Archive for April, 2013

My 100 Favorite Songs of All-Time

Posted in Uncategorized on April 26, 2013 by sethdellinger

To read the individual entries for each song, click here.

100.  “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Deep Blue Something
99.  “Jack & Diane” by John Mellencamp
98.  “Hotel California” by The Eagles
97.  “American Pie” by Don McLean
96.  “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson
95.  “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” by Dr. Dre
94.  “Bushwick Blues” by Delta Spirit
93.  “For the Workforce, Drowning” by Thursday
92.  “Fish Heads” by Barnes and Barnes
91.  “Shimmer” by Fuel
90.  “Rubber Biscuit” by the Blues Brothers
89.  “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals
88.  “Asleep at the Wheel” by Working For a Nuclear-Free City
87.  “There’s an Arc” by Hey Rosetta!
86.  “Steam Engine” by My Morning Jacket
85.  “Scenario” by A Tribe Called Quest
84.  “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane
83.  “Fits” by Stone Gossard
82.  “Spring Flight to the Land of Fire” by The Cape May
81. “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” by The Postal Service
80.  “Sober” by Tool
79.  “Dream is Collapsing” by Hans Zimmer
78.  “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?” by The Beatles
77.  “In This Light and on This Evening” by Editors
76.  “Lemonworld” by The National
75.  “Twin Peaks Theme” by Angelo Badalamente
74.  “A Comet Appears” by The Sins
73.  “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” by The Decemberists
72.  “Pepper” by Butthole Surfers
71.  “Life Wasted” by Pearl Jam
70.  “Jetstream” by Doves
69.  “Trieste” by Gifts From Enola
68.  “Oh My God” by Kaiser Chiefs
67.  “The Righteous Path” by Drive-By Truckers
66.  “Innocence” by The Airborne Toxic Event
65.  “There, There” by Radiohead
64.  “Ants Marching” by Dave Matthews Band
63.  “Symphony 1: In the Barrel of a Gun” by Emily Wells
62.  “The Best of What’s Around” by Dave Matthews Band
61.  “Old Man” by Neil Young
60.  “Cumbersome” by Seven Mary Three
59.  “Knocked Up” by Kings of Leon
58.  “Machine Head” by Bush
57.  “Peaches” by Presidents of the United States of America
56.  “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones
55.  “Fell on Black Days” by Soundgarden
54.  “The New Year” by Death Cab for Cutie
53.  “Call Me Al” by Paul Simon
52.  “Real Muthaphuckin’ Gs” by Eazy E
51..  “Evening Kitchen” by Band of Horses
50.  “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand” by Primitive Radio Gods
49.  “Top Drawer” by Man Man
48.  “Locomotive Breath” by Jethro Tull
47.  “We Used to Vacation” by Cold War Kids
46.  “Easy Money” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
45.  “Two-fifty” by Chris Walla
44.  “I’ve Got a Feeling” by The Beatles
43.  “Another Pilot” by Hey Rosetta!
42.  “Revelate” by The Frames
41.  “Wise Up” by Aimee Mann
40.  “Sample in a Jar” by Phish
39.  “Spitting Venom” by Modest Mouse
38.  “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow” by Nice & Smooth
37.  “I Shall Be Released” by The Band
36.  “When I Fall” by Barenaked Ladies
35.  “East Hastings” by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
34.  “Terrible Love” by The National
33.  “Jolene” by Dolly Parton
32.  “Sometime Around Midnight” by The Airborne Toxic Event
31.  “This Train Revised” by Indigo Girls
30.  “Mad World” by Gary Jules
29.  “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes
28.  “Once in a Lifetime” by The Talking Heads
27.  “Growing Old is Getting Old” by Silversun Pickups
26.  “Brian and Robert” by Phish
25.  “Is There a Ghost?” by Band of Horses
24.  “Be Safe” by The Cribs
23.  “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland

22.  “Ashes in the Fall” by Rage Against the Machine
21.  “We Laugh Indoors” by Death Cab For Cutie
20.  “Dondante” by My Morning Jacket

19.  “We Used to Wait” by Arcade Fire

18.  “Oceans of Envy” by Seven Mary Three

17.  “This is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan

16.  “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman

15.  “What a Good Boy” by Barenaked Ladies

14.  “Styrofoam Plates” by Death Cab For Cutie

13.  “Hard to Imagine” by Pearl Jam

12.  “Everything In Its Right Place” by Radiohead

11.  “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles

10.  “Rattlesnake” by LIVE

9.  “Honey of Generation” by Seven Mary Three

8.  “Wake Up” by Arcade Fire

7.  “Rearviewmirror” by Pearl Jam

6.  “White, Discussion” by LIVE

5.  “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles

4.  “Hospital Beds” by Hey Rosetta!

3.  “What Sarah Said” by Death Cab For Cutie

2.  “I’ve Been Asleep For a Long, Long Time” by Hey Rosetta!

1.  “I’m the Ocean” by Neil Young

Longwood Gardens, 4/19

Posted in Photography with tags , , , on April 19, 2013 by sethdellinger








My Favorite Song of All-Time

Posted in 100 Favorite Songs with tags on April 19, 2013 by sethdellinger

I carry a secret with me.  Maybe you know it.  Maybe I don’t hide it as well as I think I do.

