Week Two: Self-Esteem

I have long argued that a healthy “self-esteem” is really grounded in a healthy “self-estimate”. We tend (I do) to place overlays on top of a correct estimate of ourselves. These overlays may be grandiose, or they may be darkening and self-condemning. Ironically, these overlays (think of clear acetate sheets) can easily co-exist along with many others. But it is usually safe, with humans, to assume that some will be pure wishful thinking and others will be shame and blame-based.

Now there is nothing like Homelessness or a severe illness to possibly strip away these overlays and get us to a more correct self-estimate. These overlays may end up being replaced with known overlays which involve faith, hope, repentance (to use an old word); the making of amends…even, dare I say it, humility.

But what they do is strip away our normal ways of bolstering ourselves. Suddenly we have no money, prestige, or even normal items like a car or a house. We also, in many cases, are stripped of our usual diversions. Pascal’s chilling reflection that “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Surely applies because you have a LOT of time alone. To be sure, not always alone, but with people who are strangers.

Of course I never have to face this as I have 25 top movies on my Hard Drive and 30 episodes of favorite shows (I watched The Green Zone last night).

Then there is the physical, which to some extent is determined long-term. I have been, in recent years, as light as 260, and as high as 340. I also (I am not complaining) have a very large crop of hair that grows rapidly. So as I looked in the mirror this a.m. I saw Nick Nolte staring back at me, or an overlaid version. While not puffy and beat-down, I still had the hair….thick bushes of gray hair sprouted in every direction. I doubt a hat will help much.


I was talking with a young 25 year old kid last night. He had been “kicked” for the night for staying over and partying with a woman in San Francisco. I called my friend Larryboy and got him a place to stay in one of his vans around town. His previous plan (he told me) was to go to a bar and get picked up by a “Cougar so long as she was not morally objectionable” so he would have a place to stay.

By “morally objectionable” I assumed he meant not skanky.

Then he proceeded to tell me how to best satisfy a woman. I listened because it is a discipline and I was concerned about his safety overnight (he has a court date this a.m. which he really should make).

I told him I did not envy him with all that testosterone ramming through his system and that I preferred that I had to really be deeply effected by a woman, even in love, to even think that way, not to mention perform. It has been a long time since I have been intimate with anyone and I do not see that changing anytime soon.

[I mean if I id meet someone what would I say anyway? “Hey wanna come back to my place and hang ith me and my 48 roommates?”]

A Homeless Shelter is like a monastery that way. Abstinence in all things is the rule. The unfortunate thing is they try and treat the retreatants” like children.

They do not do this with me. Apparently one of my overt overlays is visible to all.

Which leads me to my last reflection: We are SO MUCH MORE than the overlays we place on ourselves, or allow others to place upon us.

They say that alcoholism is a “family disease” by which they mean that it is part of a larger family dynamic where various roles are placed, assumed, imposed, accepted etc.

Well, the fact is I am so much MORE than a Recovering Alcoholic; yet so many would see me through that single lens. That’s their deal, not mine. In fact, I patently reject it as thoroughly as I did when I was the “religious one” many years ago.

Which is why people hide their addictions and “issues”. They are afraid of being branded as just that.  I am not immune, I just hear the words of St. Paul (that few take seriously) “I shall glory in my weakness”.

How do we know what is real in us and what is not? My best answer is from Martin Luther, who said “Who a man is on his knees before God is who he is, and no more.”


Today I have no money, no status, no possessions except a double-bag of clothes and my digital arsenal. My “stuff” (see Carlin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvgN5gCuLac) does not define me. If it did I would live in five places and two states.

So my self-estimate cannot come from externals. Nor from labels. I mean it has also become, in some circles, quite popular to be in “Recovery”. It’s sort of becoming hip with the likes of Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen and Robin Williams and out of rehab like a revolving door.

But they still have the overlays of fame, money and prestige (oh, and talent…let’s be fair).

I still have overlays I take comfort in. I am tall, highly articulate, educated and have some very deeply rooted disciplines. Few could handle some of the human situations I have negotiated peacefully for others.

