Apr 07

“Dusk, Night, Dawn”: Anne Lamott Copes

“Here we are, older, scared, numb on some days, enraged on others, with even less trust than we had a year ago,” Lamott writes of such challenges as the pandemic and threats to American democracy and to the planet in general. “Where on earth do we start to get our world and joy and hope and our faith in life itself back?” Kirkus Reviews regarding Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott

As Hope Reese points out in her Boston Globe review of Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage, a collection of short essays, this is the 19th book by bestselling author Anne Lamott. Several have been previously covered on this site (see here for one of the all-around best).

Reese describes Dusk, Night, Dawn as “digestible and uplifting, conceived and packaged for the chaotic times we are facing. Although touching on a few broadly exterior topics (climate change), it mainly focuses on the human interior, Lamott’s specialty, with a particular emphasis on forgiveness of ourselves and others, acceptance, and unconditional love.”

An important aspect of coping is knowing what we can control and what we can’t. More from Reese:

What life throws at us remains very much out of our hands, Lamott reminds us. She cites a study showing that around 80 percent of people believe they are in control, while the truth is that we are only in control about three percent to seven percent of the time.

Some of Lamott’s tips, from the Publisher Weekly‘s review:

Concentrating on being more intentional and focusing on small changes in one’s personal life, she writes, allows hope to grow and to serve as the first step to larger societal changes. Lamott argues that people too often block themselves from love through perfectionism, self-loathing, cowardice, and the fear of being vulnerable with others. She also weighs in on domestic matters, including problems both weighty (alcoholism) and trivial (how one’s new spouse does the laundry). To her credit, Lamott turns a pessimistic mindset on its head with the difficult question: ‘What holds when you and your family are walking toward extinction?’ Her answer: kindness, humility, words of love, and stories of when the worst seemed possible, but it turned out okay.

Below are some quotes I culled from Goodreads reviewers who’ve posted their favorites:

My comedian friend Duncan Trussel once said nine words onstage that changed me. He said that when you first meet him, you’re meeting his bodyguard. I wrote it down and later taped it to my bathroom mirror, where all truth resides at least briefly. His bodyguard is smart and charming, and keeps people out. Deep inside, his true self is very human, which is to say beautiful and kind of a mess –needy, insecure, judgmental, like most of us. It is full of love, warmth, and rage.

Even now we aren’t in charge of much, and it is exhausting to believe or pretend we are.

We rise up to help the best we can, and we summon humor to amend ghastly behavior and dismal ongoing reality.

Kindness anywhere gives me hope; it changes us.

Seeing is a form of pure being, unlike watching or looking at. Seems why we’re here.

I know the secret of life. If you want to have loving feelings, do loving things.

Some poet once wrote that we think we are drops in the ocean, but that we are really the ocean in drops, both minute and everything there is.

Jun 05

“First Reformed”: Body/Mind/Soul Collisions

A 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, Paul Schrader‘s First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke, playing a former chaplain named Toller, who’s grieving the death of his son. An encounter with a radical environmental activist, Michael, leads to doubts about the meaning of his life. Although Michael is later lost to suicide, his wife (Amanda Seyfriend) and Toller connect.

Alex Arabian, Film Inquiry: “Toller puts on a brave front, but still suffers from his son’s death, so he drinks heavily. However, this is ill-advised, as he suffers from some form of advanced cancer. He decides to write longhand in a diary for a year.”

More about Toller’s character from director Schrader himself: “This guy has a sickness that Kierkegaard called a sickness unto death — a lack of hope, despair, angst. This sickness has manifestations. The cloth of the clergy is one, the diary is another, the alcohol is another, and finally the environment is a manifestation of his soul sickness. So he grafts this cause onto himself — in fact, picks it up as a kind of virus from another person. But if it weren’t the environment, it would be something else.”

About Toller’s emerging “environmentalist obsessions” Greg Cwik (Slant) notes, “It’s as if the dead man has been reborn within Toller, as if Toller has found a new, invigorated faith, a fervid and politicized one. Suicide is, for strict Augustine Christians, a sin, unforgivable as the dead cannot confess, unless one is labeled a martyr, like Samson. Yet Toller begins to see in death the possibility for new life.”