It’s true that I am a happy man.  I enjoy life, I like doing things, I nurture a very healthy curiosity.  None of that is faked.  I am very happy to be alive.

But underneath, at the core of myself, the bits that make up the very nature of me, there rests a calm but persistent sadness.  There always has, for as long as I can remember; before I knew words to speak with, I knew the calm but persistent sadness.  Maybe you do too, maybe you don’t.  I don’t know much about you, it turns out.

I like waking up in the morning.  I am not depressed.  But in the silent moments, the tiny voids of life between when you pull the shower handle and when the water starts coming out, between when you turn the ignition and the engine turns over, between when you put the food in your mouth and you start tasting it, I can feel it down in there.  I can feel it now.

It is a sadness based on a few things.  It is, first and foremost, based on my acute sense of the presence of mortality, a sense I have had since I was two years old.  Intertwined with that sense of mortality has been an ever-present inkling that death is final: it is a blankness, an absence, a return to what was before we were born.  This is not frightening.  It is just sad.

It is also a sadness based on true loneliness.  Not that I am not surrounded by people; I often am.  And not that I don’t like people: there are plenty of people I love dearly (and still many more I do not), but the disappointing truth that we are all alone inside our skulls, our experience caged by physical limitations, all of existence boiling down to sparks and firing synapses that can never, ever be rightly communicated.

There is also an element to this rudimentary sadness that is more difficult to explain.  It is tied into the loneliness—being stuck inside your head—but it seems more specific to myself.  Like I am greater than anyone can ever know, but at the same time, also utterly despicable.  I am big like Jupiter, but when you look at me you see the moon, a pebble, a fucking yellow raisin, but I am also absolutely morally bankrupt: I am a black hole, a swirling vortex of bigness and littleness in constant and dramatic flux, an incredible elemental display, yet to all outward appearances I’m a schmuck riding a train, a short chubby guy eating a soft pretzel, a consumerist member of the bewildered herd.  I’m the ocean.  I’m the giant undertow.

“I’m the Ocean” by Neil Young is not a famous song.  It’s not even from a famous album of his.  But the first time I heard it, about eight years ago, I knew I had heard the song.  It is a song that communes with that core sadness of mine, the bigness and littleness, the mortality, the vortex.  It makes me feel like Jupiter.

The lyrics are extemporaneous stream-of-consciousness set to a thrumming repetitive rock riff and pounding piano keys that evoke the crashing of the waves of Young’s ocean.  I, too, am the ocean: vast, unknowable, terrifying, ultimately temporary.

Without any explanations, Young creates characters in a story he is barely even telling; a “rider” and a “her”.  The meanings of these barely-there stories can be (and should be) debated at-length, but to me they’ve always had very personal and very clear meanings.

“I’m the Ocean” crosses gulfs of time, space and mental and spiritual distance in no time at all.  It is a song outside of time, outside of feeling, outside of purpose.  The final verse is the penultimate musical moment of my life for me, every time I hear it.  I scream it, I yell it, I whisper it, and I almost always tear up.  Despite the fact that it mentions two kinds of cars, and I am not a car guy, nothing shines a light down the dark well of the sadness like that last verse.

There was not a single stream-able version of this song online when I set out to write this, so I went ahead and made a little video of it myself.  It is right below here.  I admit, it is self-indulgent.  It features two minutes of footage of me before the song starts.  It’s my own “Thriller” video.  But for this one, I wanted to do more than just “get it online”.  I wanted to show how, to me, it feels to be the ocean, to be the giant undertow:

“I’m the Ocean” by Neil Young

I’m an accident.
I was driving way too fast,
couldn’t stop though,
so I let the moment last.

I’m for rollin’.
I’m for tossin’ in my sleep.
It’s not guilt though.
It’s not the company I keep.

People my age,
they don’t do the things I do.
They go somewhere
while I run away with you.
I got my friends,
and I got my children, too.
I got her love.
She’s got my love, too.

I can’t hear you,
but I feel the things you say.
I can’t see you
but I see what’s in my way.
Now I’m floatin’
cause I’m not tied
to the ground.
Words unspoken
seem to leave a hollow sound.

On the long plain
see the rider in the night.
See the Chieftain.
See the braves
in cool moonlight.
Who will love them
when they take another life?
Who will hold them
when they tremble
from the knife?

Voicemail numbers
on an old computer screen.
Rows of lovers
parked forever in a dream.
Screaming sirens
echoing across the bay
to the old boats
from the city far away.

Homeless heroes
walk the streets
of their hometown.
Rows of zeros
on a field
that’s turning brown.
They play baseball,
they play football
under lights.
They play card games
and we watch them every night.

Need distraction,
need romance and candlelight.
Need random violence,
need entertainment tonight.
Need the evidence—
want the testimony of—
expert witnesses
on the brutal crimes of love.

I was too tired
to see the news
when I got home,
pulled the curtain,
fell on the bed alone.
Started dreaming,
saw the rider once again
in the doorway
where she stood
and watched for him.