Is that an overlay, or is it actually a part of who I am? If being a recovering alcoholic is a part of what and who I am (and Lord my eyes glaze over with those addicted to AA)?

As you read about my situation, do you find yourself laying down your own overlays on top of me?


Day Six: Size Matters & Religion and Spirituality

Size Does Matter

I never realized how mutant-esque I really am until now. Given the confined spaces of buses, hallways, short beds and small table I am constantly reminded of how I am literally 30-50 percent larger than the average person.

It is notable in the Shelter, and utterly comical on the bus where I play Lenny (Of Mice and Men) while on it; and George Milton when I get off and into open space.

It is also why I am getting fatter when I should be slimming down. The free kitchens just naturally heap on the pasta as if I’ll starve if they do not.

It’s very sweet.

The hallways are different. I can tell from the fearful deer-in-the-headlamps looks I get from those I meet in the long thin hallway that they are trying to do the math. I basically kiss the wall a lot. Once it misconstrued my intentions and tried to fondle me. It’s a bad situation.

My feet stick out a good, well, er…a foot off the bed.


Sundays & Spirituality

I was talking with young Eric (not real name) yesterday. Though clean and sober for a week he still looks like he has been tazered. He is 21 and has been “using” for almost a decade.

He’s a handsome lad, and all his shields are down…I mean OFF. As such, it is good that the majority of people here are very good people: kind, courteous, good humored.

As a former pastor, I am always somewhat protective. I don’t want or need Eric to think or believe the way I do. If for him GOD is a “Group Of Drunks” and that helps him stop using then that is a good thing. Still, raised Jehovah’s Witness, I know that he has had his fill of “religion” and it has not been at all helpful, or even True.

[Note: I reject the word “drunk” as a noun. It is fine as a verb.]

So I talked with him about area churches after he brought up spirituality. Actually, he used the word “church”, so I was not crossing a line at all. And I know the churches of this area.

Of course, the ideal place is probably St. Andrews Presbyterian, the church made somewhat famous by best-selling author Anne Lamott. The music is joyful, the people safe and non-judgmental and the Rev. Veronica is one great preacher.

But the issue comes back to transportation and food. Man may not “live by bread alone” but it doesn’t hurt. So, I have contacted Christ Church in Berkeley, and will also contact Veronica this week and see if we can get a ride to and from a service next week. It gives me a week to see who is serious and who isn’t.

That may sound judgmental, but read the Book of James (written by Jesus’ brother) and all sorts of problems crop up for how the Church handles the homeless…or some wings of the Church.

St. Vincent de Paul is essentially a Catholic organization and they feed and care over San Rafael’s homeless to the tune of 700 a day. That is faith in action. People will complain about the religious nature of some aspects of Catholicism (or point to certain overt hypocrisies and perversions by the few), but you cannot ding them on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and helping people rebuild their broken lives.


It has become more common place to distinguish between Faith and Spirituality almost versus Religion. I take this as a very good thing. I have long pointed to the fact that even the Atheistic critique of Religion is closer to Old and New Testament writings than the Fundamentalist religiosity of many. In other words, in a discussion with an ardent Atheist, I will have far more in common world-view wise than with a Fundagelical who does not know his or her own texts or has twisted them into a cold dead life-less ritual.

Now AA is a spiritual program and everyone inside of it knows it regardless of their view or beliefs. To be sure, it may be that many are like the Athenians of Mars Hill (who were notable in a very good way) who had constructed a statue to “the Unknown God” (read all of Acts 17:16-34), but they are open.

I am not religious. In fact, I despise religion and its deleterious effects. But spirituality and faith are another matter.

We can all meet is in our spirituality. To be sure, I shake out as Paul and Silas do in Athens when they insist both that Jesus is raised from the dead and alive now; and that “God who made the whole world and everything in it is the Lord of the land and the sky. He does not live in temples made of human hands.” But that is my own personal journey of faith and trust.

He lives inside of people just as sure as He is the Lord of the lands and the sky of Pt. Reyes.

