A Gratitude List on My Sobriety Birthday

Plenty to be grateful for. My wife and dear friend Bill Noble, visiting from the Boston area. We’re about to have dinner at Prescott Brewing Company. I’d thought just the meat loaf was good, but they do a righteous burger too.


Today I complete fifteen years of uninterrupted sobriety. Nobody I knew back in Cleveland thought I’d do this.

I moved to Arizona eight months clean and haven’t used a mood- or mind-altering substance since.

Never was much of a bar guy, though I liked Miller Genuine Draft and Jim Beam shots. I don’t have much night life now that I follow farmer’s hours, working a four-days-a-week retail job that begins before dawn, and being, you know, old. But back in the day, in Cleveland (scene of all my revelries), I followed Wild Horses around in roustabout saloons including the Pirate’s Cove in the Flats and the Sahara in Willoughby Hills, where, despite my neurotic musings (like, why can’t I be a rock star), I managed to meet young ladies who gave me the benefit of their conversation as well as acquiescence to my more carnal, mercenary agenda.

All a greying snapshot from faded youth for a man just turned sixty-six.

I guess drugs got me into Alcoholics Anonymous. All I have to recall is my high, faggy voice under the influence of crack, sitting in a hiding place from reality with this kid who knew how to score the stuff, to remind myself why I don’t do drugs anymore. My final memory of drugs, all of them, was me abdicating responsibility for manhood. It was slow putting myself back together after my Humpty-Dumpty shatterings. But I did that, rescued myself from where I had been. I was in headlong flight from the anger, envy, and pain that boiled beneath. I had an existential crisis that forced me to look into my soul. It wasn’t pretty. But I’m grateful I did it.

I would change everything. Maybe I went overboard. I came to Arizona to be a teacher. Though teaching would provide many gifts, it may have been a mistake. Yes, it forced me into contact with others, made me transcend ego in that sense. I would stand out on lunch duty smiling in divine amusement at the freshness and folly of swarms of teenagers. I was such a one once. But most of the experience hurt too much to call fulfilling.

It certainly began as a horror show. This trial by fire inspired a sometimes salacious novel I wrote under the name R.G. Philips and, after finding no publisher or even agent, uploaded electronically. Strange, how mere dozens of people reading and liking it felt like immortality. As my old friend Rabbi Berkowitz said, “How much is enough?”

My AA meetings are down. I’m lucky if I hit a meeting a week these days. I haven’t been a very good friend to the man I’d called my sponsor, so I don’t have one anymore.

I’ve been abstinent so long there is no sharp, gnawing urge to drink or use. It is only when I am with people to whom alcohol represents a lifestyle that I suffer any blip in contented temperance. But why start all that up again?

I was a naïve buffoon of an instructor among hostile teens, in a region known for low high school graduation rates and low attainment of college degrees. But this tough place built in me a weird, unaccountable happiness. I began to suffer deliberately, facing up to what began to appear through the mists as my karma. The big picture wasn’t to become famous or make big money, but to be a mensch.

I have begun a memoir at the prompting of an old friend who said the South Euclid working-class Jewish neighborhood that spawned us was uniquely nurturing. Friends from back then are still there for him in a special way. I get that. A July trip to Cleveland enveloped and warmed me in a way I hadn’t expected. It was like one of those heartening Old Testament stories about reunion and reconciliation. How long have I fled from myself in fear and shame, unable to embrace others and laugh with people who know me?

I need psychological distance to write about a thing. I wrote about beating up my best friend because he finked on my sister and she gave me no rest. I wrote without wincing about being in a mental hospital during the struggle to attain a belated manhood in my sad twenties. Clawing even further back through cobwebbed memory, I wrote about a traumatic experience at Columbia University, elaborating scenes with the distant interest, even wry delectation, of an objective chronicler. My book is a sperm cell swimming upstream in competition with millions of other tadpoles; it were foolish to be hotly expectant of hitting that egg, though I’ve been read by the likes of Michael Korda and Jonathan Galassi. What do I do with the chesty confidence that impels me to my writing chair?

The strangest source of solace comes from my current job, stocking shelves at a store. I have a clear conscience and leave the place elated. No hateful students sticking pins in my tires, refusing to read, playing spiteful emotional games with an aging lover of writing, journalism, and literature.

I accept myself. Yes, I know I was a flawed teacher. The disciplinarian is the first face these kinds of kids must see before the ostensible wonders of language can even be broached. File this under “If I had it to do over again …” But young people from past classrooms float into my Facebook orbit to declare their appreciation of me.

Go figure.

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