You will notice in the clip below that I am introduced first as “a controversial former member of the Labour Party in Mana” and then as the author of a “controversial blog”. What on earth have I done to deserve the use of the c-word twice in a matter of seconds? The doubling up of certain adjectives can be troubling. Take the phrase “fascinating guy”, for example. Used once, it is straight-forward, as in:
That Stephen Fry is a fascinating guy
Double up and you end up with:
That Stephen Fry is such a fascinating guy, with a fascinating past.
This makes you think that there is something a bit strange about Stephen Fry, or that person ostensibly praising him is either being a little sarcastic or trying to convey a hidden meaning.
Or take this:
Richie McCaw is a very clever rugby player.
We can all applaud such an insight, but how about:
Richie McCaw is very clever on the field. Very clever indeed.
This is now a sledge, a roundabout way of calling McCaw a cheat.
I would have been happy with one use of controversial — to be honest, I think it is fair given my central role in the failed 1996 coup attempt against then Labour leader and now-icon-of-the-international-left, Helen Clark. And, after all, it’s lot better than the opposite: I have no interest in being an uncontroversial former staffer who write uncontroversial blog posts But two controversials — in precisely ten seconds? That conveys more than just a little disputatiousness on my part.
If you’re intersted in the whole story from TV3’s “The Battle for Mana”, here it is.
It is nice to see one of my small efforts made it to #95 in WordPress’ post of the day list. Given that mine is one of 11.4 million hosted blogs, it is quite a lot better than nothing. Thanks due, of course, to all my readers. And to the newly-minted Labour candidate for Mana.
I am very bad at promoting this blog. This is because I have always been prone to a patchy kind of laziness which I have gamely tried to defend my whole life as impatience with “process”. “I don’t do details” is a very flattering way to characterize indolence, and I tend to flatter myself generously and often.
So, while I work quite hard at producing content for the blog — primarily as a vanity project, if I were honest — I invest nary a scintilla’s effort into getting people to read it. WordPress automatically links with Facebook and Twitter and occasionally it falls into the hands of much more popular and well-read blogs, and traffic happens almost entirely despite my best non-efforts. In the same way, during my campaigning days, I was prone to writing and producing pamphlets and media releases but then letting them sit in piles in the garage or gathering dust on the printer unless and until a “process person” aimed a boot at my lazy arse.
Occasionally, something prompts me to get off said same lackadaisical bottom of my own accord. These interludes can be quite decisive and productive, but they are rare and invariably fleeting; I am talking minutes, not hours or days.
I was grazed by such an impulse this morning, when I sent a link to yesterday’s post to Dr. Stanton Peele. Yesterday, I wrote the first in what I plan to be a series of posts to reflect on my first four years of sobriety, the anniversary for which is on October 2nd. Whether the series develops beyond the initial post depends on the extent to which I am able to navigate around the very personality flaw I have spent most of this post attempting to describe. (It’s like the old joke: “I am never able to finish anyth….”).
But send to Dr Peele I did.
Stanton Peele is a trailblazing psychologist and AA heretic who has spent four decades dissecting the conventional wisdom about the causes and treatment of addiction. Peele rejects the disease concept — he argues that the research demonstrates that addiction is a life problem that is more often than not overcome, not a medical condition that deserves radical intervention and constant vigilance. Further, he believes 12-step programs, such as AA, can be actively harmful to some addicts. Here is a money quote:
What about joining support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous? Here, too, research reveals the opposite of what we have been led to believe. A.A is a valuable community resource for those who find support in a certain type of religiously oriented group ritual. But the best we can say about A.A is that it works for those for whom it works. Meanwhile, there are plenty for whom it doesn’t work. There is no scientific evidence that A.A. works better than other approaches when randomly selected alcoholics are assigned to A.A. or other treatments. In fact, the evidence is that the people who are now often compelled to attend A.A—after being arrested for drunk driving or being sent by a company Employee Assistance Program—do worse than those who are left on their own. Source: http://peele.net/lib/truth_1.html
Religiously oriented group ritual? Ouch, double ouch.
