Tag Archives: memoir

This River by James Brown

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James Brown’s new memoir, This River, is a collection of a dozen stories, most of which were previously published in literary journals or magazines. Here they come together to form a taut, sometimes brutal, picture of a man whose life has been ravaged by drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and plain old-fashioned hard luck. But it would be wrong to label this work as confessional or some sort of misery memoir. Brown doesn’t revel in his personal catastrophes. Arguably some of his best work is the work in which he explores his relationships with his two young sons or his own father. He’s got a light touch, a thoughtful outlook, and he knows how to weave a gripping narrative.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Having had my own struggles with addiction, I appreciate good stories about the lives of addicts and alcoholics. But the problem with many of these stories is that it’s so easy for an author to allow the work to fall into one of two catchall categories: sensational tales (as in James Frey’s Million Little Pieces), or revisionist bullshit stories that are often little more than thinly veiled testimonials for another person’s efforts or some sort of therapy. Brown doesn’t fall into either of these traps with his writing.

Of course, Brown does have extraordinary situations to relate—what lifelong addict wouldn’t?—but he doesn’t rely on this sort of circumstance to carry his stories. Case in point, in the chapter titled, “Instruction on the Use of Heroin,” Brown describes going to purchase drugs in a well-to-do community somewhere in the “neighboring mountains” of San Bernardino, “well above the fray,” where he meets a man who was formerly his AA sponsor, now a drug dealer. Brown describes his former recovery mentor’s appearance at the door this way:

He’s wearing a ratty tank top, but what I notice most at this moment are the syringes hanging from his shoulders, one on each side, the needles sunk into the middle head of the deltoid muscle. On the left, it’s loaded with heroin. On the right, it’s cocaine. I can tell the difference because one syringe contains a dark-colored fluid while the other, the coke, is a milky white.

If he needs a bump up, he depresses the plunger on the milky-white side. If he needs a bump down, something to even him out, to take the edge off the coke, it’s the dark side. The idea is to find the perfect balance, but for now he’s on the upside, spun on the coke.

What makes Brown’s work so satisfying to read is that he doesn’t rely on these type characters alone to carry his stories. In the above chapter about meeting his drug dealer, Brown thoughtfully examines the sexual mores of another character, Crystal, (her name an apt pseudonym) an equally strung-out teenage girlfriend of the forty-something drug dealer. We learn with horror that Crystal lives with the dealer with the permission of her mother, who is also strung out on drugs.

“[Your wife is] so pretty,” [Crystal] says in that dream voice again.

By no means is this Crystal’s way of flirting with me.

She’s genuinely interested in my wife. At every A.A. meeting, when we were all still clean and sober, and whenever my wife accompanied me in support, which she did often, Crystal would stare at her from across the room. And there was something desperate about it. Something sad. Something pathetic. It was the way a young girl stares admiringly at a beautiful older woman, the one the girl wishes to be like, the one she might’ve hoped to have had for a mother. And because she did not, because she lacks the confidence and self-esteem that is every child’s birthright, because narcotics steal any fleeting hope of a better life, Crystal trades, as her mother still trades, on her sexuality.

Brown sizes up poor Crystal accurately, in just a few words, but he’s so gentle, so tender. Another writer might have described her as immoral or worse. Something more heavy-handed. But not Brown.

And if he doesn’t rely on his career as an addict to move us, Brown’s not here to laud any particular therapy or approach to addiction either. If an A.A. sponsor shows up in one of Brown’s stories, he’s just as likely to have failed at his own recovery as to hold out the lone chance for anyone else’s redemption.

Brown doesn’t limit his introspection to seedy characters from his addiction. In a brief, touching chapter, “Remembering Linda,” he explores his childhood anger for Helen, a teenage girl with whom he lived in a strict foster home. Only you don’t realize he is angry with Helen until the very end of the story. Throughout his telling, he is more concerned with his infatuation with Linda, who is then suddenly whisked from the foster home (and his life) for rule violations, and for which he feels oddly incriminated. But what makes the story so remarkable is that Brown mutes his anger even as he reveals it. Instead he focuses on the larger truth of the desperate emotional needs of teenage girls trapped in foster care, a truth that is made clear so swiftly and with such ease in the very last lines, it can take your breath away.

