg and Chris still laugh quietly and grab a clothes pin when no one is looking. Little Kath is 52 years old but still gets help from some older brother or sister.  And I don’t think Dad has ever become a DONKEY from not grabbing clothes pins. Ah, the simple pleasures obtained from a deck of cards and a pile of clothes pins. I wonder if my smart phone has an ‘app’ for that.