Dr Peele was kind enough to respond to my email, and extremely promptly. He thought my post a “good read” although — full disclosure — “too long”. He also took the trouble to single out a couple of my AA-directed zingers for special mention. Since I have long admired his writing and research, which I find both persuasive and close to the bone, I am most grateful for his email.
This post, too, is too long. Its only purpose is to direct you to Dr Peele’s work if the topic of addiction interests you. His is is a truly compelling voice of reason in a field weighed down by bullshit marinated in snake oil.
His excellent website can be found at www.peele.net .
Addiction perplexes and intrigues me. There are obvious personal reasons for this — I was addicted to alcohol for around ten years until October 2, 2006 — and I find the whole subject an enticing and elusive intellectual puzzle. The origins and causes of addiction are essentially a mystery and its treatments are notoriously random and sporadically effective at best. The medical profession, who are enamored with certainty, have all but outsourced its management to a non-existent god in the form of 12-step programs that, according to screeds of research, are either marginally effective or not effective at all.
My own experience with Alcoholics Anonymous persuaded me it is the world’s most elaborate placebo trial: if you believe hard enough, it may just work. Certainly, the “success stories” of AA are typically people with a certain cultish vibe, right down to the chanting of prayers and platitudes…”one day at a time”, “the elevator to sobriety is broken, take the steps!”, “Seven missed meetings makes one weak!”. The over-reliance on exclamation marks, and the non-ironic reveling in word-play, were early signs that I would not be an AA “lifer”.
At the heart of AA-world is the anthropomorphication of alcohol. AA members characterize booze as a nemesis with human, and inhumane, qualities. Grog itself — the actual liquid in the glass — is evil, pernicious, endlessly capable of plotting. It is out to get you! In most AA meeting soliloquies, the word alcohol could be replaced with the name of an abusive parent or partner without losing anything in coherence.
This is not to say I am anti-AA. For the first 3-6 months after I downed my last drink, it helped me. More than anything, it gave me something to do with the relentless hours and days of early sobriety. Also, I put together a confessional spiel — “Hi, I’m Phil and I’m an alcoholic”, “Hi, Phil!!!” — that proved quite popular among the AA faithful and gave me a timely ego boost ever time I delivered it (which was at every meeting; I was fresh meat and the throng couldn’t wait to hear what depths of depravity I had reached).
AA soon lost its appeal for me, but it undeniably works well for some people. It provides a supportive network of relatively non-judgmental and like-minded souls, and regular meetings certainly act as a buffer between the tenuously sober and relapse. But I could never shake the nagging feeling that the whole exercise was kind of missing the point.
From my experience, I felt that alcohol was a means to intoxication, and intoxication was a ticket out of reality, and reality was shit. The shiteousness of reality, therefore, struck me as main game.
For a booze-hound, as long as the calculation remains that being drunk — with all its dreary and dreadful personal costs — is preferable to being sober, then all the AA meetings in the world won’t keep you on the wagon. This assessment misses one obvious element — namely, that drinking (or drugging) to “self-medicate” actually makes the original condition worse, creating a misery spiral. I hate my life — I drink – my life gets even worse — I drink more — and so on.
The alcoholic keeps drinking — the exaggerated and easily treatable physiological dependence aside — because the hypothetical notion of a contented sober life is fantastical. If they were happy sober, they wouldn’t have ended up drunk.
At best, then, AA is a form of cognitive behaviour therapy — symptom treatment — and that’s not nothing. It is certainly better for a miserable drunk to be simply miserable, just as it is a good idea to train anorexics how to eat properly, or the obsessively hygienic to cease their irritating compulsions. But it leaves the black box — the reason we drank to begin with — untouched and, as long as that is case, the prospect of either relapse or the emergence of new symptoms seems inevitable to me. Never met an edgy, intense, chain-smoking, instant-coffee swilling, sex-obsessed recovering boozer? Find a church hall and wait a few hours.
