Denver Diary, by Craig Whalley

[Reposted from the LSRSafe email list by permission]

Day Minus One


After 4 hours on a bus, 3 hours sitting at the airport and a 2 hour flight, I arrived in Denver for the 2010 LifeRing Expo.

I came a day early, partly reflecting my relatively new status as a footloose semi-retiree, and partly so I could attend a regular f2f LifeRing meeting, something I’ve never done in all my years with LifeRing online. I met Shauna, erstwhile LifeRinger who flew in from San Francisco at about the same time, at the Denver airport and she rented a car and drove us to the 6 p.m. meeting.

Online has always worked very well for me. The e-mail group approach has a sort of non-threatening intimacy to it that appeals to me. It doesn’t arouse my social anxieties and yet allows me to feel close to other people with whom I share the problem of addiction and a certain attitude about it. I’ve made real and close friendships with people I’ve met online. But it’s become increasingly clear to me that sitting in a room with people offers something missing from online contacts. Online was what I needed to get sober, but perhaps I’ve been missing something important by not finding a way to meet with real people in real time in a real place to deal with some of the subtler aspects of the recovery process. I even considered attending an AA meeting in my little town recently, but, with all due respect to the virtues of that organization, I just couldn’t overcome my distaste for their approach.

I enjoyed the Denver LifeRing meeting a lot. It did bring out a touch of those social anxieties I mentioned, but LifeRingers always put me at ease faster than other people and this group was no exception. It was a “How was your week?” meeting and each person there, at various stages of the recovery process, shared exactly that. One or two people brought up problems they were mulling and wanted input on. Advice was freely given with a wide range of views expressed, and no real consensus, which reflects the lack of group-think that LifeRing rightly prides itself on.

I brought up my move towards full retirement and the difficulties I’m having with how to structure my new-found free time in a way that feels healthy and productive. There were several retired people present who offered their experiences. It was helpful to know I’m not the only one who struggles with the transition from a career to retirement.

In an f2f meeting, of course, communication is more complicated and subtle — richer — than in email exchanges. This is both good and bad. Good, because much more information is conveyed when the person speaking is right there in front of you — all the non-verbal stuff — and bad (or at least more confusing for me) because the messages received are harder to focus on than an email, which can be read slowly and without distraction.

The meeting ended too soon for me — one advantage of an active email group is that the time for reading and responding to emails can be stretched or shortened to fit one’s needs and desires. I do a lot of stretching. I wonder how a hybrid of the two approaches would work — a group of 10-20 people who met regularly but also could communicate between meetings through their own little email group?

After the meeting, Shauna and I went to dinner with Fred, another early arrival from the Bay Area and Tom, who lives in Denver and is very active in promoting LifeRing. Much conversation ensued!

Shauna dropped me off at my motel and went off to where she’s staying — with a Denver LifeRinger named Bonnie.

It was a fine first day of my 2010 Expo Adventure!

Day One

Friday in Denver dawned warm and got warmer — the upper 80’s as the day went on. Back home, we haven’t yet quite hit 60 this year, so there’s been some adjustment required. Still, I spent most of the day outside in very pleasant surroundings.

I woke up too early, after getting to bed too late, but that gave me an hour or two of quiet time before meeting with Shauna, Lynn C., and a few of the Denver LifeRingers at a sidewalk cafe, where much pleasant talk ensued. Kathleen G., was there. She has been at the heart of LifeRing’s growth in Denver, where there are now at least half a dozen meetings. Kathleen has been tireless in her work for LifeRing — she’s on the Board of Directors for the group and is in line, under the reorganization to be discussed by the LifeRing Congress on Saturday, to be the primary ‘outreach’ person for most of the country.

After that leisurely start to the day, Shauna and Lynn and I went to a park and walked a bit, talking constantly about Life, The Universe, and Everything Addiction. After that, we dropped Lynn of at her motel and I convinced Shauna to take me on a busman’s holiday visit to The Tattered Cover, one of the iconic independent bookstores in the country. Back in the 70’s, when I thought it would be a great idea to own a bookstore in a small town, some people with more ambition started stores in big cities and became hugely successful — A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, Elliot Bay Book Company, The Tattered Cover, and a number of others changed the face of bookselling. Of course, in the 90’s, the corporate big box stores came along and ‘borrowed’ their best ideas — encouragement for people to hang out in the stores, coffee and food, author appearances and a laid back atmosphere — and independent bookselling started a long slide downhill. Fortunately, some stores, like The Tattered Cover, have continued to thrive. But I digress …

After a brief rest, it was time for the opening event of the 2010 Expo — a reception at the local Unitarian church, where other events also will be held. There, as happens every time I go to these events, I was intensely pleased to see and talk with people I’ve ‘known’ for years but have rarely or never actually seen. The recovery process is very intimate, of course. By joining together to help one another, we open ourselves to a degree that is rare in our lives. Sharing our dark secrets, our messy lives, our fragile emotions, we draw strength from the shared honesty. Even people who haven’t been directly involved in our own recovery but whom we know to have gone through the same process are viewed as friends of a high order — they’ve walked the same rocky path successfully.