When it comes to addiction and mental health issues, Brown’s This River doesn’t offer platitudes, easy answers, or stock characters. He seems at his best when he fixes his gaze on the hard realities of life, not to complain or blame, but to shine a light on the resilience of the human spirit.

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Tim Elhajj @ Northwest Bookfest, Kirkland, Washington

I’m appearing at Northwest Bookfest, Seattle’s celebration of books, authors and readers. Join me for a panel on memoir. I’m pleased to appear along with Richard LeMieux, Brenda Peterson,  Chuck Randall,  and Ed Lincoln.

Sunday, October 2, 2011
1:00pm – 2:00pm

 PETER KIRK COMMUNITY CENTER
352 Kirkland Avenue, Kirkland, WA 98033

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Dopefiend, Now Available for Pre-order on Amazon

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Here it is!

The cover art is ready. The book is in the final stages of copy edit. In a few weeks, the galleys should go out. Amazon lists the release date as September 1. Amazon also says my book is number 1,449,102 in Books. Already.

Well, it’s good to know where you stand, I suppose.

I have setup an Amazon author page, a blog, and a Facebook page for the book. If you are on Facebook, give me a Like. I could use it.



I am still trying to figure out what I ought to post to the book blog. I have categories for People, Places and Things. In treatment, the standard warning we issued to one another was to watch out for people, places, and things. It was a reminder that one ought to be wary about the people you hung out with, the places you allowed yourself to visit, and the things you got involved with. On the blog, it hasn’t quite gelled into a posting strategy.

But I’m optimistic.

I’m mostly posting about book related things. I have one post about Steelton. At some point, I’m going to post a story about the night this mug shot was taken.

Dopefiend

And, of course, as we pull our plans together for a book tour, I’ll add those to the blog. Keep coming back. It’s going to be grand!

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About a Mountain by John D’Agata

About a Mountain

In 2002, John D’Agata helped his mother move to Las Vegas and found himself following the ongoing controversy around a federal plan to store locally radioactive waste material from all over the country. Also while in Vegas, he volunteered for a community suicide prevention help line, and that same summer a 16 year-old boy jumped from the roof of a hotel to his death. In About A Mountain, ($23.95, W.W. Norton & Company) John D’Agata takes these disparate threads of his experience in Vegas and weaves them into a meditation on everything from bureaucracy and corrupt politics, to the self-destructive impulses of individuals and nations, to the limits of language over time.

For over twenty years, Yucca Mountain, the titular mountain, has been at the heart of a plan to dispose of waste from every nuclear power plant or weapon development site across the United States. Once collected, the government plans to store this material underground, inside the mountain, until it no longer poses a threat to human life. But as D’Agata unpacks the decisions that led to this course of action, it becomes clear that the threat to humanity isn’t what’s driving the policy. Instead there are politics at play at almost every level of the process, from the assessment of risk—does the threat of transporting nuclear waste outweigh the threat of storing it in multiple locations—to adopting Yucca Mountain as the central storage facility. Will anyone be surprised to learn that Congress selected this mountain—which geologically may not be the most suitable location for a variety of reasons—because its state and federal representatives were among the weakest, least able to protect their constituents from harm?

Fortunately D’Agata has his sights set higher.

He isn’t primarily concerned with rabble rousing against corrupt politicians, but wants us to consider instead the act of self-destruction itself. We consider it literally as he traces the last hours of a sixteen year old Levi Presley who commits suicide. We consider it figuratively as we reflect on how long the toxicity of the radioactive waste we’re creating will last, compared to the length of the longest known civilizations and cultures, or the efficacy of language itself. D’Agata gets high marks for the scope and breadth of this work. He reaches for and imagines descriptions of everything from Edvard Munch contemplating the world as he paints The Scream, to the last hours of Presley’s life, before he leaps from the tower at the Stratosphere. I really wanted to enjoy this book, and for the most part I did, but somehow, something about its execution left me cold.