See the trailer below:

Selected Reviews

Eric Kohn, Indiewire: “As a priest who may or may not be losing his mind, Hawke provides a compelling anchor for Schrader’s surprisingly effective religious-themed film.”

Justin Chang, NPR: “First Reformed is a stunner, a spiritually probing work of art with the soul of a thriller, realized with a level of formal control and fierce moral anger that we seldom see in American movies.”

Stephanie Zacharek, Time:

Part of the movie’s understated triumph lies in its casting: Hawke is an actor who clearly cares, and worries, a lot–the tree of life is practically etched into his forehead. As the hyperconscientious Toller, he conveys both the selfishness and the true anguish of people who just can’t let go of their own pain. But he also offers a shred of hope in the idea that in the end, caring too much might be just the thing that saves us.

Jun 29

“Blackout” Drinker: Sarah Hepola’s Memoir About Recovery

As I inched into my 30s, I found myself in that precarious place where I knew I drank too much, but I believed I could manage it somehow. I was seeing a therapist, and when I talked to her about my blackouts, she gasped. I bristled at her concern.
“Everyone has blackouts,” I told her.
She locked eyes with me. “No, they don’t.” Sarah Hepola, Blackout

Why this particular quote from Sarah Hepola‘s recently published Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget? Because as a therapist I recognize it as a fairly common scenario—the denial that precedes an altogether different discovery about one’s drinking and its effects.

Hepola, now 40 and a Salon editor, has a lot to say about her history of blackout drinking. The quote at the top and the next couple are from a book excerpt in The Guardian.

What is a blackout? Contrary to popular belief, an alcohol-related blackout is not the same as passing out. Rather, it’s when you forget what’s happened to you: “the thunderbolt of waking up to discover a blank space where pivotal scenes should be. My evenings come with trapdoors.”

Behind the Scenes of a Blackout: 

“The blood reaches a certain alcohol saturation point and shuts down the hippocampus, part of the brain responsible for making long-term memories. You drink enough, and that’s it. Shutdown. No more memories.”

Additional specifics: “Your short-term memory still works, but short-term memory lasts less than two minutes, which explains why wasted people can follow a conversation from point to point, but they will repeat themselves after some time has passed – what a friend of mine calls ‘getting caught in the drunkard’s loop’. The tendency to repeat what you just said is a classic sign of a blackout, although there are others. ‘Your eyes go dead, like a zombie,’ a boyfriend once told me. ‘It’s like you’re not there at all.’ People in a blackout often get a vacant, glazed-over look, as though their brain is unplugged. And, well, it kind of is.”

Blackouts, by the way, come in different sizes, as it were. There are, for instance, “brownouts”—a fragmentary type; there are en bloc ones, a full-scale loss of memory for a significant period.

On Hepola Quitting Drinking

Aug 01

Roger Ebert, Empathic Critic: “Life Itself”

We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. Roger Ebert, Life Itself

Life Itself is a new documentary about Roger Ebert (1942-2013), whose movie reviews were often featured in my blog posts. In the film the words above are the first ones of Ebert’s that the audience hears.



Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com: “Early in his life, he could be brusque and arrogant and thoughtless. Later, he was gentle and sweet, and had a tendency to raise depressed people’s spirits by giving them unsolicited compliments and words of support.”

Owen Gleiberman, ew.com: “He stopped drinking in 1979, but the easy, flowing panache of the barroom raconteur never left him. His thoughts, and the way that he expressed them, were catchy, infectious, contagious. Even when you did disagree with him (which, in my case, was often), the way he put things created a logic of enchantingly fused thought and passion.”


Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com:

One is between Roger and Chaz, whom Roger met in Alcoholics Anonymous and married in 1992 and is credited with changing him from a domineering, insecure and sometimes insensitive man capable of stealing a cab away from a pregnant woman (‘He is a nice guy,’ a friend tells James, ‘but he’s not that nice’) into the mellow, reflective, generous person celebrated in obituaries and appreciations. The other love story is a bromance between Roger and the hyper-competitive Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, a print rival who became an on-camera debate partner and an off-camera business partner, then finally the brother that Roger, an only child, never had.