Which often brings us back to the question of alcohol and morality. Perhaps some of it comes from the fact that when most people (almost all) started to drink or use it was associated with other acts of violence, usury, lust…in short, usually paired with a “deadly sin” here or there (which are, by the way, not listed as such in the Bible). Thus, years later subtract those and you still have the naked disease in full “bloom”.

We do not yet fully realize as a culture that alcoholism is a disease. To be sure, it may be closer to emphysema for a smoker than leukemia for an otherwise healthy person, but it is still a disease that is genetically based.

In my case, I will more than likely not be killed by it, but rather by heart disease. No one will judge me for having a heart attack sometime in the next three decades. If I die from the other a pall will hover over my kids and the brief memory of me as it fades.

People always object when I say I won’t see 80.

“How many 6’4” or above men do you know who are older than 70?” I ask.

“um, er…I…, er..hmmn” (silence).

It’s fine. I was pretty sure I was not gonna get out of this alive anyway.

Before I move on, let me also note the socio-economic aspect. There are plenty of alcoholics in my extended family…they just have money. I am not whining, in fact the opposite. I am glad I am an openly recovering alcoholic. It makes me employ disciplines daily others casually ignore. For instance, I keep a clear deck with people or, if not possible, I drop them and move on.

It also humbles my otherwise arrogant nature and makes me more pliable.

My real concern is the latent genes in all four of my children, especially the doubling up for the two youngest. If I must be the Cautionary Tale, let it be for them. “Don’t turn the key on this bad boy and you’ll be fine and not have to deal daily. If you do, I’ll be there for you.

It is not essential that anyone agree with me, except others with my disease who know from first-hand experience (which is why we laugh a lot in meetings).  The others who remain, accept me as I am…all my beauty and my disease as well (which will never go away). They are my family.

So in my view, Alcoholism is a disease and all the railing against it doesn’t do a whit of good. And Religion is the attempt to nail God down.

God has allowed for this apparently; just don’t expect Him to stay there.

Day Five: Smoke!

The San Rafael Canal leading in and out of the Bay. I need to find a dock to dip legs in. You cannot see it, but the small sloop to the left in front is named "The Bill Murray".

Around these haunts, pretty much everyone smokes except me. I man I have the pipe Jan gave me for Christmas, but I typically smoke it once a week at best. The acrid smell of cigarette smoke permeates everything at every place. It is rumored that in the far left corner of the main smoking mezzanine here at the shelter that wifi works. I’d try, but I wouldn’t be able to see the screen through the white-bluish haze.

Not that I don’t understand cigarette addiction. In fact, I hear withdrawals from tobacco are worse than heroin withdrawals (maybe Lennon was singing ColdTurkey about cigs), I am just glad I don’t have it. Some of it is pure boredom, some social…but mostly an acquired addiction.

Where do they get $7-$14 a day to but a pack or two?

I suppose where I use to get the same amount for alcohol. Too bad they cannot kick tobacco in a few days the way I have alcohol.


It’s Saturday so I have basically made it through my first week. There is not much to do today as all agencies are closed. I will get my Food Stamp card on Monday, which is interesting as you’re not allowed to store food here.

On the other hand, (your tax dollars at work), I can buy some of my favorite Cowgirl Creamery “Red Hawk” cheese and some nice whole wheat crackers to have back at the shelter after dinner, or some 72% Cacao chocolate bars. I feel like a bit like the guy in Stalag 13 (Hogan’s Heroes) who has all the goods to trade and barter with.

What would I barter for right now? Quarters for laundry. I have been given no quarter. Friends are afraid to give me any cash as they fear I may use it to purchase a nice Pinot Grigio or, perhaps a –liter box of Carlo Rossi. Fact is, a recovering alcoholic is gonna find a way to drink if they want to it. It is one of the top ten misnomers about the disease of alcoholism (the others are equally presumptions and wrong-headed).

The fact is I have no desire to drink alcohol today, and that is all that is necessary. If I do get thrown a curve, I have backup meds (which I have not been using because I have not needed to). The “Depakote” the doctors gave me in Monterey has kicked in and has, for the first time in my life, given me what they described as a “level playing field”.

At another time I will describe the other nine misnomers. They are pervasive and wrong-headed not in my view so much as by professionals or people in AA.