I’m not present.
I’m a drug
that makes you dream.
I’m an Aerostar.
I’m a Cutlass Supreme
in the wrong lane,
trying to turn
against the flow.
I’m the ocean.
I’m the giant undertow.

My Second Favorite Song of All-Time

Posted in 100 Favorite Songs with tags , , , on April 8, 2013 by sethdellinger

I worry about life passing me by.  I worry about not noticing the little things, or not knowing enough about the people I care about, or not seizing opportunity, or enjoying a beautiful spring day, or telling a pretty woman how pretty she is. (not that I am always great at these things, but I think about them, see?) I haven’t always worried about these things, but I think regular readers of my blog might understand where this impulse and concern of mine comes from.  I know that I am far from the only person who thinks this way, but this tendency, I think, might be a bit heightened in me.

Like, I think, most people, my younger years were spent in a kind of frivolity.  I’ve always been an introspective type, prone to pondering the meaning of life (if you’ll allow me to be so cliché), but my late teens and early twenties were spent pondering the meaning of my life, often on an extremely localized scale.  I didn’t care about much else.  And while I have grown up into anything but a “selfless” man, I’d like to think, at least, that the roses I stop to smell are now in public gardens, and not my own backyard.

The first time I ever heard the band Hey Rosetta! (the exclamation point is theirs, not mine) I was listening to the XM Radio station The Verge, and their song “I’ve Been Asleep For a Long, Long Time” came on.  At first I was caught by the repetitive, rocky riff, and then I saw the song title on my car’s display, and I was hooked by the title alone.

“I’ve Been Asleep For a Long, Long Time” talks about a man who spent his whole life not paying attention to the world around him, and by the time he “wakes up”, it’s just too damn late for anything.  Lyricist Tim Baker gives us some very straight-forward material here, as well as some more complicated stuff if you are the pondering type.  He starts us off pretty plainly: “I’ve been asleep for a long, long time. Blonde hair to brown, and brown to white.  My mom is buried beside my dad, but I was asleep for all of that.”

And it’s that line that gets me, still, more than anything: My mom is buried beside my dad, but I was asleep for all of that.

More than anything, this song has made me want to know my parents.  Really know them, like human beings, with histories and quirks and human qualities and not just dismiss them as “my parents”.  Because I’ve been made aware that life is not forever, and someday I won’t have these parents around, and I do not want to be asleep for all of that.

Another line that frazzles me: “The schools that we went to have all been closed, and all of my teachers are dead, I suppose.”  Gives me chills.  The passage of time and all that jazz.

Later, in a fantastic musical breakdown before a stunning crescendo, Tim hits us with some more ponderous material: he makes an analogy comparing “sleeping” people to reeds caught in a rising river tide: “The river’s up, the reeds are caught halfway across what never was.  The river rose, and swept in slow. When the reeds awoke, they were half below.”

Don’t wait until you’re half below to wake up.

I’ve Been Asleep For a Long, Long Time
by Hey Rosetta!

I’ve been asleep for a long, long time.
Blond hair to brown and brown to white.
My mom is buried beside my dad,
but I was asleep for all of that.

I shut my eyes for a moment’s rest,
cause I get so tired.
What thing transpired while my body slept
to beset my mind?

The schools that we went to have all been closed,
and all of my teachers are dead, I suppose.
The songs that we sung have all gone quiet.
What happens below as we sleep at night?

The river’s up, the reeds are caught
halfway across what never was.
The water rose and swept in slow.
When the reeds awoke they were half below.


I was lucky enough, shortly after falling head-over-heels for this band, to bring my friend Paul along for the ride, and he is now as big (if not maybe even slightly bigger) fan of the band than I am.  In late 2011, Paul and I (and our friend Chris, as well) trekked to Ithaca, New York, to see our first Hey Rosetta! show (the first of 7 for me, now).  It was in a little shit-shack of a bar.  As we approached to enter, hours before the show, the first thing I heard was the band soundchecking a slow, acoustic version of “I’ve Been Asleep For a Long, Long Time”.  It was a moment of amazement for me.  As the three of us entered the bar, we were practically alone inside, and on a tiny stage, there was the band, playing this song that had transformed my life to an empty room.  There are very few moments in life like this one.  Later, when they played it during the show, I taped it, but the video quality is HORRIBLE and my battery ran out halfway through, but here it is anyway:

Me with Tim Baker, lyricist and singer of Hey Rosetta!, at the Ithaca, New York show

Me with Tim Baker, lyricist and singer of Hey Rosetta!, at the Ithaca, New York show



If you’ve got this far in the entry and are actually interested in/ like this song, please watch this, a video of them playing the song live for real for real.  I swear, it can change your life:



The Rip

Posted in My Poetry with tags , on April 6, 2013 by sethdellinger

Ghost, they will call
this body of mine that visits
your homes while sleeping.

And I will.  I will pull
a thread out of your couch,
to feel the weight.  To
really feel it.  I will blow
the dust that lazes in the
television glow, presences.
I will sit beside the living,
a peaceful midnight.
I will be silent among the souls
that swim around us.

I will find the rip between our worlds.

