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A.A. and “The God Thing”

AN A.A. meeting I go to, maybe 4-5 times a week, is continually discussing “the God thing” — people talk about how, when they came into the rooms of A.A., they had trouble with recognizing that “a power greater than ourselves” could help them.  Typically, they go on to talk about how they came to be estranged from and resistant to anything to do with God.  Amazing what a sizable number of people have been wounded by church (and perhaps their families’ insistence on attendance\participation\membership in church).

First thing that comes to mind is, A.A.’s 2nd Step specifies “a power greater than ourselves,” not God.  And in A.A.’s originating document, Alcoholics Anonymous (aka The Big Book), first published in 1938, the program’s co-founder, Bill Wilson, deals with “the God thing” once for all, when he has his friend Ebby respond to his own resistance to “the God thing” by suggesting, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” (page 12).

Good morning...this is God

Good morning…this is God

When I hear the same people at meetings tell the same stories about their God problem, I’m hearing denial and resistance.  If a person doesn’t want to admit he’s powerless over alcohol, doesn’t want to come to meetings and say, “My name is Brendan, and I’m an alcoholic,” doesn’t want to do all the rest of it — then A PERFECT STRATEGY is to attack A.A.

A.A. is a Christian cult!!! And worse, it’s a sneaky and hypocritical Christian cult — they get you in the door and then insist you have to be a Christian.  How devious, how hypocritical!! Yes it would be, if it were true.

Most of A.A.’s founders were Christian Protestants, a few Catholics, however nominal their religious connection was.  Of course, in the 1930’s, the majority of Americans were Christian Protestants.  But, back to page 12 of Alcoholics Anonymous — “why don’t you choose your own conception of God?”

In my experience with A.A. in Gainesville, Florida, where I know literally hundreds of people, I have no idea what their religious affiliation or practice is, and I don’t care.  Nor, I think, does anyone else in the program.

Doesn’t keep the topic from coming up in the meeting I referred to every week, twice last week.


The White Rose

About a month ago, I read jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, You Should Have Known — it’s about a New York therapist who writes a book called You Should Have Known, which is about relationships, especially about how women should have known when their husbands have been cheating on them, living double lives, trending toward divorce, etc.  The book gets some traction, media play, and its author, Korelitz’s protagonist, finds out some things about her own life that she should have known.

The novel is just so well written, so intriguing, that immediately when I finished it, I went looking for another Korelitz book — and Book Gallery West, my neighborhood used bookstore, with which I trade books regularly, have done so for years, had The White Rose, which I’m currently reading.  It’s set, like You Should Have Known, in New York City, and it’s so good that I finish chapters and say out loud, “Wow.”

New York City

New York City

The White Rose begins with Marian and Oliver.  She’s a history professor at Columbia, and he owns a flower shop called The White Rose.  Oliver is 26, Marian is 48, and he’s the son of her oldest friend, Caroline.  Marian is married, Oliver is not.  So their situation is, uh, complicated.

And quickly becomes further complicated when he’s at her apartment, they’re post-tristesse, and her cousin calls, says he’ll be right over.  Marian can think of nothing but to rush Oliver into his clothes as she rushes into hers and send him out the service elevator.  Oops — the service elevator is broken, so she asks him to hide.  Which he does, for awhile, but then he sashays out to the living room where she and cousins Barton are having drinks.  Fair enough, accept that Oliver is dressed in Marian’s clothes and is introduced as her assistant, Olivia.

Oh, my.  To say much more would lead me to have to issue a “spoiler alert.”  I will say, however, that the novel proceeds with the lives of Oliver and Marian, Barton Ochstein (Marian’s cousin), and his fiance Sophie Klein, an heiress.   Also, Marion’s oldest friend, Oliver’s mom Caroline, a pesty gossip columnist whose name escapes me.  Oh yeah, and the mysterious Olivia. It’s an amazingly good book–it winds its way to an ending that astonished and exhilarated me.  Great book — 6 or 7 stars out of 5.)

Maybe Book Gallery West has another Korelitz book.  Amazon probably does, though I like to buy from a local store when possible.


Stop All the Clocks

For no reason that I can bring to a conscious level, I woke up one morning thinking about this W.H. Auden poem (and kept thinking about it every day for the past week):

W. H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,

Wystan Hugh Auden

Wystan Hugh Auden

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


No one in my life has died recently.  Went to a meeting Saturday where we talked about death and loss, but I didn’t have anything from current inventory to share.  But the experience of loss and death are part of my history, as they are with us all.

Looking at Auden’s poem, one thing especially strikes me: 1) He begins with the personal in Stanza 1, moves out to the larger world in Stanza 2, goes back to personal in Stanza 3, and goes to the much larger world of nature\the universe in Stanza 4.  That is, in Stanza 1, clocks, the telephone, the dog, the pianos, are all things we might have in the house — the “muffled drum” and coffin, not so much.  In Stanza  2, skywriting planes, public doves, and traffic policemen are part of the neighborhood, maybe part of the city, not part of the house.  Stanza 3 is about the dead, loved person, “he,” and is quite personal.

