what to say when someone next to you is OD’ing

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Like most reasonable people at some point in their lives, the other day I wondered, “What would Carol Hathaway do?” What would the nurse played by Julianna Margulies on six seasons of the television drama ER do if she, in her pink scrubs, wound up where I was the other day? How would Carol handle a person dying from a drug overdose right next to her? Well, Carol is a nurse, granted a pretend nurse on a cancelled tv show but a nurse nonetheless which still makes her more of a medical professional than me. So Carol would do nursey things, things that were helpful and life saving. And the other day I couldn’t do those things. I still can’t do those things and what’s more I could barely figure out what to say when all of this was unfolding right before me at a crazy pace.  I’m sure good old Carol would say something comforting as well. But the best I could come up with the other day as a man was overdosing right next to me was, “Call 911.”

When I think about moments like this potentially happening my obvious point of reference is television. It’ll be heroic and a moment of my own personal strength! It’ll be like that scene in season 4 of Grey’s Anatomy where Izzie as played by Katherine Heigl does mouth-to-mouth on a dying deer. Well, it was none of those things. I didn’t feel heroic, just scared and awful. Trust me, I would have rather been Katherine Heigl that day and I’m pretty sure I’m the only person ever to write those words. It all happened so terrifyingly fast, as things often do at my non-writer mental health and additions based day job. But this day, with someone’s life in peril, was a first.

Listen, I can’t tell all of his story due to the nature of my job and it’s actually not really about that. It’s about me. I mean, I’m an alcoholic. Of course I can make someone else’s overdose all about me! But I will say that this person, like me, has struggled his whole life with drugs and alcohol. Lots of times in my job I get to see people, who also like me, finally overcome these things and change their lives. But more often than not, I get to see the really hard stuff. Wednesday was one of those days.

After talking to him and trying to just keep him awake, the paramedics showed up. They arrived really quickly, and despite having to use Wikipedia(!!!!!!) to figure out what Suboxone was (in a state with a major heroin crisis, mind you) they were fantastic. They did all the nursey Carol Hathaway things I couldn’t do. Or maybe all the things an EMT character on that show would do. I stopped watching after Clooney left so I don’t know who that would be. Anyway, they wheeled him off on a stretcher, slid him into the ambulance and sped away. What they didn’t take with them was poor, shattered ill-equipped, non-nursey me.

With lump in throat and tears waiting in the wings to fall from my face, I decided that this was probably a good moment to call it a day. I needed to go collapse in privacy of my own home where my husband and cats could be on call to pick up the pieces. I think it affected me so deeply because for one, I am a human being. Sounds like a stupid thing to even type but as a drunken, drug taking robot on a suicide mission for 20 years, I need to write that from time to time. A human watching another human in peril SHOULD be upsetting and my response felt appropriate. Again, it sounds crazy to even justify that but as an addict who used to live in a constant state of “I’M FINE. I’M FINE. I’M FINE”  just to admit a normal emotional response is still liberating. Now, at the workplace, I gotta keep it together. Nobody wants a mental health professional bursting into tears. What would Carol Hathaway think! But in the comfort of my own world, with the people I trust, it felt okay to not be fucking okay.

It also affected me because I am an addict and so of course for a moment I thought, “This could be me” followed by the guilt-induced but totally honest thought, “Thank god it isn’t.”The thing is every time someone relapses or overdoses or god forbid dies, we all think this. We all think that could be/should be me followed by I’m so glad that it isn’t. It’s the ghost of Alcoholic Christmas Future right in front of your face, telling you this is what waits for you if you decide to go back. The obtuse “What If?” worst case scenario became tangible in that moment as this guy, this usually funny, charming, energetic guy nearly slipped away right next to me. And, for lack of a more poetic turn of phrase, it sucked.