Open When I Get There (Tenth Sobriety Anniversary entry, part two)

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , , on April 4, 2013 by sethdellinger

What does that mean? I asked him.  He says he’ll show me.  He led me down a short hallway and into a large, open space that had obviously once been used for worship.  It had a high, vaulted cieling, stained glass windows, and an unmistakable altar at the other end.  But now, dozens of filthy-looking, paper-thin mattresses lined each wall, and tinkling, calming recovery music was piped in from unseen speakers.  About a dozen haggard and hungry looking men shuffled about the open space, looking at me, sizing me up.

At night, we put the mattresses on the floor.  You’re welcome to one, once you pass the piss test.

Suddenly, I wondered just how much free will I really had.

For months, I knew I had fallen far in life, far from the promise I had been born with, far from the opportunities my parents had handed me.  I knew that I wasn’t winning at life.  But I couldn’t imagine I was quite yet ready to sleep on the chapel floor.  And yet, there it was.  How many options did I have?

I consented to begin being “processed” by the Bethesda Mission.  I peed in a cup and took a breathalyzer test (routines I was quite accustomed to by that point), signed my name to a few documents, and finally, helped the squat man behind the desk put plastic labels on my two bags and lug them up two flights of stairs and wedge them into a tight spot in what was essentially a attic crawl space, amongst the bags that belonged, I assumed, to the men currently wandering around to light tinkling music in the chapel below.

Once back downstairs, the man behind the desk informed me that dinner was at such-and-such a time, and worship was at such-and-such a time, but I was required to do nothing other than show up at 8pm, claim my mattress, and sleep.  I thanked him, and walked out into the April 2nd air in the largest city I’d ever been alone in.  It was still morning time.

I had been to Harrisburg before in my life, obviously, but never extensively, or on an exploratory basis.  From where I stood in front of the Mission, I had no idea how to get anywhere.  I put a cigarette in my mouth (thank goodness I still had some of those!), lit up, and started walking.  I had my uncashed paycheck in my front pants pocket, along with the “recovery medallion” that Roxbury had given me when I left.  I knew that I wanted to cash that paycheck, although I wasn’t sure yet what I would do with the money, which was somewhere around $400.  I would try to find a bank to cash my check.

I was immediately keenly aware of the danger that money would bring me.  Alone in a city where I knew nobody, with a newfound kind of freedom and $400, and bars on every block.  No sooner did I start walking than I snaked my hand in my pocket and tightly clasped the recovery medallion (which all of my fellow rehab patients had taken a turn holding and thinking good thoughts or praying on right before I left, wishing me good luck out in the big bad world) for strength, and silently repeated the Serenity Prayer to myself, over and over:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

I allowed myself the supposition that, for now, I could not change the fact that I was in Harrisburg alone with no transportation.  But I was in control of my state of sobriety.  I could drink or not drink, use the paycheck in my pocket to move forward or backward, good or ill, new life or old life.  I repeated the prayer over and over, squeezed the medallion, and looked for a bank.

I walked in circles around the foreign city for awhile.  So many people, cars, hustle and bustle.  I couldn’t for the life of me find a branch of my bank, but after awhile I remembered if you looked on a payroll check and saw which bank the check was drawn from, that bank would also cash your check, and voila, there happened to be a branch of that bank I had passed half a dozen times.  After wandering a little while trying to find it again, I suddenly had lots of money in my pocket, and the world was a new place.

Without the need to find a bank, suddenly, I was just…walking.  I had no aim.  Every bar that I passed felt like poison smoke reaching out onto the sidewalk.  I made a note of every single drinking establishment.  I must have eaten at some point but I have no idea what, or where.  I wandered and wandered.  I walked over just about every block of “downtown” Harrisburg multiple times.  The windbreaker I was wearing had been with me in the hotel, and throughout the second rehab, and often

A few months post-sobriety, a picture taken while visiting friends back in Pennsylvania shows the last time I remember having my "recovery windbreaker".

A few months post-sobriety, a picture taken while visiting friends back in Pennsylvania shows the last time I remember having my “recovery windbreaker”.

the wind would gust up and I would smell the curry and sanitizer and coffee of the past weeks wafting off my windbreaker and I would be reminded I was not normal, I was not walking these streets with a reason like these people in the laundered suits and Spring skirts and Gap jeans, I was not enjoying the weather or on my lunch break, I was not looking for crab legs to eat or a train schedule or a perfect shoeshine, I was in the blankness of life, moments unfelt and untested except by only the hardiest of fools, the biggest mess-ups, the winos, druggies, and prostitutes that we all think of as almost not people, there I was, in that space, in those moments.  At first as I walked in these moments thinking only the most direct thoughts: cross at this light, smoke another cigarette, don’t drink, don’t look anyone in the eye, cross at the crosswalk, don’t drink.  But slowly, block-by-block, step-by-step, the immediacy of these blank moments was replaced by the collapse of time and space around me.  I was now confronted by the delicate sound of book pages turning in a brightly lit room ten years ago, and the smell of those book pages.  I saw before me a beautiful Cocker Spaniel, named Cocoa—our dog in Newville, and I heard the jingle of her collar, and I was happy.  I felt the sun of a Florida beach with a woman I used to love, I saw her bikini top, I felt its slick fabric between my fingers.  A merry-go-round, smoke rising from an outdoor barbecue pit, the moment that a plane takes off, a white crane standing on one leg in the middle distance.  I found myself inside poems by Robert Creeley which I had memorized, with lines about cats drinking from too-big bowls, and women crying in rain, and people breathing in unison.  There were sheets with high thread counts, a woman moaning my name, my young friends and I trying to build a dam out of stones in the Big Spring, hot summer days with buzzing cicadas, ice cream splattered on a basement wall.  Suddenly, time and space uncollapsed, and glancing down curiously to my hands, I was saddened but not surprised to see I was holding a beer bottle, with two empty ones already on the bar beside me, and I was working on a pretty good buzz.