D’Agata has a penchant for lists. He includes lists of contradictory facts, lists of the exact types of devastation that might occur in a traffic accident involving a truck with a payload of nuclear waste, lists that include everything that would be contaminated in such an accident from rusted bolts to light bulbs, lists of the accumulation of cosmic sums of interest that accrue over vast periods of time. One or two these type lists seems fine, a good idea—this is, after all, a book about the existential grief of modern life. What better way to present this than by asking the reader to wade through this sort of data. But I am the type reader who wants to drink in every word, and I feel cheated when I am tempted—no, invited is a better word—to scan so many lists by the author. Worse, D’Agata has chosen to bring into the story his own experience, but his experience moving his mother to Vegas seems inconsequential and dull. Mom and son look for somewhere to live. Mom and son march in a small parade. Not all of his experiences are so trite. For example, he describes a visit to the proposed site at Yucca Mountain, and his work on the suicide prevention hot line allows him to segue more easily into the material about poor Levi. But there is little self-revelation here. The material from his life is simply a way to frame the text, lacking any sort of urgency or depth. Why bother?

Compare D’Agata’s use of memoir here with something like Nick Flynn’s sublime memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb, where Flynn, a soon to be father, uses his book to examine his fears of fatherhood and intimacy and, as the Abu Ghraib scandal breaks in the news, his growing obsession with torture and pain. Under Flynn’s deft hand, the connections between his own personal fears, American fears of terrorist attack, and the fears of torturer and tortured alike seem plain enough, but each is made all the more urgent by the immediacy of the prison scandal, or the infant growing in its mother’s womb. This is how to use personal experience to inform a political issue. D’Agata presents some intriguing ideas, but his text misses on some important marks.

It’s a noble miss, but a miss all the same.

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The Ticking is the Bomb by Nick Flynn

The circumstances of Nick Flynn’s life are grim: abandoned by his father as an infant, haunted by an addiction and the aftermath of a mother who took her own life. But The Ticking is the Bomb isn’t a misery memoir. It’s not a heartwarming tale of redemption. Flynn never casts himself as the victim. Many of the most shocking details about his life are only mentioned in passing. This is a memoir about Flynn’s fears of fatherhood and intimacy, and—somehow—his growing obsession with torture and pain. Under Flynn’s deft hand, the connections between his own personal fears, American fears of terrorist attack, and the fears of torturer and tortured alike seem plain enough, but each is made all the more urgent by the immediacy of the Abu Ghraib scandal, or the infant growing in its mother’s womb.

This is the way to tell a memoir.

He won me as a fan with, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, his first memoir, a meditation on his father and homelessness. Both that book and this one are organized in the same nonlinear fashion. You find little parenthetical dates at the start of some chapters to help you orient the chapter into the overall timeline. It sounds confusing, but he does a good job of establishing and then returning to certain characters and situations, so it works. It feels like an organic approximation of the act of reflection, or maybe what it feels like to sort through a lifetime of memories and try to make sense of it all. As far as narrative goes, this book seems like a series of failed relationships and one lingering, seemingly fragile success. He expresses his growing outrage over American torture, which eventually gives way to a slightly crazed, imploring tenacity. During the months that preceded the invasion of Iraq, I can remember arguing for peace with the same sort of growing intensity. In the end—watching the shock and awe on the network news—I remember feeling angry and powerless, totally wrung out. I remember thinking that I had to stop arguing, that I risked turning into some sort of irrational crank.

Maybe that’s what it takes.

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Dopefiend, a Recovery Memoir in Twelve Parts

Over twenty years ago, I moved to New York City to kick a heroin habit. I had less than twenty dollars in my pocket and was leaving behind my beautiful three-year-old boy, who had his mother’s straw colored hair and clear blue eyes, exactly the opposite of my own dark countenance. I searched for some recognizable piece of myself in his chipper smiling face but couldn’t find much.

