Mark Twain And The Brenner ‘Curse’

My father had a minor stroke Sunday while Erin and I were off exploring the home of Mark Twain. The two seemingly unrelated events have me thinking strange things.

Mood music:

I’ve always wondered if there’s a curse over my family, given our tendency to embrace our destructive impulses and pay the consequences.

At the end of the day, I know it’s not a curse. We choose to behave a certain way and we pay the price. I paid for years of compulsive binge eating by swelling to the upper 200s on the scale and puking up stomach acid in my sleep before I started treating it like the addiction it is with a 12-Step program.

In my father’s case, he apparently spent the weekend pushing himself too hard physically. With a bad leg, bad back and high blood pressure, he should know better. With heart trouble, diabetes and a history of hardened arteries in the Brenner family history, he SHOULD be afraid to eat the wrong things. But he does it anyway.

Much of that behavior was passed down to my brain, where it mixed with OCD, depression and other nasty byproducts. I do therapy and go to 12-Step meetings.

That’s not my father’s style and never will be. I think in his mind, he’s going to do what he’s going to do and when God calls his number, so be it. In that regard, he reminds me a lot of my maternal grandfather. Papa defiantly smoked his cigars until the end, and I don’t think he would have had it any other way.

Lucky me. A fatalistic tradition coming at me from both sides of the family tree.

The thing is, while fate handles people like us accordingly, others get off scot-free. Going through Mark Twain’s house Sunday brings that to mind now.

Mark Twain's house in Hartford, Conn.

I identify with Twain on several levels. The obvious one is the writing. Another thing is the dark humor. Another thing we have in common, which I got a better picture of Sunday, is that he, like me today, was madly devoted to his wife and children, and that he had a habit of pissing his wife off anyway with his cussing and avoiding phone calls from people he didn’t want to talk to. According to one story, his wife took him down a few pegs for paying a visit to their next-door neighbor, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author Harriet Beecher Stowe, without wearing the proper attire.

Home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain's next-door neighbor

One other, important thing I identified with: Twain reveled in his bad habits. He smoked 20-40 cigars a day and loved to have a drink or five. Everywhere in his house is evidence of his constant smoking: the smoking table next to his chair in the library, the cigars and pipes strewn about in the study-billiards room where he wrote such masterpieces as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Prince and the Pauper.”

It all made me want to smoke a big, fat cigar. I enjoy the occasional smoke, though nothing remotely close to how Twain did it.

Twain was a lot like my father. He was going to do what he did, and that was that.

I mentioned to Erin how funny it is that some folks, like Twain, can do what he did without consequence and live a long life (Twain died at 74), while someone like me has to pack it in and change my ways earlier in life. Then there’s my father, who is nearly 66 and has gotten that far despite his habits. Papa died a few months shy of his 71st birthday. Since 70 seems to be the new 40, that doesn’t seem like much longevity in this day and age.

Of course, medical treatments back then weren’t what they are today either, so whatever.

“You’re an addict,” Erin said. “Was Twain an addict?”

“Not sure,” I said.

“Either way, it’s still destructive behavior that affects you and everyone around you,” she said.

That was true in Twain’s case. Learning to live with a guy like that couldn’t have been easy for his wife.

Learning to live with a guy like me certainly hasn’t been all fun and games for Erin.

And living with my father probably hasn’t been without bumps for my step-mom.

History has it that Winston Churchill smoked cigars nonstop and was perpetually buzzed on every kind of alcohol there is. He lived to be 90.

I know from the history books that he was no fun to live with.

I can’t speak for my father, but for me one of the challenges is to remember to be me and not try to do self-destructive things because some of my heroes did them.

I tried hard to be my brother after he died. It didn’t work.

I tried hard to be Jim Morrison at one point because I thought he was cool. That didn’t work, either.

And sometimes, when I’m doing something that’s bad for me, I feel like Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and other big guys from history would approve.

There’s just one problem: I’m not them.