I was extremely pleased to meet Mary S., from Albuquerque, who used to be a very active participant in LSRsafe and who convenes a group in her city. She wears a very charming bracelet with a lifering at it’s center. Mona arrived direct from the airport and lit up the room with her presence. We had met last year in Berkeley and, despite the recent tragedy that struck her family, she looked great!

I talked with Marty N., founder and, by far, the most important leader of LifeRing for the past 10+ years, who is stepping down, or at least ‘back,’ from an active leadership role. He was his usual irrepressible self. And I spoke with Jim R., who is expected take on a leadership role as Marty transitions out, but is not going to replace Marty on his own. Spreading the work out while remaining unified is the task that faces LifeRing over the next year or two. And, of course, continuing to grow and strengthen. Basically, a new generation of leaders is taking the helm and there will be many challenges to face during the transition.

I met Michael W., who’s done excellent work getting LifeRing going in the Victoria, Canada, area. Victoria is only 20 miles from where I live, but it’s 20 miles of water, and an international border, so I haven’t made it over there yet. But he’s an impressive guy and I may have to make the effort. He and Adam, another Victorian, drove to Denver — I should have hitched a ride since their trip started with a ferry trip that left them two blocks from my home! It was a 4 day drive through country that alternates between spectacular and spectacularly dreary. Michael recently stepped down from the LifeRing Board to free up more time and energy for developing LifeRing in Canada. Hmmm … their road trip sparks an idea for future annual meetings — putting together a road trip that includes visits to LifeRingers along the way. Now that I have much more free time, I could head south to the Bay Area next year and stop along the way to visit Marie not terribly far from me, Bobbi and Lindajean in Eugen, Heather, Bob O., Lynn and others in Northern California. If I had a bus, I could pick people up along the way! We could call the bus ‘Farther’ (or maybe ‘Further’, I don’t remember which it was) and be a latter-day, sober version of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Okay, maybe not …

By 8 o’clock, my energy was fading, but I hadn’t actually had dinner and neither had Shauna or Mona, so we went off to find some eats. Shauna driving, as she did all weekend, much to my relief. We found a nice place, settled in, and talked for hours. It’s hard for me to express my pleasure at actually being with my LifeRing friends — I may have been a little brain-dead as the evening wore on, but to have spent an entire day in close contact with my fellow journeyers was a wonderful experience.

I didn’t get to bed until after 11 — the middle of the night, for me! — and I still managed to wake up, against my will, at 5 this morning (sobriety doesn’t fix everything) but I’m so looking forward to another day of constant interaction with LifeRing and its members. My enthusiasm for the group is at a very high level. I feel so at home here, in this city I’ve never been to before.

Day Two

Saturday was the day for speakers, with the banquet in the evening.

We all gathered at the site — the Unitarian Church — at about 8 a.m. for coffee and some light fare (much healthier stuff than the donuts and pastries that usually dominate at previous Expo events. There was fruit!). The talking during these leisure times is always intense. Even with so many people who’ve never met one another, there’s an ease between people that invites quick intimacy. Maybe this is something that affects me, with my vigorous social anxieties, more than others, but I can’t escape the feeling that this condition that we share, along with the shared approach to dealing with the condition, bonds us at a deep level, overriding the usual barriers (age, social status, gender, etc.).

The first speaker, Bill Staudenmaeir, a clinical psychologist, spoke on the value of ‘mindfulness’ in recovery. I’m not going to try to summarize his talk, but it was fascinating and enlightening. New Agey without being woowoo is how I thought about it. I, of course, am old and went through the 70’s when New Age thinking swept over my generation, including me. I still think fondly of the Carlos Castaneda books. But for me, who has a strong businessman streak, the enthusiasm for non-Western and spiritual approaches faded into pretty much nothingness over time. I continued to sell LOTS of books on consciousness and Eastern thought, but I stopped reading them. Then, in the later 80’s, those sorts of books stopped selling well (people started buying real estate books and parenting books instead) except for a smaller audience. And those were the years when my own cynicism about spiritual matters deepened. Meanwhile, though, people were exploring some of the ideas, about meditation, for example, separate from spiritual matters. (None of this discussion was in the talk — it’s early here and I was up late and my mind is wandering a bit.) Anyway, it was a fascinating talk about the psychological benefits — especially for recovery — to the use of ‘mindfulness’ techniques.