But what really hit me in those rushed few moments that felt like a shook up Coke bottle about to explode that this guy was a human too. Somebody’s son. Somebody’s friend. Somebody’s dad. He wasn’t HuffPo article or CNN statistic about the opioid epidemic. He was a living breathing example of what it looks like today all across the country. Luckily, I saw this human being yesterday at the hospital. He is doing okay. As I told him what happened the last time we saw each other, he looked shocked and apologized several times. I told him it was okay and then I did what Carol Hathaway couldn’t do: laugh with him as a fellow addict. I told him it was good thing we weren’t using at the same time otherwise we’d both be in the hospital. I told him to play nice with the other kids at rehab. I told him yes we still had all of his stuff and we’d hang onto it. But mainly, I tried to tell him, “I get it.” Because I honestly do and because over and over again in my recovery people have told me they get it too.

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The Rise of Politecore

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An odd thing happened for seven minutes in downtown Portland on Monday. This in and of itself is a remarkable thing to say, seeing as though a few weeks back in the exact same spot I witnessed a man in a Spider-Man costume playing the bagpipes and riding a unicycle. But this occurrence right here steps away from the world-famous Powell’s bookstore was something that doesn’t happen everyday, unlike the musically inclined Spidey. Because even in a terminally friendly town like Portland, there was something bigger and more profound at work and not just the eclipse, the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1979.

No, what I witnessed was people, strangers for the most part, genuinely being happy with one another and dare I say it, in the era of world leaders dissing one another on the Internet, polite. Whether they were moving out of the way so a stranger could get a better glance or sharing their glasses with each other, something about the sun getting blocked out for seven minutes brought the best out in people. Very quickly you got the feeling that it wasn’t just the eclipse that was special but the behavior associated with it too. As it ended, we all went back to our respective shops, workplaces and cafes. The eclipse was gone and you could assume these moments of politeness, humanity and decency were gone along with it. But I’d argue that politeness is making a comeback and you need look no further than your television for solid evidence.

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Of the hundreds of things to love about The Great British Baking Show (or Great British Bake-Off as it’s known in the U.K.) are the moments when contestants help each other. As a reality tv aficionado (or junkie depending on how you want to spin it) I can tell you this is a weird and unnatural thing in the genre. Sure, we’ll have random drag queens loan one another costumes on RuPaul’s Drag Race but for the most part, the “I came here to win! I didn’t come here to make friends!” is the battle cry of American reality tv. Thus it’s the utter lack of backstabbing and cut throat competitiveness that makes Baking Show so charming. During the last season to air on PBS this summer, I once again found myself near tears as contestants assisted one another in finishing their frosted masterpieces. The contestants genuine goodwill and enjoyment of each other makes the show feel darn near aspirational. They help their fellow contestants not because there’s an endgame or an additional bonus for not being a selfish jackass. They do it because it’s the right, normal decent human being thing to do. Sounds like a revolutionary concept when I put it like that. And perhaps it is.

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For more proof that maybe  we just don’t act right, look no further that Netflix’s Terrace House. The reality tv hit from Japan became a global sensation recently when Netflix wisely added it to its roster of international delights. Seriously, if you’re not watching at least one crazy-ass foreign tv series on Netflix than you’re doing it wrong. They have a lot of great ones and Terrace House is my recent guilty pleasure. The show puts 6 singles (three boys, three girls) in a flawlessly designed house and let’s the drama (or in this case non-drama) unfold. If this all sounds eerily like MTV’s old standby The Real World than you wouldn’t be wrong. Except in Terrace House there are no manipulated situations, challenges or group jobs. It’s just six incredibly reserved Japanese people living under the same roof. With the exception of adding a room of offsite commentators who offer their own insights on the action in the house, that is literally it. Much has been written about why a show that isn’t just politecore but borderline borecore is so compelling even with its lack of fabricated plots. From the heartfelt discussions of emotions to the intimate glimpse into Japanese dating culture, the show has several layers that makes it a fascinating watch. But for me, watching twentysomethings that weren’t the rude, selfish, loud ingrates that I was in my twenties is utterly captivating. Even when Terrace House has “drama”, usually revolving around food or temporary thoughtlessness, the housemates resolve it in a sincere and tear filled way that would never go down on these drinking throwing, wig pulling shores. Sure, the sometimes snarky commentators offer good-natured jabs at the housemates. But even they spend a fair amount of time celebrating the personalities and emotional triumphs of each resident. Turns out, rooting for people who are considerate is just as easy as rooting for mental unhinged housewives.