If I am right — and this is one area where I am chronically unsure of myself — then this represents a direct challenge to the AA philosophy which is that sobriety is an end in itself; and that active non-drinking is the one and only answer. In response to my half-formed ideas, AA types will undoubtedly pull out the disease card: alcoholism, so it goes, is a disease, often inherited, for which there is no cure.
My cursory reading on the disease concept is that it began life as an instructive metaphor — alcoholism is very much like a disease — but it has taken on a literal meaning. I heard several AA members describe their condition as being akin to diabetes or heart disease, to which there is only one possible response: “Um, no it isn’t”.
As far as it goes, the disease metaphor is a useful way of focussing the attention of the addict on the chronic nature of their problem — but it is easy to stretch this to breaking point. Granted, there is a well-established genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse — my Irish ancestors, for example, were rarely sober — but this, I suspect, is far less significant that what it seems. In my case, it probably made it far more likely that I would resort to grog as my escape of choice than, say, self-mutilation or bulimia — but what else does it prove? Untroubled, the black box gathers dust.
AA adherents will have one of two responses to this: either, I am an alcoholic in denial on a one-way fast-track to relapse, or I was never really an alcoholic to begin with. To the true believers, it is simply inconceivable that sobriety can ever be achieved without the 12 steps, despite mountains of empirical evidence that it happens all the time. For them, the key to a sober life is to focus on not drinking with the same single-minded ferocity that they applied to getting hammered. But such an approach seems to me like a permanent, self-imposed and entirely avoidable hangover.
If a team of Martian anthropologists ever wanted to study the habits of middle-aged and middle class white men, they could do a lot worse than observing corporate hospitality at an Australian sporting event. These shin-digs are like socio-cultural time capsules, and last night’s Legends Room function for the All Blacks-Wallabies game at ANZ Stadium in Sydney was a fine example.
Corporate boxes show us what the world would be like if it were exactly how wealthy white sporting enthusiasts wanted it — which is, of course, not entirely unlike how the world actually is. Women are barely present, except for the occasional second wife or pushy middle manager. Ethnic minorities exist only in servitude. Red wine flows like an angry, flooded river; food is simple, meaty and fast. This is a world where jokes never get old, and where sport, not politics or religion or gravity, take its rightful place as the central organising force of the universe.
It was here I encountered a man of such abject and unrelenting ridiculousness that no radio play could possibly do him justice — but I can only try. I shall call him Lawyer. He was on our table, and sat directly behind me once we took our seats in the stand.
Through the course of 80 minutes of rugby, he sledged for 78 of them. Nasty, incoherent, unfunny sledging, revolving around the following meta-themes:
- The referee, a South African, is eager to secure a favourable roster at next year’s World Cup and was therefore favoring the All Blacks because the head of the international referee panel is a New Zealander.
- Richie McCaw ought to be imprisoned due to his constant and flagrant infringing; the only reason that this doesn’t happen is (refer to 1).
- All ethnic stereotypes are essentially accurate, especially when applied to the All Blacks who only remain competitive because (refer to 1)
- Homosexuals are surprisingly well represented among New Zealand’s rugby elite
- Despite what you may think, New Zealand’s relatively poor performance in international cricket has an immense bearing on proceedings.
Other themes were less explicitly addressed, most notably:
- I am a miserable, self-loathing alcoholic
It is not good form to counter-sledge a fellow guest on a corporate table so we resisted the Lawyer’s provocation admirably. Until, that is, the All Blacks had secured the most unconvincing kind of victory, winning by a solitary point. It was then my brother decided to collect his dues.
Corporate box hubbub, clinking and laughing, murmurs of disappointment, a touch of mourning.
BRO: So, how does if feel to watch your team lose a game in such a humiliating fashion?
LAW: What do you mean?