The second speaker, Candice Shelby, is a Philosophy teacher with a great interest in — and knowledge of — neuroscience. Again, I won’t try to summarize her talk for fear of butchering it, but it was fascinating, having to do with what neuroscience says about various theories of why people drink, why they crave and why successful treatment is so elusive with current approaches. Perhaps others will offer their recollections of the talks, or there may be summaries at www.lifering.org.

We broke for lunch and Mona, Shauna and Bonnie — a delightful Denver Liferinger who has been hosting Shauna — and me went looking for lunch. Have I mentioned that it was hot in Denver? Damn hot! I’ve been complaining for months about the dreary cold weather at home where it hasn’t warmed up above 60 yet this year, and now I’m complaining about it being too hot — upper 80’s. There’s just no pleasing me! Anyway, we walked several blocks looking for a likely spot and found nothing better than a small Mexican place which at least had some outdoor tables. Who cares about the quality of the food when you’re sitting with such good friends!

We returned to the Church, which was well-placed and well-sized for our events, but isn’t air-conditioned, so things were getting warm inside. The next speaker, Ann Hatcher, talked about offering support for families and loved-ones of addicts. This is an area where LifeRing has been weak — remember, we’re still very young and can’t do everything at once — but there is interest in doing more.

After a brief break, Dru, a convenor from the Bay Area, led a discussion of issues facing meeting convenors of all sorts. (‘convenors’, for those who may not know, is the LifeRing term for the ‘moderator’ (but not ‘leader’) of meetings — I’m the convenor of LSRsafe). Since most of those attending the Expo are convenors of various meetings (mostly face-to-face) the discussion was spirited, if a little unstructured. Mona spoke about her phone meetings and there was considerable interest.

That discussion ran long and there wasn’t much time for the last subject of the meeting, which was a discussion of some by-law changes that will enable (we hope) the LifeRing organization to adapt to the retirement of founder and, by far, chief source of labor of all kinds, Marty N. I led that discussion which, with everybody hot and dealing with sore butts from sitting so long, was mercifully short. Governance issues can raise passions, but the groundwork for the changes (see lifering.org for details) was well-laid and we’ll vote on the changes on Sunday without, I think, any controversy.

Next on the schedule was dinner at a nice local restaurant. There was almost 40 people there for the dinner (and probably about that for most of the rest of the events) and a fine time was had by all, I think. I sat next to Marty at a long table across from a bevy of beautiful babes, which made dinner even more enjoyable. Awards were presented for people who started new meetings or did important work (I got one for the Expansion Committee work!), but there was little speechifying. Lots of talking, though! As we broke up and stepped outside the restaurant, there was a spectacular sunset to greet us, which fit the moment perfectly.

Day Three

Sunday in Denver started out warm and got much warmer — mid-90’s. I’ll never again complain about the sub-60 Spring temperatures in My Fair City. Sunday was the day for the official LifeRing Congress where we would be locked into a room with no air-conditioning and make decisions important to the future of the organization.

First came some reports — minutes of the last annual meeting, a Treasurer’s report, and Marty’s Annual Report, which provides an overview of the past year in the organization. All these reports, I suspect, are or will be available at the www.lifering.org website. The biggest news was that there are now over 140 LifeRing f2f groups, with a concentration in the San Francisco area and fast-growing numbers in several areas, including Canada, Denver, Bellingham WA, and Mona’s groups in New York. The records of what meetings are where has been updated and verified, something that hasn’t been done for years. There’s no doubt that the numbers of meetings are growing, but since older records are less than reliable, an accurate estimate of the rate of growth is impossible. Marty suggests a 10% increase was a good ballpark figure — an extremely positive number.

After the reports, the Congress Delegates discussed and voted on the Expansion Plan, intended to provide a framework for future growth and for replacing the one-guy-does-it-all approach with a teamwork approach. Still all-volunteer, but with the Board parceling out tasks to different Board members and to new people who take on specific tasks. After discussion, and with minor admendments (the proposal changed Chief Executive Officer to President, but the group decided to go for the more toned-down “Executive Director”). The proposal, as amended, was adopted unanimously by the delegates, much to the relief of members of the committee who worked on the plan, including me.