While suggesting that we all be the Terrace House we want to see in the world is too ham-fisted and unrealistic for even me, I do think there’s something to be said for politeness. I recently had a job interview where the potential employed asked my philosophy on taking care of customers. I said basically, I try to treat people how I want to be treated. He laughed and said, “That’s so simple but sounds amazing in times like ours.” I agreed but it wasn’t just one of those things I said in order to get a job (which I did get, by the way). It’s a way of life I try to achieve. Try being the operative word. Catch me on a day with no sleep and in between meals while waiting in a long line and you’ll see that sometimes this ideal of politeness is hard to achieve. But for me the idea is to at least give it a shot. Like it won’t kill me to at least attempt not being awful.

This includes online too. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had to do a lot of deep breathing and deleting on social media when replying to discussing about racism, homophobia and all the other nifty thing currently happening in this country. The endless scroll is now home to people yelling at each other, rambling off manifestos and most annoying telling others how they should process. I have come to the conclusion that it’s a trap to even have these conversations online. My rule of thumb now is I can either respond in a way that’s online with how I act in person or not at all. This, as it turns out, is a tall order as it is really easy to act like know it all or bully online with zero repercussions. Instead, I’ve chosen to make good-natured smartass comments, have my beliefs, stay of service in my real life and leave the debating over the head of strangers to those better equipped than myself.

Yet if we listen to the internet just being polite isn’t enough. Just being thoughtful of one another doesn’t qualify you to put resistance in your Twitter bio. Just having compassion won’t help us “rise up” as directed by the song the play on everything from the Olympics to soap commercials. And that’s fine. Part of politecore, the hardest part in my mind, is sticking to a value that kindness means something and that being courteous and loving to strangers is where real change is happening, without hashtags or celebrity endorsements. But the most amazing thing about politecore, about compassion and about love is that we don’t have to wait for another eclipse or to watch it broadcast from a foreign land. We can do it right now.

 

 

 

My Week In Pop Culture: Simply Red

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My week in pop culture probably looked a lot like yours. It was spent gobbling down episodes of season 4 of Orange is The New Black. Truth? I resisted this show in its early days. I was repelled by the very idea ( I mean another prison show?) and interviews with the author of the source material had me rolling my eyes into the back of my head. But two summers ago, I gave it a shot and I’ve been hooked since. The writers do some pretty magical stuff when it comes to having us not only relate to but fall in love with criminals who are far from model citizens. Season three was criticized for not having enough action and for being too literary and melancholy. Which is exactly what my Irish bookish ass loved about it. I thought the season finale was pure poetry.

Season four picks right up where it left off and the ride is nonstop from episode one. More intense, higher stakes and the no-holds-barred discussions on everything from rape to race to homosexuality to transphobia are fast-flying and brutally honest. But what the show is really about is people and relationships. As we started the season last week, Michael said, “Aww. I’ve missed all of these people!” Flaca, Sophia, Gloria, Lorna, Taystee aren’t just prisoners. They’re people, which might be the bigger point the show is trying to make. And people we’ve gotten to know and enjoy doing time with over the past four seasons.  For me, the one I find myself missing in the long year in between seasons is Red. Galina Reznikov, or Red, played with tough as nails Russian intensity by Kate Mulgrew, is the bad ass prison mama we would all want on our side if shit got real. And we’re lead to believe that Red is amazing cook which endures her to my heart even more.