I lived in Steelton, a small-town in south central Pennsylvania. I had tried several times to stop using drugs there, but had found little success. There was a guy in Steelton who had been a heroin addict himself but had been clean for about five years: Scotty G. At the time, it seemed unimaginable to me that anyone who had once used heroin could go so long without the drug. Scotty was stocky with an open, friendly face. He wore his blond hair in a carefully greased crew cut, two slick curbs of hair rising on the receding hairline of his forehead like a McDonald’s sign. To ward off the coming winter, he wore a long pea coat. Scotty liked to wear black Wayfarer sunglasses, a host of gold rings on his fingers, and thick ropes of gold chain around his neck. He had a beautiful girlfriend, a busty redhead who smoked long brown cigarettes. Scotty always drove a new Ford sedan with dealer plates attached by magnets to the trunk. When dopefiends get sober, they invariably do one of two things to make a living: car sales or drug and alcohol counseling. Scotty worked at the big Ford dealership on Paxton and Cameron Streets, but he liked to show up to the 12-step meetings and do a little counseling on the side. We envied his jewelry, his shiny sedan, his pneumatic girlfriend. But his clean time held us in awe. Milling about Scotty during a smoke break at the meeting, we sipped coffee from Styrofoam cups and listened to whatever he had to say.

“There are only two things you need to do to stay sober,” Scotty said.

We all raised our eyebrows. We knew there were at least twelve things required in the meetings, even if we couldn’t articulate exactly what those things were. Yet here was Scotty talking about doing only two. Seemed like a bargain. We all shuffled in a little bit closer.

“First,” Scotty said. “Don’t get high.”

This was an obvious first step and a little chuckle rose up from the seven or eight of us standing there. If you’re not an addict, it may seem like this solves the entire problem. It does not. The list of things that can impose a moratorium on drug use is endless. Someone gets busted somewhere along the distribution chain and suddenly there are no drugs available. You have to stop. Or one day you might not be able to get your money together. And: you can always get busted. Not getting high is as much a part of getting high as being able to poke a vein or get your money together. The trick isn’t to stop using drugs, but to remain abstinent for the long haul.

“Second,” Scotty said.

And here he paused for effect and held up two fingers. This was the money step: the crucial information we needed to stay clean. The signet ring on Scotty’s stubby pinky glittered in the afternoon sun. I didn’t want to seem too eager, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was about to hear something momentous. I leaned in a little closer.

Scotty had a little half smile on his lips as he sipped his coffee and adjusted his coat.

“Boys,” he said. He glanced to his left and then to the right. When he was sure he had our undivided attention, he said: “Change your whole fucking life around.”

He laughed heartily at his own little joke and stroked his tummy. The rest of us stood there in silence. Scotty crushed out his cigarette and grinned. “Come on,” he said, walking past us. “Let’s get back to the meeting.”

Fucking Scotty G.

He was just toying with us then, but I have come to realize that Scotty G.’s little joke wasn’t really all that far from the truth. To successfully stop using drugs, I had to change just about every aspect of my life: I needed a spiritual, emotional, and intellectual makeover of the most sweeping kind.

Of course, I didn’t understand any of this back then. None of us did.

We all groaned and smirked and scowled. Someone shook his head. Another person laughed good-naturedly and said, “Cocksucker.” We were a forlorn little group of recovering addicts, who thought we had stumbled upon a bargain. Instead we had the same old dusty twelve “To Dos” we started with.

We all turned together as one and headed back into the church basement. The only way to get where I wanted to go was to do all twelve.

And it was a good thing I did.

As it turns out, my son grew from a beautiful blonde boy to a strapping hulk of a young man. He towers over me, his eyes still blue, his hair still clipped short. Over the years, he has looked skeptically at my long tresses, my affinity to dress in faded black jeans and combat boots, or my deep and abiding loathing for athleticism of any kind. The one thing we have in common is a penchant for self destruction: This tendency of ours is the most recognizable piece of me that I have ever found in him. The only way I could hope to help him with it, was to first find my own way through the maze.

Here is my story in twelve parts: a part for each step, a step for each part.

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Dopefiend

Dopefiend is the “code” name of my latest novel-length memoir project.

I wanted to write a few words about what I’m doing, as much to keep you folks at home updated, as to track what happens as I continue to work. I’m excited about this project because it’s now gone beyond the good idea stage and has become a fully formed idea. I have in mind a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not only do I know what’s going to happen in a general way, but I also know specifically what will happen in each chapter along the way. And I have it in writing. I’ve created a chapter-by-chapter synopsis.

But before we get into the details, let’s go high level.