Then, in the concluding Stanza 4, the speaker of the poems moves out of the home, the neighborhood, the city, and into the cosmos — the death is felt, he imagines, in the stars, moon, sun.  Back to earth a bit, with the death causing him\us to “pour away the ocean,” to “sweep up the wood.”  This move from personal to cosmic is very Shakespearean, very Late Renaissance — in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance, Titania’s squabble with Oberon has caused crops to fail and “disasters in the sun.”  The world and the universe is connected to the personal — everything corresponds to everything else.  As Giordano Bruno wrote, “The world is a poem spoken by God, and God is an acutezze favolare” (a “witty speaker”).


Quick Recovery, As the Founders Did It

At A.A. meetings, I often hear people talking about “working” on their 4th Step, with about 150 pages “so far.”  Or how it took them 2 years to do the first 3 Steps.

Made me think of my favorite part in Alcoholics Anonymous, often referred to as The Big Book.  It occurs about 15 pages in, during “Bill’s Story.” Bill Wilson is still drinking, drinking hard.  His old school chum calls him — his name isn’t given in the text, but we know from the history that it’s Ebby Thatcher.  Ebby wants to come by for a visit, and Bill agrees.  He’s nearly chortling and rubbing his hands together at the opportunity to drink with his old buddy — he’s got plenty of gin in the house.

But Ebby refuses a drink, saying, “I’ve got religion.”  Oh no, thinks Bill — a few weeks ago Ebby was a  drunken madman, and now he’s a religious zealot.  This allows Wilson to go on for a few pages about his objections to religion and to God; the usual things, being forced into church as a child, his mom, his grandfather wanting him to publicly pledge to abstain from alcohol, which Bill didn’t.  The same things we hear from all sorts of A.A. members about their difficulties with “the God thing.”  Amazing how many people have been wounded by organized religion.

And then Ebby delivers the bombshell: “Why,” he asks, “don’t you choose your own conception of God?”

Problem solved, for Bill Wilson and for the burgeoning A.A. program — not so much chance of driving people out the door by talking about God if they can choose their own conception of God.

What really interests me here, though, is that Bill pretty much instantly can now do Steps 2 and 3.  And then, a few weeks later, he “ruthlessly faced [his] sins and became willing to have my new-found Friend take them away.”  Ebby returns, and Bill “fully acquainted him with my problems and deficiencies.”

I make that Steps 4, 5, 6, and 7; Bill and Ebby are rocketing through the program in a matter of weeks.  If our founders could make that much progress that quickly, seems as though it shouldn’t take us, 75-80 years later, any longer.  By the end of that same paragraph, Bill starts working on Steps 8 and 9.  If you’re a Greek Orthodox A.A. member like I am, who wants to do it like the Founders did it originally, seems that going right to it and doing it quickly is the way to go.

YMMV, as we say in The Dead Runners’ Society — Your Mileage May Vary.


Coolness & Recovery

Centering prayer master Thomas Keating, most famous for his book Open Mind, Open Heart, also has published a book called Divine Therapy: Centering Prayer and the Twelve Steps.  In it a journalist quizzes Keating on how centering prayer applies to each of the Twelve Steps used in recovery programs.

Father Keating has interesting and useful things to say about everything, but he’s especially good on the subject of humility, of being centered and not wasting time judging others.  To paraphrase, he says that, sure, other people can be annoying, vindictive, even evil, “but you can’t do anything about them.”

I got the book I discussed in my previous two posts, Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, and it’s every bit as good as I’d heard and expected.   Wilson is a music critic with lengthy experience writing for publication, but in Let’s Talk About Love he focuses on Celine Dion as a test case, exploring why she’s so universally popular and so critically denigrated.  He establishes background for his case study by giving the history of popular music and critical taste in the 1980’s and 1990’s, wondering where musical taste comes from at all — why some things are considered “hip” and “cool” while others are not, and especially why we feel that we have the right to judge others, anyway.

Carl Wilson, "Let's Talk About Love"

Carl Wilson, “Let’s Talk About Love”

Well, Wilson simply outdoes himself in turning his own pre-conceptions (perhaps mis-conceptions) around and looking at how easy it is to find others at fault, how easy it is to establish a critical stance that raises oneself about all those annoying others who must be wrong, who have “such bad taste.”  Since, as Keating says, we can’t do anything about them, Wilson decides to do something about himself — to look through, around, or beyond his pre-conceptions and try to understand what Celine Dion might be doing right, in her decidedly uncool way.  Wilson renounces his “hipster” stance and listens with love.

Near the end of his section of the New and Expanded Edition (which now includes 13 essays by folks such as Nick Hornby and Mary Gaitskill), Wilson writes a chapter re-reviewing Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love album from 1997, reissued in an Aluminum Anniversary Edition  in 2007.  This album, of course, contains the Titanic (and titanic) hit, “My Heart Will Go On.”  He writes, “When this album was first released I assumed it was shallow, that it was beneath me.  A decade later I don’t see the advantage in holding yourself above things” (149).