Then came elections for the Board of Directors. There were five of the nine seats up for election. Two member’s terms were at an end and they opted to run again and were re-elected without opposition. Three seats were vacant due to resignations, including Marty’s and Michael W.’s (he needs more time to work on LifeRing Canada’s expansion, which he has worked on tirelessly and very effectively). Jim R., who had been considered the leading candidate for the new Executive Director position, announced his sudden decision not to seek that job and to resign from the board on Saturday morning, much to the dismay of all. Jim is much-admired for his analytical skills and attention to detail, but he apparently felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of the job and chose to opt out, for what I hope will be a limited time. Far from condemning his last-minute decision, I and others feel strongly that that is a choice we all must be ready to make, at any time and in any situation, to avoid the sort of stress and anxiety that might somehow lead us into trouble.

I was chairing this part of the meeting, as Marty retired to the back of the room. (I once brought a hardcover edition of Robert’s Rules of Order to a particularly contentious LifeRing Congress and that led people to jump to the conclusion that I knew how to run a meeting.) I called for nominations for the other three seats and three names were offered, Tom, Joe (sorry, I’m unsure of last initials) and (gasp) moi. Nobody else came forward so the three of us were elected unanimously. This was followed, (memories are hampered by sleep deprivation so I may not have the order of events quite right) by a mini-roast of Marty by our own Shauna, who has known him for many years. She brought down the house with some highlights gleaned from Google about Marty’s earlier (much earlier) publications, including a translation of a Karl Marx book from German to English, and some uninformed speculation she found on an obscure website about his subsequent career (his death being one of the more unlikely postings). Nobody laughed harder than Marty.

On that note, the Congress came to an official close and, after a break, the new Board met for the first time, likely the only time until the next annual meeting that the full Board (almost: one member, Robert B. from West Virginia, couldn’t make it to the Expo this year) will meet f2f. The first order of business was the election of an Executive Director, a title that replaces the CEO designation that Marty had. I was selected, with the clear understanding that I would serve only until a better candidate came along. I have some skills that I’ll be happy to put to use for the organization, but I’m weak in some important areas (Internet stuff, fund raising, outreach to the professional recovery community), plus I live in a small town far from the Service Center office and I’ve attended one f2f LifeRing meeting in my life, and that was 3 days ago.

As the reality of the task set in over the past several hours, I’ve vacillated between fear and anxiety on the one hand, and, on the other, a sense that this role, even if I only handle it briefly, is (this is going to sound pretty over-the-top) something I’ve been preparing for over the last ten years at least. I’m not certain I can do the job that’s needed, but I’m going to try. And I’m even going to try to have a damn good time doing it.

I’ve been toying with the idea of moving from my little town over the past year or so, with the SF Bay Area as the foremost candidate for a new place to live. LifeRing, and the opportunity to engage with it more fully, was a prime motivating factor in that thought (the chance for occasional sunshine was another). I never expected to engage THIS fully, and it’s a huge challenge for me to overcome my ‘issues’ and really make this change a positive thing for me and for LifeRing, but I’m going to try.

After the Board meeting — which was kept short to facilitate people catching planes — the Congress, and the Expo, adjourned until next year in Berkeley. Kathleen G., the prime Denver LifeRing leader who did the organizing work deserves much praise. A gathering like this seems easy from the outside, not unlike starting a LifeRing meeting. Find a place, arrange to rent/use it and invite people. In fact, though, there are dozens — hundreds — of little details that must be dealt with, from providing coffee, arranging chairs, reserving a place for the banquet, and on and on. Kathleen did a great job.

Mona, Shauna, Kathleen and I went out to dinner at a local, excellent-yet-reasonably-priced French restaurant and were joined by a few other LifeRingers. Talk, as happened all weekend, was warm, rich, open and non-stop. We left only when the restuarant closed.

I stayed in Denver Sunday night with Monday devoted to traveling home to Port Angeles, which is going to seem a world removed from this weekend. I will be busy in the days and weeks ahead, but I’ll always look back on the past few days as life-changing and incredibly positive (if a bit scary). I feel a deep gratitude to the members of LSRsafe for all that they’ve done — mostly unknowingly — to strengthen me.

I hope you ALL come to the 2011 LifeRing Annual Meeting in Berkeley, CA!!

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