I had failed.  I didn’t know how, but I had failed.  I had allowed some force to carry me into a bar—a sports-themed place with cute flashing neons that I’d passed a few times already–and I’d drank two Yeunglings and was working on my third before I noticed.  And of course, then it was too late, so I just kept going.  And, I now had a plan.

I got a phone book from the bartender and wrote down as many phone numbers of cab companies as I could fit on the napkin, or the small piece of paper, or whatever I wrote them on.  I wish I still had that, whatever it was.  After about 6 or 7 beers, I paid my tab and left, and headed back toward the Bethesda Mission with a purpose.

I went right in to the squat man behind the counter—who surely smelled my plan before I even opened my mouth–and told him I couldn’t stay there, I just needed my bags back and I’d be on my way.  I am sure I was far from the first person to arrive there, leave for five hours, come back stinking of booze, and ask for their bags back.  He was very nonplussed.  Going back into the attic with him felt strange, though.  Like it had been five years ago that I’d wedged those bags in there, and literally lifetimes ago that I’d packed them at my dad’s house and then lived out of them in the wretched hotel.  I’d only left the bags there hours before, but they felt foreign, like passing a gallstone without any pain, or finding a silent daddy-longlegs in your bathtub before turning the water on.  Harmlessly other. 

Outside now with my bags, I used the payphone in front of the mission to call cab companies.  It took awhile to find one that would take me all the way to Carlisle.  When it finally arrived, it was a big white van with a kid no older than 18 driving it.  I don’t remember much about the ride from Harrisburg to Carlisle, but I know I was buzzed and you could smoke in the van, so I was a pretty happy camper.

I was having the cab driver take me to the Motel 6 in Carlisle, a place I had done plenty of drinking throughout my illustrious alcoholic career.  Very close to the Motel 6 is a dive bar called the Bar-B-Q, where I had him stop first so I could buy two six packs of Busch “pounders”, and then I had him stop at a nearby convenience store so I could buy a phone card to call my parents and tell them I was alive (this is slightly before the “everybody has cell phones” era).  Then I was dropped off at Motel 6, and I was off to the races.

During the phone calls with my parents, it was decided my father would pick me up early the next day and take me to his house in Newville, where my car was currently sitting (a 1983 Ford Escort which I had named Earl Grey, on which I had put a bumper sticker that said Honk If You’re Driving), and I would drive my car to where my mother currently lived in New Jersey, with her husband John, so I could try staying sober somewhere totally new.  Plans decided, I hunkered down for a long night of beer drinking.

Truth be told, I didn’t drink very much of that beer.  I was so tired.  Tired physically, and just tired.  And lonely.  Terribly, terribly lonely.  I had two or three of the Busch pounders, set the alarm and called the front desk to set up a wake-up call, and I fell asleep with the TV on.

I woke up with a start.  I hadn’t been too drunk the night before, and I was oddly alert.  I was not optimistic for what this day, April 3rd, 2003 held for me, nor was I pessimistic.  I just knew I had to go on living.  I have found this to be the only thing I am sure is true: until the day you die, life just keeps happening to you, all the damned time, no matter how you feel about it.  So I got dressed and showered and ready for my dad to arrive.  For reasons I don’t understand and via mechanisms that are beyond my ability to convey, I never even considered, on that morning, popping open and drinking one of the beers on the bedside table.  When dad came and picked me up, I left them sitting there, warm and innocent, for some housekeeper to throw out, or enjoy on their lunch break.

I had never done something like drive by myself for two hours from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.  An act I perform almost without thinking today was monumental then (although, remember: no cell phone, no GPS, although my dad had printed out the MapQuest directions, bless his heart).  The drive and subsequent arrival at my mother’s home in Flemington, New Jersey could fill up an entire book, but suffice it

Mom in the dining room in the Flemington house, spring 2003

Mom in the dining room in the Flemington house, spring 2003

to say: I arrived, and I can’t remember ever having been so glad to have arrived somewhere.

And so it was that I started this new version of my life that day.  I spent that Spring in New Jersey gradually exercising my newfound freedom over alcohol, as well as forming the basis for the interests and habits that would eventually define me in the years to come.  I read and wrote like a maniac.  I went places and walked around in the warm sunshine with no real destination.  I listened to music in the 1983 Ford Escort from a boombox that I sat on the passenger seat floor. I tried not to worry about too much.  My mother and John created a safe, warm environment for me to get well in.  It was a splendid time in my life.

