AA in the news: Powerless, grateful and other useful feelings.

There’s an essay in Wired by Brendan I. Koerner, titled “Secret of AA: After 75 Years, We Don’t Know How it Works.” It is burning up the email channels and New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about it. As the headline makes clear, the piece is largely about the fact that the success rate of Alcoholics Anonymous can’t be measured. We can clasify addiction as disease, but unlike diabetes, we can’t say how many people get better through treatment…in this case, by working the 12 steps.

I feel safe in predicting that a lot of people will start reading it and quit about a third of the way into the piece. Not because it isn’t well-written enough, but for one of two other reasons:

(1) Squirm factor: They’re alcoholics/addicts and not ready or able to deal with the “cunning, baffling” affliction; or

(2) Gratitude factor: They’re in the program, it works, and they do not care why.

I read the whole piece, but I was skimming it by page 3.

I fall in category 2-A:  It works, I don’t care why. But yeah, okay, tell me why.

For more than 20 years I’ve thought of Alcoholics Anonymous as the equivalent of a concerned relative who took me in, made up a bed on the couch and said: You’re not doing so great. Stay here until you feel up to leaving.

I slept there around-the-clock for awhile. The couch is always made up and ready when I need it.

It’s an odd notion on the face of it, that the only way some alcoholics or addicts survive is by sitting in a room with a lot of other drunks, tweakers, pill-takers, glue-sniffers, junkies. It seems odd right up until it doesn’t. Funny how we humans can move the goalpost of “normal” up and back so many yards.

Yet, I do welcome new findings about the ways in which brain chemistry and environmental factors conspire to make an otherwise rational person ingest poison. I believe that the more mysteries we solve, the better off we’ll be.

In other words, I want the updated brain-operation manual and the couch. When I’m too weary to read the small print, I can lie down and rest.

West Virginia down to two friends.

From the Los Angles Times obituary of Senator Robert C. Byrd by Johanna Neuman:

“On election night 2000, when Byrd, then 83, was reelected with his largest margin ever — a 78% majority, carrying all 55 counties and all but seven of the state’s 1,970 precincts — he remarked: ‘West Virginia has always had four friends: God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter’s Little Liver Pills, and Robert C. Byrd.’ (He later dropped Sears from the list, complaining about inadequate service on a heater.)”

All the news that fits. And solves.

I’ve only read some of the stories and ads in three sections in Sunday’s New York Times (Book Review, Business and Week in Review) and here’s what I’ve already learned:

Most new fiction is deeply flawed. A five-line letter from Ronald Reagan to his old actress friend Kitty Carlisle Hart is worth $6,100. Whales and dolphins are as smart as we are, and probably nicer. Congo is still the rape capital on earth. Congress still has absolutely no balls when it comes to regulating Wall Street. Our cellphones are built with materials that are obtained at human cost. Author Danielle Steele and legal pot growers in Colorado work harder than the rest of us. Camile Paglia says “female Viagra” pharmaceuticals will not cure the sexual malaise blanketing America.

It seems so clear:

Send sexually disappointed whiners to witness real problems in Congo.  Sell collections of witless Presidential missives as e-books in order to fund the increased cost of cruelty-free cellphone manufacturing. Deploy the hyper-prolific Ms. Steele to the pot-growing operations for one week. Swear in Ms. Paglia, stand her up in front of Congress, and let her spell it out for them: No balls, no glory.

If that last thing doesn’t work, vote for a whale or a dolphin next time.

Death on our own terms: Don’t be squeamish, read this.

This is the best-written newspaper or magazine piece I’ve read in a very long time.

The headline is “What Broke My Father’s Heart,” and writer Katy Butler rewinds her family story to describe what happens when technology–in this case a pacemaker–keeps someone alive beyond the capacity of the mind (and parts of the body) to live anything resembling a normal life.

Anyone who has had to make decisions about serious surgical options and other interventions knows, as Butler describes, how easy it is to just nod, gulp and do the first thing the doctor suggests. Anyone who has come up against the task of putting a loved one’s Health Care Directive or end-of-life preferences into play has brushed up against the experiences behind this New York Times Sunday Magazine piece.

It sounds simple enough on the sunny side of serious illness., then wham. The doctor, and maybe all your family and friends, say go for the chemo. The transplant. The pacemaker. The goal is almost always more time; more technology. Doctors aren’t gods (and most don’t want to be), but it takes a lot of gumption to face one down and demand to hear about other choices…or maybe even to be left alone. And it takes information, determination and an advocate (sometimes more than one) to push back against the health care establishment  (hospital, insurance, Medicare) and just say no to the protocol.

Oregonians, the beneficiaries of right-to-die law, tend to think a care directive is a solution, as do a lot of other people. Don’t want to be kept alive by extraordinary measures? Well, fine. Oops, what about the EMTs who must do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? What about the medical team that shocks your heart back into action? Then there’s hydration, food-in-a-tube, ventilators. Oy. And here most of us get antsy when a waiter gives us five salad-dressing choices.

When that ludicrous scare campaign threatening “death squads” was being waged against health care reform, I wondered how many of the yammerers  were currently caring for someone who, like Butler’s father, had gone from a vibrant, intelligent and happy individual to a confused, sick and pain-plagued prisoner. His wife became a prisoner too, something he would have clearly done anything in his power to prevent, had he been offered that choice.

