Saturday, February 18, 2017

Sam Stone


One day in college, I was sitting on the couch of Wayne, the a non-Yale student stoner who hung out and played a lot of hackeysack and to a lesser extent frisbee. He had some good weed, I'm sure, and we were smoking it while listening to some music. I didn't know what it was, but then I heard the chorus:  "There's a hole in daddy's arm, where all the money goes" -- and in an instant I was transported back to childhood. This was John Prine, "Sam Stone," and it was a record my dad had played a lot, in some ways his answer to mom's Carol King Tapestry, a record that I associate strongly with him.

At the time I was, of course, not paying attention to the lyrics, I had no idea what it was about.  I was a kid. When I listened to it again as an adult, I got it. Vietnam vet, heroin addict, overdose. Done. But the chorus reaches back to childhood to say: this is in fact the story any kid, and the transition from innocent child to dead addict is seemless and invisible and is in fact not the insertion of one thing in place of another, but different stages of the same thing, or, rather, the commingling of two seemingly mutually exclusive things.

Last week I went to an AA meeting and a woman shared about her son, who had been off at a rehab, then spent time in a halfway house. On his first night home, he overdosed and died. She went out and got drunk. When she told the story, all the oxygen went out of the room, but then the next person raised his or her hand and shared another experience because that is what we do.

It is hard for those of us who live relatively stable lives to grasp the seriousness of the opioid epidemic now. I won't trot out statistics, but it is very real and present. I buried a friend last Friday who had many years of sobriety after some years of serious drug addiction, but we don't know what killed him in the end. In some sense, it doesn't matter, in other senses, it does.

In the years following the end of the Soviet Union, as the metanarrative of a great and successful Communist society -- which had seemed plausible following WWII and the end of Stalin's years for a couple of decades but then eroded through the 70s until it collapsed under Gorbachev -- Russia began to experience very negative demographic trends. Under Yeltsin, Russia basically smoked and drank itself to death. People had fewer babies. Putin came along and changed the game. He is evil and a kleptocrat, but he gave and gives Russians something to be proud of and hang their hat on.

The West has seen some of the same things happen. Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton have shown that, for the first time in history, mortality for white American males is going backwards: white men are dying younger, and substance abuse and mental health are the big drivers. Branko Milanovic of CUNY has provided a broader framework for causality around this:  median incomes for the middle classes in the developed world have stagnated over the last few decades while the middle classes in emerging markets have made progress, and the rich have gotten richer.  Small wonder that kleptocrat populists are able to gain power while blaming immigrants.

I may have made some of these points before, and I don't have time to tie it all together because, as is the case every Saturday, it is time to take Graham to martial arts. And then it is time to get outside and enjoy the day.

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