Just a few days after getting sober, petting my favorite cat ever, Angel, in the Flemington house

Just a few days after getting sober, petting my favorite cat ever, Angel, in the Flemington house

Very early on, I wrote this poem, “In Flemington”, shortly after walking around downtown Flemington and just having a grand time (the kind of aimless exploration that would come to be a hallmark of my new life) but also while experiencing some bittersweet lovesickness for a woman who was back in Pennsylvania and I was missing very much. It is her I am talking to in the last few lines:

In Flemington

On the corner at a small shop I buy a coffee
and take it outside with me.
In the air it steams to cool,
in communion with the breeze.
Strolling east, the cars and bicycles
are sparse today, even birds are few,
this close to downtown.  Passing the laundromat,
sweet, pungent softener assaults the nostrils
and the rumble of coin-op dryers is melancholy and promising.
Turning left onto Reaville Avenue a small boy
eight years old if a day
sits on the curb just sitting there
drying his hair in the sun like the sidewalk
and I almost say hi to him.
The coffee cools quickly in the chill afternoon,
I almost turn back to buy another,
but think better of the three dollars I have left.
I sidle into a quaint bookstore to gape at magazines,
the lives of others and kitchen equipment
glossy and flaxen, and the portly
latina by the register eyes me
and she is beautiful in that way
only latinas and llamas can be beautiful:
using solely the eyes.
Asking her if there is a restroom, she grudgingly gives me a key
knotted to a large wooden block
as if this were an interstate filling station,
and points me to the back corner,
but the door is open when I get there.
Safely locked inside, my pants stay buttoned
and I use only the mirror, studying my lines,
the old souvenir red blotches, reminding me
of lives and moments, other bookstores
or towns; some oversize pores poke peskily
into view begging for me to wash my face more often,
but not right now, not now, a time and place for everything.
Giving the key back to the girl, I emerge onto Main Street
and suck deep the stunningly new air,
amazed by the realization that you are somewhere far away
occupying real space
breathing just like me
and smiling right this instant,
your eyes gleaming like little coins.

And so it came to pass that, even after Flemington, and then Carlisle again, and Erie and who knows what else, that life just keeps on going, no matter how I feel about it.  The early elation of new recovery slowly gave way to simple contentedness, and sometimes even less than that.  That’s life, I guess.  But I have very little to complain about, if you still care, after reading all this.  I fart around and look at things and watch silly little movies and pet some cats, now and then, and generally am very happy and take myself pretty seriously, in a harmless kind of way.  Today, it’s been ten years since I drank, ten years since my dad picked me up and I left warm beers sitting on a hotel end table and I drove all by myself to my mom’s house in New Jersey.  And although the luster, like everything tends to do, has faded, I still poke around little towns on sunny Spring days, just to see what I can find, and the doors are usually open when I get there.

Ten years later, with Dad.  April 3, 2013

Ten years later, with Dad. April 3, 2013

Ten years later, with Mom.  April 3, 2013

Ten years later, with Mom. April 3, 2013

Open When I Get There (Tenth Sobriety Anniversary Entry, part one)

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , , , on April 2, 2013 by sethdellinger

On Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013,  I will have been sober for ten years.  And what is strange about that, it has only recently started to seem like ten years.  For the longest time, I have divided my life into two distinct periods: the part of my life before I got sober, and the part afterward.  For most of these past ten years, anything that happened “post-sobriety” seemed recent, even if it wasn’t, exactly.  I got sober in

The only picture I am in possesion of of me drinking. Very near the beginning, before real addiction.

The only picture I am in possesion of of me drinking. Very near the beginning, before real addiction.

2003 (for those mathematically challenged), and I would often read about something that happened in, say, 2005, and even if it had been seven years ago, I would say to myself, Well, I was sober, so it can’t have been that long ago!  It has only been recently, as I was looking forward to my tenth anniversary, that the events surrounding my addiction and recovery have begun to seem like they have some age on them.

I’ve done a lot of writing over the years about my addiction and recovery, but most of it focused on the drinking part, and the craziness of that part of my life, or my early “pink cloud” of recovery.  I’ve never recorded the events surrounding the actual date of the beginning of my new life—April 3rd, 2003—and even though such a recording may seem a tad self-important, the years are fading my memory, and if I don’t do it now, I fear I never will.

At my cousin Josh's wedding, about a year before sobriety.  I don't look too bad, but note the alky's nose and rosy cheeks.

At my cousin Josh’s wedding, about a year before sobriety. I don’t look too bad, but note the alky’s nose and rosy cheeks.

I only drank alcoholically for five years, from about the age of 20 until 25.   In the grand scheme of life, this seems a pittance, but what I lacked in longevity I made up for in severity.  I was as physically addicted to alcohol as a person could be by the time I stopped (which is to say, considerably), and had graduated to having pretty severe withdrawals anytime I went an hour or more without alcohol in my system.  Not to brag on my addiction, but the rehab folks were quite astonished to see a 25 year old as far along the continuum as I was.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me back up.