This memoir builds on the success of my Modern Love piece, As a Father, I Was Hardly a Perfect Fit, a humorous essay about forging a relationship with Timmy when I lived in New York City. Here is the full title I’m sending around to agents and editors:

Dopefiend: A 12-Step Story of a Father’s Journey from Heroin Addiction to Redemption with His Son

Not sure if I’ll actually be able to use this title for the finished work, but I love the edgy word dopefiend paired with plaintive call for redemption in the subtitle. My apologies to Donald Goines for appropriating his badass title. Unlike Mr. Goines, I’m not planning on covering much of the time I spent using drugs. Instead, the plan is to focus primarily on recovery. I consider it a spiritual road memoir, though it’s a decidedly irreverent trip.

Obviously I’m going to focus on the 12-Steps, which I’ve used to great effect to change my life around. But I’m not interested in getting tangled in dogma or preachy instruction on abstinence. Instead I’m organizing the story in a way that celebrates 12-Step recovery. Dopefiend is a concept memoir: I am writing it  in twelve chapters, with each chapter to focus on one of twelve spiritual values. Each value corresponds to one of the 12-Steps.

Together the chapters form a narrative that describes how I got sober and built a relationship with Tim. I want to stick close enough to the story about Tim to give Dopefiend some mainstream appeal. But I also want to offer a deep and satisfying story about 12-Step recovery that doesn’t necessarily involve a hero’s journey or a Hollywood ending.

Heroin addiction is incredibly debilitating. If you survive, most of the time you don’t get your wife back, you remain distant from your siblings, and you can never recapture the time lost with your son. If you’re lucky, you don’t die from AIDS or the hard realities of this kind of life.

But if you’re thoughtful about it, you might see how your story can benefit others. You might find a little place for yourself, with a different wife, maybe struggling to build ties with your siblings, or learning to make the best of the time you have left with your son.

I’m excited. I’ll post more in the weeks to come.

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Rachael Brownell’s Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore

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I’ve done a ton of summer reading that I probably won’t ever find time to write about (especially since it’s Nov), but I wanted to push Rachael Brownell’s debut memoir to the top of the list. I loved it. I watch for recovery memoirs, but had no idea about Ms Brownell or her book until I found a small stack of Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore at one of the big independent book stores in Bellingham.

I am glad I found it.

A fast paced romp through the first year of sobriety, it’s a pretty quick read. Brownell knows how to tell a story. At the end of an early chapter, I found myself astonished at the lengths she was willing to go to carve out a safe place for herself and her children. I don’t want to spoil it, but Brownell is one of those indomitable people whose presence just leaps off the page. Motherhood triggers her descent into alcoholism, although this isn’t a sordid tale by any standard. She used crisp white wine to unwind in the evenings, until eventually she felt the wine had her.

This memoir is notable for its realistic focus on recovery in 12-Step programs. Most recovery memoirs include an obligatory mention of attendance at some sort 12-Step meeting. Some offer critiques of 12-Step programs, while others offer breathless details about the anonymous lives the author finds there. Most of the time I get the impression that the meetings weren’t all that important to the story. Certainly attendance at 12-Step meetings isn’t the only way to get sober. But I always feel a little skeptical about recovery stories where the addicted person’s salvation comes through the love of a good man or woman.

Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore isn’t like that at all. It’s not a testimonial, but more like a celebration of 12-Step recovery, as told through the eyes of a grateful newcomer, who is charmed and appalled in equal parts by what she finds in meetings: the 12-Step lingo, the corny slogans, and the member’s oft stated reliance on a Higher Power.

Read it. You won’t be disappointed.

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Love Hurts: Betrayal in Memoir

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At last month’s reading, someone asked how you protect siblings when writing memoir. It’s a good question and I didn’t feel I had a great answer. When you write about your life in essay or memoir, you naturally lean toward things that have some emotional weight: the people, places and events in your life that have had enough heft to have left a mark. Often these things involve family members—whether siblings, mates, parents or children.

This is where it can get sticky.

I don’t think it’s possible to write good memoir without betraying someone. Memoir requires we put ourselves on the line like no other kind of writing. Here I am not thinking of only the scandalous tell-all memoir, although it’s certainly a fine example of betrayal. But even stories about the most ordinary subjects—parenting, infirmities, relationships (especially relationships!)—require unearthing details that wouldn’t ordinarily be a part of the public sphere.