BRO: Well, you never should have lost that. We were shit, but we still won. I can only imagine how humiliating that must be, for you and everyone like you.
LAW: What’s your point?
BRO: Humiliation is the point. Not to mention the inalterable fact that the All Blacks have beaten you on ten consecutive occasions. Do your ruddy cheeks burn with shame, or is that just too much grog and high cholesterol?
LAW: No at all. I mean…
LAW: Do you know how many one-dayers the Kiwis have lost to Australia?
BRO: One-dayers? Are you talking about cricket?
LAW: Yes, of course! How many one-day defeats?
BRO: What? I don’t even follow cricket. It’s completely irrelevant.
LAW: Ha! See, you guys can’t face it!
BRO: Face what exactly?
LAW: NZ’s shameful cricket record.
BRO: I am talking about the rugby we have just finished watching. during which time we listened to you rant and rave without pause for 80 minutes — like an insane person.
LAW: What’s your point?
BRO: Take the pain, man.
LAW: What pain? I mean, what about the netball? The hockey! The Commonwealth medal tally! The better climate and greater resource wealth! Our comfortable lead on the alphabetical list of nation-states!
BRO: You are in denial. Just learn to live with the pain.
LAW: What pain? How many World Cups have you won?
LAW: How many?
BRO: Well, we all know the answer to that — but it’s not even vaguely relevant. The point is you squandered an unbeatable lead to crash to your TENTH CONSECUTIVE LOSS.
LAW: Why are you avoiding the question?
BRO: What question?
LAW: About the World Cups! We have won twice as many World Cups as you. Why won’t you admit it?
BRO: The Wallabies will never improve unless you face up to your own weaknesses and stop clinging to past victories.
LAW: What’s your point?
BRO: The point is, the Wallabies are shit.
LAW: I know you are, but what am I?
BRO: Are you for real?
LAW: I can’t hear you!
BRO: Are you sure that you’re not a fictional creation; more archetype than anything else?
LAW: Sorry, I have to go to the loo. Still can’t hear you!
BRO: If you’re just going to the loo, why have you put your coat on?
LAW: I can’t hear you!
BRO: And why are you calling a cab?
BRO: You bring shame to your people.
Sentence for sentence, Ian McEwan is the best living writer in English that I know. Even in his less-good books — of which his latest, Solar, is one — he is capable of crafting exquisite stand-alone sentences that almost deserve dust jackets and press tours to themselves. In Solar — which begins well but gets lost in too much plot — he writes this about the nature of memory:
But he had taken many taxis from Heathrow before, and he had been in many traffic jams, and memory was wax-soft, and soon his construction formed itself in his mind like any genuine recollection, both vague and certain.
It’s after sentences like this I find myself whispering “stop it, Ian McEwan” with envy-tinged awe.
This quote struck home because it touched on the unreliability of memory, a particular issue for me because I spent ten years of my life more often drunk than sober. As a result, my recollection of events until four years ago is obfuscated by grog, and it’s impossible to trust the few fragments that survived the deluge. My memories — wax-soft in McEwan’s words — have hardened into anecdotes over years of telling and retelling. By now, they are just stories.
Here is one such story, from the early-Sober period.
I provided media training for the Carlton Football Club in 2007 , soon after billionaire Richard Pratt had taken the struggling Australian Rules football club under his wing. My job was to offer the players a basic overview of how the media works and provide some simple tips on how to deal with press, radio and TV interviews. I ran “theory” sessions in two large groups, followed by practical run-throughs, complete with cameraman, in groups of 3-4 players at a time.
Brendan Fevola, who played for Carlton at the time, has made the news in Australia this week for allegedly indecently exposing himself to a “mother of four”. (Now, why does the fact that she is a “mother of four” make the sight of a penis more shocking, and not less?).
In the face of these allegations, Fevola is not receiving much benefit of the doubt from his current club, Brisbane, nor from anyone else. This is not surprising since Fevola has long been a problem-child – a boozer and a shagger, a public urinator and a shameless media whore. Waving his privates at a solitary woman in a carpark seems like a fairly standard day at the office for Fev.