By late summer of 2002, at the age of 24, it had become apparent to even my most casual friends that something had to change.  I couldn’t do anything sober.  Couldn’t drive, couldn’t shower, couldn’t work, couldn’t have sex sober, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t be awake sober.  I had large plastic cups with liquor in them in the console of my car—my “driving drinks”.  I made sure I fell asleep with liquor beside me so I could start drinking literally the moment I woke up.  I drank at every moment of every day.  I had car accidents—some that people knew about, but plenty that nobody knew about.  I am one of the luckiest people alive.  Even now, I know that.

People started saying things here and there, dropping hints that they were uncomfortable, that my version of partying wasn’t really partying.  I knew something was going to come to a head soon, but I was in denial as long as possible.  Listen, when you get right down to it, it is just plain weird and terrifying not being able to stop drinking.  It happens slowly and silently and by the time you realize what’s going on, you have no idea how to get out.  You didn’t plan for this, but it’s so confusing, you just ignore it as long as you can.  Turns out, my addiction was so quick and severe, I actually couldn’t ignore it for as long as I would have liked.  My

body was doing too many weird things (constantly having alcohol in your system for a few years will affect just about every system you’ve got), so that when, one late summer afternoon when my friend Shelley (the girlfriend, at that time, of my good buddy Paul) suggested, as we sat in their sweltering second-story apartment, that I should just call a rehab and see what they say, I said, OK, I will.  She said, why not now?  And she got a phone book, and we looked up rehabs, and I called one called Roxbury just outside Shippensburg, and they gave me a date a few weeks from then when a bed would be available, and I gave them my information, and they reserved my bed.  Just like that.  It was quite surprising.  I hadn’t begun that day thinking, in the least, about going to rehab.  I remember immediately calling one or both of my parents with the news as though I had just gotten engaged or had a baby.  Mom, Dad, I’ve decided to go to rehab!  I don’t remember their reactions, but I’m sure they were happy but reserved.  I imagine the only thing more terrifying than being an addict is having a child going through an addiction.  How scary!

There is something very surreal about arriving to rehab.  Nobody grows up thinking they’re going to go to rehab, and you’re never really prepared for what it’s going to look like, smell like, feel like.  All of a sudden, you’re there, and in that instant, no matter what came before, you are the type of person who winds up in rehab.

A typical room at Roxbury.  (pic taken off the internet, not taken by me, but it is definitely Roxbury)

A typical room at Roxbury. (pic taken off the internet, not taken by me, but it is definitely Roxbury)

A lot of the details around my first arrival to Roxbury rehab are kind of fuzzy.  I know that my dad drove me there.  I remember I got really, really drunk before I got there.  I remember arriving at this squat, modern building, almost like a Frank Gehry building with glass bubbles and counter-inuitive overhangs.  I remember it being night, but I’m not sure if that’s true.  I remember going into the lobby with my dad, carrying a big suitcase, and it felt, still, like a hospital, or a hotel, or something other than what it was.  Something less desperate, something more normal.  I think now of what it must have been like for him, to arrive with his son and to leave without him.  And why?  Did he feel like he had failed?  Like he had failed me?  Was he ashamed?  Even now these are thoughts I can barely confront.  Now matter how you exorcise it, the guilt of these things won’t leave you, ever.  And rightfully so.

I remember saying goodbye to my father then, after having filled out some paperwork, and being led into the guts of the building, up and around narrow steps, into various nurses offices, answering lots of questions, filling out more forms.  There was a loneliness to these moments beyond any experience I’ve had before or since.  Not in the depths or degree of loneliness, but in that it was a very strange loneliness.  It is a very specific variety.  You are surrounded by people, yet everyone you know and love, is back out there living a “normal” life.  And yet here you are, among strangers and paid professionals, unable to live on your own.  Unable to. 

So, I won’t tell you the whole tale of my rehab.  It is a very long and interesting story (unless you’ve been to rehab, in which case it’s probably pretty boring).  Maybe I’ll tell you that story for year eleven.

But I was in there for, I think, 32 days.  When I came out, I stayed sober for somewhere around 2 weeks.  I have a very blank memory of the time between my first and second rehabs.  It is easy for me to figure out that I was out of rehab about 3 months before entering it for the second, and final, time.

When I started drinking again after my first rehab, it was amazing how quickly the addiction took hold again.  It wasn’t just like I had never stopped, it was actually worse.  One sip, one little drink, and I was in its clutches like never before.  For those of you who’ve never been addicts, try to remember, this isn’t in the least bit fun.  However it happens, it is a fact that I was drinking because I had no choice.  Or at the very least, the part of me that was capable of making a choice was hidden from me.  It is absolutely crippling. It is an insidious, ridiculous affliction.  I couldn’t hide it for long; I knew all my friends and family could see I was drinking again.

In these three months between rehabs, I lived the absolute most horrid version of my life.  Everything hurt, my skin always crawled, I was mean and miserable and sad all the time, any vestige of a moral compass I had left was gone completely and there was no act I wouldn’t commit, no person I wouldn’t do anything to or with, nothing I wouldn’t steal, no drug I wouldn’t take to try and ease the ache, no building I wouldn’t go into, no surface I wouldn’t sleep on, no family member or friend I wouldn’t injure, irrevocably, smearing guilt onto my psyche for eternity.