So I can’t do anything about others, only myself.  And there’s no “advantage” in holding myself about others.  And it’s the easiest thing in the world to forget that other people don’t really have such bad taste.  Taste is, at bottom, pretty arbitrary.  Not to mention cruel.


The Cool and the Uncool, Part II

My last post was on Mary Gaitskill’s essay on “the easiest thing to forget,” which turns out to be about the easiest thing to do, focus on other people’s flaws.  Her essay came to me on Slate and is also published in the updated version of Carl Wilson’s book, Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste.

The issue of cool versus uncool reminded me of one my favorite movie scenes, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Patrick Fugit in Almost Famous.  The scene pretty much went viral after Hoffman’s death last month — I found it easily by searching “Philip Seymour Hoffman, Almost Famous” on YouTube, and here it is:

Philip Seymour Hoffman, in Almost Famous

Philip Seymour Hoffman, in Almost Famous

As you saw (or if you didn’t yet), Hoffman’s character, real-life person Lester Bangs, is advising the movie’s protagonist, William Miller, about writing, and, well, about living.  William has talked his way into a gig covering the (fictional) band Stillwater for Rolling Stone despite being a high school kid (Rolling Stone thinks he’s much older, having only talked to him on the phone).  Bangs’ advice has always been to be absolutely honest in writing, and especially to never, ever, ever make friends with the musicians William is writing about.

At the beginning of the phone call in the scene, Bangs realizes what’s going on: “You made friends with them.”  He adds, “That’s the booze they feed you, make you feel cool.”  And then he tells William, “I’ve met you.  You are not cool.”

This leads to a discussion of uncoolness in art, in which Bangs says that all art is based on being uncool, noting that “women will always be a problem for guys like us.”  His theory is that great art is based on “longing, love disguised as sex, sex disguised as love.”  William gets it, realizes that he’s always known he’s not cool — even when he momentarily thought he was, having drunk the Kool-Aid.

The money quote ends the scene: Bangs tells William, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”

Words to live by.  I promise.


The Cool and the Uncool

Something about last night’s retirement party for my dear friends Steve, Julie, Doug, Suellyn, Claudia, Bob, and Kristen made me think about the cool and the uncool — maybe because being in such a beautiful place (Prairie  Creek Lodge, down on the edge of Payne’s Prairie), surrounded by a group of friends who are (arguably, at least) the coolest people in Gainesville, FL, made me think about Carl Wilson’s book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, which I came to know about because of famous novelist Mary Gaitskill’s article about it that appeared in Slate, here:

As you read (or if you didn’t), Gaitskill’s article is called “The Easiest Thing To Forget: Why We Judge Other People for Being Uncool.”

Celine Dion

Celine Dion

In it, Gaitskill talks about Wilson’s focus on the music of Celine Dion, who is both an enormously-successful musician and the object of hatred, because she and her music are so manifestly uncool.  Gaitskill notes that she “was increasingly fascinated to see just how much emotion and energy he and apparently hordes of others have expended in hating and despising this singer who I had never even noticed.”

Gaitskill, as in her novels, is worth reading.  She gently leads us where Wilson has apparently gone in his irrational Celine Dion hatred, to a recognition that what he and his compatriots think is cool or uncool is relatively meaningless — in the face of a real human being (Dion), with whom we share a connection (as humans, through empathy), whether we’re fans of her music or not.

Carl Wilson, "Let's Talk About Love"

Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love

And being a fan of a particular musician or kind of music is, at bottom, somewhat arbitrary, especially when we’re proceeding from the deeply self-involved notion that other people, sadly, just have bad taste.  And\or ar.e annoying; and\or usually wrong

I’ll excerpt a bit from near the end of Gaitskill’s article.  She’s been writing about Dion’s appearance on the Larry King show, where she became emotional talking about Hurricane Katrina victims, waved her arms around, cried, then sang a snatch of a song; actions for which she was ridiculed for being uncool.  Gaitskill writes,

Her appearance on Larry King, however, did make an impression; it struck me as absolutely sincere and sane. That thousands would actually spend time watching this interview so they could jeer at it, jeering especially that Dion (a singer!) had the nerve to sing a song after her speech, seemed not merely cynical but neurotically detached from reality: Dion’s response wasn’t only moral, it showed a sort of biologically based empathy that understands the physical vulnerability of humans in the world. Newsflash: Real humans are connected with one another whether they like it or not. They are awkward and dumb and wave their arms around if they get upset enough; real humans all have personal touchstones that are “off the map” because there is no map. We are so maplessly, ridiculously uncool that whole cultures and subcultures, whole personalities even, have been built to hide our ridiculousness from ourselves.  ”

   I just love this: real humans are “maplessly, ridiculously uncool” because “there is no map.”

By the way, “the easiest thing to forget” (Part of Gaitskill’s title) is empathy, our common humanity, that it’s normal and rational for people to be “uncool” — part of being a flawed human being.  And one of the flaws is judging others as uncool — to try, as Carl Wilson and Gaitskill do, to answer the question of why other people have such bad taste.