The thing to remember is a recovering alcoholic has accepted his or her own fate, hopefully without shame or blame. It is what it is. Whining about it is a waste of energy and a bit sophomoric.

Marin Pandemic

The pandemic in Marin is not alcohol (and cigarettes are mostly for the poor, ironically). The real problem is methamphetamine and heroin use among the rich youth. When things atch up with them (and they do quickly) their parents simply ship them off to a $15,000-$30,000 a month facility, visit once or twice and figure that is that.

They fail to see that, like most addictions, it is a family disease where everyone’s life has to change and be realigned (at the very least). Throwing money at the drug situation is no different than the old “well just have some will power and stop drinking!” idea.

That is not reality. Alcoholics outside of recovery have more will power than you will ever have.

People wonder about me (given my intelligence and self-knowledge), or perhaps pity me, Don’t waste the energy. Would you do that with someone who had leukemia? No, thank God that I can daily be in remission, and possibly live three more full and robust decades. My most creative and productive days (and I have certainly been no slouch up till now) may be ahead.

Or it may kill me off. Diseases work that way.

Okay, now I have to go and double scrub the toilets.


I was just kidding about toilets. What the chances I get men’s bathroom duty out of 32 different chores?

Apparently pretty good. That’s exactly what I got. As I cleaned them I thought of several women I have been in relationship with who would enjoy this moment far too much.

It’s a good and sweaty 1:15 of work and now I smell like I have splashed on Eue de Simple Green.

So, what to do on a Saturday alone and broke? It is here that you can get in dangerous territory with as active a brain as mine.

I’ll spend it at Starbucks. It is too bad it is nearly impossible to get to Borders (I can SEE it across the highway). My only reading material is my Bible, and I already read the ending so I know how it comes out.

Day Four: politics exists everywhere people do.

Aerial view of part of the Canal area of San Rafael, CA.

It looks pretty huh? On the North side it is, and posh; on the South side of the canal it is the Barrio and industrial.

The forst night there as I walked around I was sure I was gonna get my face shot off. I’m a big target and hard to miss. I am not what they called “dodgey”. I was always the first kid OUT in dodgeball.

But now I see, as I walk around that I am perfectly safe and that there is a subtle racism in me I was unaware of.  The fact is the neighborhood is 98% Hispanic/Latino. I treat those I pass by with my usual respect and they show th same in return.

No one has called me a “Gringo” or shot my face off.

I am actually looking this a.m. for a church to attend on Sunday…and I hope it will be HERE, where I currently live.


In other news today may be Marin Health & Human Services Day, especially since my case worker is off every other Monday.

I don’t need help with food stamps nearly so much as the real American problem (besides unemployment: health care). With CMSP I get free clinic visits, blood work and meds.


In the meantime the rest of the morning has to be spent on job hunting. I have one more day before my initial 5-day thing is over. Then things get dicey. Then I have to call in at 10 every day from outside to secure a bed for the night. It’s uncertain and a big hassle…especially since you need to have a place for your “stuff”.

Chances are they will give me into next week without much questions. But this place is meant to draw in money or move you on. For many that means the street most of the time.

I can see why some give up and just stay OUT. It’s not my way, but I understand it.


Politics is everywhere people are and everyone is so damned SURE. I spent too much time other as a theologian and a journalist to me so SURE.

I know when a real injustice is happening in front of me and act on it. That I know. I know when someone is sticking the knife in my gut and twisting the handle, even if I choose to not react in kind.

I think this is why it is even more important these days to simply listen to God and believe. I said God, not religion. That is pretty fucked up as a general rule. To quote my own words “the world screams, but God whispers”.

I’ll be out there in a few an it will be screaming. On the downside I do not possess earplugs of any kind. On the good side, it’s not my responsiblity. It’s God’s. Hope He is okay today. Gonna be a long one.

Day Two

The Ritter Center. Part of the Lifeline Triangle: The Marin Bus system, , The Ritter Center and St. Vincent de Paul.

Oh, and yes, that is my car…

No, one the the real issues, as in war apparently, is the condition of your feet on legs. Right now I hve my shoes off under the table with them pressed onto the cold stone. I m literally “cooling my jets”.