As far as I know, the last picture taken of me before sobriety (with a friend who shall remain unnamed).  I don't look too nad, but it was a horrid time.

As far as I know, the last picture taken of me before sobriety (with a friend who shall remain unnamed). I don’t look too bad, but it was a horrid time.

I ended up, finally, not going to work, and living for about a week in a squalid motel with a few friends, which I have recounted here. (Really, read this.)  After ten years of reflection, the time at the hotel was clearly my “bottom”, the lowest of the low.  Even now, just thinking about it brings me very close to vomiting.

But from the ashes, we did rise.  From the hotel room, I finally managed to call Roxbury again and got accepted into their program a second time.

The second time at rehab, I did not have a good time.  I was as much of a physical and emotional wreck as I can imagine ever being.  I was only there nine days this time (because of quirks in Pennsylvania’s public funding for rehab, as I did not have health insurance at the time), and by the time I left, my body was still feeling the after-effects of intense physical withdrawal, and I was still a complete basketcase.  My emotional development, having been halted at the age of 20 by being constantly drunk, was now in complete disarray; my life had become unmoored, all directional signals erased, which only added to my mind’s already baffled sense of self.

As it became clear that I would not be able to stay long in rehab this time, I became terrified, because I didn’t know where to go or what to do once I got out, and I had no faith that I would stay sober for even a day.  I requested Roxbury to help me locate a “recovery house”, which is basically a halfway house specifically designed for people in addiction recovery.  Placing patients in Recovery Houses is a service Roxbury provides.  Unfortunately, because my time was so short, it was difficult for them to find me a space in one of the better, more reputable recovery houses in central Pennsylvania.  Just two days before I was to be kicked out on my kiester, I was called into an office (who can remember the offices of places?) and told they had found me a place: there was a bed available at a place called the Bethesda Mission, in Harrisburg.

I’d never heard of the Bethesda Mission before, but Bob (my counselor at Roxbury, I do remember his name) informed me that, yes, it was primarily a homeless shelter, there was a second half to the place that was a recovery house, headed up by one of the most respected recovery experts in the state.  He assuaged my fears that even though it had “mission” in the title, I would in fact be going to a very respected recovery house.

My day to leave rolled around and I had decided not to involve any of my family or friends with this phase.  I took Roxbury up on a service they offer, whereby they have a big Roxbury van that will drive you from the rehab to wherever you are going to end up.  I said my goodbyes (much less emotional this time than the first time, as I had been too fucked up this time to make any friends) and walked outside into the beautiful spring air of April 2nd, 2003, and got into a big white van that was to take me from Roxbury (right outside of Shippensburg, where I and my whole family had gone to college) to Harrisburg, to a recovery house.

And my high school Driver’s Ed teacher was driving the van.

He recognized me, and I recognized him, even though we hadn’t had any kind of close relationship in high school. (Mr. Troutman, I think?)  But we struck up an immediate and cordial conversation.  He’d retired from teaching a few years before, and had happened onto this job as a little part-time gig for extra cash.  He didn’t seem for a moment to judge me, although I’m sure I must have blubbered quite a bit in trying to explain myself.

I talked him into stopping in Carlisle (which is about halfway between Shippensburg and Harrisburg) at the restaurant I worked at, where I had a paycheck waiting for me.  I had an inkling that paycheck was going to come in handy, as without it, I had literally zero money.  Not even a penny.

Finally, he pulled up in front of this large stone structure in downtown Harrisburg, and helped me take my two suitcases out of the van.  And then, before I even walked into the building, he drove away.

The Bethesda Mission

The Bethesda Mission

There I stood, on the wide Harrisburg sidewalk, and looked around.  I was a man with free will.  I could walk any direction I wanted, talk to whoever I wanted, do whatever I wanted.  It was exhilarating and terrifying.  Exhilarating because, between rehab and the prison of addiciton, I hadn’t felt free like this in…well, forever.  At this point in my life, being alone in a city even the size of Harrisburg was a new thing for me.  But terrifying because I had no faith in myself to not squander this freedom on drinking.

I turned toward the building, smothered my fear, hiked up my luggage, and walked up the stairs toward the Bethesda Mission.

The plump, bespectacled man behind the desk in the lobby had never heard of me.  They did not have a spot reserved for me in the Recovery House, and in fact, a bed wouldn’t probably be open there for months.  What could they do for me?  Well, I could always sleep on a mattress in the chapel.

What does that mean? I asked him.  He says he’ll show me.  He led me down a short hallway and into a large, open space that had obviously once been used for worship.  It had a high, vaulted cieling, stained glass windows, and an unmistakable altar at the other end.  But now, dozens of filthy-looking, paper-thin mattresses lined each wall, and tinkling, calming recovery music was piped in from unseen speakers.  About a dozen haggard and hungry looking men shuffled about the open space, looking at me, sizing me up.

At night, we put the mattresses on the floor.  You’re welcome to one, once you pass the piss test.

Suddenly, I wondered just how much free will I really had.

Entry to be continued on Thursday, April 4th.

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