This couple had the stuff that’s supposed to help: a strong relationship with a good, sensitive primary care doc and plenty of dough. This is bad, bad news for all who get medical care only from the Emergency Room and who pay it off for years or slap it on the already overloaded Visa card.

I think there’s an excellent chance that Butler’s article might help change things for the better.  We boomers are living longer. It’s up to us how to define what that means, and that requires a lot of thought and clear instructions to each other ahead of time.

Our bodies, our worse-off selves.

I have occasion to regularly visit a wonderful vintage jewelry/resale clothing business in town. The owners defy small-business odds: thriving as a family-owned venture, they’re now serving the second- and third-generations of regulars.

Most of the customers are women, and they feel so at home that personal conversation flows easily. There’s a bit of that airplane-travel phenomenon, in which seatmates trade stories about intimate stuff  precisely because they are strangers. Not surprisingly, a lot of the chatting centers on the trials of aging.

As it turns out, this is a sort of competitive sport for middle-aged women.

I can just about guarantee that if four women are within hearing distance of each other, and one mentions her hot flashes, at least one of the remaining three will describe waking up more often, with soggier nightwear and a less sympathetic husband.

If you need reading glasses, someone else can’t even find hers, she’s so blind.

Bras suddenly too tight? She can hardly breathe.

Feet wider? Her shoes look like flippers.

Don’t even get started on haircuts.

Men this age take the opposite approach. I bet if you eavesdrop on a group of 50ish men in a locker room and if one of them happens to blurt out some age-related failing, the others will maintain a respectful silence. Or change the subject.

Much is written about the ways men and women communicate with each other, but I’m still waiting for the book titled  “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. And, Girlfriend, My Flight to Venus was Bumpier than Yours.”

Yes, I know. You’d read it if you could find your damn glasses.

77 Words: “The Love Letter” by Cathleen Schine and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” by Stieg Larsson

“The Love Letter” by Cathleen Schine (Penguin; Signet 1995) –

Before I get Schine’s latest rave-receiving novel, I figured I’d try this older work. Verdict: Excellent and smart summer escapism. A middle-aged bookseller has an affair with a much-younger man, motivated by a mysterious love letter… oh, yeah, and lust too. Schine nimbly chronicles the flowing thoughts of characters; stream-of-consciousness, but always with a point. Her heroine, Helen, is a force of nature. This is not a book for those intimidated by the unquestioned superiority of women.

And if that wasn’t enough, here’s another 77 Words review:

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson (Knopf, 2010) -

I bought two hardcover copies… so we didn’t have to share. I had to check on journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and of course, learn the fate of the bewitching Lisbeth Salander. It’s hard to incite envy for a heroine who survives horrible abuse, but Larsson manages. Start with the first book; fall in love with this hacker, martial-arts fighter, steel-cored murderer. Third book is overloaded with Swedish-government-detail. It’s OK to flip through for good parts. Really.

For more “77 Words: Tiny Book Reviews,” click here.

A comforting nugget of wisdom.

From the New York Times obit for Chris Haney, co-creator of Trivial Pursuit:

“Mr. Haney fought and won a 13-year legal battle against a man who said he had given him the idea for Trivial Pursuit when Mr. Haney picked him up hitchhiking. He won another suit against an author who claimed that Mr. Haney had taken questions from his books, something Mr. Haney readily acknowledged.

The judge’s reasoning: “You can’t steal trivia.”

Task-based wages…or how I’m learning to value myself.

Used to be that an independent contractor set rates by one or two measures: What will the market bear? What is my time worth?

That first yardstick has pretty much disintegrated. Anyone who knows what the market will bear should not be wasting her time reading this blog. Get out and make money, genius.

So, what is one’s time worth? Ah, there’s the thing to ponder. In my world, that of freelance writing, it’s a buyer’s market. Awash with former journalists, the field of wordsmiths-for-hire is very, very crowded.

Most of us started out valuing our time based on what we were paid in (usually) union newsrooms. Which is sort of like Pluto asking for the same treatment it got back when it was considered an actual planet.

I’ve tried a few approaches, including the name-your-price model that lets a client set the rate. This is workable right up until one is hired by a friend (who feels guilty, overpays, then never hires you again) or a true cheapskate. You know where that one goes.

So, here’s a new idea. In this time of economic murkiness, I notice that everyone is more forthcoming about costs:

–”My student loan is $250 a month!!”
–”The dentist said it’ll cost $1,400!”
–”I paid $4.80 to park downtown!”

There’s a weary sense of I-share-your-pain out there. Everyone is quoting numbers and no one is happy.

So, here’s my idea. I call it “task-based wages.” In this model a contract worker (freelancer, babysitter, yard worker, whatever) quotes a price that is directly linked to a real need.

So instead of $25 an hour, I tell my client that the job cost is “gym membership” or $40. I feel the budget pressure lighten and the client sees the reasonableness of the charge. Even if $40 is more than they wanted to spend, they can take comfort in the fact that there will be one less out-of-shape, overweight person in America. (This assumes a lot of things; just roll with me here.)

Instead of my old system of quoting an hourly and a flat rate for a large editing gig, I can now offer the “two cups of coffee every day for a week” or the “new tires” rate.

We’re all in this together, right?