I try to be like my father in many ways because he’s a great man. But in other ways, I need to break the self-destructive cycle we seem to embrace.

For Veterans, A Holiday Here and There Isn’t Enough

Funny thing about holidays where we honor veterans: Everyone puts those who have fought for our freedom on a pedestal for the day, then the next day some of us go back to treating the same people like garbage.

Mood music:

Flashback: September, 2010: I’m walking the streets of Brooklyn on a beautiful night, and a guy comes up to me. He has a hole in his head where his left eye used to be and burn scars up and down one arm.

I’m smoking a cigar, so he approaches me for a light. He tells me he was maimed in Afghanistan during military service and asks for some change so he can get a train to somewhere. He tells me he’s in New York looking for work and was stranded without money.

I give him the change from my pocket and then he’s gone.

Is he telling the truth? I have no idea, and I don’t really care. He just looked like a guy in pain who needed a few quarters to survive the next few hours, and that’s all that mattered at the time.

Flashback: Late April, 2011: I’m on Facebook one afternoon and I see a friend commenting that he’s disappointed that some of his friends have decided to “like” a page that makes fun of a fellow known in Haverhill, Mass., as Crazy Mike.

In any city there’s a guy like “Crazy Mike.” The stereotype is usually a long beard, ratty clothes and the fellow is usually living on the street. He talks aloud to no one in particular and falls asleep on playground equipment. People like to laugh at him.

A lot of these so-called crazy guys are homeless vets whose luck ran out somewhere between the battlefield and the hard re-entry into society.

After a few seconds of thinking this through (admittedly, a few seconds is never enough time to really think things through), my temper reaches full boil and I pound out a blog post called “Liking The Crazy Mike of Haverhill Page is Sad and Stupid.”

Discussion follows online, with a big question being if Crazy Mike was in Vietnam and, as a result, sick on the streets with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One reader insists he is indeed a veteran, and that other homeless people keep stealing his medication. Someone else says she knew the family fairly well, and that Mike is not a veteran. He’s simply a guy who has a serious mental illness.

To me, it doesn’t matter if he was in Vietnam or not. Instead, two realities have my mind spinning like a top on fire.

One is that a lot of people assume he is a veteran, but treat him like shit anyway.

Another thing is that there are a lot of homeless who ARE military veterans, and most days we don’t give them more than a few seconds of thought before we walk on by.

It’s almost as if we honor them on holidays to make ourselves feel better about being the assholes we often are.

I say this as a guy who is admittedly one of those assholes. I’ve made my share of fun of people like this, and in the rear-view mirror, looking back at my own struggle with mental illness, it makes me feel ashamed.  Back when fear, anxiety and addiction had me by the balls, I used to walk or drive the other way when these guys approached. It makes me the last guy on Earth who would be fit to judge others for poking fun at someone less fortunate.

It would be high-minded of me to say we need to do better for our veterans. But it’s been said so often it’s pretty much lost it’s meaning. We like to praise our veterans on Veterans Day, Memorial Day or July 4. But once the holiday is past, we go back to our normal behavior. Because they’re homeless and, as a result, they’re dirty, scary and unpleasant to those who have lived far more comfortable lives. And, don’t you know, we LOVE to judge people even though we know nothing about them.

Let’s face it, folks. We need more than the occasional holiday to treat these people the way they deserve to be treated.

And with that, we can all go back to our holiday cook-outs.

Why We Judge Each Other

This whole debate over security curmudgeons has me thinking about our tendency to judge people. We all do it. I sure as hell do. But where’s the line between fair and unfair?

Mood music:

I’ve said my thing on that matter, and promised that my post yesterday would be my final word on the subject. So I’ll ask you to read those posts, which I link to above, for the background.

The rest of this post is about the class warfare we seem to live with every day. In security circles, it’s the “rock star” hackers vs. the suit-and-tie security execs. Elsewhere, it’s about judging different people vs. normal people, rich people vs. poor people, ugly people vs. beautiful people, normal families vs. dramatic families. I could go on into infinity, but you get the point.