Geoffrey O’Brien, New York Times:

‘Gene,’ an observer notes, ‘was a rogue planet in Roger’s solar system.’ Shouting matches and withering put-downs were hallmarks of their show — critical argument became comic performance art — but the tensions were real enough. When Ebert yells, ‘I disagree particularly about the part you like!,’ it is almost like intruding on a family argument. A series of outtakes in which they trade insults between fluffed lines is both hilarious and a bit harrowing.

Geoffrey O’Brien, New York Times:

Ebert was, by his own and others’ accounts, transformed by meeting and marrying Chaz when he was 50. She was an African-American civil rights lawyer more interested, as he put it, in who he was than in what he did. He became part of her extended family, and as we watch him in home videos from the good days before his troubles started, it is like watching a man blossoming before our eyes.


Linda Holmes, NPR:

What the film crystallizes beautifully is the gravity of the gains and losses that took place in Ebert’s life after about 2008. As he got truly, verily, utterly screwed – and Chaz did, too – not just by cancer but by infections and complications, he began a stunning final act in which his connection to his writing seemed deeper, his embrace of readers and other writers seemed (even) more generous, and his omnivorous curiosity about cooking and countries and politics and writers and movies and games became more tireless.

Owen Gleiberman, ew.com: “In a lifetime at the movies, Roger Ebert consumed a lot of empathy, so there’s something almost luminous about seeing him take that empathy and shine it back on himself.”

Oct 22

Women and Alcohol Treatment: “Her Best-Kept Secret”

In Her Best-Kept Secret, journalist Gabrielle Glaser reports on extensive research she conducted regarding women and alcohol and declares that women of all ages are drinking more problematically than ever before in this country.

Well, let’s say a woman discovers she does have a drinking problem—she can just go to AA, right? Well, although AA is where many do wind up, Glaser found that this longstanding recovery network often fails them in ways it may not fail men.

Reasons for this include the fact that AA was developed by men, the problematic higher power concept, and the lack of clinical expertise among members and sponsors.

Part of Glaser’s research involved attending some open AA meetings herself. She tells Kirkus Reviews she saw significant differences between the women-only and the mixed ones. “I went to several women’s-only meetings, and I was struck by how deep the longing for the drink was. It seemed like these women had quit with a gun to their heads. And then I went to mixed meetings, and men tried to pick me up. And I thought: Well, that’s weird.”

In response to the outreach Glaser then conducted regarding women and alcohol treatment, a large number of women indicated to her “how much they had been damaged by AA.” Interestingly, although one of the major issues, 13-stepping, is all too common in the U.S., it doesn’t exist so much in such countries as Great Britain and Australia. Why? Because they’ve instituted safeguards against predation: victims are advised to use the police.

Although Glaser recognizes that some women do find AA helpful, she cites research showing it’s actually one of the least effective treatments available today:

…12-step programs are near the bottom of the rankings in terms of efficacy. From the Cochrane Review to the COMBINE study to the more recent graph of effective treatments, the 12-step treatments have been surpassed. In the book, I also use AA’s own numbers, which show a 5% success rate. If abstention and meetings work for someone, that’s fantastic. But for the vast majority of people for whom they don’t, there are other options.

On her site Glaser offers possible alternatives to AA, most of which don’t view alcoholism as a disease as does AA. Included are some therapy options as well as support networks such as Smart Recovery, Women for Sobriety, and Moderation.org.

It’s noted also that medication is available for cravings reduction. Glaser tells Anna Breslaw, Jezebel: “Our own government spent $30 million to find that one method — the drug naltrexone, combined with visiting a doctor who can talk to you about your drinking, is the most effective method for reducing alcohol abuse. Under our new health care laws, this sort of treatment will be covered.”

In sum, Glaser’s intent is not to get women to avoid or drop AA but for women and alcohol treatment to mesh better. From Maia Szalavitz‘s Time interview with the author, an analogy Glaser offers:

I have chronic sinus disease. Over the years, treatment for it has changed. The only solution of my day was surgery, and today it’s the last resort. If it works for you, that’s great, but people respond differently to different therapies.