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For all of her toughness and drolly dished out one-liners, Red is also a hotbed of raw emotions. From heartache to betrayal, we’ve seen Red go through a lot over the last four years. Mulgrew gamely takes on the task of letting Red become a three-dimensional character. She rarely lets her guard down but when it comes to addict and perpetual hot mess Nicky Nichols, she a fiercely protective mama bear.

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Nichols, played by Natasha Lyonne, is Red’s “daughter” on the inside. Red has seen Nicky struggle with drugs and is continually heartbroken when Nicky does what addicts do and lets her down. A lot of Nicky’s struggles with drugs are based on Lyonne’s own which I’m sure makes the performance even more powerful. Naturally, I identify with Nicky and Red. Who didn’t I let down when I was loaded? Who hasn’t had their heart-broken by an addict? And aren’t they’re thousands of us who want to help someone struggling with drugs or alcohol but don’t know how? As relapses sweeps through my own recovery community this summer, Red’s helplessness over Nicky’s addiction feels more timely than ever. Without giving anything away, I will say having this dynamic back is one of the few reasons I think this season is one of the best.

Another thing to love about Orange is The New Black is how it’s given a lot of overlooked actresses a real chance to shine. Mulgrew was previously known to most as Captain Janeway on Star Trek Voyager gets to sink her teeth into a character with a lot of layers. But it’s not just Mulgrew. Laura Prepon and Lori Petty’s characters are thrust head first into a really juicy storyline in season four which gives both actresses a chance to really knock our socks off. Prepon uses some dramatic chops we never saw coming when she was on That 70’s Show while Petty’s portrait of a woman struggling with mental illness is at once hilarious and devastating. The show also gives dozens of amazing Latina and black actresses a platform to do incredible work and become stars in their own right.

I have a handful of episodes left and I’m savoring them. By now, I’ve learned my lesson. I’m no Netflix novice. It’ll be a year until I get to spend time with the women of Litchfield again. Therefore, I’m taking my time. Elsewhere, in pop culture I’m reading my first Stephen King book. Okay. That’s a lie. I read On Writing like 15 years ago but nothing before or since. Yup. No The Shining. No Carrie. No Misery. But I’ve seen the movies? I know. It’s not the same thing. That’s why when I saw the first Dark Tower book and I grabbed it. Not usually my genre but I’m kind of open to whatever that isn’t the news these days so I’m giving it a shot. It’s good page turner stuff and has a bunch of wryly placed thoughts about God, revenge and isolation.I’ll let you know how it turns out.  Of course I watched the Game of Thrones finale and I loved it. Listen, this season is getting some flack about setting too many plots in motion but I feel like it set out to entertain and deliver the goods on long burning storylines and for me it did just that.

But what are you guys watching? What are your thoughts on OITNB? Tell me your GOT gripes! And lastly, give me a good juicy somewhat trashy summer book recommendation!

Shoshanna On My Mind: Hearting HBO’s Side Characters

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Perhaps all of this is Samantha Jones’ fault.

My husband recently watched all of the seasons of Sex and the City. He’d never see them combo’d with the fact we just got HBO Now. The show has done some really fucking weird aging, by the way. Like nearly everything Carrie and Big do, which I once considered romantic, is kind of the most deplorable behavior ever which makes people the globe over despise American straight people. I used to want a Big and Carrie kind of love but now I realize I used to also really hate myself. The show also has some,shall we say, “whimsical racism” and backward homophobia- which is fucking bizarre considering the whole thing was pretty much written by gay dudes. I had a hard time rewatching the episodes for these reasons but I’d get stuck in an episode, thanks largely in part to Samantha Jones. Samantha Jones to this day remains the sole survivor of the group who you’d actually want to hang out with and who wouldn’t make you want to step in front speeding New York City bus. She’s the only one who tells the truth, she’s the only one whose personality doesn’t make you die inside and of course, she has all of the good one liners.  All of this Samatha-ness made me think, in a very Carrie Bradshaw way, “I started to wonder did I love HBO shows or did I just like the side characters?” Cue the burning cigarette as I type on a vintage Mac.