So why do we judge each other? I guess the easy answer is that we have an irresistible urge to compare ourselves to other people. If we feel like shit because of what our lives have become, we want assurances that what we have is still better than the next guy.

If we come from a family of drama queens, we want assurance that some other family is ten times as bad.

In high school I was a fat misfit (the girth carried over to adulthood to varying degrees). To make myself feel better, I bullied kids I thought were uglier and more socially inept. I’ve been working to make amends for that in recent years, and have covered it more deeply in the posts “The Bridge Rats,” “Stiffy” and “Welcome to the Outcast Club.”

To this day, if I see someone who seems to fit some misfit stereotype, I gawk. I’m ashamed of that, but it’s the truth. It’s also hypocritical since I described myself as a misfit in that last paragraph.

It’s something I continue to work on. When I’m in a situation where I end up getting to know someone I’ve judged prematurely and my view changes, I try to keep that in mind next time I go to judge someone. I stop myself and think, “I know nothing about this person. I’m in no position to decide if they’re good/bad/weird etc. I was wrong about the last person I judged.” Of course, I still fail at times. I need to force myself to keep taking that step back.

I’ve really been digging the new Sixx A.M. album lately. Much of the subject matter is on how we judge each other and have stupid ideas of beauty vs. ugliness. I haven’t read the Nikki Sixx book it’s based on yet, called “This is Gonna Hurt,” but from what I’ve seen an important theme is in smashing stereotypes and valuing people on what they contribute to society.

At the end of the day, I think we’re all imperfect beasts who try too quickly to figure each other out. In that rush to judgement, people get hurt. Whole groups get hurt as well as individuals.

The question is, can we — collectively and individually –take that hurt and do something constructive with it?

You’ll Bitterly Disagree With Me Sometimes

A couple days ago, in the security blog I write as part of my day job, I did a post about folks in the security community who consider themselves curmudgeons. As expected, some folks passionately disagree.

Mood music:

I knew when I wrote it some people were going to be pissed off. That’s how it is when you write an opinion piece: You’re inevitably pissing in someone’s bowl of Wheaties.

I don’t do it to tear people down. But when I think we could all be doing something better, I’m going to say it. People will rage at me in return and that’s OK. I respect that.

I also readily admit that what I write isn’t THE RIGHT ANSWER. It’s simply how I feel about something after being immersed in the culture and details for an extended period of time. My take is my take, and I’ve gotten it wrong on occasion.

That’s why I welcome feedback, however negative it might be. That’s how we learn: Different sides present a viewpoint and the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. The subject of security curmudgeons is no different.

And I feel the same way with the stuff I write about personal struggles in this blog.

After 17 years in journalism, I like to tell people I’ve developed a thick skin. And I have in one sense, because back in the day, I would never take issue with someone’s specific viewpoint or lifestyle for fear that my targets would come back and tear me to pieces, either physically or in public writing.

But in another sense, my skin is as thin as it was the first day I ever walked into a newsroom.

I’ll take on an issue, but sometimes I’ll be terrified of the response. The big fear is that someone will come back with an overwhelming, ironclad stack of evidence that I’m merely a misguided idiot who has no idea what he’s talking about.

But somewhere along the way, I realized that to truly bring something to the table and contribute to my industry and society as a whole, I have to occasionally risk pissing people off and getting it back in heavy doses. So I do.

When doing so, my biggest fear is that I’m going to hit too hard and leave someone deeply hurt. I don’t ever want to make anyone feel worthless.

If I’ve learned anything in battling my own demons, it’s that we’re all a little or a lot broken. We all shoot our mouths off and say stupid things sometimes. We all hurt each other along the way, and we can all be better.

When writing the curmudgeon post, a point I tried to make but probably failed at is that we all have our justifications for approaching our professions cynically from time to time, and there’s a time and a place to get our more negative views across. But at some point we have to evolve and take it to the next level. If we’re going to talk about why something sucks, we should move on to talking about how we’re going to make it suck less.