I also, after today, splurged with my limited Starbucks card (which needs to last) and got a Venti mocha frappacino light (made with stevia) and I want another one just like a coke addict wants another line (I do not speak from experience).

I hit The Ritter Center and waited (you do a lot of that) for the nurse to give me a new (second TB shot) as I missed the results of the other one due to unforseen events. After she gave me the second one, she realized they would be closed the day hey need to evaluate it. So, tomorow I show up for a third TB test.

If I did not have TB before, I will by the time they are done with me.

Then she looked at my “jets”. Some of it is just size. I see these little guys motoring around with 60 pound packs like nothing, smoking (everyone smokes but me). I suppose if I was not 55 pounds over my best weight I would not feel it so in my knees and feet quite so much.

Still, she wants me to see the podiatrist.

OOOPS! I don’t have CMSP (County Health Care). She gives me some cream and a baggy of foot powder that looks like, well…er coke (not that I have ever seen it).

These folks are really great. I mention that oneprbpem is my feet are so fa away from the rest of me that I have to take the 17 bus. She ofers longer swabs. “Got any with four foot long sticks?” I ask.

From there, it is hoofing it to St. Vincent de paul to get my name on the list to talk about my one benefit (you get one every 60 days…hey they serve hundreds!) I need an ID card for Califrnia to pretty much do anything.

She takes my basic info anf tells me to come back at noon.

Downstairs the kitchen/dining area is packed. I see Bill (of course). Bill is a big gregarious man and no matter where I go….Bill is there. We joke he is stalking me.

We have lunch. It is good. I notice my diet is changing…..much more salad and fruit…less or no pasta. I think this is because I have to have fuel and move a lot. Plus, no sweets but the fruit. I mention that a friend has agreed to spend the money to send my equipment from carmel. We talk about where you go. The news is  different…ominous. “If they cath you they will tiket you…$450”

“How do they expect homeless people to pay that?”

“Endless work detail.”

The Dark Side of humanity looms.  The deeper and darker hole an why people move from county to county n start over. They have to to just survive.

No I doubt I will happen to me. But it COULD.  Bill tells me he slept behind a dumpster for a year. “It wasn;t so bad” he says. I guess they didn’t anf send him into the Counties version of Dante’s social inferno.

I get up, bid the two oher men good day and tell Bill I expect to see him lurking at the DMV later (its way far away).

At noon I meet with Carole upstairs. She asks me questions and I wisecrack in a kind/Bill Murray-esque way.  She agrees to get me the letter and check for the DMV and says as I leave “you really have no business being n the street.” I also meet Bob K., resident hippie servant because I have heard he has socks. They are tiny.

As he tells me his theory about 911 and it being the only time three steel structure buildings have come down, my eyes glaze over and I excuse myself.

On the way back to the bus terminal I panic suddenly. I got an Arkansas ID that might have cancelled out my CA ID! CRAP! I hope hog manure has somehow spilled into one of the mainframes (it could happen) or that Arkansas is still on “dial-up” to California.

Its 1.5 mles from the bus drop to the DMV (same back on the other side later). Then there is the rtpical DMV line…25 people minimum in front of me to just get screened!

I have committed.

The good news? It works..they take another picture (yes, Nick Nolte-like, only utterly sober) , Done.

Bad news? “It should arrive in two to three weeks”.

It’s not like I need it or anything.

Then I came here and now I will go “home” on the bus after a short 3 block walk, followed by another very long 3-4.

You do a LOT of walking. I wish I had my bike.

Beginnings of Day Two

Being Homeless takes a tremendous amount of daily planning. You need to make lists, plan your itinerary and pack your bag (and make sure whatever bags you have are safe) very early in the morning.

I was in the shower by 5:30 (thank GOD for that guy getting me the shampoo), then quick breakfast followed by massive organization. All the stuff in my locker needed to be bagged and tagged before I was out today..plus I had a chore (I think I broke the vacuum cleaner).