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I suppose I should give you some background info: The reason we went down the HBO Now rabbit hole to begin with is because of Game of Thrones. Look, I didn’t want to nerd out over some goddamn fantasy series. Really. But the storytelling is so good I had no choice. And now I’m some sheep all invested in these sword wielding weirdos. Such is life. Instead of getting cable or waiting until the series comes out on DVD(which we had been doing) we chose HBO Now. It was a good choice. I am invested in Game of Thrones despite really hating the poorly plotted mountain of misogynistic garbage that was season 5. A lot of that has to do with the characters too. Just so we are clear- a great Game of Thrones episode for me contains one or all of the following:

  1. Direwolves
  2. Tryion Lannister
  3. Dragons
  4. Brienne of Muthafucking Tarth

I don’t have time for 45 minutes of Sansa whining or John Snow brooding in a corner. Ditto whatever bullshittery they’ve cooked up with the Red Woman or the assortment of a-holes currently ruining the North at a snail’s pace. But I will put up with these things however if an episode has some great, juicy character stuff. Four minutes with Lord Varys or Davos, for example, can make some other not terrific scenes easier to digest. In general, I think season 6 is back on track because of that very thing. We are getting more character stuff and faster moving storylines that push along the action. And this season has had some incredible (if not heartbreaking) scenes featuring all of my favorite GOT things. And 10 minutes of Brienne with a sword goes a long, long way in my book.

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So the side characters aren’t the only reason I heart GOT but what about other HBO shows? We’ve also added Silicon Valley to the rotation. While I think Mike Judge is probably the best comedic chronicler of the mundane, this show has a lead character problem. Richard, our protagonist programmer waffles between endearing dorky and “Oh. My. God. Dude. Get it together”-ness. His dorkiness can also morph into uppity and judgey (says the guy judging fictional characters from his computer) and he can be hard to root for when you want to smack him in the head. Thank god for Jared, Dinesh and Gilfoyle. These side characters mixed in with an assortment of Silicon Valley tech misfits make Richard palatable. When the show is brilliant (and it frequently is) it lets these geniuses with zero social skills flounder in the real world and finds big laughs in parodying this universe that creates tech superstars. Plus, every single line that Kumail Nanjiani as Dinesh delivers is comedy gold. The guy can say more with his eyebrows than any other actor on the planet. This is a compliment, by the way. Dinesh and Gilfoyle are the frenemy, genius progression of Judge’s own Beavis and Butthead and utterly entertaining to watch.

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The one thing that all of these HBO shows have in common is fantastic casts. Casts so fantastic that they can, at times, make up for the weak parts of the show as a whole. Which brings us to Shoshanna. Shoshanna Shapiro, for those uninitiated, is quirky, motor-mouthed mess of early 20-something emotions who steals every scene in Girls. According to tv trivia, Shoshanna was intended to be a single episode character but I’m glad she’s stuck around. There’s a lot of feelings about Girls out there on the internet and a lot of feelings about Lena Dunham. While I don’t want to wade in well-tread waters, I will admit I certainly fell into the “this whole thing annoys the shit out of me” camp when the show first came out. But we’ve watched the first three seasons and I gotta say I’ve changed my mind. I mean yes the narrative can be shrill and annoying but I think that’s really accurate for the age of people they’re portraying. And when Dunham finds the funny in situations, the show actually soars. Shoshanna, played with comic precision by Zosia Mamet, personifies what’s brilliant about Girls. Simultaneously a parody of 20-something girls as well as a lost lamb in the New York City woods, Mamet pulls off a hell of a hat trick by creating a character that we both laugh at and root for. For the 40 scenes where you want to throttle Marnie and Hannah, you get one scene with Shoshanna and all is nearly forgiven. Point being, I’m sticking it out with Girls through its current season because I hear it keeps getting better and because it means I’ll get more Shoshanna time.