I first realized this after having a conversation with my nine-year-old son about sex. He and I had sort of stumbled into the discussion, but it ended up being one of the most satisfying parenting experiences I’ve ever had.

So naturally, I wrote it up and posted it to my blog.

I didn’t think about betraying anyone as I wrote. To me, the story was about my reluctance to tackle my fears and inadequacies around being a good father. But to tell the story, I had to mention that my nine-year-old had found pornography on an old laptop computer that I had earlier lent to my oldest son, who had been stationed here in Seattle. I suppose I understood it was a little dicey to link my oldest boy’s possession of the computer and pornography, but there seemed to be enough plausible deniability built into the story (he shared the computer with all his roommates) to cover everyone, so I blazed forward.

When I finished, I posted the story. Friends and family were amused. I was pleased. One night as I read the comments attached to the story, my nine-year-old noticed it over my shoulder. He was reading dialog attributed to him, that he had actually said.

“Is that about me?” he asked.

I could hear the hurt in his voice. We had had a heart-to-heart talk—one of our very first—and I had posted it to the Internet for all to see. I felt so ashamed. I quickly switched the window to something else. It was all I could do not to just tell him a lie: “You? Of course not.” Somehow I held my tongue.

Now parents have been telling humiliating stories about their kids for ages, so that’s nothing new. But this story was different—it wasn’t about getting a cheap laugh. I wanted to talk about coming to terms with my fears around being a parent.

My nine-year-old and I needed to have another little heart-to-heart.

I didn’t try to explain to him anything about fears and inadequacies. I went with how much I love to write. He seemed to understand that I wasn’t out to hurt him. We came up with some boundaries, which mostly involved certain things he would rather I never write about, if they involve him. 

My big lesson was this: it’s fine to write about the important stories, but you have to consider the aftermath. Can you live with it? I know writers who have changed the names of their loved ones to protect their privacy. I have heard of other writers who have let loved ones (and even not so loved ones) vet their pages before publication, with the option to negotiate what details get published. Obviously if you’re writing a tell-all memoir, you’re not going to have the pages vetted, but you must prepare yourself for the potential fall out.

A few months later my oldest son posted to the comments section of my blog denying any knowledge or complicity with pornography, which I had already assumed was the case, anyhow, but his earnest disavowing also made me chuckle. We probably need our own little heart-to-heart, but he already knows how much I love to write, how important our relationship is to me.

He is my biggest fan. Somehow my best stories always seem to be about him. Writing memoir is almost certain to involve betrayal, but that’s not always so bad.

Sometimes it can be the start of something beautiful.

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Did You Make It?

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I got a little reminder about why I write nonfiction today at Aaron’s football jamboree. 

This is his first year out for football, so I was interested in getting to know the rest of the parents. I was standing on the sidelines watching the drills. One of the boys on the team hollered to the man standing next to me about what he had brought for the team’s snack. The man hollered back about having picked up a twelve pack of something from the local warehouse store and his boy beamed. I was so amused by this exchange: the importance of the snack, the boy’s earnest query, Dad’s dutiful reply. I stopped taking photographs and grinned at the man.

I pointed out my son, and we struck up a conversation.

When I asked him what grade and school his son attended, he told me the boy had recently switched to a new school and was doing poorly. I told him I had had the same experience myself, switching to a new school.

The man surprised me by asking, “Did you make it?”

By this I understood him to mean, did you make it to graduation, are you a high school graduate, which I am not. I am embarrassed to say that I came this >< close to lying to the man. I felt a huge wave of shame roll over me–me, Mr. Memoir, a guy who has written about being a divorcee, an absentee father, shooting IV drugs, and even being homeless. There is just something intimidating about being asked something like this point blank in a conversation. I really wasn’t sure what to say. I started to bluster, but then I finally just smiled and said, “Nah–not really.”

This man grinned and said, “Me either.”

We had a good chuckle. I didn’t get his name, but I connected with this man in a way I would not have had I tried to save face by going on about my time in college, the military, or even getting my GED.

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