I know of at least one person who was personally insulted by my post. She vows to write a response and it will no doubt nail me to the wall. I’ll respect that.

Whatever comes of that, I just want her to know that I don’t think she should go away, which she has threatened to do in the past. I just think she should take her act to the next level. Rage is an emotion that has it’s place. But too much of it will burn a person down to nothing.

Nobody wins when that happens.

Two Bad Memories

I just got over a fairly typical stomach bug that had me feeling bloated and miserable. It wouldn’t be worth mentioning, except that it brought back a couple bad memories and served as a wake-up call.

Mood music:

For one thing, I felt just like I used to feel after a brutal junk-eating binge. Not the usual ate-too-much kind of bloat normal eaters feel after Thanksgiving, but the kind I felt after a really messy, days-long bender.

It’s that hung over, junk sick feeling I used to get.

Before I found recovery, my demon would start harassing me long before getting to the scene of the junk. Forget the people who would be there or the weather and surroundings. All I’d think about was getting my fill. Then I’d get to the event and get my fill from the time I’d get there to the time I left. I’d sneak handfuls of junk so what I was doing wouldn’t be too obvious to those around me.

Halfway through, I would have the same kind of buzz you get after downing a case of beer or inhaling a joint deep into your lungs. I know this, because I’ve done those things, too. By nightfall, I’d feel like a pile of shattered bricks waiting to be carted off to the dump. Quality time with my wife and kids? Forget it. All I wanted was the bed or the couch so I could pass out.

The next morning would greet me with a bad headache, violent stomach cramps and blurred vision. Just like having a hangover or being dope sick.

I didn’t have the blurred vision, but last night I felt a lot like those mornings-after.

It also reminded me of how I used to feel during flare ups of the Crohn’s Disease.

I remembered the searing, knifing cramps, the bloated immobility and the blood.

Call me over dramatic, but that’s what I remembered. It is what it is.

It’s kind of funny that last night’s discomfort made me think of the binging first and the Crohn’s Disease second, since the latter kind of led to the former.

In the long run, the disease has been more damaging to my mental health than my physical health. It screwed up my brain and pushed me toward an adulthood of addictions and other hangups.

So here I am on Thursday morning, looking out the window at the sunrise and feeling grateful as hell that the feeling passed.

It’s like when you wake up from a nightmare and realize none of it was real.

But something in my distorted mind leaves me wondering if this was some sort of divine wake-up call; a warning from above that I’ve been too overconfident of my recovery lately.

In OA meetings you always hear people talk about this overconfidence as a precursor to their own relapse.

I don’t want to relapse, so I need to start keeping my confidence in check.

Funny, the things you think about when you’re lying down feeling like crap.

I guess I still have a fair amount of insanity in me.

Fear of Coming Clean At Work

No, not my fear. I came clean about my fight with OCD a long time ago and my work colleagues are nothing but supportive. At this point, my life is an open book. But for those who are at the other end of the spectrum, I came across an article that might help.

Mood music:

It’s an item on About.com from Dr.  called “OCD and Work: Dealing With Employers.” There was a time when I lived in dread over whether or not to come clean. For one thing, there was a time when my disease was impacting my workmanship. I was a control freak in an environment where I had no control. That period of my life is best captured in a post called “One Of My Biggest Regrets.”

But that was long before I got the treatment I needed. Through years of extensive therapy, medication and tackling other disorders, I’m at a point of no return. I may backslide from time to time. I do, in fact. But there’s no going back to the insanity of 2000-2006. I’ve simply learned too much.

But for those just beginning to deal with their demons, the question of what to do about work is a big one — maybe even the biggest. You want to get well and do so in an honest way, but how many times have we heard about workplace discrimination? I hear about it all the time.

Dr. Kelly’s article is an excellent first step in knowing what to do.