So wait. Did I even answer my own question? Did Carrie ever answer her questions? Who the hell knows. What I do know is an overflow of good side characters means there’s quality writing happening out there in HBO land and in TV land in general. Writers are clearly doing their thang if they can create people we want to see week after week, even it’s only for a few fleeting moments.

Cue the jazzy saxophone over the end credits.

 

Embracing the Rosiness of Catastrophe

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An odd thing happened to me yesterday as I watched the first three episodes of season 2 of Catastrophe: I laughed. Not like I’m some fucking humorless rock with no soul but I ACTUALLY laughed. Listen, I’ve tried to see the humor in Melissa McCarthy riding a scooter through cement. I’ve tried to laugh at Andy Samberg movie trailers. I’ve even forced out a snicker during a Kevin Hart monologue. I’m not proud. I just want to belong. I want us to say “Holy shit is that latest Sandler movie the bomb or what?” over a couple of beers, even though I no longer drink. I want to laugh at what you laugh at. But goddamnit. I cannot. I’m sorry. So when the laughs came out of me as I roasted tomatillos (seriously who isn’t roasting  tomatillos on Tuesday and if you’re not, well we might be done here) and watched episodes in my kitchen, I was shocked but relieved. Shocked because despite my best efforts I apparently can’t laugh at anything anymore. And relieved because I remembered season 1 being a brilliant, laugh out loud treat and these episodes, now available on Amazon Prime, didn’t disappoint. In fact, they might even be funnier and it’s where these laughs come from that makes Catastrophe unlike any other show on television.

The premiere episode of Season 2 finds us against all odds laughing at dementia, a dog dying, postpartum depression and sobriety. Not the things big ha-ha jokes are made of but just what you’d expect from a show this smart. The setup for Catastrophe is an easy one: American guy named Rob visiting London meets an Irish woman named Sharon they have sex Sharon gets pregnant and the two are forced to fast track a relationship and figure out what the hell they’re doing. Like everybody, Rob and Sharon (played by and written by Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan) come with considerable baggage. He’s a recovering alcoholic with an insane mother (played by my spiritual godmother Carrie FIsher). She’s slightly neurotic with a father experiencing dementia and a brother who seems prone to financial drama. As a couple Rob and Sharon are in uncharted waters and we the audience are along for the ride. The second season starts roughly a year after season 1 ended which is smart because the real life time between the two seasons was about a year. In that time, their first child has been born and Sharon is pregnant with baby number 2.  Sharon’s transition from career gal to full-time mom, Rob dealing with temptations at work and familial insanity on both sides are a few of the pots simmering on the range for season 2. In Catastrophe-land there are no sitcom tropes like the wacky mistaken identity episode or the misheard conversation episode or the stupid camping episode. Instead, we get to laugh at (and identify with) the real. Created by Horgan and Delaney, many of the storylines are pulled from their own lives– she got pregnant late in life, he has been sober for years. And that might be the secret to the show’s success. Part of what makes me not laugh like some communist gymnastics judge is the jokes usually ring hollow. Here, I’m laughing at what Rob and Sharon are going through because I’ve been there or know someone who has or I can at the very least feel compassion for these characters while chuckling at the fucked up-ness of their lives. As a person who’s sat through countless 12 step meetings, I can tell you part of what “keeps me coming back” is the ability to laugh at dark horrible crap and watching people get on the other side of that. Catastrophe embraces much of that same spirit. Life is not perfect for us the viewer and it isn’t for Rob and Sharon either. We identify with them. We root for them. Most amazingly, we laugh at them. For this stone faced, barely  smirking television viewer, this is the miracle of Catastrophe and it’s these catastrophes the make the show so deeply funny.