Fevola refused to take part in the mock interviews because, I guess, he thought he was too experienced to need it. He did, however, sit through the “theory” sessions, making a series of “woe is me” statements about how football reporters that he “thought were me mates” wrote scathing stories about him. When he wasn’t whining, he was texting and giggling and showing off. To their credit, the other players were completely unimpressed, even the rookies who had worked out quickly that Fev, for all his footballing prowess and media profile, was about as good a choice for role model as Jeffrey Dahmer.
But Fev could not keep away from the one-on-one training sessions, even after refusing to take part himself. The presence of a camera was too much for him to resist.
Fevola arranged a physio session in the neighboring room that coincided with the on-camera interviews.
Periodically, Fev would emerge from the physio room and stand behind the cameraman and me and try to break the concentration of the whoever I was grilling at the time. This caused us to halt proceedings on a couple of occasions as the player in the chair lost his train of thought or broke into reluctant guffaws at Fev’s antics. The Carlton media guys just rolled their eyes, muttering “It’s Fev, what can you do?”.
Soon enough, the players learned to ignore to Fev’s disruptive presence. But Fevola is a child in a man’s body — an evil and stupid child, mind you — and he hates to be ignored. He needed to up the ante.
That was when Fev reached into his shorts and began to reveal the contents thereof. He was behind me, so I couldn’t see for myself — but I could feel the presence of an unwelcome intruder near at the point of my left shoulder, and perhaps even the gentlest of zephyrs as he gyrated his hips, drawing perfect imaginary circles with his now-exposed genitals.
The horror etched on my colleague’s face confirmed what was going on behind me, but the players themselves were unsurprised and unperturbed. This was clearly not the first time they had been subjected to the full Fevola package, nor was it likely the last. I am sure they count the day Fev packed his bags for Brisbane as among the happiest of their young lives.
What an irredeemable jerk.
I am not a parent and never will be, unless you count my inevitable future cats. But if I limited this blog to things I have directly experienced, it would become a morbid affair indeed: letting oneself go and down is rich but limited material.
So let me have the cheek to opine a tad about parents, specifically elderly parents….even more specifically, elderly parents in Waikanae.
It is no secret that Mums and Dads are prone to delusions about their progeny. If the children of the world were half as intelligent and good looking as their parents believe, there wouldn’t be anywhere near as many stupid and ugly people.
But it is only over the past week or so that I have begun to comprehend the scale of the parental delusion — and to gain a sense of how much effort must go into maintaining them in the face of messy reality.
It’s time for a radio play:
Suburban home, rattle of cups and spoons.
Bernice: How’s Derek?
Jan: Oh, he’s doing wonderfully.
Bernice: And Penny? They’re still loving Sydney?
Jan: Oh yes. They have bought a second place, did I tell you that?
Bernice: What? A holiday home?
Jan: No, it’s in the same area, just around the corner from their first home actually.
Bernice: As an investment?
Jan: Well, yes, you could say that. Derek is doing very well at work.
Bernice: Have they found tenants? For the investment property?
Jan: Well no, not yet. Penny is staying there in the meantime.
Bernice: Penny has moved out? And the kids?
Jan: No, no. Penny is just taking care of the rental property, and kids are keeping her company.
Bernice. Hmm. And is Derek OK alone?
Jan: Well, he is not alone exactly.
Jan: His good friend, Paul…you know Paul…
Bernice: The part-time model and hair-dresser?
Jan: Well, he works for Qantas now.
Bernice: Flight attendant?
Jan: No, he is a sensitivity trainer on sexuality issues.
Bernice: And he has the kid’s room now?
Jan: Well, not exactly. He has set up in Derek’s room. They have divided the bed into …how can I describe it?...notional halves…
Bernice: I see. Well, I better head off.
Jan: I’ll alert the stables.