Then off to ctach the bus to Starbucks to write and send out queries. Then hobble to Ritter House in 20 minutes to see the nurse for a variety of small ailments (like my fricken TOE!). Then hot St. Vincent’s before 11 to get some fresh socks (I have two pair after the purge) and they will give me a check for the DMV to get a duplicate licenseway over in Corte Madera after lunch.

If I an get back by 2:00 to Ritter (doubtful) I can get in on Joseh’s group (he runs the place) and I’d like that. Joseph has been a constant help and he manages probably 120 people a day.

From there I MAY be able to get out to the GA (Marin County Health & Welfare Services… but this sounds wildly doubtful.

One does push beause, at the Shelter you begin with five days for sure..then it’s “iffy”. I have no backup behind this…no pack, bag, tent etc…those all came to Carmel after I was forced to leave way too swiftly. So it just sits there.

I think most of these guys have a backup…especially this time of year. Apparently, if you stay away from the parks the police will not hassle you so long as you are in incnspicuous and ruly. I and the latter, just not the former.

As Vonnegut says: “so it goes”.

Mac says “let go of it today and deal with what you have in front of you clearly and fully.

Sans Abobe: Day One…

St. Vincent de Paul ministry on B Street in San Rafael.

…or day seven depending on how you look at it.

I met this a.m.with two pastors, one a man who has been a close friend here in Marin for years; the other a street pastor.

The street pastor, a younger man with tats and and a large Celtic cross, had a lot of questions. His most curious one was “you are obviously a highly intelligent, self-aware man, yet you seem unconcerned by being homeless and utterly broke? I am not sure I have met anyone like you.”

It clearly worried him. He asked if I thought “God was punishing me”?


It is called “reaping what you sow.”

Besides, how many “homeless” folk are walking around with high-tech arsenal in their Wenger backpack? I could run IKEA’s website from right here in Starbucks via wifi.

Which brings me to point two: I do have some unusual support. I may not have any identification (I don’t…but this is not always a bad thing), but my other pastor friend got me a 31 day bus pass. I can get anywhere in Marin anytime. And he got me a Starbucks card…which means free wifi.

But there are downsides too. Dating is out of the question (I KEED…I have no business dating. Meeting for coffee? Sure.); I had to give up half my stuff to meet the ‘locker-size” quota at the Mill Street Shelter; and one of my toes has a very large blister that is really killing me as I hobble around town.

Three is the uncertainty that comes in three days time if I do not find work. For now I have a guaranteed slot and can work the system as it was meant to be worked. I got a lot accomplished today despite the hobbling, and I learned a lot.

But what of the social pariah-ship of being homeless (sans adobe…not a very clever play on all the cities starting with “San”)? Well actually no one can really tell so long as you are well-groomed. In fact, today I saw a couple he Shelter walking down the street. You could not have told they had not just gotten out of a nice BMW and had a 3,000 sq ft home in Mill Valley.

I did beg today…well, ask.

It was outside a Walgreen’s and I approached a man about my age just as I might have been approached in that same lot a year ago.

“I have an unusual request,” I said. “I am homeless even if I do not look like it. Would you mind buying me a small selenium-based bottle of dandruff shampoo?”

He looked at me quizzically. “I don’t want or need money,” I said. “I just have really dry scalp and it is driving me a little crazy” I said calmly.

“Sure, no problem.”

When he came out with the shampoo I thank him, told him it would help.

I think, in an odd way, I kind of made his day.

Well, the foot is really throbbing. The amazing folk at Ritter House will “fix” me tomorrow. Yesterday Joseph there got me an address there a P.O. Box and physical address; gave me advice on how anther charity (St. Vincent) will pay for my ID replacement if I go there before lunchtime today, and gave me information on General Assistance in Marin and how to get their for free.

Last word: community. In Goodwill, looking with Rod for a long sleeve shirt in “mutant size” we ran into Bill, also from the Shelter. Hearty introductions and some nice banter. Later I saw one of my many dorm-mates downtown and we high-fived as we passed. At lunch (above) I sat with a 92 year old man who looked like he had just walked off the set of Mayberry RFD. People trade information, advice, names of people who really help and others to avoid.

This does not happen in most any other context in Marin where people “cocoon”. More tomorrow…