He writes:

Choosing to disclose that you have OCD to a potential or current employer can be terrifying. People in this position often:

  • wonder if their potential or current employer will be supportive, reject them or even know or understand what OCD is
  • fear being passed over, fired or forced out through attrition
  • worry what people around the office will think
  • worry that they’ll regret their decision
  • fear being blacklisted within the industry they work
  • fear not being trusted with important tasks or responsibilities

It is important to know that if you are in this position, there is no right answer and that you need to weigh this decision for yourself.

The best part of the article is when he gets into what you should do IF YOU DECIDE TO COME CLEAN.

He writes:

If you decide that benefits outweigh the risks and you decide to disclose that you have OCD to a prospective or current employer, it will be up to you to make sure that your employer understands the nature and severity of your symptoms. This this doesn’t mean that you need to tell your boss everything — just what she needs to know and what accommodations you might need. If your employer does not fully understand the challenges associated with OCD, or doesn’t even know what it is, it may also be helpful to educate your employer about your illness. It may even be possible to enlist your health care provider to advocate for you.

Finally, check and see if your employer has retained the services of an employee assistance program or EAP. This service may be able to assist in or facilitate disclosure of your OCD to your employer.

An important part of the article is near the beginning, and deals with your rights. Kelly notes that it’s illegal to discriminate against someone because of a medical condition, including OCD. A final excerpt:

 if you are otherwise qualified for the position, you cannot be denied employment simply because you have OCD. Although the law is quite clear on this, the actual experience of prospective and current employees with OCD can unfortunately be quite different.

However unfair, there is actually quite a bit of incentive for employers to terminate or pass on hiring someone who they know has a chronic illness — mental or physical. On average, their health costs will be higher; they will be absent more days; and they may even have to go on long-term disability leave — all of which impacts the bottom line.

Although it is illegal to terminate someone on the basis of a medical condition, there are many ways that employers can accomplish this indirectly. For example, the employer can give the employee progressively more undesirable tasks until to the employee decides to leave.

This article is something I wish I had back in the day. It’s probably the best direction I’ve seen anyone give people facing the question of disclosure.

I hope this helps. Good luck.

Why This Day Will Not Suck: May 25

Every few months, I try to step out of the craziness of daily life and take stock in my life. The struggles will always be there, but I have so much to be grateful for. With the sun finally shining bright after a long stretch of bad weather, I’m feeling like nothing can keep this from being a good day.

Mood music:

–Whatever this day hurls at me, I have a lot of people in my life to help me along. I wrote about some of them in two earlier posts: The Healers (Adventures in Step 9) and The Gratitude List, which begins with Erin and our children. Erin has been waking up at the same time as me to get a better jump on the day, and I love that I get to give her a kiss and wish her a good day on the way out the door.

–I got to see the sunrise on the drive to work. Fellow Bostonians who have lived through a week and a half of shitty weather will understand why this makes me feel ready to take on the world.

–I just got an email in our family finances account for Staples coupons, which beats the hell out of billing statements.

–I’m loving the hell out of the new Sixx A.M. album. A friend was kind enough to burn me a copy and I can’t stop listening. It’s truly a celebration of life. I can’t wait to get the book that goes with it, “This is Gonna Hurt.”

–I put on a pair of jeans this morning that just went through the wash. It used to be that when I washed pants, I couldn’t get them buttoned afterwards. Now they button easily.

–Once again, I get to spend the day doing a job that I love. It’s exceptionally hard to find a job like that, and I know full well how blessed I am.

–The Cub Scouts went fishing last night, and Sean was able to reel in a fish before a thunderstorm rolled in and cut the evening short.

–When I got to the office the Teddy Roosevelt bobblehead on my desk was doing it’s thing without having to be tapped. It could mean the office is haunted, but I choose to look at it as a good omen.

–I got a mug full of Jet Fuel coffee.

–My laptop let off a series of ominous beeps and needed a couple restarts. This could seriously fuck up a work day, but it’s working fine now.

–A three-day weekend is ahead and the kids are going camping. This leaves me and Erin with some much-needed quality time.

Seize the day.